As you may have seen, I didn’t read much last week. It was a busy, stressful week at work and my brain was fried. And then there wasn’t a lot to chose from for BotW. And I know I’ve done an Angela Thirkell BotW before (not that long ago) but although this has its problems, it was still my favourite of the books I read last week.
Cheerfulness Breaks In sees the start of the Second World War and all the changes that brings. It starts with Rose Birkett finally getting married (after having been engaged goodness knows how many times) and is very funny as that flighty damsel wonders if she can squeeze in a trip to the cinema on the morning of her wedding. Then she’s off abroad with her serviceman husband and everything starts to change. Some men are conscripted and go away, some are left at home fretting about how they’ll be treated because they haven’t been conscripted. All the jolly hockey sticks girls throw themselves into nursing and the war effort and waves of evacuees arrive. There are some very funny and poignant sections in here.
But – and there is a but – it does feel a bit dated because of some of the scenes with the evacuees and the Mixo-Lydians. Thirkell’s view of the upper class/lower class divide is not as simplistic as some, because there are good people among the evacuated people – and some real idiots among the posh ones, but it is quite broad strokes, and strokes that favour the country people over the urban people. But then Thirkell was writing this at the time these things were actually happening, so I’m chalking it up as having attitudes “of its time” and giving it a slight pass. I suspect this is the reason why this one is an ebook only re-release from Virago rather than a pretty paperback like a lot of the others have had.
It’s available on Kindle or Kobo or you can pick up a secondhand paperback copy – but it’s not the best of Thirkell so don’t start here – go with Summer Half for some of the characters from this or Northbridge Rectory (actually the book after this in the series) or start at the beginning with High Rising.
It’s a funny old time at the moment isn’t it? There’s so much news about – and lots of it is depressing for various reasons, that working in news for my day (and this week night) job* is getting a bit tough. I’ve retreated into the world of Happy Endings. Dystopian fiction is firmly off the menu, as is anything that might end on death, destruction or a down note. This means I’ve been revisiting some old favourites again as well as reading loads of romance and cozy crime. You’ll get some posts soon on the best of the new stuff – but I thought I’d also share some of my favourite old friends and Not New books.
Witty interwar comedies, mostly of manners, set in Barsetshire. They’re a bit Mapp and Lucia (but with more sympathetic characters) and they remind me of the Diary of a Provincial Lady as well. If you like the world of Golden Age crime, but don’t want the murders, then come take a look for a bit of wry social satire. Virago are re-releasing them at the moment – and they’re gorgeous – but you should also be able to get them from a good second hand shop too. You may remember I had Northbridge Rectory as a BotW a few weeks back, but as well as that one, if you liked Provincial Lady… start at the beginning of the series with High Rising, but if you loved boarding school stories, start with Summer Half and if you liked Downton, start with Pomfret Towers.
Sookie Stackhouse, Harper Connelly, Lily Bard, Aurora Teagarden (a new book coming soon!) or Midnight, Texas, it doesn’t matter. Yes they all have a body count, and you might lose a character you like from time to time. But as escapist reading they’re pretty much all you could want. Soapy melodrama with vampires (sometimes), small towns and kick-ass women (although Rue can be a bit wet at times). Perfect for binge reading to take your mind off the real world. After all there aren’t any vampires, werewolves or witches in the real world.
The Cazalet Chronicles
Retreat into the world of Home Place, the Brig and the Duchy, their children and grandchildren. You meet them in 1937 and you can follow them through the Second World War and beyond across five books – until the grandchildren are grown up with families of their own. There are so many characters and so many different stories that you can read 400 pages without out noticing. Everyone has a favourite or two – mine are Rupert (from the children) and Polly and Clary (from the grandchildren). I think my mum’s copies are so well thumbed that they fall open to my favourite sections about each of them – especially in Casting Off. Glom on them on the beach if you’re on holiday, as I resist the temptation to rebuy a new matching set – you can get all 5 books for £6.99 from the Book People as I write this.
Vicky Bliss and Amelia Peabody
My kindle go-to at times like these is Elizabeth Peters’ Vicky Bliss and Amelia Peabody serieses. I tried to pick one, but I couldn’t. I mentioned both in passing in my Nightshift books post back in this blog’s early days and Amelia got a shout out in my Summer Reading post two years ago, but I was shocked I hadn’t given either a post of their own. Amelia is a female Egyptologist in the late nineteenth century. Vicky is an art historian in sort-of fairly recent times. Both end up in thrilling adventures. Amelia picks up a crew of regular side-kicks along the way including, but not limited to a husband, a son, a faithful site foreman and an arch-nemesis and Vicky just keeps running into this gentleman thief-con artist type. Both remind me in some ways of a female Indiana Jones, but funnier.
A tricky choice for BotW this week – I loved the Ben Aaronovitch that I read last week, but it is the 5th in the series (not including comics) and you really should read them in order. And I already wrote about the first book Rivers of London in a previous BotW post 11 months ago and I recommended it in one of the Christmas Gift guides. So it felt a little overkill (so just go buy the first one). But the latest Angela Thirkell release from Virago was a lot of fun – even if it wasn’t my favourite of hers – but that bar is pretty high!
Northbridge Rectory is the tenth of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels – they started in the 1930s and by this point we’ve reached the war years. There are officers billeted at the Rectory, where Mrs Villars is struggling to adapt to life as a Rector’s wife rather than a Headmistress’s wife. There are some transferable skills though… Northbridge’s unmarried ladies, widowed ladies and officious ladies are all out in force – taking control of the war effort and trying to assert their authority over each other as best they can.
Thirkell excels in creating believable grotesques – her books fill a similar hole for me as the Mapp and Lucia ones, except that in a Barsetshire novel they are the side dish not the main course. In this one we get a truly terrible officer’s wife – who has not idea how horrible she is, an old maid who likes to suffer and who has been cultivating a spineless writer who has his own issues, a vicar who is trying to escape the attentions of his elderly lady parishoners and an officer who doesn’t realise that he’s talking himself into a transfer.
A trip to Barsetshire is always fun and there are some familiar faces here too. I still think that Summer Half is my favourite – closely followed by High Rising and Pomfret Towers. I’m thrilled that Virago are reissuing them – even if I’m a little bit annoyed that some of them are e-book only because I wanted a matching set in paperback. Get your copy from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or if you don’t want the paperbacks you can get the Kindle edition. I’m off to make puppy dog eyes at Before Lunch and try to resist breaking the book-buying embargo.
Every year there are a couple of authors I discover and then rattle through their back catalogue – in 2013 it was Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and Ann Granger’s Mitchell and Markby series. So now we’re at the end of 2014, I had a look back at who my big discoveries have been this year.
Armistead Maupin – I read seven of Maupin’s Tales of the City books this year and only the fact that the others haven’t yet been published in covers that match the ones I already have stopped me buying the rest – my mania for sets and the size of the to-read pile have trumped my need to know what happened next for once! This is another case of me kicking myself for not reading them sooner. Several people I work with were so excited when The Days of Anna Madrigal came out in January that I had to go and see what it was that they were so enthusiastic about. And I’m so glad I did – but equally perplexed that I hadn’t come across them before – this year I’ve seen so many articles about them or references to them in so many places, that I wonder if I was stupid not to have got on this band wagon earlier. I lent Tales of the City to The Boy – and he rattled through it and loved it too. Please Transworld, can we have Mary Anne in Autumn and The Days of Anna Madrigal in the same style as the others soon?
Angela Thirkell – I’ve now read all of Angela Thirkell’s books that have been reissued by Virago and am in the tricky position of trying to work out whether to start looking for the rest in second hand editions or wait for more reissues. They are exactly the sort of book that appeals to me – witty comedies of manners set in a period of history that I love (hence my passion for Golden Age detective stories). Having read Nancy Mitford’s novels this year as well (finally got around to them!) which are similar in some ways, I think I actually like Thirkell more – her characters are more sympathetic even if the world is a little too soft focus and happily-ever-after at times.
Gail Carriger – I discovered Ms Carriger and her works much later in the year than these other two – and have rattled my way through her back catalogue at breakneck speed. Since I read a copy of her first Finishing School YA novel through NetGalley in late September I’ve read practically everything she’s published – that is to say two more Finishing School books, four Parasol Protectorate novels and three short stories. I’m saving the last Parasol Protectorate novel and the novella prequel though – because I don’t want Alexia’s story to be over. Unless something dreadful and disillusioning happens in Timeless, I suspect Carriger is going to join the list of authors that I pre-order as soon as the titles are announced so that I get their books asap. She’s also my first venture into the world of Steampunk – and so who knows 2015’s discoveries could feature more authors from this area of fiction.
So thank you 2014 and here’s to 2015 and its discoveries – who knows what I’ll be raving about in twelve months time – it really could be anything!
As you know, I don’t write reviews here for everything that I’ve read – for a variety of reasons including the fact that I read too much stuff for that, I have one of those full time jobs people talk about (and it’s shift work to boot), I have a theatre habit to maintain etc. If you to know exactly what I’m reading – right-this-instant – find me on Goodreads and you too can know what page I’m on of my latest book(s). But sometimes there’s stuff that I’ve enjoyed, that I haven’t had a chance to mention on here – whether it’s because it’s not new, or because it hasn’t fit in with what I’m writing about, etc, so here’s me redressing the balance, with a few things that I’ve read recently – that I’ve enjoyed and would recommend.
You may have noticed from last month’s stats (and the weekly reading lists) that I’ve been on a bit of a Charlaine Harris reading jag at the moment. Having finished the Sookie Stackhouse books, I’m working my way through both the Aurora Teagarden and Lily Bard series and have the first Harper Connelly book in the Harper Connelly series on the pile too. I like them because they don’t really require much brain power – perfect for nightshift Verity – although the pre-Sookie series can be a bit old-fashioned/outdated in patches, and her sex scenes can be a bit… clunky. Lily Bard is definitely the darkest series of hers that I’ve read so far, but it’s still not exactly horror territory. Which is good because I get nightmares easily! If you haven’t read any Harris – start with Sookie: it’s my favourite and although I know a lot of the die hard fans were unhappy with the final resolution, I was fine with the way it worked out in the end. Although I could’ve done without the final sex scene!
If you’re after something contemporary and you’ve read all the Charlaine Harris you can take (or you’re not a fan), thanks to NetGalley I got my hands on a copy of No Weddings – the first in a new series by Kat Bastion and Stone Bastion. Focussing on bar owner and entrepreneur Cade and his attraction to cake baker Hannah – one of the suppliers to his new party business. It’s steamy rather than romantic (so far at least) and if it’s a bit of a cliche to have lots of privileged rich twentieI enjoyed it – it was a bit different to my usual thing – and I have the second book in the series, One Funeral, waiting for me on my Kindle.
Meanwhile, I think I’ve read all of the Angela Thirkell’s that Virago Modern Classics has re-released. This makes me sad – because I want to read more and yet I want my copies to match the ones that I already have. They’re inter-war set comedies – I mentioned Summer Half in my post about School-set books and I’ve really enjoyed the six that I’ve read. They remind me of Nancy Mitford, but with some of the harder, darker edges taken off or the Provincial Lady diaries but with more characters and wider plots. If Virago could see fit to release some more in their delicious retro-but-modern covers that would be lovely. Otherwise I’m going to have to start trawling the second hand stalls for them – but I know that as soon as I start doing that, Virago will decide to bring out more!
Alexander McCall Smith is one of those authors who is really prolific, but who has somehow passed me by a bit. I mentioned in my Scottish books post that I had 44 Scotland Street on the shelf waiting to be read, and inspired by the referendum I finally got around to picking it up and I really enjoyed it. The second book was a naughty purchase the other week, and it’s waiting for me on my to-read pile. I’ve tried the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency before and not got on with it, so I’m going to try some other series of his before I go back to that one and see how I get on. As for 44 Scotland Street, it’s a bit like Tales of the City, except set in Edinburgh and with less bathhouses.
So, there you are – a snapshot of some of my recent reading – the only trouble is, I keep discovering new series that I like and then buying more of them, which of course doesn’t help reduce the pile…
The schools go back this week coming, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to recommend some books based in schools or with a school-y element
I’m starting with a recent discovery (thank you NetGalley) – Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens which combines two of my favourite things – boarding school stories and Golden Age detective stories. Like Mallory Towers crossed with Agatha Christie but with a wry smile, this is the first book about the Wells and Wong Detective Agency – aka Daisy and Hazel – and the very real murder they encounter at their boarding school. I sped through this during my break and train journey on a nightshift and it was a joy. There are subtle lessons about bullying and race for the children (I’d say 9 – 12 year olds) and enough sly nods to things for the adults amongst us too. I’ll be looking out for the next one.
Melissa Nathan was one of my favourite authors of the early 2000s – and her final novel, The Learning Curve – is one of the best novels I’ve read about being a teacher (speaking as a non-teacher of course). It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s romantic and the characters are all brilliant. I loved Nicky and thought her relationship with her class was utterly believable and Oscar and his dad Mark are brilliant too. I cried in Tesco when I read in the front of this book that Melissa had passed away and it saddens me that so many people won’t have come across her work – so I heartily recommend this. And as a side note, every year I have found at least one amazing new author from the Melissa Nathan Award Shortlist, so although tragically there will be no more books from Melissa herself, I feel like she’s pointing me in the direction of other people carrying on her fine work.
As previously mentioned, I love a good school story – and it would be remiss of me not to mention my favourite boarding school series of all time in a round-up of books about schools and that’s Elinor M Brent Dyer’s Chalet School books. I’m working my way up to a full post on the subject so I won’t say too much more, except that if you like school stories set in the 1920s through to the 1950s and haven’t read any Chalet School books, then where have you been. They are slightly dated now, and children should be given the abridged Armada paperback versions (which take out the smoking and some of the more questionable language) but I still adore them. “I bet Jo could sing it better” is still a running gag between my sister and I when things go badly wrong based on the main protagonist’s ability to cure fever, coma and emotional trauma with her singing voice. The School at the Chalet is the first book and is easily findable on the second-hand book sites – and Girls Gone By Publishing are republishing the unabridged versions in paperback for those of us who can’t afford the very collectible original hardback books.
One of my recent discoveries are Angela Thirkell’s delightful Barsetshire novels from the 1930s – and one of the best of these that I’ve read is Summer Half – where Colin Keith decides to spend a term as a teacher (as you could in those days!) rather than live off his dad whilst he studies for the law. The focus is on the teachers and their lives and in particular flirtatious attention-seeking Rose – the daughter of the headteacher – who is engaged to one master, but busy flirting with every man she encounters. It’s delightfully funny, and if you’re a fan of children’s boarding school stories, this may well float your boat too.
And finally, little bit tangential, but I really enjoyed John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which starts with a section set in a school, when I read it last year – and I’m not normally a spy/thriller reader. Well worth a look for anyone who hasn’t read this classic of the genre – although I can’t claim that the school section is the main bit of the plot!