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, non-fiction, reviews

Book of the Week: The Right Stuff

It’s the last day of the month, and that means a stats post tomorrow, but before we get to that, here’s another Book of the Week post for you! Today’s pick may have taken me a while to finish – but it was an absolutely stonking read. This isn’t the first time I’ve recommended a space race-related book here – Lily Koppel’s The Astronauts Wives Club was a pick a couple of years ago (Editors note: more than four years ago, doesn’t time fly!) so maybe this isn’t a big surprise to you all, but it is a bit of a change from the recent run of BotWs which have been mostly romances and and romance adjacent.

Paperback copy of The Right Stuff

This is pretty much a modern classic of narrative non-fiction. Tom Wolfe tells the story of the American journey into space, starting with the history of America’s military aviators and test pilots, through the selection process to pick the Mercury Seven, then their training and the rivalries within the group and outside. Based on interviews with the astronauts, their wives, the test pilots it will take you through the early days, the competition with the test pilots working on rocket powered aircraft and the friction between the administration and the astronauts who wanted to actually pilot the missions rather than just be cargo and right to the to the end of the Mercury missions. It covers the selection of the second batch of astronauts (the New Nine) but doesn’t go beyond into the Apollo programme and the moon shot, which is probably a good thing, because you’ve grown attached to these guys and, spoiler alert, the Apollo programme did not always go well.

It is incredibly readable, for the most part you don’t want to put it down. But be warned, in the early stages where it talks about pilot training and testing, there is an incredibly high rate of attrition, which meant that I needed to pace myself a bit in reading it and is the main reason it took me longer to read*. I don’t even think you need to have any prior knowledge of the space race really, although obviously it helps. If you saw First Man last year, like I did**, it makes for a great companion piece to that very introspective look at one astronaut’s life, as it takes in the broad sweep of American ambition in space, the competition with the Soviet Union and the public and media attention that focused on the men they hoped were going to restore American dominance in the heavens.

Friendship 7 capsule
It’s really hard to get a good photo of the Friendship 7 capsule at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but I tried!

I remember people telling me that I ought to read this back when I reviewed the Lily Koppel, but it took until Tom Wolfe’s death last May for me to get around to adding it to the to buy pile.  There has been a new edition since my version – which has a snazzy new cover and, more importantly, an introduction from Scott Kelly, the astronaut who spent a year in space a couple of years back and was (probably still is) the subject of a study into the long term effects of being in space as he has an identical twin brother (Mark Kelly, also a former astronaut who is married to former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and who himself is making a run for Democratic nomination for one of Arizona’s Senate seats) which enabled almost direct comparison.  After reading this, I’ve got a mad yearning for more space books, but also to read more of Wolfe’s works.  So I went for a wander on Amazon and discovered that Bonfire of the Vanities is only £2.99 in paperback there at the moment.  I may have bought myself a copy.  Oopsy daisy.  And I have a couple more sitting in my shopping basket, waiting for the tbr shelf to empty out a little.  If you have any other recommendations for where I should go next – drop them in the comments.

You should be able to get hold of a copy of The Right Stuff from any reasonable book store, it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo and I suspect that you’d have a good chance of finding a copy of it in any reasonably sized charity or second hand bookshop.

Happy Reading!

*the other reason being my long-standing rule about not taking books I’m more than halfway through on overnight trips, or books I have less than 100 pages to go on the train for the daily commute.

** I saw it at the IMAX at the Smithsonian, having spent an afternoon looking at actual space race artifacts.

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!

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Priestdaddy

Staying in non-fiction for this week’s BotW – but this time moving to a memoir.  You’ll have noticed Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy on the WiB list for some considerable time – I actually started listening to it on audiobook, but it demands attention and with my long list of podcasts to listen to, I struggled to find time to make progress on it.  I discovered early on that I couldn’t listen to it while I was running because it made me laugh too much and put me at risk of tripping myself up.  So I got on the library hold list and waited for a copy to come in.  And when it finally did (this is a popular book people) I had much more success reading rather than listening to it.

Cover of Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy is Patricia Lockwood’s memory of her childhood, growing up moving around the Mid-West with an eccentric, doom-prophesying mother and her even more eccentric Catholic priest father.  Yes, you heard right.  Lockwood’s father underwent a religious conversion and felt called to ministry after he was already married with children, and then found a loop hole that meant the Roman Catholic church would receive him as a priest.  The book starts as Lockwood and her husband move back in with her parents after a medical procedure messes up their finances, and as she and her husband get used to living with the eccentric duo, she reminisces on the key moments of her childhood.

Lockwood’s father, Greg, is the biggest, flashiest character in this – he wears as few clothes as possible whenever he’s not on duty, he plays terrifyingly loud electric guitar and shouts along with action movies – but her mother manages steals the show for me a lot of the time.  She’s constantly expecting the worst to happen and seeing the worst, but managing everything, dealing with the madman that she married and loopy in her own way.  By the end of the book you feel like you understand her more than you do Greg.

This is funny and terrifying in equal measure.  It’s also beautifully written.  Lockwood is a poet and her words fairly sing on the page.  There are some weighty issues here – Lockwood is a lapsed catholic and looks back on her childhood – including an anti-abortion protest she was taken to – with a particular view on the world of 80s and 90s religious super-conservatism that she grew up in.  I really liked but I’d think hard about who I recommended it too – my sister, who loves reading about American Christianity in its many shades, yes; my mother, Church of England and formerly of the village’s church council and who went to a convent school probably not.

This was nominated for a whole bunch of prizes and found its way on to a lot of book of the year lists when it came out in 2017 and I’m not surprised.  As always I’m behind the curve with this – but I’m glad I caught up with it in the end.  And all this means that you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily.   As I said, I borrowed my copy from the library, but it’s out in paperback, Amazon has hardbacks at a reasonable price via third parties and you can get it in Kindle and Kobo.  And the audiobook I mentioned – is read by the author and is apparently exclusive to Audible.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There were a few options for BotW this week, but I have some other posts planned involving some of them so I thought I’d mix it up and go with a non-fiction pick this week – after all it’s been a while.

Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of how cells from a poor Southern tobacco farmer became one of the most important and influential tools in modern medicine.  HeLa cells are immortal – easy to crow and still multiplying today more than 60 years after Henrietta’s death.  In The Immortal Life of Henriett Lacks, Rebecca Skloot has meticulously researched the life of the woman previously known to scientists as HeLa in order to tell her story and the story of her cells and to put her back at the centre of it, refocussing a what has been seen as a story of medical advancement and triumph on the woman who was hidden from the public by the scientists.

Henrietta’s cells were taken as she was being treated for the cervical cancer that killed her, and after they were cultured by lab at John Hopkins hospital it was discovered that they reproduced at a remarkable rate and could be kept alive longer than any other cell they had previously studied.  Scientists have been using them ever since.  Patients were not asked for permission or consent for this sort of procedure at the time, and the Lacks family didn’t know what had happened until years after the fact and, as the book was being researched, still didn’t really understand fully what actually happened to their mother’s cells or the implications.  As well as the story of the HeLa cell, and the ethical questions raised by it, Skloot also tells the story of the Lacks family, how she met them and eventually managed to get their side of the story and helped them understand what had happened to Henrietta and her contribution to science.

I’m not really a science person, but Skloot’s explanations of the medicine and biology in this were at a level that I could follow and understand, however the personal side of the story was what really kept me reading the book.  The way that the hospital acquired Henrietta’s cells is definitely unethical by today’s standards, but was common practice at the time – although issues of race and class seem also to have been at play here.  But effect on Henrietta’s children of the discovery of what had happened to her cells was massive and it’s explored sensitively and empathetically.

This book is fascinating, but also depressing.  It’s easy to see the HeLa cells as an example of the injustices that African Americans have faced at the hands of medicine and science – there are a lot of others in here too.  I don’t read a lot of popular science, but  had heard a lot about this and it lived up to the reviews.  It’s been turned into a TV film now and I hope that Henrietta’s descendants have done better from the book and the film than they have from her cells.

My copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came from the library, but it’s available in Kindle and Kobo as well as in paperback and as an audiobook, so I’m hoping that you should be able to get hold of it fairly easily if you’re interested. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the film.

Happy Reading.

Book previews

Books I’m looking forward to in 2019

Happy New Year everyone.  I hope you had a good night last night and are able to relax and unwind today.  I’m working this New Years Day, so think of me if you’re cozy at home and if you’re also working, you have all my sympathy!  The final stats post of 2018 is coming tomorrow, but instead of a Book of the Week post today, I’ve got a look ahead at some of the upcoming books that I can’t wait to read in 2019.

I’m a sucker for a novel based on real events and real people when they’re done well (see my love of Gone with the Windsors) and I’ve heard a lot of good things about A Well-Behaved Woman by Theresa Anne Fowler.  It follows Alva Smith – better known as Alva Vanderbilt as she navigates her way through Gilded Age society.  The Kindle edition is out now in the UK with the paperback coming at the end of January and I have an advance copy sitting on my kindle waiting for a quiet afternoon in front of the fire…

Another one sitting on the Kindle waiting for me is the Sidney Chambers prequel The Road to Grantchester which comes out in March.  I was sad when the series proper ended (the books, not the TV series – I gave up on that during the 3rd season), so the idea of a look at how Sidney came to be in Grantchester really appeals to me.

Also in March is Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.  About the events leading up to the unexplained break-up of a hugely successful band in 1979, it’s already been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.  I have a mixed record with stories about bands – but enough of them have ended up being Books of the Week that I’m optimistic about this one.

Even further into 2019 is The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal, which is being billed as being a historical novel about art, obsession and possession – when an aspiring artist become the model for a pre-Raphaelite artist.  It’s out at the start of May and is getting a lot of buzz – so I’m looking forward to reading it, but I’m a little worried it might be too dark and scary for me!

I loved Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient in 2018, so I’m very excited for the follow-up The Bride Test which is also due in May and looks like a twist on the marriage of convenience/mail order bride trope with another neurodiverse leading player.  I can’t wait!

And halfway through the year, in June, is Montauk by Nicola Harrison, which tells the story of a summer by the Long Island seaside in 1938.  We all know that I love a rich people problems historical novel, and this looks like it could be spot on for me.  According to the blurb, Beatrice is hoping that the summer at the beach will help her revitalise her marriage.  But instead she’s stuck in a huge hotel with people she’s never fit in with while her husband is back in the city.  Instead she’s drawn to the year-round community and a man who is very unlike her husband.

And finally, this is not quite a next year book – as it cames out here on December 27th – and I don’t really do business improvement/self-help books but after hearing about it in an email Karen Wickre’s Taking the Work Out of Networking Connections: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count sounds like something I could really use.  I am not a naturally outgoing person – I’m very bad at networking and making connections and use social media as a crutch to get over the fact that I just can’t bring myself to call people I haven’t spoken to in ages just for a chat and a catch up.  Perhaps 2019 is the year to change that?

Let me know what you’re looking forward to reading in 2019 in the comments!

Authors I love, Best of..., book round-ups

Best books of 2018

It’s nearly the end of the year and I promised you some extra posts looking back at the year didn’t I?  Well, here’s my look at five of my favourite books of the year.  Looking back on my Goodreads stats to write this, I realise that I’ve been very stingy with the 5 stars this year – which has made this very tricky to write because there are a lot of 4 star ratings and I’ve had to workout which ones were my real favourites.  And because of the way this blog works, you’ve heard about most of these before – either as Books of the Week or in other roundup posts – because when I like stuff this much, I tell you about it!

A Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Copy of Another Day in the Death of America

This was part of my pre-Washington reading and although I read a lot of good books in that particular reading jag, this one has really stuck with me.  A snapshot of all the children and teens killed by guns on just one day in America, it is meticulously researched and will break your heart.  If you are in any doubt about the scale of gun deaths in the US, this will put it all into perspective -this is just a normal day – no mass shootings, just ten dead young people ranging in age from 9 to 19.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Paperback copy of Five Children on the Western Front

Lets get all the sad books out of the way to start with.  This is a middle grade continuation/follow on to E Nesbit’s The Five Children and It book.  I think I read the 5 children (maybe even more than one of them) after the 1990s BBC TV series was shown and it had never occurred to me that these were the children who would be the young men and women of the Great War – and of course when Nesbit was writing the books, she had no idea what was in their future either.  This is really, really good, but also quietly devastating. There are a lot of Second World War middle grade books, but not so many (or at least not that I’ve come across) Great War ones – this is a very good addition to the genre.  It came out a couple of years ago, but reading it this year with the centenary of the Armistice, felt very timely.  It wasn’t my BotW at the time -I was in a historical crime groove back in at the start of the year, but I’ve recommended it a few times since and it’s quietly crept up my list of best reads of the year.

The Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel

Copy of Victory Disc

The third in the Vinyl Dectective series is right up there as one of my favourite detective stories of the year.  This time our unnamed hero is on the hunt for records by a wartime swing band.  The Flarepath Orchestra were contemporaries of Glenn Miller, but their recordings are incredibly rare.  After one pops up unexpectedly, the Detective and his gang are asked to track down the rest.  But there are still secrets and lies at the heart of the band and soon a great deal of danger is threatening the gang.  This wasn’t a Book of the Week at the time – because it’s the third in the series and you’ll get the most from them by reading them in order.  The first in the series, Written in Dead Wax was a BotW last summer though – and I thoroughly recommend starting with that.  My Dad has read these and practically snaps my hand off to get the next one from me!  Good reads doesn’t have any details for a fourth yet, but I’m hoping that we’ll get more adventures in vinyl in 2019.

Anyone for Seconds by Laurie Graham

Regular readers know how much I love Laurie Graham (and if you don’t, here are the posts to prove it) but I remember saying to a friend before this came out that if she was going to write a sequel to one of her novels, this wasn’t the one that I would have picked.  How wrong I was, because this is my favourite of her contemporary novels in ages.  It snuck out a bit under the radar in August and I nearly missed it. We rejoin Lizzie Partridge, the heroine of Perfect Meringues, some twenty years after we last met her.  Lizzie was a TV-chef on the regional news, but after The Incident she has mostly worked in print.  But when her last paying gig is pulled, Lizzie decides to run away in the hope that it’ll get her some attention.  But no-one notices.  It does however, set in train a series of changes in Lizzie’s life.  It was a BotW and it’s still one of my favourites this year.

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

It was a long wait for a new book by Jasper Fforde – my big Fforde discovery and binge actually happpened before I started this blog, but Early Riser was worth it and it was a BotW.  Set in a world where humans hibernate for four months every winter, this follows the adventures of one man in his first year as a Winter Consul – one of the people who watch over the sleeping masses.  This is completely standalone from his other books, but if you’ve read other Fforde novels you’ll spot that this world has some elements in common with Thursday Nexts.  It’s fantasy and sci-fi but at the end of that spectrum that I like.

The Birth of South Korean Cool by Euny Hong

Copy of the Birth of Korean Cool

And another non-fiction book to round out this list.  Euny Hong’s family moved back to South Korea in the 1980s when she was at school so she is ideally placed to take a look at how South Korea turned itself into a big name on the world stage through the course of twenty years. This is a really, really interesting and readable guide to the Korean pop-culture phenomenon and the policy behind it. Although some of the section dealing with North Korea is now slightly dated that doesn’t detract from the overall impact of the book. I would happily have read another 100 pages.   It had been on my to-read list for ages – but I finally got around to getting hold of a copy after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics at the start of the year (although it took me another few months to get around to reading it!). I’ve recommended it a number of times – and used knowledge I learned from it to look smart when talking about K-pop with younger colleagues.  A winner all around!

Let me know what your favourite books of the year have been in the comments – and coming up over the next few days we’ve also got my reading obsessions of the year – and how 2017’s obsessions have lasted as well as the books that I’m looking forward to in 2019.So here you are, six of my favourite reads of 2018.  There were a few five star reads this year that aren’t on the list – but they are very much from favourite authors – new installments in the Wells and Wong series and from Gail Carriger and the Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang that I’ve already talked about so much already over the years that I’d be boring you to tell you about them again.

Happy Reading!