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!


		
Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Jim Henson

So many good books on holiday last week. And if all goes to plan, you’re going to be hearing a about a lot of them. Just as soon as I have time to read a few more books and write the posts. But I’ve got it all planned out in my head. Trust me. Ahem.  Anyway, this week’s pick is Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones’s look at the life of the innovative puppeteer, animator and filmmaker.

Cover of Jim Henson: The Biography

If you don’t know who Jim Henson is, I think you must have been living under a rock, or just not paying attention. Henson was the creator of the Muppets and the puppet characters on Sesame Street. Exactly. I think everyone has grown up with Bert and Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird and of course Kermit and Miss Piggy. This is a big, in-depth look at the man behind the puppets and what drove him.

Going in to reading this, I knew about the Muppets, and I knew he died in the early 90s – there’s a dedication to him at the end of the Muppet Christmas Carol, which is of course one of the all-time great children’s Christmas films – but that was about it. It turns out that he (and his creations) were a TV sensation in his local area before he was out of his teens, he was hugely affected by the early death of his younger brother which lead to a breakneck work ethic, but who also was devoted to being a good dad to his five kids. It’s really a remarkable life.

This book came out in 2013* and Brian Jay Jones had the cooperation of the Henson family, access to all the archives and interviewed all the key players. It was the first full length biography of Henson and Frank Oz (aka Miss Piggy aka Yoda) said that it captured Henson’s genius and his flaws. And I found that very true – it’s not a hagiography. You get a real sense of the amazing mind and vision that Henson had, but also that he must have been a difficult man to live with at times – and definitely a difficult person to manage!

It’s a fascinating read not just because it’s about a great subject but because it’s really well written. Jones has since written biographies of George Lucas and Dr Seuss and even though I’m not hugely interested in either of those men, I enjoyed this so much I would probably still borrow them from the library or buy them in a kindle daily deal just because this was so well researched, thoughtful and readable.

My copy of Jim Henson came from the library but it’s available on Kindle, Kobo and Audible and in paperback and hardback – although mostly via secondhand sellers and coming in from the US.

Happy Reading!

*and I’ve had it on my to-read list since seeing Brian Jay Jones interviewed on the Daily Show soon after it came out, which tells you a lot about how long it’s taken me to get around to getting hold of a copy – thank you library!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Seduction

June’s stats coming up tomorrow, but first, this week’s Book of the Week – where we’re still firmly in non-fiction (that’s three BotW posts in a row now!) and in a different part of my historical sweet spot: classic Hollywood.

Cover of Seduction

As the subtitle suggests, this is an examination of the machinations of movie mogul Howard Hughes.  A controversial and massively famous figure in his day, if you’re not into Hollywood history you’ve probably still seen Howard Hughes references in all sorts of stuff – like the episode of The Simpsons where gambling is legalised and Mr Burns turns weird, or Willard Whyte in Diamonds are Forever or the fact that Stan Lee cited him as an inspiration for Tony Stark.  And of course there’s the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator in which he’s played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  But like Hallie Rubenhold in The Five last week, Karina Longworth is coming at this from the perspective of the women in the case – and there were a lot of them – she examines what Hughes’s obsessions with sex, power and publicity meant for the women in his orbit and how it affected them. Hint: he was a real piece of work, even more than you might already be thinking.

This was where the majority of my commute reading time went last week (five of my six train journeys) because although it’s fascinating it’s also super long. I’m a recent* convert to Longworth’s podcast, You Must Remember This, and was a little bit worried that this was going to be covering some of the same ground that that has already covered, but actually that’s not a problem. Some of the stuff has been touched on, but this is much more in depth and with more space to develop an overarching theme and narrative.

Obviously #MeToo has been much in the news over the last few years and if you want an illustration of what powerful men in Hollywood have been getting away with since the silent era then this is it. It would also serve as a great starting off point for a wider journey into Hollywood lore – I know there’s a few more lives I want to explore and a couple of books off the bibliography that I’ll be keeping an eye open for.

My copy of Seduction came from the library, but it’s out now in hardback, Kindle and Kobo as well as audiobook read by Longworth. NB: if you haven’t listened to her podcast, she’s got a very particular way of talking which can take a bit of getting used to and I know doesn’t work for everyone.  I’m not sure how easy it’s going to be to find in bookstores – it’s available to buy from Waterstones’ website, but not on click and collect – ditto Foyles.

Happy Reading!

*as in a couple of series ago.

 

Book previews, books

Autumn New Release Preview

Why hello there.  It’s September.  The schools are going back and the nice weather won’t last.  So to ease your pain, I thought I’d tell you about some upcoming books I’m looking forward to or have been fortunate enough to have already enjoyed.  But if that’s not your bag, here’s my books about schools post from two years ago if you feel the need to start the academic year with a boarding school book or two! So, in no particular order (well not by date anyway) here we go:

Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson (22 September)

Recognise the name?  Yes, it’s that Mara Wilson – who played Matilda and was in Mrs Doubtfire – now all grown up, she’s written a collection of essays and it’s getting a lot of buzz.  It’s hard to find out what it’s about – from what I can work out it’s part memoir, part life lessons – but I’ve seen lots of good buzz about it – and the early reviews on Goodreads are really positive.  Plus I’ve always wanted to know what she did after she left films.  I’m hoping this will answer some of my questions.  Pre-order on Amazon, Kindle, Kobo, Waterstones, Foyles.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (6 October)

Today Will Be Different follows a day in the life of Eleanor Flood, who knows she’s a mess but wants to tackle the little things to try and get back on track.  Unfortunately today is the day that life is going to get in the way.  I’m a little trepidatious (is that a real word or one that I got from Buffy/Clueless?) about this one.  Will this be Good Semple or Bad Semple?  I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but I detested This One Is Mine to the point that if I hadn’t enjoyed …Bernadette so much I would have DNF’d it.  I like the plot summary and several of the book podcasts I listen to are excited about it, so I’m hoping for the best and going to give it a go. Pre-order on Amazon, Kindle, Kobo, Waterstones, Foyles.

How to Party with an Infant by Kuai Hart Hemmings (8 September)

Single mum Mele is trying to get over her obsession with the father of her daughter by writing an entry for a cookbook writing contest.  Except she’s doing it a little differently and going into “elaborate and shocking detail”. This is a recent addition to the list (and coming out really soon) after I saw it on Book Riot’s What We Read In August list where the contributor said “This made me laugh the way Where’d You Go, Bernadette? did.” and then I had to have it.  Maybe I’ll save it until after I’ve read Today Will be Different in case that’s a disappointment and I need a pick me up! Pre-order on Amazon, Kindle, Kobo, Foyles.

The Wangs vs The World by Jade Chang (3 November)

Charles Wang has lost the fortune he made after he arrived in the US.  Now he’s taking his family on a cross country journey from their foreclosed Bel-Air mansion to New York to pick up his other daughter. But will the journey bring them all back together or will it split them even further apart.  And will they all even make it as far as the other coast, faced with temptations en route?  I just keep hearing about this book.  Everywhere.  So I want to read it.   Pre-order on AmazonWaterstones, Foyles.

Queen Bees by Siân Evans (8 September)

I’ve actually already read this – after lucking into a preview copy a month or so back.  This is a collective biography of six famous society hostesses in the UK between the wars. It is not the most massively in depth look at any of them – I wanted a little more detail on some of them – but you get a really good sense of the personalities of the women and the rivalries between them.  If you’ve read anything about society in this era (perhaps some of the Mrs Simpson saga, or some of the many timeslip novels set in the 1920s and 30s which feature real people as well fictional ones), you’ll have heard of some or all of these women – Lady Astor (first woman to take up her seat as an MP) and Emerald Cunard are probably the two most well known – but it’s also peppered with other people of the period – like the aforementioned Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII and then Winston Churchill, The Mitfords and the Mosleys.  This is a period I love reading about (and have read quite a lot about) and I enjoyed Queen Bees and felt I learnt stuff from it.  I’ve lent it out already – and will go and find a proper copy in the shop when it comes out so I can check out the bibliography and references – which were missing from my version – to get some more reading ideas.   Pre-order on Amazon, Kindle, Kobo, Waterstones, Foyles.

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch (3 November)

This is the sixth book in the Rivers of London series and if you’ve been reading my book based ramblings for any length of time, you’ll know how I feel about PC Peter Grant (see here, here and here ) – and be unsurprised that I’m hopping around with excitement at the prospect of the next book.  I’m trying to take my time reading the latest comics so I’ll be bang up to date for this one, which apparently sees Peter, Nightingale and the crew from the Folly trying to solve a bloody, magical problem in mansions of the super-rich in Mayfair.  I can’t wait.  If you’re not already on this bandwagon, do yourself a favour at start at the beginning. Pre-order on Amazon, Kindle, Kobo, Waterstones.

And there you have it.  Five books I’m looking forward to reading and one I’ve already read as a bonus. It may have got a touch long, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it.  Hopefully none of these will end up on the 50-pages and out pile and I can report back in positive terms in a couple of months time.  Please do recommend any more upcoming releases you think I might like in the comments – you know how much I love making the to-read pile bigger – and let me know if you’ve already read any of these and have Thoughts.

Happy Reading