Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows – Book Review

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows (The Cthulhu Casebooks, #1)

This is an expanded version of my review on Goodreads

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To be honest, I wasn’t sure when my friendly, neighborhood bookseller Richard, from Cracked & Spineless recommended this to me about a year ago. I affectionately call Richard my “book pimp” for good reason. Like any bookseller in today’s cutthroat market, he makes it his business to know his clientele – and in my case he’s rarely wrong!

As a fan of Lovecraftian horror and Conan Doyle-style detective fiction, I had many misgivings about this particular mashup. I think the resurgence of interest in Sherlock Holmes as a media property in recent years made me more than a little suspicious of publisher intentions – it could easily be seen as a quick cash grab.

From the first pages, I knew this was something entirely unoriginal but oh so endearingly well written! Author James Lovegrove wears his heart on his sleeve, with an obvious love of both source materials and a clear professional, literary understanding of the respective narrative, style and pacing of each. It also caused me to see how many similarities there are between the two in these important areas.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe this book is in any way high art – but it is rollicking good fun, easy to read and highly entertaining, cherry-picking some of the best aspects of Lovecraft’s horror and Conan Doyle’s consulting detective. The entertainment factor for me was very high and I’m looking forward to the second book in this series that currently sits in my bookcase, waiting patiently to be read.

I also have to give a nod to the design team at Titan Books. The cover design and chapter plates are superbly in character, and even the typeface and paper used adds a good deal to the nostalgia elements of the book. It feels and smells like something that would’ve graced my late father’s library shelves – certainly not a bad thing!

Incredibly stylish and a fun, fast read.

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One final note, it was announced last month that Lovegrove is one of three writers chosen to pen novels set in Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe, something else to look forward to!

Black Panther

Black Panther (2018). Directed by Ryan Coogler.

I’ve had a very mixed weekend. I was considering going to the movies yesterday but my painful back, hip and knees would’ve made sitting still uncomfortable. My body is telling me the seasons are starting to change, and that really is depressing – I haven’t finished my love affair with this summer yet. But with some careful management (stretching, hot packs and yoga), I managed to get some quality gardening time in, and planted a heap of vegetable seedlings. Also yesterday, there was a state election here in Tasmania, and from my point of view (and anyone working in the arts sector) the results were less than encouraging.

So, I was in the perfect mood for some blockbuster action to take my mind off things, and (with a makeshift back bolster) went to the local Village Cinema to see the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Black Panther didn’t disappoint! It has an excellent premise, a top-notch cast and some fine action moments. The film begins with a really beautiful animation that backgrounds the history of Wakanda, the fictional African nation that is the only place on earth to find the equally fictional vibranium (the metal used to construct Captain America’s shield) and this gives new viewers enough backstory to get them through the film. The story picks up from the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016) where Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home after the death of his father to become king of Wakanda.

Ulysses Klaue (played with manic relish by Andy Serkis) makes a return, as does CIA agent Emmett Ross (Martin Freeman) – but the rest of the main cast are black and many of the strongest characters are female. It’s also pertinent to point out that all the female characters are appropriately dressed for their roles, don’t try and fight in high heels, don’t require saving and have some of the best dialogue. In fact, at one point a character does complain about having to wear a wig to a casino, which (for me) really drives the point home.

The action scenes are for the most part, the high quality I expect from the MCU, but there’s a couple of ropey moments that don’t quite work. A car chase in Seoul (part of which features in the trailer) is a real standout and will certainly bear repeat viewing when the DVD comes out. Narratively, it’s a little baggy and threatened to get bogged down in the second act but the final act is very good and (unlike so many films in this genre) I don’t think the last big fight scene outstays its welcome. I’ll be seeking out other films by Ryan Coogler now for sure!

For me, three things really made this film work. Firstly, at one point I genuinely forgot I was watching a Marvel film, I was fully invested in the characters and story in the moment, without all the add-on Marvel baggage. Secondly, the two young boys in the row behind, their gasps and obvious delight reminded me how important pure action entertainment is.

But above all, I really liked that this film raised questions of how to deal with refugees, sharing knowledge, resources and how (for a film that’s based on a comic book), they strove to resolve those questions. It brought to mind the often quoted phrase “when you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence”.

Long live the king!

Visages Villages – Faces Places

Faces Places (originally released as Visages Villages) (2017) Directed by JR and Agnes Varda.

I saw this French language documentary a few weeks ago at the end of its run at the State Cinema in Hobart and I cannot get it out of my mind.

Agnes Varda is well known to me as the sole female director of the French New Wave but I confess I hadn’t heard of JR, Varda’s young co-director. Apparently JR is a French photographer and muralist and I must say, very engaging in front of the camera.

The documentary was shot over 18 months, with the two of them travelling around France in JR’s wonderful photo booth van, which also printed large format photographs. Their core idea was to create ephemeral black and white photographic art works that would eventually be worn away by the elements, depicting people of the area. These took the form of oversized images pasted on the exteriors of buildings, bridges, factories and even shipping containers.

I loved this film at many levels. A good deal of it was shot in rural France and there was a beauty beyond the idyllic pastoral scenery that Varda and JR managed to elicit from the people they spoke to. I confess I shed tears too when Jeanine, the last occupant of the condemned miners cottages, saw her two storey image on the outside of her home.

Perhaps the most poignant scenes for me were with Varda talking frankly with JR about growing old, losing her sight (the cornerstone of her art), and the friends and loved ones who have died. I felt these scenes are the spine of the film and despite the sombre feel, Varda has a sense of humour and clear zest for life that at times matches the much younger JR. There is also sadness, particularly when Varda talks about her husband who died some years ago and (without giving too much away) the manner in which she is treated by someone later in the film.

All in all, this is a quiet yet spectacular and very moving documentary, which addresses questions about ageing, being completely in the moment and engaging fully in a life well lived. It’s stayed with me for weeks and although it’s only early days, I think come December it’ll be in my best films of  2018. I recommend it to anyone who has a beating heart.

Summer in the City – Home Made Tempeh

It’s been hot and steamy the last few weeks in Hobart – well, hot by the standards of the most southerly capital city in Australia. Many mainland Australians think Tasmania is just cold all the time but (as a South Australian who has lived and worked in desert conditions) I rather think we have proper seasons (sometimes all in one day) and because this is an island, when the temperature rises as it did here today to 31 C (88 F) it’s the equivalent of 36 C (97 F) anywhere else on the mainland.

As I type (early on a sticky Saturday evening), the rain has finally come after days of teasing, topping up the water tanks and bringing much needed relief to my vegetables and fruit. In my tiny kitchen the dehydrator’s been running all week and I’ve dried nearly all of the nectarine crop and made a start on the prune plums.

Dried, home grown nectarines

Consequently, it’s been very warm in there and I took the opportunity to try out something I can only do this time of year – make my own tempeh. Although I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, I love tempeh sliced, marinated and fried. I then use it in stir fry or just on its own with a fresh garden salad. My friend Heather says it’s fabulous fried and used in veggie burgers, so I’m going to be trying that very soon!

There’s heaps of YouTube tutorials available but when I was researching this I really liked this from Veganlovlie and took her advice to buy a reliable starter from her source, Top Cultures in Belgium – oh the joy of online shopping!

Two important things to note before we start (so I’ll put them in bold)

  1. Like any food preparation, cleanliness is paramount. In the case of working with a specific ferment, this becomes critical. Make sure everything that comes in contact with your precious beans/tempeh is scrupulously clean.
  2. I haven’t pasteurised my tempeh, so for all intents and purposes it is a raw product and must be cooked before eating.

Anyway, this is what I did.

Home Made Tempeh (makes 4 blocks)

2 cups soy beans (washed and soaked)

5 tabs apple cider vinegar

1 teas dried rhizopus starter culture

Bags or moulds with drainage holes for the tempeh


Wash the beans thoroughly, rinse and repeat. Soak them in clean water for at least 8 hours (or even overnight).

At this stage, while the beans are soaking, I suggest prepping the bags or containers you intend to use for processing the tempeh. I opted for zip-lock plastic sandwich bags because I had some on hand and I can reuse them but I’ve been making vegetable bags out of baby muslin and I’d like to try something like that as a more sustainable option. Bags are easy to clean and afford a great view of the process but the problem with plastic (apart from the waste issue) is potential sweating, turning your lovely soy beans into a smelly mess, so I used a skewer and poked holes every couple of centimetres (about 1 inch) all over four bags.

After soaking, drain the beans, wash and cover them with clean water. Cook in a large pot over medium heat until they’re nearly done. (This took about 30 minutes) Add the vinegar and stir it through. Continue cooking and when the beans are cooked to your taste, (about another 10 minutes for me) drain most of the water off. Return the pan and beans to a low heat to cook off the rest of the water. Stir continually at this step to stop any sticking. Your beans should be moist but with no residual water in the bottom of the pan.

Allow to cool to about 35 C (95 F) and add the teaspoon of starter. I suggest take your time and mix this through very carefully. I’ve made quite a bit of cheese over the years and found out the hard way that ensuring the starter is evenly distributed is a really critical step.

Next, evenly distribute the beans into the bags (mine made just under 500g cooked beans per bag) and working as fast as possible, carefully shape them into small rectangular cakes, expel excess air and zip-lock them. Finally, put the cakes on a clean board or non-metallic tray and weigh them down with another board, keeping them somewhere warm and draught free for at least the first 12 hours. After that, the fermentation will generate enough heat to keep it going.

I put a scrupulously clean wooden board on top of my monster dehydrator (to take advantage of the escaping heat) and placed the bags on the board, weighing them down with my old and very heavy ceramic lasagne dish.

Within 12 hours, it was clear there was fermentation and the bags were quite warm, a great sign!

By 24 hours the fungus was clearly visible and looked very clean, white and with no discolouration – more great signs!


By 36 hours I called it as a successful experiment and carefully removed the first cake from the plastic bag and sliced it up.

It worked out incredibly well and it was a very easy way to make one of my favourite foods. I’ll certainly be making more of this while the weather stays warm and freezing it for use in the cooler months. Next, I want to try making chickpea tempeh.

But tomorrow night, Tempeh Stir Fry for dinner!

Hooray for Cider! – A Book Review

This is an extended version of a review I posted on Goodreads this morning. 

I bought my copy online and if you’ve read this book, please let me know what you think – I always like to hear your opinions!

Cider: Making, using & enjoying sweet & hard cider, 2003 (1980) 3rd Edition, by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols, Storey Publishing, MA. 


Cider by Annie Proulx
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is possibly the most informative and inspiring book on cidermaking I’ve ever come across. Admittedly, it’s aimed at North American readers, but I still found plenty of fascinating and relevant information that I can adapt and use on the other side of the world in Tasmania AU.

I picked this up online and secondhand, but why anyone with even a passing interest in all things cider would part with it is beyond me! My intention was to use it as a reference book, something to dip into as I needed to look particular things up, but it’s incredibly well written and readable – I found myself engrossed in the text and really couldn’t put it down.

Yes, there’s probably a good deal about things I’ll likely never need to use, aimed at orchards on an acreage. At the moment on my little urban farm, I have four dwarf sweet multipurpose apples, a baby Huon Crabapple (all in tubs because of space limitations) and at most, I’ll probably expand it out to ten dwarf trees with cider varieties. So it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever have the need or inclination to learn how to set up and care for large wooden barrels. After reading this book though, I can see the benefit of a small cider press for future crops.

The bottom line is, I was fascinated with the information and how it was delivered. Annie Proulx is one of my favourite fiction writers and I think her influence and love of the subject makes the text flow. Lew Nichols is a professional cider maker and his understanding of the science shines through. And it should be noted there is a quite a lot of science in this book, but it’s written in a way that’s accessible and easily understood by anyone with even the merest grounding in high school chemistry – notably me! The diagrams and charts are relevant, practical and well connected to the text, and many of the old photographs and illustrations are really lovely to look at. Reading the acknowledgements shows they sourced information from many specialists across a wide range of disciplines.

Despite there being a number of reviews on Goodreads about how irrelevant this book is to backyard cider makers, I beg to differ. As an occasional maker of perry, cider, apple cider vinegar and fruit wine, I found a tremendous amount of information here that is very relevant to me, and it’s given me ideas of how to improve my brewing and horticultural practices.

I’m sure this is a book I’ll treasure and keep going back to year after year. Now excuse me please while I go and gather some timber – I want to make a cider press 🙂

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My secondhand copy from the UK

No Resolutions – 2017 in Review

kunanyi/Mt Wellington sunset from my backdoor

Well, here we are again. Another year has sped by and I’m in the midst of some well-earned time off from teaching and contract work.

The garden beds are looking a little better as I’ve had more time to pull some weeds, which keeps the chickens happy. In turn, they give me and mine enough eggs to make summer pavlova to go with raspberries from the ever-expanding patch. Vegetable peelings go to the chickens and also to the three worm farms that are on constant rotation and in turn, replenish the garden beds with casings and provide foliar fertilizer. So, there’s plenty of salad greens for picking, plus finger eggplants, the first of the zucchinis and chillies coming on.

First eggplant for the year

The rabbits (our other weed eaters) laze in their shady spot near the chestnut tree, which has just finished flowering. The waste from their hutches goes back onto the various veggie beds and fruit trees as a feeding mulch. Although I do bring in some extra materials (particularly magnesium and dolomite), it’s all a circle really.

This past year has been a lot of hard work (especially with respect to study) but it has brought many rewards, both tangible achievements and simple, old fashioned happiness. Above all, I’m well aware of how lucky I am, living in one of the loveliest places on the planet, grateful to get paid for doing things I love and that I’m surrounded by wonderful people (you know who you are – and thank you!)

I have no personal resolutions for 2018, just to be in the circle for another trip around the sun and to continue what I’ve been doing – studying, urban farming, writing, teaching music, watching films, cooking and writing film criticism.

It’s quite a lot really, sometimes almost too much – as my partner and GP both like to remind me! – and while I was preparing photos for this post, I discovered this glorious bee I snapped a couple of weeks ago in the chestnut tree. It reminded me the name Debra comes from the Hebrew and means “industrious, as a bee”.

Seasons greetings to you all and may the coming year be all you want it to be ❤

Chestnut in full flower

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017. Directed by Rian Johnson.

I can rarely be bothered to go to big releases in their opening week but I made an exception with this, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.

I should say from the outset that while I like the original movies, I’m film studies scholar – not in the simpering fan-girl brigade. In fact, I’ve always felt a degree of frustration because I could always see how good these films should be but never seemed to hit the mark.

Having said that, I thought The Force Awakens (2015) was infinitely better than any of the prequels and reignited my interest in the series. But this was completely eclipsed by the stand alone and beautifully self-contained Rogue One (2016), which (despite a baggy first act) is a fabulous sci-fi war movie.

But Thursday I saw something really good, much better than I anticipated, and I reacted accordingly.

The Last Jedi explored complex themes – in a far more nuanced way than I expected – about family, friendship, connection and the nature of difference and subversion. Given the global political climate this past 12 months, it was an excellent commentary, and a reminder that nothing is ever just black or white.

The young cast are really very good, with Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver outstanding, providing emotional depth to their characters. They are ably supported by John Boyega, Oscar Isaacs and Kelly Marie Tran. Despite being a wee bit sentimental about seeing Carrie Fisher in her final role (yes, I did well up!) the thing that reduced me to tears was seeing the wonderful Laura Dern showing all the kids how it should be done – and a scene that immediately reminded me of her father Bruce Dern and Silent Running (1972), one of my favourite films.

If this is what Star Wars is going to be from now on, I’ll have some more thanks!

* This is an expanded version of a review that was included in Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live (15/12/17) – and yes, I was thrilled to hear Simon Mayo read it out! *


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