Book of the Week, fiction, historical

Book of the Week: The Chelsea Girls

Yes I finished this on Monday. So yes, I’m cheating for the second week in a row. I make the rules, so I can break them if I want to. Anyway, you should all just be glad that I didn’t pick another mystery!

Maxine and Hazel meet on a USO tour in the last months of the Second World War. They meet again in New York in the 1950s when Maxine is an up and coming film star and Hazel is an aspiring playwright. Both living in the famous Chelsea Hotel, soon they’re working together on Hazel’s first play which is going to be staged on Broadway. But the red scare is well underway and the production and their careers are threatened by the witch hunt for communists turning its attention to the entertainment industry. As the pressure starts to build what will happen to the women and their friendship?

The Chelsea Girls follows a twenty year friendship between two women forged through a trauma in Italy, through the ups and downs of their careers. They’re both engaging and intriguing characters – Hazel’s mother is always comparing her to her brother who was killed in the war and finding her lacking, while Maxine is using the theatre to build a better life for her and her German immigrant grandmother. And as the red scare comes to Broadway, they both find themselves in the spotlight because of the actions of Hazel’s brother years before. And as well as being tense it’s also a wonderful portrait of the Chelsea Hotel – famously home to artists and bohemians, it becomes Hazel and Maxine’s refuge as they battle the outside forces trying to tear their lives apart.

I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. It came out two years ago and it’s been on my want to read list for about that long – so I’ve no idea where I even heard about it to start with. I read one of Fiona Davis’s other books a year or two back and liked the idea but didn’t love the execution, but this one really worked for me. It took me a day or two to properly get into it, but then I read 200 pages at a sitting because I wanted to see where it was going. I am fascinated with Old Hollywood, in fiction and non-fiction and this lives adjacent to that. I’ve written about some other books in this area before (like Trumbo and Karina Longworth’s Seduction) and this fitted right in to my wheelhouse. Well worth a look.

My copy came from the library, but it’s available now on Kindle and Kobo (and at time of writing is slightly cheaper on Kobo) as well as in paperback, although I’m not sure how easy that will be to get hold of in store – Foyles have stock to order, but not to click and collect.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, cozy crime, detective, fiction, mystery, new releases

Book of the Week: Death at Dukes Halt

I’m finishing the month as I started it, with another murder mystery book pick for my Book of the Week, in a slightly cheaty move because I finished it on Monday, but I’ve talked enough about Inspector Littlejohn recently already, and that was pretty much all I actually finished last week! But before I get down to my review of the new Derek Farrell, a quick reminder that tomorrow is the Mini Reviews and Thursday will be the August Stats.

Danny Bird is facing up to a scary prospect: a weekend at a country house to help Caz fulfill a promise to a dead friend. Pub manager Ali is chauffeuring them down to Dukes Halt where they find a mismatched set of weekend guests: a Hollywood actress, a right-wing MP and an Albanian gangster among them. Soon there’s a body in their midst and Danny is detecting again to try and clear himself and his friends. But he’s also trying to work out what happened at the house decades ago when he discovers an unhappy boy’s secret diary.

This is the fifth outing for Danny and the gang and it’s a good one. Farrell has taken Danny out of the Marq (the Asbo twins are left in charge of running a talent night while they’re gone and I look forward to seeing how that works out) and put him into a country house murder mystery in the grand tradition of the genre. It’s got everything you would expect from an Agatha Christie – but updated to the present day. In one of the earlier books in the series Danny is described as Poirot on poppers, which is a great line but doing Danny a slight disservice now because he is not the isolated external figure that Poirot is. He’s got friends, relationships, a perspective and that all comes into focus in this. You also see him more on his own in this that he has been in the previous series so there’s a lot more about who Danny is and what he believes in that you’re used to and that’s a really good development. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of witty banter and oneliners. The pandemic means there has been a longer break between full length books than I was hoping when I finished Death of an Angel (although Death of a Sinner did help) but I think Death at Dukes Halt has been worth the wait.

You can get Death at Dukes Halt direct from the publisher, Fahrenheit Press, who have it in various ebook formats and paperback. If you do get the paperback from them, you get the ebook with it as well which is nice – I started reading the paperback and then switched to the kindle so I could read it on the move. But you can also get it on Kindle.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, new releases, reviews

Book of the Week: The Guncle

As I said yesterday, there were two books in contention for this, and to be honest the only reason I dithered about this is because the cover fits in better with the covers of the other books in the Summer Reading post than the others do. But I have more to say about this than a round up post will allow, even if there is a slight hiccup about how easy The Guncle is to get hold of in the UK at the moment.

When Patrick is asked to look after his brother’s kids for the summer he thinks it’s a terrible idea. He likes spending time with then when they visit him in Palm Springs, he likes being Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP!) but he’s not cut out for being in charge of them full time for weeks on end. But the kids have just lost their mum and their dad has problems of his own he needs to deal with, so he says he’ll do it – mostly because his sister thinks he can’t do it. But it turns out that a summer with them might be exactly what he needs as well as what they need. He’s been drifting since the end of the TV show he starred in and this might be the kick he needs.

This is Steven Rowley’s third book and I absolutely loved it. Patrick is funny and a bit broken and infuriating and endearing. Maisie and Grant just about hit the sweet spot for children in books – funny but not sickly or too good to be true. The relationship that the three of them build is a wonderful blend of exasperated and snarky and loving. This is a book about dealing with grief but it’s also campy and funny. The cover really captures the feel of it all. I haven’t read any of Rowley’s other books – and although Lily and the octopus has great reviews it sounds a bit too much like it’s going to break me for me to want to read it at the moment – but although this did give me the sniffles, the death is already over by the start of the book and there’s enough funny bits to keep it from being a four alarm snot bomb.

My copy of The Guncle came from the library, but it seems like it’s a tricky one to get hold of in the UK – Amazon only have a hardback copy that is priced like it’s a real import or a library edition (which ditto on the price), and Foyles and Kobo aren’t listing it at all. They do have Steven Rowley’s other books though, which is perhaps a sign that it’ll come along at some point later this year – as both Lily and the Octopus and The Editor have Kindle editions.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, historical, new releases

Book of the Week: Yours Cheerfully

As I said yesterday, plenty that I want to write about from last week’s reading, so it was hard to pick what to write about today. But in the end I went with Yours Cheerfully by A J Pearce because it made me smile and it’s been a while since I wrote about some historical fiction. On top of that it came out last week so I’m being timely *and*’my paperback copy of V for Victory turned up the other day – just to remind me how much I like books like this when they are done well. And this one is done well and has a pretty cover. What’s not to like.

Yours Cheerfully is the sequel to Dear Mrs Bird, which I reviewed in a summer reading round up a couple of years back – after reading it on a sun lounger in Gran Canaria. Those were the days. You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy Yours Cheerfully, but if you have you will get a little more out of it, purely because you know the characters better, not because you’re missing chunks of plot or backstory. We rejoin Emmy as she is finding her feet as the new advice columnist at Women’s Friend. The war is in full swing and the magazine is soon asked to take part in a ministry of information campaign to recruit more women workers for the war effort. Emmy is excited to step up and help, but soon she is finding out that there are a lot of challenges for war workers – and she wants to try and help her new friends.

Where Dear Mrs Bird focused very much on Emmy’s own problems at work to create the drama and tension, swapping that for Emmy’s dilemma about helping the women in the munitions factory works well – if you’ve read the first book you can see Emmy’s growing confidence in her role at the magazine and her journalistic ambitions. A more obvious option would have been to focus on Emmy’s relationship and whether her sweetheart would be sent abroad to fight but even aside from my dislike of splitting couples up in sequels purely for the drama, this works much better – and the knowledge of the worries of the women at the factory heightens your sense of the stakes for Emmy as well as providing context for the wider peril of the war – because it could all have been a little cozy and felt a bit low stakes – despite the war. That’s not to say this is a gritty depressing read – because it’s not -it’s charming and the magazine world is lovely – but it’s not saccharine or unbearably rose tinted. Like the first book this ends a bit unexpectedly and in a bit of a rush but I really enjoyed spending time with Emmy and Bunty and Charles and seeing what was happening at the magazine. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a third to come. I’m certainly hoping there is!

My copy of Yours Cheerfully came via NetGalley, but as I mentioned to the top it’s out now in Kindle and Kobo as well as in hardback. I saw Dear Mrs Bird in quite a lot of shops when that came out, so I’m hoping this will be the same. Judging by the fact that Foyles have it in stock for click and collect at a bunch of their locations, I’m optimistic on that front.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, historical, new releases

Book of the Week: V for Victory

So as mentioned yesterday, a bit of a strange week of reading last week, but today’s BotW pick was a real joy. And for the second week in a row, it’s a book that’s actually coming out in the next few days. So I am both timely and slightly ahead of the game. Make a note, it doesn’t happen often – and two weeks in a row is a real rarity!

Cover of V for Victory

It’s 1944 and in their house on Hampstead Heath, Vee Sedge and her fifteen year old “ward” Noel are just about scraping by with a house full of lodgers selected for what they can teach Noel more than their ability to pay. When Vee witnesses a road accident and is called to court disaster beckons – as Vee is not actually the person she is pretending to be. As the household tries not to get its hopes up too far that the end of the war is in sight, Noel and Vee move towards a new future.

This is the third (and final?) book about this group of characters and ties together the story of Noel and Vee as we saw them in Crooked Heart, with Mattie from Old Baggage. I’ve written several different sentences to explain that fact and have settled on that slightly vague one as being the way not to give too much away about the other two. Now you could read this standalone, but you’ll get so much more from this if you’ve read the other two. And why wouldn’t you want to read the other two – Crooked Heart is Goodnight Mr Tom but if Mr Tom was the female equivalent of Private Walker and Old Baggage is about a feisty but ageing former suffragette looking for a new cause to fight for. Both were books of the week here, that’s how much Iiked them – and liked this to be coming back for a third mention!

V for Victory is funny and warm and moving and made me cry at the end. I mean what more could you want from a book? It also does really well at capturing the shades of grey of wartime – and of people in general. It’s just wonderful and a perfect read for a grey and miserable day. And we’ve had a few of those in the last week. I mean I’m writing this on the train to work, wearing welly boots and with a mac because it’s raining like it’s November in mid-August!

My copy of V for Victory came from NetGalley , but I’ll be buying a paperback once that comes out so I have the set. It’s out on Thursday in hardback (here’s a Foyles link), Kindle and Kobo. I still haven’t been into a bookshop in person, but I think that the last one was fairly easy to get hold of in bookstores, so I hope this will be too.

Happy Reading!

Fantasy, fiction

Book of the Week: A Conjuring of Light

Another week, another BotW post. This time I’ve gone for VE Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light, which is the final book in a trilogy, so it does break my rule about trying not to feature books that don’t stand-alone, but it also means that if you were to start the books now, you’re guaranteed a resolution. So swings and roundabouts really.

Anyway, this is the third (and final?!) book in this magical series in a universe where there are three different Londons in three parallel worlds that only a select few can travel between. In the first few books we see a lot of Grey London, where there is no magic (basically Regency Britain as we know it) and White London, where there is nothing but violence and magic. But this final book concentrates on the battle for Red London where magical and non-magical people exist side by side.

Red London is also where Kell is from, the traveler between worlds who we’ve been following since the start. Over the course of the books, Kell’s life has only got more complicated, but that also means he’s got more friends as well as more enemies. Friends like Delilah, the former thief who he teamed up with in the first book and her motley crew too. Everything that he and Delilah have learned over the course of their adventure comes to a climax in this.

And yes, I know that sounds like I’m avoiding talking about the actual plot. And that’s because I am, because saying much more will give away the plots of the other two books. And you really need to read this series in order or you’ll be lost. It’s been a couple of years since I read it and I felt a bit at sea at times and I know what happened and what the rules are. But there’s magic and pirates and peril and a big battle or two. And although it doesn’t quite reach Battle of Hogwarts levels of carnage and loss, it’s fair to say that not everyone comes out of it alive.

If you’ve read The Night Circus and The Children of Blood and Bone and thought that what you really need to read is a hybrid of the two, then try this. It wasn’t always 100% my cup of tea (I need less angst at the moment) but it’s pacey and well written and clever and really quite good.

My copy came from my library, but you should be able to lay your hands on this fairly easily on Kindle and Kobo as well as in paperback from all the usual sources, including actual bookshops.  I do suggest you start at the start of the trilogy though or you’ll be totally lost. There’s also a graphic novel prequel series that’s just started but I think you need to have read the books for that. I’ll check it out and let you know…

Happy Reading.

Authors I love, Book of the Week, fiction, new releases, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Anyone for Seconds

This week’s BotW is the new Laurie Graham, which managed to sneak into the world without me noticing.  At least I noticed it just after it was released, so I’m only posting this 12 days after release.  Anyway, regular readers of this blog will be aware of my long-standing love for Laurie Graham’s books. Gone with the Windsors is one of my all-time favourites – and I consider it (and her) an under-appreciated gem.  Her last book, The Early Birds was a Reccommendsday pick last year and The Grand Duchess of Nowhere was one of the first books that I reviewed for Novelicious back in the day. I have most of her books as actual books and they live on my downstairs bookshelf (for easy access) and I have all the ones I don’t have physical copies of on ebook.  And a couple of them as both.  I even have two paperback copies of Gone with the Windsors.  Ahem.

Cover of Anyone for Seconds

Anyway, at the start of Anyone for Seconds, former TV chef Lizzie Partridge runs away from home in a desperate bid for sympathy and attention.  She’s fed up of her life – she’s the wrong side of sixty and ever since she lost her TV gig, after throwing chocolate mousse at the presenter of Midlands This Morning, nothing seems to have gone her way.  Her partner has left her, her mother is driving her mad, she doesn’t seem to ahve anything in common with her high-power lawyer daughter – and now her last bit of work (a magazine cookery column) has been axed as well.  Over the course of her wet week in off-season  Aberystwyth, she has a bit of an epiphany and starts to think there might be a new future in the offing.  Then her nephew’s TV producer girlfriend comes up with the idea of reuniting her with her former nemesis for a new TV show.  Is Lizzie’s life looking up?

Lizzie’s earlier adventures, leading up to the infamous mousse incident, are the subject of one of Graham’s earlier books, Perfect Meringues, which came out 21 years ago.  Those days were the tail end of the era when local TV news could make you into a big star – my local bulletin used to have its own chef, who I think did a good line in cookery demonstrations to WIs across the East of England  At any rate I’m fairly sure one (maybe two) of the recipes I copied out of my mum’s cookbook when I was first getting into cooking came from one he did for the Northampton Federation.  And pretty much every year at panto season you’ll spot a semi-familiar face on a poster who’s still managing to live off their local TV fame of yesteryear.  And this makes Lizzie and her friend Louie’s adventures terribly believable and very, very funny.

I read this book as my treat for my weekend working train journeys and it was an absolute delight.  Graham has a brilliant eye for the ridiculous and manages to skewer this sort of fading fame very well.  And Lizzie’s inner voice is pure Graham – funny, dark, sarcastic and with an observant eye on others, but not as much self-awareness as she thinks.  I could have read pages more of the exploits of Lizzie and her friends – there are definitely a few things left not as resolved as I could have wanted.  There aren’t enough books with leading ladies who are over 60, and Lizzie is definitely not a fading old lady in a twinset and pearls. She’s spunky and fun and not done with life and love yet – and anyway she hasn’t got a bank balance to sit back and retire.  And even if she had, her mother wouldn’t let her and, after all what would she do – her daughter doesn’t want Lizzie’s help as she raises her gender-neutral, sugar-free future genius son.  This was perfect book to beat my end of summer blues.

My copy of Anyone for Seconds came from NetGalley, but it’s out now in hardback, Kindle and Kobo.  I have no idea how easy it will be to find in bookshops – but you should be able to order it and I definitely encourage you to check out Graham’s books.  If you want to read Perfect Meringues first, it’s on Kindle and Kobo for £3.99 which seems to be about the standard price for all of Graham’s books at the moment – except for this new one.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, literary fiction, reading challenges

Book of the Week: The Mothers

Tricky choice for BotW this week, but I eventually plumped for Britt Bennett’s The Mothers because it was a bit out of my normal reading comfort zone, but wore it very lightly and made me think. 


In aftermath of her mother’s death and in the twilight of her time at high school, Nadia Turner gets involved with the minister’s son. Luke is a couple of years older than she is, but is still adrift after the injury that ended his football career and cost him his college scholarship. It’s nothing serious, just a bit of fun, until Nadia gets pregnant. And what comes next changes the course of both their lives and sends ripples out through their church community that will last for years to come. 

Firstly, I loved the setting of this book. Bennett really brings to life her fictional contemporary black church community in Southern California. Part of the story is told by the elder women in the church as a kind of Greek chorus. It adds an extra perspective in between flipping between the stories of those mostly closely involved. 

It’s also full of interesting characters, even if you don’t always like them that much. Luke and Nadia and her best friend Audrey make a fascinating triangle, who have different views on life and experience the fallout in different ways. 

Now, I can’t say too much more about this or I’ll give too much away, but reading through the reviews of this on goodreads, there are some very definite opinions about the author’s stance with regard to Nadia’s decision. As far as I was concerned, I thought it was handled in a very balanced, matter of fact way and in the main the fall out was portrayed as more down to the cover up and the other issues going on rather than because of the actual decision. Is that cryptic enough?!  Anyway, nearly a week later I’m still thinking about the characters, which has to be a good thing.

This is Bennett’s first novel and was nominated for a whole bunch of prizes, which really didn’t surprise me because it’s clever, well-written and very readable.  This is also a book that fills a couple of this year’s #ReadHarder categories: Debut Novel, book where all the POV characters are people of colour and for me, book set more than 5,000 miles away. 

The hardback is out now, the paperback is coming in October. When that arrives, I think you should be able to find it in most bookshops, but possibly not in the supermarket. As always, if you can’t make it to a bookshop you could order it from a Big Green Bookshop or pick it up on Kindle or Kobo. 

Happy reading. 

Book of the Week, fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Camomile Lawn

This week’s BotW is another case of “why on earth haven’t I read this before”.  I have no idea why I hadn’t got around to the Camomile Lawn before.  All I can think is that the TV version had Jennifer Ehle in it and that my mum may have steered me away from it in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice because I was 11 and if the TV series is anything like the book, it really wasn’t suitable for me at the time and I may have got it in my head that the book wasn’t worth it! Who knows.  Anyway.

A copy of The Camomile Lawn and a glass of Pimms
A book, a Pimms (sorry, summer cup for the Great British Menu viewers) and a weekend on the beach

The Camomile Lawn tells the story of five cousins, who we meet at their Aunt-by-marriage’s house in Cornwall in the summer before the start of the Second World War.  We follow them through the war and meet up with them again some years later as they reassemble for a funeral. There is beautiful, mercenary Calypso, outwardly conventional Polly, Oliver, Walter and much younger Sophy, who watches what the older ones are up to and wants to join in.  And then there is Helena – married to a man injured in the last war and bored by her life, watching the kissing cousins as they set out into the future.  As the war begins, life changes for all of them – new opportunities open up for the women and danger lurks for all of them – not just the obvious ones for the boys in the forces.

Mary Wesley was in her 70s when she wrote this – and it was only her second novel.  She lived through the war that she is writing about and was a similar age to the characters when it happened.  If she hadn’t been, perhaps there would be a temptation to say that the characters were having too much fun and too much sex considering that there was a war on.  This reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, but with the sex and antics turned up.  Wesley doesn’t really bother with description – except for some of the details of the house in Cornwall – but she writes in a wonderful, understated way dropping bombshells in like they’re nothing so that you do a double take as you read it.

I’m off to read some more Mary Wesley and to try and get my hands on a DVD of the TV mini-series.  You should be able to get hold of a copy of The Camomile Lawn fairly easily.  I got mine from a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road.  The Kindle and Kobo versions were £$.99 at time of writing and the paperback version was £5.99 on Amazon albeit in a slightly older cover than I saw in Foyles.

Happy Reading!

fiction, literary fiction, Recommendsday, women's fiction

Recommendsday: Standard Deviation

Another day, another great holiday read to recommend, this time it’s Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny which filled some very happy hours on the plane and the beach last week and which I’m sure I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people this summer.

The cover of Standard Deviation
I love the origami figures but I’m still not quite sure the cover of this really does it justice.

Graham Cavanaugh is on his second marriage.  Wife #2, Audra, is one of Those Women – you know the sort – who know every one, who makes friends effortlessly and opens her arms (and home) to any waif or stray of her acquaintance (no matter how tenuous the connection) who needs help. They have one child, origami-obsessed Matthew, who has Asperger’s and sees the world slightly differently and finds a lot of it a bit challenging.  When Wife #1, Elspeth, re-appears in Graham’s life, the contrasts become apparent.  Because of course Audra wants them to be friends with Elspeth and so their lives get tangled up together all over again.

This is a fun, witty and touching look at the choices that we make and how our lives can change. Just reading about life with Audra makes you tired, but despite that and despite her nosiness and lack of boundaries you still warm to her.  I don’t think I’d want to be friends with her in real life, but then the same applies to Graham and to Elspeth too.  They all have their monstrous moments, but it makes for fascinating reading.  It has some heart-warming moments too – mostly dealing with Graham’s hopes for Matthew as he grows up and Audra’s efforts to try and give him a normal life.

This is Katherine Heiny’s first novel, but it doesn’t feel like a debut.  It feels like the work of an author who is already well in their stride, with confidence in the characters that they have created and the stories that they are spinning.  But perhaps that is unsurprising given Heiny’s background in short stories.  She’s been published in the New Yorker and had a collection of short stories – Single, Carefree, Mellow – published a few years back*.  This article from the Guardian says that she’s written more than 20 Young Adult novels under various pseudonyms, but frustratingly doesn’t give me any titles (and nor does good reads) which doesn’t help me with my need to glom on everything that she’s written.  Luckily I have a New Yorker subscription so I can go back and read the full version of How to Give the Wrong Impression from back in 1992.

If you like Nora Ephron movies and books, this may be the beach read for you.  In writing this I’ve seen lots of comparisons to Anne Tyler (who I’ve never read but always meant to) so I’ll be recommending this to my mum who’s had a bit of a Tyler thing recently.  My copy of Standard Deviation came via NetGalley, but it’s out now in hardback (sorry) and you should be able to get hold of a copy from all the usual places and it’s also available on Audible (the link may only work if you’re signed in) Kindle and Kobo.

Happy reading!

*which is now on my wishlist unsurprisingly!