book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: June 2021 Mini Reviews

The end of another month has been and gone, and despite the fact that I forgot to trail it yesterday or Monday, it’s time for another set of Mini Reviews! It was a very varied month in reading, and there more books from last month that you’ll hear about in my summer reading post, but here are a few things that I read last month that I wanted to talk about.

Mrs England by Stacey Halls*

Cover of Mrs England

Lets start with a new to me author. Mrs England is Stacey Halls third novel, but the first of hers that I’ve read – despite the fact that I own at least one of the other two. This is a clever and creepy story of Ruby, a Norland Nurse who takes a job in the household of an northern mill owner in after she turns down the chance to move abroad with her previous family in 1904. From the start you know there’s something not quite right in the new house, but on top of that there’s also something in Ruby’s past that she’s hiding as well. I had several different theories at various points about what was going on, but the reveal surprised me. For some reason, dark and damp are the words that spring to mind about this book – but I kind of think that makes it perfect for reading in the sunshine if you know what I mean!

The Stepsisters by Susan Mallery*

Cover of the Stepsisters

Susan Mallery is an author who has appeared on my reading lists a lot over the last few years – with her Fools Gold and Happily Inc romance series. The Stepsisters is one of her women’s fiction novels – it has romantic elements, but it’s definitely not a romance. The Stepsisters of the title are three women, all with the same father (but two different mothers), who find themselves thrown back together as adults after one of them has an accident. They have a complicated history between them abd all have different problems in their current lives, but over the course of the book you watch them try and work out if they can they put their history behind them and move forward. Told from the points of view of two of the stepsisters, Daisy and Sage, this has the characters finding themselves and each other. Another read that’s perfect for a sunny garden with a glass of something chilled.

Tommy Cabot was Here by Cat Sebastian

Cover of Tommy Cabot was Here

I’ve written about Cat Sebastian here before, and this is the first in a new series of novellas. Like Hither, Page this is another more modern historical story, this time set in the 1950s with the scion of a family that sounds very Kennedy, and his best friend from school. They meet each other again for the first time in years when Tommy is dropping his son off at their old school – where Everett now teaches. The rediscovered romance between the two of them is very nice to watch and there’s a refreshing lack of the sort of unmasking peril that you find in a lot of historical m/m romances. Very relaxing and charming. There next in the series is set a year or so later and features Tommy’s nephew – who we meet briefly in this – and is due out in September.

Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander*

Cover of Love in the Blitz

I’ve mentioned how much I’m interested in the history of the first half of the twentieth century, and last week I picked novel set in the same period that this book is set in, so it’s not easy to see why I wanted to read Love in the Blitz. And on top of that people who I like a lot have really enjoyed this. But I really struggled. This is a collection of genuine letters written by the very real Eileen Alexander to her fiancée, Gershon Ellenbogen. Eileen was the eldest daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, who lived in Cairo, but also had homes in London and Scotland. At the start of the book she’s recently graduated from Girton College and through the book you see her searching for war work at various of the ministries as well as the progress of her relationship, the tensions with her parents and the general day to day of living through the war. I found Eileen’s style a little hard going and I didn’t actually like her much. But as a look at what it was like in a corner of England during the Second World War it is an insightful document – particularly as Eileen and her family are Jewish and have a lot of connections abroad and this gives you a different perspective than the one that you so often get on what it was like being on the Home Front.

The Last Party by Anthony Haden-Guest

Cover of The Last Party

This really surprised me: it takes a fascinating subject and makes it hard to follow and dare I say it – dull. Having read Empire of Pain the week after finishing this, it really hit home to me that this had so much promise but under delivered. But I think the problem was the breadth of subject that Anthony Haden-Guest was taking on – and the fact that he was part of the scene at the time and knew everyone involved. I think that affected his ability to pick a narrative through line and make it make sense. Characters appear for a couple of pages and then vanish again. Some times they get loads of background about who they are, sometimes none. It jumps from club to club but also around in time a bit. I learnt a few new things, but not nearly as much as I expected and it was hard going all through. I would definitely read more about this time period and this club scene – it just needs more focus.

So there you have it, another month finished and another batch of mini-reviews. And in case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in June were Yours Cheerfully, Second First Impressions, The Feast and sort of Circus of Wonders, which was published in June but read in May . And finally, just to complete the link-fest, here are the links to the mini reviews from January, February, March, April and May.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Empire of Pain

As I suspected yesterday, I finished Empire of Pain last night and it seems the obvious pick to write about even with that slightly cheaty caveat and joins the list of really very good narrative non-fiction books I’ve written about here – but rather than dealing with a tech startup squandering millions of dollars on something that doesn’t work (Bad Blood) or a business model they can’t get a profit from (Billion Dollar Loser), or the investigation into Harvey Weinstein (Catch and Kill) this is the story of the Sackler dynasty – the family behind Perdue Pharma.

If you’ve heard of Purdue Pharma, it’s probably as part of coverage into the opioid epidemic in the United States, as the company is behind the painkiller OxyContin. But until the last few years, you probably didn’t know that the Sacklers were the owners of the company. If you’d heard of them at all it was probably because of the galleries or museums or university departments named after them all around the world. But then a series of court cases accused Perdue and the family behind it of being the root cause of the opioid epidemic in the US. Patrick Radden Keefe started writing about the family in an article for the New Yorker, which has expanded into this look at the three generations of the family, how they made their money originally and their role in the modern world of pharmaceutical advertising that you see in the US today.

I first heard the Sackler name in connection with the opioid crisis when I was in Washington in the autumn of 2018 when the court cases and bankruptcy hearings are getting underway, and there have been plenty of articles and books since then about the crisis itself and its effect on communities across the country. But what Radden Keefe is doing here is looking at the family themselves and setting out the longer term picture – the way the Sackler family built their fortune and helped set up the conditions for the sale and marketing of OxyContin whilst keeping their name separate from the business but well known for philanthropy.

None of the family spoke to Radden Keefe for the book – and in his end notes he sets out the efforts that he took to try and secure an interview and the conditions they wished to impose on him in order for one to be granted. But he does set out how the book was fact checked and who he did speak to – over two hundred people on and off the record – with the on the record sources meticulously chronicles in end notes that take up nearly 20 percent of the kindle edition. He’s also made use of the mass of court papers, archival collections and Arthur Sackler’s own columns in the Medical Tribune. But he goes on to say that although there were almost too many documents for him to handle, there are still even more out there as the bankruptcy hearing could result in a repository of documents about Purdue running into tens of millions of papers. And the story isn’t over yet.

This is a long book (500+ pages on Kindle including those end notes) but if you’ve been following the opioid epidemic and the effect that it has had on the US – or even if you haven’t and have maybe only heard of OxyContin as a prescription pain pill that various celebrities have had issues with, this is worth the hours of your time.

My copy of Empire of Pain came from the library, but it’s out now in Kindle, Kobo and hardback. It should be fairly easy to find – Foyles have it on Click and Collect at six stores which is usually a good indicator. And if you’re wondering why Patrick Radden-Keefe’s name seems familiar – he’s written various books before as well as being a New Yorker writer, but he was also the host of the Winds of Change podcast that I wrote about in my Pandemic Podcast recommendation post.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction, Uncategorized

Book of the Week: Catch and Kill

It may have been a shorter than some reading list again last week, but nevertheless I am back to normal service with the BotW posts today and I’ve got a cracker for this week’s pick. And yes it’s had a lot of hype but it’s really worth it.

Cover of Catch and Kill

I think you’d have to have been under a rock to have missed the Harvey Weinstein story breaking last year. The former movie mogul – the producer behind many Oscar-winning movies – was accused sexual harassment and paying settlements to women in a New York Times article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and then five days later by multiple women of a pattern of predatory behaviour of sexual assaults (including rape) in a New Yorker article written by Ronan Farrow. Weinstein has always denied wrong doing, saying that via his lawyers that any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied and there are cases still making their way through the courts in the US. But Farrow’s investigation of Weinstein originally started as part of his work for NBC News. This is the story behind that original New Yorker article – of how Farrow assembled the witnesses and evidence to stand the story up and of the efforts that he says were being taken to stop the story getting on air.

Two years after those first articles (which saw Kantor, Twohey, Farrow, the NYT and New Yorker share a Pulitzer Prize) we already know most of the allegations about Weinstein and this book has mostly made headlines because of the allegations made about the attempts to suppress the story. But it’s also a pacey and incredibly readable piece of narrative nonfiction. It’s very easy to read, and Farrow is realistic about his role and position in the world – in case you’ve missed it, he’s the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen and was a child genius who went to college in his teens and who is estranged from his father. Farrow has a way with words – this reads almost like a thriller novel, and not just because of the presence of secretive Israeli spies. It’s also wryly funny in places – mostly when Farrow’s partner, podcaster and former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, appears, something that Lovett has Thoughts About when it comes to the audiobook:

This is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year and would make a great Christmas book gift – even though the subject matter doesn’t sound like it would. I borrowed my copy from the library, but you should be able to get a copy of Catch and Kill from all good bookshops (I’m thinking it’ll be on a table/new books display), as well as on Kindle, Kobo and Audible, although I understand that there have been some problems in some territories with legal threats.  Is it any wonder that I’ve read and rewritten this post several times?!

Happy Reading!