Little book-buying spree

My colleagues gave me a book voucher for my birthday. I used it to buy The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale because I’ve enjoyed her previous books, Ancestors: A History of Britain in Seven Burials by Alice Roberts, because I wanted to be an archeologist when I was a kid, and Hungry by Grace Dent, because I like food and it just looks like a fun read.

We also went to the Troutmark bookshop, where I got a couple of mystery/thrillers. I read Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke last year and thought it was excellent, so picked up another one her her books. I LOVE Ruth Ware and grabbed this copy of The Death of Mrs Westaway.

Finally, we paid a visit to the Oxfam bookshop, where I was pleased to find a copy of C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor which won the T.S Eliot Prize in 2021.

I also couldn’t resist this copy of Cranks Recipe Book, originally published in 1982 (reissued in 2013). I love old vegetarian recipe books. They are full of recipes for things like ‘savoury carrot layer’, ‘apple and peanut butter soup’ and ‘carob blancmange’. Not sure how much use I’ll get out of it really, but it takes me back to the vegetarian food of my teenage years and that’s comforting somehow.

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters (2021)

My second January read is The Lamplighters (2021) by Emma Stonex.

In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers disappear from their lighthouse. When the relief boat arrives on New Year’s Eve, the door is found locked, the clocks are stopped and the table is laid for a meal. The Principle Keeper, Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, and their junior, Vincent Bourne, have all vanished. Arthur Black’s weather log describes a terrible storm which is not recorded anywhere else …

Twenty years later, a writer sets out to interview the women who were left behind: Arthur’s wife, Helen, Bill’s wife, Jenny, and Michelle, Vincent’s girlfriend. Three women whose lives are still constantly haunted by this unsolved mystery.

As the narrative moves back and forth between the experiences of the lighthouse keepers and the stories of the women who loved them, layers of truth slowly unravel. What drove Helen and Jenny apart? Who is the writer who wants to interview them and what is his agenda? What role was played by the rather sinister company, Trident House, that runs the lighthouse network? And, of course, what really happened to the men on the lighthouse during that last Christmas?

The Lamplighters crosses genres. It can be read as a mystery, a ghost story, and a psychological thriller. I did find the resolution slightly disappointing, but I’m not going to complain when the book is so compelling and beautifully written. In the end, it’s a story about love and grief and the difficulty in ever truly knowing another person.

With its ambiguities and genre blurring, I do think this is the kind of book that people will either love or hate, but give it a try if you enjoy the likes of Shirley Jackson, Hilary Mantel, Emily St John Mandel and Tana French.

The true story that inspired The Lamplighters is just as fascinating.

Julie E. Czerneda, ‘Survival’ Species Imperative #1(2004)

Set in the not-so-distant future, Survival is a SF bio-punk mystery and the first in Czerneda’s Species Imperative series.

Dr Mackenzie Connor (Mac) is a biologist who studies salmon at a research institute on the pacific coast of North America. Mac is surprised when she receives an honoured visitor, Brymn, the first Drhyn to come to Earth. She is even more surprised when he demands that she leave Earth and help him investigate a mystery.

Brymn is an archeologist who has been studying an area of space known as the ‘Chasm’ where all life has disappeared, although there is evidence that it once existed there. Brymn is concerned that whatever happened in the Chasm is starting to happen again. He also believes that his own species must have originated there and may hold the answer. However, the study of biology is forbidden to the Dhryn so he needs to get help from a biologist.

Mac, who has no interest in leaving Earth and her salmon, is unimpressed. But then the research institute comes under attack from mysterious invisible aliens known as the Ro who are enemies of the Dryhn and may be responsible for what happened in the Chasm. This persuades Mac to agree to Brymn’s request. They almost don’t get away as they are attacked again and Mac is horrified to discover that her best friend Emily is apparently in league with the Ro! She then begins what will be a very strange journey to the Dhryn homeworld and beyond.

The first third of this book is pretty slow. Honestly, I found it rather boring. I considered giving up, but the fun aliens and the interesting mystery kept me reading. Survival came to life once Mac left Earth and I’m glad I persevered with it. I loved the journey with Mac trying to survive on a ship with aliens who don’t even understand that humans need water.

The Drhyn home world is really well done. Mac discovers that Dhryn move through stages of life taking on different forms as they age. The transition can go wrong with horrific consequences and this seems to be the source of the Dhryn taboo on studying their own biology. Mac and Brymn find evidence that the Drhyn did indeed originate in the Chasm and after another devastating attack by the Ro, they make their way to a lifeless planet that must be the original Drhyn home world, where a horrific revelation awaits them.

Survival is well-written, has an interesting mystery and great aliens. The story and the worldbuilding are very good. The best character by far is the alien scientist, Brymn, who is just delightful. The biggest weakness is the human characters. Mac is alright, but rather one-dimensional. Nick, her love interest, is a cardboard cut out of a character and the book improves a lot once he’s removed from the narrative. Emily is probably the most interesting, but we don’t see much of her. A couple of the side characters are also good, but only make brief appearances.

Despite some weaknesses, overall I enjoyed Survival. It was refreshing to read something that’s quite slow and sedate. I’ll definitely read the next book in the trilogy and explore more of Czernada’s work.

The worldbuilding and style of storytelling reminded me of Babylon 5 so maybe give Czerneda a go if you enjoyed that show.

Sunday Post: Autumn in the Air

A view from Cardiff Bay Barrage at sunrise looking out over smooth water

It’s noticeably darker in the mornings now and there has been a definite crispness in the air. I’ve been enjoying watching a group of turnstones pecking around at the water’s edge. This week I saw a wheatear and, best of all, a beautiful Little Egret on the wetlands reserve.

I finally got my hair cut. I’m pretty low maintanance, so I held off and let the truly desperate people go first, but it was still a big relief. I hadn’t realised quite how much the long scraggly hair was bothering me.

I started the first of my autumn courses which is on Buddhism and meditation. I’ve been reading dharma books and listening to podcasts off and on for a few years and decided I should learn more about it. I have a creative writing class starting in a couple of weeks time and we’re also investing in some one-to-one yoga classes with a teacher. Since we won’t be having a holiday this year we’ve decided to spend a bit of money on ourselves.

Like most people, my energy levels and ability to focus go up and down. Sometimes I feel good and sometimes I feel absolutely exhausted. I have been waking up in the middle of the night for an hour or two fairly regularly. It could be COVID anxiety, it could be hormones! Whatever it is, I’m going to try and reframe it as an opportunity to stretch, eat toast and watch Star Trek.

I’ve made the decision to cancel the renewal of my gym membership. I do feel a bit bad about it, but I just don’t feel comfortable, especially since it’s a gym with no natural ventilation or light. Even if I went, I think I’d just be worried and hypervigilant the whole time which would defy the point, considering I was going mainly for the mental health benefits. I seem to have got into a good exercise routine now anyway, so don’t feel I need it as much.

I made some progress on the domestic front. I bought and put together some side tables, bought a new hoover after ours sadly broke, and got some rubbish taken away. My next goal is to sort out the spare room and make it nice.

Cooking

A large round saucepan containing a dry potato curry. The potatoes are golden with turmeric and flecked with fried onions.

The most interesting thing I cooked was a recipe for beetroot fritters by Anna Jones. They were delicious and even my partner – a beetroot sceptic – enjoyed them. I made Ruby Tandoh’s extremely moreish curried new potatoes (pictured) which is an old favourite. I’ve been managing to do some batch cooking and hope to increase that over the autumn to cut down on the amount of cooking I do in the evening.

Reading

I’m currently re-reading A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers and Long Gone, a slick thriller by Alafair Burke.

Watching

We really enjoyed The Old Guard. It’s a tight little fantasy action movie, strong on women and queer characters and light on annoying tropes. Much better than I expected.

Otherwise, we’re continuing with our Star Trek: Enterprise re-watch. It isn’t quite as terrible as I remember, but I would still argue that it’s one of the weakest outings.

Podcasts

This week I’ve mainly been listening to The Splendid Table which is a very interesting food podcast.

Listening

Throwing Muses have a new album out, Sun Racket, which is always an event, so I’ve been listening that a lot this week.

Sapphic Link Love #11

From Ancient Rome to Judith Butler in this issue …

Cheryl Morgan blogs about the evidence for women loving women in Ancient Rome, Tribade Visibility Day

The Paris Review has a great piece on The Fabulous Forgotten Life of Vita Sackville West

them, 100 Years Ago, this Lesbian Doctor Helped Contain NYC’s Typhoid Epidemic

TIE Campaign podcast has episodes on Lesbians Against Section 28 and Anne Lister

A long and detailed article in Out History, A Tribute to Phyllis Lyon (1924 – 2020)

The Advocate, Netflix Doc Reveals the Queer Romance Behind A League of their Own

Interesting interview with Judith Butler about her latest thinking Judith Butler wants us to reshape our rage

A lovely blog from Torch, Women Retold: Eurydice and Portrait of a Lady on Fire

And a nice interview with the poet Jackie Kay, DIVA meets LGBTQI literature royalty, Jackie Kay MBE

‘Coronavirus isn’t a bucolic writing retreat—but a time to address deep inequalities in our society’

This response speaks of a total misunderstanding of how profound an impact inequality has on the material realities of people’s lives. Of it not just being a simple case of the haves vs. the have-nots, but between those who conceive of reality as something they have a stake in and an ability to control, and those who don’t. In an era of widespread, casualised work, which disproportionately affects minority and low-income people, time is not something we are alienated from voluntarily, but by necessity and in larger and larger quantities in order to survive. To put it plainly: “me time” does not exist outside of the comfortable milieu of middle-class existence.

Natahlie Olah, Coronavirus isn’t a bucolic writing retreat—but a time to address deep inequalities in our society

Tuesday Post

Life

This should have been a Sunday post, but I didn’t have the mental energy at the weekend to compose even a lightweight weekly update.

I hope everyone is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. We are okay. We’ve established a routine pretty quickly and are doing quite well on the self-care front. There’s a lot to get used to: working from home, the restrictions on going out, and supporting an older relative who is in self-isolation. The main things I’m struggling with are fatigue and loss of mental focus. I also need to find a way to create a sense of distinction between the days. It feels like they are all merging into one.

Books

I finished The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz. Like all his books, it’s extremely readable and the mystery was decent enough, but it lost of a lot of points for being misogynist and a bit racist. I really enjoyed Magpie Murders but this one was a real turn off.

Also in crime fiction, I’m reading All Day and a Night by Alafair Burke, which is book five in her Ellie Hatcher series. I generally find Burke very reliable as a crime writer, although her earlier books have some graphic violence against women. I think she gets better and better.

Television

We’ve been enjoying the documentary series, England’s Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey . Alice Roberts’s Digging for Britain is also fun.

Music

My musical discovery of the week has been the later work of Buffy Sainte-Marie which is just fantastic. Here she is with Inuk throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, performing the track ‘You got to run’.

Soundtrack to Winter

For me, winter is a time to listen to country and folk music, and December and January have been all about albums by women artists.

Loreena Mckennitt, the wind that shakes the barley (2010)

My partner is a fan of Loreena Mckennitt. She’s an incredibly talented singer and multi-instrumentalist and her music has a wintry, medieval feel. This album, in which she returns to her Irish roots, is my favourite so far.

To track, the wind that shakes the barley

O’Hooley and Tidow, Winterfolk (2017)

I like my Christmas music melancholy and on the darker-side, so this is perfect. A lovely collection of original songs, traditional carols and covers, including the most heart breaking version of ‘Fairytale of New York’.

Top track: Fairytale of New York (live)

Alison Moorer, Blood (2019)

Blood is a powerful album about the impact of living with unthinkable family violence and tragedy. Haunting, heartbreaking, but also life-affirming. A classic.

I can’t pick a top track, so here’s the searing opener, Bad Weather

Gretchen Peters, Blackbirds (2015)

Another great album from a woman of country music. Blackbirds is full of gorgeous, yearning songs.

Top track: Blackbirds

Laura Marling, Alas I Cannot Swim (2008)

I’ve been getting into Laura Marling recently. I really like her sound – vibrant songs influenced by traditional folk music. This is incredibly accomplished for a first album.

Top track, Night Terror

Belly, King (1995)

An old favourite. Fabulous, shiny indie pop. I put this on the other day as I started my Imbolc clean. Winter is coming to an end.

Top track: Super-connected

Marianne Faithfull, ‘Negative Capability’ (2018)

“It’s taken me a long time to learn, in fact my whole life so far”

Damn Marianne! This album near destroyed me.

Negative Capability seems to occupy a similar territory to some of Leonard Cohen’s last works. There’s a very conscious sense of someone staring down mortality and trying to tell us something of what they’ve learned from a long life.

Nick Cave and Ed Harcourt are perfect songwriting collaborators for Faithfull. The instrumentation is gorgeous and the songs bring out her strengths, along with a sensitive production from Head, Warren Ellis and Rob Ellis. Yes, her voice is cracked and broken, but boy, can she still put a song across.

And the songs! Faithfull’s 1965 hit ‘And Tears Go By’ has a very different resonance when sung by a 72 year-old woman (“I sit and watch the children play”) and is especially moving because we know what Hell she went through in the following years.  ‘The Gypsy Faerie Queen’ is a beautiful song and Nick’s Cave’s rich backing vocals give me chills.  There’s a broken-down cover of ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’. No Faithfull album would be complete without a rambling, angry, in-your-face song like ‘They Come at Night’.

One to treasure.

Lovely little video about the making of the album and interview with Faithfull here 

It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.

Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

The Albums that Made Me #3 – Mary O’ Hara, Music Speaks Louder Than Words (1978)

Mary O’ Hara’s Music Speaks Louder than Words (1978) is the first album that I can remember identifying as something that I liked for myself. I must have been around three or four years old at the time. I couldn’t quite manage to say her name, so I called her “auntie”, much to the amusement of my parents.

I now suspect that I was more interested in the photographs of O’Hara on the album cover than I was in the music. I had begun to realise that I was supposed to grow up to be a “lady”, in the sexist language of the time, and here was a “lady” that looked quite appealing to me.  We had fields full of buttercups like the one she’s sitting in on the front cover and I was fascinated by the dress she’s wearing on the back.

I didn’t know anything about her, so I looked her up recently and found that she’s a very influential Irish singer and harpist.  She’s had a pretty interesting life, which includes a period spent as a Benedictine nun.

This album has a lot of cover versions, so I think it must have been aimed at a more mainstream audience, but it’s her traditional Irish folk recordings that seem to have stood the test of time.

My favourite tracks when I was a child were the covers, ‘Music Speaks Louder than Words’, and ‘Annie’s Song’. As an adult, my top track is ‘Dust in the Wind’. I can’t find O’ Hara’s anywhere, but here’s a great version by Melanie.

I felt I should include one of her performances in this post, so here’s Óró Mo Bháidín which seems to be a favourite and has the most listens on Spotify.

Thanks auntie.

November Life Round-up

I usually struggle in November because it comes with some difficult anniversaries. This year, I decided to just try and enjoy it for what it is.

I did pretty well socially. Work sent me to North Wales, which gave me the opportunity to visit some friends on the way back. We took our nephew to the museum for an afternoon and he had a great time. We also went to a party at the end of the month at the house of people we hardly know, so that was definitely an achievement for us.

Reading 

I only finished two books in November and they were both re-reads, Persuasion by Jane Austen and Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie. I was motivated to read these after watching adaptations, Persuasion just because it’s wonderful and, along with Sense and Sensibility, is the Austen I like to read in the winter. I re-read Sleeping Murder with a view to actually writing a post about it, which I haven’t got around to doing yet.

Television 

I watched Anne of Green Gables (1985) and The Sequel (1987) for the first time and really enjoyed them. Anne of Green Gables isn’t really a “thing” in the UK, so I didn’t know much about it, but it was very important to my American partner.

I’m working my way through the Netflix re-imagining of The Haunting of Hill House. I think it’s brilliant, but it is messing with my head!

My chill-out watch has mostly been Chef’s Table, which has become more interesting now that the chefs have a bit more diversity. My favourite so far is the episode with Christina Martinez, an undocumented migrant who runs a traditional Mexican barbacoa restaurant in Philadelphia. It made me cry.  I really liked the one with Ana Ros, a self-taught Slovenian chef, too.

Film

We only watched one film and that was the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion. I didn’t really like this adaptation when I first saw it, but it’s grown on me over the years and is now one of my favourites. It has a different feel to other adaptations – slower and more realistic. The only thing I don’t like is the ending which has Anne and Wentworth kissing in the street as a circus goes past (why?) and then sees Wentworth demanding Anne’s hand in marriage in front of a room full of people (erm, no!).

Soundtrack to the Month 

Mostly Kristin Hersh!

Act Up Oral History Project

For World Aids Day on the 1st December, the Act Up Oral History Project 

A collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York.

The purpose of this project is to present comprehensive, complex, human, collective, and individual pictures of the people who have made up ACT UP/New York. These men and women of all races and classes have transformed entrenched cultural ideas about homosexuality, sexuality, illness, health care, civil rights, art, media, and the rights of patients. They have achieved concrete changes in medical and scientific research, insurance, law, health care delivery, graphic design, and introduced new and effective methods for political organizing. These interviews reveal what has motivated them to action and how they have organized complex endeavors. We hope that this information will de-mystify the process of making social change, remind us that change can be made, and help us understand how to do it.

Remembering ‘Jana of the Jungle’

There was a meme going around twitter the other day with the question, ‘Tell us about your first crush on an animated character’.

It’s funny how things that you had completely forgotten can come back to you. I suddenly remembered my early “crush” on a cartoon character called ‘Jana of the Jungle’.

I couldn’t remember anything else about it, though, so I looked it up and found that it was produced by Hanna-Barbara from 1978 to 1979 and only lasted one season. I must have been watching re-runs around 1982.

Reading the description, the content was probably a bit …. dodgy on a number of levels.

I forgot all about Jana when I became obsessed with She-Ra a few years later.