Tuesday, April 30, 2024

A Very Lively Murder - Katy Watson

I enjoyed The Three Dahlias a lot when I read it a couple of years ago - particularly the nods towards various queens of classic crime, so I looked forward to the second in the series, 'A Very Lively Murder' with some enthusiasm. I can't say I was disappointed, but I will say I'm glad I waited for the paperback. 

In the first book 3 women who have played or will play a famous fictional detective - Dahlia Lively - meet at a weekend convention at the golden age authors former country home. Phones are confiscated, murder is done, and the the three Dahlias solve the crime, evade blackmail, and secure the future of the newest film, and with it the career of former child star and tabloid victim, Posy Starling, the youngest Dahlia.

In book 2 filming has started complete with Posy in the lead role and original Dahlia, Rosalind King (a national treasure with a slightly tarnished reputation after the events of book one) playing an elderly aunt. Something is amiss on set though, the atmosphere is strained, someone has disappeared, and unpleasant notes have been found. The final Dahlia, Caro Hooper, is called in to help investigate by her friends. The band is back together to make sure that any threats to Rosalind are nipped in the bud.

A second book might be an even trickier proposition than a second album - I loved the playful homage to golden age crime in book one, missed it a bit in book two. Watson focuses more on a post Me Too world and the difficulties her actor/detectives face. It's not a bad choice - this approach avoids the dangers of slipping into pastiche, and roots the series firmly in the contemporary world whilst still nodding towards the Golden Age. I would have liked more character development, and maybe it will come in book three - there were hints towards the end that the dynamic between the characters was set to change which is good. 

Otherwise, the three central characters are well drawn, human, and compelling flaws and all. The plot is fun, and the setup for the next book intriguing. This is easy reading and fairly cosy crime done well, and which solidly sets up the next books to come. All good, there just want the extra something that made me race through the first book despite being full of covid at the time and barely able to stay awake. 

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Greekish - Georgina Hayden

I meant to both knit and read today and so far haven't really done either, but it has otherwise been the perfect day off despite being unseasonably cold. I got up early to get to Leicester's The Tiny Bakery to pick up breakfast. It's a 4 mile walk there and back (buses are available) which definitely justifies the epic size of the pastries. I'm very new to the Tiny Bakery (it is indeed tiny) but it's something of a Leicester institution judging by the right down-the-street queue I had to join - apparently a feature of Saturday mornings. Anyway, if you're ever in Leicester and it's open get there early and check it out. 

The bits of the day not spent eating a lemon and poppy seed Danish the size of my face were spent on browsing Georgina Hayden's Greekish, choosing recipes, buying ingredients, and cooking. Lovely, unhurried, weekend, cooking. My Monmouth Street coffee order also arrived so altogether it's been a day of treats.

I loved Hayden's last book, Nistisima - it's mostly vegan recipes based on orthodox Christian festival food, I used it a lot for wedding catering ideas. Greekish is already shaping up to be another favourite. So far I've made the Baklava Buns - a really delicious take on a cinnamon bun with lightly candied walnuts, a more subtle approach to cinnamon, and options for either an orange syrup glaze (preferred) or tahini and cream cheese icing if that's your thing. They are very good and it is my absolute preference for a birthday cake to have something like this. Cake is great, but very little beats a freshly made, still warm, cinnamon bun made just the way you like, so any opportunity with enough people to justify making them should be enthusiastically seized.

I have a lot of other things bookmarked, but tonight's dinner of baked cod with tomatoes and olives was excellent, and a chicken, potato, and pepper dish is in hand for Sunday lunch. The tag line for the book is everyday recipes with Greek roots, hence Greekish but Hayden is taking inspiration from her Greek-Cypriot heritage rather than writing a specifically authentic recipe book.

The whole concept of authenticity around food is one I find troubling anyway. Everyday cooking doesn't work like that - we adapt, borrow, innovate, and appropriate all the time based on what's available to us and what we like. Hayden has a whole collection of Baklava-inspired recipes here - buns, semifreddo, a cake, cheesecake, and French toast, and authenticity be damned, they all sound amazing.

There are other things to like about this book too - the way the recipes are set out feels nice and logical, following what you might want them for - breakfast things, small dishes which work well for lunch, everyday heroes, things on sticks, feasts, and finishing up with some sweet bits. The suggested menus at the back - there are only half a dozen of them, themed around a few likely occasions - it's not prescriptive, but it is helpful.

Altogether it's a treat of a book full of practical recipes that are likely to become integral parts of my repertoire. 

Sunday, April 21, 2024

They Found Him Dead - Georgette Heyer for the 1937 Book Club

I'm sneaking in under the wire for the 1937 book club with a book that I've read a few times before in the distant past, but apparently don't really remember at all - it's familiar in the same way a town you visited for an afternoon years before might be; occasionally you recognise a landmark and there's a sense of having had a pleasant time there before but that's about it. This is excellent news for all the other crime fiction I have, it seems I've reached an age where I really don't need to buy anymore books. Naturally I will continue to buy new books at a faster rate than I can possibly read them.

Fantastic Fiction confirms that Heyer had two novels published in 1937, 'An Infamous Army' is probably nobody's favourite, deals with a set of characters it's hard to like, and goes into a great deal of information about the battle of Waterloo - there's a Jenny Colgan quote on the cover of the current edition that says "Heyer will not let you down" - unfortunate as it's one of the very few books she wrote where you might feel exactly that. It would probably have been the more interesting choice in terms of 1937 though, with interesting parallels for a pre-war Europe and its new fascist dictator.

They Found Him Dead is more fun (and an admission, I'm currently only half way through with a quick reminder of how it finishes). It's fair to say that Heyer's romances are better than her detective fiction, and fair to say that there are better golden age crime writers - but that's a very high bar to set. On the whole, I don't think her detective fiction gets enough credit or appreciation.

The plotting is good enough - plots were allegedly provided at least in part by her husband, I'm not entirely sure I believe this unless it was a sort of game to come up with ingenious solutions for crimes between them. His career as a barrister is cited, but he wasn't called to the bar until 1939, and there's little evidence of his earlier careers in any of the plotting. Not that it matters much, the pleasure of a Heyer novel is in the characterisation and the dialogue. 

Reading They Found Him Dead I'm struck by how modern it feels - the mother who insists on what we'd think of as gentle parenting now, the woman who reads for all the world like an insta influencer, a host of amusing characters - including the lady explorer who has hot-footed it back from Africa to stand as the conservative candidate in her constituency because she won't have a socialist in the role - and found herself a possible suspect in a murder investigation. I'm also struck by how well this would adapt for television, better I think than the romances. 

Altogether it's a lot of fun, which I'm now off to finish before it becomes impossibly late. It doesn't tell me much about 1937, except that in this version at least it's unexpectedly modern. The only thing missing is smartphones.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Fourth Wing - Rebecca Yarros

It's a perk of my job that I get to read things I'd never normally bother with even if the quality of that reading is uneven. Forth Wing was a massive break out hit for Rebecca Yarros last year, pre-orders for the first of it's planned sequels (Iron Flame) broke records. Yarros wasn't a debut author, but before Fourth Wing if she had any profile in the UK I was unaware of it. Fantastic fiction shows a decade's worth of publications to her name. 

I won't be reading any of them, and probably won't read the rest of the Empyrean series either (we're 2 books into a planned 5). Fourth Wing was fun but as I'm neither a young, nor a new, adult I'm not really the target audience for hundreds of pages of dragons, war and rebellions, characters who are barely more than children, or tortured love affairs with implausibly hot men. There isn't necessarily an age limit on enjoying any of those things - there's no judgement on anyone's reading tastes for loving this, and if you're a Sarah J Maas fan, as millions are it's a great place to go. 

I'm also really enjoying seeing this host of women making really huge money out of writing fantasy romance. No trend stays at the top forever, but I don't see this one going very far away either because again, it's a fun combination which has provided endless inspiration for book tok creativity and fan theories - I do not think these books would do as phenomenally well in a pre-internet world. 

What works about Fourth Wing is the breakneck pacing of it, the quippy dragons, and the way Yarros, who is a military wife, builds a world in an elite military training school. There's a touch of Top Gun with dragons about it that's surprisingly effective, and if I don;t know a mass about army life, any war film I've ever watched fits with what I see here. I don't know that either Xaden or Violet are particularly appealing or original characters, but they certainly fit the tropes well enough, and at least Yarros doesn't make them unfeasibly wise beyond their years - and there isn't a  cringy sort of age gap between them either (I'm looking right at you Sarah J Maas).

The reasons I'm not hugely enthusiastic even if I was entertained? Once you stop reading and start thinking a ton of stuff doesn't make sense, The constant insistence that Violet is not only frail but the weakest link in the team (wing) despite having the survival abilities of a cockroach got tired long before the end of the book, the whole thing feels derivative (Naomi Novik's Scholomance series, Sarah J Maas everything, Discovery of Witches, and endless other iterations along the same lines) or maybe it's just extremely well trodden ground. 

It'll be interesting to see if the series can sustain its momentum, or if it fizzles out before the end - read if you can suspend your disbelief, like a bit of romantacy and don't want to be over taxed. 

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Runaway Heiress - Emma Orchard

Apologies for the lengthy silence, and a far bigger apology to my poor manager - I've spent much of the last week preparing for a work review, including writing an 18 page mini epic about how flipping fabulous I am at my job. Possibly even more tedious to read than it is to write, although I absolutely am fabulous at my job. That's now done, an article I'm writing is well in hand (for now, I'm waiting on responses from many different people so it might get a bit tense as the next week if more answers don't come in), and I've been doing a bit of reading. 

The Runaway Heiress is Emma Orchard's second book, we are fellow members of what started as a Georgette Heyer readalong on Twitter during lockdown, and so I've had a little behind the scenes look at the production of these books. A third in the series instalment comes out next week with a new publisher, so I'm currently feeling both very pleased to have finished this in time for the next one to arrive, and looking forward to reading that too. 

Emma's books are perfect for Heyer fans who don't mind, or positively welcome, a little bit more spice whilst demanding the same quality research and sense of humour. I will always contend that first and foremost Heyer writes adventure stories with the romance taking second place to that, these books are definitely romance first, and they're very good at it. 

The characters are likable, the side characters are properly drawn, people behave in a believable way, consent is a feature, bodily practicalities are acknowledged (a pet bother is that nobody ever seems to need to go to the toilet in a lot of romances) there are lots of references to favourite Heyer moments for fellow fans and altogether this is a lot of fun. I really liked 'The Second Lady Silverwood' (first book) with the minor reservation that there was more sex than I'd normally look for.

In this book I feel the balance between the saucy bits and the plot is better managed, and that overall the feel of it is more confident and assured. In short the series has found it's feet which is why I'm looking forward so much to book three and whatever happens next. 

Monday, April 1, 2024

The Prisoner's Throne - Holly Black

It's been a while - mostly due to how exhausting it is dealing with the feral kids we get during School holidays. It's very easy to believe teachers when they say behaviour is the worst they've ever known it to be. The worst offenders for us are the gangs of teen boys who run through the shop shouting p***s as loud as they can in people's faces, often whilst filming. They're too young to report through the usual channels and are fully aware that there are no real consequences to their actions. 

It's left me ready to go more or less straight to sleep as soon as I've got home, the endless rain hasn't been much of a mood lifter either, ut at least the clocks going forward hasn't had the negative effect it normally does on me, and hopefully a bit more daylight will lift my energy levels. 

I read The Prisoner's Throne just before I went away a couple of weeks ago. I liked it, but not as much as I've liked the rest of the series. I don't know if that's because this is the first Holly Black I've read that had a male protagonist, or if Oak's story was never going to be quite as interesting as Wren's, or maybe just that his story doesn't get quite enough room here given how far back it stretches into her world-building. Or maybe it's because he's the least human character she's centred on, or perhaps that the the reappearance of Jude and Cardan didn't hit quite right for me. Regardless I still enjoyed it and am encouraged that there seems to be more to come set in the same world. 

I followed up reading this by going back and listening to The Cruel Prince and skipping through key parts of the the rest of the series. I wondered if I'd still like them as much - I did. Holly Black absolutely remains as my favourite young adult writer, her take on fairy tale and folklore is a joy and I keep on recommending her to everybody who I think might enjoy these books.

The Prisoner's Throne is the second part of a duology based on minor character from the earlier Folk of the Air series. Wren, the snow child queen takes a back seat in this half, whilst Oak - the literal fairy tale prince takes centre stage as he tries to sort out the various messes he's made. I think there easily could have been three books in this series as well, especially with the reintroduction of older characters which I felt left more unresolved than otherwise. Though if there are more books to come perhaps some of those looser ends will be tied up.

I don't want to give spoilers, but there are Black's hallmark dysfunctional family relationships here, found family, young people coming to terms with who they are and want to be, a really well-built world based on centuries of folklore and myth, and a writer who never dumbs it down for her younger audience. Black isn;t just my favourite Young Adult author, she's almost my favourite fantasy author too - along with Sylvia Townsend Warner with her fairy tales.