literary fiction, non-fiction, Recommendsday, romance

Recommendsday: Quick reviews

As the deadline for Fahrenheit’s #Noirville competition draws ever closer – you’ve only got three days to go people, three days – I’ve been trying to clear the decks a bit so that I’m ready to read the entries.  So I thought I’d mention a few books this Recommendsday that I’ve read recently but haven’t chatted about.  It’s a bit eclectic, but that’s just how I roll and I know you won’t mind!

The Greedy Queen by Annie Gray

Ever wondered what Queen Victoria ate?  Annie Gray has the answers.  As well as looking at what Victoria ate across the course of her reign, it looks at how the kitchens worked, who worked there and who else they were feeding as well as the Queen.  It jumps backwards and forwards  in the timeline a little bit, but I came away feeling like I’d learned a lot about upper class dining in the nineteenth century.  ITV’s TV series Victoria is back on screen at the moment – and although the Victoria in that is very much the young queen, this would still make a nice companion read for people who want to know a bit more about the Queen’s life and her household.

Wise Children by Angela Carter

Meet Nora and Dora Chance – former musical all stars, illegitimate twin daughters of a pillar of the theatrical establishment – on their 75th birthday, which by coincidence is also their father’s 100th birthday.  Join them as Dora tells you the story of their lives before they head to the (televised) party.  This is a whirling, magical realist journey through the world of the theatre – legitimate and otherwise – full of Shakespeare references and sets of twins galore.  I found it enjoyably bonkers although it took a little while before I got my head around it all – there is a big old cast of characters here – and I’m still thinking about it a couple of weeks later.

True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop by Annie Darling

You may remember me raving about the Little Bookshope of Lonely Hearts last year – and now it has a sequel.  The good news is that this is not the sort of sequel that breaks up the couple that you’ve invested so much in in the first book and then getting them back together.  This sees one of the other girls who works in the bookshop get her happily ever after.  I always find it slightly weird to read books where the main character has my name, but I liked Verity Love so much that I got over that quite quickly.  This Verity is an Austen mad introvert, who invents a boyfriend to keep her friends off her back and then ends up with a real life fake boyfriend.  I had a few issues with Johnny’s back story – and insufficient grovelling at the end – but was mostly swept away by this – I do love a relationship of convenience story.

Right, that’s your lot for now, but I hope there’s something in here that’s tickled your fancy and might help you fill a reading gap while I’m off reading all those Noirville entries.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, literary fiction, reading challenges

Book of the Week: The Mothers

Tricky choice for BotW this week, but I eventually plumped for Britt Bennett’s The Mothers because it was a bit out of my normal reading comfort zone, but wore it very lightly and made me think. 


In aftermath of her mother’s death and in the twilight of her time at high school, Nadia Turner gets involved with the minister’s son. Luke is a couple of years older than she is, but is still adrift after the injury that ended his football career and cost him his college scholarship. It’s nothing serious, just a bit of fun, until Nadia gets pregnant. And what comes next changes the course of both their lives and sends ripples out through their church community that will last for years to come. 

Firstly, I loved the setting of this book. Bennett really brings to life her fictional contemporary black church community in Southern California. Part of the story is told by the elder women in the church as a kind of Greek chorus. It adds an extra perspective in between flipping between the stories of those mostly closely involved. 

It’s also full of interesting characters, even if you don’t always like them that much. Luke and Nadia and her best friend Audrey make a fascinating triangle, who have different views on life and experience the fallout in different ways. 

Now, I can’t say too much more about this or I’ll give too much away, but reading through the reviews of this on goodreads, there are some very definite opinions about the author’s stance with regard to Nadia’s decision. As far as I was concerned, I thought it was handled in a very balanced, matter of fact way and in the main the fall out was portrayed as more down to the cover up and the other issues going on rather than because of the actual decision. Is that cryptic enough?!  Anyway, nearly a week later I’m still thinking about the characters, which has to be a good thing.

This is Bennett’s first novel and was nominated for a whole bunch of prizes, which really didn’t surprise me because it’s clever, well-written and very readable.  This is also a book that fills a couple of this year’s #ReadHarder categories: Debut Novel, book where all the POV characters are people of colour and for me, book set more than 5,000 miles away. 

The hardback is out now, the paperback is coming in October. When that arrives, I think you should be able to find it in most bookshops, but possibly not in the supermarket. As always, if you can’t make it to a bookshop you could order it from a Big Green Bookshop or pick it up on Kindle or Kobo. 

Happy reading. 

Book of the Week, fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Camomile Lawn

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.

A copy of The Camomile Lawn and a glass of Pimms
A book, a Pimms (sorry, summer cup for the Great British Menu viewers) and a weekend on the beach

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.

Happy Reading!

fiction, literary fiction, Recommendsday, women's fiction

Recommendsday: Standard Deviation

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.

The cover of Standard Deviation
I love the origami figures but I’m still not quite sure the cover of this really does it justice.

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.

Happy reading!

*which is now on my wishlist unsurprisingly!

 

books, Classics, crime, Recommendsday, Thriller

Recommendsday: Books with Amazing Houses

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.

Blenheim Palace
OK the sky wasn’t as blue as I was hoping, but at least we didn’t get rained on…

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

Happy reading!

*Even if, spoiler alert, you never trust a housekeeper again.

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: The Stars Are Fire

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.

Cover of The Stars Are Fire
I think this cover is pretty – but I’m not sure it really represents Grace.

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.

Happy Reading!

reviews

Books of the Year 2016

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

The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad
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

The Barista's guide to Espionage
The Barista’s guide to Espionage
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

Grunt by Mary Roach
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.

And there’s your five. If this had been a top ten the other five would probably have been: Little Bookshop of Lonely Hearts, Best of Dear Coquette, The Madwoman Upstairs, Carry On (sneaking in because the paperback came out in 2016) and You Can’t Touch My Hair.