book round-ups

Best (new) books of 2019 so far

We’re halfway through the year (or we will be on Monday) and so it’s time for me to take a look at my favourite new releases of the year so far.  A couple of months ago I looked at my top reads of the year Q1 (although they were not necessarily all new releases) so some of these picks will not a surprise to you, but hey, I like to shout about the books that I’ve enjoyed! Sue me.

Contemporary Romance: The Bride Test  by Helen Hoang

Cover of The Bride Test

This one was on my 2019 lookahead after I loved Hoang’s debut last year and which lived up to the buzz it was getting ahead of release.  This is a fabulous way to follow up the success of The Kiss Quotient and would make a brilliant beach read this summer.  It’s an arranged marriage/relationship of convenience romance with a feisty immigrant heroine and an neuro-diverse hero who thinks he can’t – and shouldn’t – love.  Plus it’s mostly set in California and feels super summery and the descriptions of the Vietnamese food will make you hungry. What’s not to love in that. Here’s my review from May.

Honourable Mention: Fumbled by Alexa Martin

Historical Romance: A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian 

Cover of A Duke in Disguise

I went on a big old Cat Sebastian jag while I was in the US last autumn, so I had this on my radar. A Duke in Disguise was billed as her first “traditional” male/female romance – but that’s doing it a disservice. This is a clever subversive romance which doesn’t focus on the world of the ton (although they do appear and the nobility plays a role) with feisty, smart, sexually experienced heroine and a neuro-diverse, virgin hero. And the heroine is called Verity – which makes another for my list. Total catnip right?  The only reason this wasn’t a BotW is because I read it the same wee that I read Intercepted – and that was the first Alexa Martin I’d read.  NB: this has a content warning* for off page domestic violence, off page neglect of child, epileptic seizure

Honourable Mention: An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

Non fiction History: The Adventures of Maud West

Cover of The Adventures of Maud West

Yeah, I know, it’s only two weeks since I read this.  But it really is so very, very good.  And it ticks so many of my boxes – early twentieth century, women in history, detective stories, forgotten lives.  If you’re a fan of golden age mysteries, what’s not to love about this investigation into the life of a real life lady detective from the first half of the twentieth century? Here’s my review from earlier this month.

Honourable mention: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Literary Fiction: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Cover of Daisy Jones & The Six

This is everywhere – on all the lists and getting all the mentions in the mainstream press – even the bits that don’t usually talk about books.  It was on my anticipated books list, I read it and loved it, it was on my Q1 review post and now I’m talking about it again.  By now you may be getting wary of reading it because of the hype.  But trust me, it’s worth it.  I’ve been recommending it all over the place to people for their summer holidays and I think it might be turning into my Swiss Army Knife fiction recommendation – I think it has something for pretty much everyone.  And for once I was sightly ahead of the curve.  Here’s my review from March.

Honourable mention: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Mystery Fiction: Death of an Angel by Derek Farrell

Cover of Death of an Angel

I haven’t read a lot of new mystery fiction this year, but what I have read has been cracking.  This is the fourth Danny Bird mystery and as well as giving you all the snark and fun you could want from a detective who calls himself “Sherlock Homo”, it has a healthy dose of social commentary about the state of London today along with solving the murder.  I love Danny and his world and I would recommend them to anyone. You can read my review from February here or my interview with Derek Farrell from last year here.

Honourable mention: Vinyl Detective: Flip Back by Andrew Cartmel

So there you are, my favourite new books of the year so far – each of them a belter.  Here’s hoping the rest of 2019’s new releases live up to the first half.

Let me know what your favourite book of the year so far is in the comments – and let me know what you think I should be looking out for in the rest of 2019.

*I’m going to be trying to give content warnings when books have things that some readers want to avoid and that wouldn’t be obvious from their plot summary or genre.  So I won’t be warning you about murders in detective stories or in a non-fiction book like The Five which has it in the subject matter – but I will try and tell you if there’s something like sexual assault in the back story of a romance (if it’s not mentioned in the blurb).  Does that make sense?

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Five

Ok, so this is *technically* cheating, because I finished it yesterday, but as this is where a lot – if not the majority – of my reading time went last week, so it’s a fair pick really guv.

Cover of The Five

Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper does exactly what it says on the tin – and that is the opposite of what most books about Jack the Ripper do.  Rubenhold has researched what the lives of the canonical five victims were like before they were killed.  She’s not interested in who they were killed by – or the gruesome details of their deaths.  She is interested in their lives and whether prevailing idea about them – ie that they were prostitutes – is accurate.  Thus she puts the victims back at the centre of a narrative that has long dismissed them as incidental to the identity of their killer and at the same time gives an important insight into what life was like for working class women in Victorian London.

As a rule, I’m not interested in books about Jack the Ripper.  I was wracking my brains to think what the last one I read was, and I think it was probably Laurie Graham’s novel The Night in Question three and a half years ago.  I don’t want gruesome details of murders and rampant speculation.  But The Five has caused something of a stir.  Rubenhold’s book has got the Ripperologists’ knickers in a twist – because of her assertion that three of the five women were not sex workers.  The angry push back – and her measured responses – were enough to make me want to read this book for myself.  And it was well worth it.  The women in these pages are three dimensional people with messy complicated lives and they deserve to be at the centre of their own stories, not pushed aside in favour of the speculation about who killed them.

As a journalist, I’ve worked on a lot of coverage of murders and killings and one of the common themes when you’re deciding what how to cover them is how to refer to the victims and their killer.  All too often serial killers names are remembered but not their victims.  The first case that I was in court for after I qualified was the Ipswich murders.  Most people probably know the case as “Suffolk Strangler” or worse “the Ipswich Ripper” and could probably tell you who carried out the killings, but not the name of any of the victims (Paula Clennell, Anneli Alderton, Gemma Adams, Annette Nicholls and Tania Nichol).  Harold Shipman, Peter Sutcliffe,  Fred and Rose West, Myra Hindley – I bet all of those names are familiar to you (if you’re a Brit anyway) and yet I doubt you could name many of their victims.  There are books and books about these cases – and you could fill a library with just books about Jack the Ripper.  After the recent mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed never to say the gunman’s name.  The Five is doing something similar with the Ripper.  We’ll never know who the killer actually was or how many victims they really killed but there is – as Rubenhold demonstrates – a wealth of information about the lives these women lived before their deaths.

And in learning about their lives, you’ll learn a lot about what it was really like to be poor and a woman in Victorian Britain.  When I was little, the geriatric hospital in Northampton was St Edmunds Hospital.  But a lot of the old people in Northampton would do anything to avoid going in to this George Gilbert Scott-designed building.  Why?  Because it was formerly a workhouse and they had been brought up to fear the shame of going into the workhouse.  And once you’ve read The Five you’ll get it – you’ll understand why sleeping on the streets might be preferable to going into one. St Edmunds closed in the 1990s (I think) and has been derelict ever since.  Work has recently started to renovate it – and to turn it into a retirement village.  We’ll see if the elderly of Northampton are prepared to live there yet.

So why do the Ripperologists hate this book so much?  I have my theories – and I don’t think it’s just because Rubenhold’s research demolishes their pet theories or because it feels seedy to be obsessed with a murderer when you know more about the lives of their victims.  But I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.  But if you like social history, and books looking at the lives of women in history, this might be your ideal next read.

My copy of The Five came from the library (after a long wait on hold!), but you should be able to find it pretty much anywhere.  It’s popping up on a lot of summer holiday reading recommendation lists and I’d expect it to be front and centre on the history book table at any (good) bookshop.  Sadly I can’t tell you if it’s got an airport paperback edition – because there was a mix up with our baggage when we went on holiday the other week and instead of browsing the airport bookshop and eating a leisurely breakfast before our flight, I spent all my time running around Luton airport trying to get our suitcase taken off an Amsterdam flight and retagged and put on our flight to Nice – but I hope it does.  It’s also availabe on Kindle and Kobo or from Book Depository.

Happy Reading!

books, stats, The pile, week in books

The Week in Books: June 17 – June 23

A really busy week getting back into the swing over everything post holidays and working over the weekend.

Read:

Roughing It With Ryan by Jill Shalvis

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Hold Me by Jill Shalvis

Bound with Passion by Megan Mulry

Ghost of a Chance by Cate Dean

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

Started:

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Gallows Court by Martin Edwards

Still reading:

Seduction by Karina Longworth

Crowned and Dangerous by Rhys Bowen

No books bought!

Bonus photo: The Festival Hall on Saturday night – where I went to see The Light in the Piazza!

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective

So as I said in yesterday’s Week in Books, I was on holiday last week and spent a good proportion of my time in the very sunny south of France working my way down my to-read pile.  There was a lot of good stuff and you’ll be hearing more about some of the books on the list later, but I really wanted to highlight The Adventures of Maud West Lady Detective as my BotW because it was such tremendous fun, it dovetails so well with my favourite things to read and it came out last week – so I’m timely (for once).

Cover of The Adventures of Maud West

You’ve probably never heard of her, but Maud West ran a detective agency in London for more than thirty years, starting in 1905. No, seriously. This isn’t fiction, this is biography.  In her first book, Susannah Stapleton tries to separate the truth from invention about a real-life lady detective, who was working in London while the golden age of Crime fiction was happening.  And it’s very hard to work out what the truth is.  Maud was a mistress of self promotion, but some of her stories read exactly like the detective stories of the era.  Stapleton takes you through her research and her quest to find out the truth about Maud’s life and her cases.

This has got a Jill Paton Walsh quote attached to the blurb:

If you are susceptible to Miss Marple and Harriet Vane you must read The Adventures of Maud West. You will never know the difference between fact and fiction again.

Which is obviously my catnip.  If you’ve been around here a while, you’ve already pretty much figured out that this is a sweet spot in a Venn diagram of my reading interests – detective fiction and books (fiction and non-fiction) about the first half of the twentieth century and may I please point you in the direction of my posts about Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Roderick Alleyn, TV detectives, Phryne Fisher, Daisy Dalrymple, Maisie Dobbs, Dandy Gilver, A Dangerous Crossing,  for the first half of that Venn Diagramme and Old Baggage, Gone with the Windsors, Blitzed, Angela Thirkell, Queen Lucia, my History book keeper shelf non fiction round up, my 500th post for the second. And that list is by no means exhasutive.  I didn’t even start on the children’s books.

Anyway, this totally lives up to that quote – Maud’s life is fascinating, Stapleton is an engaging writer – and you get to see behind the scenes of the process – of how she tracked down the traces Maud has left behind in the historical record.  And that latter bit is almost as fascinating to me as the actual story. As a history grad who did her dissertation research in an undigitised archive in the middle of France it was awesome to see Stapleton using the full power of digital archives to find a life that could otherwise have been lost to history.  It was almost enough to make me miss historical research.  Although as I’m still getting dissertation anxiety dreams more than a decade on, it was quite a fleeting feeling!

I raced through this – starting it on the plane out on Sunday and finished it off in the Riviera sun.  I even rationed my self to read it slower to make it last.  That’s how good it was.  There’s all sorts of period details in here too – I know I’ll be walking down New Oxford Street looking for the spot where her offices used to be. And if that’s not enough to convince you – the research in this book is so fresh, that Maud has only had a Wikipedia page since Sunday – three days after the book was published.  I look forward to seeing what Stapleton does next – and I can only hope that this book does really well and persuades publishers that we need more books like this.  And historians and writers out there – please go and write them.  And if you’ve got any suggestions for books like this that I should read, put them in the comments please.  Pretty please.

I got my copy from NetGalley, but The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is out now in hardback and should be available in bookstores near you.  I went to look for it in Waterstones in Milton Keynes yesterday* – and one branch had *just* sold their copy and the other was sold out too which is lovely because it means its selling, but means I still haven’t see it in the wild and couldn’t have a closer gander at the pictures.  It’s also on Kindle and Kobo. I’m off to be annoyed that I’m on a late shift tomorrow so can’t go and hear Susanna Stapleton speak at the Kibworth book festival which is only 25 miles from where I live and thus totally doable if only I wasn’t working.** Anyway, I’m off to listen to her interview on Woman’s Hour instead.

Happy reading!

*And no, I didn’t manage to leave Waterstones without buying something – I took home a shiny signed copy of Rukmini Iyer’s new cookbook, the Quick Roasting Tin.

**Irritatingly Ben Aaronovitch is there tonight (as this publishes, not as I write) and I won’t be able to get home from work in time to get to that either. Gah.  I’m not having much luck with author readings at the moment. These are not the first two that have been in my area that I haven’t managed to get to in the last month or two

 

books, stats, The pile, week in books

The Week in Books: June 10 – June 16

I was sunning myself in the south of France all last week, so this is very much a holiday reading list.  I had a fabulous time – and read some really good books, of which more to follow…

Read:

Before We Kiss by Susan Mallery

Until We Touch by Susan Mallery

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver

The Van Apple Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Fumbled by Alexa Moore

The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey

Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Started:

Seduction by Karina Longworth

Crowned and Dangerous by Rhys Bowen

Still reading:

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

And no books bought.  Mostly because our baggage tag got messed up and I spent the whole time we were waiting to leave running around trying to get our mis-tagged suitcase off a flight to Amsterdam and onto our flight to Nice.  Not the most relaxing way to start a holiday…

Bonus photo: Monaco baby!  Here’s the finishing line and pole position marker from the world’s most famous street circuit.  Him Indoors and I are both big motor racing fans, so we walked the circuit as well as stared at the yachts, obscenely expensive cars and designer shops.  Luckily for us they were still dismantling things after this year’s race, so we got a bit of a sense of the whole thing.

Finish line, pole position marker and podium pavillion in Monte Carlo.

Book of the Week, romance

Book of the Week: The Luckiest Lady in London

Back in historical romance for this week’s BotW, which was a tricky week to pick a book from in some ways. It was a short list, but there were some really good books. I binged on the Alisha Rai series because they were really addictive – but the first of those was last week’s choice and I don’t repeat (or not that quickly anyway). I loved the latest Vinyl Detective – but the the four in the series and you ready need to have read the others. Then there was the Susan Mallery – who I’ve definitely already talked about enough. So that leaves The Luckiest Lady in London, which I did enjoy – but which isn’t my favourite Sherry Thomas and its only six months since Study in Scarlet Women was a BotW. But it is a lot of fun and it is a stand-alone choice. And I love Thomas’s writing style. Welcome to my stream of consciousness decision making everyone.

Cover of The Luckiest Lady in London

Ok, to the plot: Felix Rivendale is The Ideal Gentleman, or at least that’s what society believes. After the death of his parents, he made himself into society’s dream man, worth of his title, the Marquess of Wrenworth. He’s been playing the role so long, he can almost believe it is really who he is. But there’s one person who sees through it. Louisa Cantwell can see through the flattery and attention and knows that he shouldn’t be trusted. She has planned and prepared for her season in London because she needs to marry well. Unfortunately no one else can see through Felix and they keep pushing the two of them together. At the end of the season, his is the only proposal and she reluctantly accepts. After all, there’s something between them – but what is it, what game is he playing and can she ever trust him enough to fall in love with him?

Now that is quite a lot of plot. It’s more than I usually give you – but this isn’t a book that ends with a wedding or an engagement. It’s more complicated than that, and to only give you that part of the plot would be to short change you about what this book is really about. It’s playing with historical romance tropes in a way that really works for me. Louisa has a plan for how to catch the husband that she needs – but she’s never portrayed as scheming or deceitful. Felix sees what she’s doing but doesn’t shame her for it – this isn’t an enemies to lovers romance because he ruins her prospects. This is more of a marriage of convenience with a twist. Felix is charming but manipulative and has a lot to learn about being in a relationship and giving up some of his power. I liked him as a hero and I thought his issues were well handled. Having read Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, the feisty smart heroine and her voice are familiar, but the setting is not. I thought it all wrapped up a bit quickly at the end, but that’s a minor quibble really and one I often have with romances.

If you like the Lady Sherlock series (and I like it enough to have the next one preordered even though it’s an American import and really quite expensive for a paperback) then I think you’ll like this. If you’re not into Sherlock Holmes retelling but like smart heroines who aren’t passive, then I think this would be a good book to try.

My copy of The Luckiest Lady in London came from the library, but you can get it on Kindle and Kobo and it’s only £1.99 at time of writing, which is a total bargain. The paperback is slightly harder to get in the UK but it should be manageable if you’re prepared to special order or to buy through Amazon.

Happy Reading!

books, stats, The pile, week in books

The Week in Books: June 3 – June 9

So it was a bit of a week. Very, very busy at work with the state visit of Donald Trump and really quite tired. So not as much reading as I had hoped. Some good stuff there though.

Read:

Wrong To Need You by Alisha Rai

Hurts To Love You by Alisha Rai

The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

The Vinyl Detective: Flip Back by Andrew Cartmel

When We Met by Susan Mallery

Started:

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton

Before We Kiss by Susan Mallery

Still reading:

The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

 Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

No books bought! Hurrah!

Bonus photo: a pile of books lent to my sister by here class of year 5s. I’ve read half of them. I officially have the reading taste of a 10 year old girl!