Thursday, July 27, 2017

Marling Hall - Angela Thirkell

still in 1942, but this time in Barsetshire and the War is everywhere. It's a very different atmosphere to George Bellairs 'Death of a Busybody' where he ignored it as far as possible. As ever with Angela Thirkell reading her books once is not enough (I'm very grateful for the Internet and the access it gives me to the Angela Thirkell society's guides go her novels. Invaluable for chasing down references.) there's so much detail that a lot of it will always slip past me first read round.

That's partly because the first time I read these books I'm sort of concentrating on the plot, such as it is, and trying to keep everybody's relationships, names, and children straight. After that it's Thirkell's rather malicious humour as she digs her pen into people or types that annoy her. And then there's her insiders view of an upper middle class world under increasing threat.

'Marling Hall' opens with William Marling, squire of Marling Hall, a man in late middle age contemplating 'his small and much loved world crumbling beneath his feet during his life and a fair probability that his family will never be able to live in Marling Hall after his death.' Regardless of how you might feel about class, this is a sad reflection - it's not the relative luxury, but the personal history, and the pride in being able to pass something beloved on to the next generation that's being threatened. Knowing the number of country houses that were demolished post war (see Here for more), some of them of real architectural significance, it isn't unlikely that Marling Hall would have been raised to the ground. I don't know if Thirkell had any inkling if the scale of the destruction that would come with peace when she wrote this, but it lends a considerable pathos to her defence of old county ways.

There's a lot about the county set in 'Marling Hall' and I will admit that I'm feeling faintly nostalgic for my memories of what that meant when I was a child. Men in tweed suits that they quite possibly had made before the war, or that may even have belonged to their fathers before them and frankly intimidating women with pearls who looked capable of just about anything, mostly encountered at the local agricultural show. They would have been the generation that Thirkell is writing about here - something I hadn't really considered before, but is probably another reason I like her books (without wanting to live in one).

Something else I found particularly interesting in 'Marling Hall' is the focus in child rearing. In Thirkell's eyes this means the right kind of nurse/nanny followed by the right kind of governess, before going to the right kind of schools. It's definitely worth noting that her fictional school (Southbridge) seems to be filled with benign, well educated masters, who do not take pleasure in beating boys. Their diet is good, and they get hot water. This is very much at odds with just about any description of private schools I have ever read or heard.

The question of whether bringing up children is best left to professionals or parents is an interesting one though, but even more interesting is Thirkell's frank admission through one of her characters that her children are far easier to like because she isn't primarily responsible for their care. She can enjoy them without becoming tired or overwhelmed by them. It's not a point of view that fits with the #blessed Instagram image of motherhood - but it's honest.

On the other hand I get the impression that Thirkell would only defend her way of thinking so vehemently if it was under threat not just from outside forces, but from within her own glass/the class she writes about.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Death of a Busybody - George Bellairs

It turned out that two of the books I took on holiday with me were first published in 1942, and as both were basically always intended as light reading it was particularly interesting to realise how different their respective approaches to current events were.

The first book I read was a British Library crime classic (with a particularly lovely cover) - George Bellairs 'Death of a Busybody', the second was Angela Thirkell's 'Marling Hall' which will get its own post.

'Death of a Busybody' was perfect holiday reading, not in the least bit demanding, thoroughly entertaining, mildly funny, and enough underlying tension to give it some oomph. Miss Tither is a middle aged spinster with a prurient interest in her neighbours lives. She's given to spying on them, haranguing them for their sins, or informing their spouses/parents when they stray. It's an unattractive mix that's bound to lead to trouble so it's possible that nobody is very surprised when she turns up dead in the vicars cess pit.

The local police are busy with a number of other more or less serious local crimes do Beverly sensibly decide to call in and work amicably with Scotland Yard. Cue the entry of Inspector Littlejohn who's job it is to turn over stones and see what crawls out.

The answer to that is much as you'd expect in the way of young people misbehaving with each other, unhappy marriages, and a few who might drink more than they should. There's a missionary nephew who might have something to hide but none of it quite adds up to enough to justify murder - not until the will is read at any rate.

As Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, there's nothing particularly original about the plotting or even the device that provides the crucial alibi, but it's done do well that it doesn't matter. What does matter are all the little embellishments that bring the book to life (the body in the cess pit being but knew such detail) and give it a great deal of charm.

It's also a noticeably nostalgic book, the war is alluded to (the village taxi has been replaced with a horse and cab due to petrol rationing) but mostly ignored in favour of the things that should be - sunny harvest weather, good food and beer (with plenty to go round), and everybody getting what they deserve in the end (good and bad). It seems likely that that was just as comforting in 1942 as it is in these uncertain times, and probably just as unlikely. Either way it provided me with a very happy afternoons entertainment so I'm thoroughly recommending it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cheerfulness Breaks In - Angela Thirkell

I've had the last lot of Virago Thirkell reprints sitting around since November waiting to be dusted down and read, took 'Marling Hall' on holiday with me, and then thought that I really needed to read 'Cheerfulness Breaks In'. It's a source of real irritation to me that Virago chose to issue this as an ebook only. It means I've had to read it on my phone, which I don't enjoy, and makes it very hard to refer back to when I want to check something, remember it, or write about it.

On the plus side it means that it is available to read at a reasonable price. I think I can understand why Virago went down the ebook route as well. Plot wise it's not perhaps Thirkell's best, it's hard to work out/remember what's going on at times as characters from previous books pop in and out (I've not read these books in sequence, and there are so many very similar people then it gets confusing), and this as Thirkell as un PC as I've met her. There's lots of casual racism, anti Semitism, snobbery, and high Tory propaganda. Despite all of that, and maybe because of my own current mood, I found this one particularly moving and relevant.

Published in 1940, 'Cheerfulness Breaks In' starts in the summer of 1939 when it's still possible to hope that war might be averted and finishes just after Dunkirk on a shocker of a cliffhanger. In between people get married and engaged, take in evacuees, get involved with work parties and committees, watch the younger men head off into the various forces, worry about if they're doing their bit, and generally dig in for the future.

It might not be a perfect book, but it captures a moment and a mood whilst reflecting back prejudices and fears in a way that really got under my skin. Well ordered, comfortably elegant, middle class lives are about to be shattered forever and Thirkell knows it. From the older generation of characters who have fought and lost people in the previous war and are now faced with children or grandchildren facing the same destruction there's a palpable sense of distress.

Younger characters can see it as fun, apart perhaps for Lydia Keith who's time s taken up with the mundane but neccesary tasks of caring for her elderly parents, running the family estate so her father and brother can concentrate on other things, and lots of less glamorous committees and voluntary work (work that leaves her smelling of rabbit stew) at an age when she might reasonably have looked forward to parties and fun. Mostly though, it's an elegy to a world that's about to be smashed to pieces and I can't help but feel evident Thirkell's dismay regardless of how I feel about her politics or prejudices.

Her point of view may at times feel controversial by contemporary standards, but that doesn't make it any less valid, or important to remember - or even to consider.

As ever with Thirkell I know that when I come to re read (please let it be in a paper copy by then) this I'll find much more in it. I don't think I made a bad job of spotting some of her references (I got the Radcliffe Hall/Compton Mackenzie one) but there will be dozens more to spot, and plenty more to consider.

One thing I'm definitely considering after reading a couple of her book back to back is the way the title of snob is applied to her. It's in much the same way as with Georgette Heyer, and seems much more pejorative than when applied to say, Nancy Mitford (I'm going to guess that Thirkell might not have considered Mitford quite the thing). I find Thirkell both funnier and more illuminating than Mitford whose affectations can get tiresome and whose characters are hard to care about.

For rather less muddled, and better informed, thoughts on Cheerfulness Breaks In see This from Kate Macdonald.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Whalsay Fair Isle Knitting Through The Decades - The Book

I've spent a lovely day off with my yarn (all sorted and catalogued, now just waiting to become things). It should go into draws or boxes for the duration, but I'm unwilling to take it off the floor at the moment, partly because I like the unexpected colour combinations I find moving it around.

That's sort of relevant because the great thing about the Whalsay Fair Isle exhibition was the unexpected colours. It's hard to describe just how unexpected it was, especially for the older garments, but handily there is now a book (currently the only place I've found it for sale online is here  on Jamieson and Smith's website). It's a short booklet, only 56 pages, and doesn't contain everything in the exhibition (or have any patterns in it) but it's well worth the £12 it costs.

In her comment on yesterday's post Ginny Jones (very helpfully) put up the link to Kate Davies post about this exhibition (Here) which is worth reading because it's excellent, and as a bonus has pictures of some garments that I don't think were in this years show (though I could be wrong about that, it's surprising how different textiles can look on camera compared to life). It all reinforces my excitement about what I saw on Whalsay.

'Fair Isle' has become something of a catch all term, and though I've heard there are people on Fair Isle itself who find it a bit annoying and hold that only Fairisles from Fair Isle are the real deal, it's never much bothered me before. After Whalsay it does, because my understanding of Shetland knitting has changed. Until now I was familiar with what I suppose are best described as stereotypical garments in either natural sheep shades, or in the reds, blues, and yellows produced by natural dyes. There are several very beautiful examples in the museum collection. They're combinations that remain popular and are familiar from dozens of period dramas.


In my innocence I thought that this was more or less representative of the work being produced across Shetland both for sale, and to wear, especially in the 1920's and 30's, even though theoretically I knew about the range of chemical dyes available, that Wool by this time generally went south to be processed before coming back as yarn, and that women were buying yarn rather than spinning it themselves as a matter of course. I hadn't thought about interlocking patterns at all, associating them more with Scandinavian design and assuming that they appeared later - I was wrong. Whalsay clearly had its own style distinct from 'Fair Isle', it deserves its own fame. The next question is how many other distinct reagional variations are there?

There are a couple of things I'm taking from this, the first being that there needs to be a much bigger, dedicated, exhibition space in Shetland that really tells the story of the islands knitwear, and that explores local differences (or schools of patterns, motifs, and colours). The existing museums do an excellent job with the space they have available but it's nowhere near enough. There's some terrifically exciting stuff here that arguably functions as art (as well as craft and fashion) and it deserves to be properly assessed and celebrated.

Secondly there desperately needs to be an accesable catalogue, either digital or in a book, that comprehensively records not just the official museum collection, but also the pieces held by various local heritage centres, and in private hands - if people can be persuaded to share. There's a tremendous history of creativity here - something that's really great about the 'Whalsay' book is that the knitters and often the wearers of these garments are known - and it should be shouted from the rooftops.

Meanwhile this is the book we have, and it's not to be sniffed at. Page 53, showing a collection of contemporary yoke jumpers knitted by girls as young as 10 (they're amazing) shows that this incredible tradition of creativity is alive and well.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Nigella Lawson and a lot of yarn

I had fully intended to write a post about the Catalogue for the Whalsay Fair Isle Knitting Through the Decades exhibition tonight but I got distracted by the big box of yarn I posted a week ago (back in Shetland) finally arriving, and Nigella Lawson's 'Feast'.

A friend produced an absolutely wonderful red kidney bean dip pre dinner a couple of weeks ago, which was a revelation to me because I don't normally care for kidney beans. I begged the recipe only to be told it was in 'Feast', which I have. I made it tonight and it was just as good as remembered (the mix of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and coffee smells - the last not actually in the dip - has made my kitchen smell great). Whilst I was at it I thought I ought to have a good look through 'Feast' to see what else I had forgotten or failed to notice in the past.

Lots it seems, so I won't make a list, but it was also a reminder of why I really like Nigella's books. It's full of quick and easy things, some so simple they hardly deserve the title 'recipe' but are exactly the sort of helpful suggestion you want to make things easy from time to time. Balancing those are the full on showstoppers that involve a bit more than an M&S meringue nest, some pomegranate seeds, and a bit of cream - but which are never intimidating, and always reliable. I tend to overlook my older cookbooks so it was good to get reacquainted with one of them.

The yarn apparently took the scenic route from Shetland, taking a very long time to get from the village post office to its next recorded destination in Aberdeen, but finally on Monday (I posted it on Wednesday last and was getting anxious) it started to move again. It arrived in Leicester today, almost made it to my flat, but I was working, so it got diverted to a mystery post office. This is allegedly my closest post office. It isn't, but the much closer ones don't take parcels (I can't tell you how much I miss the callers office in town).

Unfortunately the delivery man's instructions were cryptic. The post office he indicated closed some time ago, the postcodes he put down for both myself and the mystery post office were indecipherable, but as far as I could make out both incomplete and incorrect. R very kindly agreed to go on a trip across town and into a maze of streets in a not particularly nice neighbourhood to help me try and find the parcel. We found the defunct post office, asked directions in a nearby hairdressers, who sort of sent us in the right direction but gave us the wrong name, consulted google (unhelpful), asked another passer by, found a post office, (3 streets away) which luckily turned out to be the one we wanted, and got my parcel with minutes to spare before closing.

My plan for the rest of the evening is to spend quality time with all the Wool. (iPads capitals for Wool, but who am I to argue?)


Monday, July 17, 2017

Whalsay for Fair Isle knitting

I was cross with myself when I came back from Shetland last year for missing what everyone said was a brilliant exhibition on the island of Whalsay documenting Fair Isle Knitting through the decades In the heritage centre. Luckily it was so popular that the heritage centre decided to extend it for another year, and publish a small book about it.

I'd never been to Whalsay before, so there was all the fun of working out where the ferry went from, when the heritage centre would be open (4 afternoons a week for 3 hours) and then making sense of the ferry timetable. Whalsay also has a restored Hanseatic böd (the poet Hugh MacDiarmid lived on the island for a while too) on the shore not far from where the ferry docks, or the heritage centre - convenient.

Our first stop was the Böd. I knew the Hansa had been active in Shetland, but I'd never really appreciated how active - a road behind Pier house was known as Bremen Strasse for many years - or how influential they must have been. I didn't know there had been so much piracy in and around the islands either, so it was all thoroughly exciting.

I was so excited by the actual knitwear that I forgot to check if the heritage centre is run by volenteers (I think it is) or to ask how they came by their collection. I have the feeling that many pieces might only have been lent. All of them had family histories attached.

My interest in traditional Shetland knitting has been growing for years, not because the style is particularly unique - photographs from Eastonia showing very similar designs, and the appropriation of Norwegian stars into post war designs alone show that ideas and motifs have been exchanged and refined for a very long time. To me these kind of international links are one of the things that make it so interesting. What is unique are the design decisions made by individual knitters, and the more of these pieces I see, the clearer it is that this is art as well as craft.

The great thing about the Whalsay exhibition is that it's full of things that were knitted for family members rather than for sale. They're made from the yarn that was available to buy, so most of the jumpers from the 1920's and 1930's here are actually knitted in Rayon (they're quite slinky, and all for men who must have looked utterly splendid in them) which is probably one reason they've survived as well as they have (do moths like rayon as much as they like Wool?). They don't look anything like the golfing jumpers the Prince of Wales made so popular, but they are stunning.

These patterns often weren't written down, although later on girls definatley collected motifs from their friends, and the complexity of them is something to behold, as is the constant evolution of style in line with changing fashions. I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough to anyone who will be in Shetland this summer. There's so much information to take in, the ladies in the heritage centre are brilliant with so much knowledge to share, and it's beautiful knitwear.













Saturday, July 15, 2017

Back from Shetland

Or where you get to see some of my holiday pictures. I got back to Leicester this afternoon with very mixed feelings. I could have done with another month (at least) away to catch up with everybody and everything I wanted to. I'm a bit disconcerted by the realisation that it will definitely get dark tonight rather than just a few hours of twilight, there's a mountain of washing to deal with, and I really would like to see a lot more of my dad (and the rest of the family too).

Meanwhile the weather was very kind to us and we had a great time which makes leaving that bit harder to do (rain, wind, and all round bad tempers next time might be helpful, if not better). So whilst I collect my thoughts and sort out laundry here are some pictures...












Friday, July 14, 2017

Otters

My holiday day is almost over, I'm not looking forward to going back to work - not least because I've been so busy doing so many nice things here that I could do with a lazy week to recover.

One of the many great things about Shetland is it's wildlife; we've seen puffins, porpoises, gannets, seals, the lawn is covered in oystercatchers, terns have dive bombed us, as have skuas, and there have been a lot of otters. More particularly there's been a lot of one otter who has reliably appeared between tides and at dusk. It looks to me like a young female, she has a distinctive pink patch on her nose and is a joy to watch.

Shetland is a brilliant place to spot otters - walk by the shore keeping an eye out for spraint, empty crab shells and sea urchins; likely otter food. Ideally if you spot one hope you find yourself upwind and not silhouetted against the sky - their eyesight is poor so they rely on their sense of smell. If this is the case stay still and they might not notice you. I spent a good 45 minutes watching my otter yesterday before she got downwind of me and swam off. As I was in an undignified as well as uncomfortable position I wasn't altogether sorry to be able to move, but hadn't wanted to disturb the important otter business of eating and fluffing up fur.




The photos aren't great because mobile phones have severe limitations, but it's the best chance I've ever had to try and take any pictures, and it amazing just to be able to watch her for a while. They're enchanting creatures.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Victoria Gibson at Shetland Textile Museum

It's difficult blogging on holiday, every time I look out of the window I get distracted, never mind the people to catch up with, walks to go on, exhibitions to see, dogs to commune with, and all the rest of it.

I want to write about this one whilst it's fresh in my mind (though I'm planning on seeing it again before I go). Victoria Gibson's distinctive knitwear is easy to take for granted if you've always been familiar with it so now is absolutely the right time for an exhibition to really evaluate her work.

Shetlands Textile Museum (at the Böd of Gremista, just on the way into Lerwick) is quite small (more space for exhibiting objects would be great, though they do a brilliant job with what they have, and the very knowledgeable volunteers on hand to answer questions and give practical demonstrations are amazing). It means there's only really one room for this exhibition which makes what they've managed to do even more impressive.

Seeing a row of Victoria's jumpers in a shop is quite impressive - her designs are big on colour and texture. Seeing her knitwear in a gallery setting does it justice, especially when you can follow its evolution over five decades.

From the early striped jumpers in earthy tones for Cloth Kits (some self assembly required) and bright rainbow colours of the seventies, to the signature designs that focus on graduating colours and textures, it's really interesting to see the work evolving.

Over the years I've had a few of the checked jumpers. I like the way they explore how shades quite close together on the colour spectrum work together (the volunteer I spoke to at the museum, an experianced knitter, was saying she'd never think, or dare, to use colours in the same way). I also like the way that there's a nod to Fair Isle patterns (2 colours in each row, limited stitches between colour changes) though these ones also make me think of tweed.

The textured jumpers take this a step further. The patterns created using different stitches are another nod to Fair Isle, the subtle graduations in colour are often suggestive of the Shetland landscape, but more than that it just feels like there's a real pleasure in exploring how these things work together. The finished articles make it look effortless, but it isn't. Seeing the exhibition gives some idea of the creative process behind the clothes, as well as being a reminder that it's a process that involves any number of knitters.

It's an excellent exhibition and should be a must see for anyone in Shetland this summer.



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Story of Classic Crime

I'm very pleased to be hosting a guest post today from Martin Edwards to celebrate the publication of 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books'. It's an excellent book (which I'm now equally pleased I didn't bring on holiday with me because my luggage is still 'Destination Unknown'). I will write more about it when I get home, but promise it's worth seeking out if you have even the most passing interest in classic crime.

In uncertain times, classic crime stories offer both escapism and entertainment. But the best of them give readers much more – interesting characters, thought-provoking moral dilemmas, fascinating description of period and place, as well as a good deal of high-calibre writing. Detective stories have often been under-valued – even some authors tended to be dismissive of their own work. But the striking success of the British Library’s series of Classic Crime reissues speaks for itself. Readers in this country and much further afield have discovered for themselves the pleasure of reading long-neglected authors such as John Bude and Raymond Postgate. And they keep coming back for more.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is my second book about the crime genre. The Golden Age of Murder explored the Detection Club, founded in 1930, the people who were prime movers in the Club, the books they wrote, and the way the times in which they lived affected their lives and their work. It was a book for fans, rather than academics, and encouraged by its reception, I’ve again tried to give a fresh take on the genre’s history. This time, my aim is to show how crime fiction changed from the start of the twentieth century, when Sherlock Holmes tracked down The Hound of the Baskervilles, to the century’s mid-point, when in the aftermath of the Second World War, Julian Symons and Patricia Highsmith set about taking the genre in a new direction.

Part of the fun of this type of book, both for me as writer, and (I hope) for you as readers comes from unexpected twists –just like the mysteries I examine in the text. So my selection of 100 books contains not just the usual suspects, ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The Murder at the Vicarage, and Smallbone Deceased, but also some titles that aren’t likely to have crossed most people’s minds. The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, and Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr, for instance. There are a few quirky choices which may provoke surprise, and also give a different perspective on the subject from any that can be found elsewhere. And as well as the hundred in-depth discussions, there are references to about another six hundred books, many of which are little-known but well worth seeking out. You may be relieved to learn that there’s an index of titles, as well as of authors!

When I first proposed this project to the British Library, I envisaged a manuscript of about 60,000 words. But the more I worked on the book, the more it grew in scale. I like to think this isn’t due to verbosity on my part, but because I found so many fascinating books and snippets of information to weave into the narrative. My previous book about the genre, The Golden Age of Murder, was a labour of love ten years in the making. This one didn’t take quite as long to write, but I found it just as much fun. And I hope you will too.

Thanks, Hayley, for hosting this guest post. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be travelling around the blogosphere, talking about different aspects of the book, and of classic crime. Here’s a list of all the stops on my blog tour:

Wed 28 June – Lesa’ Book Critiques - https://lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com
Thurs 29 June – The Rap Sheet - http://therapsheet.blogspot.com
Fri 30 June – Pretty Sinister Books - http://prettysinister.blogspot.com
Sat 1 Jul – Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (interview) - https://margotkinberg.wordpress.com
Sun 2 Jul –Eurocrime - http://eurocrime.blogspot.co.uk
Mon 3 Jul – Tipping My Fedora - https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com
Tue 4 Jul – Desperate Reader - http://desperatereader.blogspot.co.uk
Wed 5 Jul –Clothes in Books - http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk
Thu 6 Jul – Emma’s Bookish Corner - https://emmasbookishcorner.wordpress.com
Fri 7 Jul - Random Jottings - http://randomjottings.typepad.com

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is published in the UK on 7 July by the British Library, and in the US on 1 August by Poisoned Pen Press



Monday, July 3, 2017

Back in Shetland

I'm enjoying my annual trip home to Shetland (unfortunately my luggage is not, and shows no sign so far of turning up, I last saw it on Saturday). The weather is occasionally glorious, I've had the chance to buy some yarn and an interesting looking book (as well as the basics currently lost in transit), and eaten an amazing bean dip (must get the recipe), so despite the lack of suitcase its all good. It doesn't hurt that I was able to buy gin by the litre at the airport (hand baggage).

Also hand baggage was dad's Father's Day/birthday present, a Curlew's egg painted in egg tempera by  Anna Koska. I was delighted with this (the first thing I've ever commissioned) and Dad seems to like it too - which I guess is what counts. There are lots of curlews round here, their call is one of the distinctive sounds of home, and dad's also had a succession of boats called 'Curlew' so it seemed an appropriate thing to choose.

There's something really satisfying about getting a bespoke thing like this, it's not particularly that it's currently unique, but the involvement in the general process (describing what you want) is fun, and getting exactly what you wanted is really exciting. It feels altogether more personal.
Current luggage status.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Wrong Box - Robert Louis Stevenson

It took me an unbelievably long time to read this not very long book, I have no idea why, or what caused the block because it's funny, charming, and generally engaging in every way. At least I got there in the end. 'The Wrong Box' was co written with Stevenson's son in law, Lloyd Osbourne and first published in 1889 when the two had been traveling together in the Pacific. I like to think 'The Wrong Box' was principally written for their joint entertainment rather than for money - simply because it has an irresistible silliness about it which suggests fun rather than work.

The starting point is a Tontine into which Joseph and Masterman Finsbury are entered by their we'll to do father. Some decades past and of the original 37 only Joseph and Masterman survive, the brother left will come into something really handsome.

This makes Joseph, who has been a poor business man, an extremely valuable asset to his nephews, who he may accidentally have defrauded, or allowed to be defrauded, of £7,800 when they were but poor orphans in his care. The elder nephew, Morris, is obsessed with that £7,800 and intent in keeping uncle Joseph in good shape so that he can inherit the Tontine.

In the best, and most sensational, Victorian tradition there is a train crash, uncle Joseph is lost in it, but there's a body, and if it can just be concealed long enough maybe everything will come out alright. But concealing a body isn't that easy, transporting it to a point of concealment even harder, and should the labels on a series of packing boxes get mixed up...

It's bad enough having a corpse you want to conceal, worse to have a corpse turn up on your doorstep unannounced, and an absolute nightmare to try and retrieve a missing corps from points unknown. The body makes an interesting, if accidental tour of the countryside whilst all the characters involved try and work out exactly what's happened and how to profit from it.

It's a truly funny black comedy (not quite as macabre as I might have made it sound, and almost certainly a lot better). The plot is almost incidental to a series of jokes and observation which is probably why it took so long to read, it's delicious whilst you are reading I, but there's no particular urge to see what happens next once you put it down. It was also Stevenson in a mood I've never met him in before, I'm used to high adventure, rather than out and out comedy. More investigation is clearly called for.

I really recommend this one, it's a triumph from Stevenson, Osborne, and Hesperus for bringing it back into print. Apparently a film version was made in the 1960's - I'm torn between wanting to see it and trying to imagine what the 1960's would have made of this.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther - Elizabeth Von Arnim

When I first read Elizabeth Von Arnim, it was 'Elizabeth and her German Garden' followed by 'The Enchanted April', I loved her - well who could fail to? I really liked 'All the Dogs of my Life' too, then found 'Vera' deeply unsettling but powerful. All was good until I read 'The Caravaners', which was funny but in a way that made me mildly dislike the author - there was no kindness behind her humour. Somerset Maugham's account of her (excellent company, but malicious) in 'The Vagrant Mood' confirmed the faint prejudice.

That's a round about way of saying that I didn't love 'Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther', although every other review I could find if it seems extremely positive. There isn't a plot as such so I'm not giving much away when if I describe it. Rose-Marie Schmidt is the daughter of a German academic who's income is based on the annuity left by his first wife, the little money his second wife has, and anything bought in by boarding students. Mr Anstruther has been one of these students learning German before sitting exams for entry to the foreign office. At the end of his year he proposes to Rose-Marie and is joyfully accepted. She starts writing to him even as his train leaves, but within a month of his return to England he's thrown her over for a rather better connected, and much better off young woman. After a couple of months letters resume.

It's these letters, and only Rose-Marie's letters, which make up the novel. We're obviously meant to see her as the back blurb describes her - "funny, intelligent, brave and gifted with an irrepressible talent for happiness." but I think she shares Von Arnim's love of malice to an extent that makes me sympathise with Mr Anstruther more than I'm meant to.

It's Mr Anstruther who (as would be proper) starts writing again, at which point we can assume engagement number two isn't going so well. It's not entirely clear why Rose-Marie doesn't dismiss his overtures of friendship out of hand (except that the book would come to an abrupt end if she did), instead she enters into a long, time consuming, and intimate exchange of letters over the course of the next year. Von Arnim is amusing, her descriptions of vegetarianism are very funny, as are her observations on German customs and habits. Rose-Marie's accounts of the scenery, her personal philosophies, and her accounts of the struggle to make ends meet are variously beautiful or touching, but there's another undercurrent to the letters.

All the while Mr Anstruther is being encouraged by a woman who knows how to attract him. When he's thrown over by fiancée number two and his attentions become more marked Rose-Marie does nothing to put a stop to it, and when eventually he proposes again he's dismissed as an object of pity, someone she doesn't trust, doesn't love, can't worship.

I find this a problem because I'm not clear why a woman so poor would have wasted so much money on stamps for a man she has such a low opinion of (that's not flippant, daily letters between Germany and England running to several pages a time would decimate my income) unless it was with revenge in mind. Revenge is fine, but when it takes the form of leading someone to the point where they ask for your hand so that you can humiliate them with a detailed 'No', I'm not convinced it's funny, brave, or compatible with a talent for irrepressible happiness. I'm not convinced by an initial love that can't allow for the weaknesses of character we all have either - surely nobody can safely sit in a pedestal forever?

But then there are questions - where do the letters come from? Has Mr Anstruther returned them to Rose-Marie? Could we assume he's showing them to us to vindicate his own opinion that he might have been treated rather shabbily? And if he's turned up in person would Rose-Marie be as indifferent as she claims? (She's very reluctant to meet him again, so I don't think she would be indifferent.)

In the end this book doesn't really come together for me. It's neither the light romance or comedy of the Von Arnim's I've loved, or the merciless hatchet job that is Vera (which is horribly compelling), but another Caravaners which leaves me out of sympathy with her.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Warner Edwards Rhubarb Gin

this was going to be a book post, but it's been a long day at work and I've started researching vintage cocktails for a future project. From there it wasn't much of a leap to thinking an actual gin drink of some sort would be the way to go, and after that plans for anything really productive went to pot.

The Rhubarb Gin, of which I sell a lot and really like, is the sort of spirit I'm never very sure of what to do with. I don't especially want to drink it neat, though would consider it as a very dry martini (I'm not sure vermouth would do it many favours). It works with tonic but seems a waste of the rhubarb flavour, and is good with ginger ale, if you like ginger ale - I'm so so about it. Also, whilst that's a great winter drink, it doesn't say summer to me.

Which has left me looking at something along the Ricky, or Collins, line. A gin Ricky is a beautiful thing, and having finally discovered it I don't understand why it isn't a bigger thing. Basically gin, ice,  the juice of half a lime along with its shell, and soda or sparkling mineral water, all served in a high ball glass. Refreshing crisp flavours, none of the sugar that tonic is laced with, and very good.

I thought pink grapefruit might make a good substitute for the lime in this one, but it lacks a certain bite. When Seville oranges are in season again I'm going to try it with those (both Rhubarb Gin and also Chase's Seville orange gin). Meanwhile what I have in hand is a pleasantly citrusy drink that allows the Rhubarb Gin to play its part.

Looking at a Tom Collins style version (Gin with lemon juice, sugar syrup, and soda water plus plenty of ice) I used M&S still raspberry lemonade which certainly has the sour bite I wanted, as well as enough sugar to act as a syrup too (efficient). I squeezed in more grapefruit, and dispensed with the soda water - my glass was already full. The result was very pink, very drinkable, probably not the classiest thing I could have made, and went down in five minutes flat (along with my good intentions). The only fault with it was that it doesn't really let the Rhubarb Gin shine (the problem with this sort of research is that it can quickly get messy) I need to try it with a standard London dry to compare. It was very summery though, and little bit trashy or not, I'll probably be drinking a lot of this.

Meanwhile, there will be no rest until I can really, truly, satisfactorily answer the question of how to serve this Gin.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Island of Doctor Moreau - H. G. Wells

After finally reading some Wells ('The Invisible Man') instead of just assuming I had, it seemed like a good idea to read more. I was right. 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' is straight horror after the comedy of (with a tinge of horror) of 'The Invisible Man' but it's tremendously effective.

A shipwrecked Edward Prendick finds himself an unwelcome guest on a less than satisfactory ship. The captain is drunk, the crew surly, his fellow passengers a little odd, and the cargo not quite what might be expected. After a tow with the captain he finds himself set adrift until Doctor Moreau reluctantly agrees to give him shelter in his remote island.

For Prendick it's a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, because the island's other inhabitants are deeply disturbing, his host intent on his own experiments, and his situation in every way precarious. I doubt it's much of a spoiler to say that the Doctor has been carrying out experiments on animals, vivisecting and generally mutilating them to create creatures that have a semblance of humanity in some cases, in others just to appeal to his sense of whimsy. He maintains his rule over them with the threat of pain. He is a vengeful god.

There is also a hint that all of it might be the product of nightmarish hallucinations as when Prendick finally makes his way back to civilisation he's once again found out at sea in a small boat on the very edge of life. Not that the element of doubt makes his story any less nightmarish, or real - either to the character of Prendick, or to the reader.

If the science of Doctor Moreau no longer stands up, the absolute horror of what he's done is still as vivid as ever, it also chimes with current fears about genetic modification - and if Doctor Moreau is a direct descendent of Frankenstein, his influence on popular imagination is certainly as influential as his ancestors.

The ethical questions Wells asks about whether we should do what science can let us do are also as pertinent as ever. What it asks us about the nature of God is interesting as well, but that this exploration of what it is that makes us human is both a gripping book that it's a struggle to put down, and not the sort of thing I'd like to read late at night, is what really makes me a fan. It really is a case of better late than never with me and Wells.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Bodies From The Library 2017

It is horribly hot in my flat tonight (hovering around 30 degrees, I can't begin to tell you how much I wish I was in Shetland right now where it's sunny, but a much more manageable 12 degrees with a light breeze. Soon.) I'm torn between throwing the towel in and trying to sleep, or watching two students rescue a green woodpecker from the car park below my window (it can't seem to fly, but limped up to them looking hopeful about twenty minutes ago, they have found a box for it and are doing the bedside thing, presumably until expert help arrives, it's oddly gripping).

What I'm gong to do is write about the excellent Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library that I went to on Saturday before it all seems to long ago. This is a celebration of Golden Age crime fiction, and a really good event. It sounded like it would be run again next year and I'd wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody with an interest in the genre.

The organisation is excellent (adequate tea and coffee opportunities, doesn't over run, chance to buy the books being discussed). This year the post lunch slot was taken by a vintage recording of a Dorothy L. Sayers story, a sensible concession to the mid afternoon slump that must make speaking in that slot a somewhat disheartening experience.

(Just a quick update, security have come to take a look at the woodpecker.)

What I particularly like about this event is how friendly it feels, how enthusiastic everyone is, and the general feel of being part of a conversation (rather than in a lecture). All the speakers were good (very good) but if anyone gets the chance to hear Tony Medawar, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Dr John Curran, or Martin Edwards talk than go and hear what they have to say.

The opening panel on the continuing popularity of the golden age was particularly interesting, throwing out things I hadn't considered before. Martin Edwards new book 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books', officially out in 2 weeks time, but available at the event, is looking very good (I'm enjoying it very much at the moment, much more to follow on this). I spent quite a lot of a sleepless (far to hot) Saturday night cross referencing between The Story of Classic Crime, and 'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' (the collected reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers) and had a very nice time doing it.

I'm also particularly excited by the sound of an October release in the crime classics series - 'Foreign Bodies' which is a collection of golden age era stories in translation from as far afield as Japan, Russia, Mexico, and India, many of them in English for the first time. I have high hopes for this. One of the things I love about older books are the insight they give into how people used to think (common prejudices, ambitions, attitudes - that sort of thing), stepping out of the relatively familier British settings, and point of view, should be all sorts of interesting.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Taking Detective Stories Seriously - The collected crime reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers

Its been another week of horrific images in the news, the sort that make it difficult to concentrate on anything else, so I've mainly been knitting (obviously the perfect occupation for the hottest weather of the year so far) and getting into pointless arguments about politics (it's like picking a scab). 

Today however I'm back on the books and freshly enthused after the British Library's 'Bodies From The Library' classic crime conference- which was brilliant, if they run it again next year it's absolutely worth going to. I'll write more about it soon but am so very pleased with this particular book purchase I couldn't wait to share.

'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' is a collection of the crime reviews that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote for the Sunday Times between 1933 and 1935 (there's a scant handful of later ones too). I have yet to read the introduction and commentary by Martin Edwards (surely the busiest man in crime fiction?) but am very much looking forward to it. What I did do was spend the train journey home reading what Sayers had to say about all the books I'd read. 

She must have worked every bit as hard as Martin Edwards does because along with writing her own books she was reviewing 3 or 4 crime novels a week which means we have a fairly comprehensive overview here of crime fiction over those years. 

I loved Sayers when I was in my teens and susceptible to the romantic allure of Lord Peter, rather less   when I realised how susceptible Sayers was to the same allure (there's something uncomfortable about reading that, as if she's inadvertently exposing something that should be private). And then there was 'Ask a Policeman' that was great fun, but has since made it quite hard to take any of the featured detectives at face value again. 

Anyway, what I'm getting round to saying is that the Dorothy of these reviews is a delight. She's funny, honest in her criticisms, generous with praise, and altogether com s across as a woman you would love to sit down and talk about books with. 

Crucially we're in perfect accord regarding Georgette Heyer (unremarkable plots, but with enough charm for it not to matter) which is my personal litmus test, and from there I found I broadly agreed with her view on most of the books I'd read. I liked Alan Melville's 'Quick Curtain' (a British Library Crime Classic) rather more than she did, but then he's not sending up my chosen work. 

It will mostly be a book for dipping in and out of, but it made me laugh out loud several times in the train, which probably annoyed the man trying to sleep next to me, but made a very hot journey altogether more enjoyable than expected. I had absolutely no idea that Dorothy (the books made me think of her as Dorothy, rather than Sayers) could be so much fun, or funny. For anyone with even a passing interest in either Sayers, or Golden age crime fiction, this book should be a must buy. I am beyond delighted with it. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Locked room murders and other similarly impossible crimes are one of the sub genres I particularly enjoy in golden age, and older, mysteries so You can imagine how pleased I am that there's a whole collection of them here. Sixteen impossible crimes, to be specific, including contributions from Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, R. Austin Freeman, Edmund Crispin, and Michael Innes amongst others (oh how I do love this series).

I've always found the puzzle element the most appealing thing about older crime fiction - so much less disturbing than forensic detail. (Anthony Wynne's 'Murder of a Lady' is a particularly enjoyable, and delightfully far fetched, example - also from the British Library Crime Classics series - where I would defy anyone to work out the solution before the end.) In 'Miraculous Mysteries' the solution to more than one apparent murder is that there wasn't ever any crime - it's all about the problem, and they're especially satisfying, not least because they give the impression that the authors are having more than the usual amount of fun devising them.

In his introduction Martin Edwards argues, convincingly, that the locked room mystery has been a feature of the literary landscape for a good two hundred years (starting with E.T.A Hoffman's 'Mademoiselle de Scuderi' in 1818 before moving on via Sheridan Le Fanu, and Edgar Allan Poe). Despite being less popular than in their pre war heyday the locked room mystery has never really gone away either (shows like 'Jonathan Creek' offer classic examples of impossible mysteries) because who doesn't love a good puzzle?

Martin Edwards, who clearly loves his subject, as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, also appears to be having more than the usual amount of fun selecting these particular stories (every time I think about these books 'fun' is the word I keep coming back to). It's so good to have an anthology that covers a good number of unfamiliar stories by familiar authors (the only story I was previously acquainted with was Dorothy L. Sayers 'The Haunted Policeman') as well as presenting some truly obscure ones. The end result is a decently comprehensive survey of impossible crimes over a roughly fifty year period, each one featuring an ingenious solution to the problem it presents.

I would dearly love to discuss particular stories, but as I can think of no other format which is quite so easy to ruin with an inadvertent spoiler, I'm not going to. What I can say is that I think the collection is worth the cover price for the gem that is Michael Innes 'The Sands of Thyme' alone (and not just because I love the pun). There's not much I find more satisfying than a really entertaining collection of short stories, they genuinely make me happy.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

"But surely no woman would ever dare to do so," said my friend.
"I knew a woman who did", said I; "and this is he story."

I like to have a kindle app on my phone, I mostly ignore it because it's an awful way to read a book, but sometimes it's useful, setting it up on my new phone last week was a reminder of all the odd stuff sitting on there, including 'The Woman Who Did' by Grant Allen.

It was almost certainly a free download (probably made in the first flush of enthusiasm when the last phone was new). I really enjoyed 'An African Millionare' and 'Miss Cayley's Adventures' (which takes a happier view of the New Woman than this book does) and it's always a pleasure to find one of Allen's stories in an anthology. Free ebooks are more of a gamble, I also suspect I chose this purely for the title.

'The Woman Who Did', which Allen says in his dedication he wrote "for the first time in my life wholly and solely to satisfy my own taste and my own conscience" is interesting but it isn't his most entertaining work.

The woman who did is Herminia Barton, daughter of the Dean of Dunwich, and introduced as 'SUCH a nice girl too', and what she does is follow her principles in the hope of striking a blow for the emancipation of women. Particularly when it comes to marriage, which she views as a form of slavery. When she meets Alan Merrick and they fall in love, she refuses to marry him, but persuades him to become her lover anyway. He agrees with her principles, but has his doubts about the social consequences of their actions. Doubts which are fully justified when he unfortunately dies intestate whilst Herminia is pregnant.

Allen is at pains to point out throughout the book how pure in mind and deed Herminia is, driven purely by principle, and the mantra that truth will set you free. She is prepared, and happy, to earn her own living in her search for equality and freedom, prepared and happy to be shunned by society if by doing so she can set a better example for the women who follow her. What she doesn't bargain for is losing the man she loves, and being left penniless whilst she's least able to earn her living. Still, despite the warnings, she perseveres.

The situation Allen creates is a peach in its beautifully thought out unfairness. The impeccable social connections which initially make Herminia's unorthodox behaviour acceptable (in so far as going to Girton, taking a job as a teacher, living alone, and a taste for William Morris prints and lose clothing is unorthodox) in society, but once she's known to have taken a lover she's gone to far. It's also a scandal that we can surmise will hurt her fathers career within the church - and this is where I'm unsure of just how exactly Allen feels about his heroines decisions.

The sacrifices Herminia is prepared to make for what she believes in are one thing, but she's forcing the consequences of her actions on her father who simply can't be seen to condone his daughters behaviour, and can't really be expected to share her views privately either. Had Alan lived he would have had some stiff questions to answer on the topic of seducing Dean's daughters, and would have been cut off from his own family. There is also the question of where this all leaves Herminia's child in an age when being illegitimate still carried a considerable stigma. All the prejudices against Herminia's decisions might well be rank hypocrisy, but they're still real prejudices.

It's therefore not surprising when the daughter thoroughly rejects her mother's principles, finds herself utterly appalled and disgusted by the truth of what Herminia has done, and considers that her life has been ruined. At this point, in the best tradition, Herminia does away with herself (leaving a worryingly passive aggressive note for her teenage daughter).
One of the things that makes it interesting is that when Lynne Reid Banks wrote 'The L Shaped Room' almost 70 years later (1960) attitudes hadn't really moved on, or that having a baby outside of marriage would still raise eyebrows in the 1980's. Even now, the kind of open relationship that Herminia suggests looks unusual. Allen does such a good job of listing all the double standards and hypocrisies society exercises towards women, not all of which have been resolved, that it becomes compelling reading to see just what injustice he's going to heap on his heroine next. And if sometimes I wanted to shake her for her decisions, or questioned the precise nature of Allen's own convictions and conclusions on the questions he raises, this book has certainly made me fonder of him as a writer

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bousta Beanie (more knitting)

I had a long list of jobs to do today (I should be reading Zola, writing about some classic crime, hoovering, and so on) but I can't concentrate on anything much thanks to the distraction that is the general election. I can't ever remember caring so much about the result, and am currently well on my way to being a nervous wreck. On the whole it seems like a good time to think about knitting instead.

I made a hat, specifically Gudrun Johnston's Bousta Beanie (the pattern can be downloaded Here where it's currently free). She is patron of this years Shetland Wool Week, a hat pattern has become a traditional part of the event, and it's been fun seeing all the personal variations each knitter brings to them over the last few years (what kind of a world was it before Instagram?).

This one is intended for D, who might even wear it, and will match the cowl I finished a couple of weeks ago. I love everything about Johnston's design - which is simple enough for even a very amateur knitter, such as myself, to follow without trouble. Love it so much I've already started another one for another friend.

Simple as it is, it's still a breakthrough for me (actually, just following a pattern is a bit of a breakthrough). One which will let me look at more ambitious projects with a bit more of a can do attitude, so a big thank you to Gudrun Johnston and the Shetland Wool Week team for providing such a confidence building project.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Salomé - Oscar Wilde

It's all about Rome this season at the RSC, which I'm not particularly enthusiastic about - at least neither R or I have found ourselves enthusiastic enough to commit to organising times, tickets, travel etc - but we've been missing Stratford trips so we decided we would see Salomé.

The last time I saw Salomé performed it was in Leicester, it's the only time I've ever managed to get D into a theatre, and it was the worst (that includes an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet) production I've ever seen. He has point blank refused to make a second attempt to see anything, which is a shame, but it was so bad it's almost understandable.

This time was better, but R and I still have some doubts about it.


For me the problem is that when I read Salomé what I find interesting about it is that Wilde has a young girl first of all expressing her desires, and when she's denied exacting a terrible revenge. It's still relevant because on the whole I don't see much evidence to suggest that as a society we're terribly comfortable with women, especially young women, expressing their desires or sexuality as blatantly as this. Salomé's demand for the head of John the Baptist is still shocking because it's really not how we expect women to behave.

This production particularly wants to look at the play through a gay lense, its marking 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and it casts a young man as Salomé. The director, Owen Horsley, explains this decision:

"The figure of Salomé is a taboo as she transgresses the boundaries of both male and female sexuality. I wanted to focus on that ambiguity of gender and, as I am approaching this from the perspective of male sexuality, I wanted a man to play the role. Salomé will - through costume and actions - continually juxtapose male and female conceptions, remaining fluid throughout. When a man expresses fluidity with their sexuality, there is still a chaos and anger in respond to that. A gay man who doesn't feminise or masculinise his sexuality still faces problems in a society that can't understand or accept that ambiguity."

All of which is fair enough except that watching/listening to a man express his sexual desire, and then reacting with such violence when he's denied didn't feel transgressive, it felt depressingly normal. I also found Matthew Tennyson's Salomé mostly asexual rather than fluid. He was most convincing when he was briefly naked (and excellent in the last scene with the bloody head of Iokanaan cradled in his lap).

Basically it didn't really work for us, but then both R, and I would have been much more interested in a play that explicitly explored why we're still so uncomfortable with female sexuality and identity, so we weren't the most sympathetic audience.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ten Books

Simon at Stuck In A Book has redone his ten random books meme (choose ten books at random of the shelf and talk about them, and yourself a little bit in the process). I enjoyed this last time (though how can it be so many years ago?), love nosing around other peoples books, and perhaps love rooting through my own books even more, where I can be guaranteed to find pleasant surprises.

The chance to find book treasures I might have forgotten I had seemed like far the best way to spend a few hours on a Sunday otherwise overshadowed by yesterday's attacks in London, especially as the rest of the day has been dominated by getting and setting up a new phone. (Obviously I'd forgotten all my passwords, and the very patient young woman in the shop might as well have been speaking a different language, it is clearly a sign of getting older when a new gadget raises dread rather than enthusiasm).

Back to the books; I'm currently overwhelmed by piles of unread books everywhere, so I thought I'd pick ten of them from out of various heaps before they (hopefully) find more permanent homes. It definitely seemed like a good way to find a few overlooked gems.

Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' came easily to hand, it's only been in my flat for a week or so, was at the top of the closest pile, and is the next book I'll read. I'm slowly working my way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle, it's taking years, but there's no hurry. This one came to me as a review copy, and it's next on the pile because I've promised it to Shiny New Books. I'm looking forward to it after really enjoying 'The Conquest of Plassans' (to which it acts as a direct sequel) but I'm also wary of Zola after the excesses of 'Earth', it'll be interesting to see what mood he's in this time.

Robert Merle's 'City of Wisdom and Blood' is part of another epic French cycle (the fortunes of France, apparently Merle is a sort of modern day Dumas) this time passer blushed by Pushkin Press. I have the first 3 in the series (this is number 2), each of them makes me feel a little bit guilty. The problem is that they're quite long books (this one is over 500 pages) it's the same reason I have an armful of unread Dumas titles, there just never seems to be time to read them. There used to be time, I used to love long books, but somewhere in the last 3 or 4 years things have changed and I'm not quite sure what to do about it.

When I saw that Vintage had reprinted 'Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther' ibwas really pleased to see something other than 'The Enchanted April' or 'Elizabeth and her German Garden', then really surprised when I realised I didn't have a copy, I thought I'd collected all the old green Virago editions.  My enthusiasm for Von Arnim waned a little after reading Somerset Maugham lay into her (he made one fair points) but it's been a while and I'm ready to have another go. I want to read this one soon.

This particularly beautiful cloth bound edition of 'The Iliad' is another review copy. It's also a prod to remind me that having read, and loved, 'The Odyssey' when I was 17, it's basically been on a mental to do list for 26 years. It's taken me longer to get round to than it took Odysseus to get back home, and he took long enough over that. These editions from Oxford World's Classics are so very handsome, so very much the sort of book I look at and want to read, that maybe it won't be much longer...

I think it was Miranda Mills who recommended Eva Ibbotson's 'Madensky Square' a while ago. I'd read one previous Ibbotson for a book group, and thought this might make for some light reading to have on standby against the sort of week when nothing else will do. That week hasn't come yet, but when it does I'm prepared for it. I'm assuming this is the kind of book that will hit the same sort of spot that Georgette Heyer does. It might also be just what I need to balance Zola with.

I have a small collection (very small) of vintage Penguins. Some have been chosen for their titles, others for their authors. T. H. White is someone I keep collecting, but (again) haven't actually read much of. 'Farewell Victoria' is apparently a sort of overview of the Victorian era seen through the eyes of Mundy, as we follow him from childhood to old age when he's a still a groom, amongst an army of chauffeurs in an almost unrecognisable world. I need a rainy day and an absence of other commitments to get on with this one, it's exactly the sort of book I forget I have and feel excited about every time I turn it up.

'Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov' is another half forgotten treasure, I found it in a wine box that's enjoying a new life as a bookshelf on a windowsill behind blinds I never draw (because I have delicate watercolours hanging in my bedroom which can't cope with direct sunlight). I love fairy tales, myths, and legends, and am building up a reasonable library of them. The more I read them the more links between them emerge and the more interested I get.

Frédéric Dard's 'Crush' is a Pushkin Vertigo, I have a few in this series now, the ones I've read have all been excellent (Dard's 'Bird in a Cage' has the best twist I think I've ever read). I've been in a bit of a reading slump for the last few weeks, but just looking at this book is lifting it (Zola first). I wonder if it's better to have beautiful bookshelves with plenty of space where you can find everything, or to live in the equivalent of a second hand book shop with no discernible system but where you keep finding great stuff ? (The first probably, but chaos has its compensations).

'Long Live Great Bardfield: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood' represents my love for Persephone books (I've met some wonderful people thanks to Persephone books), and for the artists she associated with, as well as the artist Tirzah was herself. It's also another very long book, and somehow there's always something else to do before I can sit down with something like this.

'Arsene Lupin Vs Sherlock Holmes' by Maurice Leblanc published by Alma classics is sadly dust covered. I think I've read Leblanc before (I've certainly got more Lupin stories, but maybe unread). It sounds fun, slightly irreverent on the subject of Holmes, and I should have read it ages ago. At least it's dust free now.