Lots of painting and filling and cleaning in my week off work, and not as much reading as usual, but in the end it was an easy choice for this week’s BotW – Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. Delightfully this was a recommendation from a work colleague who thought I would love it and he was totally right. I love it when that happens.
Ned Henry has time-lag. He’s been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s trying to find a hideous artefact in the ruins of Coventry cathedral. But all those jumps have scrambled his brain and he’s sent to Victorian England to recover away from the demands of Lady Schrapnell – who is rebuilding the original Coventry cathedral in the middle of Oxford. The bad news is he has one job to do in the nineteenth century before he can relax. The trouble is, the time-lag means he can’t remember what it is. There’s a boat trip, eccentric dons, drippy maidens, dopey undergrads, a cat and a fellow time traveller called Verity Kindle.
I loved this so much. It’s got so much of my catnip in here: it’s got modern people having to grapple with the Victorian era, it’s full of references to other books – of particular interest to me through thread of Peter Wimsey and Golden Age crime novels – and a mystery adventure plot as they try and hunt down the Bishop’s Bird Stump and prevent the future from being altered because of their actions.
To recap: time travel, history, humour, literary in-jokes and Peter Wimsey references galore. What more could I want?
This was my first Connie Willis book, so now the research is going on to figure out which of her other novels might be my cup of tea. If you like the Chronicles of St Mary’s series, by Jodi Taylor, you should definitely try this but I can’t think of many other books to compare this to (If you have any other suggestions for fun time travelling novels please do let me know) although I think if you like steampunky novels this might work for you, ditto books full of references to books. I need to go and read Three Men in a Boat because that’s a big influence here, and I’ve never read it. I also need to go and buy myself a copy of this because I want one for myself so I can lend it and I’m going to have to give this copy back.
You can get a copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog from all the usual sources.
Tricky choice for BotW this week, but I eventually plumped for Britt Bennett’s The Mothers because it was a bit out of my normal reading comfort zone, but wore it very lightly and made me think.
In aftermath of her mother’s death and in the twilight of her time at high school, Nadia Turner gets involved with the minister’s son. Luke is a couple of years older than she is, but is still adrift after the injury that ended his football career and cost him his college scholarship. It’s nothing serious, just a bit of fun, until Nadia gets pregnant. And what comes next changes the course of both their lives and sends ripples out through their church community that will last for years to come.
Firstly, I loved the setting of this book. Bennett really brings to life her fictional contemporary black church community in Southern California. Part of the story is told by the elder women in the church as a kind of Greek chorus. It adds an extra perspective in between flipping between the stories of those mostly closely involved.
It’s also full of interesting characters, even if you don’t always like them that much. Luke and Nadia and her best friend Audrey make a fascinating triangle, who have different views on life and experience the fallout in different ways.
Now, I can’t say too much more about this or I’ll give too much away, but reading through the reviews of this on goodreads, there are some very definite opinions about the author’s stance with regard to Nadia’s decision. As far as I was concerned, I thought it was handled in a very balanced, matter of fact way and in the main the fall out was portrayed as more down to the cover up and the other issues going on rather than because of the actual decision. Is that cryptic enough?! Anyway, nearly a week later I’m still thinking about the characters, which has to be a good thing.
This is Bennett’s first novel and was nominated for a whole bunch of prizes, which really didn’t surprise me because it’s clever, well-written and very readable. This is also a book that fills a couple of this year’s #ReadHarder categories: Debut Novel, book where all the POV characters are people of colour and for me, book set more than 5,000 miles away.
The hardback is out now, the paperback is coming in October. When that arrives, I think you should be able to find it in most bookshops, but possibly not in the supermarket. As always, if you can’t make it to a bookshop you could order it from a Big Green Bookshop or pick it up on Kindle or Kobo.
Well ladies and gentlemen a real treat for you here today. You’ve already read the interview, but I was lucky enough to been given* a copy of the new Danny Bird mystery by Derek Farrell – which is out today. You may remember that I enjoyed Dannys 1 and 2 so much that they made it into my favourite books of 2016 post so I was delighted to be asked if I could review it for release day and juggled my posting schedule accordingly!
A recap of the story so far: Danny’s trying to turn a geezer pub in a dodgy bit of south London into a gay bar. He’s helped by a motley crew of friends and workers and hindered by that same crew, and also the fact that the Marq is owned by a local mobster who demands his cut. Setbacks so far include: a diva dropping dead just before she was due to perform in the bar and a wake with a larger body count than it should have had.
We rejoin Danny as he tries to juggle a seance featuring a heath inspector and the (optimistically named) First Annual Fancy Dress Halloween Party at the Marq. And then a body turns up. Again. But this time it’s in the cellar, so that makes a change. Soon Danny and the gang are trying to solve a 20-year-old murder with gangland connections. Meanwhile Lady Caz has got some issues with her family that need sorting out and Danny’s a bit worried that the catering freezer in the kitchen is about to give up the ghost, which isn’t great when you serve food and have Environmental Health on the premises.
So, probably most important thing in a story like this is the mystery and whether it holds up. And this does: there are plenty of suspects and with a link to one of the staff at the pub and the body being found on the premises, there are genuine reasons for Danny to be involved in trying to figure out whodunnit. Next you need an engaging hero and Danny definitely is that. He’s funny and loyal, and as a reader you’d like to go on a night out with him and persuade him to be your friend**. Danny’s also tougher than he looks and will do anything he can for his friends and to keep his pub in business – in that order (I think). And almost every good detective needs a sidekick and Lady Caz is a great one: she is posher and drunker than ever in this installment and the subplot with her family is excellent too. There’s plenty of witty repartee and a lot of pop culture references. I’m not sure there’s a oneliner that beats the “Poirot on poppers” from book two, but to be fair, that was a work of genius.
There’s also a nod to the detective fiction author’s problem of how to create corpses for their hero, when two passers by mention that bodies just keep turning up at the Marq, but in this case because this body is 20 years old, it helps avoid the Jessica Fletcher effect.*** I’m hoping that the increased involvement of Chopper the mobster in this book and the widening of some of the character’s backstories/families will help avoid this happening to Danny as the series goes on, because I’m not sure how many more bodies can turn up at the Marq before Danny’s business drops off so much that he goes out of business!
As regular readers will know, I read a lot of cozy crime novels, which is a particularly American genre, and I’d describe this as cozy adjacent – there aren’t any cupcakes or crafters here, but there is a (murder) mystery story that gets solved without too much blood and gore or psychological thrillery-ness. This isn’t as noir as many of the Fahrenheit books, but it does have the sly and subversive world view that you find from the Fahrenheit gang. It’s fun and funny and won’t leave you terrified to go out of an evening.
Death of a Devil is out today: here’s the magic link.
*Translation: Begged and screamed until I got one early even though I have a Fahrenheit Press subscription so would get on on/near release day.
**Well as long as you don’t have to see any bodies or get arrested.
***So many bodies start turning up around Jessica that you start to wonder if she is the problem/an Angel of Doom/killing them herself. There are many theories.
This week’s BotW is another case of “why on earth haven’t I read this before”. I have no idea why I hadn’t got around to the Camomile Lawn before. All I can think is that the TV version had Jennifer Ehle in it and that my mum may have steered me away from it in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice because I was 11 and if the TV series is anything like the book, it really wasn’t suitable for me at the time and I may have got it in my head that the book wasn’t worth it! Who knows. Anyway.
The Camomile Lawn tells the story of five cousins, who we meet at their Aunt-by-marriage’s house in Cornwall in the summer before the start of the Second World War. We follow them through the war and meet up with them again some years later as they reassemble for a funeral. There is beautiful, mercenary Calypso, outwardly conventional Polly, Oliver, Walter and much younger Sophy, who watches what the older ones are up to and wants to join in. And then there is Helena – married to a man injured in the last war and bored by her life, watching the kissing cousins as they set out into the future. As the war begins, life changes for all of them – new opportunities open up for the women and danger lurks for all of them – not just the obvious ones for the boys in the forces.
Mary Wesley was in her 70s when she wrote this – and it was only her second novel. She lived through the war that she is writing about and was a similar age to the characters when it happened. If she hadn’t been, perhaps there would be a temptation to say that the characters were having too much fun and too much sex considering that there was a war on. This reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, but with the sex and antics turned up. Wesley doesn’t really bother with description – except for some of the details of the house in Cornwall – but she writes in a wonderful, understated way dropping bombshells in like they’re nothing so that you do a double take as you read it.
I’m off to read some more Mary Wesley and to try and get my hands on a DVD of the TV mini-series. You should be able to get hold of a copy of The Camomile Lawn fairly easily. I got mine from a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. The Kindle and Kobo versions were £$.99 at time of writing and the paperback version was £5.99 on Amazon albeit in a slightly older cover than I saw in Foyles.
Another day, another great holiday read to recommend, this time it’s Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny which filled some very happy hours on the plane and the beach last week and which I’m sure I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people this summer.
Graham Cavanaugh is on his second marriage. Wife #2, Audra, is one of Those Women – you know the sort – who know every one, who makes friends effortlessly and opens her arms (and home) to any waif or stray of her acquaintance (no matter how tenuous the connection) who needs help. They have one child, origami-obsessed Matthew, who has Asperger’s and sees the world slightly differently and finds a lot of it a bit challenging. When Wife #1, Elspeth, re-appears in Graham’s life, the contrasts become apparent. Because of course Audra wants them to be friends with Elspeth and so their lives get tangled up together all over again.
This is a fun, witty and touching look at the choices that we make and how our lives can change. Just reading about life with Audra makes you tired, but despite that and despite her nosiness and lack of boundaries you still warm to her. I don’t think I’d want to be friends with her in real life, but then the same applies to Graham and to Elspeth too. They all have their monstrous moments, but it makes for fascinating reading. It has some heart-warming moments too – mostly dealing with Graham’s hopes for Matthew as he grows up and Audra’s efforts to try and give him a normal life.
This is Katherine Heiny’s first novel, but it doesn’t feel like a debut. It feels like the work of an author who is already well in their stride, with confidence in the characters that they have created and the stories that they are spinning. But perhaps that is unsurprising given Heiny’s background in short stories. She’s been published in the New Yorker and had a collection of short stories – Single, Carefree, Mellow – published a few years back*. This article from the Guardian says that she’s written more than 20 Young Adult novels under various pseudonyms, but frustratingly doesn’t give me any titles (and nor does good reads) which doesn’t help me with my need to glom on everything that she’s written. Luckily I have a New Yorker subscription so I can go back and read the full version of How to Give the Wrong Impression from back in 1992.
If you like Nora Ephron movies and books, this may be the beach read for you. In writing this I’ve seen lots of comparisons to Anne Tyler (who I’ve never read but always meant to) so I’ll be recommending this to my mum who’s had a bit of a Tyler thing recently. My copy of Standard Deviation came via NetGalley, but it’s out now in hardback (sorry) and you should be able to get hold of a copy from all the usual places and it’s also available on Audible (the link may only work if you’re signed in) Kindle and Kobo.
As you may have noticed, I read a lot of books on my holiday. But actually this week’s BotW was an easy choice because Him Indoors read The Roanoke Girls after me and really enjoyed it too – and he doesn’t read anywhere near as many books as me and our tastes don’t always coincide.
Lane Roanoke goes to live with her grandparents and her cousin Allegra after her mother’s suicide. They live on a large estate in Kansas and are top of the town hierarchy. But Lane only spends one summer there. 11 years later, Lane returns to the estate after Allegra goes missing. Roanoke girls have a history – they either run away or they die. Which has happened to Allegra and what is the dark secret that threatens the Roanoke girls?
I can’t say any more than that about the plot – because it will spoil it. This has been billed as a provocative thriller – and I’d agree. It’s dark and shocking and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I was absolutely and totally engrossed and gripped. I couldn’t stop turning the pages, even if on occasion it was from between my fingers with horror. The Roanokes are by turns fascinating and horrifying and it is a great book to read on the beach. In fact, it’s a great beach book – because if you read it on the sunlounger it will help chase the darkness away. Although rural Kansas is fairly hot and steamy, so that might not work.
I’m still thinking and digesting it a week on – but I think it might be my go to summer holiday book recommendation. For people who can cope with the darkness…
I lucked into an advance copy, but the Roanoke Girls is out now in hardback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and on Kindle and Kobo. The paperback is preorderable – but it’s not out until September, which might be too late for your holidays.
Now 2017 is well underway, and I’ve told you about my obsessions, the state of the (enormous) pile, and my #ReadHarder ambitions, it seemed like a good time to finally work out what my favourite books published last year were. I know. Everyone else did this weeks ago, but I didn’t want anything really excellent that I might have read at the end of the year to get missed out. And yes, fractured elbow. It’s my excuse for everything.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
“Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?” Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”
Considering how much I loved this book, I have said remarkably little about it on here. I recommended it in the Christmas gift post and back in the Summer Reads post, but it wasn’t a Book of the Week – because I was expecting to be reviewing it elsewhere. And I don’t think that adequately conveys how much I adored it. But Sittenfeld’s modern reworking of Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book of last year.
If the quote at the top makes you laugh or smile (even if it’s only inside because you’re too cool) then you need to read this book. I’ve read a lot of Austen retellings, reworkings, sequels and the like and this manages to strike a perfect (for me) balance of retelling the story but modernising it so that it feels relevant to today. Lizzie (nearly 40 rather than 20) and her sisters are trust fund babies in Cincinatti, but the money is running out, their father has medical problems and their mother has a shopping problem. Darcy is a surgeon, Bingley a reality TV star (don’t let that put you off) and Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with Crossfit. I want to read it again – but my copy is still out on loan. The paperback isn’t out until June, but you could pre-order from Amazon or Waterstones and have a lovely treat in the summer, the Kindle and Kobo versions are £5.99 at time of writing or you could go nuts and buy the hardback from Amazon, Foyles or Waterstones – Waterstones was cheapest when I was writing – doing it on click and collect for £7.50 which is a total bargain for a hardback. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
As I said in my BotW post last month, this book is going to win all the prizes and will be on English Literature sylabuses in years to come. Cora’s story is incredibly tough to read – and it’s partly the contrast between the realism of the terrible things that are happening and the magical realism of making the Underground Railroad a real, actual railway with stations, and trains that makes this such an incredible read. And the writing is beautiful. As you all know, I don’t read a lot of “literary fiction” – and I don’t have a lot of success with books that have been nominated for awards, but I’m so glad I read it – and I’ve been singing its praises to my literary fiction-reading friends. Still only in hardback I’m afraid, but bizarrely the paperback comes out the same day as Eligible – even though this was released six months later than the Sittenfeld. Odd. Anyway. In hardback from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, on Kindle and Kobo or pre-order the paperback on Amazon or Waterstones.
The Barista’s Guide to Espionage by Dave Sinclair
Yes I know. You’re sick of my Fahrenheit obsession. Well tough. Their books made up nearly 20 percent of my 5 star books last year, so they were bound to figure here. Sorry, not sorry. Anyway, this story about Eva Destruction – James Bond and Stephanie Plum’s lovechild – was another BotW and I defy anyone not to enjoy Eva’s battle to try to stop her evil supervillain ex-boyfriend from taking over the world. It’s an action thriller film in book form but with a smart woman doing the saving not a suave bloke in a suit (he tries, but she’s better than him). Get it on Kindle or in paperback.
Death of a Nobody by Derek Farrell
From Eva Destruction to Poirot on Poppers, the second Danny Bird book is the second Fahrenheit book on this list. The first book (Death of a Diva) is funny, but this book feels like a series hitting its stride. It’s got a great, off-beat cast, zingy one-liners, lashings of sarcasm and an up-and-coming gastro pub with a rising body count and a gangster breathing down Danny’s neck. I’m recommending this to my friends who read cozy crime who want something that’s not cupcakes, bakeries or crafting. I can’t wait for book three. Get it on Kindle or in paperback. You can thank me later.
Grunt by Mary Roach
And this is why I’m glad I wrote this post so very late. This was the last book I finished in 2016 and it was one of the very best – definitely the best non-fiction book I read last year. It was BotW last week – so there’s no need for me to say anymore about it really because it’s less than a week since I raved about it at you. I think it’s going to be this year’s go-to pick for a non fiction book to give as a gift. Buy it (paperback!) from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle.