book round-ups, holiday reading

What I read on my holiday: January 2020 edition

As you’ll have seen from this week’s Week in Books I was on holiday last week and read a lot.  Now I’ve already written about Lucy Parker’s Headliners as Book of the Week, but I wanted to do some mini-reviews of some of the others as well.  There are some that I loved, and some that I could see were very good – but just not quite for me, so I wanted to give them a mention too.

If I never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane*

Cover of If I Never Met You

Mhairi McFarlane has been a BotW pick before (after my birthday holiday a year ago in fact!), and once again I really, really enjoyed this. Laurie’s longterm boyfriend breaks up with her out of the blue at the start of this book, leaving her life in turmoil – not only do they live together, but they work together and it’s all a bit unbearable.  After getting stuck in a broken down elevator with the office playboy he makes a proposal: he needs a serious girlfriend to convince the bosses that he’s serious about his job – she needs the rumour mill to find something else to talk about other than her break-up.  Soon they’re posting pictures of their new relationship on social media – much to the astonishment of their co-workers.  But what is the price they’re going to have to pay for their deception – and is Laurie getting a little bit too attached to a man who says he doesn’t believe in love?  I was a little worried at the start that it was going to be a bit gloomy, because Laurie’s breakup was really, really bleak – and being pretty near her age, I could really empathise with her. But once the fauxmance plot got underway, it was really, really great. I was worried that the resolution wouldn’t be satisfying enough, but actually this was really neat. And for those of you who like a heroine who is older than the hero, this has that for you too!

How to be a Footballer by Peter Crouch

How to be a Footballer on a sun lounger

This was Him Indoors’s top airport bookshop pick. I wasn’t expecting to read it, because even though I like football (I was the first female voiceover on UEFA.com don’t you know!) I don’t really read footballer memoirs.  But then he laughed so much at it and read me so many bits from it that I just had to read it too.  And it’s really good. Crouch has had a really interesting career, knows that he’s not a typical footballer (his build, his skills, his career trajectory) and is very funny.  It’s written with Tom Fordyce and I don’t know how that arrangement worked, but the end product sounds very Peter Crouch, and also not at all what you’d expect from a footballer’s book. One to add to the list of books to buy to give as gifts too.

Xeni by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Cover of Xeni

This is modern take on the marriage of convenience trope – which I love in historical romance but is hard to pull off often in contemporary. But never fear, Rebekah Weatherspoon has done it! Xeni Everly-Wilkins is in upstate New York to clear out her recently departed aunt’s massive house. But when Sable’s will is read, family secrets spill out and in order for Xeni to claim her inheritance, she has to marry. Her aunt has even picked out the man: Mason McInroy. Sable was a mentor to him, and had promised to leave him some money to pay off the debt that made him leave Scotland, but she didn’t tell Mason about the conditions. Xeni and Mason decide to marry for the money and then divorce as soon as they can. But when it turns into a friends with benefits type relationship, will they actually want to break up? The dialogue is great, the hero is plus-sized, they’re both bi-sexual and the relationship is steamy and a little bit kinky. This is probably the most explicit on the page romance I’ve recommended in a while – it will make you blush – a lot – if you read it in public. I raced through this and could have read another 100 pages with Xeni and Mason.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal*

Cover of The Doll Factory

Creepy, atmospheric and not entirely my sort of book but very well written. I found the juxtaposition between the two threads of the story annoying more than anything else and I was much more interested in one side of the story than the other and that influenced my reading experience.  I also wanted a more definite resolution but that’s fairly common with me – and if you’re a regular here, you’ve heard me complain about that sort of thing before.

The Butterfly Bride by Vanessa Riley*

Cover of the Butterfly Bride

I think Vanessa Riley may just be too melodramatic for me. I like the premise of this – illegitimate daughter of duke wants to be married off by Christmas so she can be independent – but I just don’t like it in the execution.  I’ve had the same experience with the previous books in the series, but the blurbs are always so intriguing and so I keep coming back again. I think I just like a bit more humour and a bit less angst in my romances. But if you do like the drama, this has all you could want to keep you turning the pages and is well written to boot.

So there you have it. Four books from my holiday reading selection for your consideration. They’re all out now and should be easily available from all the usual sources – although The Butterfly Bride is probably a special order situation in the UK if you want a physical copy. The paperback edition of The Doll Factory is out in March and should be preorderable.

Happy Reading!

Award nominated, Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Furious Hours

Starting off the New Year with a book from that NetGalley backlog I said that I was trying to deal with.  I try to only have one non-fiction book on the go at once, and this one is one I kept meaning to get around to – and in fact even started a while back and then got distracted by the arrival of a bunch of non-fiction library book holds and I forgot about it.  But it made the final of the non-fiction category of the Goodreads awards* which jogged my memory and gave me the push I needed to come back to it.

Cover of Furious Hours

So Furious Hours is Casey Cep’s first book and it tells the story of an Alabama serial killer whose trial caught the eye of Harper Lee.  The first part of the book tells you about the frankly astounding story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was suspected of killing members of his family – and who was then killed at the funeral of one of his alleged victims.  And just to add to what is already an eye-popping story, the killer was defended at the murder trial by the same lawyer who had previously defended Reverend Maxwell when he was accused of murder.  The second part of the book is about Harper Lee – the author of To Kill a Mockingbird – who took attended the trial with a view to writing her own true crime book about it, in the same way that her friend Truman Capote wrote the story of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood.  Now as you probably know, until the (somewhat controversial) publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee famously had only one published book – so you know a bit about how that went for her, but that’s only really part of the story, and Cep takes you through Lee’s life that lead her to that point and beyond.

Both of the stories told here are absolutely fascinating, and if I have a complaint about the book it’s that they feel like two separate stories for a long time.  When I first picked up the book I had picked up on the Harper Lee element of the story and was surprised when the start of the book didn’t mention her at all.  But having now read the whole thing, I understand why it was structured like that and that you need to know one story fully to understand the other and I’m not sure I could have come up with a way of integrating the two that wouldn’t have been just far too confusing.  So it requires you to read the blurb properly (bad Verity) to understand what you’re about to read – and then to go with it because it will all make sense in the end.

As well as the Goodreads awards, this was a nominee for the Baillie Gifford prize (which was won by another former BotW The Five) and made a lot of end of year lists – including Barack Obama’s – so it’s well worth a look if you like true crime or books about authors and that sort of thing.  As previously mentioned, my copy came from NetGalley, but Furious Hours is out in hardback at the moment – with the paperback due in April in the UK.  You should be able to get hold of a copy from any bookshop with a reasonable non-fiction section.  It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook from Kobo and Audible.

Happy Reading!

*Alongside previous BotW Catch and Kill – in fact there were a lot of books on that shortlist that I fancy reading – but they were all beaten by Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis, which given my experience with Girl, Wash Your Face I don’t think I’ll be reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, reviews

Book of the Week: Year of the Fat Knight

My final BotW of 2020 continues the Year of Non-fiction, except this is one from the to read bookshelf and not from the library. If you’ve missed my look back at my reading obsessions over the year, you can find them here, and also my best books of the year. Coming up tomorrow, instead of the stats, is my look ahead to some new books coming in 2020. The stats will follow later in the week. Because I’m that good to you. Anyway, to the review.

Year of the Fat Knight on a bookshelf

Ever wondered what it takes to be an actor? Or more particularly if you’ve got what it takes to be an actor? You sort of half think it might be an easy life right? Wrong. Over the course of this book you watch (in your mind’s eye at least) Antony Sher agonise over taking a part, preparing for the part and playing the part. And as you read, you realise all the hidden hard work that goes into crafting a performance, an interpretation of words on paper.

The Fat Knight of the title is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s iconic creations. But not, as Sher muses, one that The Big Names often play. He muses that there are traditionally two tracks for Shakespearean actors – one leads to King Lear, via Macbeth and Hamlet, and the other to Falstaff (via parts like Bottom) and that never the twain shall meet. But here is Sher – who famously played Richard III as a young man (which Sher also wrote a book about) and who I saw play Macbeth just after the turn of the century* – considering an offer, from his partner no less, to play Falstaff. Illustrated with Sher’s own drawings, it’s fascinating and eye opening and incredibly readable. Sher’s partner is Gregory Doran, a director who at the start of the book is just taking over the helm at the RSC so as well as the musings on Falstaff, you get a peek behind the curtain at the RSC and in the world of theatre generally. The two are named as a power couple in the media in a couple of lists during the book, which perplexes Sher but reminds the reader that there are fairly large stakes here professionally. The production – and Sher’s performance – were a success but that never feels anywhere near certain as you read it.

I raced through this and although I didn’t see the productions of Henry IV Sher is writing about, I have seen a couple of the others that are mentioned in it and have seen some of the other actors in other things which made for an added bonus as a theatre nerd.  I don’t know that you need to be a theatre nerd to enjoy this though – I think you just need to be someone who is interested in process and creation.  If you’ve ever wondered how a production of Shakespeare is put together, whether the actors really understand what they’re saying and how they create a character, this would certainly interest to you.  But if you’re a creator of something else, I think this would be worth a look as well – and you can compare your process in your field to this.  I’m sure you’d get something out of it.

I had this on the shelf – I think it came from a work book sale a year or so ago (it came out in , but you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily from a bookshop with a theatre section.  Mine is a hardback, but there is also a paperback edition now. If you want to buy online, may I suggest you go direct to Nick Hern Books, the publisher, where the price is within pennies of that of Amazon as I write this and will undoubtedly benefit them more direct.  They’ve got 20% off everything at the moment – so in one of life’s more predictable moments, I ordered myself Sher’s other two books on acting – the aforementioned Year of the King and his latest, Year of the Mad King about King Lear – when I went to check this out.

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!

*Gosh that makes me feel old saying that, but although the turn of the century automatically makes me think of the start of the 20th century, we’re far enough into the 21st now that I probably should get used to it.  I saw Macbeth with Sher and Harriet Walter at the Swan in Stratford sometime around 2000 – I still have the poster somewhere, but I’m not getting it out to check!

Book of the Week

Book of the Week: The Crime at Black Dudley

Long term readers will be aware of my love of Golden Age detective fiction, so it may not be a surprise that this is my choice this week.

Cover of The Crime at Black Dudley

Yes, I’ve finally managed to read the first Albert Campion book.  And no, I didn’t realise when I was reading it that I had read it before and just not made a note of it. I’ve written about the series before – and you can definitley see why those Wimsey parody conclusions were drawn.  In this Albert is a side-character who you never really get to know (but want to know more about) as he helps unravel what is happening.  The main characters here are George Abbershaw and Meggie Oliphant, who find themselves caught up in the mysterious death of the host of a house party that they’re attending, and then imprisoned at the house by forces who believe they have stolen something valuable. Like many of the later novels in the series, it’s more of an adventure-thriller than a murder mystery and there are mentions of things that crop up again in later stories.

If you like this sort of caper, it’s a good example of its type.  If you have an interest in the era and the genre, it’s definitely a good one to have read.  I enjoyed reading it for more than just the thrill of filling in part of of the Campion story that I was missing. But, like so many first in serieses, it’s not the best of the character – I think I would still tell people to start with Sweet Danger or the Tiger in the Smoke.  But if it comes your way, do not turn your nose up at it!

My copy came from the library, but you should be able to get hold of any of the Campion books fairly easily – the ebooks have been published by Vintage in the UK relatively recently and the series is still in print in paperback.  On top of that you can often find them secondhand in the book section of the charity shops

Before I go, I should give an honourable mention to Christmas Secrets by the Sea though – a late entry into the festive reading stakes.  As you may have seen in the comments from last week’s Week in Books, I quite liked this and wanted to like it more.  I didn’t think you understood the heroine well enough until quite late on and I also I didn’t didn’t think the resolution did everything it needed to. But it was still better than a lot of the Christmas books I read this year…

Happy reading – and as it’s Christmas Eve – Happy Christmas.  I hope Santa brings you all the books you asked for!

Book of the Week

Recommendsday: Tuesday Mooney

As mentioned in yesterday’s BotW post, I had trouble choosing a book this week and so as a bonus, you get a Recommendsday post about my second choice. Yes it was that sort of a week and I’m that sort of person – when I find good books, I want to tell you about it!  It’s also slightly confusing, because this has a different title depending on which part of the English-speaking world that you’re in – hence the fact that the title of the post is just Tuesday Mooney!  If you’re looking for it on Goodreads, you’ll find it as Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts – which is what I listed it as on the Week in Books post and that’s what it’s called in the US, but in the UK Katie Racculia’s third novel is called Tuesday Mooney Wears Black.  Now I’m not sure that either title really gives you a sense of what the book is really about, but I think the artwork on the US version is more indicative so that’s what I’ve gone with for the first picture.

US cover of Tuesday Mooney

Tuesday Mooney is a research wizard. She works at a hospital, digging into the lives of the rich to try and find the information to get them to donate money. But she has a secret. When she was a teenager, her best friend disappeared and she’s never really got over it.  She’s a loner, who never really lets anyone in to her life – even her best from Dex (short for Poindexter). But she loves puzzles and secrets and when an eccentric millionaire drops dead at a fundraiser she’s working at, she’s drawn in to the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired contest he’s from beyond the grave to give away some of his fortune.  She’s also drawn into the secrets and rivalries of two of Boston’s richest families and her life may never be the same again.

UK cover of Tuesday Mooney

This is a gothic adventure caper with a prickly heroine and a set of secondary characters that just win you over. It’s also quite hard to describe without giving away spoilers and it doesn’t really sit in any one genre particularly easily. It’s a mystery, it’s an adventure, it’s a thriller. It’s got ghosts in one of its titles, but it isn’t really a paranormal or fantasy novel. It is clever and incredibly readable and I just loved it. I’ve never read Kate Racculia before, but I’ve just bought one of her earlier books because I liked this so much.

My copy of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts/Wears Black came from the library, but it’s available on Kindle and Kobo for £2.99 as I write this.  The paperback isn’t out in the UK until February, but you can preorder on Amazon, or buy it in hardback (on a different listing on Amazon) in the American edition.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week

Book of the Week: The Bromance Book Club

Well where to start.  You saw the list yesterday. it was long. There was good stuff. You might have expected the pick today to be the Gail Carriger – and I do love her, but I’ve written a lot about her already and you really need to be reading those in order, so go back at least as far as Prudence first, maybe even Soulless. But this book, the very last one I read last week was my favourite. I had trouble stopping myself reading it when I had to go and do other things. Like eat. Or get off the train.

Cover of The Bromance Book Club

Gavin Scott has messed up. His baseball career is on a high, but his marriage has fallen apart. The night of his biggest career triumph was also the night his relationship came crashing down when he discovered his wife Thea had been faking it in bed. He reacted badly and now she wants a divorce. Gavin doesn’t though – he wants his wife back. Enter the Bromance Book Club – a group of really quite alpha guys who have fixed their own relationships with the help of a seemingly unlikely source: romance novels. With the help of the book that they’ve picked for him Gavin starts to try and rebuild his marriage. But will he manage to follow its instructions – and does Thea even want to try again?

“The point is to fit the lessons of it into your own marriage. Plus, that’s a Regency, so—” “What the hell is a Regency?” “That means it’s set in eighteenth-or early nineteenth-century England.” “Oh, great. That sounds relevant.” “It is, actually,” Malcolm said. “Modern romance novelists use the patriarchal society of old British aristocracy to explore the gender-based limitations placed on women today in both the professional and personal spheres. That shit is feminist as fuck.”

This was so much my jam. I mean really, really good. I mean if that quote doesn’t sell it to you, then I don’t know what will. Gavin is a great hero – he knows he’s messed up, he doesn’t know how to fix it and he hasn’t realised that more is wrong than just the bedroom issue.  His pro-sports career gives him a legitimate reason to have not noticed some of the stuff that’s been bothering Thea – and once he realises what’s happened, he pulls himself together and makes changes to do better and be better.  Thea is an attractive heroine – she’s a young mum who’s given up a lot because of her husband’s career but who still has goals and ambitions.  You understand why she reacts the way that she does and why she feels so strongly. She’s changed herself so much to fit in with Gavin’s life and the players’ wives and she wants to find her own identity again.  It’s wonderful to watch it all unfold.

The only thing that I didn’t like was the resolution to the bedroom side of the story.  Nothing really changes really in *what* they’re doing in the bedroom – so you don’t really understand orgasms weren’t happening during sex for Thea in the first place – or why she started being able to come again. Other reviewers have also spotted this – and I think it has bothered them more than it bothered me – but it is annoying and also troublesome. In a book which is mostly about Gavin learning to listen to his wife and to be a better partner, there’s no conversation about how to fix this at all – but hey presto, it’s fixed because the rest of their relationship is fixed.  That’s not how it works. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book, but it is a shame and an opportunity missed.

I’m having a real moment with contemporary romance right now and struggling a bit with the historical stuff (apart from a few reliable authors) but this was such a great combination of the two.  It’s also got a great cast of supporting characters with the other guys from the book club – the Russian with the digestive problems, the playboy who flirts with every woman he sees.  Thea’s sister Liv was a bit of a tough sell for me at times, but as you lean more about the sisters’ childhood you understand why she is like she is.  I’m looking forward to her getting a book of her own – because this – praise be – is the start of a series.

My copy of the Bromance Book Club  by Lyssa Kay Adams came from NetGalley, but it’s out now in ebook – it’s a bargainous £1.99 on Kindle and Kobo at the moment.  The paperback comes out in the UK at the end of January.

Happy Reading!

 

book round-ups, non-fiction, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Rich People Problems – Non-fiction Edition

Regular readers of the blog may be aware that I’m somewhat fascinated by the interwar period.  I love Golden Age crime novels, like my beloved Peter Wimsey, one of my all-time favourite novels is Laurie Graham’s Gone With the Windsors and I’ve read a lot about of some of the notables of the period  – some of which I’ve written about here before – like Flappers, Bright Young People and Queen Bees.  And after a recent jag of books about the era (and slightly beyond), now seemed like an ideal time for a bit of a round up of the best bits of the non-fiction.  You’ll hear more about the fiction anon…

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell JrCover of Empty Mansions

This is another one of those books that I’ve wanted to read after I saw the author interviewed about on the Daily Show before Jon Stewart left and have recently got around to reading (see also: Jim Henson) and it is really something.  Huguette Clark died in hospital in 2011 at the age of 104. The fact that she died in hospital is about the only “normal” thing about her life. She was worth $300m. She’d been in the hospital for 30 years. She hadn’t been photographed – in public at least – for nearly twice that. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman and one of Huguette’s cousins, Paul Clark Newell Jr, look at her life, her family’s fortune and why she retreated to the confines of one room (and progressively smaller one at that) of a hospital for so long when she had apartments and riches that most people can only dream of.  And it’s one hell of a ride.  I read it as an ebook, which is good because it’s long and dense and has footnotes that you might want to flick back and forth to. As well as being fascinating it leaves you with lots of things to ponder – why did she retreat from public life in the 1930s? Was she exploited by the hospital or her carers? And what do people who have made huge fortunes owe to the people and the towns they made the money off? Well worth a look.

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

Hardback of The Riviera Set

Want to know how the French Riviera become the playground of the rich and famous?  This book will tell you.  Lovell’s book starts by introducing you to Maxine Elliott and showing how she established herself as one of Edwardian society’s notable hostesses before building Chateau de l’Horizon, the modernist villa at the centre of the book.  Between the wars, Maxine’s house hosted all the notables of the time – the Churchills, the Windsors, Noel Coward and more – and after the war it transitioned into a party house for the Hollywood set under the ownership of Aly Khan.  I learned new things about some familiar faces from the interwar years – as well as being introduced to a 50s and 60s jet-set that I wasn’t really very knowledgable about.  This mixes royal history, political history and Hollywood history as it shows how the Riviera evolved through the years – although it stops well before the coast became the exlusive playground of oligarchs and the super rich.  Very readable and just gossipy enough. I liked it so much it’s still on my downstairs shelves, nearly two years after I first read it.

Chanel’s Riviera by Anne de Courcy

hardback copy of Chanels Riviera

Once you’ve read about Maxine, go straight on to Anne de Courcy’s new book and see what happened to the Riviera when the Second World War hit it.  The Lovell – which focuses on the villa and the rich – covers the World War Two in one chapter, mostly about how everyone got out.  Chanel’s Riviera will fill in the gaps – and make sure that you don’t go away with the idea that the Riviera wasn’t really affected by it all.  There is plenty about Chanel herself in here, mostly around her time on the Riviera and her friends there, but there’s a lot more detail about the more normal people down there – and not just the rich.  There are expats who had moved down there for their health and the people who had moved down there to work for them or with them.  This one only just came out – it’ll get a place on my shelves just as soon as I get it back from my mum…

The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell

Cover of The Unfinished Palazzo

This is a group biography of sorts of three very unconventional for their time women who all owned the titualar Venetian Palazzo during the twentieth century. I found this while scouring my shelves looking for something similar to The Riviera Set after reading that – and it even has some crossover in the cast list (if you know what I mean!), as Doris Castlerosse is a principle figure in this after being a side character in the Lovell.  Luisa Casati was what probably what we would consider now to be a performance artist – albeit one with a pet cheetah. Doris Castlerosse was a socialite who married money and was close to Winston Churchill. And Peggy Guggenheim was an heiress who renovated the building and used it to showcase her collection of modern art (yes, one of those Guggenheims).  Although this was less satisfying than the Lovell overall,  and would serve you well as an entry point into any of their lives.  I would happily read more about any one of the women in this.

So there you have it.  Four more books to add to the list.  This has been mostly European focused – even Huguette – who was part French and spoke with a French accent!  If you’ve got any recommendations for more stuff about America or the rest of the world in this period, hit me up in the comments. Equally if you’ve got an historical rich people problems novels that you think I should read let me know – because they are also my catnip.

Happy Reading!