Book of the Week, historical, new releases

Book of the Week: Circus of Wonders

So as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m still not really in the headspace for books where I don’t know how they’re going to end. This of course is the main reason why I’ve mostly been reading romance and mystery for the duration of the pandemic – in the midst of all the global uncertainty, I need to know that it’s going to be ok at the end. This doesn’t seem to have got through to the part of my brain clicking request on NetGalley though, which is a bit of an issue to be honest. But I did manage to read this – and enjoy it – so here’s a change from the recent fiction picks and a bit of historical fiction.

Cover of Circus of Wonders

In Circus of Wonders we meet Nell. She’s always been different, because of the birthmarks that cover her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes to her coastal village, she is kidnapped after her father sells her. Ripped away from her beloved brother and the seaside, at first Nell tries to escape. But soon she discovers the community of performers and meets Jasper’s younger brother Toby. Toby and Jasper were in Crimea together and the show is what they have always planned together, even before they were on the battlefield. But when the show gets to London, Nell is its star, but can Jasper cope with his “leopard girl” eclipsing him?

This is a really atmospheric book – mixing the world of Victorian circus performers and the horror of war, as well as looking at identity, difference and fame. I worry that this makes Circus of Wonders sound very worthy, but it’s actually a real page Turner as well as being very clever. And give the renewed interest in the period and the circus after The Greatest Showman it is perhaps and opportune time for something like this. Really very readable. I read Elizabeth Macneal’s first book, The Doll Factory on my birthday holiday at the start of last year* and I found it creepy and atmospheric but only really liked one strand of the story and wanted a more definite resolution. This one, I like Toby and Nell’s story and it does have a very definite ending so that’s a definite win here. If you’re after for something to read in the sun, this would be a good choice.

My copy of Circus of Wonders came from NetGalley, but it’s out now in hardback as well as Kindle and Kobo. I would expect the physical copies to be front and centre in the book shops – because it’s in the hardback top 10 at the moment. Side note: I had read two books in each of the fiction top tens in the Sunday Times this week – unfortunately this was slightly undermined by the fact that one of the books in each list was the same book – The Thursday Murder Club – which is in both hardback and paperback lists! For the completists, the other book that I had read in the paperback list is the wonderful The Vanishing Half. But at any rate, if you haven’t read the either the Richard Osman or the Brit Bennett (which are doing very different things), they’re now in paperback – ideal for your sunlounger.

Happy Reading!

*It seems like a lifetime ago, but that trip which seemed so extravagant at the time- to pay for sunshine in January – now seems like the smartest idea we ever have, as it was our only proper holiday last year and it was a proper sunshiney one.

Book of the Week, historical, new releases, romance

Book of the Week: Wild Rain

More romance this week – but this time historical. I’ve also recommended Beverly Jenkins before – but for her contemporary Blessings series. This is also pretty new – it came out February so I’m fairly up to date for the second week in a row!

Cover of Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins

And so the plot: self-sufficient and self-contained female rancher Spring finds Garrett injured in the snow, and takes him back to her cabin to escape the storm. Garrett has travelled to Wyoming from Washington DC to write an article about Spring’s doctor brother. But soon he’s finding Spring much more interesting. Spring, however, is not interested in men or relationships – after a traumatic incident in her past she just wants to be left alone to raise her horses in peace. But as the attraction between the two of them grows, will they be able to overcome their differences and find a happy ending?

Well it’s a romance so you know they will, but it’s a really interesting journey to get there and I really liked that it was Garrett who did most of the adapting. All too often it’s the woman in a romance – particularly in a historical romance who has to do all the changing to fit the man’s circumstances. Garrett may fall for the community he finds in Wyoming, but he has to do some thinking about what he wants from life as well. I don’t read many western-set romances – mostly because there’s a lot about the American West that makes me uncomfortable- but if someone was going to tempt me, of course it would be Beverly Jenkins. She creates such interesting characters and worlds and I love her writing style. This did everything I wanted it to do – The peril with the villain ends up wrapping up a little quickly, but then the romance is what you’re there for so, actually it was fine by me.

My copy of Wild Rain came from the library, but it’s available now on Kindle and Kobo and if you’re in the US it should be able to buy fairly easily in paperback. I suspect in the UK it will be harder but several stores seem to have it available to order – although it’s a bit confusing as Book Depository say they can send it to you now, but Waterstones and Bookshop.org.uk have it as a preorder.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, historical, historical

Book of the Week: Her Last Flight

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, it was somewhat of a strange week last week for me, reading wise. Still don’t quite know why, but I do know that I really, really enjoyed Beatriz Wiliams’ latest book at the start of the week, so it made for a really easy pick for Book of the Week. Which is good, because decision making is not my strongest suit at the moment.

Cover of Her Last Flight

It’s 1947 and former war correspondent Janey Everett is researching a planned biography of a forgotten aviation pioneer. Sam Mallory was a Great War fighter pilot who went on to take part in flying races and barnstorming displays before going missing while flying planes in the Spanish Civil War. Her quest for the truth takes her to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, to talk to Irene Lindquist, owner of an island hopping airline, who she thinks might actually be Irene Foster, Sam’s former student whose mysterious disappearance during a round the world flight in 1937 remains an unsolved mystery. At first Irene won’t engage with Janey, but when she finds out that Janey has found the wreck of Mallory’s airplane in a Spanish desert, she starts to reconsider. And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about the plot.

It’s an incredibly readable story with two fascinating women at the heart of it. Structurally, it is split between Janey’s first person account and extracts from a book about Irene – so a time-slip novel with a bit of a twist. It works really, really well. I have a slightly patchy history with Beatriz William’s books – but when she works for me, it really works and this might be my favourite so far. It’s a complete page turner – it’s tense and emotional at times and it’s got plenty of twists (only one of which I predicted). I would say this is a perfect beach read, but it feels like beaches are back to being a long way off again, even if the weather has been lovely for the last week.

I’ve read a few books around aviatrixes – fiction and non fiction – if you read this and like it try Deanna Raybourn’s City of Jasmine for another fictional aviatrix or for a fictionalised account of a real aviatrix, try Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun about Beryl Markham. If you just want time-slip novels in general – try Lauren Willig or Chanel Cleeton. My copy of Her Last Flight came from the library, but it’s just come out in paperback. I still haven’t been in to a bookshop so I can’t speak for how easy it will be to get hold of, but as ever, give your local indie a call and I’m sure they’ll be able to order it in if they don’t have it in stock. It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook.

Happy Reading!

 

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!


		
Authors I love, historical, Series I love

Series I love: The Cazalets

It’s been a while since I wrote a series I love post – and as we’re all in the market for some binge-reading at the moment, I thought I would offer a suggestion for Easter at the same time.  I have written about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s series in roundup posts before, but it’s been a few years and now seems like the time to have a proper moment for them.

So the series tells the stories of the Cazalet family from the last years before World War Two until the 1950s. A the start of the series in The Light Years, you meet the characters in 1937 as they gather at Home Place – where The Brig and Duchy live.  They have four grown-up children, sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert – who all work in the family firm – and a daughter, Rachel, who lives at home.  Their lives look perfect on the surface, but underneath they all have problems.  Hugh is still struggling after the Great War, Edward is chronically unfaithful to his wife, Rupert has a younger, demanding wife and Rachel is putting her loyalty to the family above any chance of personal happiness.  All three of the sons have children and we see their lives too, complete with rivalries, alliances and fears. As the series goes on, you see them all age and mature (and in some cases die) until by the final book of the series even the youngest of the children from the first book are adults.

The narrative moves from character to character, so they all have their own stories that add up to a bigger picture that only the reader is fully aware of.  I have been known to go through the series just reading the bits about my favourite characters. I don’t know how Elizabeth Jane Howard does it, but she juggles a huge cast of characters while making them all seem different and distinct, and by the end you have sympathy even for the people who you found the most unlikable at the start *cough* Edward *cough* Villy *cough* and have seen promising children turn into horrors.  It’s not quite a Rich People Problems book, because although they are well off upper class types (not aristocracy though) the war is a genuine real problem with genuine consequences, but it’s not far off.

I first read the original quartet while raiding my mum’s bookshelves in my teens and my sister read them not long after. I actually own then as actual books and as ebooks and they are one of the few series that we all own our own copies of. Well, at least we all own the first four books. I think I’m the only one with a copy of the fifth. All Change came out in 2013 nearly 20 years after Casting Off – which had finished the series off perfectly – to my mind at least.  Looking back at my goodreads review from the time, I found it true to the series and not contrived, but it is telling that I haven’t been back to re-read it since then. It’s quite melancholy and sad in places – more than the others are because it doesn’t have the same payoffs at the end.  It was inevitable – and well signposted in the earlier books – that the war was going to change the lives and lifestyles of the family, but All Change really leans into the reality of that and it makes me a bit sad and means you end the series on a bit less of a satisfying high than you do if you finish at Casting Off. I don’t think it spoils the whole series (which was my big fear before it came out) but I prefer to think of them all as they were at the end of Casting Off – heading out into their futures with all sorts of possibilities unexplored and ahead of them.

The weather is just starting to turn properly nice here at the moment – with flowers blooming in the garden and the sun shining – which makes it an ideal time to start reading about the last golden summers before the Second World War.  At 400 pages each, they’ll also keep you going over the long Easter weekend and beyond if you want them to.  I originally read these not long after I had read Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Hold the Dream series and was looking for something similar – telling the stories of a family over years and years.  Once I’d read the Cazalets, I was spoiled forever for the genre.  Lots of people have tried to tell stories like this, but very few have done it as well as Elizabeth Jane Howard did. The original books came out in the early 90s, so it’s very possible that some of you reading this haven’t come across her before – so if you like authors like Harriet Evans, Dinah Jeffries or have enjoyed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books, you should totally try these.  And if anyone has any recommendations for other series that I could read that do the same sort of thing – then drop them in the comments. Also: if you like this and haven’t read The Camomile Lawn, then you should totally read that too.

As the bookshops are closed, and these aren’t new releases, I suspect you’ll have to buy them as ebooks.  The Kindle and Kobo editions of the Light Years are £3.99 at the moment, which isn’t too bad.  After that the prices go up for books two and three and Casting Off is a bargainous 99p (Kindle/Kobo)- but whatever you do, don’t start there, it won’t work for you anywhere near as well.

Happy Reading and stay safe.

American imports, Book of the Week, historical, new releases, reviews, romance

Book of the Week: After the Wedding

As you may have noticed from yesterday’s post, I did a lot of reading last week – even for me.  And there were a lot of contenders for this week’s BotW, but it seemed serendipitous that Courtney Milan’s latest romance is actually out today, whereas the release dates had already passed for the other contenders.  And don’t worry, some of the other books from last week will feature in upcoming posts I have planned – there’s another cozy crime round up due as well as the traditional Holiday Reading post.  I read through my holiday so that you can benefit from it when picking your holiday reading.  Or at least that’s a happy accident of the fact that my preferred way of spending my holiday is reading!  Anyway, on to the review.

The cover of After the Wedding

After the Wedding is the second book in Courtney Milan’s Worth Saga.  I haven’t read the first, but that didn’t in any way impair my enjoyment.  Set in the late 1860s, it tells the story of Camilla and Adrian. Camilla has been moving around from family to family for years since her father was convicted of treason, but she never seems to be able to keep any of them happy enough with her to be allowed to stay.  Adrian is juggling a lot of things.  He’s trying to run the family business while trying to convince his uncle (a bishop) to recognise his family, who were disowned when his mother ran off with a black abolitionist. This sees him doing things that he would rather not be doing – like impersonating servants to obtain vital information.  When the two of them find themselves married – at gunpoint no less – they begin an awkward dance to work out what to do next.  He has definite ideas about what he wants from marriage, she can’t see how the world can make anything worse for her, but has had enough blows that she knows that she can’t rule anything else.

This is a really good historical romance – but it’s not your typical historical romance.  There is a a sadness in each of the character’s backstories that goes beyond what you normal find, and that is never going to go away or be resolved fully.  But that makes a lot of the other events of the book even sweeter.  Milan says in the afterword that this book is about hope – and I can totally get on board with that.  It’s showing two characters who face obstacles in their lives work out how they’re going to get around them – or live with them – and come to terms with themselves in the process.  The Camilla of the end of the book is not the same bowed, cowed and undermined character that she is at the start, but that’s not because everything has been magically fixed for her because she has found a man.  She’s done it for herself.   Adrian also works out what his priorities are and what he really wants but he’s also working for the best outcome for Camilla because he knows that she has even less choices than he does in many ways.  For me, the best sort of romances are the ones where the characters grow and develop and the fact that they’ve fallen in love in the process is a happy consequence, not the fix.  And that’s how it should be.   You can’t – and shouldn’t – rely on someone else to make you happy or to make your life complete.

I think this is my favourite new romance of the year so far and a timely reminder to me to go back and read more of what Courtney Milan has written.  I really, really like what she is doing with her historical romances – they’re something a bit different from what you expect and have a cast of characters who not only aren’t all dukes, but aren’t all white members of the haut ton.  And they’re stories that I want to read more of.  The conflict at the heart of this is not a misunderstanding that could have been fixed by having a conversation. And that makes for a really satisfying conclusion when you get to the happy ending.

I received my advance copy of After the Wedding from the author via her Facebook page, but as mentioned at the top, this is out today.  As I write this, I can only find it in Kindle and Kobo in the UK, but fingers crossed there’ll be some physical copies at some point.  I’m off to buy more of Courtney Milan’s back catalogue.

Happy Reading!

Gone with the Windsors by Laurie Graham
Authors I love, historical

Recommendsday: Gone with the Windsors

While reading Royal Flush last week, where one of Lady Georgie’s tasks is trying to keep the Prince of Wales away from Wallis Simpson, I couldn’t help but think of Gone with the Windsors – my favourite novel that features Wallis.  Then I realised that I’ve mentioned it in passing several times on here* but never actually reviewed.  So Recommendsday this week seemed the perfect time to remedy that.

A copy of Gone with the Windsors
“A wicked comedy about the Romance of the Century” is pretty spot on

Gone with the Windsors is the story of Wallis Simpson’s romance with Edward VIII as seen throught he eyes of her (fictional) best friend, Maybell Brumby.  Maybell is a recently widowed Southern Belle who comes to London to visit her sister (married to a Scottish Earl) to one up her social rivals back home just as one of their old school friends is making a stir by stepping out with the Prince of Wales.  Soon Maybell is hobnobbing with royalty as Wallis (with the help of Maybell’s money) sets London society ablaze.  Maybell and her family are carefully woven into the real story and as someone who’s read a fair bit about the Edward and Mrs Simpson and the 1930s in general, I didn’t spot any howlers.

A quote from Gone with the Windsors
How could you not love Maybell’s insider view of the Abdication Crisis?

The Wallis of Gone with the Windsors is a ruthless social climber, with an aim in mind, who doesn’t mind stepping on anybody to get there.  David is weak and easily led, thinking more of his own pleasure than of his responsibilities.  But Maybell is a total joy.  I mean you wouldn’t want to be friends with her, but she is a brilliant prism to watch the slow motion car crash that was the Abdication Crisis.  She is delightfully dim (witness her dealings with her sister Doopie) and part of the fun is watching her misunderstand what’s going on – or miss the undercurrents.  Her sister is firmly on the Royal Family’s side against Wallis, while Maybell is convinced she’s picked the winner, which makes for fraught times on the summer holiday in Scotland.

Maybell finds new ways to keep herself occupied during a summer at her sister’s Scottish estate.

GWTW was my first Laurie Graham book – I spotted it in the window of Waterstones and had to have it – and since reading it she’s been an autobuy for me and I’ve picked up a lot of her back catalogue.  I like her straight up novels too, but my favourite are the ones like this where she takes a historical event or person and puts her spin on it.  I mentioned the Importance of Being Kennedy in my Inauguration Reading post, and The Grand Duchess of Nowhere was my first review for Novelicious, but A Humble Companion (about a companion to one of George III’s daughters) and The Night in Question (about a music hall comedienne who gets caught up in the Jack the Ripper panic) are also excellent.

My copies of Gone with the Windsors
They’re both gorgeous, but I have a soft spot for the white one – as it was the first version I had.

As you can see, I have two copies of Gone with the Windsors.  The blue one is a signed copy sent to me by the author after I cried and wailed on Twitter about losing my original (white) copy** and it being out of stock everywhere, the other one is a secondhand copy I bought because the signed edition was too nice to read.  So now the pristine blue on is on the shelf with the other Laurie Graham books and the white one lives by my bed for when I need a dose of Maybell.

A quote from Gone with the Windsors
Maybell is just so much fun. Often unintentionally.

In a fabulous twist of fate, Gone with the Windsors is coming out on Kindle later this month – I’d actually already written a sentence saying that I was said it wasn’t available Kindle so now I’m very overexcited at the prospect of having Maybell to hand whenever I need a pick me up.  So, you too can preorder Gone with the Windsors on Kindle, or pick up a secondhand hardcover or a (new or secondhand) paperback copy from Amazon.  I’m hoping the preorder link for her next novel – a sequel to Future Homemakers of America out in June – appears soon as it’s been more than a year since her last new novel came out and I’ve got withdrawal symptoms.

Gosh this has turned into a long post.  But I feel very good for having told the world about my love of Maybell Brumby and her crazy view of the world.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it – and I hope you get0 the book.

Happy reading!

*Usually when talking about another Laurie Graham book to say that GWTW is my favourite.

** I lent it out without writing my name in the front of it and never got it back. It was a salutary lesson.

historical, non-fiction

On the Keeper Shelf: History Books

Another half-term bonus post.  As I was dusting my bookshelves the other day, I was looking at my collection of history books.  I’m a history graduate and have read a lot of history writing over the years.  In fact for portions of my university career I hardly read any fiction because I was so burned out on reading from doing my coursework.  These days my reading is mainly fiction, but a lot of it is historical fiction and when I do read non-fiction, a lot of it is historical biography or about history.  And although I don’t tend to reread nonfiction, there are a few books that I have kept hold of – and not because I worry that people will judge me based on my bookshelves*.  So what have I kept and why?

Elizabeth by David Starkey

This was the big history blockbuster when I was doing A-levels.  And as it happens, I was studying Tudor history.  This was one of the first really readable “proper” history books I had come across (it was much easier going that GR Elton’s Henry VII which I also had to read) and it and John Guy’s Tudor England formed the basis of a lot of my essays at the time.  This is full of research, but wears it lightly – if you want a readble way of fact-checking portrayals of Elizabeth in popular culture (like say the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth films) this will do that for you.  I’ve kept reading Starkey since – particularly on Henry VIII and his wives – and have a couple of others around the house, but it’s Elizabeth that I’m sentimentally attached to.

Bright Young People by DJ Taylor

I have an enduring fascination with the inter-war period.  I love novels – particularly detective novels – written in that period and set in that period and the actual history and reality of that era fascinates me too.  I have a little collection of books about the Roaring Twenties and this is possibly my favourite.  It’s the most Britain-centric – which means I can use it to get the background on some of the people who crop up in the novels and similar.  It’s also got a very thorough bibiliography and further reading list which I always appreciate and there’s a few books on that list that I still want to read.  Also on my shelves (still) are Flappers by Judith Makerell, Anything Goes by Lucy Moore (which is more America-centric), Mad World by Paula Byrne and Queen Bees by Sian Evans.  And I’ve got the new Evelyn Waugh biography on the to-read pile too.

An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula

Now bear with me on this one because it’s slightly odd.  As a child I was a little bit obsessed with Queen Victoria.  Well, quite a lot obsessed.  You know how some children are into dinosaurs or trains?  That was me and Queen Victoria. I could recite dates, I knew the middle names of all her children, I had it marked on my height chart how tall she was so I knew when I was taller than her and when we visited the Isle of Wight, all I wanted to do was visit Osborne.  As an adult this has left me with more knowledge than I care to admit about the genealogy of the royal family, although I did win money by correctly predicting Prince George’s name – and my pick if it had been a girl was Charlotte, so you know, it has some uses.  I was also big into pretend games when I was little – but I always pretended to be Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal, not Queen Victoria.  Yeah. I know.  I was a very strange child.  Still I turned out all right really.  Anyway, there aren’t many proper biographies of Princess Victoria – who was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II (him of World War One) and who died less than 8 months after her mother – but I picked this up secondhand at university to get my head around who she actually was – rather than the crazy ideas that 8-year-old Verity had – and although she actually had a sad and tragic life in the end, I keep it on the shelf as a reminder of the weirdly obsessed child that I was.  Also on the shelves as remnants of that childhood obsession are Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule (about five of Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters), Princesses by Flora Fraser (about George III’s daughters) and Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession (about Victoria and Albert’s marriage).

 

 

*People are welcome to judge me on my bookshelves – if you look at the big downstairs bookshelf you’ll find Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L Sayers, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Laurie Graham, Maya Angelou, Barbara Pym and Ngaio Marsh amongst others.  I think that’s a pretty accurate picture of me.

Authors I love, books, cozy crime, historical, Series I love

My Big Obsessions of 2015: Revisited

As we all know, I am the bingiest of binge readers, so before I post my 2016 obsessions post, I thought it might be fun to revisit my obsessions from last year to see if I’m fickle and flighty, or true to my obsessions before you point and laugh at all the ways I’ve been derailing my efforts to shrink the to-read pile this year!  NB links to series are to Goodreads and links to individual titles are to Amazon as I’ll be here all week if I link to all the different sellers and Goodreads will give you links through to retailers via the individual book pages that way.

Janet Evanovich

So after binging on Evanovich last year, the pace has slowed somewhat in 2016.  From 30 books last year, to 6 this year.  And that’s not because I’ve gone off her – just that I’m running out of books to read.  I’m up to date in the Lizzie and Diesel and Fox and O’Hare series, I’ve read another of her backlist romances and the first book in the new series (didn’t like it sadly, but it’s the first real big failure I’ve had from her).  I’ve only read one more Stephanie Plum, although I have book 20 waiting on the pile, so I’m still a few behind in that, but that’s because I’m waiting for the prices to drop/paperbacks to appear.

Deanna Raybourn

I’ve been very good at rationing myself with Deanna Raybourn this year.  She doesn’t turn out as many books as Janet Evanovich (who does?!) so I’m very aware that if I’m not careful I’ll find myself with a long wait to read more from her.  I’ve now read all of the Lady Julia books and novellas, but I still have a couple of  her standalone books waiting for me to read.  I loved the first Veronica Speedwell (A Curious Beginning) – and have managed to get the second one, A Perilous Undertaking, from NetGalley – it’s out in January so I’ve just started reading it in the last week as a post-Christmas treat to myself for being back at work.  Now you may remember that this time last year I did a bit of bulk Raybourn purchasing because the prices had dropped – and I’m delighted to report that at time of writing the same things seems to have happened again – and you can pick up the first Lady Julia, Silent in the Grave, for 99p and none of the others cost more than £2.99. A Spear of Summer Grass has also dropped in price – making it cheaper than when I bought it last year gnash – and most of the others are cheaper too.  Tell you what, I’ll just leave the link to her Amazon kindle title list here.

Historical Romance

So, after spending 2015 searching out new historical romance authors, this year I have tended to stick with authors I’ve already read, with a few exceptions.  I also think that although I’ve read about the same amount of romances over the year, I’ve read more contemporary romances and less historicals, partly because of all the bingeing on historicals meaning that I’ve run out of cheap backlist titles and unless I can get them through NetGalley the new releases are more expensive on Kindle than I’m prepared to pay for a book that is only going to take me a few hours to read, so I wait until they go on offer/second hand prices sort themselves out.  I also think I’ve got pickier about the tropes that I’m prepared to read.  So unless it’s an author that I know I usually like, I tend to avoid Highland romances, pirates, amnesia, accidental pregnancies, secret babies, tortured heroes and heroines and to a lesser extent reunited romances (it depends what it was that split them up first time around) in historicals – and in contemporaries too, although you don’t get a lot of pirate or highland contemporaries – and going straight for my catnip: disguises, enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, marriages of convenience, rakes, guardians/wards (a la Regency Buck, not creepy old men and young girls obviously) and fake engagements.

Cozy Crime

I said last year that I felt more cozy crime reading coming on in 2016 and I was right.  I have read *so* much cozy crime this year.  So much.  I’ve worked my way through various of Henery Press’s offerings on NetGalley, carried on with Jenn McKinlay‘s series (when prices allowed), tried various crafting-based cozies and quite a few with journalists as main characters (some successful, some less so), some with vicars, a few with police as main characters (more unusual in the genre than you’d think), wondered how many bodies need to turn up outside a cafe/bakery to make the business unviable and even dipped my toe into paranormal/ghostly cozy crimes.  I still have the rule about how much I’ll spend on them (which is pretty much the same as with historical romances) so I’ve read a lot of first in series (which tend to be cheap/free) and then added the rest to my ever-growing Amazon list to wait for the prices to drop on the sequels.  I’m still working out which sort of plots work best for me, but I reckon by the end of 2017 I should have got it sussed.

Historical Crime

As with 2015 I’m still searching for those elusive books that will scratch my Daisy Dalrymple/Phryne Fisher itch.  We haven’t had a new Phryne for 3 years now and I’m starting to wonder if we’ll ever get any more (the TV series is Not The Same) which fills my heart with dread, so I’ve read pretty much all of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman books this year (I read one in 2015 when I happened up it at the library) to try and cheer myself up but as they’re set in modern day Melbourne they are really quite different.  I’m pretty much up to date with Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series now thanks to a string of them popping up at The Works, and the latest Sidney Chambers appeared on the shelf of books at work too although I find that they’re a bit out of my favourite time period now they’ve hit the 1960s.  I’ve filled in pretty much all the gaps in Flavia de Luce and Dandy Gilver now so I’ve had to cast my net further.  The results have been somewhat mixed.  I like Ashley Weaver’s Amory Ames series, but the third book has only just come out, so there aren’t enough of them and Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton series has grown on me.  I’m still searching for another good 1920s or 1930s-set murder mystery series now I’ve exhausted all the obvious options.  I’ve read one of Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series and have another on the pile so it’s too early to tell if I like them, but if I do, Bowen’s Molly Murphy series might be my next stop.  Luckily, I was sent some of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion series that I hadn’t already read to read and review (on Amazon) so I’ve filled my historical crime gap with some actual genuine Golden Age crime instead.

So there you have it – a look back at last year’s obsessions and an insight into what happens after you’ve binged on an author and can’t get your fix.  Any suggestions for historical romance, cozy crime or historical crime books or series that I might like are gratefully received.

Coming tomorrow: My 2016 obsessions…

 

Award nominated, historical, literary fiction, Prize winners, reviews

Book of the Week: The Underground Railroad

I am not a reader of Award-Winning Books.  See my posts here and here for proof of this — and I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last two years.  But some times you hear so much buzz and chatter about a book that you have to check it out.  Particularly when you luck into a copy of said book.  And Colson Whitehead’s the Underground Railroad was one of those books.  I’d heard everybody on the Bookriot podcasts that I listen to talking about how excited they were for something new from Whitehead – and then about how brilliant it was.  It kept popping up in lists of hotly anticipated books.  It was an Oprah Bookclub pick.  It was on President Obama’s summer reading list.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
I apologise for my lousy photography, but I really like the cover – with the train tracks snaking around.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave on a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia.  Life is more terrible than you can imagine, especially for Cora who is an outcast among her fellow Africans.  When Caesar, a recent arrival at the plantation suggests that they escape together, they take a terrifying risk to try and get to the Underground Railroad.  But it doesn’t go according to plan, and Cora’s journey is fraught with dangers as there are hunters after them, dogging their every move.  In Whitehead’s world the railroad is real – actual trains in tunnels under the southern states with a network of drivers and conductors ferrying runaways to safety.

This is such a powerful book.  It’s beautifully written, but oh so difficult to read – I’ve had to take it in bite-sized chunks so that I can digest it properly – but it’s worth it.  It makes you confront harsh and terrible truths about what people have done to each other and are capable of doing to each other.  But it’s also compelling and personal and page turning and clever.  Whatever I say here, I won’t be able to do it justice.  I still haven’t finished digesting it and I’m going to be thinking about it for some time to come.  It’s going to win all the awards – and it deserves to. It’s already won the National Book Award in the US and is Amazon.com editor’s Number 1 Book of the Year.  In years to come it’s going to be on English Literature syllabuses.  Well, well, well worth your time.

I would expect this to be somewhere prominent on a table or on a front facing shelf in bookshops.  It’s in hardback at the moment – and you can get it from Amazon (out of stock at time of writing, which says a lot), Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo.  It might make it into the supermarkets, but I’d be surprised.  The paperback is out in June.  I’m off to read some more of Whitehead’s work.

Happy reading.