Friday, April 29, 2016

Vanilla Black - Andrew Dargue

I've been feeling a bit uninspired in the kitchen for a while now, not that I've stopped cooking but that it's gone back to quick basics and old favourites. There doesn't seem to be time for anything else (this may be because knitting is taking up much of the creative space that cooking used to) and then I've found myself out of sympathy with a lot of recently released cookbooks so there's been no spur to try new things.

Much like a garden I find a kitchen also needs regular tending too. Neglect it for a bit and all you find in the fridge are months old (dried out and unappealing) bulbs of fennel, something that was almost certainly a carrot, and an overwhelming temptation to just go out, buy a pizza and have done. There may also be a lot of half used jars of jam, some milk, and a bottle of vermouth but I'm still not feeling it. The cupboards aren't much better, discard everything that's ridiculously out of date because I was saving it for something special and I find a total lack of the useful things That are the building blocks of most recipes. Instead it's the culinary equivalent of weeds - basically a proliferation of caraway seeds (why do I have 5 jars of these?) and several different types of sugar.

I also feel like I'm eating to much meat - because it's quick and easy and everywhere, so in an effort to sort out both that and the lack of inspiration I went in search of a vegetarian cookbook. I used to have a few but they went in last years big clear out (underused and far to reminiscent of a vegetarian ex). Vanilla Black isn't the one I went out to look for but its the one that passed the flip test.

I can't remember which recipe really swung it for me - it may have been one of the cakes, but the one I'm making next is the mature cheddar and Savoy cabbage pudding, and that's what I love about this book. Charred asparagus and quails eggs with peas and lime isn't reinventing the wheel, but it sounds really good, it sounds like something I want to eat, and it doesn't sound like much trouble to put together. That's the kind of inspiration I need to get back in the kitchen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Knitting Project

Dad gave me some lovely yarn when I saw him at the beginning of April - Jamieson's ultra cobweb in a natural white, and I thought two weeks would be more than long enough to knit a scarf for a friends birthday. I was a bit optomistic on the time scale, but after only 3 weeks I got it done, and finally gave it to her today so now I can share the details (which I'm doing because I'm really pleased with it rather than because I assume you're all interested...).

I had initially intended to try a slightly more complicated pattern but found I was making to many mistakes, so decided to go right back to basics and do something simple well. I like quick results so I'm always really pleased to finish something bigger as its a step in the right direction of taking on more interesting projects.

Half way through it occurred to me that as nice as the natural wool is to handle (so soft) creamy white isn't everyone's colour of choice, and R likes properly bright things so I decided to dip the ends in pink cold water dye, at the time I thought it would be the scariest part of the process (a lot of work gone if it hadn't worked, shrunk, felted, or done some other hideous thing) but it was fine (no reason for it to be otherwise). In fact the scary but turned out to be blocking the scarf, it stretched much more than I expected to, didn't fit on the towel I pinned it out on, and it became clear that if I made a mess of it, a mess is what I'd end up with.

It came out okay, but blocking is something I'll need to think about more carefully in future, the finishing really does make all the difference.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A day of Gin, Art, and Architecture

I'm currently enjoying a week off (really enjoying) work and today I've been to London, partly to see the In The age of Giorgione  exhibition at the RA - it was excellent, it's on until the 5th of June and I recommend anyone who gets the chance should go and see it.

It brings together as much work attributed to Giorgione as you're ever likely to see in one place (he died young, so there isn't so very much of it, but he was hugely influential) along with examples from his contemporary's and successors - mostly Venetian, but some great stuff by Dürer as well.

Before and after the exhibition I went on a gin hunt though. The first one took me to the City of London' distillery, it's not far from St Paul's cathedral which I'd never seen in real life before. I had a dramatic introduction to it, emerging from the underground to be greeted by a bolt of lightening and then a clap of thunder as I got my first glimpse. As the entry fee is a whopping £18 I opted to leave seeing inside until I have more time to do it justice. 

The City of London Distillery is just below St Brides church off Fleet Street, I wondered around a bit looking for it, walked past it once, and generally ought to have looked at the address instead of trying to make sense of a map on my phone (I'm not great with maps). What I wanted from it was a bottle of their Christopher Wren gin (bottle inspired by the cathedral, which they sell from behind the bar, with the stills just the other side of the room. The lovely man taking my money then told me that the guy next to me was Tom Nichol - the distiller. This was quite a big deal for me, though he wouldn't believe that I'd come all the way from Leicester to buy a bottle (okay it wasn't the only reason, but it was a big part of my plan for the day) said that he felt the product was overpriced (£42.50, it's by way of a birthday drink for D, so compares well to any grand marque champagne, but is the upper limit for what I'd spend on a bottle) and told me I could get it on amazon (all in the nicest possible way). 

I agreed about the price for general drinking purposes, but for what I want it for its perfect, and not excessive. Buying online means waiting in for delivery and not getting out to accidentally meet an industry hero. He promised I'd enjoy the gin (really good for martini's he says) then talked a bit about his work with Tanqueray and Gordon's (he's the man behind Tanqueray 10). What I didn't tell him was that I was also searching for a bottle of Tanqueray Bloomsbury, the last special edition he did for them before retiring. He was really lovely. 

I found my Bloomsbury bottle in Gerrys on Old Compton street, it's somewhere else I'd never been (almost as inexplicable as not having seen St Paul's before) so it was a good chance to explore Soho a bit more - increasingly sanitised, but still quite seedy. I'm really delighted with these gins, looking forward to drinking them both, and particularly after meeting the distiller behind them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë

I'm half afraid to admit it but I'm distinctly ambivalent about the Brontë's; I quite like Jane Eyre but it comes with such a freight of criticism and interpretation to weigh it down that I find it harder and harder to enjoy reading it. Mr Rochester's defects as a romantic lead are as nothing to Heathcliff's though. If I'd read Wuthering Heights as a teenager I might have appreciated it more, as it is by the time I came to it in - in my 30's - however much I enjoyed it as a gothic masterpiece everyone seems do monumentally f****d up that it's hard to take it seriously.

Meanwhile there was 'The Tenent of Wildfell Hall' which has all sorts of interesting things to say, and is grown up yet subversive, so I probably should have read 'Agnes Grey' before now. Still, better late then never and after seeing something that Simin Thomas wrote about it I bought a copy on my way home on Friday night to read over the weekend. 

If the introduction is to be trusted (I'm sure it is) then it shows Charlotte in an extremely unflattering (but I'm happy to believe accurate) light, and suggests that the accounts of life as a governess closely reflect those Anne experienced.

I'm going to assume that anyone reading this will either already be familiar with 'Agnes Grey', or won't mind spoilers (there will be spoilers). So, starting at the beginning, at a time when the employment opportunities for ladylike young women were basically confined to governess we have a well educated but very inexperienced young woman heading out into the world to deal with other people's children. The social position of a governess is hard to pin down, separate from the other servants but still a paid employee, she must have all the accomplishments her pupils are expected to learn, and the right kind of accent and manners to teach them, but Agnes' so presumably Anne's experience is that she's also socially invisible. Agnes isn't a particularly assertive personality either and nor has she had any formal training to teach which undoubtedly adds to her problems when faced with deluded parents and incalcitrant children.

The first family seems to be made up of budding sociopaths (a lot of small animals are torn apart) and Agnes spends some time regretting that she isn't allowed to either box their ears or cane them with birch rods. It's impossible not to feel some sympathy for her point of view, they are horrible children, and how is someone who has neither the ability to punish or reward meant to maintain discipline in the schoolroom? Especially when the parents give the children no example of treating the governess with respect. Fortunately the job doesn't last long.

The next set of children are older and slightly less murderously inclined, and here too Agnes falls in love with the curate. He is in every way suitable - they share the same values and morals, are equally educated, have a similar class background, and no huge disparity in fortune. I wonder if Edwards extreme suitability, along with another portrait of an unhappy marriage to a rich man who drinks and gambles, are an explicit criticism of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester, or if Anne just shared my love of a reliable man.

At this stage Agnes's charges are Rosalie who at 18 is a vain and ambitious young woman, and her slightly younger sister who likes to swear and hang out with grooms. They're spoiled young women determined to have their own way, but I ended up having a degree of sympathy for their mother when she remonstrates with her governess. Agnes seems altogether too happy to loiter behind on walks whilst the girls talk to young men their mother doesn't care for, or to be sent off in errands that are more congenial to her when Rosalie is clearly making assignations, and if there's any chance of meeting Edward interest in her charges completely evaporates. It's human, but I'm not sure it's what she's being paid for.

Altogether it's a fascinating book, full of anger and frustration at the life so many unwilling young women must have been forced into, but also honest enough to leave me aware, sometimes uncomfortably so, of Agnes/Anne's deficiencies in her chosen profession. I'm so very glad that she chose to write rather than continue teaching, and sorry that she died before we could get more of her writing. Anne's work might not be as showy, but she's the Brontë who gives me some interest in the sisters and their collected novels, and provide some much needed balance to their passionate outpourings. Her books feel true, they have important things to say, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get round to reading this one. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Serpents In Eden - Countryside Crimes

Edited by Martin Edwards.

There's nothing like a short story collection to see you through a weekend away from the rest of your books, and that's certainly one reason why I like them so much. The British Library collections have never failed me yet, and this one was no exception to that rule.

I say this every time but the series continues from strength to strength - at least I certainly think so. I loved this collection, Margery Allingham's 'A Proper Mystery' was my favourite - it's a dark tale of sabotage and vegetable marrows which manages to be as funny as it is tense, as well as a beautifully executed vision of country life -  and all without a single murder.

Leonora Wodehouses 'The Inquest' does have a murder, but also an unexpected (and pleasing) twist, it seems we really lost a talent when she died before she could really develop her literary career (she was P.G. Wodehouse's step daughter if you were wondering about the name). It's another highlight - these two alone are worth the purchase price - so the other eleven stories are quite the bonus.

It's hard to say much without either writing a list or giving a lot away, or just repeating how much I love this collection over and over again. (I really do). Which is why I've never understood why short story anthologies aren't much more popular, who couldn't get excited by the prospect of a bakers dozen of carefully chosen stories each with something unexpected to offer. For me these British Library collections are a chance to meet old friends and find new ones, which helps on those occasions when I find myself face to face with boxes of old penguin crime novels looking for a familiar name (Christine's book cabin in Market Harborough - it's in a shed at the back of a car park near the Co-Op if you're ever in the area - has just such boxes...)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Its World Book Night

World book night generally manages to pass me by, it shouldn't, I love the idea, and every year when I realise it's happening I think I'll get involved next time - and then fail too. As a keen reader this is a cause of some shame, I should try harder to share the joy of books and reading with those less keen - shouldn't I?

The important thing is that the opportunity to escape into a book is available to anyone who wants it and anything that promotes that is worth getting behind. This year I was sent a selection of author Q&A's and have chosen Ann Cleeves because - well because she loves Shetland, and so do I, but also because I found her responses interesting.

World Book Night 2016
Author Q&A
Ann Cleeves

3 favourite books of all time
This is almost impossible, changes daily and depends on what I’ve been reading most recently.
Le Grand Meaulnes (translated as The Lost Estate) by Alain Fournier is always on the list.  I love the set-up, the sense of the lonely son of a country school master and his friendship with the older boy who becomes a fellow student.  The plot is preposterous but readers are left with the idea of adventure, loyalty and mystery.
I’ve recently re-read Simenon’s Maigret novels and I’m a big fan.  Simenon can say so much with one simple sentence, and there are no monsters in his crime fiction.  I hope the recent television adaptation will bring in fresh readers.
To bring some cohesion to my choice I’ll add Side-tracked by Henning Mankell.  Translated fiction is still my reading passion.  Mankell’s hero, Wallender, is a very believable cop and Mankell does brilliantly visual first scenes.

3 books you would give to a reluctant reader
I’d suggest anything on the Quick Reads list. Quick Reads are books that have been specifically commissioned for people who are new to reading for pleasure.  The content is very definitely for grown-ups, but the language is relatively simple and the chapters are short.  The scheme has been going for ten years now so there’s plenty for people to choose from.  For instance, this year there’s a story by Lucy Diamond about pregnancy, an edited version of Malala’s story and a crime novel by me!  I wouldn’t want to recommend specific titles because reluctant readers have their own tastes and preferences like everyone else.  Part of the joy of reading is wandering into a library and taking a chance with a book.  So instead of giving 3 books, I’d give a library ticket.

3 outside places you like to read
I’ll read anywhere.  Of course we all enjoy holiday reading and there’s something wonderful about knowing that I can spend all day losing myself in a novel, without feeling guilty (though I still think I should be writing…) I don’t do beach holidays much though so often my outside holiday reading will be somewhere a bit chilly.  Luckily, Busta House Hotel in the North Mainland of Shetland has quite a sheltered garden.  I sometimes snatch time when I’m at home to read in my own garden.  A cup of tea, a lunchtime sandwich and a novel – what could be nicer?  For my 60th birthday my husband and I took an expedition through Bolivia.  He’s a passionate birder, so there were a lot of stops while he and the others tried to sort out various species of hummingbirds or to pin down the antbirds.  I did spend quite a few hours reading by the track in the rain forest waiting for them.

Favourite Shakespeare work
Othello.  I’m a crime-writer and Othello tackles very modern themes of obsessive love and jealousy. The plot could easily be up-dated to become a contemporary psychological thriller.  Iago’s a clever and manipulative villain, and Othello is a flawed hero whose lack of confidence makes him an easy target.  Desdemona is an independent woman who’s fallen love with an outsider.

Favourite Shakespeare quotation
Oberon’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight’
I was asked to learn this when I first started senior school and it seemed very grown up to be memorizing a piece of Shakespeare.  This is Oberon planning his trick on his wife and it’s almost like a spell.  The list of flowers and the heady language makes us feel as dreamy as Titania as she becomes enchanted.  It also reminds me of a very happy childhood.

Monday, April 18, 2016


I've been meaning to write about my other hobby again for a while, ideally not sandwiched between lots of crime novels (albeit at the classic rather than the gruesome end of the genre), but that hasn't quite worked out.

I've wanted to learn to shoot (with a shotgun) ever since I was in my teens - because why wouldn't you? But first of all dad refused to teach me on the grounds that it would bother the neighbours and I'd probably threaten my sister. It would have bothered the neighbours. I should probably have joined some sort of society at university, but the guys with guns seemed a bit weird at first glance, and I'd just discovered gin. Finally I had a go on a hen night and decided it was fun but opportunities to persue it further didn't really materialise until a few years ago when my mother really got into it.

She persuaded my partner that we should have a couple of lessons - one of the things I love about shooting is it demands no particular level of physical fitness or strength - so we did, and both enjoyed it but I'm the one who's carried on, but until this year in a very on off way. Recently however it's become a much more regular thing, mum's got a couple of competitions coming up so she's practicing, and mentoring me at the same time, it's something nice we can do together.

Until really very recently shooting hasn't been terribly welcoming towards women, but that's really starting to change which is a good thing because there's something particularly satisfying about smashing clays out of the sky. It's also very cathartic, and who doesn't need that some days.

Like any hobby/sport there are different levels and disciplines. For me the attraction is very much towards clays, the costs are manageable (which matters, it can be a very expensive hobby if you let it) and I have no moral qualms about shooting at ashtrays. Not that I have any particular issue about other people shooting game, but for myself the idea of shooting at more than you can eat doesn't make much sense, the idea of hitting something but not killing it quickly or cleanly doesn't work either.

It also helps that our local gun club is - democratic is probably the best description. It's very well run but the facilities are more greasy spoon than hunting lodge - which I like because you don't feel out of place if you're not head to toe tweed, but you wouldn't be out of place if you were either and that's how it should be. I do have some tweed, it's the biggest investment I've made so far (luckily I have the use of a gun) and it's a waistcoat, necessary for the just enough padding around the shoulders to stop me getting dramatic bruising from the gun recoiling. (Before the waistcoat I used to get bruises like tiger stripes from the combination of bra strap and gun butt) and useful for the pockets. I should say that as long as you hold the gun properly (and doing so was my main concern for a long time, never mind hitting anything) the recoil doesn't hurt, bruises were due to repeated pressure on the same spot! Some sort of ear defenders are also a must, as is eye protection. A hat is useful for keeping  hair out of my eyes and just in case I get showered by shards of clay (this hasn't happened yet).

Starting out a gun club will provide a gun for initial lessons, as do groups like the Shotguns and Chelsea buns ladies so it's easy enough to get a feel for if its going to be worth making the considerable investment that is a gun of your own, plus licence and cabinet to keep it in.

Anyway, the point of all this is to say if shooting is something you've always liked the sound of - give it a go. It's much more enjoyable than I could ever have imagined.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Antidote to Venom - Freeman Willis Crofts

After reading 'A Blunt Instrument' I was in the right mood for another murder so was really pleased to find that 'Antidote to Venom' was another 1938 book, perfect timing. I really like Simon and Kaggsy's  book club concept; choosing a year still leaves a lot of scope to find the book that feels right for the moment, there are enough people reading the same books to give a really representative view of them, but enough different books to keep it interesting.

It's been a stressful few weeks at work (there's a stock count coming up which I hate going) so golden age crime is just what I want. Not much violence, a puzzle to enjoy, and always the little details about everyday life that give some insight into the past.

1938 has been an interesting year to visit in this way, not just because if the interesting political situation that was brewing, but also because it's just falling out of living memory. My paternal Grandfather was in still in his 20's in 1938, father of a hopeful young family amongst other pursuits, so on one level I have him in mind when I read books like this. The details would have been familiar to him, and who knows - maybe he picked just this book up to read on a train journey... (Although it would more likely have been something about horses).

Back to 'Antidote to Venom'. It's a bit out of the ordinary in that we see the murder unfold from the murderers point of view, which means amongst other things that I spent quite a lot of time working out who the victim was going to be rather than the culprit. It's also got a distinctly evangelical moral message at the end which is interesting, and certainly unusual in my general reading.

Our sinning protagonist is presented sympathetically as a weak man who's made an unhappy marriage and got himself into financial difficulties. Suddenly faced with ruin he's offered a chance of financial redemption, there are risks, and he knows what he's being asked to do. Its also easy enough to see why he does what he does, not that Crofts ever underplays how serious the sin is, or how weak or wrong his character is in the way he behaves. Still, it's useful to be reminded how easy it is to make a bad decision, and that how once made it can escalate dramatically (if not typically into murder).

What it tells me about 1938 is that it would have been a much safer place if the expectation was that middle class women could have enjoyable careers after marriage, that they were educated for careers at all, and if divorce was socially acceptable.

The divorce question is one that I find particularly interesting. I must admit I hadn't altogether considered how much it might cost an unhappy, and unfaithful, husband - but this one takes it for granted it would mean the loss of his job, which comes with a home, and as he's in debt he's rather stuck. For his wife it would be an unpleasant situation to find herself in, but she can at least comfort herself with the possibility of making a rather better (financially) second marriage.

Altogether I really enjoyed this book, and I'm very pleased that the 1938 club gave me the final push to read it. Thank you, Simon and Karen for organising it. I look forward to the next one!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

'A Notable Woman' in 1938

It's not often that I can see the point of e-readers but just sometimes I'm prepared to admit that they might not be totally useless to me (I fully accept that they're very useful to other people, they just don't generally meet my reading needs). The romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt - the notable woman in question - which cover 60 years of her life, and even in this edited form run to over 700 pages are the exception that prove the rule.

I've been trying to read this book since December, it's moving, funny, insightful, absorbing, and compelling. It's also a bit to big to put in my bag and cart around. I could really do with a mild illness that would keep me off work for long enough to read it (I could bare another attack of shingles) because as it is I'm only reading it in fits and starts and it's a book that deserves rather more.

With the 1938 club in mind, and as encouragement to work out a reading strategy (which would probably be to stop knitting) for Jean I thought I'd read my way through the 1938 entries, and as these only cover a few pages I started in 1935 and read on (which made me want to read back, get into Jean's world and it's hard to leave).

These are eventful years, Jean is in her mid 20's, keeps developing crushes on inappropriate men, decides to move out of home due to friction with her step mother, loses her father, finishes a book, lives in Malta for 10 months, sees a therapist, hopes that war is not coming, has an article accepted by the Architectural Review. There is also the small matter of King Edward's abdication, and a visit to Germany and Austria in 1936.

Jean had private means, about £200 a year if I remember correctly, and which if the inflation calculator I found is accurate equates to about £12600 in today's money. That's not going to fund a lavish lifestyle but it gives her the luxury of time to follow her writing ambitions in these years. Thanks to these journals we also get a window into her life, and through it all sorts of insights into the past (amongst other things).

I can't recommend 'A Notable Woman' highly enough. It's a wonderful book and one day I'll report back properly about it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Blunt Instrument - Georgette Heyer

When I was looking for something to read for the 1938 book club I though it might be interesting to see what Georgette Heyer produced in that year and what it could tell me about 1938 generally. Luckily one of the two books she published in 1938 (the other is 'Royal Escape' which I might get to later in the week) was a contemporary crime novel.

Heyer's detective fiction aren't generally as well regarded as her historical romances but I've always enjoyed them, albeit uncritically. Even so 'A Blunt Instrument' isn't necessarily one of her best, there are a couple of romances thrown in but I couldn't really warm to any of the protagonists. It's also hard to care much for the victim or the eventual culprit - and it does help if you can care about the characters a little bit.

On the other hand, even though I had remembered who did it the fun Heyer has with bible quotations and her general lightness of touch still made it an enjoyable re read and the puzzle she creates for her detective to solve (it's all about timing) is enjoyable too.

What it tells me about 1938 is how many servants people still had. The background is a wealthy London suburb, nice houses in big gardens owned by business men who routinely employ butlers, cooks, house maids, boot boys, valets, ladies maids, and presumably gardeners. I assume this would have read as enviable but quite feasible at the time but it sounds like a lot of household help to me.

There is also a troubling to the modern reader streak of anti-semitism. Thete is a corrupt Jewish broker and what's bothersome is the way that his hand gestures are referred to as betraying his race, and a description of him having a certain oily quality to his skin. It betrays a deep seated prejudice that I'm perfectly aware my grandparents shared, but which is disturbing to read now, probably because I find the descriptions de humanising. Something more deliberately offensive might not be as shocking as this implication that readers naturally shared these prejudices.

Finally there's lots of talk about travel - business of some sort in Berlin (what could that be I wonder) and travel for pleasure to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia which to a child of the Cold War era seems terribly exotic.

If anything I'm surprised this book was written as late as 1938, it looks back to older certainties of the social order, and Neville and Sally strike me as characters who would be more at home with the bright young things of the previous decade than the rather more serious 30's. Now I need to find something to compare it with.