Tuesday, October 31, 2023

We Are All Witches - Mairi Kidd

A Halloween (and beyond) themed read for today's mini-review. I'm still not convinced by the formatting of this book - it's a plus-sized hardback with full-page illustrations that are okay in themselves but feel unnecessary and interpretive bits that also get in the way in my view of otherwise excellent short stories. I don't think it really belongs in the history section either - but now I'm done with all those quibbles I'll say again Mairi Kidd is a brilliant storyteller.

There are 13 stories here based on the lives of Scottish women thought to be witches. They're treated with dignity and compassion and there's a decent amount of context for the real women as well as these imagined versions. I think there are probably better books on the history of witchcraft if that's your primary interest, but not better books for breathing life into these legends. 

There's quite a lot being written about the persecution of suspected Scottish witches at the moment - it's a rich subject, and 'We Are All Witches' is an excellent place to start if you want a good grounding and a good yarn. there's a brief bibliography of where to find more of these witches in fiction. I'd happily give this to anyone looking for a list of 'Bad Women To Live Your Life By', anyone looking for really accessible history, and anyone who enjoys good storytelling and folklore. I think the format might put off some potential readers - I wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't been sent a review copy, but don't judge by the cover! 

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Slavic Kitchen Alchemy - Zuza Zak

I've missed writing here over the last 18 months - life has been busy, often stressful, and as I fast approach 50 there's the fun of peri menopause which is sometimes all I feel able to talk about but is also the last thing I want to talk about. 

Meanwhile, Christmas is coming, and the books are piling up so I'm thinking that a series of mini-reviews would be a good place to start, partly as homework as we gear up for peak season at work.

First up is Zuza Zak's really delightful Slavic Kitchen Alchemy. I was really delighted to be sent a copy of this and it's been a considerable solace in a difficult week. It's a fascinating mix of folklore, traditional remedies, recipes, stories, and for want of a better word a Slavic kitchen philosophy. It feels like a book I need in my life right now as well as being an intuitive next book for Zuza Zak to have written after her more traditional Polish cookbooks. 

The recipes aren't my primary interest right now - it's the fairy tales and folklore I've really been enjoying - although I think I might try the method for making beeswax furniture polish in the spring. Altogether it's a book that offers solid good company and distraction at a moment in time when my concentration is shot. I might be finding it hard to focus long enough to read an entire novel, but I can absolutely leaf through this and feel inspired by it in all sorts of ways. 

I think that's something a lot of us might be in want of this winter, and as this book is hard to classify - I'd put it with food and drink, but work classifies it as Spirituality which sort of makes sense, but it feels more practical than a lot of the Witchy books it would sit next to, and is this one appeals to me and those books don't my feeling is that it might miss it's market somewhat.

perfect for anyone who likes good food, folklore, traditional remedies, and has an interest in Slavic culture.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Orange Juicers and the Bloomsbury set

I grew up in a house that my father inherited from his Godmother, She'd inherited it from her Uncle via her mother and spent many years bedbound with MS. The end result was something of a time capsule with 80 odd years of accumulated stuff that ran the full spectrum from total junk to glittering treasure; I once found a gold half guinea in an old purse. I wore it for years as a pendant until it was stolen in a burglary.

Amongst the kitchenalia was an orange juicer - good for other citrus fruits too - that followed us to another house mostly as an ornament and then ended up being used by my stepmother in her hotel where it did a good 20 years of sterling service before the tray that catches the pips became badly corroded. I loved that juicer. It was easy to use and easy to clean and I've spent a good chunk of the last 30 years keeping an eye out for one. The only time I ever saw one was in a national trust property.

I had looked online from time to time, but not for a long time and then last week I saw Cressida Bell renovating exactly the same juicer - it had been her father's. Her post revealed the name (Instant No1) of my fabled juicer, that there's a small but loyal band of fellow fans who still have them, and when I lamented not being able to buy one she casually and kindly pointed out that you could get them on eBay. 

I've avoided the rabbit hole that is eBay as much as possible, but these were exceptional circumstances and whilst I was dithering Doug bought me a juicer. It arrived in good order a couple of days later, I gave it a good scrub, checked it worked (it does, and it's as good as I remember - no restoration needed), and now it's wrapped up again destined to make my Christmas magical.

The internet is a wonderful place sometimes - the date of my juicer is around 1934, and given that Vanessa Bell's grandaughter has her father's one it seems reasonable to speculate that both Vanessa and Virginia might have had them in their kitchens - that tenuous Bloomsbury connection is a cherry on top of my delight to have this gadget again for myself.

It's more than just an excellent juicer to me - it's memories from early childhood of the shape of the thing, and of holiday jobs preparing hotel breakfasts - part of the furniture of life. It's the luxury of lots more freshly squeezed orange juice which I have a bot on an obsession with, and is really going to improve my cocktail game. For a fairly humble object it's made me remarkably happy. 


Sunday, October 15, 2023

What Kind of Book is This?

One of the perks of my job is the number of books publishers are willing to send for review - we get a lot turn up and a lot we can choose to request. The expectation is that we'll review them on the company website in more or less glowing terms if we like them, and probably keep quiet about it if we don't. It's work for sure, but a nice part of it, and encourages me to take chances on books I wouldn't normally pay much attention to. Recently it's also thrown me a couple of things I don't know how to classify, but which look very much like an emerging trend. 

I'll write about both these books at more length later on, they both have plenty to recommend them, but I don't really understand what they are and I think that's an issue when I'm expected to sell them. Rebel Folklore might just about be a coffee table sort of book though initially, I assumed it was aimed at teens. DK publish a lot of kids reference books and the graphics did nothing to really dispel the image. Its designated home is actually in Myth and Spirituality, the forewords are serious and so is the treatment of the various Spirits, Witches, and other Misfits it looks at. And yet. 

It doesn't quite feel like a reference book, it isn't obviously for younger readers - though from what I've read so far it's entirely appropriate for younger teens and onwards. Melissa Jarram's illustrations are appealing but not coffee table impressive, and the format means it isn't really a book to curl up with - it's a bit too big to carry around or read easily in a chair.

We Are All Witches baffled me even more. It's meant to sit in History and Politics but its contents are fictionalized accounts of real women tried and convicted of witchcraft in Scotland. It's a serious subject that's had some serious attention in the last few years - I could, and possibly have, built a small library on the topic. The stories I've read definitely seem aimed at an adult audience, but the graphics, multi-coloured pages, outsize magazine-style quotes in a variety of not always easy to read fonts, and the reading group style prompts after each chapter make me think of school workbooks. Again the size and weight of it are awkward and it seems kind of a mess to me. I'm really enjoying the writing, but I have no idea who I'm meant to sell this book to, or how to pitch it. 

I'm annoyed because these are books I'd like to be more enthusiastic about but the format is holding me back, and concerned that the look of them is dictated by the possibility they'll be Instagram or tik tok friendly accessories for younger women. Maybe they will be and god knows I'm a fan of a pretty book and a stylish sprayed edge - but these aren't stylish enough in my opinion, and particularly for We are all Witches the initial overall impression is of dumbing down. Do adult women really want something that looks like a kids collection of fairy tales on the shelf? Is someone meant to read them to us at bedtime? Or are we to sit quietly at a table with our pretty books about witches and rebels performing an acceptably cute version of feminism?

It'll be interesting to see how they sell, and to who - maybe my assumptions are all off. 

Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Black Spectacles - John Dickson Carr

This is the first book I've managed to finish since the beginning of September - it's been full on at work, mum had Covid and then ended up in hospital after vomiting blood, all the gynecology appointments I spent over a year waiting for have landed at once, and D has a cold that's making him very unhappy. I can't handle a cold either so I'm genuinely sympathetic on this one but it all takes up time and energy. It's barely been a month and I'm desperate for another holiday - it seems like a long haul until January when i next officially have a week off. 

Stress and a general lack of sleep have gifted me with a perpetual headache which is not conducive to reading either, and definitely not conducive to reading elaborate impossible crime plots - but I do love John Dickson Carr, so although it took me a while I really enjoyed this one. 

Someone has poisoned a box of chocolate creams in Sodbury Crosses sweet shop, one child has died and others were very ill. Suspicion has fallen a young woman - as a fan of Fry's chocolate creams since an early age this is a plot I take seriously - Marjorie Wills has no reason to poison people but there are circumstances that connect her to the chocolates and it's more than enough to rose both suspicion and enmity. 

Her uncle takes her away for a break, but as soon as soon as they return home so does the hostility towards her. There's a fiance who doesn't seem quite satisfactory, a policeman who is fascinates with her (a very Carr touch) and of course, Doctor Fell in all his glory (I imagine him as a kind of human walrus). The uncle is in the process of trying to prove how the poison might have been administered when he's murdered in plain sight, and soon there's another corpse. The atmosphere is almost hysterical at this point - you can almost hear a chant of Burn the Witch going up and Dr. Fell will have his work cut out to untangle everything.

Of course, he does it, and the solution is ingenious. The person I most wanted to be guilty was, even if I couldn't see until the explanation quite how they were. That's possibly due to not feeling any too bright at the moment - someone reading a bit more intelligently could have worked out the clues rather better I think. In the process there's a really good portrait of a manipulative abuser operating in plain sight and mostly with the approval of others who cannot see their behavior for what it is. 

The portrait of Marjorie as a woman on the edge is deftly done too - Carr saves his gothic flourishes for Gideon Fell and some of the details surrounding the muder victims. It's a smart balancing act that makes for for more sophisticated and nuanced plotting than some of his more outrageous mysteries. It's easy to see why this one is considered a masterpiece and amongst the greatest impossible crime stories of all time. 

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Roast Figs and Sugar Snow

Yesterday I went for my covid vaccination - number 5 I think, and for the first time have had something like an adverse reaction to it beyond my arm being a bit sore. It's basically been a banging headache and feeling feverish, probably not helped by the unseasonably warm and clammy weather today. This is better than the actual Covid that my mother has - she's into the third week of having symptoms (still testing positive) and the whole thing has been brutal. I know I might not get anything as severe, but equally the time of employers being really sympathetic or supportive for this kind of lengthy attack feels long gone. It's going to be a long winter (flu jab is in 2 weeks time).

On the brighter side as well as being cold and flu season it's also cookbook season and whilst there's not that much I'm excited about this year there's still always something and as busy as the publishing calendar has been in recent weeks, Super Thursday is still around the corner and who knows what's still under my radar (not me, obviously).

I did buy the updated version of Diana Henry's roast Figs and Sugar Snow. I've liked this book for a very long time and only considered holding out against the inevitable for about half an hour. Eight new recipes was all it took to swing it for me. My old copy will get passed on to a good home and I've already got good use out if this new copy. There's a particular sausage recipe in it that's fast, luxurious, and now apparently my husband's favourite - Diana Henry is good on ways to turn an otherwise humble* sausage into something spectacular. 

This is overall such a lovely winter cookbook I can't regret buying it again for myself. It has the most indulgent brownie I've ever bitten into in it, the pork recipe that really convinced my mother I could cook. There's a couple of delicious things I'd forgotten about and an excellent mix of things to pull out for special occasions or for midweek meals. If you don't know this book already check it out, and if you do I'm very happy to enable anyone else who thinks they need the new copy as well!

*There's a very good pork butcher on Leicester market, the only thing humble about his product is their price.