Book of the Week, historical, new releases, reviews, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Old Baggage

This week’s Book of the Week is Lissa Evans’s new novel – which is appropriate because it comes out on Thursday! You may remember that one of her previous books, Crooked Heart, was a Book of the Week just under 18 months ago so I was thrilled to spot this one on NetGalley and be able to pick it up.  You don’t need to have read Crooked Heart to read this – but if you have I think it will add an extra layer to your enjoyment.

The cover of Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage is the story of Matilda.  Before the war, she was a suffragette and her life revolved around the quest to get women the vote.  Now it’s 1928 and women are about to get parity – the vote on the same terms as men.  Mattie is pleased but she doesn’t think the battle is over.  Unfortunately no-one else seems to agree with her and she’s rather at sea trying to figure out what she should do next.  The book follows Mattie as she searches for a new mission – with her loyal friend Florrie Lee (known as The Flea) supporting her and trying to be a calming influence.  Along the way she encounters old friends who’ve faced a similar dilemma and is stung by a criticism from one of them, who is trying to recruit Mattie to help with her facist youth group, that she is just a dabbler.  And so she sets up a rival group – to try and educate young women about why they take an interest and get involved in causes that they believe in – or that Mattie thinks that they should believe in.

I really liked Mattie as a character – she’d be a nightmare to be friends with because you’d never get a word in edgeways and she would always tell you if she disagreed with you and go into details about why – but she’s fascinating to read about.  For all her talk of being sensible and levelheaded, she has some very real blindspots.  She’s definitely on the right side of history but she’s not always going about it in the right way.  And when she picks the wrong person to try and take under her wing, it puts everything that she’s worked for at risk.  On top of this, Mattie’s history with the suffragettes – her confrontations with police, her time in prison etc – often means that there are people who aren’t prepared to listen to her or take her seriously.  It almost goes without saying, but the title of this book is so clever and well chosen – Mattie has a lot of baggage from her suffragette days but a lot of people see her as an old baggage – a nuisance of an old woman, out of touch and past her prime.

I also really liked the Flea – for all Mattie’s talk and noble aims, it’s Florrie who is out there in the real world trying to do something to make a difference on a day to day basis.  She’s the sensible counterpoint to Mattie’s idealist and shows that you need the quiet organisers behind the scenes to get things done as well as the people on the frontline.  And Ida, one of the young women who is drawn into Mattie and Florrie’s orbit, is an interesting character in her own right and not just a plot device for showing the strengths and weaknesses of Mattie and Florrie.

It’s 100 years this year since some women in Britain got the vote and a lot has been written about the Suffrage and Suffragette movements.  There’s a stack of new books out this year – and I’ve got many of them on my to-buy list – many of them non-fiction.  But sometimes the situation calls for some fiction too and Old Baggage reminds us – in a very readable and compelling way – that the fight didn’t end in 1918 and takes a very plausible (in my view) look at what might have happened next to some of the women whose lives had revolved around trying to get the vote before the start of World War One.  Evans has used a very light hand when it comes to the flashbacks of the realities of Mattie’s life as a suffragette – I could have read pages more about it. 

I may not have read much last week in the grand scheme of things, but I think this would probably have been my BotW pick even if I’d read a dozen books.  It’s not onle massively readable – I raced through it and wished that I could have been disciplined enough to make it last longer – but it makes you think and gives you things to chew over long after you’ve finished reading it.  As I mentioned at the top, my copy was an e-galley – so it’s also going on my to-buy list because I know that my mum and my sister will really enjoy this.

Old Baggage is out in hardback on the 14th – you’ve still got time to preorder it and have it get to you on the day of release if you’re quick.  I hope it gets a good push at the bookshops – I’d expect it to be in all the good bookshops, but I’m not sure about the supermarkets.  I’m sure Big Green Bookshop will be happy to get it in for you, but it’s also available in Kindle and Kobo if you want an ebook.

Happy Reading!

Authors I love, Series I love

Series I Love: Daisy Dalrymple

It occurred to me while I was writing last week’s BotW post that I haven’t actually written a proper post about Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series and that I should definitely remedy that.  So here is the latest in my (very) occasional Series I Love series (too many serieses? Sorry.  I’m bad with names and it’s too late to change that).  Anyway, this is one of my favourite interwar-set murder mystery series and it’s long over due a post here on the blog.

At the start of the series, it’s 1923 and Daisy is trying find a way to make her living independent of her family.  She’s an Honorable, but her only brother was killed in the Great War and her father died in the Spanish Flu outbreak, which meant the title, the family home and the family fortune went to a cousin.  Daisy had been engaged during the war – but her fiancé, who was a conscientious objector, died while driving an ambulance in France.  And so she finds herself in the brave new post-war world needing to make her own way in the world and with few options of how to do it.  So she’s trying to make some money writing articles about the stately homes of Britain, using the connections she has because of her family and upbringing.

That’s exactly what she’s doing in the first book, Death at Wentwater Court.  It’s her first assignment for Town and Country magazine, going to a country house party so that she can write an article about the history of the house.  But things are not all sunshine and roses at the house and she stumbles over a corpse.  Armed with her camera and her shorthand skills, Daisy’s soon working alongside the police as they investigate what happened, although Daisy’s friendship with the family means she’s really hoping that it won’t turn out that one of them is the culprit.  It sets up Daisy and her regular gang and introduces Detective Inspector Alec Fletcher and his team from Scotland Yard.  It also has an ending that not everyone will be able to get on board with (although I didn’t really have a problem with it) – but I can’t really explain what the problem is without giving a big old spoiler.

I think my favourite book of the series may be book four – Murder on the Flying Scotsman.  Daisy is off to Scotland on a writing assignment when a murder is committed on the train.  To complicate things, Alec’s young daughter is also on board after running away from home and her grandmother.  The murder suspects are the family of one of Daisy’s old schoolmates, and when Alec is called in to investigate the attraction between him and Daisy comes to a head.  The mystery is good – and if you’ve read the rest of the series, the start of a resolution to Alec and Daisy is delicious to read about.

Daisy makes for an interesting heroine and makes a nice counter point to Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher who is at a similar level in society, but with different resources and a different view of the world. Daisy is was brought up to be a good wife to the right sort of nobleman, but realises that the war and her newly reduced circumstances probably mean that her chance of that sort of life has passed her by. Daisy doesn’t get on with her mother, doesn’t want to be dependent on the charity of a distant cousin and has come up with an ingenious way of exploiting her skills and experience to try and gain her independence.  Yes, people seem willing to tell her their secrets on very little acquaintance, but people tell my mum things she doesn’t need/want to know all the time, so I can totally buy into the idea of someone having a sympathetic face!

As the series goes on, Daisy’s life goes down a more traditional route – she gets married and has children, but she’s still trying to maintain her own interests and just can’t stop getting tangled up with murders.  So far (twenty-two books in, with a twenty-third out later in the year after a three year gap) Dunn has also managed to keep Daisy moving around and avoid too much repetition of set ups and avoid Daisy falling victim to the Jessica Fletcher effect.  The books are a great hybrid of the modern cozy crime novel and a Golden Age murder mystery, which make for a really relaxing way to pass time.  Writing this post has made me want to go back and read the series all over again.  In fact I may well do!

If this has inspired you to go and try some Daisy, the first four books are available as an omnibus edition on Kindle – which is how I started out on the series, although I got it for considerably less than the £6.99 it costs at time of writing, so it might be worth adding it to your watch list if you’re on a budget.  They’re also available as paperbacks as you can tell from the pictures – the first few are often available in the crime sections of the larger bookstores, I also picked up mine from a charity shop, which had almost the whole set – requiring a considerable amount of willpower from me to resist going wild.

And if you want to know more about my favourite characters in books, you can read previous installments of Series I Love on Lord Peter Wimsey, and The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.

Happy Reading!

Adventure, Book of the Week, detective, Forgotten books

Book of the Week: The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith

There were a few options for this week’s BotW pick, but I have plans for some of them, but also this was my favourite book that I read last week and makes a nice companion or compliment to last week’s choice. Last week I picked A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia, which was a book set in the interwar period but written now, this week it’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, which is a genuine forgotten Golden Age mystery. It was also another book from the massive unread pile on my Kindle and I’m so pleased I impulse bought it at some point in the distant past.

The cover of The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith

Patrica Wentworth’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith was originally published in 1923 and tells the story of a young woman who is swept into an adventure after a chance meeting when she’s down on her luck, with nowhere to stay and be t to no money. In one of those astonishing coincidences that you find in some books, it transpires that a Jane has a cousin who is practically her double and who is being held hostage by her father and a shadowy group that he is associated with. The cousin has a fiancé who is desperate to elope with her and run off to foreign climes and Jane ends up switching places with Renata and taking over her identity. What follows is a breathless espionage adventure thriller with a dash of romance and a dollop of murder.

It rattles along at a breathless pace that doesn’t really give you a chance to notice the bonkersness until you’ve finished and stop to think. I raced through it once I actually sat down properly to read it and then went off to trawl Kindle for more books by Patricia Wentworth in my budget. A certain amount of suspension of belief is necessary – there are anarchists and secret passages and shadowy forces at work as well as the lookalike cousins – but you liked The 39 Steps, or the more adventure-y Albert Campion novels, then you need to read this.

The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith is included in Kindle Unlimited if you’re part of that scheme, or you can buy it on Kindle or as a paperback. At time of writing it’s £1.99 on Kindle, but I’m fairly sure I picked it up for free, so it might be worth adding to your watch list to see if the price drops.

Happy Reading!

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

Book of the Week: Anna and her Daughters

This week’s BotW is one I picked up as a Kindle Daily Deal a couple of weeks back: Anna and her Daughters by DE Stevenson.  You may remember me waxing lyrical about my love for Miss Buncle and her book back in a #Recommendsday about Comfort reads a while back and this was the first non-Buncle book I’ve read by DE Stevenson.

The cover of Anna and Her Daughters
I’m not sure about the cover on this, but hey, when the book is good it doesn’t matter!

The Plot:  Anna’s husband has died and the family’s finances are in a mess.  They’re going to have to sell the London house and move to somewhere smaller.  Anna decides that she wants to go back to the area of Scotland that she grew up in and starts making plans.  None of her three nearly grown up daughters are precisely keen on the idea, but only one, Jane, is prepared to make the best of it.  Anna and the girls move – Helen and Rosalie are practically kicking and screaming – and start their new lives.

The story is told through Jane’s eyes – she’s the plain but clever sister, who would have gone to Oxford if it hadn’t been for the money problems.  Helen is pretty, but selfish and used to getting her own way.  Rosalie isn’t as pretty as Helen, but isn’t clever like Jane either and tends to drift along in Helen’s shadow.  The combination of the three sisters makes for fascinating reading.  Anna is remarkably clear sighted about her daughters in some ways – she sees their faults in a way that many parents do not.  She tries to explain her attitude to Jane, who (justifiably) gets angry about the way that Helen treats people and the fact that she gets away with it.

As the book goes on we see the girls grow and change.  Jane discovers a gift for writing, Rosalie chooses security and Helen continues to be Helen, regardless of the consequences.  This book is very melodramatic in some ways but also feels like nothing much happens.  I loved it.  Especially when Miss Buncle gets a quick mention.

Anna and her Daughters is available in Kindle or you’ll have to go and find a secondhand paperback copy, which by the look of Amazon maybe expensive.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, mystery

Book of the Week: Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars

I had such a tough job picking a book for BotW this week, because I really didn’t read anything that I whole-heartedly loved.  I started reading a lot of books and then gave up on them, and I finished a few – including a real stinker.  But in the end I plumped for Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson.

Cover of Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars.
As I mention below, Im not quite sure the cover for this is quite right.

Anna Treadway is a dresser, working in a London theatre and living above a Turkish cafe in Soho in 1965.  When the actress who she works with disappears, she sets out to try and find her as the trail grows cold and the newspapers lose interest.   As she hunts for the mysterious Iolanthe Green she finds herself in new world of jazz clubs, police cells and backstreet doctors.

Whilst this wasn’t perfect, it was an interesting idea and a great cast of diverse characters. It’s got an interesting mystery that’s well thought through and several different plot strands which tie together quite nicely.  Underneath the mystery of where Iolanthe has gone there are issues of prejudice and race and people struggling to be heard and believed. From the look of the (UK) cover and some of the write ups I was expecting it to be ultimately more uplifting, but perhaps given the issues that it’s dealing with, I was being unrealistic.

This is Miranda Emmerson’s first novel and it does a great job of creating the atmosphere of 1960s London and the grimier side of life.  In fact that was what I liked best about it – the mix of people thrown together, some times living side by side without ever intersecting.  I think I would have liked more of Anna’s backstory and I wanted a bit more of what happened next at the end, but I pretty much always want more of what happened next at the end!

My copy came via NetGalley, but you can get Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle and Kobo.  It only came out a couple of weeks back so it’s hardcover and the ebooks are priced accordingly too I’m afraid.  The paperback is out in July, so it may drop a little then, if you want to add it to your wishlist and wait it out.

Happy Reading.

Book of the Week, fiction

Book of the Week: Crooked Heart

Quite a tough decision on what to pick for BotW this week – there were several contenders. But in the end I’ve plumped for Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart, which I devoured over the weekend while we were away for an extended jolly for my birthday.   This was another book which had ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile and resurfaced because of the Big Box Up and I’m so glad that it did.

Copy of Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans.
Mine had an extra cover on it – the actual cover is prettier.

 

Crooked Heart tells the story of Noel, who is evacuated to Hertfordshire in 1940.   Noel is an unusual 10 year old.  He’s been brought up by an old lady and is precocious and smart beyond his years.  He ends up with Vera – a 36 year old single mum struggling with debt, a recalcitrant and secretive son and her demanding mother.  Vera is sure there is some money to be made out of the war, but the trouble is that she’s not very good at making a plan and sticking to it.  But Noel is a different proposition.  He’s smart, he’s calm and he might be the answer to Vera’s problems.  But of course they’re not the only people making money from the war, and there are dangers other than air-raids in Noel’s new life.

I really enjoyed this.  Noel and Vera are engaging characters who make a good team.  Vera is almost a proto-Del Boy – but with Noel to help she has the chance of her deals actually going right.  In some ways Noel reminded me of  William in Goodnight Mr Tom (that’s a good thing) – Noel has had more advantages in his education and home life that William did, but he’s still a little boy who has had to grow up too fast and deal with things that children aren’t meant to deal with.  And one of the themes of Goodnight Mr Tom is finding your own family and your own place in life and there’s a lot of that here although Vee is very different to Tom.

It’s a heartwarming romp through the grey, greyer and uglier areas of life on the home front.  I could easily have read another 100 pages of Vee and Noel, but actually the ending is a brilliant touch.  I haven’t read any of Lissa Evans’ books before, but my little sister still has a copy Evans’ first novel, Spencer’s List, on her shelf which I bought for her back in the day 15 years ago, so I’m going to have to borrow that off her and read it.  Coincidentally someone posted a trailer on Facebook for the upcoming film Their Finest on the same day as I read this – and that’s based on Evans’ previous book Their Finest Hour and a Half, which I totally need to read now as well.

You can get a copy of Crooked Heart from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles or on Kindle or Kobo.  And it looks like there might be a (slightly retitled) tie-in edition of Their Finest Hour and Half coming out too.

Happy Reading!