Saturday, December 31, 2022

Hotel Splendide - Ludwig Bemelmans

I'm ending the year feeling far from well - at a guess, this is what flu, when you've had a vaccine, feels like (either that or I'm totally burnt out, or maybe it's both). Anyway, I'm on day two of trying to write this post and crossing my fingers that it'll make sense because currently my conversational attempts really don't. Grammarly is trying to tell me I'm failing but it has some funny ideas about the right words so I'm ignoring it.

I have wanted to read Hotel Splendide for a very long time; ever since seeing it mentioned by Anthony Bourdain and reading about it in Slightly Foxed. I did manage to track down a copy of Hotel Bemelmans, but my memory of it is somewhat different so I'm no longer assuming they're the same book as I have done for years. 

Ludwig Bemelmans emigrated to America (from Austria) when he was 16, started working s a bus boy in one of the big New York hotels working his way up before becoming better known as an artist and writer (he wrote, amongst other things, the Madeline books). He landed in America in 1914, and first published this book in 1941 when he was already an established children's author, which is perhaps why there's not much sense of Bemelmans behind the stories. This is very much the story of life in a grand hotel before prohibition and the great depression, which must have felt like an entirely different and infinitely more decadent world in the 1940s - maybe even more than it does to us now. 

It's a mostly funny and charming book with some fascinating insights into both the people he encountered and the many eccentricities of the staff, as well as of the times. In one episode goes back to Austria some time in the 1930s (superinflation is in full effect) with another colleague who went to America at the same sort of time. They have a sort of plan to humiliate the professor who had made life a misery at school, but find things so changed, and so desperate, that they end up pitying him. there must be a propaganda element to this vignette, but the banality of the whole thing makes it work better than perhaps it should.

The chapter I found most troubling is where the hotel's only black employee is fetishized with an artist's eye - does he look more beautiful in this setting or that? Against copper pans or silverware? His habits and vanities are set before us, but by the end of the book they're no more remarkable than anybody else's foibles. Still, it's a section that made me feel uncomfortable for the way it focuses on what Bemelmans clearly considered exotic. 

They're possibly also the most revealing moments regarding Bemelmans own personality. Bourdain referred to him as the original bad boy of the New York hotel scene - a high bar to clear, but you'd have to do some reading between the lines to think of him in that way from this book. That's probably a good thing and why this deserves it's place as a classic. I doubt the unvarnished truth would have aged well, whereas this carefully edited collection of anecdotes and pen portraits is an absolute gem. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

the Cocktail Edit - Alice Lascelles

With New Year's Eve, and indeed a new year, coming up if you like a cocktail you should buy this book, and if you're thinking now is the time to get into cocktails - there isn't a better place to start. Although I do have a couple of books I like as much as this one, notably Richard Godwin's The Spirits, I think the Cocktail Edit is the best all-round guide I've yet seen.

There are a number of really important things that it does really well, and finding them all together isn't as common as you might hope. The first I'll discuss is the concept of the 6 or 12 bottle bar. Right now the estimated cost of getting the 12 bottles recommended would work out at around £200. I don't know if that sounds like a lot or not, I've seen people spend much more at this time of year, I wouldn't do it myself - but then I don't have to because the only bottles I don't have at the moment are Campari, Luxardo Maraschino, and a sparkling wine I'd use in a cocktail. 

If you've acquired some mix of gin, an average cognac, bourbon or rye, tequila or rum over Christmas you're also off to a good start. And that leads on to the second excellent piece of advice this book gives - you don't need super-premium spirits. You do need to be aware of the ABV of what you're buying, you want it to be between 40% - 47%, as the ABV affects the price you might want to avoid the very cheapest brands or off-brand spirits but that's about it. My experience is that too many people either want the cheapest possible option (fair enough, but quality beats quantity here, at least up to a point) or they want to show off (which is also fair enough, but unnecessary).

Which brings me to the next thing I love about this book - the ethos that runs through it is that it's much better to do simple brilliantly than to mess up complicated. I cannot stress how important this is for the home bar. I want cocktails that I can make quickly and with a minimum of fuss so that I can enjoy drinking them without having a full-on job to clean my kitchen afterwards. 

And then there are the recipes which are a great mix of classics and contemporary twists on them - these will teach you the basics, move it on a level, and give you the confidence to play around with judiciously chosen substitutes. Most of cocktail making is about ice and proportions and once you've appreciated that there's a lot of room to play. 

Finally - though there are a lot more good things I could say about this book - I'm very much here to share the enthusiasm for cups and punches. There's a world beyond Pimm's that's will cover everything from a lazy Sunday in the garden, or at this time of year on the sofa, for 2, to the largest party whatever you decide to use as a punch bowl will accommodate.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Boxing Day, Books, and Mulled Wine

It's been a full-on month - busy at work, and some difficult things happening behind the scenes including the loss of a very dear friend, and continued worry about my 96 year old father in law who isn't in the best of health but is a long way away from us. I haven't ended a year feeling this drained in a while and honestly, I hope I never do again.

Despite this, I had a lovely Christmas day - which made going straight back to work today feel like ripping off a plaster. I got some great books including Alice Lascelles' The Cocktail Edit, and I'm drinking leftover mulled wine with chocolate in it, which is a win for this evening. The mulled wine is inspired in equal parts by Alice Lascelles and Annie Gray's At Christmas We Feast - and tiredness. 

We were too tired on Christmas eve to finish the modest pan of mulled wine. There was enough left to chance keeping it until getting home from work today, but 48 hours of macerating with cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and orange had made it a bit overpowering. Which is when I remembered the recipe for Wine Chocolate in At Christmas We Feast, which I didn't much like when I made it.

I had a mug's worth of mulled wine to play with so added a spoonful of grated hot chocolate and gave it a good stir - it took the edge off the spices and orange, rounded everything out, and made a really good drink - a twist very much in the spirit of The Cocktail Edit. 

My preferred mulled wine method is to use a bottle of inexpensive but okay red wine (anything from a supermarket own range label that comes in at about £5 will be perfect) and to gently heat it with a couple of small cinnamon sticks, 4 cloves, 2 star anise, a couple of strips of orange peel along with some slices of orange, and whatever juice is left from it, and 3 tablespoons of light brown sugar - experiment with the sugar, my preference is for something which comes with a bit of flavour as well as sweetness. Heat it to just about a simmer and then remove from the heat for half an hour to let the flavours really blend, then reheat and add a good measure of brandy if you want a bit more kick. 

The Wine chocolate recipe has you heat a bottle of ruby port with 1tbsp of rice flour and 125g of good dark chocolate (around 70% - 75% cocoa solids). Mix the rice flour with 3 spoons of cold port into a paste, add to the rest of the port and heat with the grated chocolate until a very low simmer is reached, it's smooth, and the consistency of double cream. Serve in small cups and drink straight away You may enjoy this riff on a recipe from 1723 much more than I did.

For the best of both worlds serve the mulled wine with a teaspoon of good-quality dark chocolate flakes stirred vigorously into each glass or cup. Alternativley strain the mulled wine into a clean pan before reheating, add around 125g of chocolate and whisk it in as it reheats. Add the spices back for decoration if desired. 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Death on Gokumon Island - Seishi Yokomizo

When I said yes to taking part in Kate's Reprint of the Year award I chose a couple of books I'd bought and was still getting around to thinking I needed the push. I've happily collected all the Seishi Yokomizo reprints that Pushkin has released and before this had yet to read any of them. Work has been a challenge over the last few weeks (exhausting) and there have been some other distractions in the background so I was still late reading 'Death on Gokumon Island' (full disclosure I made a nest out of a duvet next to a heater and read most of it this afternoon. 

Pushkin, Seishi Yokomizo, and my reckless choice of a book I hadn't previously read all came up trumps for me. There are a lot of reasons to explore this series - and this book also works really well as a stand-alone. Written in 1971, it's set on a small island in the Seto inland sea at the end of the war. Soldiers are trickling home, defeat is heavy in the air, and the full list of casualties is still unknown. Private Detective, Kosuke Kindaichi has come to Gokumon with the news that his beloved comrade and heir to the island's head fishing family, Chimata, died on the transport boat back.

Chimata's dying words were to beg Kosuke to go to the island - if he, Chimata, were to die his sisters would be murdered. It's a weirdly gothic setup, and as Chimata's prediction comes true the murders maintain a macabre and theatrical mood. The islanders are the descendants of pirates and prisoners, and a superstitious lot with a deep love of the dramatic. There's a streak of insanity running through the head family (this is not a politically correct book), and more ingenious twists and turns than I had ever dreamed of. 

Why read it - partly it has to be for the atmosphere. The elements of a familiar anglophone golden age mystery are all here but in unfamiliar ways - in much the same way that a cup of tea might differ between the vicarage in St Mary Mead and the temple on Gokumon island. 

The island setting is clever too - it's quite possible to believe that to the locals tied together by family connections and shared isolation would think and believe differently to the next island, never mind the mainland. These islanders have their own loyalties which seem both entirely crazy and make sense within their context. 

The post war timing is a stroke of genius - it's a culture in the middle of significant change and trauma which all adds to the atmosphere of horror and despair and works to make the plot more feasible. 

And finally, the plot is clever - the clues are there, but the solution is horrifying enough not to be easily guessed at. If you don't vote for this one, do at least consider reading it. It's a treat. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

R in the Month - Nancy Spain

December has become my month for Nancy Spain - regardless of when I buy her books, she feels like a wintery kind of read to me. This is undoubtedly because of the slapstick/pantomime elements she brings to her mysteries. 

'R in the Month' is easily my favourite of the 3 I've read so far too - 'Death Goes on Skis' took some getting into before I loved it, and 'Cinderella Goes to the Morgue' had a pantomime setting that invaded everything. 'R in the Month' has all the overdrawn elements and dislikable characters I associate with Nancy Spain but the characters also seem more feasible somehow (which is quite something with this author). 

We're in a grim Southcoast town at a badly run hotel - the proprietor is a no-good, spendthrift, almost bankrupt drunk with a great deal of charm, his wife is at her wits end with any charm she had long exhausted. Their permanent guests include a disreputable Major and his wealthy mother, the staff are a bitterly quarreling pair of lesbians, one of whom has an impressive drug habit. Into this promising setup comes Miriam Birdseye (a genius and actress) along with her friend Pyke (playwright and ex-barrister). 

There are oysters and then there are bodies -  but everybody is lying, nothing is clear, and we only find out who dunnit in the very last pages. The element of reality and the very best of potential red herrings are Tony the hotel proprietor's drunkenness and his wife's desperation as she realises how bad things are. They're desperate, unreliable, and dishonest - but are they murderers?

Or could it be the dodgy major who Miriam might be engaged to? Maybe his uncle, and then there's a seedy bank manager, along with number of other suspicious characters who keep popping up to muddy the waters. Miriam herself has her hands full trying to balance the jealous affections of Pyke, Inspector Tomkins, Major Bognor, and Colonel Rucksack, never mind solving a murder. It's almost all nonsense, and entirely enjoyable. I'm also going to go out on a limb and say it's better for the absence of Natasha, the Russian ballerina, who has been a feature of the earlier books in the series. 

You can ignore the cover of the book too - this is set in a grim February where it scarcely stops raining, the wind blows like it means it, and everything is damp and depressing in Brunton-On-Sea. I've enjoyed Nancy Spain before this, but I'll say again, this is the book that's really made me love her and get why she has quite as many fans as she does. She's always funny, but this time I really feel like there's something more behind the humour and the book is all the better for it. 

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Christmas Tree and a Christmas Stocking

I'm struggling to feel festive this year, although it's just possible that the cold snap we've just hit will change that a bit - frost is at least pretty even if it's treacherously icy underfoot now (after a year out of action post hip replacement, and then last year with a broken ankle my mother is under strict instructions to take care). 

An unseasonably warm November means that there are still a number of trees around here dressed for October rather than December, so the fact that it's only a whisker over 2 weeks until the big day is unexpectedly discombobulating. On a personal note the news a couple of weeks ago that a much loved primary school teacher had died suddenly, and the less unexpected but much more devastating news that a very dear family friend died on Monday has cast a damper on things.

In an attempt to be positive, I can at least say that both have underlined what's important about this time of year; to make the most of the time you have with those you love. Both women gave unbounded love and kindness and will be missed more than they could maybe know. 

My Christmas tree is also up, and after a couple of duds, I've got a good one. Two years ago the tree kept falling over, ridiculously, and in slow motion each time. It was hard to sleep for the worry of an impending crash and the job of cleaning up hundreds of pounds worth of Christmas decorations shard by glittery shard. It is terrifying to think what Christmas decorations would cost to replace like for like (I couldn't) they're getting stupidly expensive and after almost 30 years of collecting bits and pieces, the tree in its full glory is potentially the most expensive item in my flat. 

Last year's tree smelt strongly and upsettingly (in absolutely equal measure) of what we think was either badger or fox urine. It also dropped a lot of its supposedly non-drop needles, possibly as a reaction to the indignities it had suffered. There was nothing about that aroma that made us feel festive, we were stuck with it for a whole month as getting a tree up the stairs into my flat is a considerable commitment in itself.

This year's tree fits perfectly in its corner, has so far remained resolutely upright, and doesn't really seem to smell of anything. I thought it might be a bit tall for the room, but it's slim enough to work, and looking at it has genuinely been a solace. It cost me £20 which seems like more than a bargain for something which providing so much quiet joy. 

Something else that I really enjoyed making was a final Stoorbra sock, supersized onto bigger needles and with DK yarn to make a satisfyingly generous Christmas stocking - you can get a book and a whisky bottle into it. I doubt the baby it's been sent to will be getting either this year, but it's a great pattern from Alison Rendall, available on Ravelry HERE. I'm a slow knitter with a full time job, it's taken me on average 2 weeks per sock every time I've made these - which means if anybody is feeling inspired to knit a really spectacular Christmas stocking you should just have time!

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Hex Appeal - Kate Johnson

This arrived at work as a reading copy and I thought it looked terrible, but then I picked it up to mock, started reading, and got hooked. I'd been expecting something like the truly awful (in my opinion) The Ex Hex, or any number of similarly poor books which feel like they've been cynically written to cash in on current book tok trends. 

Hex Appeal isn't a great work of literature, but it reminded me of Practical Magic with a little bit of Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in, and it did it in a good way. I wasn't at all familiar with Kate Johnson before this, but a quick google tells me she's a reasonably well-established romance writer - she certainly spins a nic romance here. 

Essie, a witch with an affinity for winter is minding her own business one autumn day when she gets a whole lot of worrying portents from a passing taxi. Josh is an American fleeing a bad breakup and a change of career heart by renovating a house he's inherited in the village. 

Fate has some serious plans for them but they need to bind an ancient evil and bring in winter, before finding a way to live happily ever after. (Mild spoilers here) There are family complications, some time travel, Essie's trauma after accidentally freezing a part of her first boyfriend, and altogether a lot of things that wouldn't normally appeal to me very much but here it works.

I think this is undoubtedly because Johnson is good at what she does, and also because she's writing with a good deal of affection for a genre and hitting the right balance of respecting it whilst not taking it overly seriously - including the running joke about the frozen bits. The relationships between the different characters work well, and if some of them are only sketched in they still hold together really well. The time travel bit brings in some proper peril - who wants to be caught as a witch in 17th Century Essex? 

Altogether I'm repenting of my initial snobby dismissal; if you're in the mood for something light, funny, and feel good this is worth checking out. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Christmas at River Cottage - Lucy Brazier

I applied for a review copy of this book at work last year, and then gave up on it before it unexpectedly arrived on the 22nd of December - by which time it was a bit late to write about it. Tonight though I'm halfway through putting up my Christmas tree, and it seemed like a good time to get it out and dust it down for a proper browse.

The Christmas tree is turning into a bit of an epic undertaking. Early success with a tree the right size for surprisingly little at Sainsbury's Homebase has since been met with setbacks. (It's 7 feet tall, a skinny Nordman fir for £20, they're really helpful in my local branch, and it's perfect for the corner of my sitting room, Best of all so far no hint of the aroma that we think was badger urine that last years tree smelt strongly of. The dog appreciated it but the humans did not). Unfortunately, the trunk was too slender to fit into my tree stand so I had to wait until today to get some wedges. Currently, the poor thing is relaxing after a prolonged time trussed up in a net, and has got as far as having some light put on it. Further decorating will commence after work tomorrow. It's still early for a tree. 

According to Christmas at River Cottage (contains extensive notes from Hugh F-W as well as Lucy Brazier) it's about the only thing I am early for - and as a fan of the plan ahead approach that's a plus for me. There's no shortage of how to do Christmas books around, especially from food writers, and whilst I like having a few to choose from they do need a unique selling point to make the cut. 

For Christmas at River Cottage it's the way it ties Christmas to a year-round lifestyle. Planning ahead here means what you're growing and harvesting across the summer that will be good in December - chutneys, jams, and liqueurs are all a feature (maybe ask for a quince or mulberry tree for Christmas if you have space for one). And then there's the cake baking, mincemeat making, and pudding steaming activities of October and November. There are ideas for making things, including good advice on wreath construction, and good dried herbs to give as gifts. 

For the record, I'd be delighted to get a jam jar of dried lemon verbena, or indeed a wreath of rosemary, sage, and bay which I could hang in my kitchen and then store for later use. I'm a big fan of homemade mincemeat too - it's a lot nicer to cook with than the shop-bought sort, keeps well, and is an excellent way to use up leftover dried fruit from cake baking.

Lucy's thoughts on Christmas cake - don't save it for Christmas but enjoy it earlier in December is sensible - we've contracted 12 days of feasting into 1 maybe 2, there's a lot to get through and we should definitely do more to celebrate advent and the fun bits of the run up to Christmas to try and draw the season out again.

Beyond that, there are plenty of sensible recipes for parties, Chrismas day, boxing day, new year, and beyond. These include drinks (with and without alcohol) how to plan your events, use up leftovers, reassurance about asking for help and lots about reusing and recycling - all good stuff.

Altogether, I really like this book. It's reflect of you have, or want, an allotment. Plenty of no nonsense, cost conscious, sustainable ideas which don't feel like second best, and the whole thing is beautifully produced. Better late than never. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Sylvia Townsend Warner - Short Stories

It's been a Sylvia Townsend Warner kind of week - which is always a good thing. The newly produced Faber collection 'Winter in the Air' came into work - I bought a copy minutes later, and karma rewarded my donation of unwanted Christmas decorations to a charity shop by dropping an old green-spined Virago Modern Classics edition of her selected stories in my path for only £2. I already had a copy of this, but my first one was falling apart, this one doesn't even seem to have had the spine cracked open. 

I've come to love Sylvia Townsend Warner in recent years, she's a joy I owe in equal parts to Handheld Press and Helen for the gentle steer in the right direction. The novels I've read have been great, but her short stories are something else again. They're precise and elegant with a  gentle melancholy about them, and sometimes a not at all gentle melancholy. 

She's also quite a hard sell in the shop which is a shame. In my own little corner of the internet, Warner is a much-loved name, but unfortunately and along with a few other writers I love, it's an uphill struggle to get people to take a chance on her. I'm hoping that the mini cloth-bound Penguin classics edition of Lolly Willows will lure in the Book tok and Instagram crowd and push a wider rediscovery - though again, for my money it's the short story collections which are the real gems. 

'Winter in the Air' is everything you could hope for from Warner, Handheld's collections of her fairy stories are magical, especially if you like a touch of weird - make it a Sylvia Christmas!

Monday, November 21, 2022

Hollywood Cocktails

It's the season for likely stocking fillers to start appearing at work, and as I'm a sucker for a vintage cocktail book I fell for this one straight away. It's a slim little thing with board covers that double its width but it promises 200 excellent recipes, takes up less space, and will travel more easily than my beloved Savoy Cocktail book, and had some promising looking things in it so here we are. 

The thing I want most from a cocktail book is simplicity. I know I'm getting Alice Lascelles 'The Cocktail Edit' for Christmas so I'm having to be patient about really exploring that one - but for a contemporary cocktail book it's absolutely the one to go for this year.

My home doesn't have the range of ingredients or equipment that a good cocktail bar would have on hand. I'm relying on good quality booze that I will use whilst it's fresh (vermouth, which I love, will lose its flavour the longer a bottle is open). I want 17 (or more) different takes on the same basic principle to keep it interesting, not 17 different bottles all with a single measure taken out of them getting sticky and gathering dust in my kitchen. Vintage books are excellent for having a lot of variations on the theme of french vermouth, Italian, and gin. Some will use brandy/whisky/rum etc, but you get the idea. All are brief on instructions (you shake or stir and that's about it).

Most of the recipes in here are definitely in the Savoy book, but there are a couple specific to famous Hollywood restaurants of the 1930s which are definitely appealing, and even when you discount the harder-to-find ingredients (Swedish punch for example) there's a lot here that only calls for things you'll find in any reasonably large supermarket. Aim for good, but not necessarily premium quality, bottles - I wouldn't use anything I wouldn't drink on its own, but I'm not putting the super glamorous £50 bottle of gin I was given in cocktails either.

Altogether a decent little book for some vintage inspiration, a nice add-on present with a decent bottle of vermouth or similar, good if you're staying with grown-up family that likes a drink, or want to party like it's 1933. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Death of Jezebel - Christianna Brand

It's a while since I read a crime classic from the British Library and Death if Jezebel was a good book to dive back in with, although I think reading the earlier Christianna Brand in the series, Death in Green, first might have been an advantage. 

What I loved about Death of Jezebel was the slang and the sense of slightly tired post-war characters. While it didn't make a significant difference that I hadn't at least read Death in Green, it did sometimes feel like there were references going over my head and Inspector Cockrill could have benefited from a longer acquaintance. 

As 'impossible crimes' go this is every bit as ingenious as you might hope. The Jezebel in question is killed in full sight of a crowd, inconveniently for the police, all the possible suspects are also apparently in full view of the crowd and nowhere near the victim... The solution is cleverly hinted at, but amidst the general confusion and red herrings of the plot, it's only at the end that the pieces fell together for me. 

More interesting to me was the way the whole cast of characters has been damaged in different ways by the war and how they're leading their current lives. Isabel Drew reminded me of the anti-heroine in To Bed With Grand Music - the more or less stock figure of the scarlet woman that post-war it seems to have been important to disapprove of. Fair enough this one is a piece of work who deserves her comeuppance as much as any murder victim can, and a lot of the men don't come out of it much better. Overall there's a weariness about all of them, these people have mostly seen too much, and been unlucky enough to survive it. Fresh new starts seem unlikely, and altogether the sense of a Britain still in the grip of rationing and with the scars of bomb damage still everywhere as a bleak kind of place is unavoidable. 

Lots of slang, and a dark but definite sense of humour work as an excellent balance though, so overall this book is a lot of fun, both as a mystery and for its details, the cover is also particularly splendid - there may even be an oblique kind of clue in it! Give it a go.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Baking, Making, and Mixed Spice

I didn't realise how quiet I'd been here so far this month - it's been a busy 10 days of work, visiting family in Scotland, back to work, and managing to find the time to make Christmas chutney, cakes, liqueur, and mincemeat. I have a long-running disagreement with dad about keeping Christmas for December, and a general dislike for anybody who ever says such a thing. 

People who say keep Christmas for December almost certainly have other people running around sorting things out for them. they're the ones who pitch up in your shop on the 23rd of December indignant that you don't have whatever product they can't cope without and won't be getting another delivery so they can't order it. No substitute will do and no matter how many times it happens to them they don't change their shopping habits. 

They complain about the pressure and the stress oblivious to the idea that planning ahead cuts most of that out. Then they complain about the expense and how commercial Christmas has become - whilst buying their way out of the last-minute hole they're in. Complain about not getting Christmas cards but won't make the time to write them. These are not my people. 

I more or less post the same thing every year, but Christmas is the midpoint of winter, and I like a slow build towards it with time to enjoy the making and doing, and then a slow wind down afterward (people who complain about the boring time off between Christmas and New Year whilst I'm back at work processing endless returns of whatever celebrity biography everybody got at least 2 copies of thanks to last minute panic buying this year are another pet hate). Winter is my favourite season. A time to be doing sociable things, thinking, and enjoying home comforts.

Today has been the day for making Christmas cakes - which do bring an element of stress with them; will they be under or overcooked? I won't know until it's too late to do anything about it, two are destined to be presents. Fruit cakes are so dense that the skewer test isn't quite as reliable as I'd like (is that uncooked batter or hot prune?) and they'll carry on cooking a little as they cool. It's a worry. They smell good though and I must have made this recipe a good 40 times or more so I'm hopeful it won't catch me out.

I've also finally managed to make a quince inclusive mincemeat, and a cooked one at that which is normally something I avoid. Someone on facebook had mentioned that she kept grated quince in her freezer for adding to apple pies. I had left over quinces so grating seemed like a good plan, and then bought Mark Diacono's 'Spice' which had the perfect recipe for them. Well, sort of, I lacked several ingredients, so I'm assuming that his recipe is perfect - but the results with my substitutions, which include the quince ratafia from the same book in place of Krupnik honey vodka tasted great when I potted it.

I have an uneasy relationship with quinces. I like their scent, love the quince jelly I make every year, and mostly fail with them on every other front. On the other hand Mark's books have never let me down, and although I overlooked how ambivilent I am about anise as a flavour when I made the ratifia (which true to quince tradition is sitting in the bottle looking remarkably like a urine sample) the results are actually really good and will, I think, work well in place of pastis or absinthe in some cocktail recipes. The same for the mincemeat - although the grated quince has taken on a disconcertingly worm like appearance in the jars.

At least the whole flat smells appealingly of mixed spice at the moment, an improvement on the lingering vinegar of the chutney making. I'm also pleased to have a new mincemeat recipe to add to my repertoire. This one makes a modestly sensible amount compared to others I've mixed up, and again this is the perfect time to make it, so that it's got a few weeks to mature before I want mince pies. When you find a good recipe (Fiona Cairns is the other one I really like and is a no cook version) it really is worth making your own. Mincemeat is a flexible thing - as long as the quantities of fruit, fat, alcohol, etc are right the specifics don't matter so it's easy to adapt to what you have or like and an excellent way to use up any dried fruit that's leftover from the other baking. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Little Blue Flames and Other Uncanny Tales - A. M. Burrage

Until 'The Little Blue Flames' I'd more or less managed to resist this particular hardback series from the British Library - yes, I have 'Fearsome Faries: Haunting tales of the Fae' but that was a one-off. Was. A colleague from work actually messaged me an image of 'The Little Blue Flames' when it came in she thought it was so much up my street. I'd already requested it by then.

I can't resist a good ghost story collection and having occasionally come across A. M. Burrage in other anthologies I knew this collection was something I wanted. It has more than lived up to my expectations being just the sort of uncanny I relish. My preference is for things that make the ordinary feel unsafe rather than full on gory horror. The title story where a pair of brass candlesticks give their owner a vision of a past crime perfectly fits that bill. 

It's not hard to at least half believe in the possibility of the ghosts and hauntings that Burrage conjures, where half the work is being done by the imagination of his protagonists. Why shouldn't much-loved ornaments carry some memory of a previous owner about with them? When you hold something old and worn in your hands it's so very easy to imagine those who have held it before - and half the work of the ghost story is suddenly done. 

The same kind of thing happens in 'Smee' where a house party is playing a version of hide and seek when they start to feel there are more people in the game than there should be. Nothing awful happens apart from the narrator being forced to realise not everything can be quite explained, and all the implications for life and the afterlife that brings with it. 

There's nothing in this collection that's kept me awake at night, but plenty that's made me grateful for being able to draw the curtains against the dark, and pull the duvet up close. All of them remind me of a bedroom in the house I grew up in. It was a perfectly ordinary spare bedroom in an old house. It wasn't much used and had a faded kind of look about it. It also terrified me from as far back as I can remember. I hated to walk past it when the door was open, which it often was, and would avoid going in it if I could. I still sometimes dream about that open doorway with the same sense of discomfort, and if I'd ever had to sleep in there I would have scared myself silly (and probably still would) for no obvious reason at all. 

 That's the experience that Burrage speaks to - the superstitious, irrational reactions to things that we can laugh about, but can't quite laugh off. 

The next book in the series is Celtic Weird edited by Johnny Mains and it too looks great. 

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Ghost stories and missing the 1929 club

It has been a long week at work (our Sundays count as the start of the week which is a common but weird retail thing, so I feel like I've worked six days this week - because I have, with a late finish tonight to try and get some Christmas prep in). I had hoped to read E. F. Benson's 'Paying Guests' for Simon and Kaggsy's 1929 book club, b ut it didn't happen. 

That was partly because I've also been reading two really excellent collections of weird\ghost stories which I was disinclined to put aside. The first was Helen Simoson's The Outcast and The Rite which covered stories dating from 1925 - 1938, the other The Little Blue Flames and other Uncanny Tales by A. M. Burrage which again covers the 1920s -30s.

I haven't looked up the specific dates for any of the stories included but some of them must have come from 1929 and overall the mood of both books speaks of the era. The Great War may be a decade or more in the past but its shadows are still being cast. Simpson and Burrage are distinctly different writers and I didn't choose to read these books side by side for any similarities I assumed I might find but it's there in the sense of loss, of crumbling certainties, of people living by their wits and class barriers breaking down.

Houses become malevolent, or anachronisms that must exert their charm to survive - much like those who would inhabit them, and as Burrage points out in one story there's a pervasive superstition born in the war that still had its claws in the popular imagination. It's not unusual to find plots in detective fiction from the 20s and 30s which revolve around witchcraft or devil worship - they mostly prove to be a front for something else, but there's a readiness for the characters in these books to believe - something. Anything perhaps that helped make sense of the war they'd been through and the destruction it bough, as well as the sometimes miricle-like fact of survival. 

It's hard to look around at the moment and not see parallels with the uncertainties and upheavals of the 1920s - perhaps this winter will bring out some future tales of the weird - I don't read enough contemporary fiction to know if there's a pervasive mood beyond a thirst for paranormal smut amongst young adults (and that's because I sell so much of it at work).

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Outcast and the Rite - Helen de Guerry Simpson

I'm very late reading this - I had meant to review it in time for its release date but getting married and getting covid intervened. I took it away with me to Scotland (it's been back and forth to my mother's a few times this summer as well, but the dog had other ideas about how we could spend our time, which mostly involved walking around fields) but as ever packed far more books than I could read and didn't get to it. 

This October has been a godsend for catching up on anything remotely spooky, weird, or unheimlich though, and so I've finally got down to it, found a couple of stories I knew and loved from other anthologies, and really fallen for Helen de Guerry Simpson in the process. 

The subtitle here is Stories of Landscape and Fear, 1925 -1938, but these are not ghost stories - or at least if one or two of them are, on the whole the collection leans much more towards unsettling than anything else. Even then it's not in a seriously scary way, although there are moments of recognition that may well come back to haunt me. 

Maybe my favourite story is 'Disturbing Experience of an Elderly Lady' which I had read before. Mrs. Jones has been left a wealthy widow who decides to use her newly acquired money to buy a stately home once glimpsed from a charabanc window. Its dignity had made her feel small, and now she's determined to destroy it. The house is just as set on saving itself, which it aims to do by charming Mrs. Jones into submission. What follows is a gently humorous battle of wills that reaches a tipping point in one of those moments of recognition.

As Much More Land adheres more closely to the traditional ghost story - and reminds me a little of Saki. It quietly lulled me into a sense of all being well and then had a deft little twist at the end which was definitely unsettling. And so it goes on. these are not stories to outright scare the reader, rather they're designed to make us think, or remember the times the sky has seemed too big over the landscape, the night too dark, the woods too overgrown and rank for comfort. 

Or there's Good Company which takes a lone and complacent traveler and then places her in exactly the sort of danger women fear and so often encounter. Again it's the moment of recognition that adds the fear - the all to familiar feeling of vulnerability at the hands of someone physically stronger than yourself. 

This is a great collection of stories from a writer who really ought to be better known. The next time I read them it'll be in the light of a long northern summer's evening which is a different type of spooky to the short nights of autumn winter - and to which I think her mood is better suited. It's something to do with her humour and the subtle way she mixes all the elements of her work. But honestly, buy this book - it's something special to add to any weird collection. 

Find the book here - Handheld Press

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Leviathan - Rosie Andrews

It's been a busy week at work (that's only going to get intensify over the next couple of months) with some mixed news in it, but we went to Stamford yesterday which was as charming as ever (very beautiful in a particularly English way, obviously a lot of money around which is reassuring given how depressed Leicester is and bustling on a Saturday with lots of excellent cafes to visit). Today I've made Christmas pudding and started a Christmas Schnapps and a quince liqueur. I have my doubts about the quince concoction. My track record with anything quince-based other than jelly is not great - but we'll see.

I've also had the annual lecture from dad about keeping Christmas for December - he hates it, but likes the cake and the puddings, and knows perfectly well that they don't appear without some kind of effort. Even if they didn't need time to mature this is my window for making before work really does get too crazy to have the energy for it, so I plan on enjoying this bit whilst I can.

Reading wise I've finally finished Rosie Andrews' debut 'The Leviathan' which I got as a proof back in January. At the time I'd read one historic novel too many and didn't make much progress with this one, but it is a perfect Autumn into Winter book. Most of the action takes place in a bleak Norfolk January against the backdrop of the English civil war, though it occasionally skips forward to 1703 where the elderly protagonist is retelling the events of his youth. 

The dark nights, lashing winds, rain, and snow that Rosie describes are probably the thing I liked most about this book - the weather is very much part of the character of the book and a foreshadowing of what's awoken. More than that though I felt like I could almost smell the snow on the wind and feel the cold whilst I was reading and from that everything else fell into place. 

Thomas is returning home, injured in action, and has just missed Christmas day in his puritan household. He's troubled by a letter from his younger sister which is making some fairly wild accusations against one of the servants, and more troubled when he arrives home to find his horse increasingly uneasy, the sheep dead in the field, and his father struck down with a stroke. He's also very aware that his sister's accusations could bring suspicion back to their own door so his first priority is to protect her. 

He's initially sceptical, has lost his faith in god, and considers witchcraft to be superstitious nonsense, but things get stranger, something is undoubtedly amiss and then the poet John Milton gets involved, when I read the blurb I wasn't sure how this would work, but it's done well. His presence serves mostly to remind us of 17th-century ideas and ideals - a world that hadn't yet been entirely mapped.

Altogether this is a tense and atmospheric book with big ideas that come off well. It also made me want to actually read Milton and Hobbes which is a feat in itself. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Carmen Callil

I'm genuinely sad to hear about the death of Carmen Callil yesterday, Virago, the publishing house she founded changed how I saw the world, as I know it did for many women of my generation. I can't show you a picture of the 400 or so Virago Modern Classics I own because they live on a set of shelves that's impossible to get a decent picture of, and because there are a lot of jars of quince jelly and damson jam in front of them at the moment - but they're there and although I've told this story here before I'm going to share it again because what Carmen did really mattered.

When I was a very young woman there was very little sense of a canon of women writers. We had Jane Austen (love her), assorted Bronte's (hit and miss) and Virginia Woolf (frankly ambivalent). A.S. Byatt had won the Booker prize, the queens of crime and Georgette Heyer were familiar, and there were the great 80's bonkbusters to enjoy but there were considerable gaps. I knew from Heyer that Austen had had contemporaries but in that pre-internet age I didn't know much more.

And then I got into an argument with an especially smug fellow student on my history degree. It ended with him asking if I could name 10 famous female writers from history. Of course, I could not. So later that day I went to a bookshop and started looking for women to read. I found Molly Keane in a distinctive green jacket, I bought a book and loved it. 

When I'd worked through Molly I found Sara Maitland (Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching) which I loved so much I photocopied individual stories from to send to friends (probably breaking copyright laws in the process). From there I found Rosamund Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Mrs. Oliphant, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Ferrier, Mae West, Elizabeth Jenkins, Barbara Comyns, Rachel Ferguson, Fanny Burney, and then more and more and more - a whole history. 

For years I'd scour bookshops for those green covers. I went on day trips to anywhere within a 40 mile radius with my best friend to find second-hand copies of by then out of print Virago's giving ourselves endless good memories in the process. We both built up decent collections, found online friends who shared our enthusiasm, and most importantly found versions of ourselves, our mothers, and our grandmothers in those books. 

Meanwhile, Persephone came along, and so did a host of other independent presses that found more women writers. Women got further into the Penguin and Oxford classics ranges, and now I could name any number of writers from any number of countries or cultures to that idiot from my first year at university. 

I suppose if Carmen Callil hadn't done it somebody else eventually would have - but she got there first and changed things for all of us which is some kind of legacy.

As a footnote she was a guest on a couple of episodes of the Backlisted Podcast which I highly recommend listening too. 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Once Upon A Tome - Oliver Darkshire

A book that very loosely fits into my thematic October reading. Once Upon A Tome is one of those books that appear in the run-up to Christmas, destined to be the handy stocking filler for the book lovers and such like in your life. It'll be a good choice if you do buy it, funny and irreverent, not at all heavy going - exactly the sort of book to fill the days off (for those lucky enough to get them) between Christmas and New Year. 

Oliver Darkshire joined antiquarian booksellers Henry Southeran about 8 years ago as an apprentice, one of the roles he took on was their social media\twitter account - and made such a success of it that he ended up expanding the Twitter persona into a book which isn't quite fact or fiction, but is filled with an entirely genuine affection and respect for his co-workers. 

For me, it's that affection that makes the book work. Darkshire is undoubtedly funny and tells a decent story but his appreciation for the people who took a chance on what by his own description, wasn't a particularly promising young man and found him a niche he could thrive in - that's special. 

There's something of an insight into the rare book trade, though not masses of detail if you happened to be looking for hot tips. There's not much more insight into the world of Henry Southeran's either - too much has been changed - to protect the guilty I suspect, but there's a charming general impression. 

Things I learned; in high-end bookshops, you don't always have to be polite to customers. I wish this were the case on the high street because some people really need telling. Do not trust an apprentice with gourds. Never visit a client's house (to be honest this is a rule anyway, but fortunately it's not part of my current job). Appreciate your co-workers, and give them credit when it's due (always). Avoid dark cellars. Pay some heed to health and safety. Do not let books get damp. Never encourage customers.

If bookshops are your happy place you'll probably enjoy this book a lot - I really did and had to retrieve it from Doug a couple of times so that I could finish it. He kept trying to pinch it when I wasn't looking but was given away by laughing out loud each time he got a couple pf paragraphs in. 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Sally Jones and the False Rose - Jakob Wegelius

'Sally Jones and the False Rose' is the second outing for gorilla and ships engineer Sally Jones, but the first one that I've read. The reason I picked this one up was the mention of Shetland on the back cover - which was slightly misleading, but not disappointingly so (I was specifically looking for a Shetland-related children's book at the time and it sort of ticks that box). 

A couple of years ago I bought the first Sally Jones for my godson, thinking it sounded like a good bet for a young boy - murder, gorillas and boats all sounded okay to me. I forgot to ask him what he thought of it, but I've really enjoyed this outing for a couple of reasons, one of them being that the cover and storyline stand out from a lot of the 9-12 age range books I see, and that's something of a relief. Making the main protagonist a gorilla is a great idea, Sally transcends ideas about age and gender - she's loyal and kind, a skilled engineer who quickly makes friends in the adult world she inhabits, but she's also an outsider as a child might be.

She can read and write, but not speak, and she's smart but vulnerable without the chief at her side - it's not easy for a lone gorilla to make her way in the world without ending up in a zoo, as somebody's pet, or as is occasionally threatened - carved into steaks for an upscale restaurant. It's a setup that gives plenty of scope for Wegelius to explore some issues in a delicate way. We know Sally is as much of a person as we are, she's our narrator after all, but she's very much at the mercy of those around her.

Bad luck for Sally then, when after finding a priceless pearl necklace hidden aboard their Clyde puffer, The Hudson Queen, her and the Chief's efforts to find its rightful owner take them to Glasgow where Sally falls into the clutches of some extremely nasty gangsters, becoming the hostage that forces the chief to take contraband whisky to prohibition America. The pearls pass through various hands, hotly pursued by the gang leader, Moira, who feels like she has an entirely immoral claim to them. 

Sally meanwhile is trying to make the best of her truly awful situation, make friends, and somehow avoid Glasgow becoming embroiled in all-out gang warfare as mafia types move in and the riverside gangs make their own bid for power. The whole thing is set against a convincingly miserable Scottish winter, the stakes are high, and the action barrels along at a wicked pace.

The Shetland connection comes in the form of the mysterious 'Shetland Jack'. Pearl fisherman, dodgy character, and figure of mystery. I loved this book because the peril always seemed real, the ending is satisfying, Sally is an easy character to love, there's a ton of atmosphere, great illustrations, and overall because Sally's choices are genuinely difficult. Good prevails in the end, but sometimes I wondered how we'd get there (the answer is mostly in Sally's innate kindness and gift for friendship). A great book for readers of all ages!

Friday, October 7, 2022

Spice/a Cook's Companion - Mark Diacono

In a change from the weird, it's time to embrace the other thing that autumn is big on  - new cookbooks. I've bought so many and have so many more on my wish list for as and when they appear that I actually had a serious purge the other day and got rid of roughly a dozen older titles that I simply don't use. 

I used to hate doing this, but somewhere along the line the numbers have become a little overwhelming and so much like with clothes, if I haven't worn it, or cooked from it, in a couple of years, never turn to it for inspiration, and don't feel whatever buzz was there when I first bought it - it goes. It's generally a relief to clear the decks a little and be better able to see what I've got. Maybe one day I'll lose the desire to constantly acquire new cookbooks, but however handy (and economical) that would be I can't imagine it happening anytime soon. Not whilst how people write about food keeps evolving,

Spice is the third in what I guess is a series of books by Diacono, with Herbs and Sour being the other two. They're all great, and what I particularly love about 'Spice' is that although Mark clearly doesn't share my aversion to chilies, spice in this book doesn't just mean hot. If hot is your thing, don't worry though, there's no shortage of that either.

It's easy to take the supermarket spice rack for granted - even in our post-Brexit world of gaps we don't really mention, the everyday availability of once-rare commodities is ever-growing, spreading from the internet to high-end deli's down to Waitrose and into every supermarket thereafter. It came as a shock to me after Leicester with its plethora of international supermarkets that I couldn't buy Pul Bibir off the shelf in the Scottish Borders...

The magic of spices is their ability, combined just so, to evoke whole cuisines, and then reconfigured to conjure somewhere altogether different. Or just to transform a base ingredient into something new so that a glut of something doesn't have to stay a glut of the same thing - there's a world of difference between the damson and cinnamon jelly I made and the damson and vanilla jam. 

What 'Spice' will give me is a lot more inspiration. the mincemeat recipe is intriguingly different from the one I normally make, the recipe for quince ratafia is timely (I don't have lemon verbena because I don't have a garden, but I might be able to get some), and there are some takes on egg nog that sound amazing. There are pickles, and breads, and sauces, and more. 

It's also worth saying, as I have with every one of his books, Mark Diacono is excellent company to be reading. His books are funny, inviting, and idiosyncratic, and that's what I return to books for as much as the recipes - books that make cooking feel like a collaboration, an adventure, a conversation so that using them is as satisfying in its way as consuming the results. 

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


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.