Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The Last Graduate - Naomi Novik

My plan to whittle a few books out of an entirely beyond-my-control TBR heap by picking on the vaguely spooky-themed ones is sort of working. I think this comes under the umbrella of Dark Academia, a sub-genre I know very little about). I bought 'The Last Graduate' as a shiny new hardback, it's been lurking by my bed ever since last year when it came out, and now I've read it just as the final part of the trilogy has landed.


I'm definitely a Naomi Novik fan and she didn't let me down here. I still think that this series possibly belongs in young adult fiction, mostly because of its school setting and young protagonists - but I'm not going to get hung up on it, especially as her characters develop. It picks up immediately after the events of A Deadly Education. We're back in the Scholomance with El and a growing band of friends, the school still seems to be trying to kill her and she's still a bundle of barely contained teenage anger. 

Having friends that she cares about is changing El though, she might be just as angry with the system that allows certain kids a better chance of survival (the already privileged ones) but they're becoming people that she cares about, or she's just starting to care about people more - either way there's a lot of growth for her character.

Her insistence that she's destined to be the darkest of dark witches begins to look a little shakey too. I don't want to go overboard on spoilers - the book may have been out almost a year, but whilst it's a moderately popular series it's still got time and room to get a lot bigger - so read on with care, but... It's possible the school hasn't been trying as hard to kill her as she thought, and probably not just for spite. We learn more about Orian and what makes him tick too, and that also gives pause for thought. Why are El and Orian the way they are?

'The Last Graduate' also brings in a few more characters and gives them a chance to shine. Presumably, they're going to be important in book 3, but as El becomes less of an outsider everything goes from black and white to shades of grey. The end is a terrific cliffhanger too, with no obvious way of being resolved, so that's another thing to look forward to in book 3 when the Scholomance kids will erupt into the real world.  

The series is still a scathing attack on capitalism, and now more than ever on the benefits of collectivism in the face of both danger and an increasingly uncertain future. The whole message of the book is that to survive we might have to work against our own individual interests for the common good - but that it has to be done willingly, and presented to us as an honest choice. 

As a political message, it's not overly subtle, which is another reason it feels like a young adult book to me. But then maybe if you've hit 30 and still can't see why constant selfishness isn't sustainable subtlety is probably wasted on you anyway so maybe Novik is right. 

Either way, this is a decent series, entertaining on its own terms, with terrific world-building, and a great main character who manages to be appealing because of her constant bitching, rather than despite it, which is a neat trick to pull off. For an American, Novik also nails British swearing which impresses me too. 

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Horseman - Christina Henry

A second vaguely spooky book for October, but unlike the absolute delight that is 'Strange Relics', 'Horseman' is a mess which really disappointed me. I've been trying to expand and update my reading a little bit for work purposes, with mixed results. Horseman is one of the most irritating books I've finished in a while. 

Christina Henry is a steadily popular writer in the shop, not a bestseller but definitely a regular seller, the covers are great and the starting point of popular fairy tales and stories is exactly the sort of hook that I'll take a bite at. 'Horseman' takes place in Sleepy Hollow about 30 years after Washington Irving's story and picks up with Brom and Katrina's grandchild, 14-year-old Ben who along with a friend sees the headless, handless, corpse of a village boy their own age deep in the woods where wise people do not go. 


The problems with the book start with Henry's endless repetition, tidy that out of the way and you might just have a novella left because there is virtually no point made only once and many which are made dozens upon dozen of times. The next issue is that there isn't really much of a plot, thirdly is that what plot there is doesn't make much sense partly because there's a lack of internal logic. Then there's the depressingly common issue that something being sold as an adult novel is very much young adult. A younger audience might get more out of this.

My final issue is around Ben's gender identity - so please ignore the next bit if you don't want spoilers. Ben is Bente, the daughter of Bendix, but she doesn't want to be a girl, she's a boy. Girls are easily frightened, weak, creatures who live constrained lives in this world, whereas boys get to be strong, have to be fearless, and are spared learning female accomplishments. 

Apart from the reductive stereotypes, I dislike this because what Ben seems to most desire is freedom outside of gender so the endless statements about being a boy lack conviction. Couple that with Brom's choice to bring up his grandaughter as a replacement for his dead son, right down to the name, and Ben's absolute devotion and much-repeated hero worship of their grandfather and the message gets further mixed. Ben is also the only heir of a wealthy family, in the fullness of time she can afford to live as she'll see fit which makes the fights over the female accomplishments and the need to find a husband seem somewhat redundant.

Then we're repeatedly told that Sleepy Hollow is a magical place, with magic in the air, and monsters in the woods. Things will come true there if people believe them - but there's no explanation as to why, or why anybody is believing in a monster that takes the hands and heads of teenage boys in a place where that could become an actual thing. Even when we do find out something, and another massive spoiler here - it turns out the monster does what it does just because. 

Nor does it help that Ben is an irritatingly selfish character who manages to be wrong about just about everything. Instincts say stay away - Ben dives in. Ben doesn't believe anything could happen in Sleepy Hollow without everybody knowing about it - it turns out that Ben doesn't remember, or notice, several pertinent plot points has only the sketchiest idea about who's who in the rest of the village, and has totally missed out on knowing anything about his own family. 

A teen wondering about their own identity might find something to relate to in here, and wouldn't be unduly frightened by the horror bits which occasionally emerge from the endless repetition, but for anybody else, I'd say it's a hard avoid. Amazon reviews are mostly positive, Goodreads much more mixed. I'm firmly in the 1 star camp, and probably won't try Henry again, though I do note several people who were also disappointed by Horseman rate her earlier books. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Strange Relics - ed Amara Thornton & Katy Soar

It's October, which I'm reluctantly going to accept is now considered 'spooky' season - I do at least like a good ghost story or a bit of weird and have plenty of examples to catch up on this month. I'm also hoping to blog a bit more regularly again. Events this year have caught up with me more than I anticipated, but short of work being exceptionally full on between now and Christmas I hope there won't be much to distract me. 


I certainly won't be able to afford to go out, and if I've got the heating on I'll be staying home to enjoy it thank you very much. I've even put proper curtains up after almost 18 years of living in this flat (there were not great blinds before, even a couple of hours in the curtains are making a discernable difference). But back to the book...

Strange Relics is a collection of 'Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954' and it's an excellent place to kick off from. Recently published by Handheld Press it's a satisfying collection of uncanny, although Handheld is the sort of press that makes me want to use unheimlich instead. 

The book starts with Arthur Machen's 'The Shining Pyramid' which reminds me of  John Buchan's 'No-Man's Land which appears in British Weird in that they both imagine an ancient and malevolent race that's somehow survived in an out of the way pocket of land. It's a theme that crops up in other bits of fiction from the late 19th and early 20th century and still sort of persists anywhere people half believe in the little folk or trows. It also recalls the way we like to still half believe in the possibility of a Loch Ness monster even now.

John Buchan is represented in this collection with Ho! The Merry Masons, which for my money is one of the scarier entries (based almost entirely on my deep antipathy for Roslyn Chapel which is both a virtuoso display of the master masons work and deeply unheimlich). I absolutely go with the mood in this one. Roman Remains by Algernon Blackwood, Rose Macauley's Whitewash, and Eleanor Scott's 'The Cure' have the same effect.

It's altogether a really strong collection of stories that work well together thematically with several tropes reappearing in ways that underline their significance in the decades they're being written in. In turn, this reflects our corresponding preoccupations of the times. It's also just excellent as a collection of the weird - with Pan getting some significant outings (he's having a moment, there's a British Library collection dedicated to him). So either as a work of academic interest or just for the fun of it I absolutely recommend 'Strange Relics'.

And now I have to go and dispose of an extremely large and drapey spider's web that's appeared very quickly over my desk if I'm to sleep at all tonight without nightmares. All the activity around putting up those new curtains has obviously disturbed Something... 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Inverness

Once again I've been absent longer than I meant to be. This time it's due to a very busy week at work (we were very short-staffed), and then heading up to Inverness to see Doug's dad whilst we have a brief window of opportunity. He's currently in hospital after a fall which is worrying given his age and our distance from him. 

It's also the first chance I've had to get back to Inverness since before lockdown, and I've fallen for the place all over again. Inverness isn't a flashy place, but it's got a lot going on to recommend it. It's an excellent base for exploring from, especially if you like whisky (Speyside is right there) and you don't have to go far to find beautiful scenery. The town centre is a little dilapidated, but there are hopeful signs of regeneration and a few favourite places still going strong.

There's The Castle Gallery and Leakey's Bookshop. I really like the Waterstones here for new books, there are a couple of decent independent wine and whisky merchants including WoodWinters who give reliable advice, stock some good stuff, and are fairly priced. The food and drink scene also seems to be quietly improving all round since my last visit - there's a very promising addition of a new food hall to the Victorian Market anchored by the new to me Bad Girl Bakery. 

I saw their book first (in Waterstones) and it looked good, delicious even, and then came across their new cafe minutes later (exciting) which only opened here about 2 weeks ago so we're lucky with our timing. The coffee was great, the cake to go with it even better so now I need to buy the book. The food hall itself is a real asset to a city that has its share of cold and wet days - a decent open space with plenty of seating right in the centre of town with browsable under cover shops is a definite plus. 


I feel like this book flew under the radar a bit, it came out late last year but I totally missed it. A flick through shows some great stuff though with plenty of vegan and gluten-free recipes - the coconut, cranberry, and chocolate flapjack I had today was easily the best flapjack I've ever had. It's just as well there's a 500-mile drive separating me from them on a daily basis. 

Other Inverness highlights have included the museum which has got some great Pictish stones and a really spectacular outfit thought to have been worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie, a shopping centre with a stunning view over to Ben Wyvis, and the walk along the river to the Marina is decent too.

Friday, September 16, 2022

A Near Miss

Yesterday delivered more than I bargained for when about 30 tons of masonry fell from the roof of the building across from us at work, missed smashing our windows by millimeters, and genuinely made me think a bomb had gone off. Almost miraculously only one person seems to have been injured in the street, and then not seriously (I hope this stays true). 



Several tons of sandstone and stucco hitting the road makes a hell of a noise, and creates a lot of dust, which looks for all the world like smoke - hence the bomb assumption (and that's a thing that takes you back to the IRA attacks of the 80s and 90s) so there was quite a bit of running and screaming outside the shop which added to the confusion. When fire alarms didn't start ringing there was a moment to reassess before customers started to complain that they wanted to pay for their books. 

When I say it was a near miss, there was a brick the size of War and Peace less than an inch from our staff entrance/exit - exactly where we stand to unlock the door every morning and evening - it seems like the building could have gone at any time and the fact that it didn't earlier in the day when people were arriving for work with deliveries in full swing is another small miracle to be grateful for. 

What I'm less grateful for, but no longer surprised by is the amazingly snotty attitude of so many people in the shop at the time, and after. They did not want to be evacuated to safety until they'd got what they came for despite the very real likelihood that the rest of the building was set to come down, and if it had, we were the only thing between it and gravity having its way. 

Years ago I stood across the street from another shop I worked in whilst alarms rang and 2 fire engines full of firemen assessed the situation watching a man bang on the door to be let in, and argue with the firemen about getting out of the way. Later we found that not only had he complained to head office that we were closed when opening hours clearly stated etc, but he also turned up in person to shout at us. Apparently the sirens, appliances, alarms, arguments with firemen, and smoke hadn't sufficiently communicated to him that the building was in fact on fire (small, quickly contained, and not serious, but still burning at that point). The lights had been left on and he wanted what he wanted. 

This morning I listened to people standing by a barrier complaining that shops stated opening times were X and now it was Y and yet they were still closed. Complaints, they threatened, would be made. Had they seen the local news about the falling building, just visible behind the barriers? Yes, they had. Could they put this together to understand why shops weren't yet open? No. Not without extremely patient explanations. 

I'm old enough to remember when shops closed not just on Sundays, but had half-day openings and closed for lunch too. When I first worked in retail very little opened on a Sunday, we always closed on Bank Holidays, and even when that started to change it meant double pay. Not anymore - it's just part of a normal working pattern. There's also the regular 5.59 debate with somebody that refuses to believe that we close at 6, and will make a point of walking out as slowly as possible, through the exit at a maximum distance so we all have to hang on, unpaid, a little bit longer. 

I try not to dwell on the smug customers who explain they're breaking the spines of books and generally thumbing them because they like to have a good look before ordering on Amazon who are so much cheaper. Awesome. Point out the shitty employment conditions and tax-avoiding tactics that fund those low prices and you're So Rude - they'll never come back. Sadly, a lie - because they're a dead loss, the sort of delights who leave their unpurchased from us books lying around any old place in the shop so we can't find them again for actual paying customers. 

The same people are naturally outraged at the number of places closing up for the day of the Queen's funeral, although they themselves will not be at work either - but who will serve them whilst they complain to each other about how we should be a republic and state everybody is equal? 

Yesterday was a very near miss, and it was frightening. It's left me with very little patience for people who can't see beyond their own convenience. I'm back at work tomorrow - wish me luck. 



Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Shetland Wool Adventures

It's almost Shetland Wool week which means there are a whole lot of Shetland themed knitting publications to look forward to - this is a quick round up. 

Shetland Wool Adventures journal volume 4 has been out for a few weeks and is the normal collection of patterns I genuinely want to knit, book reviews (by me), recipes, walks, and articles relating to the islands. I genuinely love this journal, which I think is going from strength to strength. The piece on Tom Kidd's photos was a particular pleasure to see. His books are currently hard to find but are a wonderful record of life just as the oil industry really started to change Shetland. Available Here



I have pre-ordered my Shetland Wool Week annual and am really looking forward to it arriving, I might not be able to get north for the event but I've been following on insta and the patterns look great this year so at least I'll be able to enjoy from the comfort of my own sofa. To order the annual and check out the rest of the merchandise have a look Here

Previous wool week patron Donna Smith has her first book of patterns coming out in the next few weeks too. Donna's designs really hit the sweet spot between timeless, traditional, and contemporary so I'm excited to see this - it's called Langsoond, same as the yarn that comes direct from her sheep, and will be available to pre-order from Friday the 16th Here

And finally, I might be most excited about a couple of reprints from The Shetland Times. I've been one of the chorus of voices calling for these to come back into print over the last few years, and although somebody very kindly sent me a copy of 'A Shetland Pattern Book' a while back, being able to easily buy it again for the first in 30 years is something to celebrate. What I like so much about this book is its size and simplicity. The same size as the squared jotters we had at school for putting patterns in. It's maybe not the most exhaustive collection of patterns and motifs but it's probably the easiest to use. The original even has pages at the back included for making notes and jotting down your own patterns.

Maggie Smith's companion volume A Shetland Knitter's Notebook is also getting reprinted and I haven't yet read that and again, I'm looking forward to it. The availability situation on The Shetland Times website isn't entirely clear, for the pattern book it's saying sold out as I type this - and I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the whole print run had been snapped up - or it might mean copies haven't come in yet. Either way, keep an eye out for it Here and again, lots of other great books to browse there too. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

Post After Post-Mortem - E.C.R. Lorac

I have so many books to write about at the moment and post review at work, my stint as host for #ReadingHeyer done, and almost being finished with wedding thank you letters I think I might actually have time to get stuck into some reviewing here. If only it would cool down a bit!

I read Post After Post-Mortem a while ago but hadn't found the opportunity to write about it until now. In some ways that's been a blessing, I thought the book was okay whilst I was reading it but with time to reflect there's more to it than I originally thought. 

The Surrays and their five children are a prolific and successful family of writers and professionals, the youngest daughter has just got a 1st class honours degree from Oxford, and is worried that the family doesn't need a 7th author - though she possibly fancies writing a thriller. Her older sister, Ruth, is a respected author and reviewer whose championship can make a career and who seems to have the literary world at her feet.


It's Ruth who is found dead, apparently due to suicide, an event that shocks her family to the core - and then a letter arrives from Ruth to her brother Richard. It's been delayed by having a miss-written address and both the time it was sent and the contents suddenly raise questions over the suicide verdict. 

The family and Ruth's friends are wary of police intervention, in an effort to protect her name they've not been entirely honest, but their white lies and omissions have muddied the waters, and they're even more hostile to the idea of murder than they were of suicide. Everybody suddenly appears as a suspect, and there's the possibility the murderer isn't done yet.

I didn't warm to some bits about a woman's place and cod psychology early in the book, but the examination of a family that seems outrageously successful on the surface, but still has their problems is interesting.  Early on Mrs Surray worries that they have tempted fate, and so it seems to be. In the end the motive for murder is almost an inconsequential one, except to the murderer of course, which seems more believable somehow than plots about killing a spouse for the love of someone else or murdering for a large inheritance. 

It's an interesting and thoughtful mystery that seems timely against the growing cost of living crisis - Mrs Surray's worry that the good things of the world have come too easily to them and there will be a price to pay seems like it might be prescient as most of us find we're struggling a little bit more, and the politics of envy is rife on social media.



Thursday, September 8, 2022

Queen Elizabeth II 1926 - 2022

 The news that the Queen had died this afternoon broke just as I got home tonight, I didn't expect to be quite as sad about it as I find I am. My earliest memories are around the silver jubilee celebrations, this years Diamond jubilee is something that I'll always associate with preparations for getting married. In between those events, there's a lifetime of memories punctuated by royal appearances and occasions. 

I've managed a lot of near misses when it came to seeing her, my favourites being a toss-up between ducking behind a pile of grit for a much-needed wee as a very small child just at the moment her car went past and catching a train to London which left at the same moment the queen got off her train in Leicester on the opposite platform. Not significant life moments maybe, but my parents split when I was young, those early jubilee fragments are a significant part of the family life I remember before that happened so they're precious to me.

However we feel about monarchy we surely all have memories like this - of days out and excuses for village get-togethers, going to see a spectacle with friends, buying tacky memorabilia and loving it anyway. This really does feel like the end of an era, maybe more so as we're looking toward a difficult winter anyway, so for now I'm going to make a cup of tea, drink it from my jubilee mug and reflect on a life of duty and the passing of an icon. 



Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

The read books are beginning to stack up on my desk, but the time to write about them is proving hard to come by. The last week has been big on damsons and dog sitting. My workmate bought me the last of the fruit from her tree - she is an absolute star for this, they're really lovely fruit and now I've got 2 kinds of damson jelly and a damson and vanilla jam. I am sharing this with her.


My mother's dog just considers everything that doesn't revolve around her is a waste of my time. I'd say that she's not wrong but this goes up to and includes sleeping - she thinks we ought to be up and walking by 5.30 so when I was still in bed at 5.45 she was very vocally put out. The combination of dog and mother is still the best way to put a hard week behind me that it's worth the early starts. It's even worth the general impression that the dog gives that one of them needs to keep me in sight at all times in case I go off with the spoons or something. 

I started reading Guards! Guards! immediately after Equal Rites and then stalled halfway through - a reminder of why I stopped reading Pratchett altogether back in the day. The book was fine I just got bored with the joke and had to make myself finish it. I might not have bothered but that I wanted to exorcise the horror that was the BBC adaptation a couple of years ago. 

In the end I'm glad I carried on. I have happy memories of reading Pratchett through some difficult times. He was a warm and funny guide to some of the complications of the adult world that I was beginning to negotiate in my late teens and if my reading taste has changed considerably since then, the essential decency of Pratchett is still a constant.

None of my younger colleagues at work have read him, so I'm going to try and persuade them to have a go - they're around what I consider to be the right age to discover him (early 20's,  younger would be a bit better). I have found that I really enjoy listening to Pratchett via audio books, more of which in my next post, so I'm not just trying to palm off unwanted review copies onto them. It's very much that I want to see what they think of him. 

When I first read these books it was in a recession, the one that saw Leicester lose great swathes of its textile industry, and a time that seemed quite bleak (halcyon days by current standards). At times like this a writer who can make you laugh and maybe believe that things will sort of work out has to be a good thing. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Gallant - V. E. Schwab

I've set myself the goal of reading through a chunk of the books that have been hanging around for ages and that I'm not overly excited about (not necessarily the same thing) in the hopes of clearing some serious space before peak season brings lots of unmissable new books through the door. 

Quite a few of these are proofs from work picked up with the intention of widening my reading range so I can better recommend things. Honestly, it's a lot easier in the wine trade where you just have to taste something, a process that takes a couple of minutes including the time to make a more or less intelligent note about whatever you've just tried. 


It maybe doesn't help that I'm old enough to know my reading tastes fairly well, and also to have limited tolerance for what I consider bad or lazy writing. 'Gallant' didn't fall into either of the latter categories, and I've been curious to read Schwab for a while. When I actually got down to it though, this will likely be the only book of hers I ever read. 

The blurb promised that it's great for fans of Neil Gaiman, The Secret Garden, and Holly Black. I more or less like all of those things, but I rate Holly Black by far the highest on the list and Schwab was more at the Neil Gaiman end of the scale for me. I enjoy his storytelling but I haven't loved it since I was a teen reading The Sandman. If you wanted a dark fantasy that explores issues about family and belonging that mixes the gothic with the Secret Garden though, you'd definitely get what you paid for.

It's an easy book to read too, once I'd decided I'd finish it, it was easy to read 100 or so in what felt like no time at all (a little over an hour maybe?) and I got through it fast. Olivia, the main character is compelling, the story was sweet, but in the end, it made very little impact on my imagination. In part, this was because as intriguing as I found Olivia, nobody she interacted with really came off the page. Not her newfound friends, or foes, and the ending fell flat for me too, there just wasn't any depth to any of it.

On the other hand, there will be people who quite rightly love this book, but I think they might be younger readers. And this is something I find mildly annoying about how a lot of fantasy fiction is currently marketed - this book is about a 16 year old girl trying to find a family and a home - to me that's teen/young adult fiction. Schwab writes books that are marketed in both categories - this one goes into the adult section which I feel does it a disservice.

Or maybe our current classification system no longer adequately describes books - possibly science fiction and fantasy need to be split, certainly, a lot of the books that involve young women in fairytale or gothic settings having fairly chaste adventures seem like they should have their own category. Oh to have a bookshop of my own where I could get really granular about how things should be shelved.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Jam Season

I don't know where the time is going right now. Between work, the Powder and Patch Readalong, trying to catch up on a backlog of reading, knitting, and all the other bits of life my days just disappear. I have finally got a small pile of read (instead of half-read) books sitting on my desk, but it's almost 8pm, I'd dearly love to spend the rest of the night knitting and watching The Sandman - but I've just finished simmering some damsons and apples ready for jelly making and have a couple of other kitchen jobs to tackle.

After that, I need to prep the next 3 read-along chapters because I'm at work all day tomorrow, and then I need to get to bed in good time to be woken up by the antisocial builders working on replacing cladding to the university halls of residence across the way. For reasons, they do something noisy to scaffolding every morning from around 7am. I know from days off that by about 10am it's nice and quiet again but it's too late to be useful. 

I'm not a morning person, and whilst I'm a big fan of flammable cladding being got rid of, I'd really like it if they started an hour later. The hour between 7 and 8am has never been a productive one for me - the best I can do is drink coffee and read newspaper headlines/Twitter trends. I'm really looking forward to term starting and the relative quiet of new neighbors. Say what you will about students, they're rarely a nuisance early in the day. Or at all these days outside of the excitement of freshers week. Students have genuinely made great neighbours for almost 18 years now. 


But back to my damsons - they came from a work colleague who was in no way prepared for how enthusiastic I would be about getting them, are beautifully, plumply, ripe and to my mind mark the beginning of autumn. Or perhaps more correctly the Shetland word, hairst which is more of a mix of autumn and harvest - appropriate for a place where August is very definitely the end of summer.

Apparently, we're currently having a 'false Autumn' with trees losing their leaves after the recent extreme heat, it's likely to be followed by a false spring with the possibility of finding more elderflowers (although I see a lot of dead elder trees about in this drought so maybe not) but one way or another August has always felt like the turn of the year to me and maybe this year more than most. It's a year since I got engaged, and found a new job, and the next year looks set to bring equally big changes - and how have I got this far from damsons?

I'm using Diana Henry's Damson and Juniper jelly recipe as a base, but ditching the juniper. She uses apples as well as Damsons, and it was a sign of the times that nowhere had Bramley apples for sale today, the ones I settled on (the ones on offer in Tesco, variety unclear) refused to really soften which is a pain but they'll make the damsons go a bit further anyway so it's fine. I'm going to split the juice between 2 jelly batches tomorrow - 1 will be plain, the other is going to be spiced with cinnamon, star anise, and possibly vanilla.

It's jelly rather than jam because fishing the stones out is such a nuisance and because the boil it strain it boil it approach is reassuring if you're at all squeamish about the possibility of bugs. I am. 




Tuesday, August 9, 2022

From The Abyss - D K Broster

For anyone who has been following the ups and downs at Waterstones it'll probably be fairly clear why I haven't got back to reading and posting as much as I'd like. It's been a challenging time on the shop floor and I'm both really tired and quite keen not to look at another book when I get home. I'm still loving the job, it's just very full on at the moment.


Even that couldn't put me off 'From the Abyss' once I started it though. Edited by Melissa Edmundson who proved she knew what she was doing from the first collection of Women's Weird from Handheld Press, this covers D. K. Broster's weird fiction from 1907 to 1945 and it's a treat. D K Broster was best known for her Jacobite trilogy written in the 1920s. I'm kicking myself a little here as I has a battered copy of 'The Flight of the Heron' unread for several years - and cleared it out still unread to a charity shop last summer. Never mind.

As it happens I have come across at least one Broster short story in another weird collection - 1933s Couching at the Door which is unsettling enough to be unforgettable. The really good thing about 'From the Abyss' is that the stories cover a long enough time period to show Broster's style thoroughly evolve. It always feels like reading the same woman, but with enough variety in tone to never be repetitive.

It also helps that Broster has an engaging sense of humour, especially for the tales that lean towards the decadent style, which honestly is most of them. I enjoy fin de siecle decadence quite possibly more than the next person (at least in this corner of Leicester) but a little can go a long way when you take it too seriously. 

Which brings me back to 'Couching at the Door' wherein a poet who has been published in the Yellow Book and is now enjoying a life of aesthetic luxury in the Cotswolds with occasional trips to Europe for cabalistic going on finds out the meaning of the thoroughly modern phrase 'fuck about and find out'. Aleister Crowley's effect on the English imagination has been something he's undoubtedly have reveled in. The thoroughly deserving poet's persecution starts in the form of something he takes to be a ball of fluff about the size of a spider, something that when he manages to be brave enough to pick it up to drown it flutters unpleasantly in his hand. 

The drawing fails, the thing continues to grow and pursue him, it's terror lies mostly in its movements, and our collective memories of that feeling of an insect in the hand, and maybe the deeper terror of putting a hand out to flip a light switch and finding another already there. 

The Pestering (brilliant title) works in a similar way - a persistent spirit who makes his victims supremely uncomfortable. 'The Promised Land' was maybe my favourite - it flips from darkly funny, to plain dark in a moment and is haunting for completely different reasons to most of the other stories - with the possible exception of 'The Juggernaut' which has the same blend of comedy suddenly switching to a bleak kind of tragedy. 

The title story, 'From the Abyss' cleverly takes an idea that is on the surface appealing - I won't detail this because it's a massive spoiler, and again imbues it with a subtle terror. Altogether it's a really strong collection that consistently managed to subvert my expectations. The bad things that happen are rooted in a sort of domestic banality set against gorgeously artistic backgrounds. It's a tremendously effective device and a book I'll turn to again and again. Big thanks to Handheld press for this review copy. 


Friday, August 5, 2022

Undefeated - The Muckle Ayre Stole

I started this stole more than 2 years ago, in the first 2020 lockdown. I battled with it for months and kind of grew to hate it. At the time it was the most complicated lace pattern I'd ever tried, and it was possibly just a little beyond me. It's still the most complicated lace pattern I've ever tried but I'm a slightly better knitter now and I've just knitted 10 rows without any obvious mistakes so keep your fingers crossed for me.


Two years in a project bag hidden under my bed hasn't done the stole any apparent harm, and it seems blessedly moth damage free (unexpected holes really would mean tears). Two years break from swearing at it has also reignited some of my enthusiasm for the pattern - I wonder if that'll survive trying to dress it (or if that day will ever even come)? 

Lace is hard work, it calls for a degree of concentration that fair isle patterns do not despite how complicated they can look. At least with colour work, you can see where you've gone wrong and rip back easily enough. Because the Muckle Ayre has no plain knit rows and a lot of yarn overs and knitting together of stitches going back is really hard. 

When I started this it was the first time I'd used lifelines, and the first time that I discovered they didn't necessarily work. The theory is that you can rip back to the lifeline, where you know all your stitches were correct, and start again from there. I did it a couple of times only to discover there weren't the right number of stitches left on the needle. There was swearing. Now I'm still using them almost entirely to be able to see how many repeats I've done. 

Still, after a couple of months hiatus from knitting (mostly heat related), a bit more progress on this beast of a project felt like a good place to start again. I haven't bought any yarn this year, which has made no noticeable difference to my stash at all - busting some of it will definitely be a winter project/ambition. This was my only wip, making progress on it feels almost symbolic of a wider ambition to clear the decks (the books really need attention). It's also a measure of how badly this project got under my skin last time. that even two plus years down the line I remembered I was 8 rows into the repeat. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Best Days With Shetland Birds - ed Andrew Harrop & Rebecca Mason

I'm currently reading several books at once for various reasons, and so far have lost the only one I've actually finished. It won't be far away, but it will be well camouflaged. Never mind. One of the books is Georgette Heyer's Powder and Patch which is the current #ReadingHeyer title - and this time I'm hosting the discussion on Twitter. We only started on Sunday and if anybody would like to join in please do. The hashtag will find us.


I bought 'Best Days With Shetland Birds' direct from The Shetland Times Bookshop, because it has a Howard Towll illustration on the cover (see his Instagram here) and I am a fan. I kind of assumed there might be more Howard in the book, and maybe some of Paul Bloomer's pictures as well as his words - wrong on both counts but in the end it didn't matter. I absolutely fell in love with this odd little book - it's easily the most delightful thing I've read this year. 

I was a reasonably enthusiastic bird watcher growing up in Shetland and continue to enjoy the birdlife when I was back there, but it wasn't a hobby that survived moving to the city until lockdown made it possible to really go out and see what was on my doorstep. It helps that peregrines, egrets, and the occasional red kite have colonised these parts, but even the peregrines do not punctuate the Leicester skyline in the way that gannets, terns, and bonxies define a Shetland summer. 

Best Days With Shetland Birds is odd because it's hard to classify. It's a collection of memories from dozens of people of the best bird days they remember. Some celebrate particular rarities, others great days with lots of good spots, there are celebrations of particular birding patches, and of some less glamorous sightings - the overall theme is enthusiasm and a sense of community. The weather might be awful, the birds reluctant to show themselves, car keys lost, but eventually each day delivers. In the process friendships between the birding community come to the fore as does a sense of what an amazing place Shetland is for bird watching.

My interest is the very mild sort, my expertise at identifying birds is basically non-existent once you get away from the really obvious species, and I'm probably not going to spend time learning which warbler is which but the appeal here is also in the number of birds listed that even I could spot. That's part of the magic of Shetland; find somewhere comfortable in a likely spot and you'll see all sorts of things. My favourite would be gannets diving for food seen from a likely spot on the shore, or listening to snipe drum overhead and trying to spot them on a summer's evening. Basically this book is an absolute gem if you have even the most passing interest in bird watching and you should definitely buy it!


Sunday, July 24, 2022

Equal Rites - Terry Pratchett

A major new Pratchett biography is coming out in the Autumn (Rob Wilkins 'A Life With Footnotes') and on the back of that Penguin have been throwing copies of Pratchett's novels at Booksellers like confetti (or possibly half bricks in socks). In my case 'Equal Rites' landed unexpectedly in my letter box and I read it again for maybe the first time in 30 years.

I had a big Pratchett phase in my mid to late teens, and for a couple of years would buy those books in hardback as they came out - if memory serves they cost around £16 then - they'd cost less now and never mind inflation, which tells me something about how much I must have enjoyed them back in the day, but by my early twenties I'd lost interest in the discworld and moved on. I sold my copies of Pratchett along with my Douglas Adams and Robert Rankins - I've occasionally regretted not having The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to hand, but otherwise, it was the right decision. 


I thought there was no such thing as Young Adult literature when I was a teen, but 'Equal Rites' has made me rethink that. Who were these books aimed at if not students who had grown up with 'The Lord of the Rings' being read to them, and watched if not read Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja? These were books that delighted sixth formers and undergraduates everywhere. They must also have appealed to a few older readers ready to have gentle fun poked at a beloved genre, and now to older readers who enjoy the nostalgia of them, but to me, they were as Monty Python had been to the generation before me. 

It took me roughly four hours to read 'Equal Rites' last night. I vaguely remember how disappointed I used to be at how quickly I could race through these books when I was 16, now it's a bonus (but this time it didn't cost me what would have seemed like a good days wages). It's still funny, I still enjoy the way that Pratchett built his world and his delight in words, wordplay, and puns is a wonderful thing, but the reasons I stopped reading him are still there too.

As a teen, he introduced me and my circle to all sorts of ideas about social justice in easy-to-understand chunks. He threw in a whole lot of stuff about philosophy, religion, history, politics, and popular culture too, all of it perfect for discussing in a sixth-form common room, but eventually there's a lack of depth to it that made the idea of following 40+ books feel exhausting. A little Pratchett can go a long way.

That said, I'm starting on the copy of  'Guards! Guards!' that was floating around the staffroom just for the fun of the wordplay (and because Grimes boot theory is possibly Pratchett's greatest moment) and it's good to get reacquainted with this particular old friend. These are serious times, and after a depressing episode of listening to the news, there's no better antidote than a writer with Terry Pratchett's kindness and humour. There's a hopefulness about 'Equal Rites' that was even a match for listening to Liz Truss be interviewed. I need that right now, as I think perhaps a lot of us do. 



Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Queen of Nothing - Holly Black

I didn't mean to take a 2-week break from blogging but it's taken me longer than I hoped to recover from covid, and that mixed with work, the record-breaking heat this week, and writing thank you letters for wedding presents hasn't left me with much energy. Basically, I've been asleep for as much time as I possibly can be. 

My reading has been patchy as well; a lot of dipping in and out of things for work but none of them have really held me - which in bookseller speak is "I've just started this one and it's really good so far...". There are a whole lot of started books next to my bed which I really need to do something about - either finish or pass on, as much to get the space back as anything else. 


Holly Black's 'The Queen of Nothing' wasn't part of that pile, I actually read it when it first came out but never got round to writing about it. It was free on audible though so I listened to it again and remembered how much I liked it (I find it's a waste of time listening to books I haven't read, I don't take them in properly, and then struggle to read them because it all seems vaguely familiar).

As someone who doesn't read masses of fantasy or young adult fiction, I'm genuinely a fan of Holly Black's work. I love her world-building, the way she uses folklore and fairy tales, her characters, and I guess her morals for want of a better word. The Folk of the Air series was fun from start to finish, and though everything feels nicely resolved I'm quietly pleased to see there's a duology in the offing that picks up the story of a couple of the younger characters a few years down the line. 

In the very best fairy tale tradition our heroine Jude, the exiled Queen of Fairy fights monsters, breaks curses, finds a bit of magic for herself, and gets a happy ever after. She also gets the character development and growth that she missed out on in the second book - because crucially it was love interest/hero, Cardan who was doing all the growing up in that book. 

I don't want to give spoilers here even though the books been out for ages, but be assured that it's suitable reading for younger teens with adult themes but not too adult, well written, and the sort of thing that anybody might like - as long as they like fairytales. Holly Black has become one of my go-to's for when I'm feeling under the weather and want something absorbing but not heavy to lose myself in.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Three Dahlias - Katy Watson

It's been a full-on post covid week - back to work (exhausting, but not without its upsides) and an even more full-on week in politics which I've been glued to, but now the main excitement seems to be over it's maybe time to think about a nice calming book.

In this case, Katy Watson's The Three Dahlias which I managed to read whilst I had Covid and couldn't concentrate on much else. I thought it might be fun, and it really is, a book that for me delivered more than it promised. 

I don't much like contemporary cosy murder mysteries that set themselves in the Golden Age, with so far the single exception of Martin Edwards books I find they try too hard, and there are so many great actual golden age murder mysteries I don't want to mess around with imitations. What Katy Watson does is really cleverly take all the conventions, tropes, and cliches and bring them nicely up to date with all the affection for the originals I could ever want. 


The three Dahlias of the title refer to 3 actresses who have all played the fictional, fictional, character of Dahlia Lively - creation of Lettice Davenport, the one-time Princess of Poison, aristocratic writer, and mystery woman. There are references to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Daphne du Maurier (if you take Aldermere to be a sort of Menabilly), and I suspect if I hadn't been full of Covid I'd have recognised more. The Dahlias are Rosalind King, a national treasure who played the lady detective in 3 films in the 1980s, Caro Hooper a 40 something actress who had a 12 year run at her in the early 2000s but isn't known for anything else, and Posy Startling a washed-up child star with a bunch of scandals behind her trying for a comeback in a new film version.

There was a nice symmetry reading about fan reactions to the fictional script whilst the fuss about the new Netflix Persuasion was in full throttle. All 3 actresses find themselves at Aldermere, the country house where Lettice lived, and set her mysteries for a convention, initially they're not impressed with each other, but then someone goes missing and bodies start piling up. The first death might be an accident but it bears a startling resemblance to a Lettice Davenport plot, and the ladies are suspicious.

As the book progresses so does their friendship. They discover they were all being blackmailed, show their professional mettle in various non-murder-related ways, and settle down to use their combined knowledge of the people involved, observational skills, and Dahlia Lively channeling to solve the crime. The police are not impressed - which is one of the clever touches; Watson lets us in on the joke. 

The ending sets up a possible second adventure which I very much hope will come to pass. I'd also love to see this televised. The idea of 3 women of varied ages having fun with this plot on screen is a really delicious prospect. For lovers of classic crime, this is an affectionate homage with a nice twist that makes for an excellent light read. It's rich enough in detail to make me think I'd happily read it again to pick up more references. Altogether I really enjoyed it. 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Food Made in Shetland - Marian Armitage

I'm finally testing covid negative and starting to feel considerably less under the weather. My sense of smell has come back, I have more energy, and the dizziness has stopped - I think I'm probably going to feel somewhat grotty for a while, but am definitely on the mend. People, take the current varients of Covid seriously! It might be relatively mild but it's still utterly miserable. 


Meanwhile, tonight is the official launch of 'Food Made in Shetland' by Marian Armitage, the second book from Misa Hay's 60 North Publishing company. At the moment it's only available through a few local retailers and Misa's Shetland Wool Adventures website. 

I've corresponded a little with Marian in the past, mostly about rhubarb, she's both helpful and knowledgable and I'm very much a fan. I haven't got her earlier cookbook; Shetland Food and Cooking (available here from the Shetland Times bookshop) mostly because it's been stubbornly out of print whenever I've been home and thought about buying it. Now I've read through 'Food Made in Shetland' it's gone right back up to the top of my wish list.

Marian's whole professional life has been based around food, a lot of it teaching food and nutrition in schools. It's a background that makes her instructions admirably clear and that leaves me confident that even relatively complicated recipes (pastel de nata) will turn out as hoped for. More than that it reminds me of the excellent home economics teacher I had at junior high in Shetland, who more than anyone inspired my love of cooking and confidence I could do it. She taught me for a bare 2 years when I was 12/13 - good teachers really are the best.

For 'Food Made in Shetland' Marian has a series of chapters that focus on ingredients that are easily available in the islands - so fish, eggs, and dairy produced locally (milk, cream, buttermilk - nobody is currently making cheese), beef, lamb/mutton, and pork, vegetables and fruit that are increasingly being homegrown again, and home baking which is a big feature of Shetland life. Beyond that, the recipes aren't particularly traditional - which is also kind of traditional. Shetlanders travel, and bring back or send back all sorts of things, recipes and flavours included.

I was going to try and describe what 'Food Made in Shetland' was not, but got tied in knots, so I'll tell you what it is - a really good snapshot of the sort of food people are eating in Shetland, made from the really amazing ingredients that are available there. It might be light on the still popular mince and tatties kind of plain food, but it really celebrates what can be done despite the sometimes limited growing opportunities, and some of the more exciting projects happening - especially when it comes to growing more fruit and veg.

It's also a really beautifully produced book, so do check out the link to the Shetland Wool Adventures shop and consider ordering. 



Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Book of Night - Holly Black

I've read most of Holly Black's young adult titles - certainly all the Fairy-based ones and really enjoyed them. I think she's a really interesting writer, a great world builder who incorporates all sorts of established myth, folklore and fictional sources into her work. Those books are funny, smart, complex, interesting, and entertaining. My relationship with YA is a bit uneasy, on the one hand, there are excellent writers doing interesting things, on the other I'm a bit old to want to read many books aimed squarely at a teenage audience - and that's just fine. 


News then that Holly Black was writing a book for adults was more than interesting, I bought this the day it came into the shop - and then sat on it for a couple of weeks, nervous that I just wouldn't like it that much. For the first 50 or so pages, I didn't. And then I clicked with it. The tone is definitely different; it's much darker and grittier than the already quite dark teen books, and whilst there's a supernatural/fantasy element it's miles away from the established fairy tale world I associate Black with.

Here, the heroine, Charlie Hall is a bartender and recovering con artist. She's been shot and is trying to go straight, but it's not entirely working for her. She lives with her sister, Posey, and boyfriend Vince who is himself something of a mystery. It's a contemporary world, but one where shadows can have a life of their own and confer powers on those they belong to, they can also be stolen. 

The feel of the book is distinctly noir - I'm thinking of Ross Macdonald, Margeret Miller, Vera Caspary, Sherwood King. Charlie has seen something she shouldn't have, started looking for answers, and found herself in more trouble than she wanted. She also keeps coming up against the mystery of Vince who has always seemed too good to be true.

It took me a while to care about Charlie, but when I started to the book really took off for me. Black is good on morally ambiguous characters and Charlie perhaps isn't quite the mess she first seems to be as her character fills out. There's quite a bit of world-building to get through - I think I'm right in saying this is part of a duology - which also slowed things down initially, but worked as the book carried on. Especially with the character of Vince...

Altogether it's definitely a Holly Black with a  lot of her characteristic flourishes, but distinctly different in mood to her YA books, and in the best way. One of the things that makes me uneasy about Sarah J Maas is the way that her A Court of Thorns and Roses series reads like teen fiction with a lot of added smut. Black has never really done smut and doesn't do it here either (there's some sex but she's all about the plot), but she nails the 30s state of slowly losing time to turn things around and the sense of your choices starting to define you.

It's been a really successful hardback, and if you like something a little bit dark, with a fantasy element that still feels grounded in our own world, lots of twists, and a good mystery I recommend it. 


Sunday, June 26, 2022

Got Married, Got Covid, Got Home

It's been a big few weeks - the wedding went well, I think - and we certainly enjoyed it, apart from an outbreak of Covid that seems to have hit about half the guests including me. This despite the whole thing being outside.

I have books to write about and other things, but first, there's a little bit of wedding wisdom to impart because it's still all new and exciting and I'm not quite ready to stop thinking or talking about it yet.

We did this on a fairly small scale, just over 50 people, and all very much homemade. We couldn't have done that if we'd gone much bigger (there was a lot of washing up) but as it was it worked really well. We ditched everything we're not wild about at weddings - including a photographer which I don't regret, but it would have been a good idea to draft people into taking specific photos. They may yet turn up. 

It meant we could spend the budget on things that really mattered to us - food, drink, shoes and also that there were no unpleasant surprises to stress over. It turned out to be really hard to find a good, fresh, whole, salmon - after a couple of days and a bit of hunting, I managed to get two whole fillets instead - bone-free and quicker to cook. It was the first thing to get eaten, but I could have done something else as necessary. The single best thing I bought was probably a 4 kilo wheel of stilton (about half a whole cheese) from the market in Leicester. It made an excellent centerpiece, was immensely popular, fed us through a couple of days of clear up, and is still just about hanging on back with my dad. It was a great bit of Leicestershire to take with us.

I had 3 weeks off work for this, and taking 2 of those before the wedding was every bit the great idea I thought it would be. Even better given the covid situation because we got to the big day fairly chilled and well-rested having had a really nice time together sorting stuff out before people arrived. The week after the wedding was probably always going to be a bit of an anti-climax, but with no big plans to be ruined by a positive test result being ill hasn't been the big deal it could have been.

Shoes! I always knew where these were going to come from; Pavilion Parade in Brighton. I fell in love with this pair which were happily in my size although we did also look at different bits of fabric to make a bespoke pair. They're more or less all 1 offs anyway and after speaking to a couple of friends I realise that going grass colour (chartreuse) was an accidental stroke of genius. It was dry anyway but my shoes look pristine whereas a lot seem to end up thrown away due to grass stains. I love that I can wear these again whenever an occasion presents.


And that's about it, I'm still reeling from a mix of mild fever and people's generosity; friends did flowers, played music, and put us in touch with men about tents, and breweries. My mother and sisters cooked, cleaned, and cleaned some more, and people face us lovely things and lovelier memories. I hundred percent recommend getting married - it genuinely was one of the very best days of my life, arguably the very best to date. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Strawberry Cup

Wedding preparations continue with the new hiccup of my youngest sister (at home with father and stepmother for the weekend) testing positive for covid. The main thing is hoping she's okay, not too miserable now, and stays free of long covid - but it does put a question mark over Shetland Family getting here in time - which is, in turn, a sign of the times we live in.

Looking for a suitable punch or cup recipe has at least been fun. After regretfully dismissing the clarified milk punch the next one we tried was a winner - Strawberry Cup. The recipe comes from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' first published in 1939 - a time even more complicated than our own. As regular readers will know I use this book a lot, it's full of drinks forgotten enough to feel new, is admirably simple to follow, and has provided me with some absolute gems.

The strawberry cup calls for a pound of strawberries - that's very roughly 450g, wild being best if you can get them. I can't, it's too early, and although there are plenty of them around here it would take a long time to gather half as many, so supermarket it is - the best strawberries I had last summer came from Morrisons, I don't know what type they were but they were head and shoulders above M&S and Waitrose berries.

Chop your strawberries up a bit (unless you do find wild ones in which case you're good) and put them in a bowl with half a pound (or half the weight) of sugar, leave to macerate for at least an hour. Then add 3 bottles of hock - this is the cheap, sweet, low alcohol (9% abv) German wine that mostly gets overlooked by anybody too young to remember what we drank before the 1980's. It's not got the best reputation now, and what you can buy in supermarkets is basic compared to what Ambrose Heath would have known back when German wines were better appreciated here - and this is just fine for our purposes. Put the mixture on ice and leave until needed, just before serving add a bottle of iced champagne - or as I will be doing something like a Cremant de Limoux.


 

We made a scaled down version of this to try - it's not overly potent and quite sweet - but in a very enjoyable on a hot summers day way, very much in line with Pimm's. I'm thinking I might add a bottle of soda water into the mix to cut the abv further, and possibly some strips of lemon peel to counter the sweetness just slightly. Borage flowers would be great if you had them, or a couple of leaves of mint would work too. If you want an easy alternative to Pimm's with its own distinct character and low enough in alcohol that you can drink plenty of it without falling over of falling asleep this is an excellent contender.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Clarified Milk Punch

This is a thing I've thought about making for a long time, and thanks to Richard Godwin's admirably clear instructions which managed to make it sound less trouble than the old versions I've seen (and came in less terrifying quantities too) I've finally done it. This was partly in search of a good wedding punch - which I'm not sure this is, and also because this week I've got the time to have a go at things like this. 

What the milk punch has going for it is that it's relatively low in alcohol, has a wonderfully silky texture, an impressive history (it's associated with Aphra Benn), and is shelf-stable. What puts me off is that filtering it through a V20 paper took hours and that on first sip neither of us were entirely sure what to make of it. Almost a glass down I'm much more enthusiastic. Doug is asleep so unable to comment. 

There are things I could change - the Lady Grey tea I used and the Star Anise (I don't hate it, Doug really isn't a fan of aniseed flavours) could go in favour of other things, and I think I'll definitely make this again but to do it in proper party quantities would mean finding a slightly quicker way to filter it. The creamy texture and the fact it's clear are both impressive things though, so if you do have the time and curiosity definitely give this a go. The link to the recipe I used is HERE and Richard Godwin is absolutely worth a follow if you're interested in drinks.


Glamorous image, I know, but this is made with Milk, and look at it!






Friday, May 27, 2022

Rhubarb, Lemon, and Elderflower Pancakes

These were heavily inspired by Gill Meller's Elderflower and Gooseberry pancakes in his new book 'Outside', but I had to be up early and wait in for a man to come and inspect my front door to make sure it was fireproof (everything is fine apart from the hinges which are apparently some sort of not fireproof metal) and I didn't have any gooseberries.


There are elder bushes just outside our building so I gathered 4 flower heads and gave them a wash - the smell was amazing, and then used my normal pancake mix (200g of self-raising flour, a pinch of salt, a melted knob of butter - about an ounce - and added milk until I was happy with the consistency - spoonable, not too runny not too stiff). I added the grated rind of a lemon, the flowers from a couple of the elderflower heads, and a stick of rhubarb chopped into roughly 1cm chunks. 

If you have a decent nonstick frying pan you shouldn't need any oil for making pancakes and I much prefer them without - they just need to go on a medium heat and get a couple of minutes on each side, I also prefer not to add sugar or sweeteners to the batter mix, with rhubarb it means it keeps its sourness for a much better contrast with the syrup. For the syrup I added a bit of elderflower cordial to maple syrup, but I'd also use honey on these depending on what's open, and some of the leftover flowers. 

I really liked these, they absolutely tasted of early summer/late spring. The scent of the elderflower was incredible, better even than coffee for waking me up this morning and rhubarb is great in pancakes - it just has time to go soft and I love its tartness against maple syrup.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Life of Crime - Martin Edwards

I really wish I had the energy and focus of Martin Edwards - there are the novels, the editorial work for the British Library Crime Classics series, and now 3 impressive doorstoppers of books that give an overview of the crime writing genre, meanwhile I struggle to hold down a job, keep up with my reading, and fit in some knitting time. 

I've had 'The Life of Crime' for about 10 days, so full disclosure I've only been able to dip in and out of it - even excluding the 80 pages that make up the select (!) bibliography and index there's still 622 pages book; it's fair to say it's comprehensive. Dipping in and out is also probably going to be the best way for most of us to approach this book anyway - unless you want to fully immerse yourself in the history of crime fiction in which case you might also want to arm yourself with Edwards' earlier books. 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books' published by the British Library, and 'The Golden Age of Murder' from Harper Collins'. I've enjoyed both but I think 'The Life of Crime' has the edge.


It's a combination of Edwards enthusiasm for his subject (he makes it very clear how much of a fan he is as well as a writer) the signposts he gives us for following our own lines of research and enthusiasm, and his acknowledgment that this is his journey through the history of the genre's past 'with all the limitations and idiosyncrasies that implies'. He's a charming, courteous, and well-informed guide to the world of classic crime fiction who knows how to deliver a good anecdote and tell a joke. In short, we're in good company with Edwards. 

'The Life of Crime' is both good company and a constant source of distraction - where can I find a cheap copy of Joanna Cannan's 'No Walls of Jasper' which is dedicated to her friend Georgette Heyer, apparently the model for one of the characters? Do I need to read William Godwin, there's a compelling case here for his role in the development of the crime novel (common sense says no, it'll probably be on a par with reading Samual Richardson)? The examination of how elements from 18th century Gothic fiction make their way into crime fiction in the first chapter, 'Revolutions' is fascinating, and something I'll bring with me if I ever read Jane Austen's 'Emma' again. 

Overall Edwards opinion of where Crime fiction deserves to sit in terms of literary merit is particularly interesting to me. We spend a good bit of time at work debating how to break down fiction - we currently divide it into science fiction and fantasy, crime, and fiction - there's a good argument to be made for romance having its own section, though we currently don't have space for it, and an equally good argument to say that none of these distinctions really make sense. We do it for the convenience of customers who like their preferences signposted but there's a lot of crossover, as well as a pernicious belief that genre fiction is somehow lesser. 

Arguments about literary merit aside, books written and marketed to have a popular appeal are an excellent way to understand contemporary opinions on almost any subject, and again as Edwards discusses in his introduction "...if a book written decades ago evinces attitudes that we now deplore, that isn't a reason to airbrush it from history. If we ignore the follies of the past...we'll fail to understand what caused them, and what continues to cause them..." Reading older books is often an odd mix of finding attitudes that seem remarkably enlightened alongside ones that are absolutely not.

So, 55 chapters, an excellent bibliography, pages of notes with gossip, trivia, and more suggested reading to follow up on. Household names and almost forgotten ones, a chronology that takes us from the 18th century to the present day and which looks beyond the usual English-speaking writers to take in some of the bigger European names should provide something of interest for any crime fiction fan. I think the biggest compliment I can pay this book though is to tell you that despite its weight and size it's the one I've been carrying in my bag all week to read on breaks as well as at home - it's very unusual for anything but a slim paperback to make it into my bag. 

Follow the rest of the blog tour here:


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Storyland - Amy Jeffs

I'm still immersed in wedding preparations - less than 4 weeks to go now and still a lot to do. Mostly it's working out what to feed people, and making sure that there's enough of whatever we choose, that and people keep asking me what I'm going to do with my hair (no clue) so busy times ahead. 

As well as browsing through endless recipe books and reading around a few commitments for other things that also have deadlines looming I've managed to read Storyland over a couple of weeks' worth of lunch breaks. This is a remarkable book that I've really enjoyed, and can't stop recommending (happily that's literally my job so...)


It's also ideal for reading in small chunks. The chapters are short but give plenty to think about, it's not a book to race through, not least because so much of what I read was unexpected. Storyland is a collection of Britain's foundation myths, mostly pulled from Anglo-Saxon and medieval sources, retold, illustrated, and discussed by Art Historian Dr. Amy Jeffs.

What made the collection so interesting to me was how many of these stories are more than half-forgotten. I'd maybe come across a few fragments outside of the King Arthur and Merlin section, but really not much, including the connection between King Lear and Leicester - apparently he's credited with founding the city (there's no proof he was a real person) and is buried somewhere under the river that runs past my flat. I love this for Leicester, it does not need to be true - or at least the fact that the city has an origin myth matters more to me than the truth of the myth itself. 

Where we see Jeff's skill as an academic as well as a storyteller is in the way she convincingly argues that although they've been mostly forgotten these stories are so deeply ingrained in our sense of who we are as a people that they still affect the way we think and see ourselves. There are unexpected delights too - dragons that turn into pigs, giants - begot by demons and exiled Syrian princesses, the magical doings of Merlin, traces of the Picts, classical roots, Scandinavian roots, Germanic roots, and Biblical allusions. Truly something for everyone. 

Jeff's has another book out this Autumn - 'Wild' which I'm really looking forward to, and meanwhile, if you're interested in folklore and mythology 'Storyland' really shouldn't be missed. 



Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Rhubarb Syrup and Semolina cake

This is based on a greek revani cake but I'm not sure how authentic it is at this point (I can't remember where I found the original recipe and there have been modifications since then) so I'm going to go with the strictly accurate Syrup and Semolina description. 

It's really good in small squares with a coffee, maybe a little yogurt on the side if you want it as a smartish dessert, and great for using up bits of fruit. I used some citrus cordial based on Georgina Hayden's recipe in 'Nistisima' - this is 750ml of water heated with 750g of sugar until it has dissolved and then steadily simmered for about 8-10 mins - you don't want it to colour, but to reduce a bit and be properly syrupy. Then add 750ml of freshly squeezed citrus. Grapefruits, lemons, oranges, limes, bergamots - whatever you can get and a good mix of them - it's always going to be sweet so I prefer sharper citrus like lemon, lime and grapefruit. Simmer for 4 - 5 mins, long enough to combine the flavours but still leave plenty of fruit character, skim off any scum, allow to cool for a bit, and then pour into sterilized bottles. 


I've been using this in everything I can think of because I underestimated how much the recipe would make (more than a single person really needs).

For the cake, you want the finely grated rinds of 2-3 lemons, 150 mls of sunflower oil, 175g of caster sugar, 4 medium eggs, 175 mls of milk, 200g of fine semolina, 75g of plain flour, and 3tsps of baking powder. Line a 20cm square cake time with tinfoil that comes well up the sides, heat the oven to 160 degrees fan or gas 4. 

Add the finely grated lemon zest, oil, sugar, and eggs. Beat well then add the flour, semolina, baking powder, and milk. Mix until smooth, the batter will seem thin but don't worry. Pour it into the time and bake for about 50 mins or until done. 

Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. I simmered 300g of rhubarb with a good glug of my citrus cordial and added the juice of a lemon and a packet of passion fruit seeds to the strained liquid, as well as enough water to make 400mls, add 200g of sugar to this (240 if you haven't already used any) and gently simmer to make a syrup. Strawberries would also work for this, just lemon juice is great, and passion fruit would also have been fine on its own.

When the cake comes out of the oven leave it to cool slightly and then cut into squares (or diamonds) I find 16 is right, then gently pour the syrup over it taking care to get reasonably even coverage. Leave to cool. Because I'd used passion fruit I already had something crunchy on top of the cake, otherwise, I'd scatter some chopped almonds or pistachios over it. This keeps well.