Thursday, 12 November 2020

Ten in October


I read ten books in October.



Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell’s first book, The Diary of a Bookseller, has been translated into twenty languages and been a best seller. His droll account of the trials and tribulations of selling second-hand books in Wigtown in the southwest of Scotland found thousands of happy readers, and he’s done it once more with Confessions.

We meet Nicky again, his eccentric assistant who brings him ‘treats’ on a Friday scavenged from supermarket dump bins, and there’s an equally eccentric new addition to the staff, a young Italian woman he nicknames ‘Granny’. He’s still having his arguments with Amazon and with customers who want a discount off a 50p book. It’s a hard way to make a living.

There’s a new one I haven’t read yet called Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops. And after the success his writing has brought him, even more tourists will surely flock, post-pandemic, to Scotland’s National Booktown and visit his shop. I’d love to be one of them.



The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

I read a few Georgette Heyers that my mum had and then forgot about her for about fifty years. Much enjoying catching up – what delightful worlds she conjures up for readers to escape to in these difficult times. Lent to me by Anne Stenhouse who is a long-time fan(atic), currently having a complete reread – and who is also a Regency author herself, most recently of Courting the Countess.


Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer

My copy was bought at the Christian Aid Book Sale 2019 (very sadly there wasn’t one in 2020).



Chasing the Case: The First Isabel Long Mystery by Joan Livingston

Read on Kindle. When I first heard of this book/series it ticked boxes for me. I love books set in rural America and I like cold-case crime novels and older, female protagonists. Tick, tick, tick. Thoroughly enjoyed the first 75% but slightly disappointed thereafter. First, Isabel’s character started not to ring true for me and, second, it wasn’t really thanks to her sleuthing that the perpetrator was uncovered.

I’d read another in the series – maybe.


In Cold Blood by Jane Bettany

Read on Kindle. This novel won a Good Housekeeping First Novel Award. Another protagonist called Isabel; this one, Isabel Blood, is a Detective Inspector with an interesting family history. A body is found in the garden of the house she lived in as a child – well, that was a great start to the book.

I thought, no spoilers, that the premise for the plot was fresh and intriguing but, as in Chasing the Case, I found the resolution unsatisfactory. Everything pointed to who the most likely murderer was so I thought there would be a last-minute twist; there wasn’t; and having the villain filling in the gaps with a confession probably happens in real life but here it would have been good if the detective had worked it all out. It was a bit of an anti-climax.



My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Read on Kindle for book group. ‘As smart and murderous as Killing Eve, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet.’ Set in Lagos; sibling loyalty is put to the ultimate test again and again. Enjoyed the book – but to get the full experience try the version read/performed on Radio 4.


I’ve been listening to Desert Island Discs archives while on the exercise bike. There’s a section where only ‘fragments’ remain ie the conversation but not the music. I was interested to hear the edition with Helene Hanff, Pennsylvanian-born author of 24 Charing Cross Road fame. I’d reread (for the umpteenth time) that and its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street fairly recently but was inspired to go to her other titles on my shelf.


Underfoot in Showbusiness

Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college for more than a year so she further-educated herself through borrowing from the public library and subsequently, and life-changingly, ordering books from an antiquarian bookshop in London. Her ambition was to be a playwright and between short-lived or part-time jobs that’s what she worked on.

Here’s a story from the 30s with modern resonance: the Bureau of New Plays held a contest for budding playwrights, awarding $1500 to the best two, to subsidise them while they wrote. The following year HH was one of twelve recipients but this time round the award was organised by the Theatre Guild. Subsidy dollars were not handed out but the would-be playwrights had a year-long programme of classes, lectures and workshops. Not one of them ever had a play produced. 

And the two from the year before? Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.


Q’s Legacy

‘Q’ being the Cambridge don Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, whose book On the Art of Writing, formed her early reading tastes.


 Apple of My Eye

Asked to write extended captions for a photographic book on New York, her home for many years, HH realised there were famous landmarks she hadn’t visited and set out to rectify that.


Letter from New York

Following the popularity of 24 Charing Cross Road – the book and a play – HH was asked by Woman’s Hour to do a regular ‘letter’ slot; some of these are collected here.



Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Wooo Wooo

Are you ready for some Dark Stories?



Coming through the mist towards you are …


The Homecoming


Blaze of Glory


Colour Blind


The Cemetery House


by, respectively, Jennifer Young, Kate Blackadder, Jane Riddell and Anne Stenhouse aka Capital Writers as they all live in that most haunted of cities, Edinburgh.


Dark Stories can be yours for a very unscary 99p


And while you’re there check out our three other collections:


Capital Stories


‘ … each in their own distinctive style and each one charming and cleverly written.’ Amazon reviewer


 Capital Christmas Stories


 ‘… Four beautifully crafted stories, each one a little gem - it’s not a cliche when it is true.’ 

Amazon reviewer


and Capital Collection which combines Capital Stories and Capital Christmas Stories with four stories specially written in support of the charity CrossReach.





Monday, 5 October 2020

Seven in September

I read seven books in September.


Escape to the Art Café by Sue McDonagh

Read on Kindle – but isn’t that a gorgeous cover? From a painting, I believe, by the (clearly multi-talented) author. This series, of three so far, has been on my radar for a wee while so why I chose to start with the third one I don’t know. I guess my brain has gone on furlough.

But I don’t think it matters – the place is the anchor to the series rather than a particular character. And that place is the Gower Peninsula in Wales, a place I have wanted to visit ever since reading a book by Susan Howatch many years ago. Can’t remember the title or anything about the characters or plot but the miles of golden sands have stayed in my mind.

What a lovely place to have a café … with hot chocolate and cake to die for too. Into this idyllic scene comes Flora, on the motorbike she’s stolen from her cheating ex-boyfriend, to stay alone in the holiday cottage they were supposed to be in together. She soon becomes part of the local community and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t want her holiday to end …



The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede

Talking of holidays … on 11 March this year Mr B and I were to be going to London for a week to visit relatives and do lots of Londony things. A few days before, we both realised that we were more apprehensive about going than looking forward so we cancelled. A good decision in retrospect.

Had we gone, we planned to try and get last-minute tickets for Come From Away, the musical based on The Day the World Came to Town. Ah well.

Immediately after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 no flights could land on US soil and had to return from whence they came or go elsewhere. Many were diverted to Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, a small town that suddenly had to find accommodation and sustenance for several thousand people (who, for all they knew, could have included potential terrorists). This they did with great generosity and friendliness – truly a story to restore your faith in human nature.


Beany and the Beckoning Road by Lenora Mattingly Weber

I wrote about discovering this series here. In the fourth book Beany and her brother are in charge of taking their small nephew back to his parents a couple of states away. With some unexpected passengers, including a horse in a trailer, and a dwindling supply of cash, it’s a preposterously eventful journey for the teenagers.


From a Distance by Rafaella Barker

I loved RB’s early books (especially Hens Dancing, Green Grass and Summertime) but her most recent couple not so much. The title of this one reflects how I found reading it – as if I couldn’t see the characters very clearly. It’s set just after the end of WW2 in Cornwall and in Norfolk fifty years later (which should have been 1996 but mobiles, Skyping and social media were much in evidence so that didn’t add up). The cover bears no relation to the story. However, as always, her actual writing is gorgeous especially in its descriptions of landscape.


Presumed Dead by Mason Cross

Like many social activities, meetings of Edinburgh Writers’ Club have moved online for the duration. Our first zoom worked well. The opening speaker was thriller writer Mason Cross and he was terrific. Not his real name – he’s from Glasgow – but most of his books are set in America so his pseudonym reflects that.

He has a series involving a ‘people finder’ called Carter Blake which has been compared to the Jack Reacher titles and carries an endorsement by Lee Child. So I had to investigate and I wasn’t disappointed.

Presumed Dead is the fifth in the series but they don’t have to be read in order. I thought it was great so I immediately downloaded the first one …


The Killing Season by Mason Cross

… and it was just as good.

So I am looking forward to reading more by him in this series, and other titles for which he uses a different pseudonym, especially his latest which features a murder on the Caledonian sleeper train.


The Dry by Jane Harper

Still in murderous mode. This was passed on to me by my sister. It’s set in a small town in rural Australia. A family is found murdered. It’s presumed that Luke murdered his wife and little boy and then shot himself, but his childhood friend Aaron, home for the funeral, finds that difficult to believe. I started reading this at 3 o’ clock one afternoon and, with a break to eat and be reluctantly sociable, I finished it at 10.30.

You can take that as a recommendation.


Thursday, 10 September 2020

Nine in August

 I read nine books in August.


 Bombs and Bougainvillea: An Expat in Jerusalem by L. E. Decker

Read on Kindle (also available in paperback). I do love books about expats; this is one with a difference though because the Decker family, after twenty years in various countries in the Middle East, are moving from Jordan to Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank north of Jerusalem where even the school run is fraught with danger. However, life has to be lived day to day and the family looks for the positives – and there are plenty of those, in the food, the culture(s), and new friendships. I enjoyed my vicarious stay with them enormously and learned a lot from it (also enjoyed the recipes!).



The Mum Who Got Her Life Back by Fiona Gibson

Read on Kindle. This is the first Fiona Gibson book I’ve read and I loved it – usually books described as ‘laugh out loud’ don’t make me, but this one did especially during the ‘cathedral in Aberdeen’ conversations (variations of which I seem very prone to having myself).

Nadia is a single mum whose twins have left to go to university. Just when she’s beginning to enjoy being an empty nester with a budding romance, son Alfie drops out and returns home.



The Mum Who’d Had Enough by Fiona Gibson

So I bought another one but I’m afraid I didn’t take to it. A more accurate title might be The Wife Who’d Had Enough: A Mystery, the mystery being why Sinead ever married Nate in the first place.

The book is narrated in the first person by Nate – whose name could well be Gnat because he has the emotional depth and maturity of one of the wee irritating beasties.

However, I'll give FG the benefit of the doubt because of the previous title and give her another go sometime.



Meet the Malones Books 1-3 by Lenora Mattingly Weber

Read on Kindle. I happened to see online an article where various American authors were asked what they’d been reading during lockdown. Most of the answers were the serious, literary books you might expect them to say (while not necessarily believing them) but one of them mentioned this series for children/young adults which I’d never heard of so I looked it up.

It sounded just my cup of tea: impoverished motherless family (but with a fab crusading journalist dad), set in Colorado, beginning in 1943 (when I think it was first published), fourteen books in the series taking it up to 1963.

Print copies are prohibitively expensive and the e-books aren’t cheap, at around £5.40 a throw, so I am rationing their purchase.

In the first one, Mary Fred (no explanation of her second name) has been given fifteen dollars by a kind friend to buy a ‘formal’, a prom dress – but instead she spends it on a lame horse.

Amazon isn’t very clear about what order the books come in but I found a list on Goodreads.



Blue Moon by Lee Child

The last one he’s said he’ll write before his brother takes over the series.

The writing is like a child’s reading book much of the time: Reacher slid out of bed. He found his pants. He found his T-shirt. He found his socks. But you don’t read these books for the prose but for the adrenalin rush and that’s delivered by the page-turning bucketful. Even more cartoony violence than usual when Reacher contrives to set two mafia-type gangs against each other, thus ridding a city of its protection racketeers.

And the incident that sparks the whole thing off makes you even more thankful than usual for the NHS.



Near Neighbours by Molly Clavering

First published in 1956, republished by Greyladies Books and out of print from them too. Second-hand copies are a ridiculous price but a friend kindly lent me her copy (which I returned without first scanning the cover so have none to show you and can’t find it online).

Similar style to D.E. Stevenson. Set in Edinburgh in the 1940s. Two sets of neighbours get to know each other – one elderly (or what counted for elderly in the 40s) whose domineering sister has died leaving her free to make friends; the other a family mostly composed of delightful daughters with tree names: Willow, Rowan, Holly and Hazel.



The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Here the author of the multi-selling Me Before You transports us to Kentucky during the Great Depression and a group of women who set up a library and travel on packhorses to deliver books to those in remote areas. Very happy to be involved, as she has nothing else to do, is Alice who, unhappy at home, has made what turns out to be a disastrous marriage to get away from England. The other women have their problems too.

The horse-riding librarians did exist all over the Appalachian mountains between 1935 and 43; they must have been tough cookies because the terrain is very difficult especially in the winter. A good read.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Nine in July

I read nine books in July plus two ongoing as I said in my previous post. Which are still ongoing …

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

This is a glorious and gloriously written book I believe I shall return to again.

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.

Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.’

‘On a dark midwinter’s night …’ – who could resist such an opening? Fabulous. It pinned me to my chair until the last word.

Burying Bad News (The Much Winchmoor Mysteries Book 3) by Paula Williams

Read on Kindle. Cosy crime. Cosy to read that is; probably it’s not a cosy feeling when you find a severed head – or for that matter you have your head severed …

Kat Latcham, reporter/barmaid/dog walker, gets involved in the aftermath of an argument between two warring neighbours. Along with a touch of humour and a dollop of romance this is a satisfying read. But I’d recommend that, as with St Mary’s Mead and Midsomer, you give Much Winchmoor a miss when you’re making holiday plans.


Notes From a Big Country by Bill Bryson

I’ve read this before, probably more than once. But I’m finding at the moment I’m not always up for a new read however enticing but want to sink into the comfort of the tried and tested. This is a collection of columns BB wrote for a British magazine when, after twenty years of living in Yorkshire, he moved back to the US at the end of the 1990s – and sees the country of his birth in a different light.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

Read on Kindle. Can’t remember which book blogger mentioned this title but thanks very much whoever you were. I loved it. The Observer described it as ‘the love child of Jonathan Franzan and Anne Tyler’. I was sceptical about the Anne Tyler bit because that’s a very bold claim for AT fans to get on board with …

However, I was totally won over; it is Anne Tylerish albeit with graphic love scenes and lots of swearing.

Marilyn and David have the most stable marriage ever and are still crazy about each other after all these years – which is probably why their four grown-up daughters’ lives tend to be dysfunctional and secretive. How can their relationships ever live up to that of their parents’?

A first novel – I certainly hope there will be more.


And talking of the tried and tested … my next (re)reads are (if you were to twist my arm to choose two) my favourite Anne Tylers:


Ladder of Years

One warm summer’s day at the beach, forty-year-old Cordelia Grinstead, dressed only in a swimsuit and beach robe, walks away from her family and just keeps on going.’


Saint Maybe

When eighteen-year-old Ian Bedloe pricks the bubble of his family's optimistic self-deception, his brother Danny drives into a wall, his sister-in-law falls apart, and his parents age before his eyes. Consumed by guilt Ian finds the hope of forgiveness at the Church of the Second Chance.’



A Debt for Rosalie by Anne Stenhouse

A My Weekly Pocket Novel. It came out on 23 July and was available in selected WH Smiths and supermarkets for two weeks. However, if you ring DC Thomson 0800 904 7200 hopefully they will have some still for sale.

Rosalie has taken a job as the chef at Maldington House, a private hotel, following the collapse of her business and the end of her relationship with Steve (these two facts being unfortunately connected). And just when she’s getting on nicely with David, the dishy hotel owner, Steve turns up like a bad penny.

There are serious issues discussed here, albeit with a light touch, and a great sense of place.


Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

I adored Lucy Strange’s first book The Secret of Nightingale Wood, set just after the First World War.

Our Castle by the Sea takes place during the Second World War. Pet and her older sister Mags have been brought up in the cottage by the lighthouse in Kent where their father is keeper. With a war raging at sea, and their German mother interned, life becomes very grim for the girls especially when it becomes clear that there is a saboteur in the village.

Terrific, although for me not quite so tear-inducing as Nightingale Wood.


Fulfilment by Anne Stormont, the Skye Series Book 3

Read on Kindle. The third in the trilogy about Rachel and Jack, following Displacement and Settlement. It was good to catch up with the two main characters as they continue to work out their relationship – which is complicated by the mental health issues ex-policeman Jack has following a horrific attack on him. You could read this even if you haven’t read the others as you can pick up on earlier happenings – but much better to start at the beginning and follow Rachel and Jack on their complicated journey to their <spoiler alert> happy ever after.

There’s a great sense of place – whether that’s in Skye where Rachel and Jack live or in Israel where Rachel goes to visit her brother; they are Jewish through their mother’s side of the family. She also goes there for work reasons as she has been putting together an anthology of writings intended to help promote peace in that part of the world. With that and with Jack wanting to help youngsters who’ve had a bad start in life there are important and topical themes explored here along with the love story. Highly recommended.

Apologies for any oddities of spacing etc in this post – Blogger has a new 'interface' I am still getting to grips with.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Seven in June

I read seven books in June … and one journal, and am halfway through two, quite different, very long books of which more anon.

The Year After You by Nina de Pass
Read on Kindle.
A Young Adult novel mostly set in a Swiss boarding school for girls and boys. For a lifelong Chalet School fan that was a good place to start … However, this was published in 2019 and the characters are thoroughly contemporary.
Cara is English-born but following her mother’s second marriage she’s been living in Californa. After a fatal accident one New Year’s Eve, Cara, consumed by grief and a guilty secret, is sent to school in the Swiss Alps. Can she put the past behind her with the help of her new friends Ren and, especially, Hector?
I found it well written, very moving, with a great sense of place, and characters to root for. I’ll be interested to see what this young debut author does next.

Eliza for Common by O. Douglas
Umpteenth comfort read. Never more needed than now.

The Thirty Nine Steps is one of my favourite books (yet to be given a really satisfactory rendition in film, in my opinion) and this is a spin-off.
Set post WWI, Hannay and his comrades come together to rescue a man who is on a secret visit to Scotland – a man who has recently been their greatest enemy, none other than Kaiser Wilhelm. Chases up hill and across moorland ensue and there’s an amusing take on the scene in TTNS when Hannay had to pretend to be a political candidate.
Great escapism.

These specially written stories have been donated by the authors (from all over the world, some previously published, others new) to help raise funds for NHS charities.
Inevitably, some are better than others – two read more like précis of novels than short stories. I particularly enjoyed The Flight by Olga Wojtas, channeling the widow of an East End villain in Malaga, and the atmospheric Tiger’s Eye View by Roz Watkins set in the Himalayas. My favourite was the first one, Night Butterflies by Zoe Sharp, an author I hadn’t heard of before but who I see has a great-sounding series I must add to my wish-list reading …
Remember – all profits from the book, available on Kindle and as a paperback, go to NHS charities.

The third in the very enjoyable DCI Satterthwaite Mystery Series.
Cody Wilder, a controversial American academic with a dark past, is in the Lake District to present her latest findings on William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. When the body count around her mounts up, Jude Satterthwaite and his team, including his lover DS Ashleigh O’Halloran, try to find out more about Cody whose greatest talent, it seems, is making enemies. There’s a great juxtaposition between the beauty of the Lakeland scenery and the dark and twisted minds of those who bring blood and mayhem to the area. Looking forward to number 4!

Read for my book group who were all gripped by the story of Marie Colvin – this biography reads like a thriller, with a glamorous, hard-partying main character whose personal life echoes the drama of her career. Seemingly fearless, Colvin entered the lairs of such figures as Yasser Arafat and Colonel Gaddafi, able to connect with them in a way her male colleagues couldn’t. Among other incredible stories, there’s an arduous and dangerous snowy journey to escape from Chechnya and a less successful escape attempt in Sri Lanka which ended with her becoming blind in one eye.
Written by a fellow war correspondent, the book draws on Marie’s own diary and on conversations with her friends and family who were devastated but perhaps not surprised when she lost her life in Homs, Syria in 2012.
In the last few years, with leaps in technology and with social media, there’s been a tendency for news editors not to send reporters into war zones. Safer for them, of course, and no doubt a relief for their nearest and dearest but, on the evidence of this book, a big loss for the rest of us.

Death Comes to Cornwall by Kate Johnson
I do seem to have taken to crime this month. This is the first in a new series – cosy crime with more than a dash of romance.
Molly Higgins takes full advantage of the annual shooting of a TV drama, Dr Wenn Investigates, in her village to acquire several temporary jobs, as she’s the breadwinner for her alcoholic mother and her little sister.
The previous year she had a relationship with the programme’s dashing villain Conor Blackstone that ended amid misunderstandings. After a fraught start this year, together they try to find out who’s behind the bludgeoning to death of a member of the film crew.
The second in the series will be on my Kindle ere long.

The journal I read was the latest edition of the wonderful Slightly Foxed. As to the two very long books – I’ll let you know about one when I’ve finished; as to the other, here’s a clue.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Bike-ride reading

We acquired an exercise bike at the start of lockdown and I have been on it every day since. My slot (in our household of three) is first thing in the morning – I chose that time so I would just wake up and, er, get on my bike without giving myself any chance to talk myself out of it.

I used to love cycling when I was a child but that’s once upon a time now …

After a perfunctory start, where I didn’t even check the distance, I got competitive with myself and now do between 8km and 15km every morning. On one day a week I go for a personal best, currently 25km (that’s just over 15 miles in real money, I'd have you know). No pictures, thankfully, of my perspiring red face …

While I cycle, I listen on earphones to Radio 4’s A Good Read on catch-up. There are fifty-five Internet pages of past programmes, dating back to the late 80s. If you have never heard it (the latest series is on at the moment, 4.30 on Tuesday afternoons) – a host and two guests each share a book that they’ve enjoyed, either fiction or non-fiction. There have been various hosts but the one who has made the programme her own, Harriett Gilbert, is I think, much the best.

I am whizzing through them – 25km is three programmes’ worth.

Some of the books discussed could in no way be described as ‘a good read’, in the can’t-put-down, entertaining sense of the word, but they are nevertheless interesting and informative; some guests blatantly choose titles they have contributed to in some way or have been written by a pal; and one or two (no names) were quite rude, talking loudly over the others. 

Although some guests’ choices are in some way predictable, others are surprising. I have silent arguments when a book I love is not appreciated by everyone.

So I am well distracted while turning those pedals and mopping my brow.

But now, of course, I have added to the already tottering wish list of books I would like to read, viz:

A Month in the Country  J. L. Carr
Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady  Florence King
Crooked Heart  Lissa Evan
Dirt Music  Tim Winton
Dissolution   C. J. Sansom
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  Anita Loos
Invisible Cities  Italo Calvino
Leadville by Edward Platt
Out Stealing Horses  Per Petterson
Remembering Babylon  David Malouf
Slow Horses  Mick Herron
Love and Summer  William Trevor
The Spire  William Golding
The Wicked Chamber  Angela Carter
This is Shakespeare  Emma Smith
To Esme with Love and Squalor  J. D. Salinger
Towards the End of the Morning  Michael Frayn

What would you choose if you were asked to be on the programme?

I feel inspired to take up actual cycling when lockdown is over. 

Who knows where 25km will get me to?