Book of the Week, non-fiction, reviews

Book of the Week: The Right Stuff

It’s the last day of the month, and that means a stats post tomorrow, but before we get to that, here’s another Book of the Week post for you! Today’s pick may have taken me a while to finish – but it was an absolutely stonking read. This isn’t the first time I’ve recommended a space race-related book here – Lily Koppel’s The Astronauts Wives Club was a pick a couple of years ago (Editors note: more than four years ago, doesn’t time fly!) so maybe this isn’t a big surprise to you all, but it is a bit of a change from the recent run of BotWs which have been mostly romances and and romance adjacent.

Paperback copy of The Right Stuff

This is pretty much a modern classic of narrative non-fiction. Tom Wolfe tells the story of the American journey into space, starting with the history of America’s military aviators and test pilots, through the selection process to pick the Mercury Seven, then their training and the rivalries within the group and outside. Based on interviews with the astronauts, their wives, the test pilots it will take you through the early days, the competition with the test pilots working on rocket powered aircraft and the friction between the administration and the astronauts who wanted to actually pilot the missions rather than just be cargo and right to the to the end of the Mercury missions. It covers the selection of the second batch of astronauts (the New Nine) but doesn’t go beyond into the Apollo programme and the moon shot, which is probably a good thing, because you’ve grown attached to these guys and, spoiler alert, the Apollo programme did not always go well.

It is incredibly readable, for the most part you don’t want to put it down. But be warned, in the early stages where it talks about pilot training and testing, there is an incredibly high rate of attrition, which meant that I needed to pace myself a bit in reading it and is the main reason it took me longer to read*. I don’t even think you need to have any prior knowledge of the space race really, although obviously it helps. If you saw First Man last year, like I did**, it makes for a great companion piece to that very introspective look at one astronaut’s life, as it takes in the broad sweep of American ambition in space, the competition with the Soviet Union and the public and media attention that focused on the men they hoped were going to restore American dominance in the heavens.

Friendship 7 capsule
It’s really hard to get a good photo of the Friendship 7 capsule at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but I tried!

I remember people telling me that I ought to read this back when I reviewed the Lily Koppel, but it took until Tom Wolfe’s death last May for me to get around to adding it to the to buy pile.  There has been a new edition since my version – which has a snazzy new cover and, more importantly, an introduction from Scott Kelly, the astronaut who spent a year in space a couple of years back and was (probably still is) the subject of a study into the long term effects of being in space as he has an identical twin brother (Mark Kelly, also a former astronaut who is married to former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and who himself is making a run for Democratic nomination for one of Arizona’s Senate seats) which enabled almost direct comparison.  After reading this, I’ve got a mad yearning for more space books, but also to read more of Wolfe’s works.  So I went for a wander on Amazon and discovered that Bonfire of the Vanities is only £2.99 in paperback there at the moment.  I may have bought myself a copy.  Oopsy daisy.  And I have a couple more sitting in my shopping basket, waiting for the tbr shelf to empty out a little.  If you have any other recommendations for where I should go next – drop them in the comments.

You should be able to get hold of a copy of The Right Stuff from any reasonable book store, it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo and I suspect that you’d have a good chance of finding a copy of it in any reasonably sized charity or second hand bookshop.

Happy Reading!

*the other reason being my long-standing rule about not taking books I’m more than halfway through on overnight trips, or books I have less than 100 pages to go on the train for the daily commute.

** I saw it at the IMAX at the Smithsonian, having spent an afternoon looking at actual space race artifacts.

Book of the Week, romance

Book of the Week: He’s So Fine

If you’re in any way family with my reading habits you’ll have seen a lot of familiar names on yesterday’s Week in Books post.  This made picking a BotW tricky, because I liked a lot of books – but not a lot of the ones by people who I haven’t reviewed before. Or at least not enough to be able to pick the without feeling like I was bigging them up more than I actually liked them.  The Alyssa Cole that I finished on Monday was already last week’s pick – so I couldn’t chose A Hope Divided (even though I liked it a lot) because even though I do repeat authors, three of her books in less than a month would be too much even for me! The Beverly Jenkins was good too – but she was my BotW pick two weeks ago.  I have finished the Lucy Parker now – but in the early hours of Tuesday so it would be cheating and that’s not out until next week anyway. I loved the Mary McCartney photographs of Twelfth Night – but that’s because that production was the best thing that I’ve ever seen on stage and it brought back wonderful memories and anyway there aren’t enough words in that for it to count as a Book of the Week.  And so that leads us to Jill Shalvis.  Who of course has featured before – but not this calendar year so that’s something.  And I did love this latest trio of Lucky Harbor books that I’ve read (one afer the other practically in less than seven days) so it’s hardly a hardship.  So which to pick?

Paperback copy of Its In His Kiss

He’s So Fine’s heroine is prickly Olivia, who owns a vintage shop and lives next door to the heroine of the previous book, and who was an intriguing and enigmatic presence in that.  And when we get to know her, we discover that she’s got a big secret that she’s protecting – who she really really is.  In keeping with my spoiler free policy, I’m not going to tell you the details of Olivia’s backstory – but believe me, it’s good.  This trilogy has the owners of a charter boat company for the heroes – this is Cole the boat captain, the first one was Sam the boat builder, and the next one (One In A Million) is Tanner, the deep sea diver.And Cole is a great character – he’s dashing and handsome and caring, but he also sees life in very black and white terms.  On top of that, his last relationship ended badly a couple of years ago and he hasn’t really recovered or moved on – except to decide that love isn’t really worth it.  Olivia doesn’t exactly have a great track record with relationships, so their mutually beneficial relationship seems ideal, to start with at least.

I liked this a lot but I had two quibbles. The first was that I wanted Olivia to come clean to Cole earlier, but that’s fairly usual with me and romances – I want people to sort out misunderstandings as soon as possible and not lie to each other.  But that’s because I don’t like conflict and secrets in real life – I know that without the conflict there’d be no book a lot of the time!  The other was that I wanted a bit more resolution.  And I know I say that a lot too – but this one is more than just me wanting to see a bit more of their happily ever after, because the book comes to a big screeching, grinding halt and there are still somethings that I thought needed resolving or at least talking through.  And having read the next book now too, I know that you don’t get any more of Cole and Olivia in that either.  But this is minor stuff.  The romance is swoonworthy, the characters well matched and Lucky Harbor is a great place to spend time.  And when read as part of the trilogy, its all very satisfying indeed. And after a run of secret baby/child stories, this is refreshingly pregnancy aggro free – if that’s a thing you look for in romance (I do).

My copy of He’s So Fine came from The Works – where they had all three and all in their 3 for £5 offer.  It was a little while ago now, but they still had a few Shalvises (Shalvii?) last time I was in there the other week.  It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo (£3.99 atow) or in an omnibus edition on  Kindle and Kobo with the other two in the set for £6.99.  And if you haven’t read any Lucky Harbor before, the first three book omnibus is £3.99 at the moment on Kindle and Kobo – which is definitely worth a look.

Happy Reading!

Uncategorized

Book of the Week: An Extraordinary Union

So. Here’s the thing. I try not to repeat myself too much with these BotW reviews. In another week, The Confessions of Frannie Langton would have been my pick. But I already wrote about that. And yes, I finished An Extraordinary Union on the commute on Monday. And yes it’s only a couple of weeks since I recommended Alyssa Cole, but I loved this and I’m still annoyed about the racism in RWA and so there, I’m chosing it, it’s my blog, try and stop me.

Cover of An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Elle Burns is fighting the Confederacy by returning to the south to spy for the Union as a slave in the household of a Confederate senator. As everyone in the house thinks she is mute, she’s perfectly placed to hear conversations filled with valuable information that she can then pass on to pass to the Loyal League. Malcolm McCall is a Pinkerton’s detective, undercover and trying to infiltrate a Rebel enclave. The two of them find themselves working together and fighting an undeniable attraction. But as the net of intrigue tightens around them, it seems impossible for anything good to come out of a relationship – of any kind – between a black woman and a white man in Virginia. Or can it?

I would say this is more historical romantic suspense than a a straight-up historical romance – there is very real peril here at every turn for both Elle and Malcolm. But don’t panic, this is a romance, so don’t worry too much, there is Happily Ever After for these two, but it takes a lot of twists and turns and danger to get there. Elle is a fantastic character – smart and resourceful and determined to do her bit to try to defeat slavery. She knows exactly what is at stake and the risks that she faces on all fronts .  There’s the reality of being an enslaved woman, then there’s being a spy and finally as a woman contemplating any kind of relationship with a white man – not just inside the Confederacy but in the north if they both manage make it out alive. I was a little uncertain about how the relationship in this would work out given that Malcolm has so much more power than Elle, any way you look at their relative situations. But Alyssa Cole has written this so cleverly. Malcolm saw the Highland Clearances as a child and knows about power imbalances and persecution and this informs how he interacts with Elle and his determination to do his bit to overthrow slavery and oppression.

I’ve already said a lot about how many different types of romances there should be, and how everyone should see themselves reflected in romance. And yet a lot of people seem sceptical that black characters can have Happily Ever Afters in Historical Romance. Well take a seat and let Alyssa Cole show you how wrong that idea is. She’s not sugar coating it, and yes it’s harder for Elle than it is for a wilting wallflower in Almacks. But that hard won happy ending is deeply, deeply satisfying.

I’ve already borrowed the second Loyal League book to read the story of Malcolm’s brother Ewan and I’m on the waiting list for the third book. That’s how much I liked it. My copy came from the library, but you can get hold of it on ebook on Kindle (a bargainous £2.37 at time of writing!) and Kobo. It’s slightly harder to get the paperback in this country – Amazon is showing me the French version in paperback and a large print hardback on the same page as the kindle edition – so I think it’s a special order job again. Or you can look and see if your library has it.

Happy Reading!

Blog tours, historical, new releases

Blog Tour: The Confessions of Frannie Langton

A Friday bonus post for you today because I am on the blog tour for The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, which came out on Tuesday in the UK.  I actually mentioned this book last week in my post about diverse authors, although  that was focusing on romance and this is a mystery thriller Gothic page turner, definitely not a romance. It’s also a debut and I have many things to say about it.

Hardback of The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Let’s start with the plot. This is the story of a young Jamaican woman named (by her owners) Frances Langton.  When we meet her she is in a cell in Newgate prison, awaiting trial for the murder of her employer and his wife. Over the course of the novel we go back over her life, starting at the plantation in Jamaica where she was born a slave and then the journey that led her to the trial which may see her hanged.

Frannie is an incredible character.  She is smart she is determined and she wants to believe that she can better herself and better her situation in life, despite all the advice from her friends and all the evidence that the world is trying to stop her from doing anything, being anyone and achieving anything.  The story she tells is fractured and oblique at times – there’s a lot of reading between the lines to do and there are lots of twists and turns and information withheld from the reader until very late on – which is more powerful than unravelling it all at once.  I had some of the revelations figured out quite early on, which didn’t make it anyway shocking when it was finally revealed – if anything it made it worse, because I was hoping I was wrong!   I was unsure about how the central mystery, that is who killed Marguerite and Mr Benham, was going to be resolved, but I think that’s the point – the book is keeping you on a knife edge.

You will know by now I read a lot of historical fiction, and it’s easy to forget when you read them what the reality of life was like for most people, and even worse that most of the money, if not all of the money, that was supporting the lives of wealthy people was supported by the slave trade or by sugar plantations which themselves were run by slaves.  This is the book to read to remind yourself of that and to counteract. It’s dark and disturbing and unflinching at the violence that was inflicted upon slaves by their masters, but it’s also a big old page turner.

Along with my hardback, I got sent some bits and bobs about the book, among them some notes from Sara Collins, who says that this book is in part a response to reading Jane Eyre as a child in the Caribbean and wanting to write a story with a Jamaican former slave in a similarly ambiguous, complicated Gothic love story.  As she puts it “like Jane Eyre, if Jane had been given as a gift to ‘the finest mind in all of England’ and then accused of cuckolding and murdering him.” If you need further convincing, it’s also compared to Sarah Waters, Alias Grace and the Wide Sargasso Sea.

I enjoyed it a lot – and will be looking forward to seeing what Sara Collins does next.  My copy of The Confessions of Frannie Langton was sent to me by the publisher, but you can get hold of one of your very own now – in Kindle, Kobo and hardback which is rather well priced at Amazon at time of writing, but I’m expecting it to be in all the bookshops fairly prominently, and I’m sure Big Green Bookshop would be happy to order it for you too in their new online-only incarnation.

Happy reading!

American imports, Book of the Week

Book of the Week: Bring on the Blessings

I really enjoyed my reading last week – writing the Diverse Romance post sent me off down a rabbit hole of library loans and kindle bargains and mailing list freebies and they all really lifted my mood.  So it’s fitting that one of the authors I mentioned in that is my pick this week for BotW.

Cover of Bring on the Blessings

Bring on the Blessings is the first in Beverly Jenkins’ Blessings series.  It tells the story of Bernadine Brown who, when she  catches her husband cheating on her on her fifty-second birthday, takes him for half of his (vast) fortune and uses it to buy a struggling town on ebay with a view to turning it to give foster kids a second chance at life.  This story introduces you to Bernadine, the historic black township of Henry Adams, Kansas, and its residents.  Bernadine is trying to pay back her blessing from God (the cash from her divorce settlement) by doing some good and paying it forward and giving back is the main theme of a lot of the storylines.    As well as Bernadine, there are five foster children from across the country and the families that are going to look after them, as well as various other town residents.

First thing to say: This is not a romance.  It has romantic elements, but there is no Happily Ever After for anyone at the end of Bring on the Blessings. What it does have is the set up and first phase of an overarching plot for the series and some incremental progress into resolutions for each of the story threads. I’ve struggled a little bit to figure out exactly which genre it fits in to to be honest, but Goodreads lists its as Romance, Fiction and Christian Fiction and Amazon lists it as Small Town and Rural Fiction, African American Fiction and African American Romance, all of which gives you a bit of a flavour of what is going on.

I absolutely raced through this. The characters are engaging, the plot has enough peril to keep you reading but without being stressful. And I think possibly the cleverest thing about this is the way it weaves all its messages together in a way that doesn’t become overpoweringly About The Message.  It may be more overtly religious than most of my reading, but it’s not saccharine or too preachy.  It’s also got a wry sense of humour tucked in there as well. I mentioned in my post last week that Miss Bev is a giant of the romance genre and this totally shows why. Addictive reading that suits the romance reader in me, but which isn’t wholly romance.  It’s sort of like a whole load of the subplots from a romance novel bundled themselves together into a book.  And that’s a good thing. I went straight on from book one to book two (thank you library) which says a lot about how much I was enjoying life in Henry Adams – and how keen I was to find out what would happen next – and I would have gone on to book three, but then I got distracted…

I borrowed my copy of Bring on the Blessings from the library, but it is available on Kindle, Kobo and in paperback in the UK – although I suspect the latter may be a special order job.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups

Top reads of 2019 so far… Q1 edition!

It’s the end of March, so we’re a quarter of the way through the year – and I thought I’d try something a bit different and do a first quarter round up of the best things I’ve read so far.  But before I do, in case you missed it on Wednesday, here are my romance recommendations for people who are looking to broaden their author base after the #RITASsowhite fiasco and also my BotW post for Can’t Escape Love.  I’m still angry.

Daisy Jones and the Six

A BotW post in March, I think this is a book you’re going to hear a lot more about this year – it was an Apple books pick in March as well as being Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick and it’s being picked by articles and groups all over the place.  It sent me off down a Wikipedia rabbit hole – and I’m still thinking about it a couple of weeks on – and not just because I went to see Taylor Jenkins Reid talk about the book on Tuesday evening.  There are a lot more thoughts on that BotW post – but basically, it’s just brilliant.  It was my second Taylor Jenkins Reid book of the year – the first The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was also a BotW (in Janurary) and would have been on this list but for the think where I try not to repeat myself!  Also Taylor Jenkins Reid has made a Spotify playlist to go along with Daisy – if you need some more hints about the book – or something to listen to while you read it…

Don’t You Forget About Me

Cover of Don't You Forget About Me

I’ve been recommending Mhari MacFarlane’s latest all over the place sine I read it back in January.  As I said in my BotW review back then, it’s a proper romantic comedy – along with rooting for it all to turn out alright for Georgina, it’ll make you snort with laughter, as well as make you want to cry.  And that’s often what I want from a book – and it seems to be getting harder to find at the moment – as lots of my previous auto-buy and favourite authors seem to be shifting towards different things.  But this is proper good and will restore your faith in rom-coms.  Now if only they were still making films to match.

Skylark’s War

Cover of The Skylark's War

This is another one that was a Book of the Week and that I’ve been recommending all over the place – it’s my favourite middle-grade book of the year so far and adults should be reading it too.  I know that the centenary of the First World War is over now, but it still feels really timely to read this beautiful look at a family growing up through the Great War.  It’s just wonderful.  I cried happy and sad tears and generally embarrassed my self by getting emotional in public reading this.  If I was a teacher reading this to my class, I’d have to get the children to read the climax or I’d be crying as I did it.  And I don’t think that’s a plot spoiler – happy and sad tears I said.  I’m hoping that this will find a place on the shelf of children’s classics about war – along with Carrie’s War, The Machine Gunners, War Horse and the like.  It would make a brilliant – but heartbreaking – double bill with Five Children on the Western Front, but maybe read Skylark’s War second…

So there is your three top picks, honourable mentions to Fence, Brown Girl Dreaming and The Sumage Solution – my other top rated reads of the year so far.  I’ve only written about one of them so far, but I’m sure that will change at some point…  And as I’m writing this slightly before the end of March, you never know, there may be something else amazing in my last couple of the month.  If there is, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Happy Reading!

 

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!