Book of the Week, Children's books, new releases

Book of the Week: Top Marks for Murder

Another old friend for this week’s BotW: the eighth in Robin Stevens’s middle grade Murder Most Unladylike series. It was between this and the new Tessa Dare for this week’s pick and although the Dare is a lot of fun, I have a lot of thoughts about this book, this series and the importance of Hazel and Daisy.

Cover of Top Marks for Murder

We rejoin the detective society as they return to Deepdean after their extended break visiting Hazel’s family in Hong Kong and then their appearance in a play in London. And they’re back at school just in time for the anniversary weekend, which proves to be a rather more dangerous time for the girls than you would hope, after one of the gang sees what she thinks is a murder from their dormitory window.

The girls are back on the trail and are happy to be distracted from the things that have changed at school while they’ve been away. But this isn’t the first time that there’s been a murder at Deepdean, and Daisy and Hazel are older now and are seeing more of the consequences of what’s going on as well. After all how many parents want to leave their children at a school where murders happen. So the girls may not need to just solve the case, they might need to save the school as well.

What I’ve always loved about this series is the way that it takes familiar tropes from the school stories that I loved when I was little and update them so that they will work for kids today. I’ve spoken before about revisiting old favourites and realising they’re now problematic (to say the least in some cases). I’m lucky with the Chalet School – LH Johnson recently wrote a lovely piece about the Chalet School Peace League and Elinor M Brent Dyer quietly advocating peace and cooperation – but I’ve bought and read a couple of Shirley Flight books over the last few weeks and although they’re mostly fun adventures, there are some horrible attitudes towards non-Brits and especially non-Westerners. One of them is downright racist to a point where I now wouldn’t want to lend any of them out to a modern child of the age I was when I read the first book in the series. But if you want to give the next generation the sort of warm feels you had from Girls Own books but without the nasty undercurrents, this series will do that for you.

And that’s not to say that these are populated by perfect exemplars of modern day life sticking out like sore thumbs in the olden days. They’re not like that. You see the nastier side of 1930s boarding school life because because you’re looking at it from Hazel’s point of view and nothing she can do will change the way some people look at her just because she’s Chinese. Daisy definitely isn’t perfect – she doesn’t handle the fact that while she’s been gone a fascinating new girl has taken her place very well at all. And she’s still dealing with the fallout for her family after the events at her house in book 2. This is full of realistic characters learning real life lessons as well as solving a tricky mystery. As a grown up, I really appreciate and enjoy what Robin Stevens is doing – but it does works for its actual target market too, as my niece as well as several of the ten year olds my sister taught last year (who lent her copies of books in the series) prove. And when my niece is a bit older, I’ll lend her the Golden Age mystery stories these are influenced by and she can read the grown up versions of some of these plots (this one is very Sayers inspired). But with a few caveats about old fashioned attitudes.

Now, I’m going to be very careful how I phrase this section because: spoilers, but in the last book we learned an important piece of information about one of the main characters. A piece of information that both is and isn’t a big deal. Inside the last book it was treated exactly right by the character who learned it and in this book nothing has changed about that piece of information but it is absolutely not an issue or a Big Deal. And that is exactly as it should be. If you’ve read Death in the Spotlight you’ll know exactly what I’m talking abut and if you haven’t, then I’m sorry for that impenetrable paragraph, but go and read it and you’ll understand.

I had First Class Murder pre-ordered (and had to remember to change the delivery address to the new house!) but you should be able to get hold of it easily from any shop with a children’s section. It’s also available online – from places like Book Depository – as well as on Kindle and Kobo.  And you can read some of my previous posts about the series here and here.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Great Successor

So I did manage to do some reading last week in between packing boxes, moving boxes and unpacking boxes, and in between all the comfort reading to try and calm me down, I finished this fascinating non-fiction read.  But as it’s still all go here, please forgive me if this post is a little shorter than usual!

Cover of The Great Successor

Anna Fifield is currently the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, but her previous beat was the Koreas and Japan.  She’s also worked for the Financial Times in Seoul.  The Great Successor is her look at Kim Jong Un – his childhood, his rise to power and what he’s done since he became ruler of North Korea.  She’s knowledgable and her sources are people with real experience of the regime.  But it’s also incredibly readable – if a little bit terrifying.

Along with pretty much every journalist on the planet, I’ve done a lot of watching of North Korea – particularly since Donald Trump came to power.  And this is the best insight I’ve yet found into what might be going through the mind of Kim Jong Un – who is pretty much the same age as me and who might have the power to change the world as we know it if he so chooses.   Try not to panic.  This is definitely worth trying to get your hands on if you’re interested in international affairs – and if you’ve read some of the books looking at the inside of the Trump White House, this would make an interesting addition to your to-read pile.  Equally, this isn’t the first book about the Korean Peninsular that I’ve read – and it would make a great trio with The Birth of South Korean Cool and A Kim Jong Un Production.

British cover of The Greaet Successor

My copy of The Great Successor came from the Library, but I think it should be available fairly easily – it’s certainly out in Kindle and Kobo and the hardback is out now and available from Book Depository – all though you’ll note the difference in subtitles between the US and British editions!

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: Evvie Drake Starts Over

Such an easy choice for this week.  I had to be dragged away from this one and it totally lifted me out of what had been a bit of a reading slump as I rationalised the to-read shelf and discovered that there was a fair number of books on it that I didn’t like when I started reading them.

Cover of Evvie Drake Starts Over

Evvie Drake has the car packed. She’s leaving her husband. But just as she’s about to about to go when the phone rings: Tim has been in a car accident, she needs to get to the hospital, fast.  We rejoin Evvie nearly a year later – when everyone in town thinks it’s grief that’s keeping her at home and she hasn’t done anything to correct them.  To help out a friend – and to help pay the bills, she lets the apartment at the back of her house to Dean Tenney, former Major League Baseball pitcher and now a byword for blowing it after a major case of the yips saw him lose his aim.  The two of them make a deal – she won’t ask about his baseball career and he won’t ask about her late husband.  But as the months go by the two of them grow closer and a friendship looks like it could develop into something more.  But those demons are going to need addressing before they can really move forward.

This is just what I hoped it would be.  It’s warm and has a great slow burn romance and two people trying to figure out whether they are right for each other – and whether they’re actually ok themselves.  Evvie (rhymes with Chevy) is a wonderful heroine – smart and funny but also a little bit broken and trying to figure out who she really is and if she can get her life back on track.  And Dean is such an appealing hero – he’s lost the ability to do the thing that defined who he was and has to figure out who he is if he’s not a baseball player.  The supporting characters are wonderfully drawn too and Evvie’s complicated relationship with the town feels very realistic.  I had a few minor quibbles here and there – but nothing that took me out of the story or disturbed my warm and cozy feeling at the way that it was all unfolding.

I had been a little worried that this wouldn’t live up to my expectations for it: I had been looking forward to reading this ever since I heard about it.  Linda Holmes is the presenter of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast from NPR and mentioned more than a year ago (as part of their things that are making them happy this week section) that she had written a novel and that it was going to be published.  On top of that, it’s got great reviews, been picked for a big TV book club in the US and the UK version has blurbs from Rainbow Rowell, Helen Hoang and Taylor Jenkins Reid.  How could it ever live up to all that?  But it did, it really did.  I’m often moaning about not being able to find the sort of romantic novels that I like, the sort of thing that I used to be able to buy really easily 10 years ago – with smart heroines and humour and where people fix themselves and get romance as a bonus – and this did everything that I wanted it to do.  When I got to the end and read the list of thank yous from the author, it was a list of people who I listen to on podcasts or read on my favourite websites and I realised that I should have had more faith and been less worried.

British cover of Evvie Drake Starts Over

My copy of Evvie Drake Starts Over came from the library – and I got there before a huuuuuuge queue developed behind me – I only had to wait a couple of weeks after release for my hold to come in.  But its available now in Kindle, Kobo and hardback (with a paperback coming out in March 2020).  It would make a perfect read on your sunlounger this summer.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective

So as I said in yesterday’s Week in Books, I was on holiday last week and spent a good proportion of my time in the very sunny south of France working my way down my to-read pile.  There was a lot of good stuff and you’ll be hearing more about some of the books on the list later, but I really wanted to highlight The Adventures of Maud West Lady Detective as my BotW because it was such tremendous fun, it dovetails so well with my favourite things to read and it came out last week – so I’m timely (for once).

Cover of The Adventures of Maud West

You’ve probably never heard of her, but Maud West ran a detective agency in London for more than thirty years, starting in 1905. No, seriously. This isn’t fiction, this is biography.  In her first book, Susannah Stapleton tries to separate the truth from invention about a real-life lady detective, who was working in London while the golden age of Crime fiction was happening.  And it’s very hard to work out what the truth is.  Maud was a mistress of self promotion, but some of her stories read exactly like the detective stories of the era.  Stapleton takes you through her research and her quest to find out the truth about Maud’s life and her cases.

This has got a Jill Paton Walsh quote attached to the blurb:

If you are susceptible to Miss Marple and Harriet Vane you must read The Adventures of Maud West. You will never know the difference between fact and fiction again.

Which is obviously my catnip.  If you’ve been around here a while, you’ve already pretty much figured out that this is a sweet spot in a Venn diagram of my reading interests – detective fiction and books (fiction and non-fiction) about the first half of the twentieth century and may I please point you in the direction of my posts about Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Roderick Alleyn, TV detectives, Phryne Fisher, Daisy Dalrymple, Maisie Dobbs, Dandy Gilver, A Dangerous Crossing,  for the first half of that Venn Diagramme and Old Baggage, Gone with the Windsors, Blitzed, Angela Thirkell, Queen Lucia, my History book keeper shelf non fiction round up, my 500th post for the second. And that list is by no means exhasutive.  I didn’t even start on the children’s books.

Anyway, this totally lives up to that quote – Maud’s life is fascinating, Stapleton is an engaging writer – and you get to see behind the scenes of the process – of how she tracked down the traces Maud has left behind in the historical record.  And that latter bit is almost as fascinating to me as the actual story. As a history grad who did her dissertation research in an undigitised archive in the middle of France it was awesome to see Stapleton using the full power of digital archives to find a life that could otherwise have been lost to history.  It was almost enough to make me miss historical research.  Although as I’m still getting dissertation anxiety dreams more than a decade on, it was quite a fleeting feeling!

I raced through this – starting it on the plane out on Sunday and finished it off in the Riviera sun.  I even rationed my self to read it slower to make it last.  That’s how good it was.  There’s all sorts of period details in here too – I know I’ll be walking down New Oxford Street looking for the spot where her offices used to be. And if that’s not enough to convince you – the research in this book is so fresh, that Maud has only had a Wikipedia page since Sunday – three days after the book was published.  I look forward to seeing what Stapleton does next – and I can only hope that this book does really well and persuades publishers that we need more books like this.  And historians and writers out there – please go and write them.  And if you’ve got any suggestions for books like this that I should read, put them in the comments please.  Pretty please.

I got my copy from NetGalley, but The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is out now in hardback and should be available in bookstores near you.  I went to look for it in Waterstones in Milton Keynes yesterday* – and one branch had *just* sold their copy and the other was sold out too which is lovely because it means its selling, but means I still haven’t see it in the wild and couldn’t have a closer gander at the pictures.  It’s also on Kindle and Kobo. I’m off to be annoyed that I’m on a late shift tomorrow so can’t go and hear Susanna Stapleton speak at the Kibworth book festival which is only 25 miles from where I live and thus totally doable if only I wasn’t working.** Anyway, I’m off to listen to her interview on Woman’s Hour instead.

Happy reading!

*And no, I didn’t manage to leave Waterstones without buying something – I took home a shiny signed copy of Rukmini Iyer’s new cookbook, the Quick Roasting Tin.

**Irritatingly Ben Aaronovitch is there tonight (as this publishes, not as I write) and I won’t be able to get home from work in time to get to that either. Gah.  I’m not having much luck with author readings at the moment. These are not the first two that have been in my area that I haven’t managed to get to in the last month or two

 

Book of the Week, new releases, romance

Book of the Week: The Austen Playbook

I know. I know.  You’re not even surprised by this choice because I pretty much signposted it last Tuesday.  And yet somehow I’m not sorry and I don’t care.  There’s a new Lucy Parker book – it came out yesterday (aka Monday) and I’m going to write about it.

Cover of the Austen Playbook

This is the fourth in the London Celebrities series and this features another fun enemies (or sort of enemies) to lovers type relationship, still in the acting world but this time away from the West End.  Freddie comes from an acting dynasty – she’s successful in her field and knows what she wants to do.  The trouble is it’s not what her dad – who is also her manager – wants her to do.  He wants her to follow in the family footsteps and be a Great Dramatic Actress – preferably by taking the key role in the legendary play her grandmother wrote.  She wants to do the comedies and musicals that she loves.  While her dad is out of the country she accepts a role in a new Jane Austen-based TV show – against his wishes – to try and buy a bit of time to think and plan and just enjoy working.

Griff is a man with a problem – an empty bank account and a giant family house to save-type problem.  His parents get through money like it’s water, as they lurch from one obsession to another, and his little brother keeps coming up with harebrained schemes to save the family fortunes.  The latest is that same Austen-based TV spectacular – which is going to be broadcast live from the theatre in the grounds.  A theatre in fact that was built by his grandfather during a torrid affair with Freddie’s grandmother.  So having her on site won’t be at all awkward. Oh no not at all.  And did I mention that he’s a theatre critic who gave  less than favourable notices to Freddie’s last role? Yeah, that too.

As well as the enemies to lovers, this has forced proximity, a family feud, some terrible parents and an opposites attracts couple that works really well.  Freddie is sunny and optimistic and Griff is a bit of an Eeyore.  She balances out his pessimism but without losing any of her positivity or changing herself and becoming in some way less..  And he turns out to be really great at supporting her, so that she can do what she wants and stand up for herself a little bit better.  And the family feud subplot is really, really fun.  It is a little bit insta-love between the two of them once they get to the country house, but it didn’t bother me – because you were already aware that there was some chemistry going on from the opening scene.  In some of the previous books in the series, I’ve occasionally had issues with some of the language choices from Parker (who is from New Zealand) as not actually things that Brits would say* – but I don’t remember having any in this book.  I would happily read just as many books in this world as Lucy Parker can come up with.  Also, please can Freddy’s sister be the heroine of the next book – there seemed like some definite set up going on there for her and A N Other member of the supporting cast. Pretty please. Thank you.

Anyway, my copy came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of The Austen Playbook from all the usual ebook retailers – Kindle and Kobo are £5.49 at time of writing this post.  And if you haven’t already read the others in this series, Act Like it (the first book) is £2.80 on Kindle and Kobo too. So – go forth and read some delightful romance.

Happy Reading!

*There was a big rant here about the use of “on the West End” rather than “in the West End” – which is one of my total pet hates but that’s not just a Lucy Parker thing – it’s rapidly spreading because of “on Broadway”. I won’t bore you with my ravings though. Or at least bore you more than this

 

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, memoirs, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Diary of a Drag Queen

First up a bit of housekeeping: don’t forget last week’s BotW, Death of an Angel is out on Thursday! If you saw the WiB yesterday, you’ll know that there was a bit of a theme to last week’s tired, last night train reading, but actually it’s a non-fiction pick this week.  For once I’m almost relatively timely – because it’sa new book.  Well by new, it only came out on the 7th, Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen. Doesn’t it have a great cover?

Cover of Diary of a Drag Queen

Crystal is the drag name of Tom Rasmussen, a writer, Drag Queen and Céline Dion super-fan and their first book is a raw, honest, no holds barred, letting it all hang out look at one year in the author’s life. You follow them back to London after a difficult spell trying to make it in New York, trying to break the fashion industry, find a place in the drag scene and work out where they fit in the LGTBQIA+ community and their own personal manifesto. If you are squeamish, if you can’t deal with reading about other people’s poo, be warned: there is a lot of that here. But Crystal -has a lot they want to tell you and it is worth sitting up and listening.

I think this might be the most honest memoir I have read since Viv Albertine’s Boys, Clothes, Music. Crystal is setting their life and their truth out there on the page, without a filter (or at least not one that I could spot) and seemingly without hiding anything. At various points Crystal talks about having had to tone their life down for their partner or to be accepted or even just to be exist and it feels like this Diary, this book is their life as they want it to be seen, in all its imperfections, messiness, mistakes and triumphs. Here is Crystal explaining their approach in the introduction:

I spent a lot of my life in the violent, painful clutches of shame, which manifested itself in various modes of self-harm, self-destruction, and other untenable, unsurvivable behaviours.

I learned, however, that the antidote to this shame is not pride, or honour, or even celebration. That comes later. The antidote to shame is honesty. Stark, crass, funny, powerful honesty. Honesty that smashes through notions of taboos and inappropriatenesses. I am not shameful, because I’ve done nothing wrong. It’s the same with being gay, queer, femme, non-binary, a drag queen.

Crystal tells these stories with caustic wit, biting insight and what might be considered a reckless disregard for the secrets of the bedroom, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have assured us at the start that some names and details have been changed to protect identities. Phew. A lot of Crystal’s life is a long way from my experience and my background. And, again as I thought with Viv Albertine, I’m not sure that Crystal would like me. There were times when their critiques of various things made me squirm in my seat with the knowledge that I might have skirted the edges of doing some of the things they were railing against. But as they say, we have all made mistakes it’s how you deal with the mistakes and learn from them that makes a difference. And I’m always trying to do better. We should all always be trying to do better.  Here’s Crystal again:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/questioning, Intersex, Asexual and + (not you, straight guy who loves glitter a bit but thinks bum sex is gross). Yes, it’s a long acronym, yes, it’s seven whole letters, but I learned the national anthem even though borders are constructs, so you can learn seven letters.

My copy of Diary of a Drag Queen came from NetGalley, but it is out now in hardback and you should be able to lay your hands on a copy fairly easily – I’d expect it to be in any good-sized actual bookshop. Crystal is also out and about on a book tour, so they may soon be coming to a store near you. I know I’m looking to see if I can make one of the dates – and if you can’t, the audiobook is read by the author and the sample on Amazon is a fairly representative section of the book. And of course it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!