Thursday, March 23, 2023

A Table For Friends - Skye McAlpine

This book was, appropriatly, a gift from a friend for Christmas a couple of years back. A Table Full of Love reminded me of it when I was planning food for mothers day last week and so I had a browse through. Everything I did from it proved a massive hit which was extremely gratifying, not least because everything I did from it was really simple - the sort of low effort high reward cooking that's always good to have at the back of your mind. 

It's also further convinced me that somebody really needs to pout  together a collection of not really even recipes (although please for the love of god don't call them hacks) in one handy place. New to my list is the concept of a roasting tin of fruit, in this case grapes, but also mentioned were apples and plums, in the oven with whatever else is cooking to use as an accompniment.

I had grapes, so in they went, and then came out with everything turned up to 11 from the rich purple of their juice to the flavour of a normally not very interesting supermarket bunch. No seasoning necessary, just heat. It's a great alternative to a jelly, much lower in sugar and a happy partner for all sorts of things. Apples (which I've just had with sausages) do the same thing - an excellent stand in for an apple sauce when I wouldn't have bothered to make one, that used up an apple which was on the verge of going wrinkly. 

Another almost none recipe was red onions cut into chunks roasted with olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. I love onions like this but forget about them as a possible side dish. I won't now. A salad of blood oranges, black olives and red onions dressed in olive oil with a handful of basil torn over it was only marginally more elaborate, and another hit. Fresh, colorful, excellent with the chicken we had. I'd assumed there would have been left overs of it which I'd planned to finish with some feta cheese. No chance. 

There are much more formal recipes in McAlpine's books, lots of things I want to make and eat, but what's really caught my imagination is her genius for these really simple extras. I've just had a quick look online at her Venice book and see that she does an excellent looking cheat version of an almond croissant with ready to roll puff pastry, which again sounds perfect for anyone who doesn't have the time to make croissants from scratch (instructions for those also given in another recipe) or who doesn't have enough people to feed to make the effort worthwhile. Obviously I'll be buying tat book tomorrow.  

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Luminaries - Susan Dennard

I bought this book almost entirely because I loved it's sprayed edge decoration, and a little bit because it always seems like a good idea to sometimes step out of my normal reading choices into a genre I wouldn't normally bother with. In this case, I thought I was getting Sci-Fi/Fantasy but was actually getting young adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy. 

Either category come under the general heading of not my normal reading, and I see now that on  Waterstones and Amazon's websites, this is listed as both, but it was in the adult part of the shop where I bought it and I'm vaguely annoyed about it. 

It's an enjoyable book, a bit formulaic (a young girl whose family is outcast from their community has to overcome almost unbeatable odds to be the next super warrior kind of thing) but the main character is reasonably engaging and the logic behind the monsters she has to fight is believable. I will happily recommend it to teen readers looking for a decent fantasy to get stuck into. But what is it ever doing in the not teen section?

I've been unlucky on this front - almost every fantasy type of book I've read over the last decade from Naomi Novik's Uprooted, through to this has honestly been teen fiction however it's actually classified and I'm a little bit over it. With the single exception of Tricia Levenseller's The Shadows Between Us, they've been good, but they've all lacked the emotional maturity and complexity that I actually wanted. Holly Black's 'Book of Night' convincingly made the leap from young adult to adult writing, and I suppose my sample size is too small to be really meaningful, but honestly, we need to better define what these categories mean.

In the world of the luminaries, spirits live in 14 sites around the world, they create living nightmares with their dreams, and each spirit's nightmares evolve independently. America's spirit appeared around 1902 and is still exceptionally young. It's the job of the luminary clans to hunt down the nightmares and kill them before they can hurt the rest of us. There's a werewolf who we can all guess the identity of with no problem whatsoever, and an ex best friend who's got some big red flags going on too. The luminaries sworn enemies are the Diana's - witches, and our heroines father turned out to be one which left the whole family outcast. Winnie needs to survive a series of hunter trials to change that - but will the prize be worth winning?

It's all done fairly well, a second instalment drops in November, and if you're looking for a good series for a younger reader I'd absolutely have a look at it. If you wanted something undemanding that rattles along quickly enough it's okay too. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

The Stranger Times - C. K. McDonnell

 I found my glasses, they were right behind their case - I had looked in it, but apparently not near it. I really do need to make that appointment. Otherwise, it's been a hectic couple of weeks, full on at work as we get ready for a stock count and a quick visit to see family in Scotland. I returned with treasure - images of which I'll share in due course.

In terms of reading, I've mostly been knitting and listening to audiobooks. This has been a combination of Georgette Heyer who I know so well I can listen, relisten, and not worry if I miss bits - but cannot reasonably keep writing about here, and a couple of C. K. McDonnell books which are outside of my normal reading, but which I've enjoyed enormously. 

I'm on and off with audible, it took me a while to discover how it best worked for me. I like it for funny books and books I know well and am comforted by but have found it unsatisfactory for new literary fiction. The biggest issue is probably how uneven narration can be, one of the Heyer's I listened to recently was fairly bad, but Brendan McDonald did The Stranger Times, and This Charming Man, proud. 

I suspect I probably enjoyed listening to The Stranger Times more than I would have enjoyed reading it, just as I enjoyed the Terry Pratchett audiobooks I listened to last year more than the books I re-read. It's plot that makes me read; much as I enjoy the jokes I'm easily distracted from them. We had a little rush on C. K. McDonnell at work and the titles along with the Manchester setting appealed to me. A colleague who had read him encouraged me and now I'm a fan. 

The Stranger Times is a newspaper that reports the supernatural, at first under the assumption that it's all nonsense, albeit nonsense that some people believe. Increasingly odd things are happening though and eventually, the staff is forced to accept that some of it might be true. Which is a lot to take on board. 

There's a decent ensemble cast of characters and the focus on them changes a little between the two books I've listened to so far. This bodes well for future books in the series, as does McDonnell's obvious affection for his creations - they're easy to like and stay the right side of parody. I have an affection for Manchester too, based mostly on the kindness of some random people on a bus there who not only made sure I found my stop but accompanied me to the street I was looking for once I'd got off at it. 

I'd been at a Bowmore whisky training and tasting session for the day, I absolutely wasn't drunk, but in a pre-smartphone world it wasn't so easy to navigate strange cities and I was definitely in a mellow enough state to forget instructions. My next visit to Manchester involved meeting an unexpected fisherman from Shetland in a pub. Months later he bumped into my father in a local shop and really put the wind up him*. McDonnell's Manchester, supernatural entities aside, sounds a lot like the city as I've seen it. 

I currently have 1 audible credit remaining and a little bit of a dilemma as to how to use it. The weather says go for something cosy, but I'm also thinking it's a great way to explore genre's I might not normally spend much time on. I wondered about Samantha Shannon's Priory of the Orange Tree which is too long to appeal as a novel, but would probably see me through the next jumper I want to knit - but the reviews all make the same complaint about terrible narration. Is this the time to start on a Jodi Taylor?

*Dad swears he doesn't remember this, but he called me, deeply suspicious, to ask what the hell I'd been up to. I'd been playing pool, badly, in the Peveril of the Peak pub when I recognised the accent of the next person who wanted the table. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Death of an Author - E.C.R. Lorac

Somewhere in my flat my are my glasses, I don't know where which is becoming increasingly annoying. I can't remember exactly when I last wore them either (they're more or less just for reading and sewing in ends on knitting - or picking up tiny stitches, I couldn't find them last night, but they might have had a good 48 hours to get lost in before that). I hope they haven't been through the washing machine. I check my pockets, but given how frequently a tissue gets through that process, it's not impossible that I've washed them. It's even possible that they've got into the duvet cover. It's all upsettingly middle-aged. 

I'm at the point of frustration over the missing glasses that I feel solving a murder would be easy by comparison, even one as fiendishly involved as in 'Death of an Author' where the exact identity of the victim is as big a mystery as that of the murderer. 

Originally published in 1935 and out of print until now there's something unexpectedly current about the plotting here - it hinges on the identity of a reclusive author, Vivian Lestrange, who so jealously defends their privacy they send their secretary to masquerade as them to their publishers. It's such a successful ruse that the police aren't entirely convinced that Eleanor really isn't Vivian.

In an online world where it's remarkably easy to build whatever identity we wish for ourselves and to have everything we need bought to our doors without so much as having to visit a bank for cash the concept of a celebrity that nobody has seen isn't much of a stretch. As anybody who has ever had to deal with identity theft will tell you, proving who you are isn't that easy either. This is Elanor's problem as she tries to prove there's both a case to investigate and that she's innocent of any wrong doing.

E.C.R. Lorac was a pen name for Edith Caroline Rivett, she also wrote as Carol Carnac so it's interesting to see how she talks about the differences between male and female writers. A recurring theme throughout the book is could Vivian Lestrange's novels have been written by a woman? All the men think not - I did make a pencil annotation of a passage where a list of women writers are given (definitely Dorothy L. Sayers and F. Tennyson Jesse get a mention, but apparently without my glasses I can't find it again).

I wonder how tongue-in-cheek Lorac's comments are as I don't think anybody would ever think that Sayers's Gaudy Night was written by a man, and F. Tennyson Jesse's sympathy for her female characters - especially in A Pin To See The Peepshow also seems specifically female. Lorac's insistence that you can't tell the difference also marks her out as a woman writer - though it's the idea of feminine that she seems to particularly object to, and I certainly wouldn't describe her so. 

Altogether this is my favourite Lorac so far (though as Carol Carnac 'Crossed Skis' is stiff competition). It's a view of 1930's literary London that I found particularly appealing, even more so than 'These Names Make Clues'. Without giving spoilers the motivation for the murder is particularly strong here and all things considered, the ending is particularly satisfying if you feel as I did about the characters involved. 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Haunters At The Hearth - edited by Tanya Kirk

Yes, this is me catching up with my Christmas reading at the end of February. What of it, books are nothing if not for life. It's also part and parcel of working retail that the time to relax and enjoy Christmas things is well after the event, which is how I came to be eating panettone for breakfast yesterday. 

Haunters at the Hearth may be subtitled Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights but genuinely it's not just for Christmas, are particularly Christmas heavy - although the feel of all the stories is distinctly wintery. It's also every bit the excellent selection I've come to rely on from Tanya Kirk (all the BL anthologies with her name on are favourites, and well worth having) who excels at putting together a set of stories that balance the genuinely disturbing with something more light hearted. 

Mildred Clingerman's The Wild Wood for example, really made my skin crawl, but Celia Fremlin's Don't Tell Cissie which finishes off the collection was a delight - mostly funny with a twist at the end that makes it more than just funny. There's a D. H. Lawrence that confirms a 30 year antipathy towards D. H. Lawrence which dates from an A level English teacher telling us that nobody understood women like Lawrence, he absolutely refused to accept that actual women might disagree with his assessment. 

My personal dislike of  D. H. Lawrence aside the whole collection is gem after gem - and again makes me wish that the habit of reading ghost stories aloud on winter nights was still a thing (these need to be available as audio books). Some of these are crying out to be performed. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

A Table Full of Love - Skye McAlpine

Cookbooks are very much on my mind at the moment. I've got a few of them recently with a few more interesting ones on the horizon. Regula Yswijn's Dark Rye and Honey Cake and Misa Hay's A Year in My Shetland Garden have, between them, shaken me out of a bit of a cooking and writing rut. It's been a while since I've felt any particular enthusiasm for both, but it's coming back in spades.

Another cookbook that's really caught my attention is Skye McAlpine's 'A Table Full of Love'. It's the second of her cookbooks I've got and I wonder if this might be her breakthrough title and lifts her out of the reliable mid-list? 'A Table Full of Love' deserves to make a considerable splash for a few reasons. On a very shallow level it's a particularly pretty book, more importantly, it's full of good things.

I also really like the concept behind it too. It turns out that her doctorate is on ancient love poetry (specifically Ovid) and she has remained interested in the way different kinds of love were defined in the ancient world. This cookbook reflects something similar in that it's divided into recipes to comfort, seduce, nourish, spoil, and cocoon. 

For those of us who use food as a love language, this is a concept that is both seductive and intuitive. What better way to choose what I want to cook than for what I want the dish to convey? It's also great to have whole sections, Seduce, that specifically have you cooking for two, or Cocoon, with recipes for one, and makes it easy to build a menu around that. Good recipes for one or two people are still thin on the ground but for most of our lives, that's what we actually need. 

There's everything in here from pull out all the stops birthday cakes (cakes do feature a lot - which I consider a bonus) to the disarmingly simple. I don't know if anybody has ever collected a good number of recipes which are hardly recipes at all and put them together in a book, but I would buy it if they had. There are a couple of crackers in here - Sourdough toast with chocolate and olive oil sounds heavenly, depending on good quality ingredients to provide a luxurious pick me up, but my favourite has to be for spiced oranges with brandy and sugar,

All you need to do is peel a couple of oranges and remove the pith then slice them into 5mm-1cm thick round, put them in a bowl to macerate with 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, 2 of brandy, and a sprinkling of cinnamon then put in the fridge for anything from an hour to overnight. Use less sugar, a brown sugar, a red wine, a sweet wine, rum, cardamom instead of cinnamon, full-on mulled wine spices, blood oranges, navel oranges, clementines, or mandarins. Have it on its own, with cream, use them to dress up a plain sort of cake - it's hardly a recipe, but it's elegant, adaptable, and easy. A very useful thing to have tucked away at the back of your mind.

And that's the charm of this book in a nutshell - it's full of elegant, adaptable recipes that'll see you through a variety of situations, as good for special occasions as it is for something quick comforting, and everything in between. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

A Year In My Shetland Garden - Misa Hay

Or perhaps more specifically Misa's Ořechová Bábovka (Walnut Bundt Cake) with which I have fallen in love. Fortunately, it's a new found passion that D shares and there's a lot to celebrate with cake in a marriage. 

Once upon a time, my favourite cake would always have been chocolate, but preferences change and now it's whatever has the least icing on it that attracts me (the craze for cupcakes with great big dollops of frosting on top of them did for me). A walnut cake studded with juicy raisins is perfect. This cake turns out to be light, flavoursome, elegant, excellent with coffee, smart enough to serve with dinner, easy to make, and altogether exactly what I want in my repertoire. 

It also nicely sums up how I feel about Misa's book in general. It's full of food that feels contemporary, sounds delicious, and which tells a story. In this case, it's Misa's journey from the Czech republic to making a life and family in Shetland. These are flavours from her childhood, bought back from travels, and homegrown. 

Shetland is a challenging place to grow things (unless it's rhubarb which does exceptionally well there, and is equally well represented in this book) but not impossible. Over the last couple of decades, a more robust version of a polytunnel has sprung up and it's revolutionised what people can grow. That's really useful in a place where the weather can seriously disrupt supply chains. For those of us not dealing with Shetlands climate though, this is a book full of easy to buy or grow vegetables and that's a definite plus too.

There are so many things I like about this book, but overall I think it's mostly about the attitude. It's a book about the possible, and about roots (in every sense). That walnut bundt cake is one of Misa's childhood favorites which brings its own twist to the Shetland love of baking. I would normally share the recipe here, but on this occasion, I'm going to strongly recommend buying the book - find it here or order from any good bookshop. 

On a side note, I couldn't find my sensible bundt tin - I think it's buried under a lot of jam jars, so used a very posh nordic ware one shaped like snow-covered fir trees that I bought in a fit of enthusiasm with amazon vouchers a couple of years ago and had never used. It was a nightmare to butter, and worse to clean, so that's a lesson learned. I also got distracted by a phone call and should have had the cake out of the oven 5 - 10 minutes before I did, but it was still fine - which is another virtue to award it!

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Peerie Leaves Jumper - Donna Smith

I've had it in mind to make this jumper for a while, so after getting a cone of DK yarn (Dusk from Jamieson's of Shetland) I knew that's what it was going to be for. I started on this between Christmas and new year, so to have finished already is fast for me. 

This is the fourth jumper I've finished and a clear favourite so far despite still coming out a bit bigger than I intended. I did try swatching this time, but either my maths was out, or I radically changed my tension when I started working on a larger scale (probably both happened). At least it's the kind of too big that I can get away with, and next time I knit one (there will be a next time just as soon as I can find another yarn I like as much) it'll be sized down a little. 

Knitting with DK rather than a Shetland jumper weight was a treat - thicker yarn, bigger needles, faster progress, which is very encouraging. I like the fabric it's made as well - chunkier than I'm used too and squishier. It's very pleasing. 

I really liked Donna Smith's pattern which is available on Ravelry, and in the 2020 Shetland Wool Week Annual (volume 6 - it's got some cracking patterns in it). The Peerie Leaves jumper design is well written, easy to follow, doesn't have any nasty surprises in it, and has come up as a useful sort of jumper that I know I'm going to wear a lot (I've been wearing it all day at work already). One small quibble would be over the photographs that go with the pattern - they're beautiful, but they don't give the clearest idea of how the jumper will look - the close up shots have the model in a closer fitting version, the pattern suggests quite a lot of positive ease. 

I added one and a half repeats to get the sort of length I need and made the rib at the bottom a couple of rows longer too. I actually judged this about right for the first time so don't have a jumper that almost hits my knees again - this may be the single thing I'm most pleased about. 

I also kind of wish this had been the first jumper I tried to knit - I think it's an ideal place to start. The speed with which it knits up is great, the lace element is a simple pattern that has a nice rhythm to it, and you can see within a couple of stitches if you've gone wrong which is definitly a bonus. The rest is stocking stitch which is relaxing. The finished jumper feels like more than the sum of it's parts (that's definitely a hallmark of an excellent design). 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Shadows Between Us - Tricia Levenseller

This is an example of a book where I should have known better, but I didn't, and it disappointed me. I've been intrigued by Trica Levenseller's books for a couple of months - Daughter of the Pirate King and Daughter of the Siran Queen sounded fun, I trust Pushkin press, and there's a lot of positive buzz about these books online. In truth I didn't really finish this one, I read the first 50 pages in growing irritation and then skimmed through the rest of the book, felt it was going even further downhill, and then gave it up as a bad job.

There was a discussion and radio 4's Women's hour earlier this week around a lot of Young Adult fiction being too dark for its intended audience - the postman rang my doorbell halfway through it so I may have missed something crucial, but to me the bigger issue is quality and I don't think that was touched on. 

I'm 30 years past warning to spend a lot of time reading about teenage protagonists, but a good book is a good book and there's some great YA writing out there - none of which is inherently darker than Wuthering Heights, anything by Dostoevsky, or The Picture of Dorian Gray all of which are popular with the youth. There's also the obvious point that being a teen is fairly grim a lot of the time, so you'd want a good choice of books that reflect that and help you work through some of it.

Quality is key though. The Shadows Between Us looks like a fairly typical dark/fantasy romance - a genre where I expect to find more smut than I'm interested in, and where a lot of our customers find exactly the amount of smut they're in the mood for, so that's money well spent. Young adult authors can't rely on smut so I expect decent plots and characters but that's perhaps before the book took started driving sales the way it has. 

The Shadows Between Us starts with a cracking first line; "They never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart." but for me at least it falls off from there. I didn't find any of the characters particularly well drawn, their interactions too often seemed off, the world-building was shoddy, and a cynical woman would end up thinking that this book was snapped up first and foremost to appeal to a trend.

I'll be watching sales with interest, it's quite possible the teens will agree with me. It's just as possible that they'll be oblivious to the things I see as glaring faults or horribly toxic - perhaps these are characters a 14-year-old could love. I mostly hope not because you need this stuff to be done well to better build an understanding of what is and isn't acceptable behavior, not the kind of lazy writing that normalizes the unacceptable.  

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Dark Rye and Honey Cake - Regula Ysewijn

I've been off work using up the last of my holiday allowance, my plans had included lots of blogging and other writing, but after a couple of flu-type bugs over the last couple of months, I've mostly spent the time recuperating. It's been very welcome, I still think I might just have had covid again despite tests being negative it's so exactly like I felt last time. It's the fatigue that gets me!

I didn't manage to catch up on reading in the way I'd hoped either, but I have caught up with people I really needed to see and it's coincided with one of the first big publishing weeks of the year - from my point of view at least - let's forget about Harry, and Spare, for now.

I've been looking forward to 'Dark Rye and Honey Cake' (Festival baking from the heart of the low countries) for a while. I think it was originally slated for publication last year and got pushed back. It's more than worth the wait. I've been a fan of Regula Ysewijn's writing since 'Pride and Pudding', and her photography since I first came across it in 'The Taste of Belgium' (published by Grub Street).

To be honest it's hard to think of a book that would appeal to me more even if I wasn't already a fan the enthusiastic quotes from Diana Henry, Felicity Cloake, Dr Annie Gray, and Caroline Eden (4 of my favourite food/food history writers right there) would have pulled me in. As it is there are the beautiful photographs that are a hallmark of Regula's books, along with the equally stunning illustrations by her husband, Bruno Vergauwen. It's a combination that really adds to the character of the books. 

There's impeccable research that brings the history of the bakes here to life along with a sense of the cultures it comes from and does it in an extremely engaging way - this isn't a series of lectures, it's stories being passed between generations and cooks. And then there are the recipes. I've spent all weekend alternately reading and researching waffle irons.

Honestly, the only waffles I've had have been the supermarket sort which I don't think are going to be much of an indicator as to how these waffles will taste. Despite this, after reading through the several recipes here I'm quite willing to spend hundreds of pounds to buy a good electric waffle maker and a range of plates to go with it for making the different kinds of waffles. There's some handy advice on a couple of options to go for at the back of the book, perhaps fortunately neither is quickly available in the UK. 

As an aside I had no idea that it was a thing to buy a traveling waffle iron suitable for camping, and I'm a little confused by the insistence for a lot of the non-electric ones that they need to be held over a fire or a gas ring. My electric hob seems a no. The sensible thing is probably to curb myself a bit, get one of the basic and fairly inexpensive electric models, find out how much I like homemade waffles, and then invest in more serious kit. It's not an approach commensurate with my enthusiasm. 

Never mind, there are pancakes to make, fritters to fry, bread to bake, tarts to consider, and spice biscuits. The biscuit recipes are luring me online again because I'm frankly envious of Ysewijn's collection of wooden molds. I've wanted to find some antique biscuit molds for a very long time, but haven't ever managed to find any out and about in the UK. It's a much longer time since they've been part of our tradition so this isn't really surprising (sorry, that's another 15 minutes lost to etsy browsing).

It's an amazing book, the result of years of work and clearly a labour of love. It's got so much going for it that it wouldn't matter if you never baked a thing in it. Buy it for the pictures, or for the history, or the anecdotes, or all the personal touches and details that make it such a very charming book, or for the recipes - you wouldn't be disappointed on any of those fronts, I'm beyond happy with the whole package. 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Flying Shadow - John Llewelyn Rhys

I'm very late reading this (sorry Judith at Handheld - I had the best intentions, honestly) but having put down my knitting for a few days to try and catch up with some reading it finally got a chance to blow me away. I started 'The Flying Shadow' back in November but everything got in the way and whilst there was nothing off-putting about the first couple of chapters they didn't immediately suck me in either. When I started reading again in earnest over lunch earlier this week I really warmed up to both book and author. 

The plot of 'The Flying Shadow' is so-so. Robert Owen has left the RAF (it's the early to mid-1930s and you only get to serve for so long), a talented pilot desperate for another flying job. He finally gets taken on as an instructor for a club somewhere in the south of England. He settles in, we encounter the club members with him, go through the process of training pupils, follow his love affair, almost see a happy ending, and then don't. Something and nothing. What makes the book remarkable is the snapshot it gives of flying in the 1930s, and beyond that for the way the characters think and interact.

For anybody interested in flying and its history, this is a book you need to read. There's no shortage of technical details (explained well enough in the glossary to make sense) which interested me considerably more than I expected them to, along with the descriptions of what flying feels like, especially to Robert. My sense of it is a constantly shifting balance between the adrenaline rush of dealing with risk and the familiarity of routine which minimises those risks. 

The 1930s is still early in the history of aviation, the inter-war years the time when flying becomes accessible to anybody who has the money to spend on it. The clubhouse, the people who frequent it, the heavy drinking, their social aspirations, hopes of employment, and search for novelty are all documented. The way Rhys writes these scenes reminds me of contemporary paintings with their fragmented viewpoints making a coherent whole and adds to an almost dreamlike quality that I thought was going to be what would characterize the book until I was about halfway through.

At this point Robert starts talking about poverty, the thing he fears most. It's a couple of brief conversations, but along with some of the exchanges Robert has with one of the girls at the flying club who's interested in him they provide a contrast in tone that lifts this from being an interesting book to a really memorable one. There's no particular sense of Robert, or Rhys' politics - but the stark descriptions of how debilitating poverty is are remarkably powerful.

There's a lot going on here, and a lot to like. Currently, I'm most interested in the questions it raises about class and privilege and how they limit and oppress the various characters. Some of it seems ridiculous now, but some of it still rings true. But again, as part of the history of aviation, as a broad portrait of the era, or a more detailed view of a particular segment of society at a particular moment, there's so much to be interested in here. It's a remarkable book. 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief - A. F. Steadman

This was one of the most keenly publicised children's books of last year, and we're pushing it hard at work. With the paperback due to be released and the second installment in a planned series of five books due out later this spring, I thought I ought to read it. It's given me a lot to think about, especially in the week when 'Spare' was going crazy.

Now 'Spare' was always going to be big, but even so, I don't think anybody had any real sense of how big it was going to be. I assume the leaks weren't accidental and the final early January publication date was lucky too - it's so obviously the distraction so many want to deal with the grimness of January generally, and this January in particular. But there's still been something organic about the way interest has grown around it since it was published. Everybody, buying it or not (and it does feel like everybody) has an opinion they want to share. Booksellers aren't having to put any work into selling this one. It's all been done for us.

Skandar is the opposite - Simon and Schuster went to town on it, the film rights have been sold, and as booksellers we've been invited to share the hype and excitement. As far as I know, 3 of us at work have read it, the other 2 enjoyed it - their recommendations are genuine. I didn't hate it, but honestly, I don't think it's a match for the hype, and I wonder if interest will be sustained for the full series. 

The elevator pitch for this was it's the next Harry Potter - I don't think it is, though as the hand full of other bewildered 1 and 2-star reviewers on amazon suggest, there are a lot of similarities. In some ways that's unfair, Harry Potter followed a well-trodden path and is now so entrenched in popular culture that it would be hard to avoid. Comparisons with How to Train Your Dragon are maybe more to the point. 

My biggest issues with Skandar and the Unicorn Theif are how uneven the tone is and the lack of internal logic to the world-building. I'm not the target audience and 9-12 year olds almost certainly find fart jokes funnier than I do but if you want your unicorns to be fearsome, vicious, wielders of elemental magic which present a genuine threat, having them light their own farts seems at odds with that. 

Then if you have immensely powerful magical creatures that can control the elements and give their riders access to the same magic you'd think maybe they would do more than just race and fight each other. But that seems to be all they do so despite there being genuinely interesting ideas and themes here, they get lost. Or at least that's my opinion. I think there are better children's books out there, and I wonder how one of them might have done with the same marketing power behind it? 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Stolen Heir - Holly Black

The closest I came to a new years resolution this year was to read and write more. So far I'm not doing very well. I'm surrounded by half-read books and am too often distracted by the news (grim) or too tired at the end of the day to concentrate on anything much beyond very low-brow television. I've got a week off coming up which I hope is going to restore my equilibrium a bit - or at least let me catch up with emails.

I read 'The Stolen Heir' via a kindle app and keep forgetting to write about it, but am recommending it widely at work. Holly Black is one of the few writers I've found (it's not been an exhaustive survey) whose young adult books work for me as an adult. I enjoy her writing, love her take on fairy tales and folklore, and have become more of a fan with every book of hers I've read.

'The Stolen Heir' picks up 8 or 9 years after the 'The Queen of Nothing', focusing on two of the younger characters from the last trilogy - Oak who featured as a minor but significant throughout, and Suren who if I remember correctly only really appeared in 'The Queen of Nothing', you don't need to have read the earlier books for this one to make sense.

Oak has grown from an indulged child into a troubled young man - which is Black's specialty, Suren who was a damaged child (another Black specialty) is an equally damaged young woman who has been living rough for a couple of years on the edge of both her own fae community and the human one she had known as a changeling. Together they set off on a quest to defeat Suren's mother. 

This is the first part of a duology - 'The Stolen Heir' is told from Suren's point of view, and the next book will be told from Oak's. There's a definite sense of only having half the story here which is tantalising - I'm very much looking forward to having the other side of the puzzle.

There are spoilers here so ignore this part of the post if you might plan on reading the book. There are definite echo's of Grimm fairy tales here, and maybe Hans Christian Anderson. I'm sure I've read a children's version of a fairy tale where a child is created from snow but I can't currently think what it was and google hasn't helped me. I can't imagine that Angela Carter didn't inspire Black - there's almost the same disquieting menace in places, though filtered to be age appropriate. I'm also reminded in passing of Edith Oliver's 'The Love Child' - possibly because the same fairy tales are source material for both. 

Altogether, this is a fun, absorbing, book with enough depth to it to be satisfying as well as entertaining. Black has moved things along nicely - the world is familiar to anybody who's read the folk of the air, but she's covering new ground too, and nicely setting us up for the next installment. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The White Priory Murders - Carter Dickson

This is the 2022 mystery for Christmas from the British Library Crime Classics series, which I did actually start on Christmas Eve, though I got a little bit distracted by other books along the way so it's taken me a while to finish. Which is okay. As a rule, I like to stick to one book at a time, but it's been a tough month so I'm giving myself some leeway. 

The White Priory Murders doesn't have a particularly Christmassy feel although when I check back I see it is specifically meant to take place over Christmas. It's mentioned briefly in the opening chapter and then never referred to again. Possibly because a murder gets in the way, but maybe because the family at the White Priory is so magnificently dysfunctional that the idea of Christmas with them is too horrible to examine.

James Bennett is the son of someone important in American diplomatic circles and employed in the same business in a small way himself. He's also the nephew of noted sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale. Bennett unexpectedly finds himself in England for Christmas and with an invitation to The White Priory in the train of film star Marcia Tate, herself a daughter of the aristocracy. He stops by to see his uncle first to tell him about some odd things that have been happening around Marcia, then arrives at the priory just as her body is discovered.

Carter Dickson is John Dickson Carr writing under a pseudonym and a classic locked room mystery. Marcia's body is found in a pavilion surrounded by snow in every direction. There is only one set of prints, they've just been made, and they lead to the pavilion, not away from it, but Marcia died after the snow stopped falling so how was it done?

Several ingenious suggestions are made and dismissed throughout the book before the eventual answer is revealed (and it's a good one). I love John Dickson Carr for his gothic atmosphere which isn't lacking here, although some of the more macabre details he delights in seem to have been dialed back - the book is all the better for it. Maurice Bohun is believable in his awfulness, which makes him much worse. So is Marcia Tate which gives the reader some sneaking sympathy for whoever had enough of her (not enough to condone murder, and John Bennett emerges as an actual character which isn't always the case with Carr's signature handsome young American.

Altogether an excellent mystery for the long winter nights, and not just for Christmas. 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

My Top Ten Books of 2022

2022 has been an out of the ordinary year for me - I got married in June so the first half of the year was taken up with preparing for that, and the second half of the year has been characterised by bereavement, the reality of having aging relatives and all the responsibilities that come with that. Work has also been a challenge - if you follow these things you will know Waterstones has had significant IT problems for the last 6 months, it's been exhausting. 

All of those things have meant that I've read far less than I normally would in a year, there have been a couple of real disappointments amongst the books I did finish, and quite a lot that I enjoyed but which I can't say stuck out in any significant way. This is the list I'm left with, and it's arranged by month starting at the beginning of 2022.

Sheila Gear's 'Foula, Island West of the Sun' is a reprint from Northus, it's both a classic Shetland Memoir and arguably a lost, or maybe potential, classic piece of nature writing. First published in 1983 when Oil money was really beginning to change Shetland the Island life Sheila is describing would have sounded like a throwback to an earlier generation for any mainland Shetlander even then. But Foula is 15 miles off the mainland and they go their own way there. Maybe the most pertinent part of this book is in the moments when Sheila wonders why they choose to love the way they do, and if it's a way of life that can be sustained. 40 years later Foula is still inhabited, still grappling with the same issues and this book feels more relevant than ever. Foula, Island West of the Sun

Susan Stokes-Chapman's Pandora was the first book I couldn't put down in 2022, a fabulous debut that hit all sorts of right notes for me. I loved the way she kept certain plot points ambiguous and how she used smell as a way to set scene and atmosphere. I'm not always a fan of historical fiction, but this book nailed it. Now just out on paperback I highly recommend it for the mix of mystery, atmosphere, and romance. Pandora

Denise Mina's Rizzio (and the next book on my list) is one of Polygon's Darkland series where notable Scottish authors take an episode from history and turn it into a novella. This is a short book that feels like a whole world. It details the murder of Mary Queen of Scott's secretary, the attempted coup against her led by her husband, and her escape - all in the space of 48 hours. It's a literary white knuckle ride which makes the history live. I haven't read any of her other books - I'm not sure anything could live up to this. Rizzio

Straight after Rizzio I read the second Darkland book - Jenni Fagan's Hex, and it was every bit as powerful. This time it looks at the fate of Gellis Duncan, accused of witchcraft. I think the novella format is part of what works so well for both of these books. Jenni Fagan packs a lot of big ideas into a small space. It means everything else is pared right back to basics, but it's done withe exceptional elegance and I suspect that the characters are shapeshifters, taking on something from each reader. Hex

Amy Jeff's Storyland is a book to fall in love with. A quiet hit for us at work that's sold consistently well in hard and paperback and which has led to a lot of enthusiastic conversations. It's a history of Britain through legends that have been more than half forgotten by most of us and it's full of splendidly mad stories. The key thing though is that whilst the stories might not be well remembered, they're buried deep in the national psyche and Jeffs makes a convincing job of showing how they're woven into our sense of Britishness. Thought-provoking and fun - a brilliant combination. Storyland

Holly Black's Book of Night is her first adult title. Her Folk of the Air series has been a tik tok hit, though even before that she had a huge online fanbase. I loved her young adult books which is unusual for me, there's no shortage of excellent authors writing for the 13-18+ age group, but as someone a long way on the + side of 18 there are only so many young people working out their worlds I want to read about. In the Book of Night the tone definitely shifts from teen to adult, and does it without excessive smut. It took me about 50 pages to click with this one, but when I did it left me increasingly interested to see what she writes next and where she goes with her fiction. Book of Night

I read Katy Watson's The Three Dahlias on my honeymoon when I was struck down with Covid. I feel like it deserves more attention than it got, and hope it makes a splash in paperback. I liked this book a lot, it was easy enough to read when ill, has lots of great female characters, celebrates their friendship, would make a brilliant TV adaptation, has tons of fun with Golden Age crime conventions, and generally ticks all the boxes for a rainy day read. The Three Dahlias 

Best Days With Shetland Birds might just be my book of the year, mostly because it's been such an unexpected joy. I'm mildly interested in birdwatching, but this had contributions from a couple of artists whose work I admire, which is why I bought it. The birders involved range from the serious and professional to the amateur, but all of them share a real enthusiasm for Shetland and its possibilities. It's the enthusiasm that is impossible to resist - the shared joy in seeing something good, the camaraderie between the local birding community, and just how good some of those sightings apparently are. Every chapter was a mood lifter, and I keep it handy for when I want something to cheer me up now. Best Days with Shetland Birds

Mark Diacono's books are always good, and Spice: A Cooks Companion is no exception. It's full of delicious things (including a quince mincemeat that was a big hit this festive season) and is generally good kitchen company. I don't like hot spices (can't tolerate them at all, the M&S red pepper hummus with the single chili rating used to be unpleasantly hot to me) but there's still a lot of stuff for me here - and honestly, what better thing could a say about a spice book? Honestly, at least look at this book, and then buy it, and then buy all the earlier ones. Spice

And finally - Alice Lascelles The Cocktail Edit. If you drink alcohol this book is brilliant. A practical guide to home cocktail making that starts with a nicely considered drinks cabinet and then gives you a whole lot of options on what to do with your bottles. The older I get the less I want to drink and the more important a simple but elegant cocktail becomes. When one drink is enough I want it to be a good one and that's exactly what this book provides. The Cocktail Edit

Thursday, January 5, 2023

New Year

2023 has so far been characterised by Men Who Don't Understand What A Gift Receipt Is which has been tedious (no, you can't get a cash refund with a gift receipt, yes you have had to take time to drive here, it has cost you in petrol and car parking, so maybe use some of that time to phone, email, google, or even think before doing it again, and no it's very much on you, not us, that you wasted your time). My current New Year's resolution is not to say any of that out loud to a customer while they get increasingly aggressive towards my 20-year-old colleagues who I'm assuming they think they can bully into submission. 

There is a top ten book list coming but I've spent most of today taking down my Christmas tree - the room feels very empty and dark without it and safely stowing all its treasures safely until December comes around again. I've also made a point of keeping all my Christmas and birthday cards this year. I've been keeping nice ones for ages, and started putting them out again a couple of years ago, something people can be weird about. I've been told it's cheating and that I don't have that many friends. Both seem like an overreaction. 

I started keeping cards that were handmade, prints of the sender's original artwork, or otherwise special, but last year some of them had replies to wedding invitations in, they all got bundled up and I only sorted them out properly in early December when I really thought about what the pile in the corner of the bookshelf was. Amongst them was a card I might not normally have bothered to keep, there was nothing special about it apart from the sender, who had just died when I found it. 

That card has sat next to my desk for the last month and will come out again next year. It's a small thing to keep but a powerful reminder of somebody who was an important part of my life for more than 40 years. Inevitably there will be other losses in the future but I find the idea of Christmas being a time I can bring out those small tokens of affection and tradition deeply comforting. 

Otherwise I'm hoping to read more books this year, review more here and elsewhere, and make sure to prioritise the people who matter to me. I'll be 50 by this time next year, and right now it feels like there's nothing more precious than the time I have with the people I like - and nothing less worth spending time on than being polite to idiots who don't understand gift receipts or manners. 

Happy New Year.