Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Christmas at River Cottage - Lucy Brazier

I applied for a review copy of this book at work last year, and then gave up on it before it unexpectedly arrived on the 22nd of December - by which time it was a bit late to write about it. Tonight though I'm halfway through putting up my Christmas tree, and it seemed like a good time to get it out and dust it down for a proper browse.

The Christmas tree is turning into a bit of an epic undertaking. Early success with a tree the right size for surprisingly little at Sainsbury's Homebase has since been met with setbacks. (It's 7 feet tall, a skinny Nordman fir for £20, they're really helpful in my local branch, and it's perfect for the corner of my sitting room, Best of all so far no hint of the aroma that we think was badger urine that last years tree smelt strongly of. The dog appreciated it but the humans did not). Unfortunately, the trunk was too slender to fit into my tree stand so I had to wait until today to get some wedges. Currently, the poor thing is relaxing after a prolonged time trussed up in a net, and has got as far as having some light put on it. Further decorating will commence after work tomorrow. It's still early for a tree. 

According to Christmas at River Cottage (contains extensive notes from Hugh F-W as well as Lucy Brazier) it's about the only thing I am early for - and as a fan of the plan ahead approach that's a plus for me. There's no shortage of how to do Christmas books around, especially from food writers, and whilst I like having a few to choose from they do need a unique selling point to make the cut. 

For Christmas at River Cottage it's the way it ties Christmas to a year-round lifestyle. Planning ahead here means what you're growing and harvesting across the summer that will be good in December - chutneys, jams, and liqueurs are all a feature (maybe ask for a quince or mulberry tree for Christmas if you have space for one). And then there's the cake baking, mincemeat making, and pudding steaming activities of October and November. There are ideas for making things, including good advice on wreath construction, and good dried herbs to give as gifts. 

For the record, I'd be delighted to get a jam jar of dried lemon verbena, or indeed a wreath of rosemary, sage, and bay which I could hang in my kitchen and then store for later use. I'm a big fan of homemade mincemeat too - it's a lot nicer to cook with than the shop-bought sort, keeps well, and is an excellent way to use up leftover dried fruit from cake baking.

Lucy's thoughts on Christmas cake - don't save it for Christmas but enjoy it earlier in December is sensible - we've contracted 12 days of feasting into 1 maybe 2, there's a lot to get through and we should definitely do more to celebrate advent and the fun bits of the run up to Christmas to try and draw the season out again.

Beyond that, there are plenty of sensible recipes for parties, Chrismas day, boxing day, new year, and beyond. These include drinks (with and without alcohol) how to plan your events, use up leftovers, reassurance about asking for help and lots about reusing and recycling - all good stuff.

Altogether, I really like this book. It's reflect of you have, or want, an allotment. Plenty of no nonsense, cost conscious, sustainable ideas which don't feel like second best, and the whole thing is beautifully produced. Better late than never. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Sylvia Townsend Warner - Short Stories

It's been a Sylvia Townsend Warner kind of week - which is always a good thing. The newly produced Faber collection 'Winter in the Air' came into work - I bought a copy minutes later, and karma rewarded my donation of unwanted Christmas decorations to a charity shop by dropping an old green-spined Virago Modern Classics edition of her selected stories in my path for only £2. I already had a copy of this, but my first one was falling apart, this one doesn't even seem to have had the spine cracked open. 

I've come to love Sylvia Townsend Warner in recent years, she's a joy I owe in equal parts to Handheld Press and Helen for the gentle steer in the right direction. The novels I've read have been great, but her short stories are something else again. They're precise and elegant with a  gentle melancholy about them, and sometimes a not at all gentle melancholy. 

She's also quite a hard sell in the shop which is a shame. In my own little corner of the internet, Warner is a much-loved name, but unfortunately and along with a few other writers I love, it's an uphill struggle to get people to take a chance on her. I'm hoping that the mini cloth-bound Penguin classics edition of Lolly Willows will lure in the Book tok and Instagram crowd and push a wider rediscovery - though again, for my money it's the short story collections which are the real gems. 

'Winter in the Air' is everything you could hope for from Warner, Handheld's collections of her fairy stories are magical, especially if you like a touch of weird - make it a Sylvia Christmas!

Monday, November 21, 2022

Hollywood Cocktails

It's the season for likely stocking fillers to start appearing at work, and as I'm a sucker for a vintage cocktail book I fell for this one straight away. It's a slim little thing with board covers that double its width but it promises 200 excellent recipes, takes up less space, and will travel more easily than my beloved Savoy Cocktail book, and had some promising looking things in it so here we are. 

The thing I want most from a cocktail book is simplicity. I know I'm getting Alice Lascelles 'The Cocktail Edit' for Christmas so I'm having to be patient about really exploring that one - but for a contemporary cocktail book it's absolutely the one to go for this year.

My home doesn't have the range of ingredients or equipment that a good cocktail bar would have on hand. I'm relying on good quality booze that I will use whilst it's fresh (vermouth, which I love, will lose its flavour the longer a bottle is open). I want 17 (or more) different takes on the same basic principle to keep it interesting, not 17 different bottles all with a single measure taken out of them getting sticky and gathering dust in my kitchen. Vintage books are excellent for having a lot of variations on the theme of french vermouth, Italian, and gin. Some will use brandy/whisky/rum etc, but you get the idea. All are brief on instructions (you shake or stir and that's about it).

Most of the recipes in here are definitely in the Savoy book, but there are a couple specific to famous Hollywood restaurants of the 1930s which are definitely appealing, and even when you discount the harder-to-find ingredients (Swedish punch for example) there's a lot here that only calls for things you'll find in any reasonably large supermarket. Aim for good, but not necessarily premium quality, bottles - I wouldn't use anything I wouldn't drink on its own, but I'm not putting the super glamorous £50 bottle of gin I was given in cocktails either.

Altogether a decent little book for some vintage inspiration, a nice add-on present with a decent bottle of vermouth or similar, good if you're staying with grown-up family that likes a drink, or want to party like it's 1933. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Death of Jezebel - Christianna Brand

It's a while since I read a crime classic from the British Library and Death if Jezebel was a good book to dive back in with, although I think reading the earlier Christianna Brand in the series, Death in Green, first might have been an advantage. 

What I loved about Death of Jezebel was the slang and the sense of slightly tired post-war characters. While it didn't make a significant difference that I hadn't at least read Death in Green, it did sometimes feel like there were references going over my head and Inspector Cockrill could have benefited from a longer acquaintance. 

As 'impossible crimes' go this is every bit as ingenious as you might hope. The Jezebel in question is killed in full sight of a crowd, inconveniently for the police, all the possible suspects are also apparently in full view of the crowd and nowhere near the victim... The solution is cleverly hinted at, but amidst the general confusion and red herrings of the plot, it's only at the end that the pieces fell together for me. 

More interesting to me was the way the whole cast of characters has been damaged in different ways by the war and how they're leading their current lives. Isabel Drew reminded me of the anti-heroine in To Bed With Grand Music - the more or less stock figure of the scarlet woman that post-war it seems to have been important to disapprove of. Fair enough this one is a piece of work who deserves her comeuppance as much as any murder victim can, and a lot of the men don't come out of it much better. Overall there's a weariness about all of them, these people have mostly seen too much, and been unlucky enough to survive it. Fresh new starts seem unlikely, and altogether the sense of a Britain still in the grip of rationing and with the scars of bomb damage still everywhere as a bleak kind of place is unavoidable. 

Lots of slang, and a dark but definite sense of humour work as an excellent balance though, so overall this book is a lot of fun, both as a mystery and for its details, the cover is also particularly splendid - there may even be an oblique kind of clue in it! Give it a go.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Baking, Making, and Mixed Spice

I didn't realise how quiet I'd been here so far this month - it's been a busy 10 days of work, visiting family in Scotland, back to work, and managing to find the time to make Christmas chutney, cakes, liqueur, and mincemeat. I have a long-running disagreement with dad about keeping Christmas for December, and a general dislike for anybody who ever says such a thing. 

People who say keep Christmas for December almost certainly have other people running around sorting things out for them. they're the ones who pitch up in your shop on the 23rd of December indignant that you don't have whatever product they can't cope without and won't be getting another delivery so they can't order it. No substitute will do and no matter how many times it happens to them they don't change their shopping habits. 

They complain about the pressure and the stress oblivious to the idea that planning ahead cuts most of that out. Then they complain about the expense and how commercial Christmas has become - whilst buying their way out of the last-minute hole they're in. Complain about not getting Christmas cards but won't make the time to write them. These are not my people. 

I more or less post the same thing every year, but Christmas is the midpoint of winter, and I like a slow build towards it with time to enjoy the making and doing, and then a slow wind down afterward (people who complain about the boring time off between Christmas and New Year whilst I'm back at work processing endless returns of whatever celebrity biography everybody got at least 2 copies of thanks to last minute panic buying this year are another pet hate). Winter is my favourite season. A time to be doing sociable things, thinking, and enjoying home comforts.

Today has been the day for making Christmas cakes - which do bring an element of stress with them; will they be under or overcooked? I won't know until it's too late to do anything about it, two are destined to be presents. Fruit cakes are so dense that the skewer test isn't quite as reliable as I'd like (is that uncooked batter or hot prune?) and they'll carry on cooking a little as they cool. It's a worry. They smell good though and I must have made this recipe a good 40 times or more so I'm hopeful it won't catch me out.

I've also finally managed to make a quince inclusive mincemeat, and a cooked one at that which is normally something I avoid. Someone on facebook had mentioned that she kept grated quince in her freezer for adding to apple pies. I had left over quinces so grating seemed like a good plan, and then bought Mark Diacono's 'Spice' which had the perfect recipe for them. Well, sort of, I lacked several ingredients, so I'm assuming that his recipe is perfect - but the results with my substitutions, which include the quince ratafia from the same book in place of Krupnik honey vodka tasted great when I potted it.

I have an uneasy relationship with quinces. I like their scent, love the quince jelly I make every year, and mostly fail with them on every other front. On the other hand Mark's books have never let me down, and although I overlooked how ambivilent I am about anise as a flavour when I made the ratifia (which true to quince tradition is sitting in the bottle looking remarkably like a urine sample) the results are actually really good and will, I think, work well in place of pastis or absinthe in some cocktail recipes. The same for the mincemeat - although the grated quince has taken on a disconcertingly worm like appearance in the jars.

At least the whole flat smells appealingly of mixed spice at the moment, an improvement on the lingering vinegar of the chutney making. I'm also pleased to have a new mincemeat recipe to add to my repertoire. This one makes a modestly sensible amount compared to others I've mixed up, and again this is the perfect time to make it, so that it's got a few weeks to mature before I want mince pies. When you find a good recipe (Fiona Cairns is the other one I really like and is a no cook version) it really is worth making your own. Mincemeat is a flexible thing - as long as the quantities of fruit, fat, alcohol, etc are right the specifics don't matter so it's easy to adapt to what you have or like and an excellent way to use up any dried fruit that's leftover from the other baking. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Little Blue Flames and Other Uncanny Tales - A. M. Burrage

Until 'The Little Blue Flames' I'd more or less managed to resist this particular hardback series from the British Library - yes, I have 'Fearsome Faries: Haunting tales of the Fae' but that was a one-off. Was. A colleague from work actually messaged me an image of 'The Little Blue Flames' when it came in she thought it was so much up my street. I'd already requested it by then.

I can't resist a good ghost story collection and having occasionally come across A. M. Burrage in other anthologies I knew this collection was something I wanted. It has more than lived up to my expectations being just the sort of uncanny I relish. My preference is for things that make the ordinary feel unsafe rather than full on gory horror. The title story where a pair of brass candlesticks give their owner a vision of a past crime perfectly fits that bill. 

It's not hard to at least half believe in the possibility of the ghosts and hauntings that Burrage conjures, where half the work is being done by the imagination of his protagonists. Why shouldn't much-loved ornaments carry some memory of a previous owner about with them? When you hold something old and worn in your hands it's so very easy to imagine those who have held it before - and half the work of the ghost story is suddenly done. 

The same kind of thing happens in 'Smee' where a house party is playing a version of hide and seek when they start to feel there are more people in the game than there should be. Nothing awful happens apart from the narrator being forced to realise not everything can be quite explained, and all the implications for life and the afterlife that brings with it. 

There's nothing in this collection that's kept me awake at night, but plenty that's made me grateful for being able to draw the curtains against the dark, and pull the duvet up close. All of them remind me of a bedroom in the house I grew up in. It was a perfectly ordinary spare bedroom in an old house. It wasn't much used and had a faded kind of look about it. It also terrified me from as far back as I can remember. I hated to walk past it when the door was open, which it often was, and would avoid going in it if I could. I still sometimes dream about that open doorway with the same sense of discomfort, and if I'd ever had to sleep in there I would have scared myself silly (and probably still would) for no obvious reason at all. 

 That's the experience that Burrage speaks to - the superstitious, irrational reactions to things that we can laugh about, but can't quite laugh off. 

The next book in the series is Celtic Weird edited by Johnny Mains and it too looks great. 

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Ghost stories and missing the 1929 club

It has been a long week at work (our Sundays count as the start of the week which is a common but weird retail thing, so I feel like I've worked six days this week - because I have, with a late finish tonight to try and get some Christmas prep in). I had hoped to read E. F. Benson's 'Paying Guests' for Simon and Kaggsy's 1929 book club, b ut it didn't happen. 

That was partly because I've also been reading two really excellent collections of weird\ghost stories which I was disinclined to put aside. The first was Helen Simoson's The Outcast and The Rite which covered stories dating from 1925 - 1938, the other The Little Blue Flames and other Uncanny Tales by A. M. Burrage which again covers the 1920s -30s.

I haven't looked up the specific dates for any of the stories included but some of them must have come from 1929 and overall the mood of both books speaks of the era. The Great War may be a decade or more in the past but its shadows are still being cast. Simpson and Burrage are distinctly different writers and I didn't choose to read these books side by side for any similarities I assumed I might find but it's there in the sense of loss, of crumbling certainties, of people living by their wits and class barriers breaking down.

Houses become malevolent, or anachronisms that must exert their charm to survive - much like those who would inhabit them, and as Burrage points out in one story there's a pervasive superstition born in the war that still had its claws in the popular imagination. It's not unusual to find plots in detective fiction from the 20s and 30s which revolve around witchcraft or devil worship - they mostly prove to be a front for something else, but there's a readiness for the characters in these books to believe - something. Anything perhaps that helped make sense of the war they'd been through and the destruction it bough, as well as the sometimes miricle-like fact of survival. 

It's hard to look around at the moment and not see parallels with the uncertainties and upheavals of the 1920s - perhaps this winter will bring out some future tales of the weird - I don't read enough contemporary fiction to know if there's a pervasive mood beyond a thirst for paranormal smut amongst young adults (and that's because I sell so much of it at work).

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Outcast and the Rite - Helen de Guerry Simpson

I'm very late reading this - I had meant to review it in time for its release date but getting married and getting covid intervened. I took it away with me to Scotland (it's been back and forth to my mother's a few times this summer as well, but the dog had other ideas about how we could spend our time, which mostly involved walking around fields) but as ever packed far more books than I could read and didn't get to it. 

This October has been a godsend for catching up on anything remotely spooky, weird, or unheimlich though, and so I've finally got down to it, found a couple of stories I knew and loved from other anthologies, and really fallen for Helen de Guerry Simpson in the process. 

The subtitle here is Stories of Landscape and Fear, 1925 -1938, but these are not ghost stories - or at least if one or two of them are, on the whole the collection leans much more towards unsettling than anything else. Even then it's not in a seriously scary way, although there are moments of recognition that may well come back to haunt me. 

Maybe my favourite story is 'Disturbing Experience of an Elderly Lady' which I had read before. Mrs. Jones has been left a wealthy widow who decides to use her newly acquired money to buy a stately home once glimpsed from a charabanc window. Its dignity had made her feel small, and now she's determined to destroy it. The house is just as set on saving itself, which it aims to do by charming Mrs. Jones into submission. What follows is a gently humorous battle of wills that reaches a tipping point in one of those moments of recognition.

As Much More Land adheres more closely to the traditional ghost story - and reminds me a little of Saki. It quietly lulled me into a sense of all being well and then had a deft little twist at the end which was definitely unsettling. And so it goes on. these are not stories to outright scare the reader, rather they're designed to make us think, or remember the times the sky has seemed too big over the landscape, the night too dark, the woods too overgrown and rank for comfort. 

Or there's Good Company which takes a lone and complacent traveler and then places her in exactly the sort of danger women fear and so often encounter. Again it's the moment of recognition that adds the fear - the all to familiar feeling of vulnerability at the hands of someone physically stronger than yourself. 

This is a great collection of stories from a writer who really ought to be better known. The next time I read them it'll be in the light of a long northern summer's evening which is a different type of spooky to the short nights of autumn winter - and to which I think her mood is better suited. It's something to do with her humour and the subtle way she mixes all the elements of her work. But honestly, buy this book - it's something special to add to any weird collection. 

Find the book here - Handheld Press

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Leviathan - Rosie Andrews

It's been a busy week at work (that's only going to get intensify over the next couple of months) with some mixed news in it, but we went to Stamford yesterday which was as charming as ever (very beautiful in a particularly English way, obviously a lot of money around which is reassuring given how depressed Leicester is and bustling on a Saturday with lots of excellent cafes to visit). Today I've made Christmas pudding and started a Christmas Schnapps and a quince liqueur. I have my doubts about the quince concoction. My track record with anything quince-based other than jelly is not great - but we'll see.

I've also had the annual lecture from dad about keeping Christmas for December - he hates it, but likes the cake and the puddings, and knows perfectly well that they don't appear without some kind of effort. Even if they didn't need time to mature this is my window for making before work really does get too crazy to have the energy for it, so I plan on enjoying this bit whilst I can.

Reading wise I've finally finished Rosie Andrews' debut 'The Leviathan' which I got as a proof back in January. At the time I'd read one historic novel too many and didn't make much progress with this one, but it is a perfect Autumn into Winter book. Most of the action takes place in a bleak Norfolk January against the backdrop of the English civil war, though it occasionally skips forward to 1703 where the elderly protagonist is retelling the events of his youth. 

The dark nights, lashing winds, rain, and snow that Rosie describes are probably the thing I liked most about this book - the weather is very much part of the character of the book and a foreshadowing of what's awoken. More than that though I felt like I could almost smell the snow on the wind and feel the cold whilst I was reading and from that everything else fell into place. 

Thomas is returning home, injured in action, and has just missed Christmas day in his puritan household. He's troubled by a letter from his younger sister which is making some fairly wild accusations against one of the servants, and more troubled when he arrives home to find his horse increasingly uneasy, the sheep dead in the field, and his father struck down with a stroke. He's also very aware that his sister's accusations could bring suspicion back to their own door so his first priority is to protect her. 

He's initially sceptical, has lost his faith in god, and considers witchcraft to be superstitious nonsense, but things get stranger, something is undoubtedly amiss and then the poet John Milton gets involved, when I read the blurb I wasn't sure how this would work, but it's done well. His presence serves mostly to remind us of 17th-century ideas and ideals - a world that hadn't yet been entirely mapped.

Altogether this is a tense and atmospheric book with big ideas that come off well. It also made me want to actually read Milton and Hobbes which is a feat in itself. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Carmen Callil

I'm genuinely sad to hear about the death of Carmen Callil yesterday, Virago, the publishing house she founded changed how I saw the world, as I know it did for many women of my generation. I can't show you a picture of the 400 or so Virago Modern Classics I own because they live on a set of shelves that's impossible to get a decent picture of, and because there are a lot of jars of quince jelly and damson jam in front of them at the moment - but they're there and although I've told this story here before I'm going to share it again because what Carmen did really mattered.

When I was a very young woman there was very little sense of a canon of women writers. We had Jane Austen (love her), assorted Bronte's (hit and miss) and Virginia Woolf (frankly ambivalent). A.S. Byatt had won the Booker prize, the queens of crime and Georgette Heyer were familiar, and there were the great 80's bonkbusters to enjoy but there were considerable gaps. I knew from Heyer that Austen had had contemporaries but in that pre-internet age I didn't know much more.

And then I got into an argument with an especially smug fellow student on my history degree. It ended with him asking if I could name 10 famous female writers from history. Of course, I could not. So later that day I went to a bookshop and started looking for women to read. I found Molly Keane in a distinctive green jacket, I bought a book and loved it. 

When I'd worked through Molly I found Sara Maitland (Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching) which I loved so much I photocopied individual stories from to send to friends (probably breaking copyright laws in the process). From there I found Rosamund Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Mrs. Oliphant, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Ferrier, Mae West, Elizabeth Jenkins, Barbara Comyns, Rachel Ferguson, Fanny Burney, and then more and more and more - a whole history. 

For years I'd scour bookshops for those green covers. I went on day trips to anywhere within a 40 mile radius with my best friend to find second-hand copies of by then out of print Virago's giving ourselves endless good memories in the process. We both built up decent collections, found online friends who shared our enthusiasm, and most importantly found versions of ourselves, our mothers, and our grandmothers in those books. 

Meanwhile, Persephone came along, and so did a host of other independent presses that found more women writers. Women got further into the Penguin and Oxford classics ranges, and now I could name any number of writers from any number of countries or cultures to that idiot from my first year at university. 

I suppose if Carmen Callil hadn't done it somebody else eventually would have - but she got there first and changed things for all of us which is some kind of legacy.

As a footnote she was a guest on a couple of episodes of the Backlisted Podcast which I highly recommend listening too.