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?

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Jinty's Farm

An everyday story of farming and gin-making.

Jinty’s Farm is my fourth People’s Friend serial, now available for pre-order an e-book; publication date 26 June.

I’ve written a farming serial before. A Time to Reap was set in 1963; this one is contemporary, set in the Kingdom of Fife on Scotland’s east coast.

These days, farmers have to diversify as never before to make ends meet. That could mean having paying guests, cheese-making, opening farm shops, making crisps or preserves or ready-meals. Or, as in my story, making gin.

I did enjoy finding out about gin-making … I read articles about various craft gin makers and how they come up with ideas for making their product stand out. I read about the process for making gin and I visited a couple of distilleries; and I had the occasional glass – in the interests of research of course.

There’s another aspect to the story which I liked researching too – the deployment of Polish soldiers to work on farms in Scotland during the Second World War.

I remember a Fife minster, some years ago now, telling me that when he visited elderly ladies in his parish they always talked about that time with a definite twinkle in the eye … the innate good manners as well as the good looks of the soldiers had left a lasting impression.

That inspired me to include one such soldier – whose existence is known about from the farm diary and the entries by Jinty, late grandmother of the present generation.

So, farming and gin-making – plus arguments and accidents, romances and break-ups, and family history echoing through the ages. It's all happening down on Jinty's Farm.

My previous three serials are now available as a (Kindle) boxset.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Thirteen in May (2)

I read thirteen books in May; these three and others which you can read about here.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
I think this rom com did live up to most of the plaudits it’s garnered although I have a gripe about the pointlessly distracting names of some of the characters– Katherin spelt unusually thus without an e at the end, a contemporary young woman called Gertie (Gertrude), men called Mo and Sal. We never even meet Sal, he’s referred to but is offstage so I can’t see the point of calling attention to him in this way. The minute you begin wondering what Sal’s full name is likely to be then you’re out of the story.
I had the same issue, to a much greater degree, with Marian Keyes’ book The Break.
Having got that off my chest, the plot: Tiffy shares a flat, and a bed, with Liam but they have never met – he works nights in a hospice and she’s an editor in a publishing office. She needs somewhere to live and fast and he could do with the extra income, for a reason which becomes clear, so the arrangement suits them both.
They get to know each other at first by leaving notes for each other (phew! Thank goodness for Post-Its – see Adventures in Stationery, below).
A fun escapist read with unexpected depths.

Nelly Dean by Alison Case
This was a present from a friend in 2015 after we had seen the author at the Edinburgh Book Festival. In this case (unlike Before Green Gables, see previous post) I hadn’t delayed reading it because I didn’t want anyone other than Emily Bronte roaming Wuthering Heights – I’d decided that I would need to reacquaint myself with WH first before embarking on this book in which housekeeper Nelly fills in gaps in the original.
And with lockdown came the time to do that. I didn’t actually read the book again but listened to an abridged version on tape (yes, tape, narrated by Hannah Gordon).
I don’t think this new book would make sense if you’d never read Wuthering Heights. It uses the same device as the original in framing Nelly’s narrative as a letter and here she says things like ‘As you’ll recall’ and ‘you will remember’. Or I suppose you could read this first and use WH to ‘fill in the gaps’.
I liked Alison Case’s writing a lot as indeed I like Emily Bronte’s but I’d forgotten quite what a grim and claustrophobic world EB created.
Even after reading this more personal story of Nelly Dean I find it difficult to understand (if you think of her as a real person) why she would love the members of the over-wrought and violent household at Wuthering Heights and wouldn’t leave when she had the chance.

Bought in a charity shop. I have been dipping into this over several months – not just a journey through your pencil case but a history of the whole stationery cupboard, from the revolving desk tidy and staplers by way of highlighters and Post-Its (or Press ’n Peel Notes as they were originally called; invented first and found a use for later).
I found it comforting to be told that despite computers and other gadgets actual stationery isn’t going anywhere.
And – why hadn't I twigged to this before? – traditional symbols are used in digital devices: a ‘pen’ for composing a new text, a magnifying glass meaning ‘search’ and a paperclip for sending an attachment. While they are in the virtual world people are reassured by these physical reminders apparently.
The book is a lovely object in itself and has these gorgeous endpapers (the illustration forms the cover of the paperback edition):

There’s a lot of detail (be warned that the author has a blog called I Like Boring Things, although I see it has not been updated for a year or so) and I admit my eyes did glaze over sometimes. But as someone with more notebooks than I’m ever likely to use, with a serious pencil-buying habit, and as the proud owner of a Ranger 55 table-top sharpener which I wrote about here I was very happy to follow James Ward on a journey through my pencil case.

May all your pencils be sharp ones.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Thirteen in May (1)

I read thirteen books in May; I’ll tell you about them in two blog posts.

Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston
Like very many people I enjoy Brian Bilston’s way with words. The ‘Banksy of poetry’ and ‘Twitter’s unofficial poet laureate’ nails current topics on the head in clever and witty ways that you wish you’d thought of first.
Diary of a Somebody is allegedly his diary but I think we can take that with a large cellar of salt.
To quote from the blurb:
Part tender love story, part murder mystery, part coruscating description of a wasted life, and interspersed with some of the funniest poems about the mundane and the profound, Diary of a Somebody is a unique, original and hilarious novel.
I whizzed through it, loved it; this will be one to reread.

The Visitor by Lee Child
The fourth Jack Reacher book. ‘The visitor’ is Jack Reacher himself when he helps a couple of government agencies to solve the gruesome murders of two former female army high-flyers who had both been acquainted in the past with our hero.

Isn’t that a fab (as we used to say in the 60s) cover?
Dual timeline, set on the Greek island of Péfka. The earlier story is about Elin when she attends a summer art school there and, later, Elin’s daughter Alexandra follows in her mother’s footsteps and learns much about Elin that she never knew. Great premise and great sense of place – I’ve never been to Greece but enjoyed my virtual stay in Péfka.

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson
This was produced in 2008 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publication of the story of fiction’s most loved redhead.
I’ve had it on my shelf for about ten years and finally plucked up the courage to read it – if that isn’t too strong a statement. L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels have for so (sooo) long been among my very favourite books that I resented the thought of someone else writing her story.
We know from the Anne books that she was orphaned as a baby and subsequently brought up in two foster homes where she was treated with rough kindness but also as an unpaid and overworked skivvy before being taken to an orphanage from where she was adopted (by mistake; they’d asked for a boy) by siblings Matthew and Marilla. 
If you have never read or owned a copy of Anne of Green Gables there are dozens of editions to choose from, some with very unappealing covers, and others which look lovely, like this one: 

I thought Before Green Gables was unnecessarily long and I wasn’t massively taken with Budge Wilson’s writing. Through her eyes Anne appears to look like a ragdoll or a cartoon character – her large eyes and ‘long skinny legs’ being mentioned rather too frequently. We know from LM’s books that Anne is precocious and a chatterbox but here she is attributed speeches (speeches I tell you) from the age of seventeen months that are frankly implausible.
But there were some terrific characters, not least Anne’s delightful and tragic young parents, and many things are ‘explained’, such as Anne’s love of big words, her appreciation of natural beauty and her longing for a best friend, a kindred spirit.
At the end of the book we leave her at Bright River station, Prince Edward Island, waiting for Matthew Cuthbert to arrive. Anne of Green Gables begins with that scene so of course I had to read it again and one thing led to another and another and …

At the beginning of this year my sister and I planned (but luckily had not booked) a holiday in Canada this autumn, including a visit to Prince Edward Island which I have been longing to see for more than fifty years. Well, we all know how holiday plans in 2020 have turned out … 
Maybe in the next year or two (or three) it will be possible but, if not, then thank goodness for the imagination which can travel even when the body is in lockdown. A sentiment I'm sure Anne Shirley would approve of.