Sunday, September 26, 2021
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
I'm kind of fascinated by how much I like this series of books and why their particular formula works so well for me. In theory, I wouldn't have it down as something I'd enjoy so thoroughly - there's not much in the way of the characterisation that normally makes a book come alive for me. The plot for each book is more or less the same in so far as someone is murdered just before Ralph and Gervaise turn up with their commission. They work out who did it, avert disaster - twice now in the form of the Welsh, wrap up the land disputes and move on.
The crimes are somewhat brutal, but not overly described so even someone as squeamish as I am can happily cope with them. Characters are deftly drawn and the fact that they're mostly just sketched in is surprisingly effective. A lot of the Norman barons seem to be a thoroughly bad lot, but both history and a childhood love of Robin Hood make that easy enough to believe. Formula aside, Marston manages to create a real sense of lawless threat with some of his characters - or perhaps the sense that they can genuinely operate above the law simply on the basis of military strength.
This book has one of the few obvious mistakes that I've come across - or at least I assume it's a mistake that a character who essentially commits suicide gets a Christian burial - but I may be wrong to think they wouldn't at this point.
As I started my 4th Domesday book a couple of nights ago (The Wildcats of Exeter) and then regretfully put it aside for more pressing things (I'm reading an excellent book at the moment, but it covers some difficult ground including a harrowing description of an attempt at home abortion and subsequent miscarriage) I realise that a significant part of its appeal is in the certainty about what I'm getting.
Marston clearly knows what his readers like, and he sets out to provide it for them. In my case, that's a mystery where more or less everybody behaves the way I've come to expect, occasional jokes that will make me laugh, villains to properly dislike, heroes that are neither complex nor tortured, and a book that keeps me happily turning the pages when I'm too tired to be much good for anything else until I'm ready to sleep.
Monday, September 20, 2021
This is a novella aimed at young adults written by an American Ph.D. and based on the experience of people she worked with who wanted their stories told. I found it a curious book to read as I'm not entirely sure who it's aimed at, in places the language felt too formal to be right for a young adult audience, and there's a consciously educational edge to it that blurs the sense of it being fiction. The structure is also quite episodic, so it made sense that it was made up of multiple people's experiences, but had the effect of making some parts of the plot seem a little disjointed, and I kept wondering if it was staying too true to case notes.
That said, the disjointed feel makes sense in terms of the heroine's life, which is constantly being thrown off balance so in some ways it really works. There's also a bit of a disconnect for a British reader trying to understand the American welfare system.
I think our care systems are probably similar, young people are certainly extremely vulnerable in them in both countries, and education is moving closer to an American model, especially post-secondary school where courses are increasingly expensive. The big differences come with health care and attitudes towards homelessness though. And of the two it's the homeless situation that really shocks me because at least the differences in health care are well discussed.
Obviously, homelessness is an issue here, and so is begging, but as bad as it is we have nothing like the tent cities that are described - we don't get the weather conditions that Seattle does either, and the idea that people are expected to live like that with no hope of help is a lot to comprehend in a rich nation. We don't have quite the same opioid crisis as America either - so altogether there's a lot to disturb here.
The story centers around Didi, maybe just 15 when the book starts, and sofa surfing whilst her mother is meant to be getting her life together (she's homeless and hooked on heroin, so Didi is trying to give her some space). Social services eventually catch up with her after her school intervenes and she ends up in the foster system, but as a teenager has no chance of getting a place with a family. Instead, she ends up in group homes that she hates, and which become increasingly restrictive as she keeps running away. There's a spell of living on the street with other kids, and then eventually a more hopeful situation with some support and continuity.
The strengths of the book are in how it shows how easily almost any of us could end up in a similar situation - especially without an NHS to patch us up. Finding a job without an address or a bank account is really hard, and so it goes on. Once you fall between the cracks it's very hard to pull yourself up again. The way Didi comes across as both capable and very vulnerable is excellent too. As the book progresses the problems her chaotic life has created for her become more apparent.
This was a quick and compelling book to read, and definitely a good place to start if you want to discuss issues around homelessness, immigration, the care system, education, and health, with younger people. For UK readers it serves as a stark warning for how much worse some things could be if we don't take care of what's left of the welfare state.
Friday, September 17, 2021
Tuesday, September 14, 2021
I waited a while to get my hands on Med I left it late to pre-order at a good price and it sold out (briefly) then I couldn't guarantee being at home to take delivery of it, then when I did order it, it took an age to get to me and went around the houses in the process. It arrived yesterday after what felt like an age and very happy I was to see it. As if it wasn't enough that Claudia Roden is one of my absolute food hero's - brilliant food, and writing that opens up worlds for you is a dream combination, it turns out that Med is also a chance to own a bit of artwork by David Cass. I've admired his sea-inspired paintings for a while so having his cover design on the book is a real bonus.
So far I've mostly just leafed through this book, but one recipe really jumped out at me. The Egyptian Red Lentil Soup. Red Lentil Soup is something I particularly associate with Scotland where it's a staple. I first learnt to make it at school, it's been a go-to comfort recipe ever since. It's also the cheapest thing I know how to cook.
The super basic Shetland junior high version uses a carrot, half an onion, a handful of red lentils, a little butter or oil, salt, pepper and a stock cube. Sometimes if I'm feeling fancy I might add a little chopped bacon. If I didn't have any I wouldn't worry about using stock either. You soften the onion and carrot, add the lentils to coat them in oil (or butter), salt, pepper, then simmer until the lentils are soft. It's great.
Claudia Roden's Egyptian version adds a couple of cloves of garlic at the beginning, and then lemon juice, ground coriander, ground cumin, and some chilli flakes (optional) 5 minutes before it's ready. These things hardly make the soup more extravagant as I'd almost always have them to hand anyway, they do transform the flavour from something distinctly Scottish to something distinctly laced with cumin (which I adore). I made it for dinner tonight which was extremely welcome on a cool wet autumn evening - it's a good-tempered recipe that needs no more than a few minutes prep and can then be left to simmer away whilst you catch up with other things which is another point in its favour.
What's really caught my imagination though is this link between these two soups. A language of food that crosses continents and ties the poor together across them - Roden descripes hers as a peasent soup. Med looks to be full of wonderful things which I look forward to exploring, but nothing is going to have the resonance that this red lentil soup has.
Monday, September 13, 2021
I hadn't quite forgotten how hard it is to be on your feet all day, but I'm out of practice at it and currently, all I want to do when I get home is sleep, but when I get home I've got a ton of other things to do (mostly domestic and dull). Carving out time to read before I fall asleep is proving a challenge at the moment - this won't last, I'll soon adjust to my new routine - but meanwhile I'm favouring classic crime as the perfect thing to relax with.
I'd heard lots of good things about the latest John Dickson Carr from the British Library Crime Classics series so as a break from my Edward Marston binge I picked it up. It didn't disappoint. It opens on a dark and stormy afternoon at the village fete. Dick Markham (successful writer of crime drama) has arrived with his new fiance - Lesley Grant. They're excited for each other but a little bit worried about how another girl, Cynthia, will react to their news. Dick doesn't think he led her on, but Cynthia might not agree.
From this point onwards Carr goes for it. Lesley shoots a fortune-teller - was it an accident? The fortune-teller claims not and suggests that instead of being the sweet young girl she looks to be she's actually a much married, husband poisoning 40 something. And then the fortune-teller is found dead in a locked room, killed in the way he described Lesley as using for her supposed victims. But was the fortune-teller all he claimed to be and is any of his story true?
Gideon Fell is called in to investigate a situation that's becoming more complicated and outlandish by the moment as Carr liberally applies red herrings, unlikely twists, and gothic atmosphere. This is exactly why I enjoy his books so much. None of it is very likely, and if you stop to think about it too much half it probably isn't possible either - but it doesn't matter. I'm so carried away by the atmosphere that he could introduce just about any unlikely element (and if you've read Castle Skull he can really rise to the challenge) and I'd swallow it. Not every writer could make that work, but Carr does, I think this is because he underpins his wilder flights of fancy with clever details.
In this case, it's the character of Cynthia who ties everything together. She's hard to work out in a believable way and keeps the tension high. How does she really feel about Dick throwing her over for Lesley - is she as okay with it as she says, or does she want some vengeance for being publically rejected in front of the whole village? Altogether it's vintage Carr and an absolute treat, and now before I fall asleep over my keyboard I'm off to bed with the new Claudia Roden cookbook.
Saturday, September 11, 2021
I got lucky in The Works and found another 3 of Edward Marston's Domesday series and have been happily working through them this week. It's coincided with starting a new job at Waterstones so I'm properly immersed in books at the moment (fun) and Marston's light style is about right to come home to with a head stuffed full of till functions, and stock protocols.
The Dragons of Archenfield is book 3 in the series, a bonus seeing as I'd started with book 2, and follows similar lines - the Domesday book commissioners set off to Hereford this time, where there's trouble with the Welsh, a colourful Archdeacon in a very smelly cloak to deal with, and Ralph Delchard meets a woman he really likes.
I'm not sure that there's much more to say - the mystery was satisfying with a couple of likely suspects to keep me sort of guessing a good way into the book, although I think the how and why are more important here than the who.
Marston is good at keeping the period detail to a minimum too, just enough to give a bit of atmosphere, not enough to get bogged down in or to start picking holes in either which would be an unwelcome distraction.
Altogether I can only repeat what I said about The Ravens of Blackwater - that this is a well crafted book that's solidly entertaining without demanding very much of a tired reader. It's quite formulaic, but the formula works - like when you follow a recipe and get an excellent cake so there's no criticism implied in that, and this series really is proving a good find to me.
Thursday, September 9, 2021
Friday, September 3, 2021
I have a habit of buying 3 paperbacks for £5 from The Works (bargain bookshop chain in the UK) and never quite getting around to reading them so I'm feeling quite pleased with myself that I'd only had The Ravens of Blackwater for around a month before I picked it up last night. I don't quite know why I'm so bad at reading these books - maybe because they're impulse bargain buys rather than something I've been really excited about - and then the more exciting (to me) book comes along, or something that I've promised to write about needs reading.
Edward Marston's books are not quite what I'd normally pick up either (Georgette Heyer is my historical fiction exception), but I was intrigued by this series after seeing it around in a couple of places and it turned out to be easy to read in the course of an evening which is something I haven't managed with a book of this length for ages, so if the works have more of his titles in stock I'll be picking them up today.
It is sometime late in the 11th century, the Domesday book is being compiled and Ralph Delchard (a veteran of the Battle of Hastings) and Gervase Bret (lawyer) are part of the royal commission sent out to investigate peculiarities in the originally compiled information, handily solving murders as they go. This is the second in the series but worked well as a standalone book.
Marston is good at painting a broad picture of life in early Norman England without getting bogged down in tiresome detail, and his royal commission concept is excellent for moving his detectives around from one place to another where something is clearly wrong. The characters were appealing - the villainous FitzCorbucion family headed by the outrageously evil Hamo FitzCorbucion and seconded by his son Guy (soon murdered) were particularly gruesome, and yet still believable. Ralph and Gervase engage in a constant friendly bickering that builds a happy chemistry between them, and the secondary characters are well drawn too.
The internet tells me Marston has written over a hundred books (impressive) and I think what really comes across here is his craftsmanship. Everything is done well, and if it didn't demand much depth of thought from me, I wasn't in the mood for that. By the same token, I didn't feel like I was reading something particularly throw away either, so if you're looking for something fun to fill this current run of cold, grey, days and lengthening nights you could do a whole lot worse than pick this up.
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
I haven't read Sarah LeFanu's biography of Rose Macaulay, either of the older biographies on her, half of the books by Rose Macaulay I own, or indeed any more than two of her many books. I haven't read any of Sarah LeFanu's other books either and am not generally a fan of biographies so this book should have been a hard sell. I am a big fan of Handheld Press though so when they suggested I might like to read it I said yes.
Dreaming of Rose is Sarah LeFanu's journal (or at least the edited version that she thought fit for publication) that she kept over the years that she wrote her Macaulay book - it ends in 2002 with an epilogue from 2012 when a previously sealed file of correspondence held in the Wren Library in Cambridge was opened. I'm not generally a fan of published journals either, but I loved this one which is clearly a whole lot of exceptions coming together to prove a rule.
Part of the fascination is in following the process of writing a scholarly work - the ups and downs, negative and positive reactions from peers, and how you actually live whilst you're doing something like this. For LeFanu this isn't altogether easy as she juggles different contracts and part-time roles with the occasional grant that allows her to go further afield for her research. When she gets a really decent grant I was right there with her celebrating.
Then there's the way that Rose gets into Sarah's dreams, hence the title of the book, and another indicator of how intense the process of writing a biography can be. Add to that the difficulty of dealing with living relatives, friends, and connections, and an idea of how all-consuming the process is becomes clear. People who are happy to help one day are not the next. There are doubts about how a family member might be seen, family legends that become questionable as a fuller picture emerges - and the difficulty of negotiating all of this when you need to maintain people's trust and goodwill.
Apart from her relationship with Rose, the portrait of Sarah is also beguiling. She had been an editor at the Women's Press for several years, worked for the BBC, and in academia, so there are odd bits of gossip to be picked up here that throw unexpected sidelights in names that are half-familiar, or that connect literary dots. It meant a lot of happy googling whilst I read and a few interesting avenues to explore later.
There are also some interesting sidelights in upcoming Handheld books including Marjorie Grant's Latchkey Ladies - maybe I will need to read a Macauley biography, after all, it's certainly made me want to read more Macaulay - perhaps starting with Personal Pleasures, Essays on Enjoying Life (also just published by Handheld, and now I see they have Gerald O'Donovan's Vocations too, published a couple of years ago and I'm curious about that as well. Publishing Dreaming of Rose is clearly a smart marketing move!
Seriously though, it's a surprising page-turner with a lot to offer - including a sense of suspense - that I didn't really expect, and the final chapter about the potential revelations (or lack of them) in the newly opened file is fabulous. Absolutely worth reading if you're interested in Rose Macauley and her contemporaries, Sarah LeFanu (and her contemporaries), or the process of writing and what it takes.