books

Back to School Books

The schools go back this week coming, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to recommend some books based in schools or with a school-y element

I’m starting with a recent discovery (thank you NetGalley) – Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens which combines two of my favourite things – boarding school stories and Golden Age detective stories.  Like Mallory Towers crossed with Agatha Christie but with a wry smile, this is the first book about the Wells and Wong Detective Agency – aka Daisy and Hazel – and the very real murder they encounter at their boarding school.  I sped through this during my break and train journey on a nightshift and it was a joy.  There are subtle lessons about bullying and race for the children (I’d say 9 – 12 year olds) and enough sly nods to things for the adults amongst us too.  I’ll be looking out for the next one.

Melissa Nathan was one of my favourite authors of the early 2000s – and her final novel, The Learning Curve – is one of the best novels I’ve read about being a teacher (speaking as a non-teacher of course).  It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s romantic and the characters are all brilliant.  I loved Nicky and thought her relationship with her class was utterly believable and Oscar and his dad Mark are brilliant too.  I cried in Tesco when I read in the front of this book that Melissa had passed away and it saddens me that so many people won’t have come across her work –  so I heartily recommend this.  And as a side note, every year I have found at least one amazing new author from the Melissa Nathan Award Shortlist, so although tragically there will be no more books from Melissa herself, I feel like she’s pointing me in the direction of other people carrying on her fine work.

As previously mentioned, I love a good school story – and it would be remiss of me not to mention my favourite boarding school series of all time in a round-up of books about schools and that’s Elinor M Brent Dyer’s Chalet School books.  I’m working my way up to a full post on the subject so I won’t say too much more, except that if you like school stories set in the 1920s through to the 1950s and haven’t read any Chalet School books, then where have you been.  They are slightly dated now, and children should be given the abridged Armada paperback versions (which take out the smoking and some of the more questionable language) but I still adore them. “I bet Jo could sing it better” is still a running gag between my sister and I when things go badly wrong based on the main protagonist’s ability to cure fever, coma and emotional trauma with her singing voice. The School at the Chalet is the first book and is easily findable on the second-hand book sites – and Girls Gone By Publishing are republishing the unabridged versions in paperback for those of us who can’t afford the very collectible original hardback books.

One of my recent discoveries are Angela Thirkell’s delightful Barsetshire novels from the 1930s – and one of the best of these that I’ve read is Summer Half – where Colin Keith decides to spend a term as a teacher (as you could in those days!) rather than live off his dad whilst he studies for the law.  The focus is on the teachers and their lives and in particular flirtatious attention-seeking Rose – the daughter of the headteacher – who is engaged to one master, but busy flirting with every man she encounters.  It’s delightfully funny, and if you’re a fan of children’s boarding school stories, this may well float your boat too.

And finally, little bit tangential, but I really enjoyed John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which starts with a section set in a school, when I read it last year – and I’m not normally a spy/thriller reader.  Well worth a look for anyone who hasn’t read this classic of the genre – although I can’t claim that the school section is the main bit of the plot!

Chick lit, fiction, new releases, reviews

Review: A Place for Us by Harriet Evans (part 2)

We’re off schedule again people… But this time I’m properly rested and hopefully coherent (at least until nightshifts start again tonight).  It is, of course, because of the nights that we’re departing from the schedule – I didn’t realise that Part 2 was nearly here until I saw someone else review it…  Anyhow we left A Place for Us with me begging to find out what happened next in a slightly sleep deprived manner, after the end of Part 1 dropped a fairly major bombshell on the reader.

Well, what can I say.  In Part 2 the bombshell is unloaded onto the rest of the characters – along with a few other secrets – and then we’re left on another cliff hanger.  Honestly, this serialisation malarkey isn’t good for my blood pressure.  There.  That’s all I can say about the plot without giving too much away.  Except that we learn more about the characters – and in particular the absent Daisy.

I am desperate to know what happens next (again) and Harriet Evans has surprised me with some of the twists and turns we’ve had in this second part.  She’s also written a novel which (so far) seems to really lend itself to being broken up into chunks to torment the reader.  I think this part is shorter than part one – but it’s packed with character development, plot movement and surprises so you don’t notice.  I’m very excited about part three – because based on what’s happened so far, I’m fairly sure I have no idea what’s going to happen next.

A Place for Us Part 2 is here for Kindle and if you haven’t read Part 1 then you really should.  I’m off to make a note in my diary about the release date for part 3 (25 September).

Uncategorized

Review: The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House

I was very excited when I won a copy of Stephanie Lam’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House – the cover looked gorgeous and the blurb was intriguing.

The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House is a time-slip novel set in the 1920s and the 1960s.  The 1920s strand follows the visit of Robert Carver to his wealthier cousin Alec Bray, who lives in the titular house.  A poor relation, Robert has always admired Alec, but he discovers that the Brays are damaged and gets dragged into their web.  Forty years later, the second strand follows Rosie Churchill, an 18-year-old girl who has run away from home and is living in Castaway House, now subdivided into flats as she finds out about what happened to Robert, their stories intertwine…  I’m hoping that doesn’t give too much away, because I think this is a book that is best to go into unspoiled – for maximum impact.

The very pretty and retro cover of The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House
The very pretty and retro cover of The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House

The book evokes two very different periods in exactly the same setting – and does so very successfully.  You can feel the difference in the world of the Twenties where Alec is trying to project an image of glamour and privilege and that of the sixties where everything is rougher, darker and poorer.

There is plenty of mystery and suspense – expect sharp intakes of breath as the secrets are gradually revealed.  Stephanie Lam has done a really good job of setting this up so that you can’t see the twists coming – or at least I couldn’t.  I thought I knew what was going to happen (jaded time-slip reader that I am) but I was surprised by the ingenuity of what the actual plot was.  She also credits the reader with the intelligence not to need everything spelling out – particularly when it comes to the resolution.

I really enjoyed The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House – and I will be looking forward to more from Stephanie Lam.  I’ve already recommended it to several friends.  Published today by Penguin, I’m hoping it’ll be nice and prominent in the bookshops – here it is on Foyles website and here for Kindle.

stats, The pile, week in books

The Week In Books: August 18 – August 24

Nightshift hell.  You’ll notice a proliferation of childrens/YA books and Golden Age crime and comedy.  I managed a hundred or so pages of Elizabeth Gilbert on the way to my nightshift on Tuesday, but my brain was having trouble computing it, although I am enjoying it.

Read:

Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

The Unfinished Symphony of You and Me by Lucy Robinson

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

The Summer of Love by Sophie Pembroke

Started:

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

Still reading:

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Two books bought* – and a copy of the Secret Paris Cinema Club arrived for me from the lovely people at Quercus, so one book acquired too…

*And a couple of Chalet School ones which don’t count.

books, Chick lit, new releases, reviews, romance

Review: Unfinished Symphony of You and Me

This post was Not In My Plan for this week.  My carefully constructed plan of what to post when, in a nice pattern, on a regular schedule, constructed (and written) around my current batch of nightshifts.  Then I started reading Unfinished Symphony of You and Me on my dinner break at 3.45am on Wednesday morning.  And I’ve just finished it (it’s Saturday afternoon at the moment, but it’ll be Sunday when this publishes, because I can’t let go of the plan so much I post twice on the same day!) and it was too good for me to just add it to the books read list this week and say how much I’d enjoyed it.

I really loved this. I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened – but I didn’t want it to be over at the same time.  I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner.

Lucy Robinson’s created a fabulous cast of characters and a heart-wrenchingly brilliant story that shows you the importance of living your life, taking control and following your dream and not waiting for someone* to sort it out for you.

I loved crazy, messed-up Sally’s journey to find herself as she takes her courage in her hands and faces her fears.  I was desperate to find out what had happened that summer in New York to turn her from the mousy wardrobe mistress into a student opera singer.  And I didn’t get too grumpy at the reveal being dragged out, once I finally found out what had happened and how totally ingenious it was.  There were a couple of points where I could see the car crash (metaphorically) coming and wanted to scream with frustration at Sally for being so stupid – but then it was so brilliantly done in the end that I Didn’t Mind**.

I don’t want to say too much else about the plot, because it’s another book where it would be all too easy for me to ruin it for everyone who hasn’t read this yet (go and buy it).  I will say though that Barry is my favourite mad housemate since Bing in Bernadette Strachan’s Reluctant Landlady.  And that’s saying something.

This is a perfect summer read.  Although if you read it at the beach, people may point at you when you start crying (I held out until nearly the end, which is surprising considering that post-nightshifts I get incredibly emotional).  And, of course, my idiocy means I’m reviewing it too late in August for many people who, unlike me, have already had their summer holiday.

Still, recapture that holiday reading feeling and go and buy yourself a copy of Unfinished Symphony of You and Me.  My copy came from Netgalley (in return for an honest review etc) but you can find it here, here, here and here (on Kindle) and I hope still in W H Smith and maybe even the supermarkets too.  So really you have no excuse.  I’m off book some tickets to the opera and to add everything else Lucy Robinson has written to my to-read list – and to try to resist the urge to Buy Them Now (because of that pesky backlog I’m trying to deal with). Go. Buy. Read. Enjoy.

Oh dear.  I think this may be another of my overly emotional crazy posts.  Like my moment over the first part of Harriet Evan’s new book.  This is why I plan things so I don’t have to be coherent on here during my nocturnal moments.

* A man

** And when you consider that I can barely read one of my formerly most read books any more because I’m so angry at the way that the third book in the series turned out, you’ll know that that’s a big deal.

 

books, historical, new releases, reviews

Review: The Fortune Hunter

I was very excited to get an advance copy of Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter ahead of its release in paperback on the 28th – as I really enjoyed her debut novel My Last Duchess (which I passed straight on to my mum who liked it too).

IMG_1803
The lovely paperback cover of The Fortune Hunter

I’ve had trouble coming up with a plot summary for this that doesn’t give too much away, so I’m settling for the blurb:

In 1875, Sisi, the Empress of Austria is the woman that every man desires and every woman envies.

Beautiful, athletic and intelligent, Sisi has everything – except happiness. Bored with the stultifying etiquette of the Hapsburg Court and her dutiful but unexciting husband, Franz Joseph, Sisi comes to England to hunt. She comes looking for excitement and she finds it in the dashing form of Captain Bay Middleton, the only man in Europe who can outride her. Ten years younger than her and engaged to the rich and devoted Charlotte, Bay has everything to lose by falling for a woman who can never be his. But Bay and the Empress are as reckless as each other, and their mutual attraction is a force that cannot be denied.

Now I didn’t know a lot about Sisi before I read this book – so I can’t tell you how close to what actually happened this is.  What I can tell you is that I really enjoyed reading this book – loved the characters and spent a large portion of the book knowing that it wasn’t going to turn out right for everyone, but hoping against hope that it might.

I galloped through this (sorry, couldn’t resist a horse pun in a book where so much is centred around riding) in about 3 and a half train journeys.  I’m not a horse rider or a hunting fan, but I still found the book enthralling and the horse-y sections were were engaging and easy for a non rider to follow. There were also some lovely details in this – I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Queen Victoria and John Brown.

The Historical Note at the end explained some of the liberties taken by the author with reality and the book left me wanting to know more about the real Sisi and the Hapsburgs – and sent me googling on a variety of characters and hunting for biographies of various people.  It also made me want to re-read My Last Duchess – so I’ll have to dig out my copy of that too.  I’ve passed this straight on to my mum – which is always a sign of a good book in this genre. I look forward to seeing what Goodwin comes up with next

The Fortune Hunter is out in paperback on the 28th of August and should be available in all good book shops like Waterstones and Foyles although I could only find a link to the hardback on their website – but if you can’t wait you could buy that now – as you can the Kindle edition.

American imports, romance

New Romance Review Round-up

It’s Read a Romance Month, so I thought I ought to do my bit for the cause – and review some romance.  I’m pretty much exclusively a historical romance reader when I read straight up romance, so here are two of the new ones I’ve recently read – both by authors new to me as I continue my quest to find new (to me) historical romance authors, having read everything from the people I like!

First up, and out this week in the US  (and in September in the UK) is How the Scoundrel Seduces by Sabrina Jeffries.  This is the third book in the series – and as per usual I’m late to the party and haven’t read the other two.  This wasn’t a problem though as I still enjoyed the book.  Some elements of the plot felt a little bit far fetched to me, but Jeffries carries it off – just.  My problems with US-written-British-set historicals usually come with the language choices and there were a few moments in this, but probably not any that would annoy an American reader.  I have a personal problem with “princess” as a term of endearment – makes me think of Eastenders and gangsters, but that’s just me!  The denouement seemed to happen very quickly – there seemed to be a lot of build up for not a lot of resolution, and there were a few revelations at the end that felt like they were late attempts to make the baddie more three dimensional and add a bit of depth to a character that we hadn’t seen in the flesh for a long time (I’m trying not to give plot points away here!).  I have another, older Sabrina Jeffries on the pile and there was certainly nothing here to put me off reading it.  If I was giving star ratings, it’d be 3.5 out of 5.

Out next week in the US (and at the start of October in the UK) is Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney.  Another book that’s one of a series that I haven’t read (sensing a theme here!), this is the story of Laurel and James – who are married but have been separated for 10 years after she witnessed him carry out a “shocking act of violence” (I’m trying not to give away the plot again) and are drawn back together after a chance encounter “turns passionate with consequences that cannot be ignored”.  Now the accidentally pregnant trope is not my favourite of the romance plotlines, but I’m always willing to give them a go – especially this one – as it seemed to promise a strong minded heroine.  However, once I’d read a little and discovered a bit more, the plot device separating them felt a little contrived and flimsy – Laurel knows that James is a spymaster when she marries him, and there’s a certain risk of violence attached to that.  She also lives in a time that was much rougher and she hasn’t exactly led a life sheltered form that since they separated and so I found some of her issues hard to believe.  But, just because a book isn’t really for me, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t going to like it.  This has a strong Christian theme to it – and the characters have strong moral standpoints rooted in their beliefs so I’m sure that it’ll appeal to those who don’t like their romances to be filled with immorality.  It does have some sex scenes in it though, so it’s not for the very conservative end of the Christian reading spectrum.

So, there you have it – two reviews, neither of them the raves that I was hoping to be able to post when I was lining up romances to read in August for RARM.  So to counter act that, I’d like to point you in the direction of Eloisa James’ latest, Three Weeks with Lady X for a really good historical romance, and some really good non-historical not just a romances – like Jenny Colgan’s Little Beach Street Bakery and the recently re-issued Tickled Pink from Christina Jones.  There’s still some more romance waiting to be read on the pile – I’m hoping for more success next time!

My copies came from Netgalley – in return for an honest review – I’m assuming they’ll be available in all the usual places where you can find romances – but here are links to both on Amazon.com – How the Scoundrel Seduces and Not Quite A Wife