book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: May 2021 Mini Reviews

Another month is over, so here we are with some more reviews of books that I’ve read this month, want to talk about but haven’t had the chance yet. And unlike last month, I actually read them all this month. By rights Early Morning Riser and Wicked Enchantment from last month’s post also belong here, but I broke all my own rules at the start of May. But that’s what rules are there for right?

Drop the Mikes by Duncan MacMaster

Paperback copy of Drop the Mikes

Anyone fancy a murder mystery inspired by the Fyre festival debacle? Yes? Well this is it. A buzzy tech start up is organising a music festival on an island to promote a new product. It’s already shaping up for a disaster – with no luxury villas for the guests and no musical acts because all the cheques bounced. But when the Boss’s right hand man is found dead, things take a turn for the even more serious. Kirby Baxter happens to be holidaying across the bay from the festival and is soon called in to consult. Long term readers will remember that I interviewed Duncan MacMaster a couple of years back, when Hack (the first Jake Mooney book) came out. This is the third Kirby Baxter, and although you don’t have to have read the previous ones if you have – and also if you have read the Jake Mooney books – there is extra fun to be had here. But even if you’re just reading it as a standalone, it’s still a funny and twisty murder mystery, based on a great idea.

Elizabeth and Monty by Charles Castillo*

Cover of Elizabeth and Monty

My love of books about Golden Age Hollywood is well known, so this was an obvious choice for me to request on NetGalley. But it’s a bit of a weird one. I’m not sure I learned that much new about Elizabeth Taylor – but it’s not that long since I read Furious Love about her and Richard Burton and she has also come up in a lot of the other books I’ve read, so perhaps that’s the reason why. I did however learn a lot more about Montgomery Clift, who often only features in things as a bit of a side note in the Elizabeth Taylor story. But there are frustratingly few conclusions here about the whys and wherefore as of his self-destructive behaviour – which began even before the car crash that damaged his matinee idol looks. If you like old Hollywood, go for it, it’s readable but imperfect.

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by K J Charles

Cover of The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting

KJ Charle’s latest sees Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne (oh yes, the clue is there in the name) descend on London in the search of a fortune each. But the sucess of their venture comes under threat from Sir John Hartlebury, the uncle of the heiress Robin is courting. Will Robin be unmasked or is there Another Way to resolve this? This is a lot of fun. It mostly delivered what I was hoping it would – which was/is a queer Masqueraders sort of vibe (NB to audiobook producers, could you hurry up and record Masqueraders and put it on Audible, please and thank you) but with less Jacobites and the Old Gentleman and more snark. I was a bit dubious about The Arrangement between Robin and Hart, but Charles handles the potential pitfalls of a Pretty Women kind of situation very neatly. And that’s a close as I can get to explaining things without using proper spoilers.

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

Cover of The Wife Upstairs

Jane is a dog walker in a wealthy community in Birmingham, Alabama. She’s also on the run from her past and in need of some protection in case it catches up with her. When she meets widower Eddie Rochester, he seems like the solution to her prayers – although the recently deceased wife is a bit of a disadvantage. But as Jane falls for Eddie, so the mystery of what happened to Bea and her best friend the night the disappeared at the lake looms larger and larger. Will Jane get her happy ending? As mentioned several times this week already, it turns out I’m still not ready for suspense/thrillers – even when they’re based on a known property like Jane Eyre! But despite my squeamishness and need to space out reading it, this is really good. It’s twisty and inventive enough that you’re never quite sure that it is going to do what you think it’s going to do. And this “Jane” is a more complicated heroine than the original ever was! And I liked the ending.

So there you have it, another month finished and another batch of mini-reviews. And in case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in May were Wilde Child, Fabulosa! Love at First and Dial A for Aunties (even though I technically finished that on the last day of April, because it’s book of the *week* and weeks don’t end neatly for the end of the month… which means I could also count yesterday’s Circus of Wonders post as I finished that in May, but posted it in June. Even the rules I make myself are too complicated. And finally, just to complete the link-fest, here are the links to the mini reviews from January, February, March and April.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: April 2021 Mini Reviews

Ok, so slightly cheating this month, in that I couple of these were actually finished in the first two days of May, but I’m giving them a bye because they came out in April. Oh the ways in which we deceive ourselves…

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny*

Cover of Early Morning Riser

Jane is a teacher in Boyne City, Michigan. When she locks herself out of her house she meets Duncan – not actually a locksmith, but a carpenter who can fix locks as well. Soon they’re dating – but as Duncan has already dated almost ever woman in town, she never quite feels like she has him to herself. Soon Jane is caught up in a web of relationships with some of Boyne City’s eccentric residents – including Duncan’s ex wife and her new husband. After a terrible car crash Jane, Duncan and Aggie’s lives are permanently linked, but is there actually a different sort of happy to the one Jane was expecting waiting for her if she just looks for it? Standard Deviation was a book of the week pick here, a couple of years back and this is Katherine Heiny’s latest novel. Back then I said that I wouldn’t actually want to be friends with the leads in that, but I think I would like to be friends with Jane – although Duncan would be a bit of a trial to have as a boyfriend! This is warm and funny but bittersweet. It’ll make you laugh and make you cry and then you’ll want to tell everyone you know to read it too. I need to buy a copy so I can lend it out.

The Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan**

Cover of The Devil Comes Courting

Courtney Milan’s latest novel is the long awaited third in the Worth Saga, but set on the other side of the world. Amelia Smith was adopted by missionaries as a child, but has always been waiting for her real mum to come back for her. When Captain Grayson Hunter offers her a job devising a code to transmit Chinese characters by telegraph, she doesn’t think she’s the person he’s looking for. But after some persuasion, she decides giving it a go is a better option than marrying another missionary. Grayson is determined to lay the first transpacific telegraph cable and achieve the dream his brothers aren’t here to complete. Convincing Amelia that she’s the missing link that his company needs is a hard task, but soon the sparks are flying between the two of them – even though both of them are determined to ignore them. As well as the romance this is also examining the damage that missionaries did going out and forcing their beliefs on to other cultures around the world. This will may make you feel uncomfortable, but it’s meant to and you probably need to sit with that. I liked the romance well enough, but what I really loved was watching Amelia come into herself and make the life that she wants to have, not the one that her adoptive mother things she should have. And if you liked the meddling relatives in Dial A for Aunties, this has a couple of characters who are doing a similar sort of thing – just in nineteenth century China. If you’re fed up of Regency or even just European-see historicals, try this.

Wicked Enchantment by Wanda Coleman*

Cover of Wicked Enchantment

Ok, so let’s preface this with the fact that I’m not a big poetry person. In fact I’m still holding a grudge agains Wordsworth, Tennyson and the Brownings after my A-Levels. But every now and again I venture in and this was one of those times. And it was also my first encounter with Wanda Coleman and it has absolutely made an impression on me. This is a thought provoking and well put together collection of more than 130 poems from across Coleman’s forty career. The order is drawn from Coleman’s own preferences and examines her life and black American experiences as she saw them. It’s gritty and rule breaking and I sometimes felt totally out of my depth. You’ll have to think and concentrate and probably read out loud to understand the rhythm. And although some of the poems are forty years old, the themes and experiences still feel strikingly relevant today.

The Fear-fighter Manual by Luvvie Ajayi Jones*

Cover of The Fear-Fighter Manual

This is a readable and insightful look at the importance of speaking up for yourself and how to navigate that without blowing up your life or reliving your mistakes forever more. This is dedicated to the author’s grandmother – a formidable Nigerian woman who overcame substantial obstacles, lived her life as she wanted and spoke out when she thought it was needed. I particularly enjoyed reading about how the author’s upbringing – split between Nigeria and the US has informed her perspective and the lessons that she has taken from the strong women in her life and the squad she has built around herself. It is quite American-self-help book in tone at times- which is not always my style, but I enjoyed it and found it just on the right side of my personal line for that. I’m not sure how much of this is applicable to my life – but there are some important ideas and lessons here that I will sit with (as the Americans say) and digest and try to use to inform my thinking and behaviour. Also I already couldn’t wait to be able to meet up with people in person again, but after all the sections about her friends and her squad, that’s only got worse!

An honourable mention has to go to Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, about a murder in fundamentalist Mormon country. I gave it a mention in my post about podcasts when I was talking about Short Creek – and if I hadn’t listened to that I would probably have given it a whole list of its own. But it’s a little out of date now, and Short Creek will do you a lot of the same things, just in updated podcast form – the main change is the Rulon/Warren Jeff’s situation.

In case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in April were Dial A for Aunties (published in May, but read in April!) He’s Not My Boyfriend, Rosie Danan’s Roommate duo, Enjoy the View and Billion Dollar Loser.

And here are the links to the mini reviews from January, February and March.

Happy Reading!

Best of..., Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Novelised Real Lives

The latest instalment of my intermittent Recommendsday series, is a post about a trio of books that feature fictional versions of real life people. It’s a part of literature that I’ve read quite a lot of over the years – and quite enjoy. I date it back to my A-Levels when I derived a lot of enjoyment when studying the Literature of the First World War and reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration and then in spotting all the various poets popping up in all in various other pieces of fiction about the era – and then deciphering who was meant to be who in Siegfried Sasson’s Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man.  The books in this have been read over some considerable time – and I could have held off on publishing this for ages as I have more of these on my to-read pile. But after not enjoying one of the potentials to be added the other week, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet and wanted to get it out there.  These three fall into some of my preferred areas of reading too – Hollywood’s Golden Age and what I’m going to call the extended post first world war period…

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe*

Cover of Mr Wilder and Me

After a chance meeting with Billy Wilder while backpacking around the US in the 1970s, Calista finds herself on a Greek Island working as a translator on the set of Wilder’s latest film. Calista is barely out of her teens, young, naive and slightly without a direction in her life. Through the course of the summer, she watches a Hollywood great who is falling out of favour in the new world of Scorseses and Spielbergs, and learns about the sadness that haunts Wilder. I love a book about Old Hollywood and I also love novels that fictionalise real people, so even the blurb for this really, really appealed to me. And it didn’t disappoint. Mr Wilder and Me is incredibly readable – even if after you finish it you realise Calista herself is not a massively well developed character and exists mostly as a way of getting you into Wilder’s world. There is not a lot of drama here – but it doesn’t need it. It’s an examination of cinema, and fame and what you do and how you cope when people think your glory days are behind you but you don’t.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain*

Cover of Love and Ruin

I really like what McLain does with fictionalising real people. Admittedly, so far she hasn’t done one on anyone who’s life I was already massively familiar with, but I’m not sure I care. Having tackled Hadley Richardson’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Wife, in Love and Ruin, McLain returns to Hemingway’s life – but this time through the eyes of his third wife, legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It’s a fascinating portrait of a relationship between two incredibly strong characters, neither of whom are prepared to let go of what they want to do (although Gellhorn definitely makes more compromises than Hemingway does). I would happily read another 100 pages of What Martha Did Next – and came away from this with even more respect for her than I already had. Really, really good – and very readable.

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer*

Cover of The Age of Light

This is the story of Lee Miller – a model-turned-photographer, who was Man Ray’s assistant and then went on to work as a photographer in her own right and one of the first female war correspondents. I liked the idea of this – but ended up feeling distinctly mixed. I didn’t like any of the characters really – but that’s not a necessity. What is a necessity is feeling like there has been some resolution or outcome at the end of it all. And I didn’t get that. I felt like a spent a lot of time in the presence of someone very damaged, but I didn’t feel like I came away understanding her any better than at the start. Or at least not on any deeper level. – just not as good as the other books that I’ve read recently that have been telling fictionalised versions of real people’s lives (or portions of them).

If you want more fiction about real people, can I point you in the way of my post about the Happy Valley Set, Swan Song and also of some of Laurie Graham’s books like The Grand Duchess of Nowhere and Gone With the Windsors, the latter of which like Mr Wilder and Me inserts a fictional person into a real situation and remains one of my favourite books of all time.

Happy Reading!

*next to a name indicates that it came to me from NetGalley, probably some time ago!

book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: March 2021 Mini Reviews

So we made it to the end of a year of the quarantimes. And despite the fact being back in March meant it felt like we’d never left March at all and the world had ground to a halt in 2020 and given us endless March, itwas actually quite a good month in my reading life. Here are a few books I enjoyed that I haven’t told you about yet.

Women vs Hollywood by Helen O’Hara

Hardback copy of Women vs Hollywood

Empire Magazine’s Helen O’Hara’s new book is an examination of pioneering women through Hollywood history and the ways in which they’ve been left out of the history of the silver screen. It also examines what could be done to help redress the balance and for films to tell some different stories from some different points of view. It’s impeccably researched and well argued and will left me wanting to go out and spend some money at the cinema on female-centric films. As the cinemas are still closed, I contented myself by watching Lady Bird and Emma. and a couple of Katherine Hepburn films.

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

Cover of the Consequences of Fear

I’ve written about the Maisie Dobbs series here before. And this is another engrossing and twisty instalment in the series. With long running series it’s always a challenge writing a review that doesn’t give away too much of the plot – or spoil earlier books in the series. But what I can say is that now the books have reached World War Two, Jacqueline Winspear is consistently finding interesting aspects of the conflict to entangle Maisie in, and if a few liberties are taken with the timeline, they are minor and you forgive them because it’s so page-turning and engrossing. This also sees some really interesting developments in Maisie’s personal life too – so all around this is a really good read.

You’re History by Leslie Chow*

Cover of You're History

What’s not to love about a book with a cover as gorgeous as this and I did enjoy it, but that comes with a few caveats. I think I was missing some of the background on some of the songs to get the most out of it. Although the names listed in the blurb are all people you will have heard of – Kate Bush, Nikki Minaj,  Janet Jackson, Taylor Swift and TLC – in quite a lot of cases it’s actually taking quite a deep, in depth dive into their musical back catalogues. Really I think it needs to come with a playlist so you can listen to the songs that are being talked about as you read the book, because unless you’re really, really into music you may get lost here unless you’ve done some prep work. I used to work at radio stations as well as watching a fair few music documentaries both general and artist specific, so I consider myself fairly well across music, and I still had to do a fair bit of googling. I have a goal to try and read more books about music and musicians – because when I do I invariably enjoy that – and this fits in to that but it’s not my favourite of the genre.

Happy Singles Day by Ann Marie Walker

Cover of Happy Singles Day

This is a sweet, fluffy holiday (by which I mean vacation not Christmas!) romance set on an island off North Carolina, with a widowed hero with a B&B he can’t face running since the death of his wife and the professional organiser who visits for an out of season holiday. Lucas is focussed on raising his daughter and ignoring the bills that are coming due – so his sister relists the B7B without telling him – until Paige is booked and on the way. When Paige arrives, she finds that her accomodation doesn’t quite match the online brochure and decides to return home. But bad weather means the ferry isn’t running and she’s stuck on the island… Nothing revelatory or surprising, but a nice fun weekend read featuring a grumpy hero, a sunny heroine, a bit of forced proximity, a cute kid and some puppies.

Flake by Matthew Dooley

Hardback copy of Flake

So this is a really genuinely charming graphic novel about an ice cream seller and his van and the rivalries and challenges he faces. Low key but remarkably emotional. It had been sat on my shelf for a few months – my friendly local comic book shop had managed to get me a copy just before her last lockdown started again and I had been saving it for a treat. And I was right that it was a treat because it was really, really good.

In case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in March were Wild Rain, Act Your Age, Eve Brown, Mrs Tim of the Regiment and Heroes are my Weakness. And here are the links to the mini reviews from January and February.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: February 2021 Mini Reviews

A bit of a strange month all in, because although I read a lot of stuff, there were a lot of series, and there weren’t a lot of books that I really liked that I haven’t already told you about. Still there are a few, so here we go again…

We Are Bellingcat by Elliot Higgins*

Cover of We Are Bellingcat

If you’re a casual news consumer you’ll probably have come across Bellingcat as a result of their investigation into the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. But the open source investigation team has its roots further back – in the Arab Spring and the dawning of citizen journalism via social media. It’s an absolutely fascinating read, but a warning: if you worked in a newsroom in the period 2011-2015 (roughly) approach this book with care. I wanted to read this book because I was interested in their verification techniques, mission statement and how they work – after all my day job is in a newsroom. But reading it brought back some memories that I’d rather not think about. It’s not that the book is overly graphic – or even excessively so. But if you watched the sort of pictures they’re talking about first time around – most of which didn’t make the tv news because they were so graphic, you’ll find it coming back to you. I started at the BBC fulltime almost exactly ten years ago – and my first job was in picture intake. That first year – through the Arab Spring, Japanese Tsunami, Utoya Island, the assassination of Mummar Gaddafi – I saw so much really grim footage that I invented the Panda scale of how many times did I have to watch my video of baby pandas playing to cheer myself up. And I didn’t even get the worst of it. This brought back some of the images from that time that I thought I had forgotten. But if you’re interested in open source investigation and in how the masses of UGC (user generated content) from the conflicts of the last decade are being preserved and the hopes for how it might be used in the future- this is the book for you.

Teach Me by Olivia Dade

Cover of Teach Me

Not my first time writing about Olivia Dade – and I’ve read this series out of order – but this is a lovely romance between a newly divorced Dad and the teacher whose world history class he’s unwittingly stolen. What I really like about this whole series is that there is no stupid drama. Rose has reasons why she doesn’t trust people and why she won’t let people in. Martin has issues around his self worth. But there’s no big misunderstanding that could (should?) be resolved by a simple conversation, it’s all about two people working out if they are right for each other beyond just chemistry, and then starting to negotiate life together. And it’s very, very romantic despite – Dade is proving you don’t necessarily need high stakes drama to make a satisfying romance. And I don’t need any more angst at the moment, so this was perfect!

These two reviews have turned out to be not quite so mini as I intended, so a quick rattle through a couple of other things: I listened to the audiobook of Strong Poison for the umpteenth time – I still find the mystery incredibly satisfying and Sayers portrayal of “bohemian” writers life, the interwar craze for Spiritualism and surplus women all make for something a little out of the ordinary run of murder mysteries of the time. And that’s before you get to the fact that it is the start of Peter and Harriet. I read The Sugared Game, the second part of the Will Darling Adventures by K J Charles and it was really good and I’m annoyed that there’s no date for the final part yet – although I do have Charles’s new book (in a different series) so that is something. And I also ended up listening to The Unknown Ajax again after I found out that her next series is about smugglers! Apart from that, I read some more romances – historical and contemporary- that I had too many quibbles with to fully recommend, and I carried on with the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.

In case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in February were: Beekeepers Apprentice, Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, Boyfriend Material and The Holdout. And January’s mini reviews are here.

Happy Reading!

Children's books, Recommendsday

#Recommendsday: Finding Langston

I had a hard time picking my Book of the Week yesterday, because there was a lot of good stuff I read last week, but picked This Book is Anti-Racist as a call to action for the times that we’re in. So as a bonus for #Recommendsay, I’m writing about the other book which I read and loved last week and just needed to tell you about.

Cover of Finding Langston

Langston is eleven and he’s just moved to Chicago with his dad. It’s 1946 and the move was prompted by the death of Langston’s mum. Unsurprisingly Langston is struggling with all the upheaval in his life, not helped by the fact that he is being bullied at school for being from the South. But Langston finds a refuge in the local library. In Alabama, the library was only for white people, but his nearest branch is for everyone. And inside Langston finds his namesake – the poet Langston Hughes, who has the words to express how it feels to be uprooted from the south and transplanted to the North.

This is just such a gorgeously written book. While you’re reading it you can see post-war Chicago absolutely vividly and clearly and understand the life that Langston and his dad are leading, on the edge of poverty but hoping for better times soon. It’s about loss and upheaval and the Great Migration, but it’s also a love letter to books, words and poetry and the power they have to help you through difficult times. This is Lesa Cline-Ransome’s debut novel (she has previously written several picture books) and has won a ton of praise and totally deserves it. It has a companion novel about one of the bullies that I would now really like to read as well. This is a middle grade novel and would make a great addition to school reading lists or just for kids who like books about people who like books. And maybe have some Langston Hughes handy for afterwards because it will make you want to read more of his poetry. It’s just wonderful.

I borrowed my copy of Finding Langston from the library, but it is available on Kindle and Kobo and in paperback. At time of writing, Amazon has just a couple of copies left of the paperback, so it may be out of stock at your local indie too, but do put it on order.

Happy Reading!

book adjacent, Recommendsday

#Recommendsday: Book-adjacent stuff to watch

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been having some problems concentrating on books at various points during the Current Situation, so I’ve been watching a lot of TV in those concentration lapses. As I watch news all day every day at work, I don’t watch news on my off days, and tend to favour non-news TV. I thought today I’d mention some of the bookish things that I have watched, along with all the Drag Race, Tiger King, My Lottery Dream Home and Great British Menu.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

A couple of years back I read Judith Mackerell’s The Unfinished Palazzo, about a house in Venice that was owned by Luisa Casati, Doris Castelrosse and Peggy Guggenheim. When I wrote about the book in my Rich People Problems nonfiction post last year, I said I would happily read more about any of them, which is true, but Peggy is the one I ws really curious about. So imagine my delight when I found a feature length documentary about her on BBC Four the other week.  And it turns out, she’s just as interesting as I thought she would be – and possibly as much of a nightmare to be around as I suspected too.  I am still definitely in the market for a good book about her – but this was a very good watch.  Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is available to watch for people in the UK (with a TV licence) on the BBC iPlayer for another nine days.

Becoming Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama’s memoir was huuuuuge when it came out – huge to the point were a year on it’s still not out in paperback and there’s still a hold queue for it at my library. Now Netflix has a new documentary that follows her on the tour she did to promote the book, which saw her talking to huge arenas and small groups. If you haven’t read the book (and I haven’t yet) it is a really good insight into her life and her story. I assume if you have read the book, it does the same but even more so! It’s got bonus appearances from Barack Obama, and for the news junkies like me you get to see behind the scenes of some of the TV interviews you may have seen her (and her mum) do at the time of the booklaunch. This one’s on Netflix now.

Wise Children

There’s a lot of theatre that has been on YouTube or TV during the lockdown, but this has been one of the most interesting to me. This is an adaptation of Angela Carters book about two ageing music hall stars, the unacknowledged daughters of the most famous Shakespearian actor of the day. I read the book two years ago, and while it is very good it didn’t really strike me as a show that would be easily adapted for the stage – despite the fact that it is about the theatre. But Emma Rice has done it and now we can all watch. I haven’t got to the end of this yet, but I’m really enjoying as much of it as I have watched. Wise Children is available to watch for people in the UK (with a TV licence) on BBC iPlayer until at least the start of June.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I read the book the other year, but I saw the film first and it has a special place in my heart because of that. All of the Studio Ghibli stuff is available on Netflix now, so if you haven’t seen them already, now is your chance. I’m planning on watching it again – but this time with subtitles instead of the English language dub.

Voila – a few ideas from me. Please put any suggestions you have for me in the comments – I will run out of Drag race soon…

Happy Watching!

 

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!


		
new releases, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: American Sweethearts

March Stats coming tomorrow, delayed by a day because I wanted to do a quick #Recommendsday post today.  American Sweethearts came out on Monday and I really enjoyed it when I read it a few weeks ago and I didn’t want to be a big old tease and tell you about a book that you couldn’t buy!

Juan Pablo Campos and Priscilla Gutierrez have been on and off (mostly off) since he decided that he didn’t want to be a police officer after all – right after Priscilla had signed up. These days, he’s a physical therapist for the New York Yankees, and she’s a detective – working a tough beat looking after kids in trouble. But she’s not sure it’s her dream job any more. So the last thing she needs is a private jet ride with to a wedding in the Dominican Republic with the one person who knows her better than anyone else. By the end of the wedding trip, they’ve come to the conclusion that it might be worth trying again – but can they work through the issues that have kept them apart for so long to find their happily ever after?

This is the fourth book in Adriana Herrara’s Dreamers series, but is the first of hers I’ve read.  I suspect if you’ve read the other three you’ve seen these two bickering in the background – because this also has plenty of sightings of the previous couples. This is also steeeeeaaaaamy. Like if you were allowed out – and don’t go out, stay home and save lives – but if this were normal times I’d be warning you not to read it on public transport because it might make you blush. And it’s really very good. It’s not so much a second chance romance as an umpteenth chance romance as these two try and figure out if they can put their fractious history behind them and finally make it work. It’s incredibly sex positive, and really natural about that. It also deals with what to do when it turns out that your dream career maybe isn’t the right thing for you any more (or maybe at all) and what you do next when it’s all tied up in your self  identity and your family’s dreams for you. And that’s something that’s more unusual in a romance – we have lots of people finding their dream jobs, or achieving their dreams (and finding romance at the same time) but not so many re-evaluations and people finding new dreams.

So American Sweethearts is out now – my copy came from NetGalley but you can get it on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Mini Reviews from February

Yes, this was meant to go up last week. I did say the week got away from me a bit… anyway, it’s here now.  Only a couple this time because February was a short month, but I am trying to make this a regular thing this year, so I didn’t want to fall down on month two. If you missed January’s mini reviews, you can find them here.

World of Wolf Hall 

The Mirror and the Light is now in the shops but if you’ve forgotten what happened in the first two, this kindle freebie (which I’ve also saw in actual paperback in Foyles, but no idea how much it costs/how to qualify for one) recaps the events so far, the cast of characters, the world and some key themes and reader questions. It’s slight, but if it’s been a while since you’ve read the first two parts then it’s a nice reminder. I’m still conflicted about whether to buy this in hardcover (I love the cover, I prefer to read these on paper) or in ebook (so much lighter, but so much easier to ignore in favour of romances). I’ll keep you posted.

Meat Cute by Gail Carriger

This is definitely not the place to start the series, but this is the long wished for prequel that tells the story of the infamous hedgehog episode where Alexia Tarabotti (heroine of the Parasol Protectorate series) meets Conall Maccon. If you’re a fan of this does everything you’re hoping for, and a little bit more! If you’re not yet a fan, I have a lot of posts about my love for Gail Carriger’s steampunk world. My advice is start with Soulless and go from there.

Case of the Drowned Pearl by Robin Stevens

There’s still a few months to go before the final (sniff) full-length book in the series comes out, but there’s a Wells and Wong short for World Book Day. The Case of the Drowned Pearl sees the Detective Society and the Junior Pinkertons on a seaside holiday with Daisy’s Uncle Felix. Again, probably not the place to start the series, but it’s a lot of fun. The mystery is clever and Olympic-themed and I loved Hazel’s reaction to the British seaside. This has some Daisy PoV stuff too, which is always nice. Do start at the beginning with these too – and if you haven’t already bought them for the middle-grader in your life, why not?

So there you go, three slightly belated mini reviews for other stuff that I read in February. I bought all of my copies of these (except for the free one but you know what I mean) so you should be able to get all of them fairly easily – although you might want to rush if you want a physical copy of the Robin Stevens.

Happy Reading!