Book of the Week

Book of the Week: China Court

As we get closer and closer to Christmas, it’s getting harder and harder for me to pick BotW’s that don’t infringe on my Christmas reading suggestion posts.  Hence why this week’s choice is Rumer Godden’s China Court – a book which I still can’t make up my mind what I think about it, several days after I finished reading it.

Copy of China Court by Rumer Godden
Another train based photo…

China Court is the story of the homecoming of Tracy, who arrives back at her grandmother’s house the day after her grandma has died.  Brought up in America, Tracy spent the favourite part of her childhood living at China Court and is worried about what her grandmother’s death may mean for the old house.  But as well as being about Tracy’s return, the book is also the story of family who have lived in the house over the years and their trials and tribulations.

Regular readers will know that I love a good family saga, and that I love time slip novels, and this is a bit of both – a huge cast of characters and two timelines, one present, one past – although the past one moves through time rather than being the story of just one person in the past.  And although it took me a while to get into it (as evidenced by the length of time it spent in the Week in Books posts), once I had got into it, I didn’t want to put it down* because I wanted to know what happened.

At the start, there is a family tree, but also a note from the author asking you to only look at it if you really have to because her aim is for the family and their relationships to unroll in their own time and for you to work it out for yourself.  I mostly managed that, but I did have to have a few looks at the family tree when I was picking the book back up again after a few days break.

I haven’t read a lot of Rumer Godden’s books – and most of what I have read have been her children’s books.  And as I said at the start, I still can’t work out what I thought.  The ending isn’t as satisfying as I wanted it to be – even though all the ingredients seem to be there for it to work.  I didn’t like a lot of the characters – or what they were doing – but I really liked Tracy and her story line.  Even writing this hasn’t really helped me work out what I though of this and whether I liked it or not.  I still don’t know if it’s going to go on to the bookshelf, or get lent to mum or sent straight to the charity shop.  Puzzling.

Coming soon: Christmas reading recommendations.  While you’re waiting, don’t forget the Christmas gift guides – Him, Her and Me are still here.

Happy Reading!

*but I did, because I had to go to work.  And I didn’t like it *quite* enough to break my rules about not taking books that I have less than 100 pages left to read to work with me.**

** Because it’s a waste of bag space if it’s not going to last me all the way down and most of the way back.

Book of the Week, Forgotten books, women's fiction

Book of the Week: To Bed With Grand Music

I knew less than halfway through this book that I was going to have to lend this to my sister and my mother, and as soon as I finished this book that it was going to be this week’s BotW.  Hands down.  And as you’ve probably never heard of it (I hadn’t before I got given a copy) this makes it possibly the best sort of BotW – because hopefully it means I might point a few more people towards it.

My copy of To Bed with Grand Music
Ok, so it’s not the most exciting looking book ever, but don’t let that fool you…

In To Bed With Grand Music we follow the wartime adventures Deborah, a young wife and mother whose husband has been posted to Cairo.  On the first page, while in bed together before he leaves, he says that he cannot promise to be physically faithful to his wife because “God alone knows how long I’ll be stuck in the Middle East, and it’s no good saying I can do without a woman for three or four years, because I can’t.”  Instead he promises not to fall in love and not to sleep with anyone who might possibly take her place.  He asks Deborah to promise same.  But Deborah doesn’t take him up on his offer, instead she promises to be absolutely faithful to him and not act on any attraction she might feel to anyone else – in the hopes that he’ll change his mind and do the same.  He doesn’t and is soon off to Egypt, leaving Deborah and their son Timmy at home in the countryside with the housekeeper come nanny.

But it doesn’t take long for Deborah to get fed up of life in the countryside and bored of her son.  Deborah, it turns out, is a terrible person.  She’s got a gift for rationalising in her mind whatever it is that she wants to do as being the best solution to whatever problem (real or imagined) that she is facing.  So she decides that the best solution is for her to get a war job in London.  This would mean being away from Timmy during the week and leaving him in the cae of the housekeeper, but she rationalises this as being the best thing for him – because although he’ll see her less, he’ll only see the best parts of her because she’ll be so much happier in herself.  So off she goes to London, where she meets up with an old friend in the hopes that she can help her find a job.  She and Madeleine (the friend) end up going out for dinner with a couple of soldiers and Deborah ends up staying the night and sleeping with one of the men.  Oops.  So much for that promise Deborah.  She’s repulsed by her own actions and scurries back to the countryside and puts off the idea of getting a job.  But soon she’s bored again and changes her mind and takes a job in London and moves in with her friend, however she’s determined not to make the same mistake again…

Madeleine at first was quite prepared to make Deborah’s life less lonely.  She accepted as a natural obligation that for a week or two she would introduce Deborah to people until gradually Deborah could build up a circle of her own.  But Deborah resisted all Madeleine’s suggestions for companionable evenings: if I once give in, she told herself, I’m done for, certain in her own mind that even a sherry party or a game of bridge could have only one conclusion.  She martyred herself til her very martyrdom became her excuse for her release.

And that pretty much sets the tone for all that happens next.  I think you can probably work out where this is going, but I don’t want to spoil it for you because it’s so much fun watching in fascinated horror as Deborah manages to justify abandoning bit by bit whatever moral code she has as she tries to get herself the glamourous life she thinks that she deserves – and how the climate in wartime allows her to do that.

As you’ve probably worked out, this is not a home fires burning, sweet little wife pining at home sort of World War II novel.  This is the seamier side of wartime relationships – if you can’t cope with casual sex and marital infidelity, don’t read this book.  But if you read the Camomile Lawn and want to read about a character who has all of Calypso’s worst traits and then some, then this may well be the book that you have been searching for.  Equally if you’ve read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, then there’s all the bad bits of Villy and Louise and early Zoe here without the redeeming features.  Deborah is brilliantly, splendidly dreadful and her exploits are compulsively readable.

To Bed With Grand Music was originally published in 1946, with the author given as “Sarah Russell”.  It’s now been republished by Persephone Press (one of my favourite sources for books like this) with the real name of its author – Marghanita Laski who (under her own name) was a journalist and author from a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals.   Given the book’s frank depiction of sex and morality, I can totally understand why the author didn’t want to attach her real name to the book at the time.

You should be able to get hold of the Persephone Press edition from Big Green Books or order it from Amazon – I can’t find an ebook edition at the moment.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Camomile Lawn

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.

A copy of The Camomile Lawn and a glass of Pimms
A book, a Pimms (sorry, summer cup for the Great British Menu viewers) and a weekend on the beach

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.

Happy Reading!

Recommendsday, romance

Recommendsday: Happy Endings

Yeesh.  This week has gone downhill. I had something else planned for this post this week, but hey, it can wait, all the horrible stuff coming out of Manchester means that I feel squicky posting it.  So I’m here to say, basically, look after yourself.  Be nice to people and look after yourselves.  I’m doing my little bit of self-care by reading nothing but stories where I know I’m going to get a Happy Ending.  So that’s romance.  I can’t cope with murders at the moment – so my cozy crime reading list has gone out of the window.  Here’s a few that are on my list in case you feel like doing the same.

My train book on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning was Julia Quinn’s Because of Miss Bridgerton, which I picked up from the library last week and has done a good job of taking my mind off things.  Then I’ve got Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress by Theresa Romain to read, but I might read the last of the Jill Shalvis omnibus (Once in a Lifetime) I mentioned in Kindle May bargains first to break up the historicals.  I’ve got Level Up by Cathy Yardley sat on my Kindle as well, which was the subject of a whole episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books (which I still haven’t listened to because spoilers!) and Courtney Milan’s The Heiress Effect waiting for me as.  I’ve also got advance copies of the next Sarah Morgan book, Holiday in the Hamptons (and one of her older books in the Library Book bag), of Rebecca Pugh’s new novel Right Here Waiting for You and that’s all before you get to whatever I might impulse purchase in my weakened state in the early hours – or what I might pull out of one of the to-read boxes.

Check back on Monday to see how far down the list I get – and whether I get the half-read crime book I started on Monday finished.

Be safe.

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: The Stars Are Fire

This week’s BotW is Anita Shreve’s new novel, The Stars Are Fire, which came out last week and which I finished at the weekend.  Shreve has been on my list of authors that I really ought to have read, and this piqued my interest when I saw it on NetGalley so it seemed like an opportunity to rectify that omission.  And it turned out to be a good decision.

Cover of The Stars Are Fire
I think this cover is pretty – but I’m not sure it really represents Grace.

The Stars Are Fire is set in Maine in 1947 where Grace Holland is struggling with her marriage.  Her husband Gene is distant and won’t talk about the war, her mother-in-law hates her, she has two small children and a third on the way.  When a massive fire breaks out after a long summer drought, Gene goes to join the volunteer firefighters to try and prevent it from reaching the town.  Grace is left alone to try and defend their house and protect their children.  When the flames arrive, she watches her home burn to the ground and is forced into the sea to shelter from the waves.  When the morning comes, her home is gone and her husband is missing and she’s forced to try and build a new reality.

I was a little sceptical about this book when I started reading it, and while I still have a few reservations, the book was engrossing and kept me turning the pages eager to know what happened next.  My main issue with the book was with Gene, who doesn’t feel like a fully rounded character.  You’re not meant to like him, but I struggled to get a sense of who he was and why Grace had been interested in dating him in the first place.  For me the most enjoyable part of the book was the middle section, but I always knew that it wasn’t going to last.  The final section of the novel felt a little rushed and underdeveloped.  I was a little worried about how it was all going to be resolved (or if it was going to be resolved) but at the end I was happy.

That all sounds a little negative, but they’re fairly small quibbles when set against the beautiful writing and how engaging and intriguing Grace is as a character.  She’s strong and reslient and seizes opportunities out of the ruins left by the fire.  I hadn’t heard of the Great Fire of 1947 before I read this book and Shreve paints a vivid picture of the heat and drought leading up to it as well as the terror of the actual events.  The stifling atmosphere before the fire is mirrored in the way that Grace feels in her marriage – although she doesn’t realise how trapped she feels at the time.  Although the fire brings her personal loses, it is also the making of Grace and the woman we leave at the end of the book feels very different to the one we met at the start, which makes for a satisfying read.

The Stars Are Fire is out now in hardback (sorry) and ebook.    As previously mentioned, my copy came from NetGalley but you can get hold of it from on Kindle or Kobo and from Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles or you could order it from the Big Green Bookshop.  I suspect it’s the sort of book that will be out on the tables in bookshops and at the airport, although I don’t suggest that you read it on the beach or somewhere hot as it may leave you paranoid about wildfires!  I read it on the train and it made several journeys to and from work fly by.

Happy Reading!

Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Book bargains

A few bargain books for today’s Recommendsday post – some of which you’ll have heard me mention before.  With the May Bank Holiday nearly upon us, here’s a chance to pick up a few books to enjoy over the long weekend.

Firstly, Duncan MacMaster’s Hack is FREE on Kindle today.  You may remember that I loved it when I read it a month or so back now.  You can read my review here or my interview with Duncan. If you haven’t given any of Fahrenheit Press’s books a go yet (and goodness knows I’ve raved about enough of them that you must have heard me mention them before) now is your chance to give one a go for nothing!

Next,there’s a few of Laurie Graham’s books at the bargain price of 99p in book this week.  Grand Duchess of Nowhere (Kindle/Kobo) was the first book I ever reviewed for Novelicious and tells the story of Ducky, one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters who fights back against the ageing monarch’s dynastic manoevreings.  At Sea (Kindle/Kobo)  and Life According to Lubka (Kindle/Kobo) are some of her modern-set novels, while Perfect Meringues (Kindle/Kobo) is one of her earlier ones.  Here’s my love letter to Graham’s Gone with the Windsors from the other week (now on Kindle too!) in case you missed it.  All of them, be they historical or contemporary are witty and fun and bittersweet.  Her next book, The Early Birds, (a sequel to Future Home Makers of America) is out three weeks today and I’m very excited. That’s available to pre-order – on Kindle, Kobo and in hardcover*)

Meanwhile, the first book in Sarah Morgan’s From Manhattan with Love series is 99p at te moment. Sleepless in Manhattan (Kindle/Kobo) is 99p at the moment as well.  If you’ve been about for a while you’ll be aware of how much I like Sarah Morgan.  I’ve reviewed a couple of the others in the series, but not this one.  This is a brother’s best friend story with a healthy dose of competency porn as heroine Paige puts her life back together after being made redundent with the help of her teen crush Jake.  Morgan’s next book Holiday in the Hamptons (the 5th in the series) is out in June and available for pre-order on Kindle, Kobo and in paperback.

And finally over on Audible, today’s Daily Deal is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.  It’s £2.99 for over 60 hours of audio.  I’m a Northampton girl and I’ve been eyeing up this mammoth novel about my home town for a while – but couldn’t justify the hardback and thought the paperback would be too huge for me to carry around too.  So when I spotted this this morning it seemed perfect.  I’ve treated myself to it – and give it a go as I jog around the Racecourse.  I’ll let you know how I get on…

Happy Reading.

*My print book links this week are all to the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green.  They’re lovely and need the sales more than the major retailers do.  I was in there after work on Monday and treated myself to another Angela Thirkell and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.  Postage is free and they can usually post books out to you the next day.

Book of the Week, literary fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Difficult Women

This week’s BotW is Roxane Gay’s short story collection Difficult Women.  I’ve been reading this as my bedtime book for a few weeks (which is where short story collections often end up in my house!) and have really enjoyed reading.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
My copy of Difficult Women

Difficult Women is a collection of stories about very different women, all of whom might be termed “difficult”.  The term “difficult women” conjures images of angry or confrontational women, but that’s not necessarily who these women are.  These are women who don’t fit into neat categories.  They’re women who have had bad experiences.  There’s abuse, violence and infidelity and a whole host of trigger warnings here, but no two women are the same.  There’s poverty and privilege, there are single women, married women, violent women and women who are in fish out of water situations and there’s some sci fi too.

Some of the stories are sad.  But somehow this is not a sad book.   It’s thought provoking and clever and really beautifully written.  There were women that  liked, women I didn’t like and women who had life experiences a million miles from mine but there was always something in the story to make you feel empathy with the women, no matter how terribly they were behaving.

The last short story collection I raved about on here was American Housewife (I think) which is totally different to this, but both reminded me that when done well short story collections can be as satisfying as 500 page novels. I’ve been following Roxane Gay on Twitter for ages and have heard people raving about her but until now I’d only read odd stories in isolation or her essays.  I know I’ll be going out and finding more of her writing after reading this.

You can get hold of Difficult Women from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!