Friday, January 26, 2024


Finishing all the partly read books isn't my only aim for the new year, I really want to use up some of the excessive amounts of yarn I've collected - first up has been a couple of cones of Jameisons DK that I'd already made jumpers from (Donna Smith's Peerie Leaves pattern which I made twice last year and really like). It's hard to judge exactly how much yardage I'd got left on either cone but I got a version of Mary Jane Muckleston's Lower Leogh in a grey colour I had a little bit more of. I'm using a rag-tag of leftovers and odd balls of DK to make a purple version which will hopefully be a little bit longer in the body and sleeve and narrower in the neck than my first attempt. If the yarn holds out...

Lower Leogh is an outsize, short, and boxy jumper written for spindrift or jumper weight. I'm also outsize so just switching to the stitch count for the smallest size for the body and guessing for the sleeves worked reasonably well. I'll make a few adjustments for this second go, but there's not much to change - mine doesn't have the positive ease of the original, but that doesn't really suit me anyway - a long body with short legs isn't the perfect vehicle for a boxy top. 

At the moment the colours for the Fairisle strip are causing me some concern - for jumper number 1 they worked well enough. Not what I would have chosen exactly, but when we drove through wintery Northumberland last week I could see them reflected in the landscape and I liked it. For jumper number two I'm well outside my comfort zone with a truly startling combination for me of magenta, gold/yellow, and purple. I'm not sure I'll ever love it, but I won't see it much when I'm wearing the jumper and it is achieving my aim of using things up.

The reason my stash is so out of hand is a desire to avoid exactly this situation and have enough of any colour I like for any eventuality. I don't have a lot of DK though and what I do have is mostly leftovers from Christmas stocking colour schemes. I spend a lot of time worrying about colours for Fairisle and there is at least a sense of freedom in just having to use what I've got. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Helle and Death - Oskar Jensen

I'm in the Scottish Borders at the moment (lovely) where I had planned on doing a fair bit of dog walking whilst I had a dog at my disposal - that worked to both our satisfaction for all the time I had access to him, and also a lot of reading and knitting. I have done a little knitting and next to no reading. Never mind. 

I'm still on a mission to finish up a whole lot of half-started books from the last year, and at least I've done one of them with Oskar Jensen's fiction debut 'Helle and Death' which I hope will be the start of a series. I asked for a review copy of this through work more or less on a whim and sort of forgot about it. When it turned up I wasn't overly excited, but started it over lunch anyway and was instantly hooked. 

Oskar Jensen is an academic currently based at Newcastle but with what sounds like fingers in lots of pies including writing an infuriatingly good murder mystery whilst working on the scholarly stuff. The immediate appeal of Helle and Death (Helle is Dr Torben Helle, a Danish art historian) is that it takes time to be a little bit funny/tongue in cheek, and for the consistent references to Golden age crime - if you know the books they give a couple of clues. 

The set up is a country house party in deepest Northumberland organised by Antony Dodd, the guests are a group who became friends in halls of residence during their first year at Oxford. It's a good ten years since graduation and they've all moved on, but Anthony made a fortune in tech before disappearing and there's an element of curiosity bringing them all back together. 

During dinner on the first night Anthony reveals he's terminally ill, the next morning he's found dead. At first it looks like a suicide, then it looks like it might not be. Unfortunately there's an epic blizzard, nobody is going anywhere, and one of these old friends might be a murderer. So far so good and even if it was just the country house set up with some mildly funny jokes and a lot of references for the Golden age fans it would be more than enough, but the relationships between the characters raises this book to something more.

Jensen does a splendid job of capturing the dynamics between a group of people who shared 3 extraordinary years of privilege before going their separate ways - the people who still like each other, and those who really don't. The tensions between them as they compare careers, the jealousies that haven't quite gone from undergraduate days, along with the new ones, and a whole lot of other old feelings for one another. The 30 something age bracket is smart too - that point where youth is definitely behind you and you really start to wonder where your life is going. It's enough to make me care about the characters which is relatively unusual and why I'm hoping for more. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Impossible Creatures - Katherine Rundell

I've been desperately trying to finish a jumper whilst the weather is so cold, partly to wear partly because it's nice and warm having it on my lap whilst I knit. It's currently soaking prior to going on the board and I'm looking at the pile of read books that have built up.

Impossible Creatures is one of a lot of books that I started late in December and took a while to finish - mostly because I kept getting distracted by other books and life. It is the Waterstones book of the year and has picked up a few other titles along with overall glowing reviews. I'm here to add another one to the pile. I really liked this book - not quite as much as my colleague who described it as being akin to rediscovering the excitement of reading for the the first time - but a lot. It is very definitely a children's book (9-12) but the sort that anyone of any age could enjoy if they like a magical adventure, and a really lovely book to read together with children.

For anyone old enough to remember when Harry Potter first became a thing, I got the same kind of buzz from Impossible Creatures. They're nothing alike beyond both having a collection of mythical creatures and being quest based, which is a lot of books, but there's an alchemy at work in both that pulled me in. I still like the first 3 Harry Potter books a lot, but they're very much of the 1990s, sensibilities have moved on since then. This is an excellent place to start if you want a fantasy adventure for younger readers without the baggage.

Comparisons to Philip Pullman are fair, though I think Rundell preaches less - I'm in the fence about Pullman. I admire his writing much more than I enjoy it. Overall though, she's a writer who's been around for a while, she has fiction for children, and non fiction on John Donne and endangered wildlife for adults. She's her own woman who doesn't need to be compared to anyone, but read on her own account. 

Impossible Creatures tells of a boy who is pulled into an adventure in an archipelago of islands hidden from the rest of humanity - they are the last home of magical creatures. He meets a girl who can fly as she flees a murderer. Together they make friends, evade enemies, and battle to make things better. Christopher and Mal are perfectly imperfect - easy to like, and easy to believe in. 

I've seen a few children's books hailed as instant classics, some of which I've not much liked, this one feels like the genuine article to me. I hope it's the one that makes Katherine Rundell the household name she deserves to be. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

My Top 10 Books of 2023

Before the year gets any more advanced or I have any new connectivity problems here are my top ten books from the last year. I didn't read as much as I have in previous years, and for various reasons the quality was overall a bit patchy as well - I wanted light and easy books, but they don't often make much of a mark on my memory so I haven't had any whittling down for this list. 

Holly Black's The Stolen Heir is first up because it's from January last year - there's no ranking here. I like Holly Black, she's one of the few Young Adult writers I've found who transcends the classification to write books that I think anyone can enjoy if they enjoy strong, emotionally complex, female characters (and male ones too), folklore, quest-based plots, and a slow burn enemies to lovers romance. I don't doubt there's any number of other writers doing it just as well, but as a middle aged woman there's a limit to how much time I want to spend finding out. Holly Black is good, this book was fun, and I'd recommend her to anyone wanting to start with YA or looking for anything on the above list.

Dark Rye and Honey Cake by Regula Ysewijn is an instant classic. Festival food from the lowlands - it's a treasure trove of beautiful images, impeccable historical research, and delicious things. There are not enough superlatives to describe this book, there are a lot of reasons to buy it. Honestly a masterpiece and a benchmark for what food writing can be. If there was a ranking this would be my book of the year - it's genuinely special and I need more people to buy it so we can enthusiastically bake things and talk about them together.

Sally Huband's Sea Bean is a book I fell hard in love with. Dr Huband moved to Shetland with her husband and young child about a decade ago at about the time she developed chronic health issues. This is a deeply personal book - partly at the insistence of her publisher, which isn't always easy to read. It's a brave thing to lay out some of these details for anyone to read. It's also beautifully written, and felt very true to me in its portrayal of island life - it was certainly a version of it I recognise and relate to. There's a lot of pressure on women to be quiet about a lot of our experiences - I'm slowly learning not to be - this book was a reminder that there are things worth sharing, and that when we do we're all stronger for it. 

Legends and Lattes - Travis Baldree. I'm very new to the concept of cosy fantasy, though I suppose you might describe early Terry Pratchett as such. Some people do it better than others, Travis Baldree does it particularly well, this book is a perfect comfort read. It's funny, gentle, and undemanding with real heart to it. I liked the characters, I cared about Viv's coffee shop, I craved a cinnamon bun. It's been big on Tik-Tok and lives up to the hype. It won't be for everyone but for me it was the right book at the right time and an absolute gem.

Maud Cairns' Strange Journey was an expected delight - I have a lot of respect for the British Library Women Writers series and this one came with excellent recommendations. It's a genre defying book - not quite sci-fi/fantasy, but what else can you call a body swap book? It was very good on female relationships and the class divide with the 2 heroines slowly coming to trust each other. Funny and wise.

Stone Blind - Natalie Haynes. Haynes has been on my radar for a while, 2023 was the year when I really started reading her. Stone Blind is angry, spikey, funny, and compelling as the Medusa myth is slightly reimagined. Greek retellings are still big and show no sign of diminishing - I have not found anyone doing it better than Haynes for my money. 

Jade Linwood's Charming is another one that sort of fits into cosy fantasy, but with added extra feminist retellings of Fairy tales in the mix. I don't think I expected much of this one, but I ended up getting a book I really enjoyed. I liked that the characters were flawed, the way they built their friendships, and what Linwood does with Prince Charming. In a year that I needed books that made me smile it delivered.

Roast Figs and Sugar Snow - an updated with added recipes Diana Henry classic. I've liked this book for a very long time, it's now even better with an exceptional new sausage recipe. It also has the most decadent brownies I've ever had the pleasure of eating in it. An absolutely wonderful cold-weather cookbook. 

Slavic Kitchen Alchemy by Zuza Zak is recipes, folk stories, legends, remedies, and kitchen philosophy. It's very good company and certainly deserves more attention than it's had in my bookshop. I really like it and will be spending a lot of time with it over the coming year. I'm especially looking forward to some of the foraging it's encouraging for the autumn. It's more than the sum of its parts which is saying a lot.

Wild Shetland by Brydon Thomason was an unexpected treat from the Shetland Times. It's a proper coffee table extravaganza of Thomason's Shetland wildlife photography. The images are beautiful, it's also a lovely book to read. A record of the island's wildlife as it is now, and a little on how it's changing. Important as well as beautiful. 

Sunday, January 7, 2024

What a Week

New Year got off to a fun start with 5 of our team of 10 testing positive for Covid and feeling ill with it. Covid's no joke so I'm lucky I wasn't one of the 5 - it helps that I'm vaccinated, though it hasn't stopped mum getting it again. Happily this bout is so far milder than the one that landed her in A&E after she vomited blood on the back of a severely upset stomach. She lost almost 2 stone and hasn't yet regained any of that. 

Current guidelines say stay away from people for 5 days, after which even if you're still testing positive you should be sufficiently low risk (but crucially not no risk) in terms of passing it on to other people. In jobs like mine that's considerable pressure to be 'sensible' and come back in. With quite a low uptake for the vaccine even amongst the eligible, and high rates of infection around, this feels like trouble for the future. 

On the upside I've had my first weekend off since Christmas when I had such a bad cold (successive tests assure me not Covid) that it was all a bit of a blur. This has been the most festive I've felt this season - the weather has been seasonally cold, the Christmas lights are still up around town and looked pretty against a clear sky, there was lots of Poirot to watch, I finished a book and made progress on some of the others that I've half read, and the jumper I started last week is coming on well too - just maybe I'll finish it in time to go on holiday (unlikely but I can try). 

I cooked nice food, slept a lot, and although it's been short it's actually felt like a holiday. Appropriately yesterday was the day that the island of Foula celebrates Auld Yule - for this purpose they stick to the Julian calendar. Maybe I should adopt that too - it would be one way of dealing with the rush of retail at Christmas.

The recipe I cooked was Marian Armitages's version of Bacalao from 'Food Made In Shetland'. I've been reading round this a bit. The key ingredient is salt cod or stock fish, baccala in Italian. There's a simple Florentine version in Russel Norman's Brutto which sounds great, but I went for Marian's Portuguese inspired version, I believe it's made a lot in Spain too. Salt cod is an acquired taste - the smell isn't precisely unpleasant but it's very strong. I like it best in this rich, tomato-based stew full of peppers, onion, garlic, olives, and potato. It's a great winter dish - colourful and comforting. I've been told Morrisons does a good salt cod, and I think I'll be making it a lot more.

A books of the year list will be up soon. 

Monday, January 1, 2024

Happy New Year

We're still both suffering somewhat with the cold - for Doug it's day 3 or 4 of being down with it, but his work is closed so he's able to rest up and it's not hit him too hard. I'm more like day 9 or 10 and it just won't let me go. A good sleep today has probably helped - or at last it's helped me get over the hours of fireworks last night that reached a crescendo around midnight and were like nothing I'd ever heard. 

There will be no New Year, New Me nonsense (we have to do a display at work for this, and I can't honestly think of a worse time of year for it, concentrate on getting cosy instead) but I think I might have a new tradition. I like to make a loaf of bread on New Year's day - I don't always do it, but it's a good way to kick things off. This year I made a soda bread inspired by Sheila Gear's mention of a yule bread in her book 'Foula, Island West of the Sun'. I couldn't find any mainland memories of this, or recorded recipes in old books of Scottish recipes. 

In the end, I contacted the Foula heritage group to see what they could tell me - a soda bread, flavoured with caraway, sometimes with raisins added especially in more recent times, and baked on a griddle. F. M. McNeill has recipes for something similar in The Scots Kitchen (1929). I looked at a lot of recipes, but in the end I adapted the soda bread I usually make - mostly because it makes a manageable quantity. It's taken a couple of attempts to come up with something I really like but I've got there.

The next thing is to practice my bannock making skills - cooking on a griddle is a skill I haven't yet mastered. I think the trick is in not overheating the griddle - it needs to be warm enough to cook on, but to bake all the way through it has to be cool enough not to burn within a couple of minutes. My bannocks tend to end up overly crisp on the outside and a bit chewy in the middle. 

Cooking in the oven is more successful and for this quantity, I make 2 small loaves, Soda bread freezes well, but doesn't keep much beyond a day otherwise. I like the simplicity of this recipe, it makes a great breakfast still warm from the oven and spread with good butter. The carraway flavour is great, as is the touch of sweetness from sugar and raisins. The carraway also gives a golden kind of colour which makes sense of why people suggested saffron as a flavouring. Saffron isn't impossible, but it's expensive and I'd argue a more challenging flavour. One of the things I like about this version is its simplicity. It's festive but in a very unpretentious kind of way. 

400g of plain flour, a level teaspoon of fine salt, a level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, 2 dessert spoons of sugar, 2 teaspoons of carraway seeds, and around 400g of buttermilk or live yogurt and a good handful of currents. Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and make a well in the middle. Add most of the yogurt (not easy to find buttermilk around here) and mix quickly until you have a soft dough - when I add all the yogurt at once it's always too much. Shape into a round and score the top. If cooking in an oven preheat to about 200 degrees fan, bake for about 5-10 minutes, and then turn down the temperature. Bake until golden in colour and has a hollow sound when tapped. If you want to cook on a griddle roll until about a centimeter thick cut into rounds or triangles, and bake for around 5 minutes on each side.