Book of the Week, historical, literary fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Swan Song

A tricky choice for my book of the week this week – partly because of a reduced list this week because of exciting things like holidays with friends, but partly because I had little quibbles with everything I read.  In the end it came down to Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song and The Vacationers (apt because I was on vacation!) but as I’ve recommended Emma Straub before, I thought I’d go with Swan Song instead.  And to be fair, writing this post turned out to be really quite easy in the end!

Copy of Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my love of novels based on real events, and this one takes a look at the downfall of Truman Capote, who after years of friendship (and patronage) with a group of elite high society women, committed social suicide by using their lives as material.  He called them his Swans, and they tell the story as a sort of Greek chorus, switching between their lives, his life and the stories he told them.  Hopping backwards and forwards through time, the Swans recount the various versions of Capote’s childhood that they’ve been told, full of inconsistencies and embroideries, they tell the stories of their friendship with him and its implosion and the aftermath.

This is really good. While it is most definitely a bit of a Rich People Problems type of situation, there is proper scandal, betrayal and heartbreak on all sides here. There are a lot of novels that talk about the unhappiness of rich and privileged people, and although they can sometimes be my favourite books to read, when it doesn’t work it’s hard to muster any sympathy.  But that’s not the case here at all – the women who Truman exposes have all their unhappiness exposed to the world – all the things that they have managed to ignore or put up with to keep their status are suddenly out there in print and although Joe Public might not know who the stories are about at first, the veil disguising their identities is very thin and people work it out – fast. I still can’t make up my mind if Truman knew that what he was about to do was going to explode his life but did it because he was terrified about failing to deliver a follow up to In Cold Blood, or if he thought that the women wouldn’t mind and couldn’t believe that they would be prepared to turn their backs on him.  My main quibble was around the last quarter – which I didn’t think worked quite as well as the earlier part had done, mostly because after the swans have broken with him, using them as a narrative device didn’t work quite as well for me.

There is a big cast of characters here but I was fine, knowing a bit about the story and having read another novel based around this very same issue before.  But my other quibble was whether you’d get lost if you didn’t know anything about this set before – as I was slightly when I read The Swans of Fifth Avenue – which didn’t tell you what it was that he’d done! Swan Song does give you the details on that – which is good, and I think if you keep reading beyond any initial confusion, it will all start to slot in to place. It’s just that the first part is a little bit like Truman’s brain after he’s had a few Orange Drinks and some pills. And obviously there is Wikipedia to help too if you’re really stuck – to be honest I think you can get all you need to know from Truman’s entry and then disappear off down any rabbit holes that strike your fancy!

Last week I recommended a book of fiction so cleverly done that you can’t believe the band isn’t real and actually these two make quite a good pair and overlap in time in some patches – although you may find that hard to believe.  You’ve got Truman and his swans living in the high society world of the East Coast which still feels like a relic of an earlier era, while over on the West Coast, Daisy and the Six are living it up in the new world of rock and drugs and feel much more contemporary.  And both would make great books to read on the beach if you’re about to head off on Spring/Easter break.  And writing post this has reminded me again that I really need to finish writing that Rich People Problems books post – it’s sitting half done, waiting for an opportune time to finish it (and for me to finish reading a couple more books).  Maybe this will be the push that I need!

I’ve had this on the pile for a while – twice in fact as I managed to get a NetGalley ebook copy when I already had a paper copy via the joys of my proper job – but although it came out last summer, I’m sort of timely – as earlier this month it was named on the longlist for the Women’s Fiction prize at the moment. The paperback isn’t out until the end of June so you could preorder it (and Amazon do have that pre-order price guarantee) but the hardback isn’t a bad price on Amazon at the moment if you just can’t wait, and would expect (or hope at least!) there might be a copy in any reasonably sized bookshop – especially now it’s been longlisted for a prize, even more so if it makes the shortlist. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo too.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases, reviews, romantic comedy, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Don’t You Forget About Me

As you can see from last week’s Week in Books (and the week before as well to be honest) I read a lot of books while I was away.  But in the end the choice for this week’s Book of the Week was easy – there was one standout that I’m still thinking about and have already recommended to a bunch of people.

Cover of Dont You Forget About Me

Don’t You Forget About Me is the new novel from Mhairi McFarlane.  Your heroine is Georgina, who we meet as she gets fired from The Worst Italian in Sheffield and then goes home to find The Worst Boyfriend in the World in bed with someone else.  Is the universe out to get her? When she gets a one-off job at a newly refurbished pub and then gets a fulltime job offer from there it seems like she might be about to turn a corner.  But her new boss turns out to be her sixth form crush-slash-secret-boyfriend which is a whole new disaster in the making.  Or it would be if Lucas remembered her, which he doesn’t – and which is crushing in its own way.  Because you never forget your first love do you?  Still at least it means that Georgina can keep working for him, just as long as she keeps her mouth shut and Lucas never finds out who she is.  Except that that gets harder and harder to do because there’s still something between them – and there’s no way Lucas isn’t going to work it out in the end is there?

I loved this.  In fact it was hard for Him Indoors to persuade me to go sightseeing with him one morning because I was 100 pages from the end and needed to know what happened to everyone.  This is just delightful.  Georgina is such an engaging heroine, Lucas is brilliant, I wanted to punch Georgina’s family at times – especially her stepdad -and I spent some considerable time thinking of extravagant punishments for Robin the Bad Boyfriend (but his actual comeuppance is very satisfying).  And on top of that the book is so, so funny.  It was in fact exactly what I have been looking for and what I have been finding so hard to find at the moment.  It’s a romantic comedy but it has a serious side as well.  There are Reasons why Georgina is still working jobs her family consider pointless and dead end.  And there’s a reason why she picked such a terrible boyfriend.  And they’re proper, life changing reasons, but there’s such a light touch about it that it all works beautifully together.

This also captured some of my memories of my sixth form experience so perfectly that it nearly took my breath away.  I’m a couple of years older than Georgina is meant to be but Mhairi McFarlane has captured that feeling of not being able to do the right thing no matter what you do when faced with the popular kids, that everything is life and death and that the path of your life can be changed by one wrong decision.  I always mistrust people who say that their schooldays were the best of their lives, because mine were terrifying and scary and I wouldn’t go back there for all the tea in china – especially not now social media is a thing.

I know that chick lit is a problematic term – and I have as many issues with it as everyone else.  But if you read “chick lit” back in the early 00s and find it hard to capture that same feeling from books now – then try this.  I read a lot of books (as you know) but I really struggle to find funny, romantic books with happy endings that aren’t all humour through humiliation (not my thing) or finding happiness again (or in the end) after dead husbands or life threatening illnesses (or terminal diagnoses).  Something with something more to it than *just* a romance but where you’re not going to have your heart broken before you get to a sort of happy ending.  But This Is It.  It is fun and funny and it all works out in the end – but not because A Perfect Man has made it better – but because Georgina has figured out who she is and how to start fixing her life herself.

I know that sounds gushy and a bit OTT, but I can’t tell you how relieved I was to start reading this and just sink into it and enjoy letting it all happen.  I’ve read so many books recently where I either can’t see how it can all possibly work out all right in the end (or even satisfactorily) or been braced for something bad to happen, that it was a joy to realise that I was in safe hands and could just relax and read.  And my tears at the end were happy ones.

I’ve read two of Mhairi McFarlane’s previous books – but there’s been a big old gap since I read the last one so I had forgotten how much I like her writing.  I now need to go back and figure out why I haven’t read the other two and remedy that as soon as possible.  Knowing me and the state of my to-read pile, I’ll probably have at least one of them sitting on the kindle already…

My copy of Don’t You Forget About Me came from NetGalley, but it is out now on Kindle and Kobo and the paperback comes out at the start of March.  I’ll try and remember to remind you – and I’m sure it’ll be in all the usual placed – but you could always pre-order it now.  I’m just saying.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.  And if you’ve got any recommendations for other books you think might scratch the same itch for me, let me know in the comments.

Happy Reading!

 

reviews, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

A really, really easy decision about what to pick for BotW this week, but I’m ashamed to say that my copy of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo had been sitting on my Kindle for more than 18 months before I finally got around to reading it.  It was one of those occasions where I requested something from NetGalley, with eyes too big for my reading time and it got lost in the backlog.  And the NetGalley backlog is huge.  One of my aims for the year is to solve that.  We’ll see if that happens, but certainly the attempt has turned up a real gem.

The cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Evelyn Hugo was a huge star in her day, but these days she’s pretty much a recluse.  So when Monique Grant is sent out to do an interview with her it’s a big deal.  A massive deal.  And Hugo would only talk to Monique – but why?  Monique is a virtual unknown – a junior reporter at a magazine – and she’s as clueless as everyone else about why Hugo has picked her.  And when Monique arrives to do the interview, Evelyn has a different proposal for her – she doesn’t want to give an interview, she wants Monique to write her biography – she wants to tell Monique the stories and secrets behind her career and her seven marriages.  Monique’s marriage has just broken up and she’s looking to rebuild, so she takes the job.  Soon she’s spending her days listening to Evelyn telling the story of her rise to stardom – from her childhood in poverty in New York to the top of the Hollywood tree.  It’s no holds barred – the domestic abuse, the Hollywood catfighting, backbiting and machinations – and the truth about who was the love of Evelyn’s life.  And Monique finds herself warming to Evelyn, even though the story she’s telling isn’t always pretty or nice and Evelyn doesn’t always come out of it in the best light.  But still she wonders, why was she picked to be the one to tell it.  But as Evelyn’s story goes on, it becomes clear that there’s a purpose to all of this – and somewhere Evelyn’s life is linked to Monique’s.

And I’m not prepared to say any more about the plot than that.  I’ve checked the blurb and I don’t think I’ve given away too much beyond what’s there.  And that’s because Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel is best discovered blind.  I hadn’t checked goodreads or read any reviews when I went in, so I didn’t know any of the twists and turns that were ahead of me and I think if I had, it would have been a real shame.  But that does mean it’s hard to explain how clever this novel is.  It is a totally page-turning book – the sort of thing you could sit and read on a sun-lounger all day without being bored (if you can read slow enough) but it’s also a very smart look at the world we live in.

Evelyn is a Cuban-America and as she rises up through the Hollywood machine you see the challenges that she faces as a woman and as a Latina and to be herself.  She’s constantly having to change, to tone-down or hide aspects of herself in order to be acceptable and accepted and successful.  But it’s so well written that it’s only afterwards you realise how much social commentary is in there. It’s good and it’s very, very clever. I’ve also gone down a few Google and Wikipedia rabbit holes since finishing this, trying to work out which bits of Evelyn’s story are based on which real life Hollywood stars. I can’t tell you my conclusions though because it’ll give too much away. Sorry, not sorry.

My copy came from Netgalley an age ago, which means this is out in paperback now as well as on Kindle and Kobo. I’m hoping it should be relatively easy to find in an actual bookshop too. Taylor Jenkins Reid has a new book out shortly – which I mentioned in my anticipated books post (my excitement about this has only increased after reading this!) on New Year’s Day – so keep an eye out for that too!

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, historical, new releases, reviews, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Old Baggage

This week’s Book of the Week is Lissa Evans’s new novel – which is appropriate because it comes out on Thursday! You may remember that one of her previous books, Crooked Heart, was a Book of the Week just under 18 months ago so I was thrilled to spot this one on NetGalley and be able to pick it up.  You don’t need to have read Crooked Heart to read this – but if you have I think it will add an extra layer to your enjoyment.

The cover of Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage is the story of Matilda.  Before the war, she was a suffragette and her life revolved around the quest to get women the vote.  Now it’s 1928 and women are about to get parity – the vote on the same terms as men.  Mattie is pleased but she doesn’t think the battle is over.  Unfortunately no-one else seems to agree with her and she’s rather at sea trying to figure out what she should do next.  The book follows Mattie as she searches for a new mission – with her loyal friend Florrie Lee (known as The Flea) supporting her and trying to be a calming influence.  Along the way she encounters old friends who’ve faced a similar dilemma and is stung by a criticism from one of them, who is trying to recruit Mattie to help with her facist youth group, that she is just a dabbler.  And so she sets up a rival group – to try and educate young women about why they take an interest and get involved in causes that they believe in – or that Mattie thinks that they should believe in.

I really liked Mattie as a character – she’d be a nightmare to be friends with because you’d never get a word in edgeways and she would always tell you if she disagreed with you and go into details about why – but she’s fascinating to read about.  For all her talk of being sensible and levelheaded, she has some very real blindspots.  She’s definitely on the right side of history but she’s not always going about it in the right way.  And when she picks the wrong person to try and take under her wing, it puts everything that she’s worked for at risk.  On top of this, Mattie’s history with the suffragettes – her confrontations with police, her time in prison etc – often means that there are people who aren’t prepared to listen to her or take her seriously.  It almost goes without saying, but the title of this book is so clever and well chosen – Mattie has a lot of baggage from her suffragette days but a lot of people see her as an old baggage – a nuisance of an old woman, out of touch and past her prime.

I also really liked the Flea – for all Mattie’s talk and noble aims, it’s Florrie who is out there in the real world trying to do something to make a difference on a day to day basis.  She’s the sensible counterpoint to Mattie’s idealist and shows that you need the quiet organisers behind the scenes to get things done as well as the people on the frontline.  And Ida, one of the young women who is drawn into Mattie and Florrie’s orbit, is an interesting character in her own right and not just a plot device for showing the strengths and weaknesses of Mattie and Florrie.

It’s 100 years this year since some women in Britain got the vote and a lot has been written about the Suffrage and Suffragette movements.  There’s a stack of new books out this year – and I’ve got many of them on my to-buy list – many of them non-fiction.  But sometimes the situation calls for some fiction too and Old Baggage reminds us – in a very readable and compelling way – that the fight didn’t end in 1918 and takes a very plausible (in my view) look at what might have happened next to some of the women whose lives had revolved around trying to get the vote before the start of World War One.  Evans has used a very light hand when it comes to the flashbacks of the realities of Mattie’s life as a suffragette – I could have read pages more about it. 

I may not have read much last week in the grand scheme of things, but I think this would probably have been my BotW pick even if I’d read a dozen books.  It’s not onle massively readable – I raced through it and wished that I could have been disciplined enough to make it last longer – but it makes you think and gives you things to chew over long after you’ve finished reading it.  As I mentioned at the top, my copy was an e-galley – so it’s also going on my to-buy list because I know that my mum and my sister will really enjoy this.

Old Baggage is out in hardback on the 14th – you’ve still got time to preorder it and have it get to you on the day of release if you’re quick.  I hope it gets a good push at the bookshops – I’d expect it to be in all the good bookshops, but I’m not sure about the supermarkets.  I’m sure Big Green Bookshop will be happy to get it in for you, but it’s also available in Kindle and Kobo if you want an ebook.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, women's fiction

Book of the Week: In the Unlikely Event

A bit of women’s fiction for this week’s BotW pick – and I’ve gone with Judy Blume’s adult novel In the Unlikely Event. This had been sitting on my shelf for a while (it was one of the books that got lent to my mum during the great renovation of 2017) and it took me a while to get to it – and to read it – because my copy was hardback and we all know that I don’t take them on the commute with me.

Cover of In the Unlikely Event

In the Unlikely Event tells the story of the worst year of Mimi Ammerman’s life.  At the start of the book we meet her as she heads back to her home town of Elizabeth for the 35 anniversary of three plane crashes that hit her home town within a couple of months.  That was the year that she was 15 and as well as all the usual teenage angst, love affairs, school and family problems, Mimi and her friends had to deal with death falling from the sky towards them. The reader follows the community through the tumultuous period that changed all of their lives forever.

I read a lot of Judy Blume’s children’s books when I was in the right age bracket for them.  Between her and Paual Danziger my early views of what life was life in the US were formed.  From Scoliosis, to party line telephones, to periods and a lot in between, so much of what I knew about young women and teenage girls in America came from what I read in her books.  And, although she’s writing for an adult audience in this, I could feel echos of that coming through.  Mimi’s world isn’t that far different to Margaret’s but as well as seeing the world through her eyes, we also see it through the eyes of some of the adults around her and some of the older teenagers.  And it’s engrossing.  I particularly liked the newspaper articles written by Mimi’s uncle Henry.  They really set the scene for what’s happening and present the official point of view that Mimi doesn’t really see.

It is a book about three plane crashes happening though – but although I had to take some breaks from reading it, it wasn’t as bad as some of the other books about tragedies that I’ve read.  Definitely cope-able with.  And lots of you out there probably won’t even have to take breaks – I’m just a bit of a wuss.  I hadn’t really realised when I started reading this that the three plane crashes in Elizabeth actually happened.  Or if I had, I’d forgotten.  And I found out midway through wen I went googling because it seemed almost too implausible.  At university I did a History and Literature module, and my final essay question was “Literature has to be plausible, history only has to be true.  Discuss”.  If I was writing that essay now, this book would definitely be getting a mention.

Anyway, this was a really interesting read and I know I’ll be lending it on to other people.  I can’t remember exactly where I got my copy from – it was either the magic bookshelf at work or from one of the work booksales – but because I’ve had it for so long it’s been out in paperback for a couple of years nearly.  You should be able to get hold of it from any good sided bookshop or all the usual suspects – as well as on Kindle or Kobo.  As is traditional, I suggest buying from the Big Green Bookshop – they’ll post it out to you and have been running a really lovely “Buy a Stranger a Book” twitter campaign on Wednesdays that will gladden your heart.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, holiday reading, reviews, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

Hello and welcome to another BotW post – this week we’re in saga territory with Sophie Green’s The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club, which came out at the start of last month, but which I only got time to sit down properly to 10 days ago.  It was nearly BotW last week, but I didn’t finish it until Monday morning after my weekend at work and so I got to save it!  And after last week’s pick celebrated female friendship for middle grade readers, this does the same for grown ups.

The cover of The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club (such a long title, but I forgive it) is set in Australia’s Northern Territory in the late 1970s and early 1980s and follows Sybil, Kate, Sallyanne, Della and Rita.  Sybil came to Fairvale station 25 years ago, but she remembers how strange it felt compared to her life as a nurse in Sydney, so when her son brings his new wife Kate from Britain she comes up with the book club as an idea to adjust and make friends.  Sallyanne is stuck with a difficult husband who’s turned to drink while she brings up their three small children.  Della is a transplant from Texas at the next station over – she left her father’s ranch to find some freedom and her own place in the world.  Rita has been friends with Sybil since they were young nurses together and is now working for the Flying Doctors service in Alice Springs.  Across the course of the book all four women face trials and difficulties and find support and friendship from the rest of the group as well as finding someone to talk about books with.

I absolutely loved this book, which seemed to me like almost a what-happened-next to the outback life that I had read about in Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice.  I read that back in my teenage years  – it’s one of my mum’s favourite books and although it’s all good, my favourite part of it is the third part, that deals with Jean’s life in Willstown.  And Fairvale Ladies Book Club shows you another wild and inhospitable part of Australia that is almost inconceivable to me in its remoteness and challenges.  I  loved reading about Fairvale and the town of Katherine and wanted to be friends with all the women.  I’ve read quite a few of the books that the women read for the club – but this has reminded me that I still have Thorn Birds sitting on my kindle waiting to be read and has also given me some ideas for more reading about the Australian outback and a way of life that seems almost impossible to believe in.

I really enjoyed reading this and it brought a tear to my eye more than once. I think it would make an excellent beach read if you’re getting to the time of year where you’re thinking of holiday books – and as it’s over 400 pages long it would last a while as long as you don’t read as fast as I do!  It would also make a great book club pick – there are plenty of things to talk about here.

My copy came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get a copy from all good bookshops – like Foyles, Book Depository and Big Green Bookshop.  The Kindle and Kobo editions are already a bargain at £1.99 (at time of writing) but it cropped up as a Kindle Daily Deal about two weeks ago, so that may come around again if you’re not in a hurry and have a system for keeping track of these things.

And if you’ve got any recommendations for books set in the remote bits of Australia – or other remote parts of the world – let me know in the comments.

Happy Reading!