book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: April 2021 Mini Reviews

Ok, so slightly cheating this month, in that I couple of these were actually finished in the first two days of May, but I’m giving them a bye because they came out in April. Oh the ways in which we deceive ourselves…

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny*

Cover of Early Morning Riser

Jane is a teacher in Boyne City, Michigan. When she locks herself out of her house she meets Duncan – not actually a locksmith, but a carpenter who can fix locks as well. Soon they’re dating – but as Duncan has already dated almost ever woman in town, she never quite feels like she has him to herself. Soon Jane is caught up in a web of relationships with some of Boyne City’s eccentric residents – including Duncan’s ex wife and her new husband. After a terrible car crash Jane, Duncan and Aggie’s lives are permanently linked, but is there actually a different sort of happy to the one Jane was expecting waiting for her if she just looks for it? Standard Deviation was a book of the week pick here, a couple of years back and this is Katherine Heiny’s latest novel. Back then I said that I wouldn’t actually want to be friends with the leads in that, but I think I would like to be friends with Jane – although Duncan would be a bit of a trial to have as a boyfriend! This is warm and funny but bittersweet. It’ll make you laugh and make you cry and then you’ll want to tell everyone you know to read it too. I need to buy a copy so I can lend it out.

The Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan**

Cover of The Devil Comes Courting

Courtney Milan’s latest novel is the long awaited third in the Worth Saga, but set on the other side of the world. Amelia Smith was adopted by missionaries as a child, but has always been waiting for her real mum to come back for her. When Captain Grayson Hunter offers her a job devising a code to transmit Chinese characters by telegraph, she doesn’t think she’s the person he’s looking for. But after some persuasion, she decides giving it a go is a better option than marrying another missionary. Grayson is determined to lay the first transpacific telegraph cable and achieve the dream his brothers aren’t here to complete. Convincing Amelia that she’s the missing link that his company needs is a hard task, but soon the sparks are flying between the two of them – even though both of them are determined to ignore them. As well as the romance this is also examining the damage that missionaries did going out and forcing their beliefs on to other cultures around the world. This will may make you feel uncomfortable, but it’s meant to and you probably need to sit with that. I liked the romance well enough, but what I really loved was watching Amelia come into herself and make the life that she wants to have, not the one that her adoptive mother things she should have. And if you liked the meddling relatives in Dial A for Aunties, this has a couple of characters who are doing a similar sort of thing – just in nineteenth century China. If you’re fed up of Regency or even just European-see historicals, try this.

Wicked Enchantment by Wanda Coleman*

Cover of Wicked Enchantment

Ok, so let’s preface this with the fact that I’m not a big poetry person. In fact I’m still holding a grudge agains Wordsworth, Tennyson and the Brownings after my A-Levels. But every now and again I venture in and this was one of those times. And it was also my first encounter with Wanda Coleman and it has absolutely made an impression on me. This is a thought provoking and well put together collection of more than 130 poems from across Coleman’s forty career. The order is drawn from Coleman’s own preferences and examines her life and black American experiences as she saw them. It’s gritty and rule breaking and I sometimes felt totally out of my depth. You’ll have to think and concentrate and probably read out loud to understand the rhythm. And although some of the poems are forty years old, the themes and experiences still feel strikingly relevant today.

The Fear-fighter Manual by Luvvie Ajayi Jones*

Cover of The Fear-Fighter Manual

This is a readable and insightful look at the importance of speaking up for yourself and how to navigate that without blowing up your life or reliving your mistakes forever more. This is dedicated to the author’s grandmother – a formidable Nigerian woman who overcame substantial obstacles, lived her life as she wanted and spoke out when she thought it was needed. I particularly enjoyed reading about how the author’s upbringing – split between Nigeria and the US has informed her perspective and the lessons that she has taken from the strong women in her life and the squad she has built around herself. It is quite American-self-help book in tone at times- which is not always my style, but I enjoyed it and found it just on the right side of my personal line for that. I’m not sure how much of this is applicable to my life – but there are some important ideas and lessons here that I will sit with (as the Americans say) and digest and try to use to inform my thinking and behaviour. Also I already couldn’t wait to be able to meet up with people in person again, but after all the sections about her friends and her squad, that’s only got worse!

An honourable mention has to go to Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, about a murder in fundamentalist Mormon country. I gave it a mention in my post about podcasts when I was talking about Short Creek – and if I hadn’t listened to that I would probably have given it a whole list of its own. But it’s a little out of date now, and Short Creek will do you a lot of the same things, just in updated podcast form – the main change is the Rulon/Warren Jeff’s situation.

In case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in April were Dial A for Aunties (published in May, but read in April!) He’s Not My Boyfriend, Rosie Danan’s Roommate duo, Enjoy the View and Billion Dollar Loser.

And here are the links to the mini reviews from January, February and March.

Happy Reading!

Best of..., Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Novelised Real Lives

The latest instalment of my intermittent Recommendsday series, is a post about a trio of books that feature fictional versions of real life people. It’s a part of literature that I’ve read quite a lot of over the years – and quite enjoy. I date it back to my A-Levels when I derived a lot of enjoyment when studying the Literature of the First World War and reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration and then in spotting all the various poets popping up in all in various other pieces of fiction about the era – and then deciphering who was meant to be who in Siegfried Sasson’s Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man.  The books in this have been read over some considerable time – and I could have held off on publishing this for ages as I have more of these on my to-read pile. But after not enjoying one of the potentials to be added the other week, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet and wanted to get it out there.  These three fall into some of my preferred areas of reading too – Hollywood’s Golden Age and what I’m going to call the extended post first world war period…

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe*

Cover of Mr Wilder and Me

After a chance meeting with Billy Wilder while backpacking around the US in the 1970s, Calista finds herself on a Greek Island working as a translator on the set of Wilder’s latest film. Calista is barely out of her teens, young, naive and slightly without a direction in her life. Through the course of the summer, she watches a Hollywood great who is falling out of favour in the new world of Scorseses and Spielbergs, and learns about the sadness that haunts Wilder. I love a book about Old Hollywood and I also love novels that fictionalise real people, so even the blurb for this really, really appealed to me. And it didn’t disappoint. Mr Wilder and Me is incredibly readable – even if after you finish it you realise Calista herself is not a massively well developed character and exists mostly as a way of getting you into Wilder’s world. There is not a lot of drama here – but it doesn’t need it. It’s an examination of cinema, and fame and what you do and how you cope when people think your glory days are behind you but you don’t.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain*

Cover of Love and Ruin

I really like what McLain does with fictionalising real people. Admittedly, so far she hasn’t done one on anyone who’s life I was already massively familiar with, but I’m not sure I care. Having tackled Hadley Richardson’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Wife, in Love and Ruin, McLain returns to Hemingway’s life – but this time through the eyes of his third wife, legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It’s a fascinating portrait of a relationship between two incredibly strong characters, neither of whom are prepared to let go of what they want to do (although Gellhorn definitely makes more compromises than Hemingway does). I would happily read another 100 pages of What Martha Did Next – and came away from this with even more respect for her than I already had. Really, really good – and very readable.

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer*

Cover of The Age of Light

This is the story of Lee Miller – a model-turned-photographer, who was Man Ray’s assistant and then went on to work as a photographer in her own right and one of the first female war correspondents. I liked the idea of this – but ended up feeling distinctly mixed. I didn’t like any of the characters really – but that’s not a necessity. What is a necessity is feeling like there has been some resolution or outcome at the end of it all. And I didn’t get that. I felt like a spent a lot of time in the presence of someone very damaged, but I didn’t feel like I came away understanding her any better than at the start. Or at least not on any deeper level. – just not as good as the other books that I’ve read recently that have been telling fictionalised versions of real people’s lives (or portions of them).

If you want more fiction about real people, can I point you in the way of my post about the Happy Valley Set, Swan Song and also of some of Laurie Graham’s books like The Grand Duchess of Nowhere and Gone With the Windsors, the latter of which like Mr Wilder and Me inserts a fictional person into a real situation and remains one of my favourite books of all time.

Happy Reading!

*next to a name indicates that it came to me from NetGalley, probably some time ago!

Best of..., book round-ups

Recommendsday: My favourite books of 2020

Well, it’s the first Wednesday of 2021, so I’m popping up with my favourite books of 2020. And for the first time (I think) they’re all books that were new in 2020. Which is a surprise to me. But hey, there were some really good new books out last year – and as I mentioned in my post on Sunday, one of the big casualties of 2020 in my bookish life has been the chance to wander around bookshops and happen across books. My bookshop discoveries were often backlist books rather than new releases – and it’s been harder to find that sort of book in the Quarantimes. Hopefully in 2021 I’ll actually be able to wander a bookshop again, and next year I can go back to doing favourite new releases and favourite backlist again. Pretty please.

Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

This was Book of the Week back in September and not only is it my favourite murder mystery of the year, I’ve been recommending it all over the place – and everyone who has told me they have read it has loved it. And it’s sold like gangbusters – if you only got one book for Christmas this year, it may well have been this because it has sold a whole tonne of copies – including being the number one book for Christmas. But don’t be put off by that – and think it’s over hyped. It is just so much fun. The mystery is twisty, it’s got a wonderful cast of characters and why wouldn’t you want to read a murder mystery solved by a group of scheming residents of a retirement village. Just lovely. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

 

I talked about Brit Bennett’s second novel back in June and the story of the Vignes sisters has really stuck with me. Stella and Desiree are identical twins, but after they run away from their small town home at the age of 16 their lives take radically different directions. Stella passes as white as she tries to build herself a better future – and spends her life looking over her shoulder – and Desiree escapes an abusive relationship only to find herself back where she started, but with a child in tow. But somehow the sisters lives always end up being intertwined. As you read it the language and the clever structure enthralls you and once it’s over it leaves you with a lot to think about. 

Legendary Children by Tom and Lorenzo

I read a lot of non-fiction last year, and I was having a hard time picking my favourite, but then the new series of Drag Race started, and my choice became obvious. Tom and Lorenzo’s book uses Drag Race as a framing device to look at queer life and how the show turns that into addictive TV. It’s well researched, incredibly readable with a really fun snarky tone – like their blog. This came out in March last year, and as I said in my BotW review back then I learnt so much from it. It’s enhanced my enjoyment of the show – and it’s meant that I can look super knowledgable. A total win. My only regret is lending my copy out – and not getting it back before everything started to lock down again!

V for Victory by Lissa Evans*

Cover of V for Victory

In the dying days of the Second World War, Vee Sedge and her “ward” Noel are just about making ends meet in their house on Hampstead Heath thanks to a strange assortment of lodgers and a more than a bit of good luck. When having to attend court threatens to bring their life crashing down, they need all of their skills and cunning to keep the show on the road. V for Victory is the third book featuring Noel and his eccentric extended family and carries on from after Crooked Heart (Old Baggage was set before Crooked Heart) and I don’t know what more I can say about how much I love them. The books have a wonderful spirit and a real sense of the shades of grey and contradictions in people and of wartime. And it’s funny and will also make you cry. Lovely stuff. I’ve got the paperback preordered so that I can lend it around.

Take a Hint Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Cover of Take a Hint Dani Brown

The sequel to Get a Life Chloe Brown, is a fake relationship with a social media twist. I loved #DrRugbae – Zaf is a sweetie and Dani is total competence porn and watching the two of them rub each others hard edges off (ooo-er) is a delight. Talia Hibbert writes wonderful British-set contemporary romances – something I’ve really struggled to find and enjoy this year. This did everything I wanted it to and narrowly beat out it’s predecessor for BotW when I read them both in the same week in June. The third book is out in March – and I’ve got it preordered.

And there you have it. Five of my favourite books from 2020. Honourable mentions go to Bad Blood, Love Lettering, Her Last Flight, and the latest books in the Veronica Speedwell, Rivers of London and Vinyl Detective series’ – all of which I’ve already written about ad nauseum over the years.

 

 

book round-ups

Recommendsday: Mini Reviews from April

Another month is over, so here’s the latest selection of mini reviews – these are for books that I enjoyed in the previous month, but which I haven’t already talked about. Two of these are new releases that I got from NetGalley (they have the asterisks) the other is one I bought for myself after seeing other people recommend it. If you want a physical copy of these – and Mooncakes is only available as a physical copy – then please get in touch with your local independent bookseller – or in the case of Mooncakes your local comic book store.

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

paperback copy of Mooncakes

A graphic novel to start – Mooncakes is a YA fantasy story about a magic and witches and first love. Set in New England, when Nova Huang follows reports of a white wolf one night she discovers her childhood crush Tam Lang battling a horse demon. With the help of her grannies and the spellbooks from their bookshop, the two are soon trying to defeat the dark forces that threaten their town – but also discovering that they still have feelings for each other. I loved the artwork for this as well as the story – it really worked for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan in me. I see on Goodreads it’s getting a “people who read this also read…” to Pumpkinheads, but I think it would also work for fans of Lumberjanes who are a little older – either grownups like me or teens who have aged out of middle-grade. As I said at the top, this is only available as a paperback – so no ebook links here I’m afraid.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healy*

Cover of The Animals at Lockwood Manor

Need some creepy gothic fiction set in World War 2? Well maybe try this: it’s summer 1939 and Hetty Cartwright has been entrusted with evacuating the natural history museum’s collection of mammals to keep them safe from the looming war. But when she gets to Lockwood Manor where she will stay to look after them, she discovers a very strange household indeed.  Lord Lockwood is short-tempered and unpredictable, his daughter is friendly towards Hetty but clearly troubled and the servants really don’t like the large collection of taxidermy that they’re now having to help look after. And then things start moving, and then going missing altogether. But for all the talk of ghosts and haunting, that sort of thing isn’t real is it? This has a lot of themes in it that I like – women trying to make their way in a world built for men, big country houses, the time period (and a gorgeous cover) – but the pace was a bit slow for me. Other people whose opinions I respect haven’t had that problem though so I’m still happy recommending it. This came out in March in hardback and ebook (Kindle/Kobo) and audiobook.

Unflappable by Suzie Gilbert*

Cover of Unflappable

Are you one of the many people who’ve been watching Tiger King in lockdown? I have and that’s exactly why I requested this from NetGalley. Luna Burke is on the run. Her estranged husband has stolen a bald eagle from a wildlife sanctuary and she’s determined to steal it back from his private zoo and get it to safety in Canada where it can be reunited with its mate. This is classed on Goodreads under chick lit and romantic comedy but I actually think it’s trying to be an adventure caper – there’s certainly not a lot of romance in it. But whatever it is a story featuring craziness from wildlife rescuers is perfectly timed at the moment. I didn’t think it was entirely successful – better in the idea than the excecution – but there are enough people on Goodreads who’ve loved it that I think it might work better for other people.  One thing is for sure though: the plot seemed a lot less far-fetched than it would have done before I had watched the exploits of Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin! This one is a paperback original – but looks like it’s probably a special order from the states, so it’s probably easier to get the ebook – in Kindle or Kobo.

And that’s your lot for this month. If you’ve missed the previous posts, here are the mini-reviews from March, February and January. And just in case you missed them, here are the books of the week from April: Dead Famous, A Cowboy to Remember, Murder to Music and Death of a Demented Spiv, the blog tour post for Conjure Women, the Series I Love post for the Cazalets, my escapist coronavirus fiction suggestions and my #Recommendsday post for the Happy Valley Set.

Happy Reading!

Blog tours, new releases

Blog Tour: Conjure Women

A bonus post this Wednesday for you as I’m the latest stop on the blog tour for Conjure Women by Afia Atakora. This is a debut novel that’s got a fair bit of of hype – just yesterday morning it made it into an email from Barnes and Noble, who have picked it for their book club this month. Anyway, after a string of romance and crime reviews, it’s been really nice to get my teeth into some thing a bit different – and this is a world away from most of my recent reading that I’ve been telling you about.

Cover of Conjure Women

So what’s it about: Set in the American South and moving around in time before, during and after the Civil War, it is the story of May Belle a wise woman and healer for a plantation; her daughter Rue, who she passes her skills as a midwife on to and Varina, the daughter of the plantation owner, who is a similar age to Rue. Told principally through the eyes of Rue, over the course of the novel a web of secrets, passions and friendships unfolds, starting with the birth of the child Rue accidentally christens Black-Eyed Bean and who the village people think is cursed. Bean is pale-skinned and has black-eyed and people are sure he’s a bad omen. When a sickness starts sweeping through the community, they’re sure of it. Rue finds herself at the centre of their suspicions – not only did she deliver Bean, but she’s been spotted in the woods late at night, she (or her mother) has conjured spells to help many of them before – so is she conjuring to help Bean now? And why is she so wary of the preacher who comes to visit them?

So firstly – the writing in this is beautiful. The characters feel incredibly real and you can really see the plantation in your mind’s eye as you read. Rue is a seductive protagonist – she’s observant and smart, but she doesn’t always see the reality of the world – even though she thinks that she does. It means that you think that you know better than her about what is going on – and then every time, it turns out that you don’t. You know that Rue’s friendship with Varina is going to be a problem, but the narrative moves around in time so cleverly that you pick up scraps of the bigger story but the full picture never really becomes clear to you (even if you think it has) until Atakora wants you to be able to see it. Life on the plantation before the war is filled with violence and arbitrary punishment, life after the war is filled with a new peril.

Goodreads has this tagged with fantasy as well as historical fiction, and among the comparison novels is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but part of the skill of this is that it keeps you wondering if May Belle and her mother really can do magic. This was definitely a change from what I’ve been reading for the past few weeks, and it gave me a lot to think about. I’m still thinking about it now, still wondering, imagining. If you’re feeling particularly anxious at the moment, maybe wait until you’re feeling more resilient because this is very tense, with unexpected violence at various points that will horrify you. But if you want something to lift you away from the reality of a lockdown and to remind you that life could be – has been – so much worse, then this could be the book for you.

I said at the top that this is a very different pick from most of my recent reviews, but over the history of this blog I’ve written about a fair few literary fiction books, and have had a particular interest in books about the black experience in the American South since I studied The Color Purple at A Level. I’ve already mentioned The Underground Railroad, but as well as Colson Whitehead, if you’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates (and I have the Water Dancer on my tbr pile), or Toni Morrison or of Yaa Gyasi (also on my tbr) this should be on your reading list. And if you read The Confessions of Frannie Langton after I recommended that last year, then maybe give this a try too.

Conjure Women came out yesterday in ebook on Kindle and Kobo. The hardback is out next week and I don’t know how easy it will be to get from your local independent bookseller straight away, but if you’re going to read this, i’d encourage you to order it from your local bookshop if you can, even if you have to wait a bit for it to turn up because booksellers need all the help they can get at the moment.

Happy Reading!

Blog tour poster for Conjure Women

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: Miss Austen

So a bit of a strange week in reading.  I really enjoyed Alexa Martin’s Blitzed – but I gave a rave to Intercepted in May last year, so it’s inside my statute of limitations for repeats really.  There were a few things that I really didn’t like and a few more that I was a bit ho-hum about. But I also finished Miss Austen – which I wrote about in my 2020 preview post, so I thought I ought to revisit it now I have some thoughts.

Miss Austen: Spotted in the wild in Heffers at the end of January

So, the plot: in 1840 Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra goes to stay with the family of her long dead fiancé, in a quest to find a cache of letters sent by her sister.  It’s 20 years since Jane died, and Cassandra sees herself as the guardian of her sister’s legacy and image.  What is in those letters – and what damage could they do to the picture that Cassandra has carefully nurtured of her sister?  The story jumps backwards and forwards between the present day – where Cassandra is an unexpected (and not altogether welcome) visitor in a household in turmoil and Cassandra’s past with Jane, where her future looked to be going down a different path.

As I said in my 2020 preview, I will always take a second look at an Austen-related book.  Some of them work better for me than others – I loved Death Comes to Pemberley and still regularly recommend Eligible, but couldn’t stand Pemberley and didn’t even finish Longbourne. This is billed as the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life and that was the hook that drew me in.  I finished it nearly a week ago and I’m still trying to decide what I thought of it. I liked the writing style and it has some really witty moments – both in the Jane and Cassandra timeline and in the Cassandra and the Fowle’s timeline. I’m not enough of an Austen scholar to be able to pick holes in the accuracy – which is probably a good thing for my enjoyment. But I’m still not sure what it was trying to do – things happened, but I think it petered out a bit at the end.  Several people have asked me about it and I’ve struggled to articulate what exactly the problem was. Thinking about it now, I think that it maybe that the plot is sold as being about the hunt for the letters, but actually when you’re reading it that isn’t as central to the action as you expect. But I did enjoy it – Cassandra’s time as an old, meddling house guest is fun – as is her sparring with the maid. Cassandra and Jane’s relationship with their sister-in-law Mary is fun – as Mary insists that her husband was the better writer, and the sisters wonder if she will spot herself in Jane’s work.  There are some other interesting characters though and Jane and Cassandra feel very real and true.

It feels strange to pick it as a BotW in a way, because this isn’t a whole-hearted thumbs up – and I can’t even explain some of my thoughts about the book very well.  But I have kept thinking about it since I finished it last week and so that makes it worthy of a bit more attention than just a shrug and move on.  It’s also had a lot of buzz – and it’s not often that I’ve read a literary fiction book like this early doors! I see a TV adaptation is in the works, and I will definitely watch that to see how it all translates.

My copy of Miss Austen came from NetGalley, but it is out now in hardback – and should be available in any decently stocked bookshop – as my photo from Heffers proves. It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

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!

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!

Book of the Week, women's fiction

Book of the Week: In the Unlikely Event

A bit of women’s fiction for this week’s BotW pick – and I’ve gone with Judy Blume’s adult novel In the Unlikely Event. This had been sitting on my shelf for a while (it was one of the books that got lent to my mum during the great renovation of 2017) and it took me a while to get to it – and to read it – because my copy was hardback and we all know that I don’t take them on the commute with me.

Cover of In the Unlikely Event

In the Unlikely Event tells the story of the worst year of Mimi Ammerman’s life.  At the start of the book we meet her as she heads back to her home town of Elizabeth for the 35 anniversary of three plane crashes that hit her home town within a couple of months.  That was the year that she was 15 and as well as all the usual teenage angst, love affairs, school and family problems, Mimi and her friends had to deal with death falling from the sky towards them. The reader follows the community through the tumultuous period that changed all of their lives forever.

I read a lot of Judy Blume’s children’s books when I was in the right age bracket for them.  Between her and Paual Danziger my early views of what life was life in the US were formed.  From Scoliosis, to party line telephones, to periods and a lot in between, so much of what I knew about young women and teenage girls in America came from what I read in her books.  And, although she’s writing for an adult audience in this, I could feel echos of that coming through.  Mimi’s world isn’t that far different to Margaret’s but as well as seeing the world through her eyes, we also see it through the eyes of some of the adults around her and some of the older teenagers.  And it’s engrossing.  I particularly liked the newspaper articles written by Mimi’s uncle Henry.  They really set the scene for what’s happening and present the official point of view that Mimi doesn’t really see.

It is a book about three plane crashes happening though – but although I had to take some breaks from reading it, it wasn’t as bad as some of the other books about tragedies that I’ve read.  Definitely cope-able with.  And lots of you out there probably won’t even have to take breaks – I’m just a bit of a wuss.  I hadn’t really realised when I started reading this that the three plane crashes in Elizabeth actually happened.  Or if I had, I’d forgotten.  And I found out midway through wen I went googling because it seemed almost too implausible.  At university I did a History and Literature module, and my final essay question was “Literature has to be plausible, history only has to be true.  Discuss”.  If I was writing that essay now, this book would definitely be getting a mention.

Anyway, this was a really interesting read and I know I’ll be lending it on to other people.  I can’t remember exactly where I got my copy from – it was either the magic bookshelf at work or from one of the work booksales – but because I’ve had it for so long it’s been out in paperback for a couple of years nearly.  You should be able to get hold of it from any good sided bookshop or all the usual suspects – as well as on Kindle or Kobo.  As is traditional, I suggest buying from the Big Green Bookshop – they’ll post it out to you and have been running a really lovely “Buy a Stranger a Book” twitter campaign on Wednesdays that will gladden your heart.

Happy Reading!