Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Second Lady Silverwood - Emma Orchard

During lockdown I was in a Twitter Georgette Heyer readalong group. It was great, we had some excellent discussions and made real-life friendships. We're not currently reading together but a lot of us are still in touch. A book was also born out of this group - Emma Orchard is one of us, and we are the Heyer ladies she dedicates the book to who kept her sane through lockdown. 

There will be more Emma Orchard books, and maybe more novels to come from other Heyer ladies - Emma spent a good bit of lockdown writing fan fiction and I know others from the group did too and I'm hopeful.

I probably wouldn't have bought or read this one if I didn't know Emma - she made it clear that it would be quite a smutty book (certainly by my very mild standards) and she didn't mislead me. There is more sex here than I'd normally want to read - there are few things worse in a book than sex you don't find sexy, it's a risk I prefer to avoid. Fortunately this isn't badly written and it's not overly graphic so even as a relatively prudish reader I was quite happy. It's not the easiest thing to find a regency romance that I really like outside of Georgette Heyer, but this one hits the mark.

What really made the book for me though was both the strength of the characterization of both the main and secondary characters and acknowledgment of the practicalities that too often get ignored because they're not romantic. Emma's characters sometimes need to go to the toilet, or think about when they're getting their periods (don't worry, there are no details, it's just enough to get a passing mention and not to spend half the book worrying that the heroine is likely to develop cystitis). 

If her Benedict and Kate can't keep their hands off each other then it feels entirely natural that a 25-year-old woman who's never been able to mess around and a 30-something man who's not been sleeping around whilst he looks for a wife, on finding each other attractive would be like this. It was also refreshing to have a hero who explicitly doesn't sleep around and is able to assure his new wife that he doesn't have any STD's (this is the kind of thing we discussed at length in the readalongs).

There's also laugh out loud funny moments, an intriguing mother-in-law, a plot where even the villains get a little sympathy and nuance, and altogether a lot of fun. This is romance for the discerning reader who likes things to make sense, wants to laugh, and prefers healthy relationships over glamourised toxic ones. There's a second book due in November and I cannot wait to read it. 

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Jumper Number 5

I think I'm finally getting the hang of this in so far as I've now knit five jumpers, will wear four of them (not today, it's far too hot), and am finally pleased with the overall fit of the last one.  Jumper number two was so ridiculously large it went to my sister who has somehow made it work. 

Jumper number five is a second Peerie Leaves (a Donna Smith design) and I went down 3 sizes from my original estimate of what I needed - a very loose, boxy, fit isn't right for me. A quite loose fit is perfect. I added a bit of length to the original pattern because I'm long-bodied, and I'm happy with that although I could also probably not have done and just stretched it a bit more in the dressing process. I absolutely love this pattern and will knit it again.

Jumper finished I cast on a hat last night - it's far too warm now to sit with half a jersey or more in my lap but not so warm yet that small projects are out of the question, and started thinking about knitting generally. When I picked up the needles again a few years back I wanted to tackle Fair Isle but was thinking mostly in terms of samplers that I could frame, and scarves. There was also a pair of fingerless mitts I really loved and that I hoped one day I might tackle. 

I've made a few pairs of them now along with other mitts. I remember the first hat I knitted when that seemed like a big step forward and a tea cosy with what seemed like an impossible crown at the time, I ripped it back time after time before cracking it, but the next time I came to the pattern a while later whatever had caused the issues had gone - the instructions I swore over were perfectly obvious. 

I graduated to socks, which still feel almost magical at the heel turning point, and again once seemed like they'd be impossibly complicated. I tackled lace which still gives me some issues but I'm miles ahead of where I started with several much-loved shawls to show for it. And then there are jumpers, lots of them, something I never thought I'd have the patience to knit, never mind the skill. 

The thing is I'm not a patient or a particularly crafty person, especially with textiles. I can't sew with any particular competence, crochet baffles me, though I will learn the basics at some point - I didn't think any of this is something I'd ever be able to do. I certainly never imagined that I'd be able to more or less design my own things (borrowing heavily from other people's work, but far enough away from the original design to feel that yes, this is mine, what I've done with it is unique to me) or learn half the techniques that I have. 

Half the secret of knitting is that a lot of it is nowhere near as complicated as it looks (though some of it really, truly, is) the other half is that if you potter away at it you'll eventually impress yourself with what you can do and end up with a jumper you actually want to wear and which looks genuinely good on you. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Flavour Thesaurus, More Flavours - Niki Segnit

It's been a busy week at work since getting back from holiday, and almost busier at home. I managed to finally finish a jumper just as the weather got far too hot to wear it, so roll on autumn, and good intentions to finish some of the books I've started have stalled somewhat. Oh well. 

I've been excited about Niki Segnit's second flavour thesaurus for a while now. I had an advance review copy, but it was too advanced to have an index so when it came into the shop I bought a copy. It's signed and the cover unfolds to become a poster of the flavour wheel so I have no regrets (unless it's that some branches apparently had tea towels and we didn't - I really like a tea towel). 

There's not much to say about this book except that it's excellent. Its genius is in its relative simplicity. There is the occasional recipe but mostly it's flavour pairings - this time plant-led, and generally with a  range of context. Find yourself with a packet of kale and no inspiration - this is what you need to transform it into something interesting - well and maybe some passionfruit to make a vinaigrette, honestly a combination I would never have considered on my own, but which makes sense now I think about it. 

The simplicity is relative because the depth of knowledge and research to be able to put all these things together is awe-inspiring to me. The other thing about Niki Segnit's approach here that really works for me, and which is also deceptively simple is only using 2 main flavours. Again, this isn't an easy thing to do, but it's a godsend if you want to wine match and with food looking set to stay expensive this favours the stripped-back approach that I'm currently embracing.

So yes, it's an excellent book, get it if you can. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Sepulchre Street - Martin Edwards

It's been fun reading the two most recent Rachel Savernake books back to back over the last week - Sepulchre Street is probably my favourite to date; four books in the characters are developing nicely. I've also made the effort tonight and I'm writing this post with a Bloodhound cocktail in hand. If you're reading this series, partial to a cocktail, or interested in 1930s period detail I strongly recommend arming yourself with The Savoy Cocktail book. It could also probably stop a stray bullet as well being an excellent way to drink along with Rachel, Jacob, and the Trueman's.

Part of the pleasure of these books is in the details and references that Edwards sprinkles through them. The dedicated could find the scent (Caron's Narcisse Noir) that a particular Femme Fatale makes her signature, and of course the Chanel (I think No5) that another character favours. It's the appropriate cocktails that really appeal to me though - the Corpse Reviver, Bosom Caresser, and Bloodhound all get a mention this time - as does Harry Craddock's famous cocktail book. The Bloodhound was the easiest of the three for me to make as I had at least an approximation of all the ingredients, so even though my notes from the last time I attempted it said 'Not worth the effort' I tried again.

Turns out the secret is probably in the proper crushing of 3 to 4 small strawberries, and in this case using an early grey flavoured gin (60ml) along with 30ml of dry white French vermouth and 30ml of Dubonnet though it should properly be sweet red Italian Vermouth, all shaken well over ice and strained into a coupe. Or maybe I'm just in the right mood tonight - either way, it's hitting the spot. 

'Sepulchre Street' keeps the gothic mood of the series - the action opens in the Hades club where the surrealist artist Damaris Gethan is staging a private viewing of her latest work after an absence from the art scene of almost two years. Damiris wants Rachel to solve her murder, minutes later she takes her own life with a specially rigged guillotine. 

For clues, Rachel has the guest list - once the critics and the gallery owners are discounted there are 6 oddly assorted guests including herself and Jacob Flint. How are the others linked and what did they do? Jacob is following his own lead and pursuing Kiki de Villiers (Narcisse Noir wearing Femme Fatale rumoured to be seeing someone Very Important) desperate to warn her of danger. 

There's a lot going on in here with all sorts of twists and turns, some interesting hints for future directions the series might take, as many easter eggs as a dedicated classic crime fan could hope for, and a host of other fun references to chase up. It's no easy thing to build a convincing past but I think Edwards does a really good job of it. It's his obvious knowledge of and affection for Golden Age crime that makes it work for me, coupled with a cast of characters who are neither self-consciously old fashioned, or entirely modern but stuck in fancy dress.

Add the gothic atmosphere (John Dickson Carr would be proud) and character development to the other elements here and it's a hard to beat series.  

Sunday, May 14, 2023


My holiday is more or less over - it's back to work at 9am tomorrow morning (which I'm quite excited about as we've had the go-ahead to make some layout changes to the shop that I've wanted to get stuck into for ages). It's been a really brilliant week, we saw a lot of art and architecture, I stood on an actual Roman road, we caught up with a good chunk of family, ate some great food, and I saw porpoises in the Gare Loch along with Eider ducks as we drove home - a parting gift from Scotland to remind me of what I'm missing living in the Midlands. It was also hotter and sunnier around Glasgow than it is in the Midlands and whilst I know that's a temporary thing...

As a last hurrah, I decided today would be the day that I finally made the Nonnevotten buns from Regula Ysewijn's 'Dark Rye and Honey Cake', something I've been meaning to do since February. I made them - they're fabulous. Traditionally they're baked for Shrove Tuesday in Dutch Limburg, but they're going to be an excellent thing for any time it's not too hot to stand around deep fat frying something. They're an inspired crossover between a doughnut and a cinnamon bun - more bready than a doughnut and lighter than both options. I froze half my knots because I assumed we couldn't possibly eat 14 of them in an afternoon, it's as well I did, but more because the issue would have been how to make ourselves stop eating them. They're that good.

The recipe is simple - 500g of strong white bread flour, 60g of caster sugar, 2 packets of dried instant yeast 60g of unsalted soft butter, 240ml of water, and 5g of salt - mix the flour, sugar, yeast, and butter in a bowl - preferably a food mixer with a dough hook. Add half the water and mix until absorbed, add the rest of the water and knead for 5 minutes. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes and then add the salt, knead for another 10 minutes - the dough should be smooth and elastic and neither too dry nor wet. 

Cover the bowl and set aside for an hour or until the dough has doubled in size, then briefly knead it again before cutting it into 14 equal bits. Slightly flatten each piece of dough then roll it into a roughly 45 cm length, tie it in a loose knot, and place on a baking tray. Put the tray inside a clean plastic bag and set aside for 15 minutes. 

Mix 100g of caster sugar with a tablespoon of ground cinnamon in a bowl ready for dipping the Nonnevotten in and pour 2 litres of oil into a heavy-based pan (or get a deep fryer ready if you have one). the oil should be heated to about 180C - I don't have a thermometer that goes to this temp, but when a cube of thread goes a good golden brown in 60 seconds you're about there. 

Cook the buns in batches - fry them until they're golden, turning once, then lay them on kitchen paper to soak up excess oil. Coat them in the cinnamon sugar (keep some of the extra for dipping purposes) and eat them whilst they're still warm if you can. I'm tempted to add a little bit of vanilla salt to the cinnamon mix next time too. 

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Blackstone Fell - Martin Edwards

For the first time in forever, I've read as many books on holiday as I've bought (2) and I'm feeling quite pleased with myself on the back of it. Blackstone Fell is the third book in Martin Edwards' Rachel Savernake series. I missed it when it came out in hardback, grabbed it in paperback, and was asked a few days later if I'd like to be part of the blog tour for book number 4 - Sepulchre Street. I did, that post will appear in about a week. It also pushed Blackstone Fell to the top of my reading pile.

I enjoy Martin Edwards' books generally when they come my way, and I particularly admire this series - he has a rare knack for capturing the spirit of the era. His impressive knowledge of golden age crime classics is obvious but he also wears the learning lightly. The result is something that feels right without ever over-explaining details. The cast of characters is excellent too.

Rachel Savernake as the beautiful but mysterious young woman with both will and nerves of steel and a penchant for solving murders is appealing, but also slightly distant from the reader. Her close retinue of servants adds the human touch. In this book, it's the growing fondness between her tame fleet street reporter, Jacob, and maid, Martha that's intriguing along with the growing disquiet of Hetty and Trueman for the path they're all on. I'm interested to see where the next book takes these undercurrents.

Rachel's aloofness is one of the touches that really lifts the series - she wouldn't make sense as a character any other way. Blackstone Fell introduces a couple of other strong though very different women into the mix with journalist Nell Fagen, and her old governess Peggy Needham. It's Nell Fagen who sets everything in motion - she's trying to uncover a major scoop but knows she's slightly out of her depth, she tries and fails to manipulate Rachel which costs her dearly when she becomes the third person to disappear from a mysterious lodge house. 

Rachel is curious enough to head to Yorkshire to solve the case though, and from there, we get the series trademark gothic touch in good measure. There's plenty of moral ambiguity, murderous goings on, high drama, and a satisfying conclusion to it all - the addition of a clue finder at the back of the book so that the reader can go back and piece together all the necessary details is a nice touch. More next week!

Monday, May 8, 2023

Northumberland and Barter Books in the rain

I'm very much enjoying exploring Northumberland, Doug is spending a bit more time swearing over tight car parking spaces and traffic suddenly getting complicated as roads go single-lane under ancient defensive arches. It's also rained a lot today and we got very damp. It seems like a significant portion of the population (and their dogs) had the same idea that the best thing to do on an exceptionally wet bank holiday Monday would be to head for Barter Books and Cragside.

This was my first visit to Barter Books and it's impressive - I'd like to go back when it was a bit quieter but the essential layout and setup are really interesting to anyone who works in a bookshop - I love that you can literally barter books - you take in a handful of second-hand offerings and get credit in return. The dog friendliness, proliferation of comfortable chairs and sofas, and a whole lot of open fires were all very appealing. The cafe spread across a number of old waiting rooms, buffets, and offices also looked good but the queue was too long to tempt us. 

The actual book range is also impressive and the service was impeccable - there's access to the catalogue to see what's in stock which is useful, and very helpful people to dig things out of storage or direct the overwhelmed customer to the right general area - all I bought was an old edition of Slightly Foxed at a slightly eye-watering price, but it's one I've wanted forever and Slightly Foxed is always good value. 

Cragside is a truly remarkable Country House and possibly my favorite National Trust property - it was really too wet for us to spend any time walking there but seeing the house was more than enough. One of the things I really like about it is that it started out as a relatively simple 'cottage' intended for fishing parties and grew along with the Armstrong family's social aspirations. Arguably the least successful parts are the major editions made with a view to entertaining Edward VII when he was still Prince of Wales. The earlier parts of the house where the rooms are either relatively small or break larger spaces into more intimate subdivisions are more interesting, not least because they could work on a somewhat smaller scale in any house. 

There was a not quite dressing room that I was particularly taken with - basically a large cupboard with shelving, draws, hooks, and a pole for hanging clothes from - about the size of 2 fitted wardrobes and a good chest of draws but so much more practical - my dream house will definitely have something like it. 

After that, it was back to Hexham and a really good poke around the abbey - which is an absolutely wonderful building. I thought I knew it well enough after years of visits as a kid, but there are all sorts of details I'd never really noticed and one of the really lovely things about this mini break is being able to go back several times and notice new things each time. 

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Nothing Left to Fear From Hell - Alan Warner

It's been a busy few weeks as I desperately tried, and failed, to finish a jumper before I went away for a week - failure doesn't really matter as it stands because the temperatures have shot up and it's far too warm to wear it. Tomorrow is forecast to be exceptionally rainy and wet wool isn't appealing either. 

I missed the King's coronation due to being at work which I'm a little bit resentful about - it should have been on Friday (in my opinion) and a proper public holiday. It's something I'd liked to have shared with people and made a proper memory out of; there's nothing special about being at work, and for a mercy, there was nothing memorable about it (memorable in retail terms is seldom a good thing).

I've also started many books without waiting to finish any of them - until tonight when I've finally read the second half of Alan Warner's 'Nothing Left to Fear From Hell'. It's shameful that a book of roughly 130 pages has taken me weeks to read but so it is.

'Nothing Left to Fear From Hell' is the third book in the Darklands series, Denise Mina's Rizzio is a masterpiece, and Jenni Fagen's Hex was equally unforgettable so Alan Warner had a lot to live up to. He does it and confirms this series as something to look out for. I love the novella format - someone who wasn't consistently distracted by knitting and other books would have read it in an afternoon. I'm also in awe of the emotional intensity each book packs - and whilst both Hex and Rizzio condense their action down into a space of hours, 'Nothing Left to Fear From Hell' covers the months Bonnie Prince Charlie spent on the run across Scotland after Culloden. 

Reading about a Charles who didn't become King seemed appropriate on a weekend when another Charles did. I share Warner's ambivalence for the young pretender (who seems to have been the Boris Johnson of his day as far as bringing misfortune on all those close to him goes). 

Warner's Bonnie Prince is introduced to us vomiting up wine and incapacitated by diarrhea as he steps off a small boat. He's invested with a certain charisma, and perhaps the decision to follow him makes more sense this weekend, when we've witnessed the full, ridiculous, paraphernalia of majesty than it would most. This prince is vain, lewd, boastful and inconsiderate of his companions. Capricious, inconstant, and an unsurprising failure. 

History has not been kind to him, and there's no reason for the historical novelist to be so either. And yet - by the time we reach the end of the journey across the islands, carried out on foot with inadequate shelter or provisioning, and made hideous by midge bites it's possible to feel some sympathy for the man who lost forever the chance of a throne and in doing so cost countless others everything.