Saturday, September 23, 2023

Shetland Wool Week Annual 2023

Every year I tell myself I'm not really interested in going to wool week, and every year I mean it in that I'm not especially interested in spending money on classes when I could be spending it on yarn (wirset to use a dialect word). Every year when the annual drops into my far-from-Shetland letterbox and my social feeds fill with images of the cool stuff going on I wish like anything I was there. 

Lerwick's shop windows are looking fantastic, one has a display of vintage knitwear I'd love to see in person; squinting over fuzzily blown-up facebook images is not good enough. There are the interesting yarns being produced by individual crofts, the pop-up shops and displays all over that beckon, and the excellent knitwear appearing for sale in various village hall events. There are related crafts and exhibitions being teased, a really lovely looking range of bits and bobs featuring local wildflowers being sold through the museum inspired by this year's hat, acquaintances from all over who I know are there - and altogether the sense of missing out. Maybe next year the planets and holiday allowance will align...

I do still have the annual to enjoy and this year it's focus on the design elements of knitting is particularly interesting. One thing I've always really enjoyed about the annual is that there's a pattern for more or less every ability. If you can knit at all you'll find something in here - the beanie hat which has become a tradition is always a good introduction to Fair Isle techniques, and Jenny Jamieson's Foogry cowl is a simple but very effective lace piece. The Old Shale pattern is as simple as Shetland lace gets, it's also a really lovely one for blending colours which is the hard part to get right.

Jenny Jamieson is 16, was very active in the Peerie Makkers group at primary school, and with the help of her biology teacher has come up with a beautiful design based on the colours of a mackerel. The result is a suitable for beginner's project that's beautiful and easy to wear - something anybody might want to knit. 

Donna Smith's Muckle leaf Beret has also caught my eye - a very pleasing two-tone beret in shades of blue definitely proving that less can be more. Donna is brilliant at hitting the sweat point between traditional and contemporary style and this design really exemplifies that. 

Patron, Alison Rendall's Buggiflooer beanie is a charming pattern as well - she's another designer I really like - and this is almost my favourite wool week hat (I still really love Gudrun Johnston's Bousta beanie - again for its elegant simplicity). The Buggiflooer beanie definitely looks more Fair Isle though and again, is a great starting point to learn all the associated skills of knitting in the round, decreasing, and working with colour.

Ella Gordon's Hattie Yoke is a lovely garment even if I'm ambivalent about a button band, but her design journey for it is really something to read. She took inspiration from an historic garment that's charming in its own right and eventually worked around to something that's completely her own whilst still honouring where it comes from. 

I also love Hazel Tindell's Tak Six Kloos mitts. I do like a fingerless mitt - very useful things they are, and they make excellent presents. Here Hazel has taken 6 balls of yarn and turned them into 4 pairs of mitts (she got 5 knitting shorter cuffs and lays down the challenge to see how many we can make from those 6 balls) This is a great opportunity to see how differently the same colours will behave when mixed together in various ways and a useful way to avoid lots of half used balls of yarn in your stash. For someone who finds it hard not to buy All The Yarn when I'm let loose in Jamieson's or The Woolbrokers I really appreciate the discipline of this project as well. 

Those are my highlights from the Wool Week Annual this year - I'd love to hear anybody else's?


Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Shetland 2023

Sorry for the longish silence - I spent  2 amazing weeks in Shetland and then it's been straight back to work and routine but necessary hospital appointments for the middle-aged woman. I did debate writing about the hospital stuff because it could do with a bit more normalising. On the other hand anything gynecological or hormone related seems to be both mentally and physically exhausting, and I don't really want to think about it more than I have to. 

Holiday pictures are much better. I went to Shetland expecting average to awful weather - September can be iffy, but we got lucky. It was grey the day we arrived and we got a light autumn gale - but with sunshine. It rained a bit but always at night, we had the hottest September day since 1956 (about 22 degrees, and absolutely glorious), saw the aurora (mirrie dancers), and generally had a ball. 

I think early September is probably a good time to go - there's often a patch of bad weather in August and towards the end of this month, bu the colours and the light for the last 2 weeks were exquisite and we just caught the end of the heather. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Holy Ghosts - Fiona Snailham

Regardless of the actual date and the occasional properly hot moment in the sun it already feels like autumn around here - there's a chill to the mornings and a quality to the light that says summer is done with. It's suddenly properly dark before I'm ready for it as well - and all of that means a renewed interest in Weird tales, though it would be a stretch to say my interest in these ever really diminishes even through the hottest days - and the British Library collection is killing it with the current selection of titles, along with some nice looking things coming up from Handheld Press as well. 

How I love it when Summer loses its grip. First up is Holy Ghosts - Classic Tales of the Ecclesiastical Weird edited by Fiona Snailham. There's lots of good stuff in here, including E. Nesbit's Man Size in Marble which must surely be in the running for most anthologized weird story ever - doesn't matter, it's a cracker and gets me every time (a collection of E Nesbit's Ghost Stories is coming from Handheld next year, it doesn't look to include Man Size in Marble this time, but - and I'm excited about this - it does a have a couple of things I haven't yet read in it).

It's almost surprising that it's taken so long for the weird series to focus on matters Ecclesiastical; what could lend itself better to the uncanny? That's not an entirely rhetorical question - if this series does anything it's show just how widely our collective insecurities can spread. It's interesting to note that the majority of this collection (7 of 11 stories) are by women.

Churches, like the home, should represent sanctuary. Turning that on its head is an effective device for giving the reader an agreeable chill, and then however peaceful a church may feel in the middle of the day, with probably kindly clergy around it's a different matter when the shadows begin to lengthen and the doors are shut. It's a world at once familiar and full of mysterious ritual; I have never visited a building that disturbed me more than Rosslyn Chapel with its countless green men leering from every corner. Something I feel sure M.R. James would have appreciated.

Edith Wharton goes for outright horror in 'The Duchess at Prayer', the inevitability of the ending making it no less terrible when it comes. Elizabeth Gaskell's almost novella-length 'The Poor Clare' is similarly easy to predict, but whatever faults it may have are mitigated by the specifics of the curse its heroine suffers.

Altogether an excellent collection and the perfect way to mark the changing season. 

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Skeleton key - Erin Kelly

The mention of Kit Williams Masquerade was enough to get my interest in this book and I was intrigued by the gothic look of it - not another of the blue and yellow covers which are apparently uniform for a lot of contemporary crime fiction. The Skeleton Key didn't disappoint and didn't make me squeamish which is my other issue with a lot of contemporary crime. 

It opens in the late 1960's with a trio of young artists, Frank, Lal, and Cora getting drunk. Between a liberal amount of booze, infatuation, and folk music the idea for a book that is part folk story, part work of art, and an actual treasure hunt that will take you around the UK is born. Illustrated by Frank with Cora as his muse - they bury a gold and bejeweled skeleton of their heroine, and folklore inspiration, Elinore separated into 9 pieces on their honeymoon.

From there the action bounces across the years - to the early 1990s. Frank and Cora are rich on the back of The Golden Bones, but it's become a millstone as well. Fans are obsessive and there's a theory that the final piece of Elinore is hidden inside the body of their daughter Nell, who's almost killed when someone tries to cut it out of her, Frank hasn't been able to come up with anything else, and Lal his best friend is stuck in a spiral of alcoholism.

More years pass, Lal and his wife Bridget are living next to Frank and Cora, the families unhealthily close, Lal has found success illustrating his wife's books and Frank is on the verge of a comeback when Nell is attacked again...

In the more or less current day (2021) The Golden Bones has reached its 50th birthday, there's an anniversary edition in the works, a new app, and a lot of interest in Lal and Frank, now two grand old men of the art world. Nell's life has continued to be haunted by obsessive bone collectors and the families have grown. But the celebrations and renewed interest in putting Elinor back together are about to unearth a whole lot of long-buried secrets - will the lady rise? Or will something else surface instead?

There's a good chance anyone in their late 40s and over will remember Masquerade with affection, it was a phenomenon back in the late 1970s - a beautiful book with a puzzle and a prize of a golden hare which took 3 years and a lot of vandalism to find. Kelly has obviously got an eye on a few of the big artists of the time for Frank and Lal too - there are shades of Ted Hughes, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas - all sorts in there which are a fun puzzle of their own to pursue if you're inclined. The speculation on how something like this would take off in the internet age feels spot on too - the stakes become higher and when information can be around the world in seconds. 

I really enjoy a narrative that flits back and forth, here over 50 years told from multiple points of view - each chapter is dated so it's easy enough to follow. It's a great page-turner as you slowly come to understand the full extent of what everybody has been hiding. I didn't realise until after I'd finished the book that Erin Kelly worked on Broadchurch, but it makes a lot of sense - there's the same slow burn and attention to detail, the same interest in seeing how different people react to a specific event.

When a real human pelvis turns up where a miniture gold jeweled one is expected it's suddenly obvious that there has been a murder - but it's not clear who's, or even when it might have happened, much less who might have done it or why. Various motives are revealed along the way along with obsessive fans, collectors, private detectives, and a police force possibly less than happy at having to unravel it all.

It's a clever, twisty, gothic-tinged, hard-to-put-down book that I found utterly compelling. All the characters are complicated, few of them entirely sympathetic, but all convincingly human. Kelly is really good at demonstrating how morals and language change over generations and the long-term effects of abusive and co-dependent relationships. It's the perfect crime/thriller for me - a throwback to the puzzle being the main thing, and done here with wit and elegance. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Charming - Jade Linwood

I took a chance on his one which well and truly paid off. It's another cosy sort of fantasy, this time with the starting point that Prince Charming is a conman; rescuing the Princess is his way in but well before the wedding is planned he's made away with the kingdom's worldly wealth. He's been getting away with it for years when three of his victims meet at a wedding, start talking, and then start plotting.

It works because Jade Linwood knows her source material, doesn't mess around with romance, and gives her characters some nuance. It's a fair assumption that a set of lady's who have respectively been blessed by any number of good fairies (a relative term) along with one bad one, can charm the birds from the trees and speak their language, and lived their lives with a formidable witch they had the wit to escape from will have an impressive revenge seeking skill set. And so it is. 

The magic of Fairy tales is that they evolve with every telling, Linwood references everything from the Grimm's, Perrault, and Gabrrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve through to Disney and plenty of versions in between with her own particular twist on top. Do these Princesses need a bit of rescuing, yes - they do. Does the Prince need to promise to marry them - well, the story demands it and stories are powerful things, especially where actual fae are involved, but nobody enjoys being made a fool of or being cheated out of the better part of their wealth.

It's a funny book that jogs along at a decent pace - it could have been slightly more tightly edited but the world-building and storytelling are so much fun and so much part of the point of the book that it's a moot point. The heroines are enjoyably imperfect, their growing friendship is heartwarming, Prince Charming has enough charm to carry off being a cad (he has reasons or something) and it's what I think of as a perfect holiday book* - one that I could share with a whole lot of people of all sorts of ages and tastes and safely assume that they'd all get something out of it. 

Like Travis Baldree's books, this has enough heart to it as well as humour to make me feel like it's a keeper rather than a throwaway one-time read. I read it when I was feeling particularly low and it cheered me up, I'll keep it on my rainy-day shelf for the next time I need a good-quality pick-me-up. 

*I know that on the one hand this os old fashioned - there's no real need to pack physical books anymore or consider sharing them, but I see plenty of families shopping for books that 2 or more generations will read and I'll always think it's a nice thing to do. 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Stone Blind - Natalie Haynes

It seems as if there’s an almost bottomless appetite for retellings of Greek myths at the moment. I interrupted reading Stone Blind for 'Girl, Goddess, Queen' and they sat well together although intended for broadly different audiences and probably because they're looking at entirely different themes. Here Medusa getting a feminist reimagining with Perseus very much the villain of the story - or at least chief amongst many villains here - anyone not a Gorgon comes out of this looking bad.

To fully appreciate Medusa’s story we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the Olympian gods to understand the forces at play - helpfully there’s a fairly comprehensive list of characters at the beginning of the book, and for longer standing fans of Natalie Haynes her earlier non fiction title, ‘Pandora’s Jar, Women in the Greek Myths’ is also useful. I'm also reading a review copy of her new one 'Divine Might' which I'd strongly recommend looking out for in September. Other (many other) authors working in this area also exist as does the internet of course which makes further research and cross referencing not just easy, but almost addictive.

Medusa is a great choice as a central character. The mortal sister of two immortal Gorgons, raped by Poseidon in Athene’s temple, then punished by that Goddess because she cannot punish her uncle as she’d wish to. Killed by Perseus for what does not, on Haynes assessment, seem like a very good reason at all, and then stuck in a sort of after life as a disembodied head that still has the power to petrifying the unwary, and in this version at least retains a consciousness as the Gorgoneion. There's a lot to play with there and Haynes doesn't hold back.

All of the Gods as she shows them are spiteful, grasping, selfish, deities interested mostly in staving off the boredom of eternity, maintaining prestige, and playing out their grudges against one another and however powerful a divinity you might be nothing trumps gender. Hera’s failure to overthrow her husband means she can’t take any meaningful revenge against Zeus, only the women he assaults and their children. Gaia can’t punish the gods for killing her giant offspring, but she can embarrass Athene by giving this virgin goddess an unwanted child, Athene can’t directly challenge Poseidon for desecrating her temple, but she can place a terrible curse on Medusa. The only real sisterly solidarity is that between the three Gorgon sisters and their genuine love for one another despite the unchanging immortality of the eldest two and Medusa's ever changing mortality.

The classics have been such a building block of the western canon that even though very few of us will have grown up learning them in Latin or Greek at school anymore they're still deeply embedded in our culture and imagination. I read versions of these stories almost as soon as I learnt to read at all, uncritically absorbing ideas about heroism and who the main character should be. Haynes turns all of that upside down, and not just in making the point that Perseus regards anything unlike him to be monstrous, obviously including the Graiai - three sisters sharing a single eye and a single tooth, and the Gorgons with their claws and tusks and teeth. In her telling they remain in their own remote places, the Graiai in an inaccessible cave, the Gorgons on their beach far enough from humans to be no threat to them - they are imagined monsters, no threat compared to a boy with an unthinkably powerful weapon.

And what of Medusa? Here she doesn't have much use for the power behind her curse. She's rightly afraid that she might hurt her sisters, and has no contact with anybody else before Perseus comes for her head at the behest of another man who wants a woman who has no interest in him.

Stone Blind is also a book by a writer at the top of her game. She Knows her subject, and keeps all the balls of a multi stranded narrative in the air until the moment she's ready to resolve each element into a conclusion. The chapters are short with each story fragmented throughout the book - it made it easy to pick up and put down whilst keeping everything straight. It was just as effective as keeping me reading in a race with myself to see how each plot would work out.

The thing that Haynes and Bea Fitzgerald have in common is that both make me laugh in-between feeling a deep anger for the endless unfairness and stacked odds their women face. Medusa's fate can't be spun into a happy ever after as Persephone's might be in any of the current romantasies that feature her, but Haynes has no trouble in turning her into a heroine and she does get the last word. 

Friday, August 4, 2023

Girl, Goddess, Queen - Bea Fitzgerald

I first came across Bea Fitzgerald through her @chaosonolympus account (greek myth based comedy) maybe a year or two ago, and when I saw she had a book coming out I was interested despite it being Young Adult and based on the Hades and Persephone myth. My track record with YA is mixed - there are a lot of great books out there that deal with a time in life I'm not that interested in at this point in my own life.

There are also a lot of frankly rubbish versions of Hades and Persephone as a love story - or vehicle for unimaginative smut and I've been caught out by this before. I had high hopes for this one though, the Tik-Toks are funny so I jumped at the chance of a review copy when it came up. 

I wasn't disappointed. 'Girl, Goddess, Queen' is definitely written with a younger audience in mind - there's nothing in here I'd think twice about giving to a 12 or 13-year-old, but the jokes are funny, and the room for female rage kept me happily reading through just over 470 pages. 

The length of the thing would be my major quibble - I think this could be 50 - 70 pages shorter. The plot gets a little bit overwhelmed by banter in places, and there's some repetition or overstressing of points that could be cut. But then I also think the banter is what the intended audience is going to most love about this Hades and Persephone and longer books demonstrably don't put off younger readers. 

In this version of the story, Persephone isn't kidnapped - she goes to Hades seeking refuge. She's been kept sequestered on Sicily her whole life, protected from men by a mother all too aware of the dangers they pose. She's also been protecting Persephone from a father who will not tolrate any opposition or perceived threat to his power. Persephone tells Zeus she wants the world when she's 8 years old, and he does not like it. Now though Zeus and Demeter are arranging a marriage for her based on a sort of auction amongst their peers and she's having none of it. 

Hades is the one god who doesn't come with a string of rape allegations so he's the obvious person (and place) to turn to. Initially, he's not too happy to have his peace disrupted by an unwanted visitor, but Persephone forces his hand by invoking the laws of hospitality, and slowly they overcome mutual distrust and hostility to become friends. In the process, there's lots of found family and purpose whilst the pair realise how well they complement each other - and then they decide to marry to avoid the wrath of Zeus about to hit both of them and to better allow Persophone to bring her own brand of chaos into the family.

In this book the couple are much of an age - Hades was the first child Kronos swallowed, so the last to be released from his stomach, here he stays in a sort of stasis until there isn't a disturbing age difference - but this and a few other details also suggest that the time of immortal gods runs differently to human time. Persephone is both 18 and eternal, craft projects that should take weeks or months are achieved in days, but the war between the Titans and the gods has been over for both a long time and no time at all. 

Her determination to upend the patriarchy definitely feels like it was more than 18 years in the making, and here the love story that underpins the plot becomes incidental. She's angry at the lack of agency she's allowed, confused by the depth of power she finds within herself, and worried about how to hide it sufficiently to keep herself safe from her father. She's angry with her mother for the way her efforts to protect have stifled her and this is done particularly well. Persephone is allowed to be a complex and occasionally morally grey character. She's a goddess and a queen - she doesn't always need to be nice, or even be liked - she's more than happy to be feared and she's entirely open about wanting power.

Before I give too many spoilers there's also a lot of information about Greek philosophy, concepts of love (another thing I really liked about this book), and mythology. There are discussions about consent which always make me happy in any romance book. Demeter is as complex as Persephone, neither a heroine nor a villain, but a mother making questionable decisions to protect a daughter she's not ready to let go of. Zeus is a villain, as well he should be. 

This is very obviously a book that's expected to do well and is being promoted accordingly. In this case it lives up to the hype. 

Saturday, July 29, 2023

The Mysterious Mr. Badman - W. F. Harvey

This is the second bibliomystery of the summer from the British Library crime classics series and I particularly enjoyed this one. Athelstan Digby, who is big in the blanket industry, is on holiday in Yorkshire near his nephew Jim. His lodgings are part of the local bookshop and one day to help out his host and hostess he agrees to look after the shop while they're out. It turns into a fateful decision.

Three separate customers come in asking for a copy of John Bunyan's 'The Life and Death of Mr. Badman' - a vicar, a chauffeur, and an out-of-town stranger. It isn't in stock until late in the day when a young boy turns up with it in a bundle of books to sell. Mr Digby does what any right-minded soul would do - he buys it for himself and starts reading.

Before he's finished the thing he foils one burglary and still manages to lose the book. He also finds a dead body and damages his ankle. There are plots within plots from this point; murder, blackmail, politics, love, kidnap, and golden age Dutch art. Throughout all the adventures Mr Digby is a delight of a character. An older wiser man with an inquiring mind and a fine taste in art. He's assisted here by his nephew Jim, and between them, they meet plenty of disasters before managing to resolve everything satisfactorily.

It's fast-paced, gently funny, and I particularly enjoyed the slow reveals of Mr Digby's full and splendid character. A successful career in business and srt collecting has honed a sharp intellect and observational eye into something truly formidable for the criminal mastermind he finds himself up against. The biggest mystery would be why this book has been so rare until this reprint. 

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Strange Journey - Maud Cairnes

I have a backlog of basically everything to get through right now, but specifically the British Library Women Writers series, I have at last made a start with Maud Cairnes 'Strange Journey', an enjoyable body swap comedy of manners first published in 1935. 

Polly Wilkinson admire a luxurious car caught in traffic on her street one day, then a few weeks later finds herself unexpectedly catapulted into the body of Lady Elizabeth, the woman she eventually realises was sitting in that car. These translations one to the other continue to happen for increasingly long periods much to Polly's distress (especially when she comes round to find herself on the back of a horse mid way through a hunt) until eventually the women meet in real life and start to find a way to control what's been happening to them.

It's a charming book, told mostly from Polly's point of view, though Maud Cairnes - or to give her her full name, Lady Maud Kathleen Cairnes Plantagenet Hastings Curzon-Herrick was definitely from the Lady Elizabeth end of the social scale. I can't think of another body swap comedy which takes class as it's central theme as this one does, but it works remarkably well.

Polly makes a number of social faux pas but it's obvious that Cairns is mocking the artificial sophistication of her own set rather than the more natural manners of Polly's lower middle class circle. Polly comes to enjoy aspects of her time as Lady Elizabeth, notably her clothes and jewelry but her own marriage is altogether happier, her discontents more easily addressed.

Lady Elizabeth's husband sounds like a bit of a cad and although they manage to negotiate a new start in their marriage thanks to Polly's prodding their happy ending seems almost more unlikely than the body swap element, or at least it does if you have a dim view of infidelity). Polly's biggest issue is that her life is so hemmed in that she has very little privacy, but it's entirely probable that after her time as Lady Elizabeth she will find ways to carve out some space for herself.

The point of 'Strange Journey' though is it's charm which none of this conveys. It's a good natured, funny, book with female solidarity at it's heart. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and neither should we, but it's entirely enjoyable with an added pathos for the modern reader because we know that war isn't far away and have a good idea of how it'll upset the world for all the Polly's and Lady Elizabeth's.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Two Hats

About three years ago (which seems impossible) I saved one of Anna Koska's photographs on Instagram - honeysuckle taken in very low morning light. I really liked it and the colours have sat at the back of my mind ever since. Eventually, I decided to use them in a hat - the matches aren't perfect, but overall I'm happy with them. 

Hat number one has already been given to a workmate who's off to somewhere cold this coming winter, Her hat was experimental to try and catch the mood as well as the colours of the initial image - it was almost what I wanted but I thought it could do with a couple of tweaks. The second hat uses exactly the same colours and motifs but put together in a slightly different way and I changed the crown from dots to stripes - I don't think I have a preference for this, but overall hat number two works better for me in terms of hitting the mood I was looking for.

Balancing that, hat number one reminded me of some Victorian embroidery (crewel work possibly, on green baize) that I saw once and really liked and I'm very tempted to keep on playing with these specific colours - maybe making one of the pinks or yellows my main colour next time and seeing where that goes. One of the most fun things about Fair Isle knitting is in the seemingly endless variations you can get from relatively small changes.

The second hat doesn't yet have a home but I'd quite like to exchange it for a donation to Loros, the hospice that cared for my late friend in her last weeks - so if anybody wants to acquire a winter hat in the middle of summer please let me know and we can perhaps arrange something. 

Hat 2, yellow tassel

Hat 1 with Red Pottage in a classic Green VMC cover - another mood match!

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London - Garth Nix

My reading, and in this case listening, is still skewing towards easy/comforting. I've looked at this Garth Nix title a couple of times at work and wondered if I'd enjoy it which made it a perfect audible choice. As far as I'm concerned it remained a perfect audible choice in that I liked it well enough to think I'll listen to it again, but also suspect I'd have got a bit bored with it as a book. 

Garth Nix is better known for his young adult books - this one is technically for adults, though as is often the case I can't honestly see what the difference would be. The protagonists are in their late teens and there's nothing objectionable, or particularly emotionally difficult, in the content, though it is at least a book that I could definitely enjoy as a middle-aged woman - mostly because of the many excellent literary jokes and references (some of which may go over the heads of younger readers). 

The Booksellers are a shadowy group of semi-supernatural beings whose job it is to protect the public from ancient and mythical powers whilst also selling a few books. The left-handed booksellers are the hands-on fighting types, the right-handed booksellers are the thinkers. 

Susan Arkshaw moves to London a few months before she's due to start at the Slade (in an alternate 1983) with the intention of finding her father armed with the few clues her mother, who apparently took too much acid in the 60s and can't really remember any details, has to his possible identity. Strange things start to happen almost immediately and then she meets Merlin (left-handed) and his sister Vivian (right-handed) who are investigating their mother's murder in their spare time.

Merlin and Susan quickly hit it off, the three of them go on an epic quest, and the booksellers prevail. There are dogs, jokes, and lots of literary allusions, and the audible version has an excellent narrator. It's what I think of as perfect holiday reading - a book that I think most people could pick up and more or less enjoy if they like fiction, so easily sharable. There's a sequel (The Sinister Booksellers of Bath) which I'll probably listen to as well at some point but beyond that, there's not much to say about it except maybe that it's the kind of reading I need right now. 

Friday, July 7, 2023

The Proof In The Pudding - Rosemary Shrager

As the temperature around here creeps up closer to 30 degrees, there are various warnings for thunderstorms, and the flying ants have emerged I've spent my day looking at the Booksellers round-up of autumn releases including all sorts of Christmas-related books - which is where we're at in retail. Rosemary Shrager's The Proof In The Pudding came out in February and I'm assuming will be in paperback in time for Christmas (I checked - it is) which is more or less when it's set.

I was sent a review copy, possibly back in February - I'm seriously losing track, and obviously waited for a heat wave to start reading. I liked The Last Super, and this one is very much more of the same. I like Prudence Bulstrode, National Treasure and one time celebrity TV cook now semi-retired and doing the private catering circuit whilst occasionally solving a murder, I like the character of Suki, her assistant and granddaughter, and there are plenty of plot elements that work well. there are some more that don't. 

Prudence's age isn't specifically discussed but kitchen work is hard work and the general impression is that she's somewhere in her early 60s (which makes her quite, but not impossibly, young to have a 17 year old granddaughter) but her attitude towards any kind of technology belongs to a much older woman. Rosemary Shrager will know better smartphones have been around for a while now, and I can't quite believe that Prudence wouldn't have any idea of how to operate one.

I had hoped for a little bit more character development too, and maybe some evolution of the writing style from book one - neither really happen. On the other hand, if you want some easy reading, an undemanding mystery, and a lot of fun food details you won't be disappointed. 

It's the food details that make these books for me. I have a lot of respect for the observational skills of professional cooks. Back in my wine days I was on a training course where the tutors consistently used confusion as a tactic - tasting white rum, vodka, gin, and silver tequila blind side by side to try and tell which was which (harder than it perhaps sounds) or tasting the same wine blind with 3 sets of notes and then having to vote for which was the best. The only person who wasn't fooled by the last one was an ex-chef. As well-trained as the rest of us were, we were also infinitely more suggestible when it came to taste and smell. 

That power of observation and the ability to rely on more than just what you can see and hear seems like an excellent skill for a detective. There's also the added delight of the menu planning and Pru's various reminiscences of old TV shows that she's done - these are the moments that lift the book and make it worth picking up. Look out for the paperback this autumn if for some jolly seasonal reading. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Legends and Lattes - Travis Baldree

I read a proof of Bookshops and Bonedust (excellent) which comes out in November and liked it so much that I went and bought Legends and Lattes. In a slightly confusing twist, Bookshops and Bonedust is a prequel to Legends and Lattes and both work perfectly as stand-alones so it doesn't much matter anyway. The key thing with both books is that, as the tagline says, they're high fantasy low stakes. 

In Legends and Lattes Viv, an orc who has been working as a mercenary for the last 20-odd years has decided to hang up her sword and try civilian life. She has discovered coffee on her travels and her retirement plan is to open a coffee shop. Along the way, she makes a bunch of friends, finds a girlfriend, negotiates with the local gangsters, and sees off an old adversary. It's sweet, funny, and overall comforting.

It's got a similar vibe to the recent Dungeons and Dragons film - a lot of affection for the fantasy genre, but in no way inclined to take it overly seriously. It's also been a bit of a Book-tok hit and I can absolutely see why. In a world that sometimes looks very much like it's falling apart a book that dwells at length on the glory of a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun is a welcome bit of escapism. 

From the little I've read about Travis Baldree, he has a background in games development and has narrated several audiobooks - it's been an excellent grounding for writing his own books. He reminds me of early Terry Pratchett when he was more about the jokes and less about the politics - which I think is a good thing. I'm not sure about the category of cozy fantasy, or cozy anything. It's a word I think should be kept for duvets and scarves. Possibly wooly socks. On the other hand, I am definitely in the market for low-stakes good quality fiction whatever you want to call it.

It'll be interesting to see where Baldree goes next, it feels like there's more mileage in the world he's created, the characters, especially Viv are thoroughly engaging, the jokes are gentle, the world-building is excellent, and the quest to make good coffee seems like a noble one. Good quality escapism is welcome at the moment and something as light-hearted and joyful as this even more so. 

Monday, July 3, 2023

Uncle Paul - Celia Fremlin

It looks like Celia Fremlin's moment for a revival has finally arrived - 'Uncle Paul' isn't the first attempt that Faber & Faber have made; The Long Shadow and the Hours Before Dawn are also available though I managed to miss these promising-sounding reprints back in 2017 and 18 respectively. It does at least mean that I've got more to look forward to now.

Uncle Paul is narrated from the point of view of Meg, youngest of 3 sisters. The oldest sibling is Mildred now somewhere around 40 and almost 20 years older than Meg, is half-sister to her and Isobel, she bought them up after their mother's death. She was briefly married to the Uncle Paul of the title - until he was arrested for the murder of his first wife. Now 15 years later he's due for release. 

Isabel summons her younger sister to the south coast where she's enduring a caravan holiday with her two sons and new husband to help calm Mildred who is thoroughly worked up. Meg is leaving behind a promising love affair in London for the doubtful pleasures of a family beach holiday, and arrives to find that Isabel is possibly in more of a state than Mildred, with something seemingly very wrong between her and her husband.

The strong points here are firstly in the relationships between the sisters, Meg who is young, carefree, and pretty. Isabel, exhausted by balancing the needs of 2 young children against those of her older husband - a man who has spent most of his life in the army and is ill at ease with the disorder she creates and young children. Then there's Mildred, now married to a rich if inattentive man, a little bored, highly strung, and aware that she's aging. All three women have a reckoning to come to over Paul's fate - they all adored him, but did they betray him?

After that, there's the way Fremlin perfectly captures how awful a British caravan holiday can be, especially when it rains. How cramped everything is, the tedious games that very young children need everyone to play, the conventional civilities to be shared with neighbours, the rigidity of social structures, and how here at least for a mother it's no holiday at all. 

And finally - it's a funny book, there's a delicious streak of dark humour running all the way through it - I can't give my favorite quote as it's a spoiler, but the humour both heightens and balances the tension as the book reaches it's a conclusion with a twist I honestly didn't expect. This is a thoroughly absorbing mystery that earns its comparison to Patricia Highsmith.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Virago at 50 part 2

I think I've mentioned a couple of times here that a very dear friend had cancer. We lost her on Monday - she was in the local hospice with excellent care and pain management and with friends and family around her which is probably as good a way to go as anyone can hope for. It's good to know she won't have to suffer anymore, and the last months had been a struggle, but I'll miss her so much. 

Part of what bound us together was a shared love of books and the theatre. She was a single mother and we spent a lot of time in Borders books when her son was young, drinking coffee and browsing whilst he played in the children's section and as neither of us had much money at the time a well-chosen paperback was the present of choice for years. One of those was 'Valley of the Dolls', along with 'Peyton Place' and 'The Thornbirds'. She gave me 'Moby Dick' which I still haven't read. 

Valley of the Dolls is possibly my favourite of these reprints. I'm casting around for the right way to describe them. They are classics of a sort - scandalous and incredibly popular in their day and now ready for a reappraisal, though it's not any literary merit that draws me to them. It's the popularity and the side view into women's literary history they give. A lot of the power to shock has faded but the underlying truth of women's lives has not. It's also what one of my colleagues describes as a really good bad time.

It was also a great time to pick up second-hand green spined Virago's, any charity shop would have a decent selection, amazon marketplace was in its infancy, and they were cheap. Many of them looked like they'd never been read, or if they had they'd genuinely only had one careful lady owner. You just don't get the selection anymore, and shopping online for them just isn't the same. The Bronte's Went to Woolworth's came from Oxfam around the corner from work, I found the Mae West in Scarthin Books, F. M. Mayor's 'The Squire's Daughter' from the local hospice shop (I'm very glad they got my money now).

I don't know which one I was more excited about. Probably the Mae West - she really needs to be back in print. Her novels are extremely funny and just as badass as you would expect or could hope for. When I read 'Thank Heaven Fasting' I only knew E. M Delafield from the Diary of a Provincial Lady - I still remember it making me cry - these are the books I first blogged about here a long time ago. I was job hunting after a couple of close together redundancies and read a lot to stop overthinking or getting despondent. 

I found the Flint Anchor in a charity shop on my way back from a job interview. I thought it was a good omen, and it was in that I got the job, less so for how much I ended up feeling about that job. 

Mrs Oliphant is another favourite Virago discovery. I'd been reading Trollope's Barchester books when I came across this with no idea that her Carlingford chronicles were a direct response to him. I'd argue that she takes the basics of the plots and does them rather better - you might disagree, but undoubtedly both series are richer for familiarity with the other. Red Pottage was another book big in its day that has undeservedly slipped from view - books like this really underline how skewed the canon is.

Mary Renault, Beryl Bainbridge, and the Rumer Godden are the books that represent the heyday of blogging to me. I keep writing here because I enjoy it and I like being able to look back at what I was doing but it's been 14 years and I wasn't an early adopter. Blogs have become old fashioned and review copies haven't turned up with every post for a long time now (they still do at work and I've still got more to read with than I can cope with). 

A Woman in Berlin takes me from my Grandfather dancing with Molly Keane to my maternal grandmother fleeing post war Germany - she never talked about her childhood with us, or how she left to find my grandfather after he'd returned to England (he'd left her behind, pregnant, when he came out of the army). This book made much more sense of why she hated Russians so much and why she didn't speak about her early life. I have no idea of what her experience actually was but for a view of the price women pay for war this is an incredibly important book.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Virago at 50 Part 1

This week Virago celebrated its 50th birthday - or at least the 50th anniversary of Carman Callil starting a publishing venture - the first Virago Modern Classic came in 1978 with Antonia White's 'Frost in May'. My Virago journey didn't start until around 1992 when I was a fresh new undergraduate just beginning to understand that whilst every writer I'd read for GCSE and A level had been male that couldn't be the whole story. 

I thought I'd make the effort to read more women so I took myself off to Dillon's on Union Street in Aberdeen and scoured the shelves for something suitable. I found Molly Keane, discovered that the green spines and apple logo would bear further investigation, and I'm still at it. 

A couple of years earlier in an A level English class, an otherwise excellent teacher was telling us how great D. H. Lawrence was, how nobody wrote women like Lawrence did. I didn't much care for Lawrence then, I don't appreciate him anymore now, partly because I do not find his women convincing. It's probably just as well I was too ignorant to point out that to really understand how women think and feel it might be worth reading some of them and maybe listening to them too. 

I think things are better now - there's no shortage of reprints across a plethora of publishing houses and imprints - and there's Google - you don't even need to leave your chair anymore, never mind your house, to do the research or get the books. But it wasn't so in 1992 and Virago was life-changing for me in all sorts of ways so the next few posts are going to pick over some of the highlights from my collection.

I have to start with Molly Keane. I loved her black humour, the faded elegance of the Anglo-Irish community she described along with its grotesqueries. It was a world a grandmother who died long before I was born, had been part of before the war, and introduced her husband to when they moved back to Ireland together after the war. One of the last times I saw him I was reading a Molly Keane, he told me he used to dance with her at parties. I regret not having the chance to ask him more before his memory faded too far. Molly Keane was probably the first woman I read who sounded like somebody I'd want to know, but who also sounded like a complete bitch. There's still not much tolerance for women who don't care about being nice or kind so the impact of that has not faded.

I came away from university with a modest collection of VMC's which grew quite fast in the late 1990s. The net book agreement had been ditched, Virago had come under the Little Brown umbrella, bargain bookshops were proliferating and those green spines were being sold off cheap in all of them. I bought lots of them. Then came the Donna Coonan years and a list that grew again in all sorts of interesting ways. 

Florence King's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady was one of a number of books that was remarkably explicit about lesbian and bisexual women. This was a time when larger bookshops might have an LGB (it was too early for T and Queer was still considered a slur) section, bookshops in provincial cities like Leicester or Aberdeen less so. If you weren't LGB those sections didn't really feel like they were for you. It's an entirely different world now, though still one in which Florence King isn't read widely enough in. Whatever you think this book will be I would be prepared to promise it's better. I did the whole laughing and crying thing, but more it was a view of a world I knew very little about - but which also turned out to have a rich literary and female history. 

Last up for tonight is Alice Thomas Ellis's 'The Sin Eater'. It turns out I cannot resist a spiky catholic woman - Ellis is another education all by herself, and another woman seemingly not afraid to be difficult. The Sin Eater was so very good that when soon after I read it in an edge-of-the-seat, stay up late, marathon, the absolutely terrible Heath Ledger film of the same name came out I insisted on going to watch it. There were seven people in the audience, it;s as close as I've ever come to walking out of a film, but int he end we got our money's worth with the entirety of the small audience yelling abuse at the screen in increasing disbelief at how shit it was. I have since read everything I could find by Alice Thomas Ellis, she has never disappointed me. 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Love Theoretically - Ali Hazelwood

It's been hot (which I hate) and humid (makes me wilt faster than salad leaves right now) with lots of thunderstorms that do not clear the air for long enough. When I've had the energy to do anything outside of work it's mostly been knitting (I know that sounds counterintuitive but I've had a couple of small things I wanted to get finished off and dispatched to their final destination). I've been reading a bit, but not as much as I want to (the heat damn it), and mostly light things.

One of the light things has been Ali Hazelwood's latest 'Love Theoretically', she has another book out in November aimed at the young adult market which I'm also looking forward to. I have a particular affection for Hazelwood - her first book came out when I started working in a bookshop again so I've been able to follow her career as an author from its start. 

I'm not the biggest reader of popular romance, but I do enjoy these books. It's partly the academic settings, which are not romanticized, and are so obviously part of the world Hazelwood inhabits for her day job. The more or less healthy relationships with a focus on consent help and the set of talented scientists who make up her heroines are encouraging too. If these women have made mistakes in their personal lives in the past they're ones I recognise and sympathize with. 

In Love Theoretically, Elsie Hannaway has worked her way through grad school as a fake girlfriend; the sort you hire to go to a wedding with you so you don't look sad and alone and via an agency. The rules and tropes of this sort of romance fascinate me - treading the line between something more or less wholesome for an audience that will include quite a lot of younger tik tok inspired readers and discussing sex work is a fine one. The whole thing is silly but it doesn't matter, for me at least it held together. 

Elsie is good at the fake dating because she's spent her life compartmentalizing to be whatever version of herself a situation most requires. Expectations around how much people do this, especially women, are changing - but as exaggerated as it is here for plot purposes it's also very recognizable. I'm old enough to remember when the concept of bringing yourself to work would have been inconceivable - so much so that extensive tattoos openly on display in the workplace still vaguely shock me. You just wouldn't have got a job with them 15 years ago. 

Having gone from all-male, or male-dominated workplaces in the wine trade I'm still grateful to find myself working mostly with women and to have women who are just ahead of me with perimenopause symptoms in the immediate management structure. There are reasons so many women feel they have to leave the workplace at this point in their lives. All of which is a slightly tangential way of saying that the heroine's issues touch on something worth considering. 

Beyond the details Hazelwood is clearly getting into her stride as a writer - her novels have improved each time. Better characterization and plotting, more compelling characters, and for want of a better word, more heart. They're not serious books, but they are excellent comfort reads and that's exactly what I want right now. 

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Little Library Parties - Kate Young

This would have been a handy book to have this time last year when I was finalizing our wedding food (facebook has reminded me that I made over 100 scones on the 11th of June 2022), reading it today, the hottest day of the year so far, has made me extremely nostalgic for the halcyon couple of weeks I took off work beforehand so that we could do the food ourselves. It was a small wedding and I have a family full of catering experience so with the help of my mother, sisters, and stepmother it was more or less a breeze. I'm also nostalgic for the actual breeze and relatively cool temperatures of Scotland in June.

It's not just the recipes in Kate Young's The Little Library Parties that have thrown me back to those lovely weeks, it's the way she talks about food and parties. My childhood in Shetland is very different to hers in Australia, the outdoors culture isn't the same, but when the weather is good up there you do make the most of it, and the very long summer days have their own magic. I have great memories of catching and eating mackerel - sometimes over a fire of driftwood on the beach, and drinking champagne wrapped up in coats and scarves at midnight on midsummer's eve with the sun scarcely set. 

There's a good mix of recipes here for formal and informal entertaining, with more of an emphasis on the informal. The secret of any successful party is in the planning. It doesn't need to be elaborate, you just need to know you've got the bases covered - although if it is elaborate the planning has to go up the corresponding notches. 

The thing with Kate Young though is that it's never just about the food. There's the expected literary inspiration here, and a good bit of memoir - this is a book you can happily sit and read; it's what I spent most of this morning doing, never cook a thing from it, and still feel like you'd had excellent value for money. 'Parties' is also unique amongst The Little Library Titles in that it came out last August when Covid and the summers of lockdown were still very close. There's a vein of nostalgia for a pre covid world alongside hope for a return to sociability. 

I feel that myself, despite not being a natural joiner in, or maybe because of it, it all seems a bit harder now. More of a commitment to get people together. So many of my friends are now navigating long-term illness, and there are gaps too in the guest lists of a few years ago. I think I need to have a tea party and cheer up. And the memories of last year are definitely working their magic as well. 

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Death of Mr Dodsley - John Ferguson

It's been a tough couple of weeks - a very dear friend has terminal cancer and honestly that's occupying most of my non-work-related thoughts. At work, I've got a performance review due tomorrow preparation for which has encroached quite a bit on non-work time. I've been knitting a lot because it's easier to concentrate on, and most of my reading when I have done any of it has been bits of advance proofs for some of this autumn's books. Bits because quite a bit of what's being touted is paranormal romance which I'm not the biggest fan of. 

It's fine, and we sell a lot of it so I want to have an overall grasp of who writes well that I'll be pleased to recommend, but I'm not in the right frame of mind to read 700 pages about whatever young woman is tasked with saving the world this time. I am enjoying Bookshops and Bonedust (Travis Baldree) the prequel to Legends and Lattes, out in November.

It's part of a streak of books set in bookshops I've been reading that started with Death of Mr. Dodsley; A London Bibliomystery. The action opens in Westminster in a lull between votes in an all night session. One MP notices the book another has been reading - it was written by his daughter and the reviews have been harsh. Around the same time, a young policeman finds the body of a bookseller - arranged surprisingly similarly to the cover of that murder mystery.

What is the link and will the police work it out, or will the services of Private Detective Mr MacNab also be required. Yes, yes they will. I liked this book, it's fun with some enjoyable observations about the book trade. It's a decent mystery with a couple of enjoyable twists before the end is reached, but chiefly I enjoyed it for the observations on class, snobbery, and social climbing MPs. The intended audience must have been solidly middle class enough to understand that it would be very non-U to say serviette and to be able to laugh at the police's general ignorance of what a second-hand book might be worth. 

It's probably equally safe to assume that the regular reader of the Crime Classics series would be just as well informed about these crucial social markers. The joke works all the better because the police in question are by no means stupid, and for all their flaws the socially mobile MP and his wife are decent enough people. The murderer might (or might not, no spoilers) have an excellent grasp of what cutlery to use and which glass to put what wine in - doesn't make them a better person!

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.