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. 

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Columba's Bones - David Greig

Packing shorter books was a sound plan, I'm on a roll with them - Columba's Bones is 183 pages, both myself and husband read it yesterday with plenty of time to discuss how much we enjoyed it. It's book 4 in Polygon's Dark Lands series which has different authors take a moment in Scotland's history and re-imagine it. It's an excellent series to date with the promise of more good things to come.


I've been sitting on this book for a few months - it came out in October last year - of all the books in the series so far it was the least immediately appealing to me and my expectations for it were relatively low. As it happens I loved it, it also turned out to be a good companion read with Carys Davies 'Clear', touching on some similar themes. 

It opens with a short description of Iona, I as it was known in early times, as the Viking Grimur sees it sometime around 825 as he lands in a raiding party. From the Viking's point of view the raid is of mixed success - they do not find the reliquary they seek, but they get plenty of other silver and slaves. From the monk's point of view it's disastrous, almost all of them are brutally slaughtered, their monastery all but destroyed. Grimur gets dead drunk and is buried alive - but emerges more or less unscathed so his day is more mixed. 

Grimur emerges from the ground to find a single remaining monk, and Una the mead wife responsible for seeing him into his premature grave are all that's left of Iona's population. everyone else has shifted to Mull or beyond where they'll be better protected from future raids. The three form bonds of friendship and affection despite their differences, and then as Autumn comes the raiders return threatening everything all over again.

It's a funny, often brutal, insightful book. Greig uses fairly contemporary idiom to good effect, succinctly capturing the emotions of his characters when faced with either the necessity to slaughter or the impact that violence has on those who witness it. The humour emerges in the relationship between Grimur and Una who make each other laugh.

Greig's obvious knowledge and love for the Viking saga's is something else I loved about this book. He captures the rhythm of them when he talks about his Vikings, along with their jokes and epic nature. Brother Martin's struggles are told in a different voice, closer to the plainsong chanting of the monks perhaps. Iona is used well too - a living island with a pull of its own on the imagination, there's a tantalizing hint that it's a place of magic - although the nature of that magic is ambiguous - it could mean saintly miracles, or the promise of a home.

More than anything though, I think I might be charmed by moments like this: 

"In August, the puffins had left I. A Thousand tiny bird ships with muti-coloured head-prows bob on the wild green sea."

It's a perfectly evocative description, and one of many that will make this a book to turn back to. 


Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Clear - Carys Davies

Good intentions got away with me and it's been a while. I'm currently on holiday in the Scottish borders - idyllic, so idyllic and full of nice things to do that despite packing a lot of books I only had time to start reading yesterday (we got here on Saturday). Before that I read Holly Black's new YA title (The Prisoner's Throne) and then started re-reading through some of her previous titles just for the fun of it. More about that when I get home.


My holiday book packing was mostly shorter books that I want to clear from my TBR pile, one I had low expectations of and a couple I'm excited by. 'Clear' by Carys Davies was the low-expectation book, it's getting glowing reviews but I'm distinctly ambivalent about it. It's set in 1843 against a background of the Scottish clearances and the great disruption of the Scottish church. John Ferguson is one of the ministers who has joined the Free Church, putting himself and his wife in a perilous financial situation in the process. 

To ease this he has accepted a job found through his brother in law to visit a remote (imaginary) island somewhere between Shetland and Norway. He is to serve the last remaining inhabitant with an eviction notice and survey it for the suitability of putting sheep on it. Unfortunately, he meets with a near fatal accident almost immediately and ends up being pulled naked, and unconscious from the beach by the man he has come to displace. 

Over the next few weeks they slowly build a relationship, despite Ivar having lived entirely alone for 20 years and John Ferguson not speaking his language, based on the Norn that would once have been spoken in Orkney and Shetland. The reason for John being there, and Ivar's withholding of the photograph of John's wife that he found before he rescued the man sit as uneasy secrets between them.

Carys Davies writes well, but there's a lot of story to fit into 146 pages and I think she's trying to do too much. She was partly inspired by Jacob Jacobsen's dictionary of the Norn language - a Faroese researcher who came to Shetland in 1893. The last known Norn speaker had died in 1850, although plenty of words survived. It's worth reading up on Jacob Jacobsen's work and the influence it had. 

My issue with this book is that I feel the setting and the plot are at odds. I can go with Ivar being the last man standing on his small island after everybody else chooses to leave, I can't quite imagine the size of it - maybe something like a thousand acres based on the number of sheep expected to live on it. I can imagine the climate, though I'm not convinced that Davies has, but the bigger issue is that the island has essentially already been cleared. I'm not even sure why the factor assumes that Ivar is still alive, but the small amount of land he uses to feed himself would have no discernable impact on the number of sheep that could live there and he'd be the ideal shepherd. The airy dismissal that such a role is required doesn't really make sense.

I spent far too long considering the logistics of getting a lot of sheep to the Island, the chances of losing a lot of sheep over the edge of the island, the chances of losing sheep to passing sailors, and if it would make economic sense to go so far to remove the wool and the quantities of unwanted rams each year. There's also the probability that a man who has spent so much of his adult life alone isn't remembering a language once spoken, but has developed his own language to describe the world around himself.

There's also the relationship between Ivar and John Ferguson, which initially seems to be framed in terms of a parent and child dynamic, first Ivar takes care of the completely helpless Ferguson, and then as Ferguson regains his strength and memories he seems to take a paternal interest in his companion, the pivot to a more romantic relationship between them again felt like trying to force too much into the small space of the book. 

You cannot always have it all even when you're the author, so for all the beautiful writing, this lived down to the expectations I came at it with. 


Saturday, March 9, 2024

Game Without Rules - Michael Gilbert

That's another week that's gotten away from me - we've been both short-staffed and very busy at work - it's been all I can do to stay awake long enough to eat and shower when I get home. Hopes of finishing a jumper I'm working on by next week have gone by the wayside.

I have managed to reclaim 'Game Without Rules' from my husband for long enough to write about it though. Michael Gilbert is one of my favourite discoveries from the British Library Crime Classics series, the three novels they've republished are all excellent (Death has Deep Roots, Smallbone Deceased and Death has Deep Notes). Gilbert wrote a lot, Mr. Behrans and Mr. Calder are recurring characters in a series of short stories - this collection spans the 1960s and for the most part I love them, but they're harder to recommend than the novels.


Mr Clader and Mr Behrans are Second World War veterans of the utmost outward respectability. They're also spies and assassins for British intelligence. Gilbert's style here verges on the clipped noir of a Raymond Chandler but with more humour and distinctly British. Written at the height of the Cold War for a generation whose morality had been shaped by a hot war there are things here that seem startlingly callous. It's a very effective way of creating an atmosphere and beats Ian Flemming's Bond novels hands down for me.

In the case of this particular edition, there are a couple of annoying typos which are a distraction. They don't bother me too much, but I know for some people it's enough to ruin a book. There are also some old-fashioned attitudes toward race which read oddly now. I wouldn't call it racism as such, it certainly doesn't seem to me that that was ever Gilbert's intention or way of thinking (though I'm not well qualified to judge) but it's definitely a colonial way of thinking, and 60 years or more after these stories were first written some of them have aged better than others. I don't find Gilbert offensive, but it seems worth saying that readers with more finely tuned sensitivities might.

There may be the death of some pets which I found extremely upsetting - as I was meant too, and again I feel like a fair warning is due. Otherwise if you like a bit of cold war espionage you're hitting gold with this book and you should buy it immediately. 



Sunday, March 3, 2024

Someone From The Past - Margot Bennett

I've been in a bit of a slump recently, sleeping badly and very tired, which has mad doing anything seem like exceptionally hard work. It's been all I can do to drag myself through a workday more often than not, and there doesn't seem to have been time for anything else. I think this might partly be due to the pills I'm taking to counter the symptoms of large fibroids - I'm 9 weeks in and the upside is I think they might be settling down and that just maybe I'll find a new normal. The downside is that it's taken this long and if this is the new normal it's not great.

Meanwhile the books have been piling up and I haven't known where to start or what my concentration would hold up to - but luckily I picked up 'Someone From the Past' this weekend, and I have been enthralled. I read and liked both of Margot Bennett's previous titles from the British Library crime classics series (The Man Who Didn't Fly was twisty and interesting, The Widow Of Bath - atmospheric British Noir) but for me this book leaves both of those standing.

'Someone From the Past' was published in 1958, our narrator, Nancy is 26, she's in love with Donald, but he's also been in love with her best friend Sarah, who makes an ill-timed re-appearence for Nancy just as it looks like Donald is about to propose. Someone has been threatening Sarah and she wants Nancy to find out before she marries serious money. The next day Sarah is dead, Donald is in it up to his neck, and Nancy is lurching from crisis to crisis as she tries to protect her man, evade the police, and find out who actually killed her friend. 


I loved this book for the way it shows 2 young women from outside of conventional society making their way up the social ladder on the fringes of bohemian post-war London. They meet working for a magazine publisher, they work their way up, go to parties, have affairs, and slowly reinvent themselves. Both women know it must be one of the men from Sarah's past who threatened her. Nancy knows it's someone she considered a friend, and maybe more, who must have killed her. 

The mystery is good, the clues are there for the reader to spot (I spotted the clues, but not quite the killer) and the characters, revealed in flashbacks, are nuanced and sympathetic, but it's the atmosphere and the friendship between Nancy and Sarah that make this so special. It's a view of the 1950s that I don't often see - and miles away from a Miss Marple vision. Nancy is a fast talker full of wisecracks and sarcasm - both women clearly live (or lived) by their own moral code which Bennett makes clear is just fine. For all the destruction Sarah's beauty leaves in its wake we never doubt her intrinsic loyalty or kindness, or the hard work that she's put into her magazine career. 

Bennett has Sarah make observations that feel important, but are too much of a spoiler to discuss here - but honestly, this has gone straight to the top of the list of my favourite books in this series and I absolutely encourage you to read it. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Shetland Fine Lace Knitting - Carol Christiansen

I have a new book and I'm very excited about it. Shetland Fine Lace Knitting is the result of a project at the Shetland Museum to asses their lace collection. The result is a scholarly overview of the art of fine lace knitting in Shetland that invites further research and a really practical book of patterns and motifs.

The original pieces are broken down into their individual elements, we get charted instructions and written ones, and excellent photographs of both the original very fine lace, and samples that have been knitted up in a less challenging modern 2ply lace weight. It's not possible to machine spin yarn as fine as the handspun used for these older shawls, and the skills to do it have gone. There are some simpler patterns in here that I'd like to use - it's good to see what I'm likely to be able to create using laceweight I can actually knit with. 


I have a cone of Jamieson and Smith's 1ply supreme lace weight which was developed alongside the museum's fine lace project - I bought it long before I had any understanding of the skills or effort needed, and the last time I tried I couldn't even knit with the stitches I managed to cast on. I might as well have been trying to knit with hair - and yet the handspun yarn was finer. I don't know if I'll ever have the patience, never mind the skill to try and make something with my yarn, but it serves as a useful reminder of the range and depth of skill this knitting requires - and that's worth having.

Meanwhile, this book is a masterpiece and a must for knitters or people with an interest in the history of fine knitted textiles. It's informative, clearly laid out, useful, and inspiring. A fine addition to my growing library on Shetland knitting and something to treasure in its own right. Don't hang around if it sounds like a book for you - all too often these books don't get large or repeated print runs and they get very expensive secondhand. 




Sunday, February 25, 2024

Hex and the City - Kate Johnson

I have a jumper I need to finish (I put it down for a minute and now it's days later and I'm going to Scotland in a couple of weeks where I'll want to wear it so I need to get a move on with that), books I need to read, and a neighbor who has set off the fire alarm at 10pm for the last 2 nights in a row, and if I find it which of the 4 flats is responsible there will be some extremely passive aggressive comments to be made. I don't know who's responsible because whoever they are is staying inside, presumably confident that it's only dinner burning and not the building. 

I also have a couple of books to catch up with here including Hex and the City which I read a while ago. There's not a lot to say about it other than that Kate Johnson is good at what she does - and a lot better than books in a similar vein that I've tried reading. Poppy is a witch with magical hair who seems to trail chaos in her wake, she accidentally sells stage magician Axl Storm a cursed necklace which leads to adventures, great sex, peril, and a happy ending. There's also friendship, found family, and guest appearances from a previous book (Hex Appeal). It's definitely at the cosier end of the current romantasy market and it's fun.


I don't know if it's because Kate Johnson is British and I just don't have the patience for the particularly American* take on this sub-genre of witchy girl messes up then saves the day, or if she's a considerably better writer than the other authors I've looked at (it's part of being a bookseller to pick up things that are popular and try and get a sense of what people are looking for - not always a fun part). I think she's a better writer. She gives her characters realistic insecurities, her heroes aren't as two-dimensional as a lot of them tend to be, and she writes with kindness and humour. 

We talk quite a bit at work about how difficult it can be to find romance writers who work for you - we're not all looking for the same things. I want a happy ending, characters I can believe in, and that are light on red flags, much more than I want smut. I don't want to be put through an emotional wringer, I'm not interested in brooding intensity, but if something makes me laugh (with, not at) I'll enjoy it. If that's your kind of romance too Kate Johnson is worth a look.

*Americans may not see the appeal of the British version either, some things just don't translate, and the US version of Halloween is one of those things for me. 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Undying Monster - Jessie Douglas Kerruish

This, the latest in the British Library's weird collection and, I think, their second foray into a full-length novel, has been a wild ride. Jessie Douglas Kerruish threw everything at at - do you want speculation about Vampires, Werewolves, necromancy, Norse legend, grave robbing, a hand of glory and unexpected applications of William Morris and Wagner - because if you do you're in luck. 

It is by any measure A Lot, it's also a lot of fun if you don't take the excesses too seriously, underneath those excesses there are some interesting ideas at play, and this overall is what I love about this series. The Undying Monster is a tale of the fifth dimension - it's only a very small spoiler to say that Kerruish thinks of that as the human mind and its unconscious power here. The fourth dimension is a more mundane spirit realm easily detected by dogs, cats, and supersensitives such as our heroine, Luna Bartendale. 

The Hammands are an aristocratic family of great antiquity, reduced by the War to a brother and sister. There is a curse or Bane upon the Hammonds that has lasted a millennium and more, the head of the family, if they find themselves under pines and firs on a clear frosty night see a monster - those that survive the encounter go mad, and commit suicide. The locals think that Hammonds who have died prematurely remain behind as Vamoires, for entirely unclear reasons no one has thought to get rid of any pine or fir trees in this part of Sussex. 


When Oliver Hammand survives an encounter with the monster his sister Swanhild calls in the help of Luna, the white witch - can she save Oliver from his seemingly inevitable fate? Despite throwing almost everything at the plot there's an internal logic that makes sense (mostly) and as a splendid yarn with some frights along the way it all works very nicely. 

Given the continued, if passing, references to Oliver's service in France, and that the book was written in 1922 it's hard not to find metaphors for shell shock and the deep collective trauma the war left behind. Even the spiritualist and folklore elements tie into this and the renewed interest in them during and after the First World War. It's this that I find really interesting about 'The Undying Monster' - the question at its heart is how do you reconcile a great horror in such a way that you can go on living with it?

Hammand ancestors could not, the Hammand who got through the trenches just might be able to with the right help. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Bride - Ali Hazelwood

This has to be the most atypical, off-brand, for Hayley book I've read in years. I don't go for paranormal romance, I didn't care about Twilight, and the vaguely kinky stuff seemed silly to me. I love Ali Hazlewood, who clearly likes all of these things, for writing it. Romance is a demanding genre, readers don't always look kindly on authors doing something a little bit different but what's the point if you can't have some fun?

In fairly typical Hazelwood fashion, Misery Lark, Vampire, is also a really amazing tech woman working in IT, although she only does that for about 5 minutes before Vampire and werewolf politics take over and she finds herself married to a tall, broad, brooding man who isn't great at communication but is obviously extremely decent, capable, and great with young children. And a werewolf (for more or less only one discernable reason - the kink that I still can't really take seriously). Like any self-respecting alpha wolf, he's also really into consent. 


As a bookseller as well as a reader the last bit is important to me. I very much dislike selling young girls books that glamourize frankly abusive behaviour (thank god young girls no longer buy Jilly Cooper). I'm much less worried about the smut element when there are no major power imbalances and everyone is enthusiastically consenting. 

When I say worried, I'm not book police, I'm not advocating for any sort of censorship, and as long as you know what you're letting yourself in for I'm happy to sell it to you - I do worry that not everybody knows what they're letting themselves in for, and have had enough parents return their children's books to feel this is justified. 

Meanwhile if you loved Twilight and were team Jacob you'll probably adore this book. I really like seeing Hazelwood do more with plot, and I liked the expanded cast of characters here. My colleague talks about books like this being a bad good time and how sometimes that's exactly what you need. She's right, and Hazelwood is likely to remain one of the handful of authors I'll return to for exactly that. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Check and Mate - Ali Hazelwood

I read this last year, but I've been slow catching up with a couple of things. At the time I didn't have much to say about it other than that while I'm entirely happy with the lack of graphic sex in what's meant to be more of a young adult read, I far prefer the older couples that Hazelwood writes to these more or less teenagers. 

Now I've almost finished her foray into paranormal romance there's more to discuss. I like Ali Hazelwood's romances - she's funny and clearly having fun, she's a decent writer and I don't find anything especially problematic in her books around consent, age differences, and power balances - all of which she discusses at length. Every so often I want a bit of romantic fiction in my life and when I do there's a fairly small list of authors who write women I enjoy reading enough to be invested in their happy ending. Hazelwood does that for me.


I also have a bit of a soft spot for a woman who started off writing fan fiction before having a break-out TikTok success with her first novel at just the point I went back into bookselling. I've been able to follow her writing career from the beginning and that's another kind of fun. Check and Mate feels a lot like it started life as some sort of chess-based Star Wars fanfic. Mallory Greenleaf is the outsider who comes from nowhere to beat the acknowledged master - who sounds like a dead ringer for Adam Driver. 

Her protagonists are authentically annoying young adults to the more mature reader, but the skewering of misogyny has both anger and a sense of purpose behind it. We sell this as an adult romance - but it's meant as YA and is entirely appropriate as such. The thorny part of the issue is that her other books are not and there's no clear way to differentiate between them - that's possibly more of an issue with Bride than some of the earlier romances.

I'm also assuming that her academic day job remains Hazelwood's primary career so she can take risks and have the fun she wants with her fiction which is a luxury for a best-seller who might normally have to keep doing more of the same - again, it makes her interesting to me because at this point who knows what she'll decide to throw into the mix next time. 


Sunday, February 4, 2024

Norwegian Baking Through the Seasons - Nevada Berg

It's been a good couple of week for exhibitions and books. I went to Oxford yesterday with a friend to see the Colour Revolution, Victorian Art, Fashion & Design at the Ashmolean. It's on for another week or so, and I strongly recommend it. I've had some very nice review copies of books come through and bought myself a couple of cookbooks along with the exhibition catalogue from yesterday.


The first of the cook books was Nevada Berg's Norwegian Baking. While I was away I saw a couple of posts on Instagram about Solboller - Norwegian sun buns, these are apparently eaten on the around the 21st of January as a celebration of the slowly lengthening days - that's also my mothers birthday and I'm taken with the idea that there's a Scandinavian bun for both of us (St Lucia buns for me). I'm not clear if it's a date specific thing with Solboller or if it's a third weekend in January thing. I also see that eating an orange was another way of celebrating - definitely easier and a treat whilst blood oranges are around. 

The Solboller are cardamom/cinnamon buns with an egg custard and sound good. I kept coming back to Nevada Berg's North Wild Kitchen Instagram and blog and in easy steps to her Norwegian baking book. There's a recipe for a sugared juniper bun, and a couple of other things which called to me even more insistently and so here I am with yet another baking book.

It's a lovely book, and though I'm not a huge fan of the very enthusiastic tone that American authors/food bloggers favour, and loathe the caramelised brown cheese that features in a cake icing here there's a collection of fabulous looking breads and cakes that look to be a good mix of contemporary and traditional. A sponge cake filled with gin infused blackberries and blueberries looks like a perfect birthday or celebration cake amongst some stiff competition, and whilst it's by no means all sweet recipes there's plenty here if you want to further embrace the coffee and cake culture of Northern Europe along with your bread repertoire. The photography is also lovely; lots of Norwegian scenes that are as mouthwatering in their way as the recipes. I suppose it;s time to go and grind some cardamom. 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Edinburgh and the Joy of Phoebe Anna Traquair

It's hard to believe a whole week has passed since a very satisfying, if flying, visit to Edinburgh. It's a city I have a slightly love hate relationship with. It's very beautiful but the center, specifically Princes Street and the Royal Mile are over touristy and dilapidated these days. The best thing about Edinburgh for me used to be Waverly station being very much in the middle of everything which made it great for day trips, but the middle I want to be in has shifted and I'm not sure where it's gone now.

Fortunately this time around we wanted to go and see the new Scottish galleries at the National Galleries of Scotland (that's a mouthful to say). There are a lot of things I love in that collection and I've missed it whilst the refurb/move has been going on. How best to tell the story of Scottish art is a tricky proposition. Do you separate it out, or keep it in the context of international movements? They do both in Edinburgh so it's worth making sure you have plenty of time to explore at leisure.

I liked the new galleries, particularly the windows looking down Princes Street gardens with the city views in between them echoing what you could see from the windows. I loved the lighting which was so much better than in Glasgow's Hunterian - in Edinburgh, you can actually see the paintings. The use of the space is excellent as well and it's a pleasant environment to find yourself in. I thought there could have been more context and more information along with the pictures - but when we went to visit some other old favourites we found the context at least. 


Not all the Scottish art is in the Scottish galleries. There's a good sprinkling of it in the other exhibition halls and it's good to see where it sits in the overall canon of Western art. We also went along to the Open Eye Gallery and the Scottish Gallery to see more contemporary things - lots of Elizabeth Blackadder, and a couple of James Morrisons to add to the lottery win wish list, along with artists I can aspire to collect. I recommend both for their welcoming attitude towards browsers and beautiful interiors.


The thing I was most excited to see again in the National was Phoebe Anna Traquair's life-size embroidered panels of the Progress of a Soul. Traquair hasn't had the attention she deserves, these panels are amazing as both art and craft, they're also only a fraction of her range - look her up. It was fabulous to see them in a space they look really comfortable in and there's a lavishly illustrated book about her and her work by Elizabeth Cumming which I've just picked up from work today. I'm also pushing Duncan Macmillan's 'Scotland and the Origins of Modern Art' right up my TBR pile - so altogether an inspiring day. 

Friday, January 26, 2024

Knitting

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.