This week’s BotW is another case of “why on earth haven’t I read this before”. I have no idea why I hadn’t got around to the Camomile Lawn before. All I can think is that the TV version had Jennifer Ehle in it and that my mum may have steered me away from it in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice because I was 11 and if the TV series is anything like the book, it really wasn’t suitable for me at the time and I may have got it in my head that the book wasn’t worth it! Who knows. Anyway.
The Camomile Lawn tells the story of five cousins, who we meet at their Aunt-by-marriage’s house in Cornwall in the summer before the start of the Second World War. We follow them through the war and meet up with them again some years later as they reassemble for a funeral. There is beautiful, mercenary Calypso, outwardly conventional Polly, Oliver, Walter and much younger Sophy, who watches what the older ones are up to and wants to join in. And then there is Helena – married to a man injured in the last war and bored by her life, watching the kissing cousins as they set out into the future. As the war begins, life changes for all of them – new opportunities open up for the women and danger lurks for all of them – not just the obvious ones for the boys in the forces.
Mary Wesley was in her 70s when she wrote this – and it was only her second novel. She lived through the war that she is writing about and was a similar age to the characters when it happened. If she hadn’t been, perhaps there would be a temptation to say that the characters were having too much fun and too much sex considering that there was a war on. This reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, but with the sex and antics turned up. Wesley doesn’t really bother with description – except for some of the details of the house in Cornwall – but she writes in a wonderful, understated way dropping bombshells in like they’re nothing so that you do a double take as you read it.
I’m off to read some more Mary Wesley and to try and get my hands on a DVD of the TV mini-series. You should be able to get hold of a copy of The Camomile Lawn fairly easily. I got mine from a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. The Kindle and Kobo versions were £$.99 at time of writing and the paperback version was £5.99 on Amazon albeit in a slightly older cover than I saw in Foyles.
Another day, another great holiday read to recommend, this time it’s Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny which filled some very happy hours on the plane and the beach last week and which I’m sure I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people this summer.
Graham Cavanaugh is on his second marriage. Wife #2, Audra, is one of Those Women – you know the sort – who know every one, who makes friends effortlessly and opens her arms (and home) to any waif or stray of her acquaintance (no matter how tenuous the connection) who needs help. They have one child, origami-obsessed Matthew, who has Asperger’s and sees the world slightly differently and finds a lot of it a bit challenging. When Wife #1, Elspeth, re-appears in Graham’s life, the contrasts become apparent. Because of course Audra wants them to be friends with Elspeth and so their lives get tangled up together all over again.
This is a fun, witty and touching look at the choices that we make and how our lives can change. Just reading about life with Audra makes you tired, but despite that and despite her nosiness and lack of boundaries you still warm to her. I don’t think I’d want to be friends with her in real life, but then the same applies to Graham and to Elspeth too. They all have their monstrous moments, but it makes for fascinating reading. It has some heart-warming moments too – mostly dealing with Graham’s hopes for Matthew as he grows up and Audra’s efforts to try and give him a normal life.
This is Katherine Heiny’s first novel, but it doesn’t feel like a debut. It feels like the work of an author who is already well in their stride, with confidence in the characters that they have created and the stories that they are spinning. But perhaps that is unsurprising given Heiny’s background in short stories. She’s been published in the New Yorker and had a collection of short stories – Single, Carefree, Mellow – published a few years back*. This article from the Guardian says that she’s written more than 20 Young Adult novels under various pseudonyms, but frustratingly doesn’t give me any titles (and nor does good reads) which doesn’t help me with my need to glom on everything that she’s written. Luckily I have a New Yorker subscription so I can go back and read the full version of How to Give the Wrong Impression from back in 1992.
If you like Nora Ephron movies and books, this may be the beach read for you. In writing this I’ve seen lots of comparisons to Anne Tyler (who I’ve never read but always meant to) so I’ll be recommending this to my mum who’s had a bit of a Tyler thing recently. My copy of Standard Deviation came via NetGalley, but it’s out now in hardback (sorry) and you should be able to get hold of a copy from all the usual places and it’s also available on Audible (the link may only work if you’re signed in) Kindle and Kobo.
So yesterday I took advantage of the last of my post-nightshift days off to go on a family jolly to Blenheim Palace. It’s less than an hour from home, but surprisingly I’d never been before – perhaps because it’s not National Trust or English Heritage so you have to pay. It was fabulous – and I got my day ticket converted into a year pass (which doesn’t cost any extra to do) so I can go back again and see some of the bits we didn’t have time for on Tuesday. Any how, after a day out at a country house, it got me thinking about books which feature amazing houses. So here’s a few for you for Recommendsday.
I know it’s totally the obvious choice, but I had to start with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It’s not my favourite Waugh (that’s Vile Bodies) but I know I may be in the minority on that. I had a massive Waugh kick a couple of years ago and read a whole load of his novels back to back and for the most part they still really work. Brideshead tells of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and their upper class and crazy world. The house is at the centre of it all as a character in and of itself. Well worth reading if you haven’t already. I definitely need to watch one or other of the TV/film versions soon. And read Vile Bodies too.
Next, if you haven’t read any Roderick Alleyn books (and why not?) the first in the series, A Man Lay Dead, is set around a weekend party at a country house where one of the guests ends up dead. Again, it’s not my favourite of the Alleyns (that’s Artists in Crime) but it’s a really good start to the series and a really good example of a country house murder mystery.
It feels like a while since I mentioned Rebecca on here, which is strange since the Du Maurier classic is one of my mum’s favourite books and I have a lovely Virago hardback copy which sits on my downstairs keeper shelf. It’s creepy and gothic and has one of the most famous opening lines in literature in “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again”. If you haven’t read it, why not and if you have go and reread it. You won’t regret it*.
Finally, if you want something funny, try PG Wodehouse’s Blandings series. The first one is Something Fresh, where you meet Lord Emsworth, his son Freddie and his secretary The Efficient Baxter and get a taste for the sort of high jinx that ensue. I think I like them better than the Jeeves and Wooster books, but again I think I’m in the minority there.
I could go on – I haven’t even mentioned I Capture the Castle, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or The Secret Garden..
All recommendations for more books with amazing houses gratefully received, in the meantime
*Even if, spoiler alert, you never trust a housekeeper again.
This week’s BotW is Anita Shreve’s new novel, The Stars Are Fire, which came out last week and which I finished at the weekend. Shreve has been on my list of authors that I really ought to have read, and this piqued my interest when I saw it on NetGalley so it seemed like an opportunity to rectify that omission. And it turned out to be a good decision.
The Stars Are Fire is set in Maine in 1947 where Grace Holland is struggling with her marriage. Her husband Gene is distant and won’t talk about the war, her mother-in-law hates her, she has two small children and a third on the way. When a massive fire breaks out after a long summer drought, Gene goes to join the volunteer firefighters to try and prevent it from reaching the town. Grace is left alone to try and defend their house and protect their children. When the flames arrive, she watches her home burn to the ground and is forced into the sea to shelter from the waves. When the morning comes, her home is gone and her husband is missing and she’s forced to try and build a new reality.
I was a little sceptical about this book when I started reading it, and while I still have a few reservations, the book was engrossing and kept me turning the pages eager to know what happened next. My main issue with the book was with Gene, who doesn’t feel like a fully rounded character. You’re not meant to like him, but I struggled to get a sense of who he was and why Grace had been interested in dating him in the first place. For me the most enjoyable part of the book was the middle section, but I always knew that it wasn’t going to last. The final section of the novel felt a little rushed and underdeveloped. I was a little worried about how it was all going to be resolved (or if it was going to be resolved) but at the end I was happy.
That all sounds a little negative, but they’re fairly small quibbles when set against the beautiful writing and how engaging and intriguing Grace is as a character. She’s strong and reslient and seizes opportunities out of the ruins left by the fire. I hadn’t heard of the Great Fire of 1947 before I read this book and Shreve paints a vivid picture of the heat and drought leading up to it as well as the terror of the actual events. The stifling atmosphere before the fire is mirrored in the way that Grace feels in her marriage – although she doesn’t realise how trapped she feels at the time. Although the fire brings her personal loses, it is also the making of Grace and the woman we leave at the end of the book feels very different to the one we met at the start, which makes for a satisfying read.
The Stars Are Fire is out now in hardback (sorry) and ebook. As previously mentioned, my copy came from NetGalley but you can get hold of it from on Kindle or Kobo and from Amazon, Waterstones,Foyles or you could order it from the Big Green Bookshop. I suspect it’s the sort of book that will be out on the tables in bookshops and at the airport, although I don’t suggest that you read it on the beach or somewhere hot as it may leave you paranoid about wildfires! I read it on the train and it made several journeys to and from work fly by.
Now 2017 is well underway, and I’ve told you about my obsessions, the state of the (enormous) pile, and my #ReadHarder ambitions, it seemed like a good time to finally work out what my favourite books published last year were. I know. Everyone else did this weeks ago, but I didn’t want anything really excellent that I might have read at the end of the year to get missed out. And yes, fractured elbow. It’s my excuse for everything.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
“Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?” Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”
Considering how much I loved this book, I have said remarkably little about it on here. I recommended it in the Christmas gift post and back in the Summer Reads post, but it wasn’t a Book of the Week – because I was expecting to be reviewing it elsewhere. And I don’t think that adequately conveys how much I adored it. But Sittenfeld’s modern reworking of Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book of last year.
If the quote at the top makes you laugh or smile (even if it’s only inside because you’re too cool) then you need to read this book. I’ve read a lot of Austen retellings, reworkings, sequels and the like and this manages to strike a perfect (for me) balance of retelling the story but modernising it so that it feels relevant to today. Lizzie (nearly 40 rather than 20) and her sisters are trust fund babies in Cincinatti, but the money is running out, their father has medical problems and their mother has a shopping problem. Darcy is a surgeon, Bingley a reality TV star (don’t let that put you off) and Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with Crossfit. I want to read it again – but my copy is still out on loan. The paperback isn’t out until June, but you could pre-order from Amazon or Waterstones and have a lovely treat in the summer, the Kindle and Kobo versions are £5.99 at time of writing or you could go nuts and buy the hardback from Amazon, Foyles or Waterstones – Waterstones was cheapest when I was writing – doing it on click and collect for £7.50 which is a total bargain for a hardback. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
As I said in my BotW post last month, this book is going to win all the prizes and will be on English Literature sylabuses in years to come. Cora’s story is incredibly tough to read – and it’s partly the contrast between the realism of the terrible things that are happening and the magical realism of making the Underground Railroad a real, actual railway with stations, and trains that makes this such an incredible read. And the writing is beautiful. As you all know, I don’t read a lot of “literary fiction” – and I don’t have a lot of success with books that have been nominated for awards, but I’m so glad I read it – and I’ve been singing its praises to my literary fiction-reading friends. Still only in hardback I’m afraid, but bizarrely the paperback comes out the same day as Eligible – even though this was released six months later than the Sittenfeld. Odd. Anyway. In hardback from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, on Kindle and Kobo or pre-order the paperback on Amazon or Waterstones.
The Barista’s Guide to Espionage by Dave Sinclair
Yes I know. You’re sick of my Fahrenheit obsession. Well tough. Their books made up nearly 20 percent of my 5 star books last year, so they were bound to figure here. Sorry, not sorry. Anyway, this story about Eva Destruction – James Bond and Stephanie Plum’s lovechild – was another BotW and I defy anyone not to enjoy Eva’s battle to try to stop her evil supervillain ex-boyfriend from taking over the world. It’s an action thriller film in book form but with a smart woman doing the saving not a suave bloke in a suit (he tries, but she’s better than him). Get it on Kindle or in paperback.
Death of a Nobody by Derek Farrell
From Eva Destruction to Poirot on Poppers, the second Danny Bird book is the second Fahrenheit book on this list. The first book (Death of a Diva) is funny, but this book feels like a series hitting its stride. It’s got a great, off-beat cast, zingy one-liners, lashings of sarcasm and an up-and-coming gastro pub with a rising body count and a gangster breathing down Danny’s neck. I’m recommending this to my friends who read cozy crime who want something that’s not cupcakes, bakeries or crafting. I can’t wait for book three. Get it on Kindle or in paperback. You can thank me later.
Grunt by Mary Roach
And this is why I’m glad I wrote this post so very late. This was the last book I finished in 2016 and it was one of the very best – definitely the best non-fiction book I read last year. It was BotW last week – so there’s no need for me to say anymore about it really because it’s less than a week since I raved about it at you. I think it’s going to be this year’s go-to pick for a non fiction book to give as a gift. Buy it (paperback!) from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle.
You may be relieved to hear that this weeks BotW is neither Fahrenheit Press book or a Christmas book – even though the title might suggest that it could be the latter. It is however the perfect book for curling up with on a sofa on a wintry afternoon.
The titular Angel is the spoilt darling of a grocery shop proprietress, who spins fantasies to her school mates about a glamorous house where her aunt is a maid. When she is found out she takes to her bed, refuses to return to school and starts to write novels. These turn out to be bestsellers – at least at first – even if they’re wildly inaccurate, far-fetched and slated by the critics. But Angel doesn’t care – she believes she is one of the world’s greatest writers and nothing and nobody is going to stand in her way.
Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) has created a monster. Angel is dreadful in every way – delusional, deceitful, ungrateful, selfish, vain and more. But you can’t stop reading about her in a sort of fascinated horror. She is oblivious to her faults and to the way that others view her and is able to sail through life in the comfortable delusion that she is clever, witty, brilliant and under-appreciated. You would never want to spend any time with any one like her in real life, but I could happily have spend hours more reading about her antics.
There are a fair few women in books who become writers as a response to straightened circumstances – often with a trusty maid in attendance. But they are almost always portrayed as gentlewomen brought low by financial troubles not of their own making. Angel is not one of these – she starts writing as a way of getting her own way – initially she’s more interested in showing her neighbours that she’s better than them. Then the money enables her to exert power over her mother, who in her attempts to allow her daughter to go further in life by scrimping and saving for a better education for her has created a stubborn tyrant who will brook no opposition. As we follow Angel through 40 plus years we see the changes in British society as it moves from the Victorian era, through two World Wars – and we see Angel rewrite her past and invent new fictions for herself – which she believes even if those around her know other wise.
Although Angel is the centre of this book we also get to see the people she uses up and spits out – her mother, her aunt, a wannabe poetess, her husband, her servants – and the people who manage to survive her onslaught – only really her publisher and his wife. It’s a portrait of a tyrant and it’s very, very good.
My copy of Angel is a lovely Virago Designer Hardback which I got second hand and seem to be quite hard to come by, but it’s also available in paperback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and on Kindle and Kobo. And as it was first published in 1957, you have a fighting chance of being able to find yourself a second hand copy in a charity or second hand bookshop.
I am not a reader of Award-Winning Books. See my posts here and here for proof of this — and I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last two years. But some times you hear so much buzz and chatter about a book that you have to check it out. Particularly when you luck into a copy of said book. And Colson Whitehead’s the Underground Railroad was one of those books. I’d heard everybody on the Bookriot podcasts that I listen to talking about how excited they were for something new from Whitehead – and then about how brilliant it was. It kept popping up in lists of hotly anticipated books. It was an Oprah Bookclub pick. It was on President Obama’s summer reading list.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave on a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is more terrible than you can imagine, especially for Cora who is an outcast among her fellow Africans. When Caesar, a recent arrival at the plantation suggests that they escape together, they take a terrifying risk to try and get to the Underground Railroad. But it doesn’t go according to plan, and Cora’s journey is fraught with dangers as there are hunters after them, dogging their every move. In Whitehead’s world the railroad is real – actual trains in tunnels under the southern states with a network of drivers and conductors ferrying runaways to safety.
This is such a powerful book. It’s beautifully written, but oh so difficult to read – I’ve had to take it in bite-sized chunks so that I can digest it properly – but it’s worth it. It makes you confront harsh and terrible truths about what people have done to each other and are capable of doing to each other. But it’s also compelling and personal and page turning and clever. Whatever I say here, I won’t be able to do it justice. I still haven’t finished digesting it and I’m going to be thinking about it for some time to come. It’s going to win all the awards – and it deserves to. It’s already won the National Book Award in the US and is Amazon.com editor’s Number 1 Book of the Year. In years to come it’s going to be on English Literature syllabuses. Well, well, well worth your time.
I would expect this to be somewhere prominent on a table or on a front facing shelf in bookshops. It’s in hardback at the moment – and you can get it from Amazon (out of stock at time of writing, which says a lot), Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo. It might make it into the supermarkets, but I’d be surprised. The paperback is out in June. I’m off to read some more of Whitehead’s work.