book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: March 2021 Mini Reviews

So we made it to the end of a year of the quarantimes. And despite the fact being back in March meant it felt like we’d never left March at all and the world had ground to a halt in 2020 and given us endless March, itwas actually quite a good month in my reading life. Here are a few books I enjoyed that I haven’t told you about yet.

Women vs Hollywood by Helen O’Hara

Hardback copy of Women vs Hollywood

Empire Magazine’s Helen O’Hara’s new book is an examination of pioneering women through Hollywood history and the ways in which they’ve been left out of the history of the silver screen. It also examines what could be done to help redress the balance and for films to tell some different stories from some different points of view. It’s impeccably researched and well argued and will left me wanting to go out and spend some money at the cinema on female-centric films. As the cinemas are still closed, I contented myself by watching Lady Bird and Emma. and a couple of Katherine Hepburn films.

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

Cover of the Consequences of Fear

I’ve written about the Maisie Dobbs series here before. And this is another engrossing and twisty instalment in the series. With long running series it’s always a challenge writing a review that doesn’t give away too much of the plot – or spoil earlier books in the series. But what I can say is that now the books have reached World War Two, Jacqueline Winspear is consistently finding interesting aspects of the conflict to entangle Maisie in, and if a few liberties are taken with the timeline, they are minor and you forgive them because it’s so page-turning and engrossing. This also sees some really interesting developments in Maisie’s personal life too – so all around this is a really good read.

You’re History by Leslie Chow*

Cover of You're History

What’s not to love about a book with a cover as gorgeous as this and I did enjoy it, but that comes with a few caveats. I think I was missing some of the background on some of the songs to get the most out of it. Although the names listed in the blurb are all people you will have heard of – Kate Bush, Nikki Minaj,  Janet Jackson, Taylor Swift and TLC – in quite a lot of cases it’s actually taking quite a deep, in depth dive into their musical back catalogues. Really I think it needs to come with a playlist so you can listen to the songs that are being talked about as you read the book, because unless you’re really, really into music you may get lost here unless you’ve done some prep work. I used to work at radio stations as well as watching a fair few music documentaries both general and artist specific, so I consider myself fairly well across music, and I still had to do a fair bit of googling. I have a goal to try and read more books about music and musicians – because when I do I invariably enjoy that – and this fits in to that but it’s not my favourite of the genre.

Happy Singles Day by Ann Marie Walker

Cover of Happy Singles Day

This is a sweet, fluffy holiday (by which I mean vacation not Christmas!) romance set on an island off North Carolina, with a widowed hero with a B&B he can’t face running since the death of his wife and the professional organiser who visits for an out of season holiday. Lucas is focussed on raising his daughter and ignoring the bills that are coming due – so his sister relists the B7B without telling him – until Paige is booked and on the way. When Paige arrives, she finds that her accomodation doesn’t quite match the online brochure and decides to return home. But bad weather means the ferry isn’t running and she’s stuck on the island… Nothing revelatory or surprising, but a nice fun weekend read featuring a grumpy hero, a sunny heroine, a bit of forced proximity, a cute kid and some puppies.

Flake by Matthew Dooley

Hardback copy of Flake

So this is a really genuinely charming graphic novel about an ice cream seller and his van and the rivalries and challenges he faces. Low key but remarkably emotional. It had been sat on my shelf for a few months – my friendly local comic book shop had managed to get me a copy just before her last lockdown started again and I had been saving it for a treat. And I was right that it was a treat because it was really, really good.

In case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in March were Wild Rain, Act Your Age, Eve Brown, Mrs Tim of the Regiment and Heroes are my Weakness. And here are the links to the mini reviews from January and February.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Billion Dollar Loser

I was so spoilt for chose this week that I dithered over my choice for Book of the Week for quite some time before settling on Billion Dollar Loser. But it’s hard to resist a book about a spectacular business failure – you may remember how much I enjoyed Bad Blood last year and I was hoping this would do the same sort of thing.

Cover of Billion Dollar Loser

Reeves Wiedeman’s book examines the rise and fall of Adam Neumann and his company WeWork. Many people probably only heard of WeWork when its first attempt to float on the stock market imploded in spectacular style. Neumann grew up in Israel and the US, completed his compulsory military service and then moved to the US for college, determined to make his fortune. After a false start with a baby clothing company, he got into the co-working business – leasing empty office space from landlord and then renting it out to freelancers, small businesses, tech startups and the like. It wasn’t a new idea, but WeWork attracted billions of dollars from investors as it grew at breakneck speed and expanded around the world with a vision of “elevating the world’s consciousness”.

So this isn’t quite Bad Blood, and WeWork isn’t quite Theranos, but Billion Dollar Loser is an incredibly readable account of the rise and fall of a tech unicorn – a business that investors poured money into through years of losses in the hope that it would eventually make money and then be the next big thing when it finally floated in the stock exchange and they could cash out. Caught up in it all are the staff – many of whom stayed in jobs that didn’t pay very well because of the stock options they were promised and because they believed in Neumann’s vision. Like Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, Neumann is a charismatic figure – who brought in spiritualism and created an almost cult like atmosphere inside the company. And his wife is Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin so there’s an added Goop-y layer to all of this that Theranos didn’t have.

Wiedemann has written a fast-paced page turner, that exposes the fundamental problems with WeWork’s business plan – including (but not limited to) the costs involved in real estate and the need for actual physical infrastructure in your offices and to keep your tenants happy! Like Bad Blood, it leaves you with a fair few questions, but the story of WeWork isn’t done yet – their valuation for their stock market floatation was published at the end of March (spoiler: it’s a lot less than it was the first time around) and Neumann is also reported to be planning a new venture. A Hulu documentary about WeWork came it last week and Cosmo have just published a profile of Rebekah Paltrow Neumann so this probably isn’t the last we’ve heard of WeWork – but as a starting point this is a really good one!

My copy of Billion Dollar Loser came from the library, but it’s available now from all the usual sources – like Kindle and Kobo and should be available to order from your bookshop of choice or bookshop.org.uk . It’s been so long now since bookshops were open for in person browsing that I have no idea if you’ll be able to pick it up in store without ordering!

Happy reading!

book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: February 2021 Mini Reviews

A bit of a strange month all in, because although I read a lot of stuff, there were a lot of series, and there weren’t a lot of books that I really liked that I haven’t already told you about. Still there are a few, so here we go again…

We Are Bellingcat by Elliot Higgins*

Cover of We Are Bellingcat

If you’re a casual news consumer you’ll probably have come across Bellingcat as a result of their investigation into the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. But the open source investigation team has its roots further back – in the Arab Spring and the dawning of citizen journalism via social media. It’s an absolutely fascinating read, but a warning: if you worked in a newsroom in the period 2011-2015 (roughly) approach this book with care. I wanted to read this book because I was interested in their verification techniques, mission statement and how they work – after all my day job is in a newsroom. But reading it brought back some memories that I’d rather not think about. It’s not that the book is overly graphic – or even excessively so. But if you watched the sort of pictures they’re talking about first time around – most of which didn’t make the tv news because they were so graphic, you’ll find it coming back to you. I started at the BBC fulltime almost exactly ten years ago – and my first job was in picture intake. That first year – through the Arab Spring, Japanese Tsunami, Utoya Island, the assassination of Mummar Gaddafi – I saw so much really grim footage that I invented the Panda scale of how many times did I have to watch my video of baby pandas playing to cheer myself up. And I didn’t even get the worst of it. This brought back some of the images from that time that I thought I had forgotten. But if you’re interested in open source investigation and in how the masses of UGC (user generated content) from the conflicts of the last decade are being preserved and the hopes for how it might be used in the future- this is the book for you.

Teach Me by Olivia Dade

Cover of Teach Me

Not my first time writing about Olivia Dade – and I’ve read this series out of order – but this is a lovely romance between a newly divorced Dad and the teacher whose world history class he’s unwittingly stolen. What I really like about this whole series is that there is no stupid drama. Rose has reasons why she doesn’t trust people and why she won’t let people in. Martin has issues around his self worth. But there’s no big misunderstanding that could (should?) be resolved by a simple conversation, it’s all about two people working out if they are right for each other beyond just chemistry, and then starting to negotiate life together. And it’s very, very romantic despite – Dade is proving you don’t necessarily need high stakes drama to make a satisfying romance. And I don’t need any more angst at the moment, so this was perfect!

These two reviews have turned out to be not quite so mini as I intended, so a quick rattle through a couple of other things: I listened to the audiobook of Strong Poison for the umpteenth time – I still find the mystery incredibly satisfying and Sayers portrayal of “bohemian” writers life, the interwar craze for Spiritualism and surplus women all make for something a little out of the ordinary run of murder mysteries of the time. And that’s before you get to the fact that it is the start of Peter and Harriet. I read The Sugared Game, the second part of the Will Darling Adventures by K J Charles and it was really good and I’m annoyed that there’s no date for the final part yet – although I do have Charles’s new book (in a different series) so that is something. And I also ended up listening to The Unknown Ajax again after I found out that her next series is about smugglers! Apart from that, I read some more romances – historical and contemporary- that I had too many quibbles with to fully recommend, and I carried on with the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.

In case you missed any of them, the Books of the Week posts in February were: Beekeepers Apprentice, Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, Boyfriend Material and The Holdout. And January’s mini reviews are here.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Bag Man

As I have now mentioned a few times now, I’m on an Amelia Peabody re-reading spree at the moment, but I am reading a few new things too and as last week was the Presidential Inauguration in the US, I’ve gone for a US politics book for this week’s BotW.

Cover of Bag Man

Rachel Maddow is an MSNBC host and journalist and Michael Yarvitz is her producer. Bag Man is the book of their Peabody-winning podcast of the same name about Spiro T Agnew. If you’ve heard of Agnew at all, it’s probably as part of a trivia question about some aspect of Gerald Ford being the only person to serve as US vice-president and President without having been elected to either office. Maybe, if you did a module on US 20th Century history like I did at GCSE, you’ll know that he was Nixon’s vice-president and half think that he resigned over something to do with Watergate. If that’s the case, you’re wrong. Agnew actually resigned as part of a corruption scandal – as prosecutors were closing in on charges of bribery, conspiracy and more, he agreed a deal with prosecutors where he would plead no contest to a tax charge in return for his resignation and not getting any jail time. All this was going on in the background of the Watergate scandal – and fears at the Department of Justice that if Nixon resigned, he would be replaced by Agnew who they had evidence had taken bribes – and was still taking bribes even as he worked in the White House. 

I was absolutely engrossed in this – to the point where I’ve both read the book and listened to the podcast alongside it.  The podcast has all the key points – and you get to hear actual audio from inside the White House as Nixon and his staff discussed what was going on, but the book can go into more details about everything. As an MSBC host, Maddow is towards the liberal end of the political spectrum and part of the reason for the podcast and the book are the parallels between Agnew’s style of defence and that of President Trump, as well as the fact that his case is the basis for the ruling that the President cannot be prosecuted while in office (but the vice-president can) that President Trump often cited. But even without that the story of Spiro Agnew is one that should be better known – when Agnew pled no contest in court, the prosecutors submitted a document detailing what Agnew was doing – involving actual cash in literal envelopes  in return for giving state contracts. Agnew is a bombastic character who commanded enormous support from the Republican Party by being further to the right than Nixon. In the final part of the podcast, some of the guests set out the idea that the removal of Agnew may have made Nixon’s impeachment easier – because one of the things holding the Democrats back was the idea that if Nixon went, then Agnew would be president instead. 1973 was a hell of a year for American politics, while everyone was looking at Watergate, all this was going on at the same time and has mostly been forgotten.

I love a politics book and this is definitely that. But if you’re hesitating because you’re all politics-ed out at the moment, then I would say that it also fits in to the group of really good, easy to read narrative non-fiction and history books that I’ve recommended before – like Bad Blood, Catch and Kill and Furious Hours. My copy came from the library, but it’s available now on Kindle but it feels pricey at £10.99 and for a slightly better £6.39 on Kobo as well as as a hardback but if you’re interested in this one, obviously the first part of the podcast would be an easy (and cost free!) place to start. 

Happy Reading

Book of the Week

Book of the Week: The Button Box

A slightly cheaty BotW pick this week, as I actually finished The Button Box this morning, although I did read most of it last week. But having already written about The Trouble with Mistletoe and How Love Actually Ruined Christmas in my Recommendsday post, and having written frequently about Rivers of London and Lumberjanes, it seemed like the obvious choice none the less (if I could finish it of course!).

Copy of The Button box

The Button Box is an examination on the changing lives of women through the 20th century, using the contents of the author’s button box, which contains items owned by her mother and her grandmother as well as from her own clothes gone by. From Victorian mourning jewellery through to Biba and the 70s, Lynn Knight uses buttons and buckles to trace the evolution of female life in a century that saw huge changes as women started to have the ability to have a life beyond the domestic and careers became an option – rather than working until marriage – or sitting at home waiting for marriage to come to you depending on your class. 

As an avid reader of books written or set pre-1950, I found the sections on the realities of women’s wardrobes and clothing in those periods absolutely fascinating. The obsession with the ability to sew in my beloved boarding school stories – and the anger of the teachers when a pupil got a fresh tunic covered in ink – come into sharper focus when you realise exactly how small the children’s wardrobes likely were, as well as the struggles that parents must have had to find the money for all the clothes their boarders needed. My grandma used to tell stories of some of her schoolmates not having proper shoes, or having carried a baked potato to school to keep their hands warm en route and then eating it for lunch, but when you’re little it doesn’t really sink in. During the early stages of the book I found myself thinking – more than once – of my wardrobe full of clothes and my easy ability to buy more and feeling lucky but also guilty.

Knight is also able to talk at length about the importance of home dressmakers and home dress making – which was also fascinating. My mum did some sewing (still does really) but mostly nice extras – like the strawberry patterned kaftan she made for me (with a little help from me!) when i was about 10. My mother in law made me a pinafore apron for Christmas (it’s amazing) and is helping me with a Mary Quant design the V&A published more than a year ago before the virus hit, but it’s all recreational stuff – it’s not out of necessity. And the book is full of little insights – like women in the era before reliable contraception sitting downstairs doing their darning in the hope that by the time they got to bed their husbands would be asleep. And on top of everything else, it would definitely make a useful addition to the research shelf of any author writing books set in the first half of the twentieth century.

My copy of The Button Box is an advance copy of the hardback, which has been sitting on the to-read bookshelf for some years – I think it came from the proofs trolley at work, back in the days when that was a thing. I want to say that I picked it up after reading a review of it in the Literary Review, but the review might have been after – or it might not have existed at all because I can’t find a link to it! Anyway, that’s all to say, that it’s been around so long it’s been out in paperback for three years – I don’t know if you’ll be able to find it actually in a shop or you’ll have to order it, but Foyles has stock, so you never know. And it’s available in Kindle and Kobo too. 

Happy Reading!

Bonus Photo: The paperback cover of The Button Box – I thought it was an updated kindle one, but it only shows in the kindle library view – when you open the book up it does that irritating thing of having a different cover (the only thing more irritating, being not having a cover at all!)

Cover of The Button Box
book round-ups, Christmas books

Recommendsday: Christmas books 2020

It’s only a few days to go before Christmas now, and so it’s time for my annual Christmas reading post, which as is traditional coming slightly later than I had hoped!

Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance by Riane Konc

Copy of Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance

Lets start with something utterly cheesy and frivolous! Remember the old choose your own adventure books that we all used to read, well this is one of those but for Christmas movies and written by some one with a sharp eye on the tropes and stereotypes of the Hallmark Movie genre. Depending on how evil you are depends on how long the story is and where you end up, although there is an overarching story. I got this for Christmas last year and it would make a great gift for the person in your life who’s been watching Christmas movies since the day after Halloween!

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Cover of In a Holidaze

For years Maelyn Jones has spent Christmas in a cabin Utah with a big group of her family’s closest friends. But this year it’s all gone horribly wrong, and even worst it could be the last Christmas at the cabin too. On her way back to the airport, Mae asks the universe to show her what will make her happy. Then tyres screech, metal collides… and she wakes up on the plane on the way to Utah before the holiday has even started. And what happens next is basically Groundhog Day with a romance and Christmas twist, as Mae tries to make her way through the holiday all over again – fixing what went wrong each time to try and break the loop and find her true love. This funny and sweet and it really worked for me – despite the fact that I don’t usually like time travel. I’ve written about Christina Lauren before (most recently about the Honey-Don’t list) and when they work for me, they really work. This is on the right side of the pranks and embarrassment scale for me, as well as being lovely and escapist in what’s been an awful year. The isolated nature of the cabin also means that you don’t really think about how different life in reality at the moment compared to what you’re seeing in the books. Wonderfully escapist.

The Gift of the Magpie by Donna Andrews

Cover of The Gift of the Magpie

I mean honestly it wouldn’t be a Christmas post without a mention of Meg Langslow. Donna Andrews has been on a two book a year schedule with this series for a while, but for the last few years the second book has been a Christmas one. This is the 28th book in the series and sees Meg’s already busy life complicated with the Helping Hands project – matching volunteers up to people who need help with jobs. There’s some one who needs a ramp building for wheelchair access, someone else has a quilt that needs finishing – and then there Harvey the Hoarder who is in danger of losing his home. Meg’s helped him before, so she’s sent in to work her magic again, but after some initial success, he’s found dead in his garage. But who killed him? One of his relatives hoping there’s something valuable in his junk or one of his neighbours who got fed up of living next door to his mess? After last year’s snowed-in murder, this is back in town and has some of the series’ Christmas traditions back in evidence. The mystery is good and I love spending time with the characters. And I think it would just about work for someone who’s never read the series before.

The Trouble with Mistletoe by Jill Shalvis

Cover of The Trouble with Mistletoe

Willa Davis knew Keane Winters at high school, but when he comes into her pet shop needing someone to look after his aunt’s cranky cat while he’s at work, he doesn’t even remember her. Despite this inauspicious start, the sparks between the two of them just keep flying. But both of them have issues in their childhoods that make them think that relationships are not at thing that will work for them so they’ll have to work together to build trust and break down each others barriers to get to their happy ending. Now I know this doesn’t sound that Christmassy, but the backdrop to all this is the run up to Christmas and the festivities going on in Willa’s shop, so it totally counts and it has mistletoe in the title of course. This is the second book in Shalvis’s Heartbreaker Bay, and although you don’t have to read them in order, you will spot stuff from the other books in the series cropping up or being cued up in it. Perfect reading material for the sofa in the cold weather.

Christmas on 4th Street by Susan Mallery

Cover of Christmas on 4th Street

This book 12.5 in Mallery’s long-runing Fools Gold series (which feels like it has more in between titles than it does “proper” titles) and is actually closer to a novel in length than to a novella.  Our heroine is Noelle, who moved to town to open a festive-themed store The Christmas Attic. Army doctor Gabriel is in town to recuperate after an injury and to visit his brother Gideon. Their parents are in town for the holidays too – and both men, but especially Gabriel, have a difficult relationship with their father – a literal drill sergeant. Gabriel doesn’t believe in happily ever afters, but when he ends up spending more time with Noelle to get away from his dad, he starts to reconsider. As an added bonus here, Gideon is the hero of book 11, and so if you’ve read that, this gives you a sort of extended epilogue opportunity with some old friends too.

The Naughty List by Ellie-Mae MacGregor

Cover of The Naughty List

A bit of a wildcard here. This is a steamy Christmas novella with a single mum who wakes up on her sofa on Christmas night to find Santa is in her house. Santa – aka Nikolai – is lonely and horny and so is Kate. Thus high jinx and sauciness ensue. It’s not long, but it is fun. Don’t read it on the train though, it might make you blush!

How Love Actually Ruined Christmas by Gary Raymond*

Cover of How Love Actually Ruined Christmas

And finally – the one I haven’t finished yet: this is Gary Raymond’s response to all the people who think that Love Actually is a perfect Christmas movie. I loved Love Actually when it came out, but as time has gone on, I’m more fond of some of the characters than I am about the whole thing, and there are definitely elements that have not aged well to say the least. Whether I’ll come out of this a convert to the Church of Hating Love Actually I don’t know, but I’m a third of the way through and it’s definitely making me laugh as well as think.

If you want more recommendations, for Christmas books, you can check out my previous posts: New Christmas books 2019, Old Christmas books 2019, Christmas 2018, Christmas 2017, More Christmas 2017, Christmas 2016 and finally Christmas 2015.

Happy reading – and Happy Christmas!

*as usual an asterisk means a book came from Netgalley. Unless otherwise noted, everything else I’ve either purchased or borrowed from the library.

 

book round-ups

Recommendsday: Mini Reviews from November

Another month of this super weird year is over. Just a few weeks now until we can kiss goodbye to 2020 and hopefully 2021 will be better. I mean 2020 has thrown everything at us, so surely there can’t be quite as much going on right? I mean I feel nervous just writing that, because this year has done such a number on everyone! Anyway, a few old friends in this month’s post and some new ideas too.

Vanderbeekers Lost and Found by Karina Yan Glaser

Cover of Vanderbeekers Lost and Found

I’ve written about this series before, but Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeeker books continue to be a total delight. This fourth installment sees the gang helping Mr Biederman prepare to run in the New York marathon when they discover that someone is sleeping in the community garden’s shed. When they discover it is someone that they know (and love) they set about trying to fix the problem, in inimitable Vanderbeeker style. This installment also deals with grief and loss as one of the longer running storylines develops in a way that the grownups amongst us have seen coming, but does it in a very sensitive and caring way – as you’d expect – but which also provides a framework for younger readers who might (well almost certainly will) find themselves in a similar situation.

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz*

Cover of the Sentence is Death

So Anthony Horowitz has two very meta series going at the moment. The Moonflower Murders from the other series was a BotW back in August, and if anything this is maybe the weirder – with Horowitz himself featuring as the protagonist, writing a book about Hawthorne, an ex-cop turned private investigator and police consultant. The murder mystery is good, Hawthorne is intriguingly dislikeable and “Anthony” is a good narrator. Horowitz has made himself an endearingly stupid Watson to Hawthorne’s Holmes. I think on balance I prefer the Susan Ryeland series, with their book within a book structure, but these are a good read and I will happily read more of these, if/when they materialise.

Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld

 Copy of Help Yourself

Curtis Sittenfeld is another author that I’ve written about here before and this is three more short stories from her. They look at racism and suburbia, a film crew running into trouble on a shoot in the Mid-West and a squabbling group of aspiring authors waiting to hear who has got the best scholarships on their MA programme. I think they’re all from angles that you wouldn’t quite expect and make you think as well as make you laugh. Would make a lovely stocking filler book for one of the readers in your life.

First World War Poets by Alan Judd and David Crane

Copy of First World War Poets

A slightly left-field choice for my last pick and another that would make a good stocking filler. I’m not really a poetry person, but the War Poets are the ones that i do like and where I can genuinely believe that the writers really did put in all those layers of meaning that teachers tell you about when you study them (like I did at A Level back in the day). This is a really lovelt little book from the National Portrait Gallery with short biographies of the key figures along with pictures of them from the NPG collection and one of their poems. I have another book from this series about the Bloomsbury Group that I’m looking forward to reading at some point when I’m slightly less behind on my various yearly reading challenges. The Portrait Gallery is my favourite of the London Galleries and as well as museums hing been shut for most of the year the NPG is now closed for refurbishment until 2023, so books like this and the virtual collection are the only way we’re going to be able to enjoy it for a while.

And that’s your lot for this month. If you’ve missed the previous posts, here are the mini-reviews for the rest of the year: October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January. And just in case you missed them, here are the Books of the Week from November: Love, Death and Cellos, Grumpy Jake, Someone to Romance and Boiled Over.

Happy Reading!

*an asterix next to a title means it came from NetGalley, in return for an honest review (however belated that might be) ** means it was an advance copy that came some other way

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Haunting of Alma Fielding

Lots of non-fiction reading last week. You’ll hear more about the Kate Andersen Brower anon (or you can find my previous writing about her here), but in the meantime, this week’s BotW is new release (well on October 1) non-fiction that feels really appropriate for the run up to Halloween!

Cover of the Haunting of Alma Fielding

Nandor Fodor is a Jewish-Hungarian refugee in 1930s London. He’s also a ghost hunter and he starts to investigate the case of Alma Fielding, a surburban housewife who says she’s being plagued by a poltergeist. As he starts to investigate as part of his work for the International Institute of Physical Research, the phenomena intensify and he discovers Alma’s complicated and traumatic past. And all this is happening against the backdrop of the rise of Fascim in Europe as well as the obsession/renaissance in spiritualism that happened in the post Great War period.

Now although reads like the plot of a novel, this is actually non-fiction. It’s sometimes hard to believe this while you read it though as Alma continues to manifest material affects after she’s been strip searched and put into a special costume provided by the Institute. But it is and its fascinating. Fodor is rational although he wants to believe, but as he develops doubts about Alma, he handles it in a much more sensitive way than I was expecting. I’ve almost said to much here, but it’s really hard to talk about non-fiction like it’s a novel, when so much of whether it works is about the research and the story and whether it feels satisfying. On that front, I wanted a little bit more closure about Alma and her haunting, but I appreciate that in a work of non-ficiton, you can only work with what the sources tell you.

The juxtaposition of Alma’s story and the wider context of the late 1930s also works really well. If you’ve read Dorothy L Sayers’ Strong Poison* you’ll have encountered the wave of spiritualists of the era – and seen some of their trickery exposed (to the reader at least) by Miss Climpson, but this really sets what Fodor was doing and the organisations that he worked for into the wider context. I was fascinated. If you’re looking for something to read for Halloween, and don’t want fiction, this is really worth a look.

Unlike most of the rest of the world (it seems) I haven’t read the Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but reading this has definitely made me more likely to. My copy of The Haunting of Alma Fielding came from NetGalley in return for an honest review, but it is out now in hardback and should be easily available in bookstores as well as on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

*I love it when I get to mention Lord Peter Wimsey, and Strong Poison is one of my favourites, if I haven’t worn you down yet, go and read it.

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Money

A lot of non-fiction reading last week all in all, so it’s probably not a surprise that this week’s pick is from the nonfiction list. Just a reminder that the mini-reviews are coming tomorrow – where among the picks is another non-fiction book from last week.

Cover of Money by Jacob Goldstein

So Jacob Goldstein’s Money is exactly what the subtitle says it is – The True Story of a Made-up Thing. It’s a an engaging and easy to understand history of money that goes right from when people stopped bartering and started developing money through to the present day with all the complications that the internet and computers have brought.

Goldstein is one of the hosts of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and has a really conversational style as well as having a knack for explaining complicated ideas in easy to understand language. In this he’s done possibly the best job I’ve found so far of explaining things like bitcoin, blockchain and what exactly happened with the 2008 crash. I mean I came away feeling like I finally understood them at any rate. Be warned though, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find the idea that there will be another big crash or breakdown in the way that we use money just a little bit terrifying and may lead to some googling to work out how safe the money in your bank is. It definitely made me think a lot about electronic banking and the cashless economy. Anyway, If you’re not a person who thinks of themselves as business or money minded, this would be a great primer/introduction for you, or if you’re starting to think about your Christmas present list, this would make a good choice for someone who likes authors like Mary Roach or Bill Bryson.

My copy of Money came from NetGalley, but it’s out now (came out in the UK last week in fact) on Kindle and Kobo and as a hardback. As usual I have no idea whether it’ll be in bookshops, but they should be able to order it for you if they don’t have it in stock. Give them a call/drop in in a safe and responsible way.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups

Recommendsday: Mini Reviews from August

Another month gone, and here we are with another group of mini-reviews.  This isn’t a recommendation fest this month – some of them are books that I just wanted to talk about in a non Book of the Week way.

We Germans by Alexander Starritt*

Cover of We Germans

Meissner, was a soldier on the Eastern Front and now an old man, his Scottish-German grandson ask him what he did in the war, he initially shuts down and refuses to talk about it and then writes a letter. We Germans is that letter (interspersed with memories and stories about his grandfather from the grandson, Callum) and tells the story of a rampage he and a small group of colleagues went on during the final days before the Russians overran what was left of the Nazi forces. Separated from their unit, the men see other soldiers carrying out atrocities – and commit some crimes of their own.  At times it is incredibly graphic and it is a lot to grapple with – but then there is a lot to think about about what happened to the men who fought in for the Nazis once the conflict was over – and how to reconcile their actions during the war with what happened after. I found it a complete page turner, and it gave me a lot to think about. I studied First World War Literature as part of my A-Levels and found this an interesting and Second World War addition to the various more modern novels I read as part of that module.

The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

Cover of The Gravity of Us

Cal wants to be a journalist and his following on social media platform Flashframe has snagged him an internship at BuzzFeed. But all his plans are derailed when his dad is selected as an astronaut on Nasa’s mission to Mars. Soon he’s moving into a new house in Houston, and into the world of the reality TV show that covers the lives of the astronauts and their families. But Cal’s family isn’t like any of the picture perfect ones on the show, and his new life is a struggle – until he meats Leon. Leon’s mum is also on the mission and as the two of them bond, they also start to fall in love. But when things start going on in the programme, Cal has to try to find a way to get to the truth of what is going on. Now long-time readers will know that I’m a big fan of books about the space race. I’ve previously recommended The Astronaut Wives Club and The Right Stuff and when I went to Washington two years ago I spent Thanksgiving Day wandering round the Air and Space Museum annexe to look at the Space Shuttle. So this was so up my street it was unbelievable. This is just a lovely blend of space race nostalgia and astronaut nerdery and angsty first love romance. I had a few minor gripes with some of the journo ethics of the hero, but then that’s what my day job is and so it’s maybe not surprising, and I’ve seen much, much worse.

Dance Away With Me by Susan Elizabeth Philips

Cover of Dance Away with Me

This is the first of the not quite as positive reviews, but I wanted to chuck this in here, because I loved the Chicago Stars series and read this hoping that it was going to be somewhat similar in feel despite being sold as “a novel”, but it’s… not. Recently widowed Tess has upped sticks for rural Tennessee looking for space to grieve. Her new neighbours at her isolated retreat are an enigmatic street artist Ian North and a free-spirit, not really in the real world pregnant model. This has so much plot, with so many different strand and so much angst and tragedy that it’s really hard to see how it can be satisfactorily resolved. Because there is so much going on, Tess feels quite one dimensional – even though you spend so much time with her and because and a lot of that plot also doesn’t actually involve the hero I never got to know North well enough to really understand him and root for him. Overall: Not awful just not what I wanted. But it will probably be absolutely someone’s jam. Just maybe not in a pandemic. Never mind!

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Cover of Untames

Now back at the start of the year I did a round up post of self-help books, and this was one of the ones I didn’t get to back then. Now it may seem like all you can do at the moment is get through the day what with the Quarantimes and the ‘Rona, but my library hold came in so I got stuck in to this. Glennon Doyle had built a successful career as a Christian mommy blogger and motivational speaker, but while on book tour for her book about the how she and her husband saved their marriage after infidelity and betrayal, she looked across the room, saw a woman and fell in love. Untamed is the story of what happened next, and how she built a new life. Now this isn’t exactly a recommendation, because I am not the target audience for this and I don’t think I’m implementing anything from this book into my life. Back in that January post, I wrote that Rachel Hollis’s book was Not What I Was Looking For and this is much less preachy than this, but it’s still aiming at a target audience that is Not Me, but it is an interesting read, and could serve as a template for the aforementioned Rachel Hollis on how to pivot your career when the thing about your life that made your name is suddenly gone.

 

And that’s your lot for this month. If you’ve missed the previous posts, here are the mini-reviews for the rest of the year: July, June, May, April, March, February and January. And just in case you missed them, here are the books of the week from August: The Miseducation of Evie Epworth, V for Victory, The Moonflower Murders, Daring and the Duke and The Great Godden.

Happy Reading!

*an asterix next to a title means it came from NetGalley, in return for an honest review (however belated that might be)