Thursday, 2 April 2020

Twelve in March (2)

I read twelve books in March.

You don’t need me to tell you what’s been going on this month. Silver lining is more time to read. I’ve reviewed my twelve books in two posts; the first is here.

My daughter has been pressing this on me for a while (long before the current situation) and I resisted, thinking it was going to be very depressing about the state of the NHS; however it was on the TBR pile beside my bed which I now have time to work my way through. And I loved it; the blackest of black humour is delivered in such brilliant turns of phrase eg the pregnant woman who declared she wanted to eat the placenta after her baby’s birth is described as being ‘50% goji berries and 50% Mumsnet threads’.
It would enormously help the NHS if people didn’t do mind-bogglingly stupid things to themselves (in the current situation I hope that toilet brushes and Kinder eggs are used only for their intended purposes).

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
I got this lovely American hardback edition in a charity shop. No, it’s not about someone called Noah although the reason for the title becomes clear towards the end. Liam, a rather solitary character although he has an ex-wife, three daughters and a grandson nearby, finds he has memory loss after being attacked. When trying various methods to retrieve his memories he meets Eunice, a quirky woman (to say the least) twenty years younger than him. Maybe, though, Liam’s loneliness is blinding him into thinking this could be the start of a new relationship.

I bought this last year at the Borders Book Festival after an event by the author, a granddaughter of JB. Some reviewers commented that it shed no new light, i.e. it didn’t dish any dirt. And that’s because, although of course he had his flaws like everybody else, there is no dirt to dish. He did not have feet of clay.
I have been a little obsessed with the Buchan family since reading his sister (pen name O. Douglas) as a young girl (they are still my comfort reads) – her novels draw heavily on her immediate family history. I’ve also read other biographies of him and his own memoir.
What I find particularly fascinating about him is his capacity for work (which I don’t think would leave him any time for ‘dirt’ …). As I said in an earlier blog post:
‘Now maybe JB didn’t have to worry about what to make for dinner, nor did he have to update his Facebook page or worry about his Amazon ratings and he didn’t have the option of slumping in front of a movie. But as well as being the author of around 35 novels and 50 non-fiction titles, including single-handedly completing the 24 volumes of Nelson’s History of the War, he was in the course of his 65 years a lawyer, diplomat, WW1 propagandist, publisher, MP and Governor General of Canada.’
With all that it’s rather ironic that he is best remembered now for creating Richard Hannay and his adventures in The Thirty-Nine Steps – a book he didn’t think much of himself.

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Ambrose Parry – aka best-selling novelist Christopher Brookmyre and his anaesthetist/medical historian wife Dr Marisa Haetzman. This is a brilliant mash-up of their talents.
It’s Edinburgh, 1847. Will Raven has just become apprenticed to the renowned (real) Dr James Young Simpson in whose household is maid Sarah Fisher who would aspire to the medical profession herself were it an option for females.
When bodies of young women are found across the city Will and Sarah join forces to investigate. I loved it. Perhaps it’s not for the squeamish though …
I’d like to find out more about Dr Simpson who seems to have been a larger-than-life, generous-hearted man as well as earning the thanks of women everywhere for advocating chloroform during childbirth. I had my children in the hospital that was wonderfully named for him, the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion. I believe in its new location it’s called something much more prosaic.

 The Foundling by Georgette Heyer
Continuing my journey through Regency England in Miss Heyer’s delightful company. Unusually, the main character here is a young man – a young Duke, in fact – who was a delicate child and feels he is still mollycoddled by his family and retainers although on his approaching 25th birthday he will fully come into his inheritance. He longs to have just a few days of being ‘Mr Dash from Nowhere in Particular’.
Along the way on his adventures he finds himself in charge of a runaway schoolboy and ‘the foundling’, a beautiful but ‘bird-witted’ girl, and comes up against some characters who would seek to get some of his wealth for themselves.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Read for book group meeting on 1 April … which went ahead virtually, courtesy of Zoom.
Set in New Jersey, there are two strands, one in the present day and one around the middle of the 19th century which features a real person, a naturalist called Mary Treat who corresponded with Darwin and other (male) scientists of the time. There’s also a high school science teacher whose headmaster does not believe in science.
The modern family, seen through the eyes of Willa, live in an old, inherited, house that is quite literally falling around them; if it turns out to have been inhabited by Mary Treat in the past they may be eligible for a restoration grant.
Willa also has to cope with a horrible and horribly ill father-in-law (her conversation with a health official telling her he’s not covered by insurance makes you weep with thankfulness for the welfare state here), an infant motherless grandson, and a daughter who thinks Willa’s generation is far too materialistic. Plus (as if that wasn’t enough) it’s 2016 and ‘the Bullhorn’ is making unexpected inroads into the race to be President … Willa does have a lovely husband though, the laid-back Iano.
I love BK’s writing; it’s so dense and yet so clear As usual all her characters leap off the page. If I have a criticism it’s that sometimes chats between characters are more polemic than a real conversation would likely be.
Her The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite reads ever.

Stay safe, everyone. Are you getting through your reading pile?

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Twelve in March (1)

I read twelve books in March. 

You don’t need me to tell you what’s been going on this month. Silver lining is more time to read. I’ll review my twelve books in two posts rather than one huge one.

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach
Read on Kindle for book group. Ella and Tobi live in London now but have unanswered questions about their childhood in East Berlin including the family’s failed escape attempt in 1987 and the subsequent disappearance of their little brother – ironically only two years before the wall came down. When Ella finds some of their mother’s old notebooks she goes to Berlin and the Stasi archives to find out what she can. A beautifully written mystery/family story/history.

The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis
Margaret returns to Edinburgh in 2011 after her life in London falls apart, and with no other means of support she moves back to her mother’s flat. Her mother, Barbara, has always said that she has no family and she has refused to tell Margaret who her father was.
I was attracted to the premise of this book, being a fan of the TV programme Heir Hunters which features a company who look for relatives of deceased persons who have property/money but who have died intestate and with no known family.
Margaret finds a sort of similar job (to do with what kind of funeral takes place) tracking down families of those who have died alone. Interwoven with that is the story (not in chronological order) of three sisters and their lives in London, from 1929 to 1980, encompassing, among much else, abandonment, madness, paedophilia, thievery and abortion. All this grimness is well evoked and I liked having to keep my wits about me to work out what was happening and when.
BUT <spoiler alert>It did beggar belief that the deceased in Margaret’s first case should turn out (I think) to be a relative.
I wasn’t mad on the writing style. Which tended to be a bit choppy. Like this. And like this. There was lots of repetition too. Lots of repetition, and bracketed comments. (But that was deliberate and not lack of editing. I think.) These stylistic tricks were a distraction away from the story.
It’s such a dreadful thought, dying alone, estranged from or without family, sometimes not being found for days, weeks or even years. I see that MPE’s new book has an heir hunter called Solomon Farthing – clearly the subject is very fertile ground for a novelist.

Things We Choose to Hide by Jane Riddell
‘After ending a long-term relationship, Rachel Grosvenor goes to stay with friends in Florence, where she meets the attractive Sicilian businessman, Tommaso. Despite her friends’ concerns, she marries him weeks later, only to learn at the end of their honeymoon, that he’s been less than honest with her. Gradually she stumbles upon more unpleasant secrets in his life. Set in Italy and India, this is the story of one woman’s experience of deception, jealousy and finding love in unexpected places.’
Read my interview with Jane here.

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear
I’m a big fan of JW’s Maisie Dobbs character – she’s a private investigator/psychologist and this is the twelfth title in the series (currently there are 15). Here she goes to Munich in 1938 on behalf of the British Secret Service.
I’d also recommend following Jacqueline Winspear on Facebook – she’s a Brit living in the States and has a lot to say that is thoughtful and wise.

 One Shot by Lee Child
One of his best, I think, and completely page-turning. A man is apprehended after six people are shot dead; all the evidence including forensics point to his guilt. His sister however doesn’t believe he was capable of such a thing. All the man will say is ‘Get Jack Reacher’ but it turns out they weren’t exactly buddies on their previous acquaintance.
Did you see that Lee Child is going to stop writing the Reacher novels and has handed the job over to his brother? I wonder how that will work out.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell
I have just discovered children’s writer (for children of all ages) Katherine Rundell and her Rooftoppers was the very last book I read last year.
I loved this one too – a plane crashes in the Amazon jungle and four children are left to survive in it. The different personalities, talents and backgrounds of the three older ones mean they all have something useful to contribute.
What do tarantulas taste like? What does it mean when they find a cigarette box tied to a high branch? And all those stories of lost cities – could they be true?

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Things we choose to hide

Today I’m delighted to have on my blog fellow Capital Writer Jane Riddell answering questions about her new novel Things We Choose To Hide.

After ending a long-term relationship, Rachel Grosvenor goes to stay with friends in Florence, where she meets the attractive Sicilian businessman, Tommaso. Despite her friends’ concerns, she marries him weeks later, only to learn at the end of their honeymoon, that he’s been less than honest with her. Gradually she stumbles upon more unpleasant secrets in his life. Set in Italy and India, this is the story of one woman’s experience of deception, jealousy and finding love in unexpected places.

1. There is a fantastic sense of place in the book, Jane. I’m guessing Italy is a country you know well? And Positano in particular?

I love Italy, both the northern lakes and parts further south.  When our son was little, we had several holidays in Positano which is a particularly charming old town on the Amalfi Coast, near Naples.

2. It looks wonderful! The sights and sounds and smells of India and Kashmir jumped off the page too and were a great contrast to coastal Italy. Are these countries you have travelled in?

Yes.  After living in New Zealand and Australia for several years, my friend and I travelled back through SE Asia and India. One of the highlights was Kashmir where we stayed in a houseboat on Lake Dal for four days. The thing I remember most clearly was the fantastic purply light in Srinagar. My memories of other parts of India during that trip are vivid but more mixed. On the one hand there were wonderful buildings and landscapes and a sensual magic everywhere.  On the other, was the brutal poverty confronting us. 

3. What came first – the location(s) or the character of Rachel?

The location.  I did what I’ve never done before when writing books.  One afternoon in Positano, I decided to locate my next novel here and sat on the beach, determined to think of a storyline. This was many years ago, and for a long time this novel was my “go to” one whenever my current work in progress was being read by friends. On many occasions, just as I was easing myself into writing it again, I’d receive feedback on the WIP and return the Italian book to the back burner.  I’ve always been determined to finish it, but the final version is markedly different to the original draft.

 4. Rachel rushes into marriage with Tommaso despite her friends’ misgivings – and she manages to distance her own doubts too. There are other times throughout the book too when she ignores signs that everything is not as it should be.
Do you think the traumas she suffered in her teenage years made her hope, despite the evidence to the contrary, that things would turn out well?

Having seen how close her parents were, Rachel was keen to find someone who could make her equally happy and I think she would have felt like this even if she hadn’t lost them at a relatively young age.  A bigger influence in her choice of partner, however, was her frustration at the limitated relationship with a steady but perhaps rather dull man. After this experience, she was amenable to falling in love with a more exciting and less predictable man.

5. Apart from Tommaso, there is someone else in the book who is keeping a huge, life-changing secret. Is that lack of communication between couples something you like exploring (fictionally!)?

Very much so.  In general, I am intrigued by the communication in romantic relationships: the surface interactions and what underlying tensions and secrets may be bubbling away underneath. 

6. There is a feeling, I think, in the first-person narrative almost as if Rachel knows she is a heroine in a book and so is writing rather dispassionately about the events in her life. Did you ever consider writing her in the third person?

No, I always planned to tell the story in first-person because of the immediacy this can bring to it.  In wanting to guard against having a protagonist who bemoans her situation too often, I may have ended up with one who appears to be dispassionate about what has happened to her.  However, this wasn’t my intention!  One thing I’ve learned about characterisation is that readers will have varied reactions to the degree of emotion displayed by key characters.  What one reader considers to be overly emotional, another will view as being lacking in feeling.

7. Following on from the above, your lovely writing, the character of Rachel and the perfidy of some of the men around her, remind me of Anita Brookner’s novels. Would you go along with that?

Probably not.  I don't regard Rachel as being similar to an Anita Brookner female protagonist who has settled for a relationship where her love is returned with indifference.  The men she becomes involved with do love her and in the case of the one she marries, keep their secrets through fear of losing her.  Not that I’m justifying such behaviour!  In terms of style, there’s a delightful quiescence in Anita Brookner’s writing which she carries off this due to her rich and descriptive language.  I suspect I couldn’t be so successful, but thanks for the comparison!

8. The book covers about ten years in Rachel’s life and that of her friends and family. Did that time span take some working out or flow naturally? In other words are you a plotter or a pantser?

Essentially I’m a plotter but sometimes find that characters take off somewhere without having checked with me that this is okay…  As long as they return to the “main road” I am fine with this.   The time span did cause some headaches from time to time.

9. What are you working on now?
I am writing a humorous story about a group of people who come to a retreat which offers original therapies for their unusual problems.  It began as a longish short story, is now at novella length and may end up being a novel as more ideas come to me.

Thank you for answering my questions, Jane.

Things We Choose to Hide is available from Amazon – and here is another gorgeous view of Positano.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Six in February

I read six books in February.

On the Up by Alice O’Keefe
The first but probably not the last book I’ll read on how difficult it is for young (and not so young) people to afford to buy, or even rent, somewhere decent to live in the UK in the 21st century.
Sylvia rents a flat on a council estate in London with her laid-back, minimum-waged, ‘not-quite-husband’, Ove, their toddler and baby. She’s the main breadwinner but while she is on maternity leave she finds out the quango she’s worked for is to be wound up. Sylvia yearns for a house like the one she was brought up in but all she and Ove could possibly afford (if she finds another job) is one that is virtually uninhabitable and only a minute’s walk from a motorway junction.
However, shockingly, compared to others on the estate, Sylvia is lucky in that she has choices, although they may not involve house ownership. When her block is scheduled for ‘redevelopment’ (ie into properties none of the current occupants could aspire to buying) the council tenants are told they will ‘probably’ be re-housed in the Greater London area, or failing that, Birmingham.
The estate occupants come together to protest the development, aided by a lawyer friend of Alice’s, knowing though that the eventual outcome is inevitable and they will all go their separate ways.

Read on Kindle for book group.
‘The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff's professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.’
Family businesses are a great subject for novels (and TV dramas). This is the first one I’ve read set in the world of Chinese restaurants and it was a fascinating glimpse into the fiercely hot and noisy kitchens and the people who own them and the people who work in them. Well-written, touching, funny and sad.

Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce
Inspired by agony-aunt columns in women’s wartime magazines. Mrs Henrietta Bird is agony aunt for a failing magazine called Woman’s Friend – but she’s not much help to anyone in these troubled times. For one thing she’d rather be out of the office lording it on various war-effort committees and for another she refuses to answer any questions that involve what she calls Unpleasantness; this includes: marital relations, pre-marital relations, extra-marital relations … you get the drift.
Her new assistant, sparky Emmeline, seeing the genuine dilemmas and unhappiness of some of the letter-writers, decides to write back herself. Alongside this, there is Emmeline’s life outside the office with her friend Marigold, known as Bunty, and her other job in the evenings on the fire-brigade switchboard.
I thought the ending took a bit of swallowing but I loved the idea and the characters, and the tone which was rather reminiscent of girls’ school stories.
PS don’t look at Amazon reviews before you read this; some of them have a big spoiler.
PPS here’s a blog post of mine which has snippets of bracing advice from yesteryear.

The Holiday by T M Logan
From a charity shop to whence it was speedily returned.
Four women go on holiday to an Italian villa to celebrate their fortieth birthdays; one is on her own and the other three are with their husbands and children. Kate suspects that her husband is having affair with one of her friends. We learn from the tagline that one of the party is a murderer.
I thought I was going to read a tense psychological thriller with lots of build-up, but absolutely nothing happened until three-quarters of the way through this 496-page book. Until then you have to plough through banal interactions between characters who were all, whether grown-ups or offspring, unpleasant/obnoxious/spoilt/terminally boring*. A pity, because the reason for Kate’s husband’s suspicious behaviour turned out to be unexpected and original.
*other opinions are available – the book was a Richard and Judy best-seller.

The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb
I am a fan of KW, especially of her first book The Legacy.
I got totally into this one. She beautifully conjures up rural Wiltshire in the early 1920s and the heartbreak of Pudding whose beloved elder brother Donald has come back badly damaged by the war. When Donald is accused of the murder of a very popular member of the community, Pudding and a newcomer to the village try to prove his innocence.
And then – then I began a new chapter and was totally baffled, could not work out what was going on, even wondered momentarily if the binder had got pages mixed in from another book. I read on but nary a glimmer of light did I see. Only after I looked at reviews from others who had a similar reaction did I understand that this wasn’t the promised twisty ending but that there had been a sleight of hand all the way through. Was it very clever or was it cheating? The jury is out.

Midnight Fugue by Reginald Hill
The last, sadly, in the Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural series and it’s a corker.
It was a relief after the disappointments of the two books above to read one that did exactly what it said on the tin.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Valentine's Day

 Forget the storms and snuggle up with this collection of fourteen love stories, 
all previously published in women's magazines.

Stories include:

Two for Joy
Superstitious Jess is looking for true love – will the magpies or the tea-leaves point her in 
the right direction?

Bonnie Prince Charlie
Isabel has an unexpected guest staying for Bed & Breakfast – and there are people who would 
pay to know his whereabouts.
Summertime Blues
It’s the year of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, but Lindsay, part-time record-spinner on 
a Scottish island, is feeling far from chirpy.

A Parallel Universe
Louise meets David for the first time in fifteen years and wonders about the life they might have had together – is it too late?

And Pomona Came Too
There’s a third party in Nick and Jill’s relationship – his metal detector. He even wants to take it on their weekend break to Basking-in-the-Wold …

Making a Scene
Of course her little boy’s birthday party is Lorna’s first priority but how she wishes she could
 be in two places at once.

For Love or Money
Jackie is about to marry someone who’s made a lot of money – is she trying to leave 
her two oldest friends behind?

The Palace of Complete Happiness
While escorting a school party through the Forbidden City in Beijing, Milly comes to the conclusion that she can learn a lesson from the life of the imperial family.



Thursday, 6 February 2020

Six in January

I read six books in January.

I was eager for another encounter with DCI Jude Satterthwaite and his colleagues after loving the first in this series Death by Dark Waters. It did not disappoint. A nursing home is a great enclosed-community setting for murder; at Eden’s End (what a fab name for such a place!) the death of Violet Ross is not at first thought to be suspicious – she was 100 after all – but it emerges that she had some murky secrets. The personal relationship between Jude and DS Ashleigh O’Halloran moves forward (that’s all I’ll say about that … ) and the ending is both surprising and completely satisfying. Look forward to number three.

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham
I have never watched The Gilmore Girls so it wasn’t the fact that its star, Lauren Graham, is the author here that made me pick up this book, set in 1995, about Franny who is trying to make it as an actress in New York. Books set in NY always attract me and the highs and lows of acting do too for some reason so this was a double whammy – and of course the author obviously knows that world very well.
And I did enjoy it, mostly. I liked her relationship with her dad, and the humour in the awful commercials she was sent to audition for by the agent she should never have signed up with. It did feel rather slow though – not something I usually take issue with, but in this case the pace didn’t match the content.

The VS Pritchett Award is given annually for short stories. I was looking the history of the competition up online and came across the winning story for 2011 The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve ever read – and for me its ending is even more satisfying in 2020 than it would have been nine years ago. Read it here and see for yourself. So I wanted to read more by Carys Davies. The title story remains my favourite in this collection but there is much else to enjoy including a sad and surprising one set in the Australian outback, and a grimly funny tale of the perils of arguing over map-reading with your other half.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
Aimed at the YA market as it has a contemporary seventeen-year-old female protagonist but can be read by anyone over the age of fourteen. Jennifer Donnelly won the Carnegie Medal with her first book A Gathering Light and on the strength of enjoying that so much I went to see her at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2010 and bought this one. Why it’s taken me ten years to get round to reading it I have no idea … but when I started it I got completely immersed and every time I had to put it down I couldn’t wait to get back to it.
American teenager Andi is struggling after the recent accidental death of her little brother, for which she blames herself, and her wayward behaviour causes her father to take her away with him when he has to go to Paris for work. Andi finds a diary written by a girl, Alexandrine, during the French Revolution and the bloody time of ‘the Terror’ and thereafter their lives intertwine. It’s not exactly a time-slip story – or is it? I do find that historical period fascinating and her writing is fab.
I’m not sure that the title conveys all it might do and the hardback jacket is not very inspiring, in my opinion, but don’t judge the book by it …

Good Morning, Midnight by Reginald Hill
One of my 2019 Christian Aid Book Sale purchases. The title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson and RH is not the only one to have used it. It’s the title of a book by Jean Rhys and a sci-fi book made into a forthcoming George Clooney film.
This is an outing (the third last) for one of my favourite detective duos, Dalziel and Pascoe; here the Fat Man’s turn of phrase is as witty (and un-PC) as ever and the plot as clever.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer
The latest read in my extremely enjoyable romp through GH’s Regency novels … this has everything: an outspoken, impoverished heroine, her delightful little brothers, an imperious hero – comedy provided by his relationship with his social-climbing and sponging sister, and a perilous hot-air balloon ride. What made the book even more special was that it was given to me by my daughter-in-law whose favourite GH it is – so nice to have a loved author in common with her and to know that Georgette Heyer continues to have multi-generational appeal.

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