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.
This week’s pick comes from the bottom of the to-read pile – which is now the top because of the unfortunate fireplace situation. I acquired a little stack of Persephone Print books from a friend a year (and the rest) ago and some how they ended up getting relegated to one of the piles behind the sofa arm. What a mistake to make. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness, although not perfect, turned out to be a little gem.
The Making of a Marchioness is a story of two parts. Both are about Emily Fox-Seaton, a well-born lady in her early 30s (so on the shelf for the era – this was published in 1901) who has very little money and who supports herself by running errands for people better off than herself. In part one, she gets invited to visit a country house to help out and during the course of her stay her fortunes change. The second part chronicles how she adapts to her change in fortunes.
Now, in order to explain my feelings about this book, I’m going to have to give some spoilers. Sorry. So, if you don’t want to be spoilt (so to speak) then don’t read below the photograph that’s coming up. But if you like a Cinderella story, but one that’s populated by really quite unromantic people who aren’t all beautiful or clever, than this might well be the book for you. The latest Persephone edition, although not quite as pretty as mine is £9.00 on Amazon and Foyles as I write this or in the edition that I own for £14 from Waterstones, but the total bargain is the ebook because both Kindle and Kobo have a free versions.
And now the spoilers. I did warn you.
I really, really, liked the first part of the book – with Emily winning the Marquess by being herself and realising what she was doing. Emily is an immensely likeable character who is cheerful and uncomplaining and just generally indispensible. Part two, where we see her adapting to life as a Marchioness is really very Gothic and melodramatic and I didn’t like it as much – perhaps because it was so different from the first part of the book. Emily’s obliviousness to the machinations of the unsuitable heir and his wife (and her maid) started to annoy me a little after a while and I just wanted her to buck up and write that letter to her husband (away in India on government business) or confide in Lady Maria who would have sorted it all out. The two parts were originally published as separate books, and I can’t work out if I would have liked the second part more or less if I’d read the first part in isolation and then come across its sequel.
What is true of both parts is that they are very well written and without the overblown romantic transports of many similar novels. And the way it portrays marriage is also very different from other novels of the time. Emily is not on the prowl for a husband in part one, she’s content to try and live her life without a man (even if she is worried about old age and poor health) but when she does get married, her husband is not a romantic hero – in fact he’s really not sure why he settled on Emily at some points – and their relationship is very stiff and Victorian (and Edwardian). There are some slightly dated attitudes in here – but I’ve read much (much) worse and it’s on the nicer end of the attitudes and problems of its time.
Anyway, I really enjoyed reading an adult novel by an author that I only knew for her famous children’s stories like The Secret Garden – and I’m really looking forward to reading more of the Persephones on my to-read pile.
Three nights away from home impaired my reading progress somewhat this week, and also my attempts to read my way through the bottom of the to-read pile. Still at least one of the books I did read is eligible for a category on the #ReadHarder challenge, so that’s good.
The Making of A Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Fountain of Sorrow by Paul Charles
More Work for the Undertaker by Margery Allingham
The Vets at Hope Green, Part 1 by Sheila Norton
Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe
The Draycott Murder Mystery by Molly Thynne
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
First Women by Kate Andersen Brower
Two books bought this week – but one’s in French, so its educational – and the other was for Him Indoors as well as me.
Now 2017 is well underway, and I’ve told you about my obsessions, the state of the (enormous) pile, and my #ReadHarder ambitions, it seemed like a good time to finally work out what my favourite books published last year were. I know. Everyone else did this weeks ago, but I didn’t want anything really excellent that I might have read at the end of the year to get missed out. And yes, fractured elbow. It’s my excuse for everything.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
“Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?” Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”
Considering how much I loved this book, I have said remarkably little about it on here. I recommended it in the Christmas gift post and back in the Summer Reads post, but it wasn’t a Book of the Week – because I was expecting to be reviewing it elsewhere. And I don’t think that adequately conveys how much I adored it. But Sittenfeld’s modern reworking of Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book of last year.
If the quote at the top makes you laugh or smile (even if it’s only inside because you’re too cool) then you need to read this book. I’ve read a lot of Austen retellings, reworkings, sequels and the like and this manages to strike a perfect (for me) balance of retelling the story but modernising it so that it feels relevant to today. Lizzie (nearly 40 rather than 20) and her sisters are trust fund babies in Cincinatti, but the money is running out, their father has medical problems and their mother has a shopping problem. Darcy is a surgeon, Bingley a reality TV star (don’t let that put you off) and Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with Crossfit. I want to read it again – but my copy is still out on loan. The paperback isn’t out until June, but you could pre-order from Amazon or Waterstones and have a lovely treat in the summer, the Kindle and Kobo versions are £5.99 at time of writing or you could go nuts and buy the hardback from Amazon, Foyles or Waterstones – Waterstones was cheapest when I was writing – doing it on click and collect for £7.50 which is a total bargain for a hardback. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
As I said in my BotW post last month, this book is going to win all the prizes and will be on English Literature sylabuses in years to come. Cora’s story is incredibly tough to read – and it’s partly the contrast between the realism of the terrible things that are happening and the magical realism of making the Underground Railroad a real, actual railway with stations, and trains that makes this such an incredible read. And the writing is beautiful. As you all know, I don’t read a lot of “literary fiction” – and I don’t have a lot of success with books that have been nominated for awards, but I’m so glad I read it – and I’ve been singing its praises to my literary fiction-reading friends. Still only in hardback I’m afraid, but bizarrely the paperback comes out the same day as Eligible – even though this was released six months later than the Sittenfeld. Odd. Anyway. In hardback from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, on Kindle and Kobo or pre-order the paperback on Amazon or Waterstones.
The Barista’s Guide to Espionage by Dave Sinclair
Yes I know. You’re sick of my Fahrenheit obsession. Well tough. Their books made up nearly 20 percent of my 5 star books last year, so they were bound to figure here. Sorry, not sorry. Anyway, this story about Eva Destruction – James Bond and Stephanie Plum’s lovechild – was another BotW and I defy anyone not to enjoy Eva’s battle to try to stop her evil supervillain ex-boyfriend from taking over the world. It’s an action thriller film in book form but with a smart woman doing the saving not a suave bloke in a suit (he tries, but she’s better than him). Get it on Kindle or in paperback.
Death of a Nobody by Derek Farrell
From Eva Destruction to Poirot on Poppers, the second Danny Bird book is the second Fahrenheit book on this list. The first book (Death of a Diva) is funny, but this book feels like a series hitting its stride. It’s got a great, off-beat cast, zingy one-liners, lashings of sarcasm and an up-and-coming gastro pub with a rising body count and a gangster breathing down Danny’s neck. I’m recommending this to my friends who read cozy crime who want something that’s not cupcakes, bakeries or crafting. I can’t wait for book three. Get it on Kindle or in paperback. You can thank me later.
Grunt by Mary Roach
And this is why I’m glad I wrote this post so very late. This was the last book I finished in 2016 and it was one of the very best – definitely the best non-fiction book I read last year. It was BotW last week – so there’s no need for me to say anymore about it really because it’s less than a week since I raved about it at you. I think it’s going to be this year’s go-to pick for a non fiction book to give as a gift. Buy it (paperback!) from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle.