I had such a tough job picking a book for BotW this week, because I really didn’t read anything that I whole-heartedly loved. I started reading a lot of books and then gave up on them, and I finished a few – including a real stinker. But in the end I plumped for Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson.
Anna Treadway is a dresser, working in a London theatre and living above a Turkish cafe in Soho in 1965. When the actress who she works with disappears, she sets out to try and find her as the trail grows cold and the newspapers lose interest. As she hunts for the mysterious Iolanthe Green she finds herself in new world of jazz clubs, police cells and backstreet doctors.
Whilst this wasn’t perfect, it was an interesting idea and a great cast of diverse characters. It’s got an interesting mystery that’s well thought through and several different plot strands which tie together quite nicely. Underneath the mystery of where Iolanthe has gone there are issues of prejudice and race and people struggling to be heard and believed. From the look of the (UK) cover and some of the write ups I was expecting it to be ultimately more uplifting, but perhaps given the issues that it’s dealing with, I was being unrealistic.
This is Miranda Emmerson’s first novel and it does a great job of creating the atmosphere of 1960s London and the grimier side of life. In fact that was what I liked best about it – the mix of people thrown together, some times living side by side without ever intersecting. I think I would have liked more of Anna’s backstory and I wanted a bit more of what happened next at the end, but I pretty much always want more of what happened next at the end!
My copy came via NetGalley, but you can get Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle and Kobo. It only came out a couple of weeks back so it’s hardcover and the ebooks are priced accordingly too I’m afraid. The paperback is out in July, so it may drop a little then, if you want to add it to your wishlist and wait it out.
I started the week (unexpectedly) doing a bit old 50 and out cull – nothing was capturing my fancy. But it has got a few books off the virtual to-read pile.
The Flying Classroom by Erich Kästner
Danny Dingle’s Fantastic Finds: The Super-Sonic Submarine by Angie Lake
A Thrilling Term at Janeways by Elinor M Brent Dyer
Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson
Murder of a Chocolate Covered Cherry by Denise Swanson
Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
First Women by Kate Andersen Brower
I didn’t buy any books this week – but I acquired quite a lot because the arts department upstairs at work is moving offices and everyone seems to be having a clear out of there shelves – meaning lots of books up for grabs. Oops.
So, you may have noticed from yesterday’s WiB that I didn’t finish that many books last week. But that was not a problem when it came to picking a BotW, because one of the books that I did finish was Norman Ohler’s Blitzed.
Ohler’s thesis is that large amounts of drugs were consumed by Nazi troops as they steamrollered through Europe, that drugs were equally consumed by people on the homair front and that during the latter stages of the war (from around 1941 onwards) Hitler himself was dependent on hard drugs. Ohler backs up his assertions with primary source research using documents held in archives in Germany and in America and makes a persuasive case.
Now before I go any further, I need to say that although I have a history degree, I have, in the main, avoided study of Nazi Germany because I find it too unbearably terrible. Luckily my school stopped studying WW2 Germany at A-Level the year before I started sixth form* and at university I managed to avoid Twentieth Century history for all but one term** so I am no expert.
I found Ohler’s book incredibly readable and very well researched. It’s an appealing idea. The Nazis were off their heads on drugs. That’s why they did it. It’s comforting and reassuring – it was the drugs which made them do it – and means that you don’t have to worry about what you would have done in their place. I don’t think this is what Ohler is trying to say. In the case of Hitler he’s very specific that it doesn’t explain all of Hitler’s actions – just enabled him to maintain and continue his rule. As for the man on the street, or the soldier in a panzer regiment, the drugs enabled them to keep going for longer than otherwise. So I suppose what I’m saying is that this book shouldn’t be seen in isolation or viewed as the whole story. That would be far too simplistic. But it has new ideas and research I haven’t heard about before and is worth reading, if only so that you know what the historians are arguing about. Because they are going to argue about this.
Well the week started with my birthday (yes I know, I was celebrating last week. We take birthdays seriously in my house) and although I read a lot of American Wife and First Women I didn’t finish them, and I also spent a lot of the second half of the week reading about the handover of power in the US, the end of the Obama administration and the start of the Trump one. So not a lot of books got finished.
Rivers of London: Night Witch by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel and Lee Sullivan
A Killer Plot by Ellery Adams
Blitzed by Norman Ohler
Privates on Parade by Peter Nichols
A Thrilling Term at Janeways by Elinor M Brent Dyer
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
First Women by Kate Andersen Brower
I had a mega spending spree in Hay on Wye on my birthday (Monday) buying half a dozen books for myself and another couple as gifts for other people. But beyond that I was very good and restrained.
As you may have noticed (I think it’s hard to have missed it) Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as President of the United States. It always seems strange to me that it takes America so long to swap over after elections, but here we are, today is Inauguration Day. And being a news person, that means this week I’m thinking politics and books about politics. Regular readers will know that I’ve been reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife for sometime – it’s been my bedside book, although this week it’s had an upgrade – and I’m also reading First Women which I got for Christmas. All of which means my reading this week has been fairly American politics heavy. I’m at work getting ready to watch The Donald take charge (oh the joys of scheduled posting), but if you’re not watching – or if you’ve watched and want more politics, here are some reading suggestions for you.
Primary Colors By Anon (Joe Klein)
Primary Colors tells the story of Jack Stanton, a southern governor making a presidential run. One of the blurbs coyly says that some characters and events ressemble real-life figures – but it doesn’t take much knowledge to work out that the people in question are the Clintons and that this is a fictionalised version of Bill’s presidential campaign. I read this on holiday last year, and although it’s incredibly readable, I really hope that the machinations in this are an exaggeration. If half of them go on in real life, it’s a worry. Worth reading if you haven’t already – you’ll probably end up down a Wikipedia hole as you try and work out which bits are true(r) and which are made up.
John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek
This is a proper weighty tome. It covers all of JFK’s life – but not much of the fallout (and conspiracies) after his assassination. I came away with a much better understanding of what he stood for and what his background. It’s not salacious – although the other women do get mentioned – but you do get a lot of detail about his family background and his medical history and how all of this influenced him. I came away with a strong dislike of his family and strongly mixed feelings about him, but it’s definitely worth it.
The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham
If you want a Kennedy fix, but don’t want a biography, (or if you’ve read the biography and still want more) try this. Nora Brennan is newly arrived from Ireland when she gets a job as a nursery maid to a family in Brookline. She ends up on the inside of American history as she looks after the Kennedy children and sees their parents try to build an empire. It takes you through Joe’s time as Ambassador in the UK and WW2 and beyond. Warning: you may not like many of them (detect a theme here with the Kennedys?) but it’s worth it for the wit and warmth. The history is spot on as well which is what Laurie Graham does so well – if you like this, search out my favourite of hers Gone with the Windsors.
Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
Slightly left field this I’ll admit – because it’s not about American politics but an English aristocrat in the Eighteenth century. But Georgiana (pronounced George-ay-na in this case not George-ee-ana like Pride and Prejudice) was a political activist as well as a famed beauty and the queen of fashionable society, and this biography deals with that as well as with her (very) complicated love life. She’s another person who I didn’t like very much, but I was fascinated by her story. A film of the book was made a few years back featuring Keira Knightley which I keep meaning to get around to watching.
The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Sick of modern politics? Need a reminder of how bad things used to be? Read this. Turns out Imperial Russia was even worse that I thought – and I’m only just at the latter stages of the war against Napoleon. So far there’s been patricide, filicide, plain old homicide, usurpers, wifes sent to convents, imprisoned deposed rulers and so many horrible murders and inventive torture methods. So many. So gruesome. Some involved spikes. I’m listening to the audiobook and I can confirm that I run faster when listening to tales of horrible doings – probably because I don’t want any of them catching up with me!
What’s next on my list? Well I have Paula Byrne’s book, Kick, about JFK’s sister sitting on the pile, so I might read that. In all the Kennedy books I’ve read so far she’s probably come off as the nicest of them although she died young and had a bit of a tragicl life. And as she married the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire – so it sort of ties in nicely with Georgiana too!
Quite a tough decision on what to pick for BotW this week – there were several contenders. But in the end I’ve plumped for Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart, which I devoured over the weekend while we were away for an extended jolly for my birthday. This was another book which had ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile and resurfaced because of the Big Box Up and I’m so glad that it did.
Crooked Heart tells the story of Noel, who is evacuated to Hertfordshire in 1940. Noel is an unusual 10 year old. He’s been brought up by an old lady and is precocious and smart beyond his years. He ends up with Vera – a 36 year old single mum struggling with debt, a recalcitrant and secretive son and her demanding mother. Vera is sure there is some money to be made out of the war, but the trouble is that she’s not very good at making a plan and sticking to it. But Noel is a different proposition. He’s smart, he’s calm and he might be the answer to Vera’s problems. But of course they’re not the only people making money from the war, and there are dangers other than air-raids in Noel’s new life.
I really enjoyed this. Noel and Vera are engaging characters who make a good team. Vera is almost a proto-Del Boy – but with Noel to help she has the chance of her deals actually going right. In some ways Noel reminded me of William in Goodnight Mr Tom (that’s a good thing) – Noel has had more advantages in his education and home life that William did, but he’s still a little boy who has had to grow up too fast and deal with things that children aren’t meant to deal with. And one of the themes of Goodnight Mr Tom is finding your own family and your own place in life and there’s a lot of that here although Vee is very different to Tom.
It’s a heartwarming romp through the grey, greyer and uglier areas of life on the home front. I could easily have read another 100 pages of Vee and Noel, but actually the ending is a brilliant touch. I haven’t read any of Lissa Evans’ books before, but my little sister still has a copy Evans’ first novel, Spencer’s List, on her shelf which I bought for her back in the day 15 years ago, so I’m going to have to borrow that off her and read it. Coincidentally someone posted a trailer on Facebook for the upcoming film Their Finest on the same day as I read this – and that’s based on Evans’ previous book Their Finest Hour and a Half, which I totally need to read now as well.
You can get a copy of Crooked Heart from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles or on Kindle or Kobo. And it looks like there might be a (slightly retitled) tie-in edition of Their Finest Hour and Half coming out too.