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

Book of the Week: Swan Song

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

Copy of Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, graphic novels

Book of the Week: Fence

A long list of books read in yesterday’s Week in Books post.  You’ll have noticed that I’m still on a big old Susan Mallery reading jag, but in the interests of not being repetitive, this week’s BotW features what I fear may become my next graphic novel obsession: Fence.

Cover of Fence Vol 1Fence is the story of Nicholas Cox who is determined to make it in the world of fencing.  He’s managed to win a fencing scholarship into a top boarding school and needs to get a spot on the school team to stay.  But in his way is enigmatic Seiji Katayama – who beat him at the last big competition and who also happens to be his new roommate.  Why is he putting himself through this?  Well he’s the illegitimate son of a fencing great and he wants the chance to be a fencing legend like the dad that he never knew.  And if it means beating his half-brother – his father’s acknowledged son and protege – on the way, then so be it.

This exists at the convergence of the Venn diagram of some of my top catnip: boarding schools, underdogs, Olympic sports and – dare I hope – enemies to lovers.  It ticked so many of my boxes, you would not believe.   Or may be you would if you’ve been here a while!  Aside from Nicholas and Seiji, the fencers at Kings Row are a really interesting gang of people and – like Boom! box stablemate Lumberjanes – they are a super diverse bunch but that’s not made into a Thing, it’s just how life is.  Because of course that is how real life is.  I love the art from Johanna the Mad – and the simple but striking colour pallette that’s used.  I know very little about fencing – except that it’s in a fair few historical romances and that these days it’s *very* fast-moving when it pops up on TV at the Olympics – but this totally hooked me in and had just enough detail about the ins and outs of the sport to keep you interested without overloading you – which is a skill in itself, especially in a graphic novel.

I saw an issue of this while I was in the US in the autumn, but waited and bought the trade version from my local comic book shop.  I’ve now got Volume two on order, but volume three isn’t out until May and I can’t just glom on it now.  Hey ho, I can’t have it all my own way.  You should be able to get hold of Fence Vol 1 from any good comic retailer – and please do support your local comic store – but if you want a taste, the first issue (one fourth of this trade) is £1.79 on Kindle at time of writing.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, memoirs, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Diary of a Drag Queen

First up a bit of housekeeping: don’t forget last week’s BotW, Death of an Angel is out on Thursday! If you saw the WiB yesterday, you’ll know that there was a bit of a theme to last week’s tired, last night train reading, but actually it’s a non-fiction pick this week.  For once I’m almost relatively timely – because it’sa new book.  Well by new, it only came out on the 7th, Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen. Doesn’t it have a great cover?

Cover of Diary of a Drag Queen

Crystal is the drag name of Tom Rasmussen, a writer, Drag Queen and Céline Dion super-fan and their first book is a raw, honest, no holds barred, letting it all hang out look at one year in the author’s life. You follow them back to London after a difficult spell trying to make it in New York, trying to break the fashion industry, find a place in the drag scene and work out where they fit in the LGTBQIA+ community and their own personal manifesto. If you are squeamish, if you can’t deal with reading about other people’s poo, be warned: there is a lot of that here. But Crystal -has a lot they want to tell you and it is worth sitting up and listening.

I think this might be the most honest memoir I have read since Viv Albertine’s Boys, Clothes, Music. Crystal is setting their life and their truth out there on the page, without a filter (or at least not one that I could spot) and seemingly without hiding anything. At various points Crystal talks about having had to tone their life down for their partner or to be accepted or even just to be exist and it feels like this Diary, this book is their life as they want it to be seen, in all its imperfections, messiness, mistakes and triumphs. Here is Crystal explaining their approach in the introduction:

I spent a lot of my life in the violent, painful clutches of shame, which manifested itself in various modes of self-harm, self-destruction, and other untenable, unsurvivable behaviours.

I learned, however, that the antidote to this shame is not pride, or honour, or even celebration. That comes later. The antidote to shame is honesty. Stark, crass, funny, powerful honesty. Honesty that smashes through notions of taboos and inappropriatenesses. I am not shameful, because I’ve done nothing wrong. It’s the same with being gay, queer, femme, non-binary, a drag queen.

Crystal tells these stories with caustic wit, biting insight and what might be considered a reckless disregard for the secrets of the bedroom, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have assured us at the start that some names and details have been changed to protect identities. Phew. A lot of Crystal’s life is a long way from my experience and my background. And, again as I thought with Viv Albertine, I’m not sure that Crystal would like me. There were times when their critiques of various things made me squirm in my seat with the knowledge that I might have skirted the edges of doing some of the things they were railing against. But as they say, we have all made mistakes it’s how you deal with the mistakes and learn from them that makes a difference. And I’m always trying to do better. We should all always be trying to do better.  Here’s Crystal again:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/questioning, Intersex, Asexual and + (not you, straight guy who loves glitter a bit but thinks bum sex is gross). Yes, it’s a long acronym, yes, it’s seven whole letters, but I learned the national anthem even though borders are constructs, so you can learn seven letters.

My copy of Diary of a Drag Queen came from NetGalley, but it is out now in hardback and you should be able to lay your hands on a copy fairly easily – I’d expect it to be in any good-sized actual bookshop. Crystal is also out and about on a book tour, so they may soon be coming to a store near you. I know I’m looking to see if I can make one of the dates – and if you can’t, the audiobook is read by the author and the sample on Amazon is a fairly representative section of the book. And of course it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

Authors I love, Book of the Week, detective, new releases

Book of the Week: Death of an Angel

It’s Danny Bird time again!  The eagle eyed amongst you may have spotted my copy of Death of an Angel on the Week in Books post and suspected what today’s pick might be.  Danny’s previous outings have featured on this blog before, and I was lucky enough to do an interview with Derek Farrell before the release of book three.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this since the end of book three, and tried to subtly badger Derek to hurry up and write quicker when I met him in person (for the first and I hope not last time!) at the Polari Salon in London last summer where he was giving a reading.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy (the first advance copy?) of Death of an Angel, which is out on the 28th and it was a total no-brainer for it to be this week’s Book of the Week.Cover of Death of an Angel

In case you haven’t read about Danny before, he’s the landlord of the possibly the most unlikely gay pub in (south) London. The Marq is owned by a gangster and has a seriously chequered past – including at this point, several bodies turning up at inconvenient times. His best friend is the champagne swilling, possibly alcoholic, definitely going to tell you exactly what she thinks Lady Caz and he’s got a slightly tricky relationship going on with a policeman. He’s also got a developing reputation for solving mysteries.

We rejoin the gang at the start of Death of an Angel, when Danny’s name is found written on the hand of a woman who has fallen from a tower block. To make matters worse, the pub’s phone number is in her contacts list, so of course the police haul him in for questioning. Trouble is, Danny has no idea who she is. The police seem strangely reluctant to believe this and soon Danny is investigating what led to Cathy Byrne’s fall from the ninth floor. At the same time, Danny is doing a touch of investigating for his solicitor and there are major ructions going on in his family – as his siblings are convinced something is wrong in their parents’ relationship.  And don’t even get started on the boyfriend front.

Death of an Angel takes us away from the Marq – for once this death isn’t threatening Danny’s livelihood (only his freedom!) and so there’s less of Ali the bar manageress and the Asbo twins, but don’t worry – there’s a limit to how many bodies can turn up at a business and it remain solvent (no matter what the cupcake bakeries over in the cozy crime genre would have you believe) and it’s great to see Danny stretch his wings in his south London home neighbourhood. This is a great mystery – fast-paced and with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. And the fabulous banter is still there – I mean what’s not to love about a hero who refers to himself as “Sherlock Homo”? Or has lines this:

You know how, when people say someone’s ageless they usually mean ‘eternally youthful’ and not ‘looks so old it seems impossible that he could still be living without the age of Necromancy’?

But there’s also a serious side to this. There are some proper social issues here: Danny’s investigation touches on gentrification, house prices, dodgy developers, dubious councillors lining their own pockets and high-end flats sitting empty because they’ve been bought as an investment by the rich, while people from the area are being forced out by a lack of affordable housing and high rents. That all makes the book sound serious and worthy – and it’s totally not. This is the best of Danny – mysteries with a conscience, that will entertain you but also make you think without clubbing you over the head with A Message.

It’s taken a long time for this fourth instalment to arrive, I really hope we don’t have to wait as long for another. Death of an Angel is published by Fahrenheit Press (remember them?!) and should be available from their website and from Amazon from the 28th. That’s a week on Thursday. I’ll try and remind you…

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books, children's books, Prize winners

Book of the Week: The Skylark’s War

This was such an easy choice this week. As soon as I finished The Skylark’s War, after I’d blown my nose and got rid of the tissues, I turned around and went back and read the last 20 pages all over again. Then I messaged my sister and my mother to tell them that they had to read it with a big happy (and soppy) smile all over my face.

Cover of The Skylark’s War

The Skylark’s War tells the story of Clarry, her brother Peter and her cousin Rupert, through their childhood, the Great War and beyond. Clarry’s and Peter’s mother died soon after Clarry’s birth, their father isn’t interested in them and at first at least, Peter blames the new baby for the loss of his mother. The two children are brought up by a succession of housekeepers, with the interference of the do-gooding spinster across the road. The high point of their lives is their annual visit to Cornwall every summer holiday. Their cousin Rupert spends his holidays there – his parents are in India and have basically forgotten about him and he was sent to boarding school at a young age so Peter and Clarry’s dad couldn’t send them to live with their grandparents. During the summers, all the best things in their lives happen and they grow and mature and become a tight gang. Then Peter is sent away to school, Clarry is left alone with her father. And then there is the War and Rupert joins the army. Can their bond survive? Can they all survive?

This is a middle-grade book, and although that synopsis may sound miserable, it is anything but. I mean I did cry my way through a whole pocket pack of tissues, but some of them were happy tears and I just couldn’t put the book down. I had to know what happened. At one point I was sitting sniffling and making a scene of myself in the lounge at a youth hostel, but I was so engrossed in the book that I wasn’t prepared to stop reading for long enough to climb the three flights of stairs to get to my room. The closest I can get to a comparison for this, is if Noel Streatfeild, Nina Bawden and Elizabeth Jane Howard had a book baby. And if that isn’t enough to make you go and read it, then I’m sorry you may be in the wrong place and I’m not sure that we can be friends.

I’ve had this on the NetGalley list since the autumn but I had forgotten about it until I saw this tweet from Harriet Evans (remember her? I had some ravings/gushing about one of her books here, here and here. And that might also scratch your Elizabeth Jane Howard itch, except that it’s a contemporary story about a house not a 1930s one.)  So off I went to look at the blurb, thought it sounded familiar, looked at my NetGalley, tweeted her back and then the die was cast, my fate was sealed etc.

And now I’m telling you that you need to read it. Maybe as a double bill with The Five Children on the Western Front if you can stand all that Great War and foreboding at once. But if you can, read The Skylark’s War second. Trust me on that. I see from the Goodreads write-ups that there’s a connection to one of Hilary McKay’s other novels, so I’m off to find that and then to buy copies of The Skylark’s War to give to people. As I mentioned my copy came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of a copy really easily: it was Waterstones‘ Children’s Book of the Month in January and it won the Costa Children’s Book Award, so I’m expecting it to be everywhere.  And yes, I know, this all means I’m late to the party again. But better late than never.  Here are some more links to enable your book-buying habit: Kindle, Kobo, Amazon paperback, Book Depository and Big Green Bookshop.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Priestdaddy

Staying in non-fiction for this week’s BotW – but this time moving to a memoir.  You’ll have noticed Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy on the WiB list for some considerable time – I actually started listening to it on audiobook, but it demands attention and with my long list of podcasts to listen to, I struggled to find time to make progress on it.  I discovered early on that I couldn’t listen to it while I was running because it made me laugh too much and put me at risk of tripping myself up.  So I got on the library hold list and waited for a copy to come in.  And when it finally did (this is a popular book people) I had much more success reading rather than listening to it.

Cover of Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy is Patricia Lockwood’s memory of her childhood, growing up moving around the Mid-West with an eccentric, doom-prophesying mother and her even more eccentric Catholic priest father.  Yes, you heard right.  Lockwood’s father underwent a religious conversion and felt called to ministry after he was already married with children, and then found a loop hole that meant the Roman Catholic church would receive him as a priest.  The book starts as Lockwood and her husband move back in with her parents after a medical procedure messes up their finances, and as she and her husband get used to living with the eccentric duo, she reminisces on the key moments of her childhood.

Lockwood’s father, Greg, is the biggest, flashiest character in this – he wears as few clothes as possible whenever he’s not on duty, he plays terrifyingly loud electric guitar and shouts along with action movies – but her mother manages steals the show for me a lot of the time.  She’s constantly expecting the worst to happen and seeing the worst, but managing everything, dealing with the madman that she married and loopy in her own way.  By the end of the book you feel like you understand her more than you do Greg.

This is funny and terrifying in equal measure.  It’s also beautifully written.  Lockwood is a poet and her words fairly sing on the page.  There are some weighty issues here – Lockwood is a lapsed catholic and looks back on her childhood – including an anti-abortion protest she was taken to – with a particular view on the world of 80s and 90s religious super-conservatism that she grew up in.  I really liked but I’d think hard about who I recommended it too – my sister, who loves reading about American Christianity in its many shades, yes; my mother, Church of England and formerly of the village’s church council and who went to a convent school probably not.

This was nominated for a whole bunch of prizes and found its way on to a lot of book of the year lists when it came out in 2017 and I’m not surprised.  As always I’m behind the curve with this – but I’m glad I caught up with it in the end.  And all this means that you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily.   As I said, I borrowed my copy from the library, but it’s out in paperback, Amazon has hardbacks at a reasonable price via third parties and you can get it in Kindle and Kobo.  And the audiobook I mentioned – is read by the author and is apparently exclusive to Audible.

Happy Reading!