Thursday, 1 August 2019

Nine in July

I read nine books in July.

I read this round about the time it came out, in 2002, so when I realised that a sequel had been published a couple of years ago I had to reread this first. And I liked it just as much this time. Five American women, stationed with their husbands on an air base in Norfolk in the early 1950s, make friends with a local woman, Kath. Their friendships (and fall-outs) endure over the next forty years.

What makes the book so special is the very under-rated Graham’s drily humorous writing (someone described it as a cross between Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett, and her dialogue is brilliant), and the very individual voice of the narrator, Peggy. This is how it opens:
We were down at the commissary, just for something to do, me and Lois, pushing Sandie in her stroller. Breath puffing out like smoke every time we laughed and just hanging there in the air. The cold hadn’t killed the scent of the beet harvest, though. All my born days, I never knowed such a sickly smell.
‘I swear,’ she said, loud as you please, ‘this place is colder than a gravedigger’s ass.’ Lois always did have a mouth on her.

The Early Birds by Laurie Graham
The sequel. The friends are geographically apart, and distant in other ways too now, but there are still ties that bind. It was great to catch up with Peggy, and to find Lois as mouthy in old age as ever she was; sadly, some of them didn't make it to the end of the book. If I have a gripe it’s that I did learn rather more than I wanted to about 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Laurie Graham is English I believe but many of her characters are American. Gone with the Windsors is the story of the romance between Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales, told obliquely by a childhood friend of Wallis’; The Importance of Being Kennedy is about JFK’s family, seen from the viewpoint of their nanny. Both highly recommended.

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
Christian Aid book sale. This is the first ‘Vera’ book and excellent it is although the doughty detective doesn’t appear until more than halfway through. Ann Cleeves is so good on landscape as well as character – and plot of course, a triple whammy.

A Stolen Summer by Allegra Huston
Forty-something, unhappily married Eve falls for the twenty-seven-year-old son of an old friend. Ticked a couple of boxes for me – the New York setting and the lovely writing – but in the end I found Eve and her lover to be just too too precious.

Shadowman by Margaret Kirk
A fabulous police procedural set in and around Inverness. When I went up to the area after reading this I couldn’t resist going to have a gawp at the hotel where the murder was ‘committed’ and very lovely it looked in the July sunshine, unlike that dark night when …. Can’t wait to read the next one. 

The last week in July I was able to have a reading binge when I went to stay with my sister for a few days – which included the hottest day of the year (so far). So how better to spend it than on the hammock?

And the book on my Kindle is:

Needlemouse by Jane O’Connor
This was another recommendation by Joanne Baird on her Portobello Book Blog that I thoroughly enjoyed.

It’s told in diary form, by Sylvia Penton, aged 52, PA to ‘Prof’ in a university department and in love with/obsessed by him. Sylvia is no middle-aged Bridget Jones though – she has mean and judgemental thoughts, no friends, doesn’t like her teenage niece and has an odd relationship with her brother-in-law. The only person she really likes is her sister Millie, a lovely, larger-than-life character, who tries to include Sylvia in social occasions without much success. Sylvia’s idea of a good night in is rereading Prof’s published books and articles.

The only unselfish thing she does is to help elderly Jonas in his hedgehog sanctuary at weekends.

When a new PhD student attracts Prof’s attention, Sylvia’s mean thoughts translate into very mean actions with disastrous consequences.

By comparing Sylvia’s year with that of a hedgehog (hedgehog in Japanese translates as ‘needlemouse’) through Jonas’s writings on the little creatures, Jane O’Connor eventually shows us a much happier Sylvia under all her prickliness. Delightful.

Read on Kindle. Heard about this author on Anne Stormont’s Virtual Book Festival. After Andrea’s parents are killed in a road accident she begins to uncover the things they never told her – and much more. Love a family secrets story and this did not disappoint.

Murder Served Cold by Paula Williams
Read on Kindle. First in the Much Winchmoor mystery series, by an author whose magazine short stories, serials and articles I have enjoyed reading over the years. Oh no! – the first in another excellent cosy crime series. I will never live long enough to read them all.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
Bought in charity shop. Lighthouses hold endless fascination even though these days the light is controlled remotely. The ‘Janus Rock’ with its lighthouse is fictional but based on a location a hundred miles off the coast of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean.

The book has been out for a while, not sure why I’ve only caught up with it. But better late than never and now I’ve got the film to track down. I see online that some of it was filmed in Port Chalmers/Dunedin which I visited last year so that’s even more reason to watch it.

It’s the story of WWI veteran turned lighthouse keeper Tom and his wife. Isabel keeps having miscarriages so when a small boat is washed up on the Rock with a dead man and a very new, living baby girl, it seems like a miracle. The remoteness of their situation means that the secret can be kept … but not forever. Read this in one big gollop.

And if you’re keen on lighthouses in fact not fiction do check this out.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

North Coast 500

For the first thirteen years of my life I lived in the Scottish Highlands including two places in Sutherland, one in the north-west and the other in the east.

It’s a beautiful county full stop but it’s the lovely, lonely landscape of the north-west that haunts me, the one I like to visit when on holiday from Edinburgh and that has been the background for several of my short stories and poems and a contemporary People’s Friend serial.

We lived thirty-one miles north-west of Lairg and would drive home from a trip to Tain or Inverness hardly encountering another car. When we did, we looked at the number plate and out would come the AA Guide where in those days there was a list of prefixes and you could tell where that car had come from. For example, our own car, a two-tone Hillman Minx, had the prefix SST and that signified Sutherland. 

All part of in-car entertainment in the 1960s, folks …

The sight of mountains and moors and moonscape rocks and Highland cows and sheep staring from the roadside and seas and cliffs and hidden silver and gold beaches and far-off horizons still tugs at my heart in sunshine and in rain.

But there would be no time to consult the AA Guide if it still had that list because the landscape is now full of cars. Lonely no more!

The marketing of the ‘North Coast 500 Route’ has been an astounding tourism success. I’m sure the vast majority of visitors appreciate the scenery (although not the driver of a open-top, cream-coloured sports car speeding up the Bealach na Bà last September – if you know its steep hairpin bends you’ll appreciate his idiocy), and the business it has given to providers of accommodation and visitor attractions is terrific, so my hankering for the empty roads is entirely selfish.

For the aforementioned People’s Friend serial, The Family at Farrshore I altered the geography to suit my purpose and I made up place names (in case there were real people in the area with my characters’ names) – but in my head ‘Farrshore’ is on a hill just south of Scourie. When Cathryn stopped her car in the rain to pick up a stranger, that was on the A894, and when Tyler and Rosie got lost I was picturing them on the beach at Durness.

Cathryn? Tyler and Rosie? The Family at Farrshore is available on Kindle, and in large-print from libraries, if you want to find out more about them – and at the same time have yourself a fictional tour on part of Route 500.

And if you would like to hear how I came to write the serial I’m a guest writer this week at Anne Stormont’s Virtual Book Festival (be sure to check out Anne's own books while you're there, highly recommended).

Friday, 5 July 2019

I read eight books in June.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
I’ve had a binge over the last couple of years on Moriarty’s titles, loving especially The Last Anniversary and Big Little Lies. So, despite the number of disappointed reviewers, I was eager to read her new one in which nine people spend ten days at an extraordinary health resort.
I enjoyed it, mostly. It’s partly a psychological thriller (well, sort of; there are various twisty bits). There was a chunk of the book when I felt I was the po-faced designated driver at a very jolly party, not a happy place to be, and I didn’t care for the way the ends were wrapped up. But I’ll hold faith and look forward to the next one.

Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
Christian Aid booksale 2018. Set in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917, and published in 1941. Neil, a young man accused of disobeying orders in the trenches of France and now presumed dead, has made his way home to Canada to clear his name. Having been told of his death, Penny, his cousin and former lover grieves for him. Penny is an interesting character – a very talented designer of ships, she encounters daily the sexism given to professional women. And she has a secret …

Her family is pretty unpleasant apart from her young brother but everything changes the morning of 6 December when there’s a collision of ships, one carrying high explosives, just outside the harbour (a true event experienced by the author as a child: over 2000 people died and Halifax was virtually destroyed). Extremely readable; considered a Canadian classic.

You’re Next by Gregg
From a second-hand shelf in a café. I was attracted by the blurb:
'I know you, don't I?' Five words – that's all it takes to plunge Mike Wingate and his family into mortal danger. Mike doesn't recognise the crippled stranger who approaches him at a party . . . but the stranger seems to know all about him.'
The reason why Mike, abandoned by his father in a play park and brought up in a foster home, is being hounded is satisfying and original. But there is, to my mind, a big flaw – I didn’t notice at the time and I kept turning the pages but now it occurs to me – in that: the baddies have killed others before for the same reason, in gruesome fashion but always without leaving any trace or clue. With Mike, as it says in the blurb, they turn up to confront him in public which makes no sense.

‘Accompanied by Meredith Mitchell, Chief Inspector Alan Markby is enjoying the Chelsea Flower Show, until he runs into his ex-wife and her current husband, and when the husband is murdered with a poisoned thorn, Markby and Mitchell set out to find the killer.’
Cosyish crime; first I’ve read in the Markby and Mitchell series; would read more. But why so many first and second names beginning with M – Meredith, Molly, Miriam, Mavis, Martin, Mitchell and Markby and one house name, Malefis?

Chris Paling is a novelist, playwright and BBC radio producer – and a library assistant. Did he take on that last job with a view to writing the book or did that come afterwards? My inner jury is out on that one. It’s entertaining enough but not in the same league as Shaun Bythell’s Confessions of a Bookseller. I hoped for more booky discussions but the anecdotes are mostly of the assorted folk who use the library to sleep in, take drugs in, stalk pretty librarians in etc, and of course it’s about the downplaying of the role of the professional librarian and all the redundancies/library closures.
Some reviewers have said they found it uplifting; I did not.

 Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
‘Gil’s wife, Ingid, has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home.’
I loved wild-child Flora, from the moment she ill-advisedly borrowed a car to drive to the family’s island home, and I liked the writing very much. I wasn’t convinced though by the way of telling the story. Before she disappeared the girls’ mother, Ingrid (very much younger than her womanising husband; she’d been a student of his) wrote accounts of her life in the form of letters and hid them in her husband’s books. No one in the household discovers them but the reader is privy to their contents. There was something unsatisfying about that.

The Skylarks War by Hilary Mackay
I am a very big fan of children’s writer Hilary Mackay. This book won the Costa Children’s Book Award 2018 but it can be read and appreciated by anyone over the age of about ten. It follows ‘the loves and losses of a family growing up against the harsh backdrop of World War One’ and includes scenes on the Western Front –beautifully done.
Heart-breaking inevitably, but so warm and funny too. 

The World my Wilderness by Rose MacAuley
Read for book group. Set in 1946 and published just three years later; this is a Virago Classic edition. The ‘wilderness’ is the ruined landscape of London after the Second World War – and running wild in the bombsites is Barbary, brought up by her unconventional mother in Occupied France, and now under the care of her stuffy father and stepmother. The characters are all interesting and come to life but the book is really a love letter to London as it was before the Blitz; what Rose MacAuley has done is to bear witness to the destruction. I loved the lists of buildings and businesses that would never rise from the ashes.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Seven in May

I read seven books in May.

What She Saw by Wendy Clarke
Psychological thrillers can be frustrating in one way – as in a gothic novel when the heroine will insist on opening the door to that room she’s been told to keep away from, there’s always a woman in a psychological thriller at whom you want to shout: ‘What are you thinking? Don’t do it!’ I had a binge on them at one point but haven’t picked one up for a while.
But I wanted to read this one as it is the debut novel by very successful magazine-story-writer Wendy Clarke, who I had the pleasure of meeting at a conference a couple of years ago.
Everyone knows Leona would do anything for her daughter, Beth: she moved to Church Langdon to send Beth to the best school, built a business to support them and found the perfect little cottage to call home. … But Leona never talks about why they moved to the Lake District. … When Leona answers the phone one morning, her heart stops as she hears a voice from her past. … She’s given her daughter everything, but now she must tell her the truth.
It’s difficult to review a novel in this genre without giving spoilers so I will just say that I found it page-turning and my heart beat ever faster as the story went on. My favourite aspect of it was the amazing sense of place. It’s set in the Lake District and you feel you are actually there among the mountains and the tarns. It makes a brilliant backdrop to the unfolding drama.

Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella
A new SK is a treat and this one was no exception.
After being together for ten years, Sylvie and Dan have a comfortable home, fulfilling jobs, beautiful twin girls, and communicate so seamlessly, they finish each other's sentences. They have a happy marriage and believe they know everything there is to know about each other.’
But Dan is keeping a secret from Sylvie and I would defy anyone to guess what it is. Here is the trademark Sophie Kinsella mix of real emotional problems and laugh-out-loud set pieces – the latter achieved I think by piling up the absurdities, then putting even more on top (in this book, for example, the revolting takeaway breakfast).

Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories by Sue Sims and Hilary Clare
I thought I knew the world of girls’ school stories but no, I’d never even scratched the surface until reading this. An amazing resource of the genre and, moreover, a great social history. I found my copy in a charity shop for £5.00. I’m afraid they are rather more expensive online …

Career Novels for Girls by Kay Clifford
Another round up of books for girls, another great social history; this one is by Kay Clifford who has the largest collection of such books in the world (lucky her). The career novel genre was in its heyday in the fifties and sixties and the titles include Sally Grayson: Wren; Sarah Joins the W.R.A.F; Sheila Burton: Dental Assistant; Joan goes farming. Other titles encouraged girls to become journalists, nurses, librarians, beauty students and secretaries. 
What they all had in common was the clear message that the ‘career’ was a stopgap, to be given up when our heroine married Him; they all end with a proposal/engagement/at the altar. Kay Whalley dissects the books in what I would describe as an affectionately sarcastic tone; it must have been terrific fun to write. (Now out-of-print.)

No Middle Name by Lee Child
Short stories all featuring Jack Reacher in some way. Some take him back to when he was an army child and then a young man, even then ever-ready with his fists for a just cause. Yes, some pretty unbelievable and over-the-top storylines but that’s why every nine seconds someone in the world buys a Jack Reacher book.

Aimed at 10+ age group and that includes me, doesn’t it? A terrific selection of contemporary and historical detective stories, some with an edge of magic, with heroines and heroes as brave and resourceful as we like them to be.

The German Room by Carla Maliandi; translated by Frances Riddle
Read for book group, on Kindle – a novella. The narrator, in her early thirties, travels from Buenos Aires to Heidelberg, where she lived for a while as a child, to get over the break-up of a relationship. She somehow finds a room in a students’ hostel/hall of residence and goes on to meet a diverse group of people including an old family friend, a fellow countryman, a Japanese girl and that girl’s mother – hard to say more without spoilers. 
I wasn’t fully on board with the end of the book but I enjoyed what the publishers call this ‘non-coming of age novel’ and would read this author again.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Five in April

I read five books in April. An eclectic mix …

Follow the Dead by Lin Anderson
Part of her series (number 12) about Rhona MacLeod, forensic pathologist. The first I’ve read, and page-turningly excellent it was, although not for the faint hearted; you have been warned. I could cope fine with the forensic bits but the crime that was uncovered was horrendous. I’ll have to wait a while before embarking on another as a friend tells me they are all equally gritty.
It begins with a plane crash in the Scottish Highlands at New Year. From the blurb: What she uncovers is a dark underworld populated by ruthless people willing to do anything to ensure the investigation dies in the frozen wasteland of the Cairngorms . . .

Read on Kindle for book group, non-fiction.
A captivating portrait of those who lived, loved, fought, played and flourished in Paris between 1940 and 1950 and whose intellectual and artistic output still influences us today.
This was a side to the Second World War previously unknown to me. Many writers, artists and intellectuals chose to stay in France after the German occupation although they could have got away – Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir for example. As the war swirled around them they carried on with their work – while continually swapping partners. My favourite story was about Jacques Jaujard, who concocted elaborate and successful plans to hide art works from France’s galleries, including the Mona Lisa, in remote chateaux.
The book reminded me, and follows on in a way, of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of life in Paris in the twenties which I read several decades ago.

Murder at Hawthorn Cottage by Betty Rowland
Read on Kindle. A nice bit of cosy crime this time with a crime writer protagonist, a good twist in itself. Sometimes Melissa Craig gets muddled between her digging into a local mystery and the novel she is writing. Enjoyable.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
This was as page-turning as any novel – the former First Lady’s account of her happy childhood on the South Side of Chicago (living with her parents and brother in a tiny space upstairs in an aunt’s house); her striving at school, encouraged by her wonderful mother, and her time at an Ivy League university; her first job at a big law firm and being asked to mentor a summer associate, a man of whom she knows nothing except his name ‘and it’s an odd one’.
That takes us up to p92 of this 430pp book. And after that meeting with the oddly named man (with his ‘sexy baritone voice’) the rest is history … Her writing is terrific with some lovely images – for the first three-quarters of the book anyway. After that, when she describes her time in the White House, it seems to lose some of its character, but here it was so interesting to hear about ‘behind the scenes’.
I was a fan before of the Obamas and am even more so now.

Cheri by Collette
Read on Kindle for book group, continuing a French theme, but chosen because of the recent film, Collette. This is about the relationship between a woman of forty-eight, courtesan Léa de Lonval, and playboy Chéri who is half her age. She has devoted the last six years to his ‘amorous education’ but when an advantageous marriage is arranged for him neither party can foresee how deeply this will affect them. Sensuous and atmospheric but never graphic.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Five in March

I read five books in March. It was a funny old month for me – I had two medical procedures, one on each hand, and I was selected for jury duty. So most of the time I wanted to read books that were a happy distraction from these unpleasant things. (Hands all better and mole-free now, thank you for asking.)

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell)
I’ve read this before but not for many years. I remembered what a good puzzle it was, this mystery within a mystery, even though I couldn’t recall the solution.

‘It is 1905. Asta and her husband Rasmus have come to East London from Denmark with their two little boys. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary. These diaries, published over seventy years later, reveal themselves to be more than a mere journal. For they seem to hold the key to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child. It falls to Asta's granddaughter Ann to unearth the buried secrets of nearly a century before.’

And, as always with Ruth Rendell books, London is as much a character as the people.

Snowdrift and other stories by Georgette Heyer
A friend lent me this collection and I was entranced by it. One of my favourites concerned two young lads who believe themselves in love with the same girl and almost come to fighting a duel over her. When at the last moment they discover that she is engaged to someone else, each of them is considerably relieved and off they go on a fishing trip, the best of friends again. In other stories the endings are more romantic – but all her main characters are unsentimental and a breath of fresh air.

My mum used to love Georgette Heyer. I don’t know where all her copies went but I only seem to have two of them so I read those (and must look for others in the forthcoming Christian Aid booksale).

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
Amanda is a sixteen-year-old, very detemined runaway who is rescued by Sir Gareth Ludlow because she will be ‘ruined’ if she is found to be stravaiging about the countryside on her own. But Sir G cannot return Amanda to her family because Amanda flatly refuses to tell him who they are … and he has his other problem, namely his proposal to Hester (a spinster of 30 – gasp), which he fully expected to have had accepted, has been turned down. Adventures and misunderstandings abound. Delightful. And so well written – I reckon GH is almost up there with Jane Austen.

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer
Adventure! Excitement! Romance! It does what it says on the tin. And what more could anyone want??

Handle with Care & other stories by Anne MacLaren
A great collection of stories of which my favourites were Nice Work which highlighted two careers (possibly … ) you may not have thought of; and Trout in which Adam, trying to distract himself while he lies unhappily in a flotation tank, comes up with an ingenious musical idea. Entertaining and thoughtful – recommended.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Six in February

I read six books in January.

I’m a fan of Lucy Mangan’s journalism (especially in the excellent free magazine Stylist) but it’s nerve-wracking to read about the favourite childhood books of someone you like in case their likes disagree violently with all your own cherished choices. What you want is agreement over some books, a difference of opinion over a few, and the introduction to some that, inexplicably, you’ve never come across. And with Lucy I found exactly that.

She is almost twenty years younger than me but she too read as a child every waking hour she could (only asking that her family turn her over on the sofa occasionally to avoid bedsores … ) so we are definitely kindred spirits. I was upset when she didn’t like Anne of Green Gables – but then she concluded she’d read it too young; on a re-reading she loved it. We differed rather over Little Women – unlike me she remained dry-eyed reading of Beth’s death. (Lucy! How could you? Pass the hankies.)

Like me, she loved Enid Blyton, the William books, The Borrowers and Tom’s Midnight Garden. (I say loved but of course it’s not a past-tense feeling but a forever one.) Some favourites of hers, the Narnia series and anything by Judy Blume, I have never embarked on and don’t feel inclined to start now.

I was chagrined to find that I hadn’t heard of three books very dear to her heart: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, a mega-seller published in the 1960s, now deemed ‘an essential modern classic’; Private – Keep Out! by Gwen Grant, the diary of a north of England female Just William, set just after WW2 (in Bookworm Lucy says it has long been out of print; however it has since been reissued, perhaps thanks to her championing); and Life with Lisa by Sybil Burr (of which more below).

Thinking about it, my experience of books for children was different from Lucy’s: as I lived very rurally I wasn’t near a library so much of my reading of them came later, especially when I had my own children as I chronicled here.

White Nights by Ann Cleeves
Set around midsummer in Shetland when it scarcely gets dark, a time known locally as the ‘simmer dim’ – white nights.
When Shetland detective Jimmy Perez finds a body in a hut used by fishermen it seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. He recognizes the victim – a stranger with amnesia who had disrupted a local party the night before his death. Further deaths point to the crimes having their roots in the past. Excellent.

Madness Lies by Helen Forbes
Since White Nights had put me in the mood for a crime spree, I retrieved Madness Lies from the to-be-read pile at the side of my bed, where I’d put it some months ago after buying it at the author’s Edinburgh launch. Set mostly in Inverness, the book features policeman Joe Galbraith. The twist in the first JG book, In the Shadow of the Hill, needed all my little gray cells to get to grips with – but although there wasn’t that shock here I enjoyed it even more.

The plot is terrific, beginning with the murder of an Inverness councillor in broad daylight in the middle of town, and featuring a heart-stopping showdown at a Highland beauty spot. Gives ‘Shetland’ a run for its money I would say.

edited by Jenny Hartley
Does what it says on the tin – discussing a range of authors including Elizabeth Bowen, Olivia Manning, Rosamond Lehmann, Rose Macaulay and Stevie Smith.

Life with Lisa by Sybil Burr
See above – after reading about Lisa in Lucy Mangan’s book I was keen to get hold of this, another (fictional) diary of a working-class, mildly rebellious schoolgirl, set in the 1950s. One of her heroes is ‘Peeps’ and he’s one of mine too. I was lucky enough to find a (tatty Puffin) edition online for £3.99 (all that appears there now are hardback editions starting from £32). And I wasn’t disappointed. Maybe the Mangan magic will see this one reissued too.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
Read for book group, on Kindle. It’s 1928. Mattie Simpkin was a militant suffragette and now that that battle has (mostly) been won all the energy and passion she poured into that campaign has to find another outlet. She decides to start a Saturday club for working girls (ie girls in domestic service/shop workers) on Hampstead Heath – with mixed, sad and funny results in which her own family background plays an unexpected part. I loved Lissa Evans’ writing. This is the first book of hers I’ve read – but a film I enjoyed, Their Finest, was based on one she wrote, originally published as Their Finest Hour and a Half.