So a strange week. It was my birthday – and we usually go away for my birthday, but this year, like everyone else, we were at home. 2021 is also messing with my brain in the same way that 2020 did, and I’ve been finding it really hard to concentrate on new books. When I’m in a mood like that, it’s almost a waste to read anything new – even stuff I’ve been looking forward to – like the new Stockwell Park Orchestra book – because I’m probably not going to appreciate it the way that I should/would normally. So instead I retreated to my happy place – and re-read some old favourite comfort reads – in this case the Amelia Peabody series, which I first read way back in the days before this blog and have come back to – in books and audiobook – ever since.
Last week was a lot. I thought hard about what to pick today, but eventually decided that the craziness that is this Bessie Merchant book was the thing I wanted to write about.
How Nell Scored is not a long book, but it packs a lot in to under 100 pages. Nell lives on an isolated farm in New Zealand along with her extended family. At the start of the book her parents leave for the nearest town, to look after her older brother David who is sick. Nell and her sister Sue are left in the care of their aunt, the magnificently named Angelina Ann. No sooner are the parents gone, than a ship is wrecked on the rocks near the house and Nell and Sue (but mostly Nell!) has to rescue two of the crew from the wreckage. One man has a broken leg, the other is your stereotypical Girl’s Own “bad lot” – he tries to get out of helping rescue his shipmate and then when they’re back at the farm acting suspiciously while alone in the room of his colleague. When the sick man wakes up, he confides in Nell that he has a belt full of pearls that he needs to get to the nearest town or – and here’s a real shocker – Nell’s brother will be ruined. Yes. In one of those weird Girls Own coincidences, Nell’s brother stood surety for the mystery man and if he doesn’t get the money to town soon the bank will come to collect. This is the mystery reason why David has fallen ill. With me so far? A lot of plot isn’t it – and we’re not even halfway through! The latter part of the book involves a quest to find a doctor which turns into a 30 mile trek to New Plymouth.
It’s a lot. It’s mad, it has so very much plot and yet is strangely missing a final confrontation between Nell and the villain. It didn’t really matter though – I was too bamboozled to care. It was the bonkers adventure book I needed last week. My first Bessie Marchant, but I suspect not my last.
I have no idea where you’ll get this from. Honestly. My copy came from the local vintage emporium. It cost me a pound. And it was money well spent. Honestly the most bonkers book I have recently read – and it will take some beating to be the maddest book of the year!
Well I think we can all agree that last week was something else. And that extreme something else-ness is the reason why my reading list is heavy on the light and fluffy and Asterix. My brain can’t cope with Black Narcissus at the moment. Or anything complicated to be honest. 2021 carrying on where 2020 left off…
The first BotW pick of the new year is a nice uplifting YA novel, which as we’re back in lockdown from today, is probably for the best. I think we all need a bit of cheering up right now. Coming up tomorrow are my favourite books of last year – and just in case you haven’t seen them already my obsessions and the books that I read for my Read the USA challenge.
You Should See Me in a Crown is the story of Liz Lighty. She’s got a plan to get her out of her small town and get the future her mum had dreamed of for her. But when she misses out on the scholarship she needs to be able to go to Pennington College, she thinks her dream is over – until she remembers the scholarship that comes with the Prom Queen’s crown. Her small Indiana town is prom-obsessed – and to win the crown she’ll have to run the gamut of public events and contests – all in the spotlight of the school’s social media channel. The only thing making life bearable is the new girl, Mack. They’ve got so much in common – including the fact that Mack is running for prom queen too. Can Liz afford to fall for the competition?
Now I’ve written that summary and it sounds like this is going to be all cut throat and mean, but it’s not. Leah Johnson has constructed a prom competition that’s not entirely a popularity contest – with grades factored in and a community service requirement. Liz doesn’t have to go all Mean Girl or ditch her friends to be popular. It’s like She’s All That and Never Been Kissed had a book baby, but without all the problematic stuff* and with a heroine who is black and queer. Liz is fun and funny – and a band kid (like me!) and I really liked her backstory. There is some sad stuff here – Liz’s mum is dead, her brother has a chronic illness and Liz herself has some anxiety issues, but it is all very sensitively handled.
My copy of You Should See Me in a Crown came from the library, but you can get it on Kindle (but irritatingly not on Kobo) or in paperback now. It was the first pick for Reese Witherspoon’s YA book club and is being compared to Becky Albertalli and Jenny Han so I would have expected it to be fairly easy to find in bookshops, if only bookshops were open
*Little sis and I loved Never Been Kissed when it first came out, but she can’t watch it now she’s a teacher because it’s not ok that Mr Coulson has a thing for Josie, even if she’s actually not a pupil. And she’s not wrong, even if I can manage to ignore it if I concentrate very hard.
Welcome to the first week in books post of 2021. As is traditional at this time of year, I’ve started on the productivity and self-help books as I try to make (and keep) some New Year Resolutions. I’ll let you know how that goes, but here’s how it went at the start of last year, before the world changed.
A slightly cheaty BotW pick this week, as I actually finished The Button Box this morning, although I did read most of it last week. But having already written about The Trouble with Mistletoe and How Love Actually Ruined Christmas in my Recommendsday post, and having written frequently about Rivers of London and Lumberjanes, it seemed like the obvious choice none the less (if I could finish it of course!).
The Button Box is an examination on the changing lives of women through the 20th century, using the contents of the author’s button box, which contains items owned by her mother and her grandmother as well as from her own clothes gone by. From Victorian mourning jewellery through to Biba and the 70s, Lynn Knight uses buttons and buckles to trace the evolution of female life in a century that saw huge changes as women started to have the ability to have a life beyond the domestic and careers became an option – rather than working until marriage – or sitting at home waiting for marriage to come to you depending on your class.
As an avid reader of books written or set pre-1950, I found the sections on the realities of women’s wardrobes and clothing in those periods absolutely fascinating. The obsession with the ability to sew in my beloved boarding school stories – and the anger of the teachers when a pupil got a fresh tunic covered in ink – come into sharper focus when you realise exactly how small the children’s wardrobes likely were, as well as the struggles that parents must have had to find the money for all the clothes their boarders needed. My grandma used to tell stories of some of her schoolmates not having proper shoes, or having carried a baked potato to school to keep their hands warm en route and then eating it for lunch, but when you’re little it doesn’t really sink in. During the early stages of the book I found myself thinking – more than once – of my wardrobe full of clothes and my easy ability to buy more and feeling lucky but also guilty.
Knight is also able to talk at length about the importance of home dressmakers and home dress making – which was also fascinating. My mum did some sewing (still does really) but mostly nice extras – like the strawberry patterned kaftan she made for me (with a little help from me!) when i was about 10. My mother in law made me a pinafore apron for Christmas (it’s amazing) and is helping me with a Mary Quant design the V&A published more than a year ago before the virus hit, but it’s all recreational stuff – it’s not out of necessity. And the book is full of little insights – like women in the era before reliable contraception sitting downstairs doing their darning in the hope that by the time they got to bed their husbands would be asleep. And on top of everything else, it would definitely make a useful addition to the research shelf of any author writing books set in the first half of the twentieth century.
My copy of The Button Box is an advance copy of the hardback, which has been sitting on the to-read bookshelf for some years – I think it came from the proofs trolley at work, back in the days when that was a thing. I want to say that I picked it up after reading a review of it in the Literary Review, but the review might have been after – or it might not have existed at all because I can’t find a link to it! Anyway, that’s all to say, that it’s been around so long it’s been out in paperback for three years – I don’t know if you’ll be able to find it actually in a shop or you’ll have to order it, but Foyles has stock, so you never know. And it’s available in Kindle and Kobo too.
Bonus Photo: The paperback cover of The Button Box – I thought it was an updated kindle one, but it only shows in the kindle library view – when you open the book up it does that irritating thing of having a different cover (the only thing more irritating, being not having a cover at all!)
I’m beginning to think I paced my reading wrong this year – I’m still a couple of books off my 50 states challenge and I haven’t filled up my journal spread for books from the to-read bookshelf either and I only have a few days to go before the end of the year. The 50 states challenge might be do-able though, so I’ll give it my best shot in the last few days of 2020…
I’ve got some Christmas recommendations coming up tomorrow, but in the meantime, here’s something completely different: a holiday romance set in Florida. Never let it be said that I don’t mix things up!
Assistant principal Tess Dunn is spending part of her summer vacation at a resort in Florida to celebrate her birthday. She’s splitting her time between the beach and planning for the promotion that she wants, but the point is that she went on holiday at all right? One morning, she’s in the sea when a wave takes her bikini top (no laughing matter) and she uses the nearest person as a human shield to protest her modesty. That nearest person is Lucas Karlsson. He’s currently the resort’s tennis pro, but behind his flirty demeanor he’s recovering from the premature end of his top level playing career. In an attempt to match make, Tess’s friend buys her some lessons with Lucas, and the sparks fly. But Tess has just turned 40 and Lucas is 26, and they only have two weeks to get to know each other. Is this just a holiday fling or could it be a long term thing?
I was about to say that I don’t read a lot of age gap romances, except that almost every traditional Regency you’ll ever read features an older man and a fresh out of the school room debutant. So it would be more accurate to say that I don’t read a lot of age gap contemporaries and very few of those feature an older woman. And this made a really nice change. Tess is a fun heroine who knows what she wants and how she’s going to get it, and Lucas’s tennis career means that he’s more mature than perhaps your average 26 year old man. As a pair they are delightful and it was really entertaining watching them get to know each other and break down their defences. It’s funny, it’s flirty, it’s sexy – but it also has a relatable core and deals with some real world issues in a compassionate way.
In the grand scheme of things – and the grand scheme of romance novels, 40-love is very low angst. Lucas is absolutely the polar opposite of the Alpha-hole romance trope. He’s kind, he’s emotionally fluent and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there’s no Big Stupid Thing that either of them do to the other. The conflict here is entirely about whether they’re going to work together when they get to know each other – not that one is hiding something big, or has done something dumb. And given the state of the universe at the moment, this is the sort of conflict that I feel emotionally ready to deal with! This isn’t my first Olivia Dade – I read Spoiler Alert a few weeks back, which was also a lot of fun and has some of the same elements of interesting non-typical romance characters – perhaps against expectations given the fact that the hero is the star of a show that I’m going to call Not Game Of Thrones, and there are a couple of references to that in this too which is a nice easter egg to find.
My copy of 40-Love came from the library, but you can buy it now on Kindle or Kobo or as a paperback, but it looks like its a print on demand type situation – although you can get Spoiler Alert from Waterstones much more easily.
A big of week in reading last week, with some Christmas stuff you’ll hear about anon. Or at least I hope you will. Anyway, back to some old school crime this week for my BotW pick.
Sick as a Parrot is the fifth book in Liz Evans’s series featuring somewhat unconventional private investigator and ex-cop Grace Smith. Grace’s latest client is Hannah Conti, a young woman who has recently discovers that she is adopted and that her natural mother was convicted of murder. Hannah wants Grace to clear her mother’s name. And so Grace is drawn into the very messy murder of a school teacher two decades ago that no one wants re-examining. Meanwhile Grace is also pet-sitting a neurotic parrot and despite all her best efforts she also has an incredibly unreconstructed former colleague sleeping in her spare room.
This is the second book in this series that I’ve read (the other one being Who Killed Marilyn Monroe, the first in the series) and they’re both on the edge of gritty with an enjoyable side of black humour. They were written in the mid 2000s and that gives them an enjoyably low tech and low fi edge. Grace is a fun heroine – enjoyably flawed and smart in someways – but not in others. There are some common threads in this book from the first one too which have clearly been developing nicely in the interim which I’d like to go back for. And there’s an interesting romantic thread in this that means I really want to read the sixth and final book in the series.
So this is where it gets tricky. This is an older book which I picked it up secondhand, I think at a National Trust book stall. So you’ll have to hunt for it. But you never know, you might find one of the other books in the series while you’re at it. Some of the series have been republished on Kindle with new titles – you can find the box set of the first three here and some of them are even in Kindle Unlimited, if that’s a thing you have. Who Killed Marilyn Monroe is available on Kobo, but it’s the only one I could find there sadly.