Tuesday, 7 January 2020

My Life (maybe) according to the books I read in 2019

My Life (maybe) – according to the books I read in 2019

Describe yourself

How do you feel?

Describe where you currently live

If you could go anywhere where would you go?

Your favourite form of transportation is

Your best friend is

You and your friends are

What’s the weather like?

Favourite time of day

If your life was a book

What is life to you?

Your fear

What is the best advice you have to give?

Thought for the day

How would you like to die?

Your soul’s present condition

This is a fun idea I saw first on Joanne Baird’s Portobello Book Blog

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Nine in December

I read nine books in December, squeezing the last one in on 31 December between dinner and waiting for neighbours to arrive to see in the New Year.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
Read for book group. A contemporary epistolary novel – yay! Hope this will start a new trend for them. Here, a developing relationship is told in letters/emails between a Norfolk farmer’s wife and a Danish museum curator. Very enjoyable. If I had a quibble it would be that their voices sounded too similar. Anders’ first language isn’t English so it makes sense that his writing style would be formal (eg no contractions like ‘I don’t’ rather than ‘I do not’) but that was the way Tina wrote too – I think she might have sounded more colloquial.

With all the election hooha some escapism was called for and I found it in Georgette Heyer, in three comedies of errors read in quick succession which did the required job admirably: Sylvester, Bath Tangle and Black Sheep.

I can’t understand why Andrew Davies et al don’t make films/tv adaptations of her books instead of continually rehashing Jane Austen (marvellous though she is). I reckon Sylvester, Duke of Salford, could give Mr Darcy (marvellous though he is) a run for his money.

A Clean Sweep by Audrey Davis
A fun cast of characters – fifty-something widow Emily, her daughter Tabitha and various of their friends and acquaintances and their romantic mishaps. This is the first and probably the last romantic novel I’ve read in which the hero is a chimney sweep but as he is a hunky twenty-something (with clean finger nails) what’s not to like? I liked Meryl too and her generous, optimistic nature (and penchant for Abba songs). A warmly written rom-com.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers
I have read two other books by SV, liked one, didn’t like the other. But this appealed to me: set in 1958, a young woman, Sylvia Blackwell, takes up a position as children’s librarian in the market town of East Mole. Her attempts to enthuse the children with a love of reading are hampered by the antagonism of the bullying (male) librarian but she has some successes particularly with her landlady’s awkward daughter and her neighbours’ bright son. However, some of her other relationships events aren’t so happy and events conspire against her. Loved the period detail; not sure about the ending.
I appreciate the timing for this book with the scandalous closing of so many libraries and school libraries all over the country; sadly, Salley Vickers is probably preaching to the converted here in trying to convey their importance.

Bought at Edinburgh Book Festival about eight years ago and just got round to. In summer 2010, SA (since he wrote this he has become the Poet Laureate) walked the 256-mile Pennine Way the ‘wrong’ way ie north to south. He sang, as it were, for his supper along the way, giving poetry readings in exchange for accommodation and food. It doesn’t sound like a walk in the park, crossing lonely fells and climbing hills, mostly against the prevailing (howling) wind. Just the thing to read when you’re wrapped up warm at home.

Christmas at the Beach Hut by Veronica Henry
’Tis the season … to read a Christmas novel. Not that a beach hut is the obvious place to go at Christmas time but this was a very superior one with a wood-burning stove, beds and washing/toilet facilities. Lizzie is feeling overwhelmed, not only with Christmas stuff but also with her recent redundancy and impending empty nest plus her tricky relationships with her mother-in-law and her husband’s first wife, so she runs away to the seaside where she meets others seeking escape for various reasons. A page-turner, as usual, from this author.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
For children of all ages. KR has been on my radar for a while; this is the first one I’ve read but it most definitely will not be the last. Baby Sophie is rescued from a shipwreck; she has been tucked inside a cello case. As the years go by she is convinced, against all the evidence, that her mother survived the wreck too. Sophie's search takes her and her wonderful guardian, Charles, to the rooftops of Paris. Absolutely magical writing – a lovely note to end my reading year on.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Jinty's Farm

My latest People's Friend serial, Jinty's Farm, is set on – surprise! – a farm. The first instalment is in the bumper issue dated 21 December.

The setting for my last serial, A Time to Reap, was also a farm, although the scenarios are quite different.

Whereas A Time to Reap was historical (1963 – yes, a story taking place before 1970 is now deemed 'historical') and the farm was part of a large estate in the Scottish Highlands, 'Jinty's' is a small farm in Fife which, in 2019, the Watson family have run for a hundred years.

All farms have to diversify in some way these days and so Isla and Kerry, wives of the Watson brothers, have begun an artisan gin company in the old byre; Jinty's Gin (named after the brothers' granny) is flavoured with local rosehips and rowan berries. I did have fun researching how to make it!

Then there's Isla and Bill's elder daughter Rosalyn and her boyfriend problems; an entry in the farm diary from the WW2 years which has a link to the present day; and Isla, the main character, who's run ragged between managing the house and the family and school farm visits and the gin company and the holiday cottages and her part-time teaching job ...

I was brought up on a farm but that doesn't mean I know anything much about farming as I blogged here when A Time to Reap came out. However, as I can't seem to stop writing about it, it would seem you can take the girl out of the farm but not the farm out of the girl.

A large glass of Jinty's Gin (or your chosen tipple) to all my readers. Cheers!

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Seven in November

I read seven books in November.

I love reading (and using ... ) cookery/baking books; don't usually mention them here – making an exception because this lovely book (bought with the last of a birthday book token) has 100 recipes that the Australian-born author and blogger has written and road-tested, inspired by food references in her favourite books. They all sound delicious and very doable, not in the least gimmicky. If you are looking for a Christmas present for a book-loving cook look no further.

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
I liked this first novel a lot – it’s ‘uplit’, the same category as, eg, Needlemouse and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (also first novels as it happens; look forward to all their second ones). Susan is in her mid forties, a workaholic living on her own with no outside interests (apart from seeing a friend-with-benefits once a week) and a toxic relationship with her brother. She has a complete lack of self-awareness which is funny and sad at the same time. An unplanned pregnancy and the revealing of family secrets after the death of her mother turn her carefully managed life upside down.

One Winter Morning by Isabelle Broom
I’m a bit puzzled by how this book is presented, in its title, wintry cover and promotion banner beginning ‘Warm your heart this Christmas … ’ None of these, to my mind, give a true indication of what the book is like.
The incident that happened ‘one winter morning’ in England was offstage and a year before the story begins. It was the catalyst for Evangeline (‘Genie’) going to New Zealand where most of the book is set. Genie is there during the month of December, one of the hottest times of the year on the other side of the world, and Christmas barely gets a mention.
I wasn’t keen on Genie (perhaps it was the way she came over in the first person, present tense voice). Her little sister Tui was delightfully drawn though and there was a great sense of place – I enjoyed, vicariously, revisiting Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand.

Bright Lights and Lies by Gill-Marie Stewart
When I was a child and got new books only at birthdays and Christmases and from additions to the folding bookcase that was the school library (we weren’t anywhere near a public library), I read them immediately.
Nowadays I’m spoilt for choice – I can buy books for myself in print or digital from bricks-and-mortar and online bookshops, or I can borrow from Edinburgh’s Central Library, fifteen minutes’ walk away. I can acquire them from second-hand or charity bookshops or buy and get them signed at events; even get out-of-copyright titles free from Project Gutenberg.
So there is always a tottering to-be-read pile; I wouldn’t go back to my previous state but I know I’ll never recapture the total joy I used to feel at embarking on a book I’d never read before.
Bright Lights and Lies was bought at a book launch four years ago and only now fished out of the pile. And well worth the wait it was too – a YA set mostly in Glasgow, a sweet romance between Finn and George (Georgina) with some very gritty subjects along the way, such as drug addiction and police corruption.

Lily’s Just Fine by Gill-Marie Stewart
And having enjoyed that Gill-Marie Stewart it was great to be able to whiz over to the TBR pile for the first in her new series Galloway Girls. That one was bought at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference a mere four months ago. Again, a sweet romance plus difficult subjects for the protagonists to tackle, set in beautiful Galloway in south-west Scotland. Lily is a terrific character because she’s so well rounded; she just walks off the page, as do all the other teenagers and adults.

You think it; I’ll say it by Curtis Sittenfield
Short stories. I loved CS’s first four novels especially The American Wife and Sisterland; I was disappointed however in her fifth, Eligible, a bleak modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. So I was interested to read this, her first short story collection. In several of the stories she references and skewers current American politics, one of her favourite themes as evidenced in The American Wife (an imagined life of Laura Bush – yes, really, and far funnier than you’d expect).
She’s good too on the perennial theme of meeting your high school nemesis; that’s in A Regular Couple. The secret game (that gives the book its title) played by Julie and Graham, married to other people and who meet through their children, is embarrassingly misconstrued by Julie; in Plausible Deniability it’s Libby who thinks her relationship with her brother-in-law is other than it is.
‘You won’t want these stories to end,’ said Reese Witherspoon no less.

Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore
Read for book group, these are short stories which were published after the writer’s untimely death in 2017. The subjects and themes are wide-ranging and include: a teenager, abandoned by her parents, gives the book its title; a young man caught in a storm while on a boat to Sweden meets a mysterious girl; the last days of John Keats; two women from very different backgrounds have an unusual night out; a young mother is left with her unpleasant mother-in-law while her husband goes exploring; and much more. She's such a wonderful writer.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Wish upon a star

Six days before Christmas a family crisis brings Stella back from London to the Scottish Borders – and to Ross, the man she left fifteen months earlier.

This time three years ago I was on tour with Stella’s Christmas Wish – well, virtually on tour, doing the rounds with some lovely book bloggers. Here’s what some of them had to say:

I fell in love with the characters and actually wished they were real … I loved reading about them and the way their lives intertwined … I really, really, want there to be a sequel …

Later on as we discover the truth I thought the reasons for Maddie's absence were heartfelt and brought a lovely tone and atmosphere to the story.

Stella quickly became a very sympathetic character for me.

The beauty of Scotland comes alive in this story, and the characters are so engaging and really make you care about them.

 ... I enjoyed reading this book and if you are looking for a Christmas read I recommend this one.
Portobello Book Blog
a delightful, warm-hearted Christmas read which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Stella's Christmas Wish is published as an e-book by Black&White and is available from Amazon for a mere 99p, less than the cost of a chocolate snowman. It's also available in large-print in libraries.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Eight in October

I read eight books in October.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton’s estrangement from her family and her dysfunctional relationship with her mother was the subject of My Name is Lucy Barton. In this follow-up Lucy, an acclaimed writer living in New York, goes back for a brief visit to where she was brought up in small-town Illinois. But, as this is an Elizabeth Strout novel, Lucy herself hardly comes on stage. Instead, we see her in passing from the viewpoints of her siblings, her niece and her former friends and neighbours and in doing so we piece her history – and theirs – together. Loved it. Loved it.

Read on Kindle. The paths of event planner Jane and archaeologist Theo cross when she organises a conference in his university building. Both have got ‘baggage’ – Jane from her time as a young woman with a predatory employer and Theo with an abusive ex-girlfriend. It’s pretty much dislike at first sight for both of them but soon they find themselves trying to uncover an archaeological mystery – partly inspired by the author’s family connection with the famous Mildenhall Treasure. Recommended.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
‘Rose Janko has been missing for seven years. Her family has made no attempt to find her.’ Until now. Well, if that’s not an intriguing premise I don’t know what is. What adds so much to this brilliant story is that Rose is from a gypsy family as is Ray Lovell, the private investigator hired by Rose’s father. I’d love to see him get another outing.
Stef Penny’s first novel was the Costa-winning The Tenderness of Wolves. At a writing event I was at in the summer, the first sentence of that book was deemed by the panel of publishers and agents to be one of the very best they’d ever read. The bad news, it transpires, is that publishers and agents, when reading manuscripts, sometimes barely read any further than that first sentence.

Christmas at Miss Moonshine's Emporium by Helena Fairfax, Mary Jayne Baker et al
Read on Kindle. Miss M got her first outing in Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings, a collection of stories by nine romantic novelists from Yorkshire and Lancashire, all set in the town of Haven Bridge and involving the ageless and magically empowered emporium owner. This new collection of contemporary and historical stories is even better I think.

The Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman
A few weeks ago I was in the Peak District of Derbyshire and came across a shop selling new books at low prices – publishers’ overstocks/remainders. What a treasure trove. I picked up this YA book because I liked the title. It’s a sweet romance between a newly motherless American girl, Sass, coming to live with her uncle in Cornwall, and a local boy … The identity of that ‘local boy’ was  a surprise and took the story in a different direction. Can’t make up my mind if I liked that aspect of it or not. If you want to know what I’m blathering on about see the footnote*. Or if you’d rather read the book and find out for yourself then don’t.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) needs no accolades from me to enhance her popularity but here are some anyway: Lethal White is brilliant – the best in the Cormoran Strike series so far! I didn’t speak to anyone at the weekend because I was so engrossed in it! Thank you very much! Now, please get on and write the next one.

The Christmas Holiday by Sophie Claire
Read on Kindle. Partly set in the cosy village of Willowbrook, this is the story of Evie and Jake. Evie has family difficulties and a controlling ex-boyfriend and Jake is still very much in love with his late wife. When circumstances dictate that they spend Christmas together in sunny Provence, the understanding is that no strings are attached … but with a woman gathering more confidence in herself and a man with the ice in his heart beginning to thaw, well, that wasn’t going to last, was it?

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland
Read for book group, on Kindle. The first English translation of a book by ‘Norway’s Anne Tyler’. I would not agree with that description for various reasons. Anne T is terrific, for example, on sense of place. There’s little of that here, despite the fact that family homes and summer cabins are important to the characters; plus it would have been interesting to have more of a sense of their wider surroundings. But I did enjoy this story of grown-up sibling relationships and rivalries, told in turn from the sisters’ and brother’s viewpoints, following the shock announcement that their 70-something parents are getting divorced.

*In an alternative version of the British Royal Family Sass’s boyfriend is Alex who is third in line to the throne, after his grandmother and his father. Cue the paparazzi, intrusive journalists etc.