book round-ups, historical, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: The Happy Valley Set

For this week’s Recommendsday, a post that has been some considerable time in the making, about books set in the Happy Valley in Kenya. Now between the World Wards, this particular patch of the British Empire was somewhat notorious for being a haven for rich people living scandalous lives, with spouse swapping, drugs and murder among the real life activities that went on.  So this postis basically historical rich people problems – fiction, non-fiction and barely fictionalised.  Given the difficult state of the world at the moment, I thought that spending some time among a gang of dissolute loafers in the mid-20th century might be a bit of a change. And as most of these are fairly modern, they have an eye on the fact that colonising places is not a good idea. This is a bit of mix of fiction and non-fiction, but I think it’s a nice introduction to the subject. I’ve tried to provide a bit of a guide as to how to lay your hands on these at the moment if you are so minded, but if you want a physical copy, obviously try your local independent bookshop first to see if they can get hold of them for you – they need your money more than the conglomerates do at the moment.

Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Cover of Spear of Summer Grass

Delilah Drummond’s family want her out of Europe after one scandal too many. She finds herself exiled to her favourite step-father’s house in Kenya.  What she finds there is a crumbling estate in a community of seething rivalries and intrigue.  Ryder White, a safari guide (of sorts), quickly catches her eye as not being quite like the rest of the colony.  But when an act of violence happens, will Delilah stick to her plan to leaving as soon as possible or has she discovered someone – or somewhere – that she can’t leave behind? I’ve written about Deanna Raybourn before – you can find posts about Veronica Speedwell here and here – but this is one of her standalone novels and as far as this post goes it is firmly in the fiction camp – I don’t think there are any real people here – but is clearly inspired by in what was really going on in colonial Kenya and what the Brits out there got up to. Delilah is engaging but self destructive and you spend a lot of time while reading it hoping that she doesn’t screw this up for herself.  I could happily have read another 100 pages. This one has the bonus of being on Kindle Unlimited at the moment – or £1.49 to buy on Kindle or Kobo.

Love and Death Among the Cheetahs by Rhys Bowen

Cover of Love and Death Among the Cheetahs

This is the thirteenth instalment in the Royal Spyness series and sees Georgie and her new husband honeymooning in Kenya’s Happy Valley. Now while I wouldn’t recommend starting the series here (you’ll miss all the drama in Georgie’s love life if you do), it would make a gentle introduction to the Happy Valley set. I thought Rhys Bowen did a really good job of writing about life in that little set while keeping it within the bounds of what regular readers of her series expect – which is not really sex and swingers.  While the antics might have been eye opening for Georgie, they were actually fairly subtle compared to some of what actually went on. This one is not cheap at the moment as it is the latest in the series and only out in hardback and ebook. The Kindle is £9.99 or £9.49 on Kobo, but I expect that might drop a little when the paperback comes out in July.

Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

Cover of The Ashford Affair

I’ve written before about how much I liked Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, but she also does a very good line in standalone novels. This is a time-slip novel with dual narratives – one in the 1920s, the other in 1999.  Lawyer Clemmie finds herself poking around in her family’s history after a relative drops hints about a family secret at her grandmother’s 99th birthday party. It’s got Great War-era British high society, a grand country house, Kenya and modern day (ish!) Manhattan. I read it a couple of years back and liked it a lot – Ihink I even got a bit teary-eyed at the conclusioN.  You’ll find some similar themes here to the previous two but with the added bonus of more Britain in it – if you think that’s a bonus. This is an astonishing £10.44 on Kindle at the moment or a slightly better but still quite pricey £7.55 on Kobo. There are third party sellers on Amazon with secondhand hardback copies at a more sensible price though.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Cover of Circling the Sun

This is Happy Valley adjacent: a fictionalised version of the real-life story of Beryl Markham, who had an unconventional upbringing in Kenya and went on to be the first woman to break into several male dominated areas – the first to get a horse trainer’s licence, the first to get a pilot’s B Licence. But for all the independence of spirit that her Kenyan upbringing gave her, she struggled with relationships – and being entangled in the upper class expat crowd in Kenya (including the Happy Valley set) did not make for a peaceful, happy or harmonious personal life.  When I read it a couple of years ago, I thought enjoyed it, liked that didn’t feel like it was judging her – but it wasn’t entirely satisfying, mostly because I felt like I was missing some key background – I think the author assumed that everyone has read (or knows about) Out of Africa (which I hadn’t at the time) so I was sometimes at sea with the complicated comings and goings of Karen Blixen and her crowd. This one is a few years old now as well so it’s £2.99 on Kindle or Kobo or Amazon have the paperback for £3.99.

The Bolter by Frances Osbourne

Paperback copy of the Bolter

The only proper non-fiction book on this list and this is on the bibliography at the end of the aforementioned Love and Death Among the Cheetahs because the titular Bolter – Idina Sackville – plays a role in the novel. This was my first introduction to the Happy Valley set back in my pre-Goodreads days, soon after it came out, and is still on my shelves (as the photo proves!).  The author is the subject’s great-granddaughter and makes use of family papers to tell Idina’s story.  Perhaps for that reason its not quite as salacious as you might expect, especially given that its subject was the inspiration for The Bolter in Nancy Mitford’s novels.  The Temptress by Paul Spicer looks at the Valley’s other Femme Fatale – Alice de Janze – I liked it but I didn’t think it was as successful as the Bolter, and felt more interested in the murder of the Earl of Errol at times than it was in Alice herself. This one is £4.99 on Kindle and Kobo, but I’ve seen second-hand copies in the charity shops around here fairly regularly if you can wait until they reopen.

Miscellaneous bits and bobs

The classic book in this area is obviously Isak Dinesen/Karen Blitzen’s Out of Africa. I’ve read it and I can see why it was such a big deal – and if you read all of these and are super keen on the subject, it’s definitely worth reading, but its not necessarily the easiest going and I preferred some of the others.

In the course of writing this and looking for other options I read Kat Gordon’s An Unsuitable Woman, which fell into the good in principle but not as good in the execution. This one features a young boy who goes out to Kenya with his family and gets caught up in a group of people inspired by the Happy Valley set. It’s got a readable style, but I wasn’t quite sure where it was going for most of the book – and couldn’t understand why the Scandalous Set took a 14-year-old boy into their gang to start with. And it had a really sudden plot development near the end that didn’t have enough time to properly play out. But if you’ve read all the rest of these and want some more – it’s an option!

Happy Reading!


		
Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Dead Famous

Another week, another Book of the Week post, but first another quick reminder about the Escapist Reading post from the end of last week. Anyway, back to today and taking a break from the romance and crime picks of most of the month (and last month to be fair), this week’s pick is Greg Jenner’s latest book – Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen. I’ve got a whole stack of history books on the to-read pile and I’m hoping that my head is getting back to a place where I can concentrate on more serious reading now – I love history books, but I’ve had trouble getting my concentration going for them the last couple of months (gee, wonder why) but this broke through.

Hardback copy of Dead Famous

First up, I should say that I went to the same uni as Greg – and what’s more we both “worked” at the same student radio station – and although we weren’t in the same teams or social groups we do follow each other on Twitter.  Anyway since then, Greg has gone on to be a successful public historian – he worked on the Horrible Histories series, hosts a two podcasts for the BBC, You’re Dead To Me (currently on hiatus in the middle of it second series) and the brand new Home School History (which I was listening to part of the time while writing this post) and done all sorts of exciting history stuff including his first book, A Million Years in a Day. Dead Famous came out last month and examines where the modern concept of “celebrity” comes from – how old is it, is it different to fame (or infamy) and how one goes about acquiring it. Over the course of the book he tells the stories of celebrities through history and works out how we got to where we are.

This was one of my hammock reads last week (as the sharp-eyed amongst you may noticed in yesterday’s bonus picture!) and it’s really good. I won’t spoil Greg’s thesis, but it’s well made and with a lot of really great historical figures to illustrate it. Greg has done some serious research into this – 1.4 million words worth on his laptop according to the Acknowledgments – but his writing style makes it so accessible and easy to understand. There are some history books that are scary and hard to read for the layman – sometimes even though they have a funky cover and an enticing blurb. But if you’ve ever heard Greg on radio, podcasts or seen him on TV, he writes exactly as he talks – which makes his books funny and chatty but with impeccable researching to back it up. Greg narrates his own audiobooks and they’re a fabulous listen – that’s how I read Greg’s first book and it was a real treat. As the title suggeests, this stops at 1950 – because Greg says everything after that has already been covered. If you’ve read books on modern celebrity – like Anne Helen Peterson’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud – this would make a really good companion piece to examine how we got here.

I pre-ordered my copy (its signed!) from Kirsty at Fox Lane Books – and as you can see from the tweet above she is still taking orders and if you message Greg to tell him that you bought from her, he’ll send you a signed bookplate. It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo – and as an audiobook read by Greg.

Happy Reading!

books, stats, The pile, week in books

The Week in Books: April 20 – April 26

A better week than the previous one – in terms of my mindset at any rate. Some interesting stuff read – some of which you’ll be hearing more of, most of which fits into my current lockdown reading trends. If you missed it on Friday, check out my comfort reads post with some nice escapist reading suggestions for you.

Read:

Death Came Softly by E R C Lorac

Settling Scores by Various authors, intro: Martin Edwards

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas by Jackie Lau

The Better Half by Sharon Moaelm*

Started:

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch

Still reading:

She-Merchants, Buchaneers and Gentlewomen by Katie Hickman

Logging Off by Nick Spalding*

The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand*

The Cuckoos of Batch Magna by Peter Maughan

I think I bought a couple of ebooks. But I’m still not counting, because whatever gets you through right?

Bonus photo: I spent most of the weekend in the sunshine in the hammock in the back garden. It was lovely. Warm and sunny and away from the sound of Him Indoors playing Red Dead Redemption 2…

An * next to a book title indicates that it came from NetGalley.

book round-ups, books

Surviving Coronavirus: Escapist Fiction for Difficult Times

It may not have escaped your notice that times are somewhat stressful at the moment. A lot stressful. And life in the newsroom means that I can’t exactly ignore what’s happening in the world at any given time. Never have I been more glad that I stopped reading dystopian future novels a few years back. I’ve explained before that newsroom life is why I read a lot of romances and mysteries even in normal times – but that is even more true now – as recent Week in Books posts atest. Romance novels and mysteries both have a pact with the reader going in –  in a romance you’ll get a Happily Ever After (or a bare mininum Happy for Now if you’re reading New Adult or something with teen protagonists) and in mysteries the bad guys will get caught. But in uncertain times, rereading old favourites can also  help. So here are a few recommendations from me for fiction to help you out if you’re feeling a bit anxious.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

paperback copy of Heartburn by Nora Ephron

If you like Ephron’s films like When Harry Met Sally (and to be fair any other rom coms of that type) and you haven’t read Heartburn – then what are you doing? Heartburn is a fictionalised version of the break-up of Ephron’s second marriage – Rachel is seven-months pregnant when she finds out her husband is in love with another woman. Now if that sounds like an unpromising start to a novel to cheer you up, bear with me. This is so, so funny. Rachel can’t decide if she wants her ex back or wants him dead, and in between there is some great cooking. When I was asking Twitter last week for recommendations to cheer me up, this one was suggested and it reminded me how much fun it is – I read it in paperback seven years ago and still have my copy – and regular readers will know that not all books last that long on my shelves…

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Well-loved copy of Venetia with other Heyer books behind it

I have written an authors I love post about Heyer before – but it’s over my statute of limitations, so I feel justified in recommending Venetia again and more fully here. One of my favourite tropes in historical romance is the reformed rake and this is the uber example of the genre. Damerel has been breaking rules and shocking society ever since he ran off with someone else’s wife when he was just out of university. Venetia lives on the neighbouring estate to the ancestral home that he’s been avoiding since time immemorial. She’s feisty and independent and has been running the household for her older brother who is away in the Napoleonic Wars. When he does return home and runs into her, he’s fascinated – against his will – but it turns out she’s more than a match for him.  It’s romantic but it’s also funny – Damerel and Venetia spar with each other delightfully but there’s also a cast of secondary characters that are made for comic moments. I love this so much I have it as an audiobook as well. Just joyous.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Cover of Eligivle by Curtis Sittenfeld

I love Pride and Prejudice, but if you’ve already reread that and watched your favourite of the adaptations, this might be the book for you. Sittenfeld moves the story to contemporary Cincinnati and updates the story accordingly. Bingley is a doctor from a wealthy family who became famous on a TV show similar to The Bachelor, Darcy is a neurosurgeon (and anyone who’s watched Greys Anatomy knows about the egos there) the Bennets are a trustfund family running out of cash: Jane is a yoga instructor, Lizzy a journalist for a women’s magazine, Kitty and Lydia are heavily into Crossfit. The update works, the dialogue is witty, there’s hate sex and reality TV and it’s really funny. I’ve read a lot of P&P retellings and continuations and I think this is still my favourite. It was one of my favourite books of the year back in 2016, but I’m counting it as over the statute of limitations because I think it might be what you need at the moment. In picking it up off the shelf (one of the downstairs ones because I like it handy) it’s made me want to read it all over again – although my copy is a big format paperback advance copy, so it’s also made me wonder about buying its on kindle too, because that’s where my head is at at the moment.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

Copy of Diary of a Provincial Lady - also in front of the Heyers, including Venetia

The Provincial Lady lives in Devon, in a nice house, with a nice husband and (mostly) nice children. Her husband is not a vicar, but if you’ve ever watched the Joan Hickson Miss Marples, she’s a bit like Griselda in Murder at the Vicarage – there’s an image that she needs to live up to, but how does everyone else make it look so easy? Written in the 1930s, it’s wickedly funny and very low stakes and sufficiently different from the reality of day to day life at the moment that I think it makes a lovely escape that doesn’t make you wish about what could have been.  And if you read this and like it, there are sequels – my paperback is an omnibus, which is great, but did mean that I couldn’t justify buying the pretty Virago designer hardback with the Cath Kidston print cover.  Angela Thirkell does a similar thing in her Barsetshire series – the trials and tribulations of various bits of the not quite gentry in the interwar period. And if you want less housekeeping and more village scandal, then try Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson – in which an unmarried lady discovers that her income is drying up and turns to writing fiction to make some money. Trouble is, that the book she writes is based on her village…

And as well as all of these, there are a few others that I’ve written about within the statute of limitations for a repost that you might really quite like, for example:

To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski – need an antiheroine in your life? Meet Dreadful Deborah who can rationalise whatever awful thing she wants to do in her quest for a glamourous bohemian life in wartime Britain while her husband is on a posting to Cairo.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid – need some Old Hollywood glamour and scandal? I’ve talked a lot about Daisy Jones and the Six, but this should also not be ignored. Evelyn is a reclusive Hollywood star who grants rare interview to a junior reporter at a magazine – and stipulates that she will only do the interview if it was with her. It turns out that what she really wants is for Monique to write her biography – it’s the opportunity for a life time for Monique but why has Evelyn picked her? Oh and it’s 99p on Kindle at the moment!

And writing this post has made me realise that there are a whole bunch of series that I love that I have not yet written about – and that’s really perked me up and given me some stuff to reread and write about!

Happy Reading – and stay safe.

 

Book of the Week, romance

Book of the Week: A Cowboy to Remember

As I said yesterday, it was a tough week for me last week, with all the changes in the world getting to me a bit. And I struggled to find my usual relaxation from reading, but there were some bright spots, And after a run of murder mystery picks, today I’m back with a contemporary romance choice.

Evie Buchanan is on the edge of something big. After winning a TV-cooking show, she’s snagged a hosting gig and she’s killing it. But when a fall down some stairs at a party nearly *literally* kills her, she’s left with a case of amnesia that she really needs to hide from her bosses and her fans. Her assistant gets in contact with the only “family” Evie has left – cowboys who run a ranch in California. Evie doesn’t remember them at all –  but when they arrive at the hospital to visit, one of them is the guy she’s been having dreams about since her accident. Zach hasn’t seen Evie since she left the ranch when he refused to admit that there were feelings between them. His family have always been desperate to pair them off together, but is he ready to admit that they might be perfect for each other? And what will happen if Evie gets her memory back and remembers how it ended the first time?

So, tell me again that I don’t like amnesia as a plot line (or cowboy stories), because this is so good and just goes to show in the right hands anything can make a great romance*. I’ve read a couple of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s other books (including Xeni which I wrote about after my birthday trip back in the times when we could still go away on holiday) and this has all the relatable characters and interesting plot that the others do, but with less on the page bedtime action. The chemistry between the leads is still as good, and it is in no way closed door – but it’s not as blush inducing as Xeni was. I was a bit concerned about how Zach and Evie’s relationship could be resolved if (well when) her memory came back because there seemed to be a couple of unresolvable things there – as I was concerned that one or other of them would have to become less (or give up their dreams) to make it work but actually, it was really cleverly worked out and fit in with both characters.

This is great fun and made great escapist reading at these difficult times. Your mileage may vary, but a ranch in California is sufficiently different to my every day life that I wasn’t constantly worrying about social distancing or viruses the way I am everytime I try and read something set in the contemporary UK at the moment! It’s also the first in a series – because luckily for us, Zach has brothers (and one of them is a pro-sports player, so they may not all be cowboy romances). The next one is out in the autumn and I’m hoping it’s about Jesse, but there’s no blurb for it on Goodreads yet.

My copy of A Cowboy to Remember came from the library, but it’s available now in Kindle and Kobo or as a mass market paperback. The delivery time claims to be quite short, bu I suspect you might be waiting a while for that physical copy because of it being a US release and you know: the ‘rona.

Happy Reading – and stay safe.

 

 

 

*but I’m not prepared to read a lot of Secret Baby or pregnesia romances to try and prove this though.

books, stats, The pile, week in books

The Week in Books: April 13 – April 19

I’m going to be honest – I really struggled with everything last week. I’ve lost track of how long this has been going on for, what day of the week it is and everything is blurring into a mass of same-ness. My concentration was a bit shot and it was easier to watch Drag Race than it was to read anything – and I found that really hard to deal with because reading is usually my escape and go-to fix for when I’m feeling blue. Fingers crossed things improve a bit this week.

Read:

A Dangerous Engagement by Ashley Weaver

Anna K by Jenny Lee*

Death in Room Five by George Bellairs

A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon

The Papers of A J Wentworth BA by H F Ellis

He Dies and Makes No Sign by Molly Thynne

Started:

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Death Came Softly by E R C Lorac

Settling Scores by Various Authors

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

The Cuckoos of Batch Magna by Peter Maughan

Still reading:

She-Merchants, Buchaneers and Gentlewomen by Katie Hickman

Logging Off by Nick Spalding*

The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand*

The Better Half by Sharon Moaelm*

Bonus photo: My week has been very boring – just around the house and all the bits of London I’ve already sent you pictures of, so here’s something a different. Not my upcycling, but my parents – painting a bench my great-grandfather made in the 1950s. Why did I pick this? Well it felt like something productive, but also because this bench featured highly in pretend games I used to play with my friends when we were little – and these were heavily influenced by what we were reading. So this featured as various things in games about boarding schools, ballet dancers, the Faraway Tree and more. We think it played a petrol pump at one point – although I have no clue what we were playing at that point!

An * next to a book title indicates that it came from NetGalley.

Book of the Week, detective, Forgotten books, new releases

Book of the Week: Murder to Music

Another week in lockdown done. If only we knew when it would end so we could count down instead of up. I should have been in China last week, visiting little sis, so my mood was a bit low generally. I read a lot of familiar authors to cheer myself up, and so consequently the BotW options were somewhat limited as I talked about George Bellairs last week and I have other plans for some of the other books. I do like to make life difficult for myself. However, another good murder mystery cropped up – with a plot that really appealed to me. This is another re-release of a forgotten book from the mid-twentieth century – and it’s not out until Thursday, but as that’s only two days away, I’m sure you’ll let me off.

Detective Inspector Simon Hudson was at the concert to watch his girlfriend sing in the Metropolitana Choir, but when the conductor drops dead as the performance finished, he ends up in charge of a murder inquiry. Delia has told him about the tensions among the committee members, when he drove her to the committee meetings, but which one of them was angry enough at the conductor to turn a grudge into murder?

This is a clever and twisty murder mystery originally written in the late 1950s, with a setting that really appealed to me. I’m definitely not a singer and I’m not a great musician either, but I did play clarinet at school and in concert bands through my 20s. If I could have got my schedule in order (stupid shift working) I would probably be in a band now – although the band scene in my town is very competitive because the county has a really strong schools music service, so there might not be one that would have me that I want to be in! Anyway, the musical setting really appealed to me – I’ve even played at the Festival Hall where the murder takes place – and I could certainly believe in the egos and hot tempers in the choir.

I don’t think you have to be a musician to enjoy this though – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the resolution doesn’t require any particular knowledge of music. And committees are a fairly regular feature of murder mysteries because of their potential to be a sea of seething rivalries. The plot has plenty of twists and turns and kept me guessing pretty much right until the end as the layers were revealed. I hadn’t read anything by Margaret Newman before, but would happily read more after this if they’re all as much fun as this one.

My copy of Murder to Music came from NetGalley, but it comes out on April 16th in Kindle. I can’t see it in any other format, unless you’re prepared to pay £50 for the only copy on Abebooks as I write this…

Happy Reading!