Book of the Week, fiction, historical

Book of the Week: The Chelsea Girls

Yes I finished this on Monday. So yes, I’m cheating for the second week in a row. I make the rules, so I can break them if I want to. Anyway, you should all just be glad that I didn’t pick another mystery!

Maxine and Hazel meet on a USO tour in the last months of the Second World War. They meet again in New York in the 1950s when Maxine is an up and coming film star and Hazel is an aspiring playwright. Both living in the famous Chelsea Hotel, soon they’re working together on Hazel’s first play which is going to be staged on Broadway. But the red scare is well underway and the production and their careers are threatened by the witch hunt for communists turning its attention to the entertainment industry. As the pressure starts to build what will happen to the women and their friendship?

The Chelsea Girls follows a twenty year friendship between two women forged through a trauma in Italy, through the ups and downs of their careers. They’re both engaging and intriguing characters – Hazel’s mother is always comparing her to her brother who was killed in the war and finding her lacking, while Maxine is using the theatre to build a better life for her and her German immigrant grandmother. And as the red scare comes to Broadway, they both find themselves in the spotlight because of the actions of Hazel’s brother years before. And as well as being tense it’s also a wonderful portrait of the Chelsea Hotel – famously home to artists and bohemians, it becomes Hazel and Maxine’s refuge as they battle the outside forces trying to tear their lives apart.

I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. It came out two years ago and it’s been on my want to read list for about that long – so I’ve no idea where I even heard about it to start with. I read one of Fiona Davis’s other books a year or two back and liked the idea but didn’t love the execution, but this one really worked for me. It took me a day or two to properly get into it, but then I read 200 pages at a sitting because I wanted to see where it was going. I am fascinated with Old Hollywood, in fiction and non-fiction and this lives adjacent to that. I’ve written about some other books in this area before (like Trumbo and Karina Longworth’s Seduction) and this fitted right in to my wheelhouse. Well worth a look.

My copy came from the library, but it’s available now on Kindle and Kobo (and at time of writing is slightly cheaper on Kobo) as well as in paperback, although I’m not sure how easy that will be to get hold of in store – Foyles have stock to order, but not to click and collect.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, detective, mystery

Book of the Week: A Third Class Murder

I nearly broke away from the mystery theme of the last few weeks for today, and then I changed my mind. So much of my recent reading has been murder mysteries, that maybe I’ll end up doing mystery month. Although to be fair, a lot of them have been Inspector Littlejohn novels and that would get a little boring for you all!

When an antique dealer is murdered on a train, the police soon make an arrest. But Reverend Lucian Shaw was also on the train and soon becomes convinced that the police may have got the wrong man. When he starts to investigate he discovers that there may have been even more under currents in his parish than he knew about – although his wife could have filled him in on some of them!

A Third Class Murder really wants you to think that it’s a British Library Crime Classic, but it’s not. But don’t hold it against it,because it’s actually a nice, easy fun cozy crime novel that happens to be set in the 1930s. It’s not earth shattering or ground breaking, and yes I figured out who did it before the reveal but that’s fine – I wanted a murder mystery that I could enjoy and not have to think too hard about. Perfect lazy afternoon reading.

My copy came via my Kindle Unlimited Subscription, which means it’s only available on Kindle (at the moment at least).

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, crime, detective, Forgotten books

Book of the Week: Black Plumes

Another week, another classic crime Book of the Week pick. And this time it’s a Margery Allingham that’s *not* an Albert Campion. On to that in a second, but first a reminder that there will be Mini Reviews tomorrow, and that if you missed the July Stats you can find them here.

Black Plumes starts with the slashing of a painting at a prestigious art gallery. Then the owner’s son-in-law is murdered. At the centre of the mystery is 90-year-old Gabrielle Ivory, formerly a society beauty, now side-lined by the younger generation who think she’s past it. But as the mystery develops it becomes clear that she may know more than they think she does – and she’s not going to let them ignore the threat to the gallery and chalk it up as a practical joker – even if there is a risk that the person behind them may be rather close to home.

This is a clever and atmospheric murder mystery. There are a lot of unlikeable characters in this, but also a lot of suspects – not all of whom are the unlikeable ones! You see this story mostly by following Frances, youngest of the Ivorys. At the start of the book her brother-in-law is pressuring her to marry the unpleasant co-owner of the gallery and artist and family friend, David Field, proposed a fake engagement to her as a way of getting out of it. Frances is convinced that something is wrong at the gallery but her concerns are dismissed by other members of the family – even after the murder has happened. David – whose painting is the one that is slashed at the start of the novel – is one of the only people who listens to her, but he is a bit of a rogue and some of the clues seem to point at him. I really enjoyed it – and if you haven’t read any Allingham before, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start – especially as the Campion series takes a while to settle in, which can make it tricky for people who like to start series at the beginning.

My copy came from Kindle Unlimited but it’s also available to buy on Kindle where they also have a modern paperback edition, which Foyles also has available to order but not in store pickup. This was originally published in 1940 so there are likely to be second hand copies around – but I can see from some reviews mention of racially offensive language, which as I didn’t notice it in my Kindle edition has presumably been edited out in the newer versions but which will be in old editions

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, detective, Forgotten books, reviews

Book of the Week: Smallbone, Deceased

So after a week of old favourite authors and only a few new things, I find myself back in the realms of classic mysteries for this week’s BotW pick.

So Smallbone Deceased is a murder mystery set in the offices of a firm of London solicitors. Horniman, Birley and Crane is a well established and prestigious firm – who have just lost their senior partner, Mr Horniman. Some weeks after his death, when his son has taken over his share in the firm, a body is discovered in a deed box and the firm is thrown into turmoil. Inspector Hazlerigg is sent to investigate what strongly seems to be an inside job, and receives some assistance from Henry Bohun, the newest solicitor of the firm – newly qualified and arrived after the body must have been placed in situe.

Michael Gilbert was a solicitor by training, and this is a wonderfully drawn picture of the characters of the law firm and the way the wheels of the legal profession turned in the late 1940s. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I like all the details about the advertising company in Dorothy L Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, and this does the same sort of thing for a solicitors office. The mystery itself is very clever, although a little slow to get started, the pace picks up nicely and by the end its tense and fast paced as Hazlerigg and Bohun race around (not together!) trying to catch the killer.

I’ve read a lot of British Library Crime Classics now and written about a fair few of them here (like Murder by Matchlight, The Sussex Downs Murder and The Division Bell Murder). I find them such a reliable series for discovering new-to-me Golden Age murder mysteries. They may not all be to my precise taste, but they’re always well constructed – even in the ones when the writing style doesn’t appeal to me. And they also have a habit of rotating their titles through Kindle Unlimited so if you’re smart you can work your way through them quite nicely.

My copy came via the wonders of the aforementioned Kindle Unlimited, but it’s also available to buy in the Crime Classics edition on Kindle for £2.99. Kobo has a slightly different looking version, for a slightly higher price. The Crime Classics version is also available in paperback – and if you get a big enough bookshop you should be able to get hold of it fairly easily. You could also buy it from the British Library shop direct – where they’re doing 3 for 2 on their own books so you could also grab

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light

The reading list yesterday was a little shorter than usual, and with some relistens and old favourites on it but the pick for today was actually easy because as I mentioned the new Helen Ellis essay collection arrived last week – and of course I read it!

Copy of Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light on a bookshelf

Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light is a series of essays examining friendship between adult women and what it’s like to be a woman pushing 50. There’s stories of Middle Aged sex, a trip to a psychic and what happens when one of your friends has a bad mammogram. And there are so many characters: bridge ladies, cat lady plastic surgeons and platinum frequent fliers. It’s the first book in a while I’ve found myself reading bits of out loud to Him Indoors – and the first time in even longer that he didn’t tell me to shut up! Sample response: “is this real? Do her friends know she’s writing this?” (Answer: yes, and yes). It’s witty and wise and I want Helen Ellis to be my friend too.

I first discovered Helen Ellis through a proof copy on the Magic Bookshelf at work. The Magic Bookshelf is now a thing of the past, but when it existed it was a library trolley full of books that lived near the entertainment and arts teams. It had a label on it telling you that you could take them – as opposed to all the other bookshelves up there which has labels telling you absolutely not to take the books. It’s where I was introduced to Curtis Sittenfeld (via Eligible), Brit Bennet (The Mothers) and Lissa Evans (Crooked Heart) – all of whom are now on my preorder list because of the books I read from the shelf. I miss the shelf – because I wonder what I’m missing out on because I don’t stumble across new (to me) books there any more. But still, I already have more books waiting to be read than some people own to start with so I really can’t complain. Anyway, every now and again I recommend an essay collection. Yes, it’s often one from Helen Ellis, but if you like Nora Ephron, or fiction like Katherine Heiny, this is the essay equivalent. You’re welcome.

Here is a confession: I preordered this from Amazon, in hardback and it’s the American edition. That’s how much I love Helen Ellis. I regret nothing because it is wonderful. But that does mean it’s a little expensive and might be harder to get hold of over here for now at least. It’s available in Kindle and Kobo – at the pricier end of the e-book scale, and Foyles say they can get hold of it in a week, but I wouldn’t expect to find it in a store – not yet anyway.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Empire of Pain

As I suspected yesterday, I finished Empire of Pain last night and it seems the obvious pick to write about even with that slightly cheaty caveat and joins the list of really very good narrative non-fiction books I’ve written about here – but rather than dealing with a tech startup squandering millions of dollars on something that doesn’t work (Bad Blood) or a business model they can’t get a profit from (Billion Dollar Loser), or the investigation into Harvey Weinstein (Catch and Kill) this is the story of the Sackler dynasty – the family behind Perdue Pharma.

If you’ve heard of Purdue Pharma, it’s probably as part of coverage into the opioid epidemic in the United States, as the company is behind the painkiller OxyContin. But until the last few years, you probably didn’t know that the Sacklers were the owners of the company. If you’d heard of them at all it was probably because of the galleries or museums or university departments named after them all around the world. But then a series of court cases accused Perdue and the family behind it of being the root cause of the opioid epidemic in the US. Patrick Radden Keefe started writing about the family in an article for the New Yorker, which has expanded into this look at the three generations of the family, how they made their money originally and their role in the modern world of pharmaceutical advertising that you see in the US today.

I first heard the Sackler name in connection with the opioid crisis when I was in Washington in the autumn of 2018 when the court cases and bankruptcy hearings are getting underway, and there have been plenty of articles and books since then about the crisis itself and its effect on communities across the country. But what Radden Keefe is doing here is looking at the family themselves and setting out the longer term picture – the way the Sackler family built their fortune and helped set up the conditions for the sale and marketing of OxyContin whilst keeping their name separate from the business but well known for philanthropy.

None of the family spoke to Radden Keefe for the book – and in his end notes he sets out the efforts that he took to try and secure an interview and the conditions they wished to impose on him in order for one to be granted. But he does set out how the book was fact checked and who he did speak to – over two hundred people on and off the record – with the on the record sources meticulously chronicles in end notes that take up nearly 20 percent of the kindle edition. He’s also made use of the mass of court papers, archival collections and Arthur Sackler’s own columns in the Medical Tribune. But he goes on to say that although there were almost too many documents for him to handle, there are still even more out there as the bankruptcy hearing could result in a repository of documents about Purdue running into tens of millions of papers. And the story isn’t over yet.

This is a long book (500+ pages on Kindle including those end notes) but if you’ve been following the opioid epidemic and the effect that it has had on the US – or even if you haven’t and have maybe only heard of OxyContin as a prescription pain pill that various celebrities have had issues with, this is worth the hours of your time.

My copy of Empire of Pain came from the library, but it’s out now in Kindle, Kobo and hardback. It should be fairly easy to find – Foyles have it on Click and Collect at six stores which is usually a good indicator. And if you’re wondering why Patrick Radden-Keefe’s name seems familiar – he’s written various books before as well as being a New Yorker writer, but he was also the host of the Winds of Change podcast that I wrote about in my Pandemic Podcast recommendation post.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, romance

Book of the Week: Love at First

I like writing about swoony romantic books, so although I really liked the new Duncan MacMaster – I mean a murder mystery set at a Fyre-esque festival is lot of fun and I’m sure I’ll write about it properly at some point, but I just loved Kate Clayborn’s Love at First, so my inner romantic won out. Again.

Nora loves her flat, and the building it’s in. She’s loved it since she was a kid and visited her Nona every summer. Now her Nona is gone but the community of her friends is still there and Nora has taken over looking after them. She moved across the country to Chicago to live in it, she’s got her remote working situation sorted and now she just needs to make sure the building’s new occupant doesn’t change the atmosphere. For Will, the flat is an unexpected inheritance from an uncle he didn’t know and didn’t want to. He can’t imagine living in it – so he just wants to deal with it and move on. Soon Will and Nora are low key feuding as she tries to gently sabotage his plans. But it’s more like frenemies than enemies because there’s just something between the two of them…

So this has a lovely prologue setting it up, and then a delightful romance with enemies to lovers and friends with benefits stuff going on. Will and Nora both have reasons why relationships are tricky territory for them and watching them find their way towards each other is lovely. I also adored the other residents of the building with their quirks and their fun and sparky relationships with each other. I really liked Clayborn’s previous book, Love Lettering – I mean it was a Book of the Week and one of my favourites of last year – but I think maybe I like this one even more!

I borrowed this from the library, but I suspect I’m going to be ordering myself the paperback so that I can lend it around – after all I own Love Lettering in paperback and on Kindle… At the moment it’s only available as an import paperback in the UK but when I asked Kate Clayborn on Twitter what was going on, she said she thinks it’s just transitioning to a new imprint. I hope that’s what’s happening – because I have two books of a three book series of hers and I really need the third at some point, so I’ll keep my eyes open and try to remember to update you all when it’s on Kindle and Kobo again.

Happy Reading!

new releases, Thriller

Book of the Week: Dial A for Aunties

As I said yesterday, lots of reading done last week to finish of April. Mini-Reviews coming up tomorrow, but today’s Book of the Week is quite hard to define by genre, but it’s one of the most fun books I’ve read so far this year. And bonus: it was new last week so I’m on time with my review again!

Cover of Dial A for Aunties

Meddelin Chan has always thought that her family are a pain. Her mum and her three aunts are always messing in her life, and not just because they all work together in the family wedding business. But when Meddelin accidentally kills her blind date, the aunts swing into action to help get rid of the body. Unfortunately it’s also the night before their biggest job yet: a swanky billionaire’s wedding at an island resort. An already tricky situations – trying to find a way to get rid of the body and make the wedding perfect – gets even worse when it turns out that Meddelin’s The One That Got Away is on the island too. Can the Chan’s pull it all off: disposing of a corpse, the perfect wedding and getting Meddy’s ex back into her life?

This is just the funniest and also weirdest book I have read in ages. It’s a farcical comedy thriller caper with a romantic subplot and yes that’s a lot of genres but it’s just wonderful. Meddelin is a charming character – she’s trying to figure out how to live her own life and achieve her dreams but without disappointing her family. But when the date goes wrong it turns out that her family have got her back no matter what. The aunts and their bickering is hilarious. But they’re all also very good at their day jobs – which is why the body disposal is so much fun. And yes, as a premise it’s a bit dark, but just go with it and the dark humour all gets balanced out by the fun and frothy wedding antics. And I loved the details about Meddy’s Chinese and Indonesian heritage.

I hope this is absolutely massive – I hope like my future is full of people asking for recommendations for books like this – even though there isn’t really anything like it that I can think off. Think Steph Plum crossed with Aunty Lee, with a dash of Crazy Rich Asians and you’re sort of getting there. the afterword says it’s already been optioned by Netflix and I can’t wait to watch what they do with it.

My copy of Dial A for Aunties came from NetGalley, but it’s out now in Kindle and Kobo as well as paperback. I still haven’t made it into a bookshop, so I don’t know whether they’ll have it in stock, but Foyles are showing copies available to order with a short delivery time, so I’m hopeful it’ll make it to the tables in the end.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Billion Dollar Loser

I was so spoilt for chose this week that I dithered over my choice for Book of the Week for quite some time before settling on Billion Dollar Loser. But it’s hard to resist a book about a spectacular business failure – you may remember how much I enjoyed Bad Blood last year and I was hoping this would do the same sort of thing.

Cover of Billion Dollar Loser

Reeves Wiedeman’s book examines the rise and fall of Adam Neumann and his company WeWork. Many people probably only heard of WeWork when its first attempt to float on the stock market imploded in spectacular style. Neumann grew up in Israel and the US, completed his compulsory military service and then moved to the US for college, determined to make his fortune. After a false start with a baby clothing company, he got into the co-working business – leasing empty office space from landlord and then renting it out to freelancers, small businesses, tech startups and the like. It wasn’t a new idea, but WeWork attracted billions of dollars from investors as it grew at breakneck speed and expanded around the world with a vision of “elevating the world’s consciousness”.

So this isn’t quite Bad Blood, and WeWork isn’t quite Theranos, but Billion Dollar Loser is an incredibly readable account of the rise and fall of a tech unicorn – a business that investors poured money into through years of losses in the hope that it would eventually make money and then be the next big thing when it finally floated in the stock exchange and they could cash out. Caught up in it all are the staff – many of whom stayed in jobs that didn’t pay very well because of the stock options they were promised and because they believed in Neumann’s vision. Like Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, Neumann is a charismatic figure – who brought in spiritualism and created an almost cult like atmosphere inside the company. And his wife is Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin so there’s an added Goop-y layer to all of this that Theranos didn’t have.

Wiedemann has written a fast-paced page turner, that exposes the fundamental problems with WeWork’s business plan – including (but not limited to) the costs involved in real estate and the need for actual physical infrastructure in your offices and to keep your tenants happy! Like Bad Blood, it leaves you with a fair few questions, but the story of WeWork isn’t done yet – their valuation for their stock market floatation was published at the end of March (spoiler: it’s a lot less than it was the first time around) and Neumann is also reported to be planning a new venture. A Hulu documentary about WeWork came it last week and Cosmo have just published a profile of Rebekah Paltrow Neumann so this probably isn’t the last we’ve heard of WeWork – but as a starting point this is a really good one!

My copy of Billion Dollar Loser came from the library, but it’s available now from all the usual sources – like Kindle and Kobo and should be available to order from your bookshop of choice or bookshop.org.uk . It’s been so long now since bookshops were open for in person browsing that I have no idea if you’ll be able to pick it up in store without ordering!

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, Forgotten books, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Mrs Tim of the Regiment

We’re midway through March and it’s been a while since I picked something from my list of slightly quirky out of the way authors. So here we are, with Mrs Tim of the Regiment, which firmly fits into the gentle English life subset of my reading.

Paperback copy of Mrs Tim of the Regiment

As the title suggests, Mrs Tim – Hester Christie – is the wife of an army officer, in the 1930s. Told in the form of a diary, we see her navigate regimental life, including moving across the country when Tim gets promoted, and trying to make friends and raise a family. The first half of the book is more about the day to day, the second follows a holiday that Hester takes to Scotland with her young daughter to visit a friend and the complications ensue.

I’ve written a lot about the fact that I’ve been sticking to genres where I know that things will turn out ok in the end, and at first glance this might seem like a bit of a turn away from that, but this is actually very low stakes and relaxing to read. Hester is a wonderful narrator – she’s witty and observant of others, but also a little bit dense when it comes to herself. She is utterly oblivious to the fact that Major Morley is mad about her – and that he and her friend’s son are fighting over her when she’s on holiday in Scotland. This is a tricky tightrope for the author to tread, because Tim isn’t always around much and by its nature, domestic life of a married couple is less glamorous and exciting than holiday-ing in Scotland and dashing around the countryside. But I thought that Hester’s obliviousness – and her devotion to Tim (earlier in the book she worries about what to do if he is sent to India and whether they could afford to send their daughter to boarding school so she can go too because she doesn’t want to be apart from him again) means that this section is amusing and charming rather than feeling like you’re working up to Hester leaving Tim or being left at home unhappy. 

I’ve read D E Stevenson before – she’s the author of the wonderful Miss Buncle’s Book and Anna and her Daughters which I have written about before – and this has a lot of the things I liked about both of those, but also seemed to me to fit in along with books like Diary of a Provincial Lady and Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books. It’s essentially a slice of life story from the interwar period, in the voice of a smart woman who is running a household (because that’s what you did when you got married in those days). There are three more books in the series, and I suspect I’ll be reading them at some point in the near future.

My copy of Mrs Tim of the Regiment was a birthday present (thanks mum and dad!) and you should be able to get hold of the charming paperback edition I have from any sensible bookshop (like Foyles), but it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!