book round-ups

Best (new) books of 2019 so far

We’re halfway through the year (or we will be on Monday) and so it’s time for me to take a look at my favourite new releases of the year so far.  A couple of months ago I looked at my top reads of the year Q1 (although they were not necessarily all new releases) so some of these picks will not a surprise to you, but hey, I like to shout about the books that I’ve enjoyed! Sue me.

Contemporary Romance: The Bride Test  by Helen Hoang

Cover of The Bride Test

This one was on my 2019 lookahead after I loved Hoang’s debut last year and which lived up to the buzz it was getting ahead of release.  This is a fabulous way to follow up the success of The Kiss Quotient and would make a brilliant beach read this summer.  It’s an arranged marriage/relationship of convenience romance with a feisty immigrant heroine and an neuro-diverse hero who thinks he can’t – and shouldn’t – love.  Plus it’s mostly set in California and feels super summery and the descriptions of the Vietnamese food will make you hungry. What’s not to love in that. Here’s my review from May.

Honourable Mention: Fumbled by Alexa Martin

Historical Romance: A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian 

Cover of A Duke in Disguise

I went on a big old Cat Sebastian jag while I was in the US last autumn, so I had this on my radar. A Duke in Disguise was billed as her first “traditional” male/female romance – but that’s doing it a disservice. This is a clever subversive romance which doesn’t focus on the world of the ton (although they do appear and the nobility plays a role) with feisty, smart, sexually experienced heroine and a neuro-diverse, virgin hero. And the heroine is called Verity – which makes another for my list. Total catnip right?  The only reason this wasn’t a BotW is because I read it the same wee that I read Intercepted – and that was the first Alexa Martin I’d read.  NB: this has a content warning* for off page domestic violence, off page neglect of child, epileptic seizure

Honourable Mention: An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

Non fiction History: The Adventures of Maud West

Cover of The Adventures of Maud West

Yeah, I know, it’s only two weeks since I read this.  But it really is so very, very good.  And it ticks so many of my boxes – early twentieth century, women in history, detective stories, forgotten lives.  If you’re a fan of golden age mysteries, what’s not to love about this investigation into the life of a real life lady detective from the first half of the twentieth century? Here’s my review from earlier this month.

Honourable mention: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Literary Fiction: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Cover of Daisy Jones & The Six

This is everywhere – on all the lists and getting all the mentions in the mainstream press – even the bits that don’t usually talk about books.  It was on my anticipated books list, I read it and loved it, it was on my Q1 review post and now I’m talking about it again.  By now you may be getting wary of reading it because of the hype.  But trust me, it’s worth it.  I’ve been recommending it all over the place to people for their summer holidays and I think it might be turning into my Swiss Army Knife fiction recommendation – I think it has something for pretty much everyone.  And for once I was sightly ahead of the curve.  Here’s my review from March.

Honourable mention: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Mystery Fiction: Death of an Angel by Derek Farrell

Cover of Death of an Angel

I haven’t read a lot of new mystery fiction this year, but what I have read has been cracking.  This is the fourth Danny Bird mystery and as well as giving you all the snark and fun you could want from a detective who calls himself “Sherlock Homo”, it has a healthy dose of social commentary about the state of London today along with solving the murder.  I love Danny and his world and I would recommend them to anyone. You can read my review from February here or my interview with Derek Farrell from last year here.

Honourable mention: Vinyl Detective: Flip Back by Andrew Cartmel

So there you are, my favourite new books of the year so far – each of them a belter.  Here’s hoping the rest of 2019’s new releases live up to the first half.

Let me know what your favourite book of the year so far is in the comments – and let me know what you think I should be looking out for in the rest of 2019.

*I’m going to be trying to give content warnings when books have things that some readers want to avoid and that wouldn’t be obvious from their plot summary or genre.  So I won’t be warning you about murders in detective stories or in a non-fiction book like The Five which has it in the subject matter – but I will try and tell you if there’s something like sexual assault in the back story of a romance (if it’s not mentioned in the blurb).  Does that make sense?

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

 

American imports, Book of the Week, new releases, romance

Book of the Week: The Bride Test

You all knew this was coming.  You knew I’d been looking forward to this.  It was in my anticipated books post, Helen Hoang’s debut, The Kiss Quotient, was a Book of the Week and one of my favourite books of last year.  It is on my bullet journal list of 2019 books I want to read and only came out two weeks ago.  The reading list yesterday was short.  Doris Day died and I’ve been watching romantic comedies and being nostalgic.  This was the perfect book to be reading last week and the perfect BotW pick.

Cover of The Bride Test

So, Khai Diep doesn’t have feelings.  Not like everyone else seems to anyway.  The big feelings that everyone else gets, he doesn’t seem to.  Or at least he doesn’t think he does.  So it wouldn’t be fair on him to have a relationship with anyone – because he can’t give them what they need.  Except that his family knows better – he feels things, it’s just that his autism means he doesn’t process them the same as everyone else does.  So that’s why his mum makes a trip to Vietnam to find a woman for him.  Esme Tran has always felt out of place in Ho Chi Minh City – as a mixed race girl in the slums.  So when she gets the chance to spend a summer in America, she just can’t turn it down.  She could make a better life for her family, she could try and find her father.  But Khai isn’t what she expected.  There’s a language barrier and a culture barrier sure, but there’s something else as well that’s making Khai hold back.  But holding back isn’t a problem for Esme – everything that she’s doing to try and make Khai fall for her is only making her fall for him more.  And Esme’s on a clock – she’s only got a tourist visa and if she doesn’t make Khai want to marry her by the end of the summer, it could all have been for nothing. How will these two get to happily ever after?

I loved this.  Esme is a fantastic heroine – she fierce and determined and resourceful and she’s taking an opportunity to make her life better.  Her story mirrors that of many immigrants from around the world – who are looking for a better future.  You’re willing her on every step of the way.  Khai’s family are the other end of that migration story – they’ve been in America, they’ve arrived, they’ve set down roots and they’ve started the next generation.  And Khai is a fabulous hero – smart, but clueless, generous and caring but in ways that people don’t always recognise.  They make a great couple and it’s a real treat watching them work out their relationship.

There’s a lovely afterword from Helen Hoang talking about how her mother’s life inspired and informed elements of Esme’s life, and it shows.  What also shows is the care and attention Hoang has taken with Khai.  Like Stella in The Kiss Quotient, Khai is in the autistic spectrum, but the two of them are very different and that is absolutely as it should be.  Austism comes in many forms and we need more representation of neurodiverse characters in books.  I’ve been lucky enough to read a lot of books who feature heroes and heroines who I can see myself in – and everyone in society and the world deserves that for themselves too.  Books have also always been one of the ways that I expand my horizons and my understanding – so having more books (and knowing where to look for them) about people who don’t look like me fills me with joy.

This would make the perfect holiday read – I’m almost sorry I didn’t manage to save it for my next vacation.   The next book in the series just can’t come soon enough – especially as it’s Quan’s story and I’ve been itching to find out more about him.  I know I’ll be pre-ordering it just as soon as it that’s an option.

My copy of The Bride Test was pre-ordered on Kindle, which is good because at my library the hold list for the ebook is currently around 19 weeks. But it’s available now on Kobo (£1.99 at time of writing) and Kindle (only £1.19! total bargain)  or you can pre-order the paperback – which comes out on June 6th – from Amazon, Book Depository or wherever you buy your books.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Happy Reading!

Bonus photo:  The aforementioned upcoming books master list in my journal.

Double page journal spread with a bookshelf on one side and a list of books on the other

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!

Authors I love, Book of the Week, detective, new releases

Book of the Week: Death of an Angel

It’s Danny Bird time again!  The eagle eyed amongst you may have spotted my copy of Death of an Angel on the Week in Books post and suspected what today’s pick might be.  Danny’s previous outings have featured on this blog before, and I was lucky enough to do an interview with Derek Farrell before the release of book three.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this since the end of book three, and tried to subtly badger Derek to hurry up and write quicker when I met him in person (for the first and I hope not last time!) at the Polari Salon in London last summer where he was giving a reading.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy (the first advance copy?) of Death of an Angel, which is out on the 28th and it was a total no-brainer for it to be this week’s Book of the Week.Cover of Death of an Angel

In case you haven’t read about Danny before, he’s the landlord of the possibly the most unlikely gay pub in (south) London. The Marq is owned by a gangster and has a seriously chequered past – including at this point, several bodies turning up at inconvenient times. His best friend is the champagne swilling, possibly alcoholic, definitely going to tell you exactly what she thinks Lady Caz and he’s got a slightly tricky relationship going on with a policeman. He’s also got a developing reputation for solving mysteries.

We rejoin the gang at the start of Death of an Angel, when Danny’s name is found written on the hand of a woman who has fallen from a tower block. To make matters worse, the pub’s phone number is in her contacts list, so of course the police haul him in for questioning. Trouble is, Danny has no idea who she is. The police seem strangely reluctant to believe this and soon Danny is investigating what led to Cathy Byrne’s fall from the ninth floor. At the same time, Danny is doing a touch of investigating for his solicitor and there are major ructions going on in his family – as his siblings are convinced something is wrong in their parents’ relationship.  And don’t even get started on the boyfriend front.

Death of an Angel takes us away from the Marq – for once this death isn’t threatening Danny’s livelihood (only his freedom!) and so there’s less of Ali the bar manageress and the Asbo twins, but don’t worry – there’s a limit to how many bodies can turn up at a business and it remain solvent (no matter what the cupcake bakeries over in the cozy crime genre would have you believe) and it’s great to see Danny stretch his wings in his south London home neighbourhood. This is a great mystery – fast-paced and with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. And the fabulous banter is still there – I mean what’s not to love about a hero who refers to himself as “Sherlock Homo”? Or has lines this:

You know how, when people say someone’s ageless they usually mean ‘eternally youthful’ and not ‘looks so old it seems impossible that he could still be living without the age of Necromancy’?

But there’s also a serious side to this. There are some proper social issues here: Danny’s investigation touches on gentrification, house prices, dodgy developers, dubious councillors lining their own pockets and high-end flats sitting empty because they’ve been bought as an investment by the rich, while people from the area are being forced out by a lack of affordable housing and high rents. That all makes the book sound serious and worthy – and it’s totally not. This is the best of Danny – mysteries with a conscience, that will entertain you but also make you think without clubbing you over the head with A Message.

It’s taken a long time for this fourth instalment to arrive, I really hope we don’t have to wait as long for another. Death of an Angel is published by Fahrenheit Press (remember them?!) and should be available from their website and from Amazon from the 28th. That’s a week on Thursday. I’ll try and remind you…

Happy Reading!