Saturday, 8 June 2019

Seven in May

I read seven books in May.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Five in April

I read five books in April. An eclectic mix …

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Five in March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Six in February

I read six books in January.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Love in the Forbidden City

In 2011 I was lucky enough to go to China, to Beijing and Xian and then north-west, far off the tourist trail, to a small town called Xingian in Gansu Province. I found it all so fascinating that in the eight years since then I have read loads of books about China – from its earliest history to the modern day, and even did an online (Future Learn) course on the European Discovery of China.

I’ve only written one story though (so far) inspired by the visit and that was The Palace of Complete Happiness which was published in Woman’s Weekly, and that came about by looking again at the names on this map of the Forbidden City.

I chose it as the title story for a collection of previously published with the theme of love … published on St Valentine’s Day last year.

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.

Sam Something
Sam is enjoying a cappuccino while waiting for his colleague – when he overhears his name being mentioned at the next table.

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 Green Wedding Dress
As Caitlin attends a rather strange, small registry office ceremony she can’t help comparing it favourably with her own lavish and traditional wedding.

Please, Mr Postman
When Petra tries to track down some missing letters she ends up meeting some of her new neighbours.

Ae Fond Kiss
When café owner Mary takes part in a flash mob to sing one of the Robert Burns’ love songs she finds herself standing next to one of her customers.

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?

See You Later, Alligator
Lizzie’s met an explorer who wrestles alligators but is she intrepid enough to fall in love with him?

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.

Meet Your Match
Patsy decides it’s time to look for a new partner on a dating site but she gets distracted by her memories, and by three items that have arrived in the mail.

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 in love from the life of the imperial family.

The Palace of Complete Happiness is available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback from FeedARead.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Eight in January

I read eight books in January – well, seven books and one long short story.

I’ve had a soft spot for the film Where Eagles Dare (based on the novel by Alastair Maclean) since I first saw it, something that for some reason my husband likes to tease me about. So what should I find in my Christmas stocking but this book, ‘Geoff Dyer’s tribute to the film he has loved since childhood.’ I thought I would put off reading it until I had the chance to see the film again – and lo, in early January there it was on one of the Freeview channels.

It was fun to see it again after a long gap and to realise the many ways in which it is preposterous (that seemingly bottomless haversack of explosives and useful things that Clint Eastwood lugs up and down snowy precipices for example) – and that is the tone of Geoff Dyer’s terrific little book: he still loves the film despite/because of its many preposterousnesses.

The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen
My son left this behind after a holiday. I’d never read JF before and I don’t think I will again but I was compelled to finish this once I’d embarked. The premise – an elderly mother wants to gather her three children and her grandsons around her in the family home for one last Christmas – could be the cue for a soft-focus, sentimental story, but soft-focus this most certainly ain’t. Father Alfred has always been a bullying type and, as a mother myself, my sympathies should have been with Enid but I’d avoid spending Christmas with her too given the choice.

Intellectual (too intellectual sometimes; I skipped pages of technical details concerning Alfred’s potentially millions-making invention which he’s sold to a large company for peanuts) but always with an edge of black humour to leaven the mix.

Song of the Skylark by Erica James
A dual timeline story. Lizzie in the present day, at a crossroads in her life, meets elderly American Mrs Dallimore when she volunteers in a care home. ‘As Lizzie listens to Mrs Dallimore's story, she begins to realize that she's not the only person to attract bad luck, or make mistakes, and maybe things aren't so bad for her after all . . . ’ Didn’t grab me.

A Country Christmas by Louisa May Alcott
This is a long short story and was a giveaway at Christmas time by a writer friend Helena Fairfax. Recipients could download the file; I then sent it to my Kindle. What a treat to read something previously unknown to me by the author of Little Women. I've just had a google and see that you can read it online here (along with Christmassy American recipes and other delights).

Read on Kindle. Set in Northern Territory, Australia in the 1970s. The members of the ‘book club’ live miles apart with often hostile terrain/weather between them so they can’t meet very often but their friendship and support for each other sees them all through difficult times. Loved it. And it led me to download, free from Project Gutenberg, an autobiographical novel set in the same region at the beginning of the last century: We of the Never Never.

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage
Read on Kindle – more or less in one go, on a cold wet Sunday. This is ‘A chilling psychological thriller about dark family dysfunction and the secrets that haunt us’ and had me gripped to the last twist. My only gripe is the title – rather fed up of seeing books called The Woman/The Girl ...

The Hard Way by Lee Child
Paperback from charity shop to whence it returned when I’d finished it. My favourite Jack Reacher (of about four) to date, unusual because it is part of it is set in England. A rich man’s wife has disappeared and Reacher has been hired to find her. He certainly knows how to make you turn the pages. If you want to read what other people think of the book it will take you a while – the last time I looked there were 11,657 reviews on Amazon with an average of four and a half stars.

Read on Kindle. Tagged as ‘the most heart-warming book you’ll read all year’ and although the year has just begun this could well be true. The friendship between twenty-five-old Lucy and her neighbour Brenda who’s seventy-nine is touching and funny, a perfect combination.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

A Time to Reap – hold the front page!

In 2016 I had a serial A Time to Reap published in The People’s Friend. And from 18 January 2019, it’s having a new lease of life as it’s being serialised in a daily newspaper (print edition), another D C Thomson publication, The Courier.

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed writing anything quite so much as this. It’s set in a Highland farming community in 1963. So, yippeee, one modern writerly problem was dispensed with right away – no need to worry about 21st-century methods of communication (about which I blogged here). And as I was brought up in such a community at that time there would be no requirement to do any research.

Or so I thought.

The main characters, including my heroine, farm manager Elizabeth Duncan, are of course grown-ups; I quite wee in 1963 so I had to think from a different perspective. And just because you lived on a farm doesn’t mean you know anything about farming – especially if you were a child who spent most of her time indoors with her nose in a book.

Among the many questions I asked Google/my cousin David/a farm-implement blogger/fashion-expert friend/lawyer husband of (different) friend and a manual bought in a junk shop called The Farm as a Business: A Handbook of Standards and Statistics for use in Farm Management Advisory Work, published for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1957, were:

How bad was that snowy winter 1962/63?
How would you look after your sheep in those conditions?
What would you be planting/harvesting in the different seasons?
Good reasons for expanding a dairy herd?
How do you persuade an angry bull into a pen?
What style/colour of dress would suit tall, fair-haired Elizabeth to wear to the gillies’ ball?
How much did it cost to send a letter in 1963?
Did you have to get a provisional driving licence then?
Adoption law in Scotland at the time?

If you don’t manage to get hold of The Courier and you want to find the answers to these questions … you can read A Time to Reap on Kindle; it is also available in large-print from libraries.

It’s April 1963 in the Scottish Highlands. Elizabeth Duncan, widowed with two small daughters, is the farm manager on the Rosland estate, the job previously held by her husband, Matthew. Following a hard, snowy winter, her working life is made more difficult by the unpleasant estate factor.

Elizabeth enjoys support in the small community from family and friends, including her cousin Peggy and local vet Andy Kerr. The arrival of an American visitor at Rosland House unsettles her in a way she hadn’t expected but, after Matthew’s mysterious death, a new relationship has been the last thing on her mind. However, as she dances at the annual estate ball in September, that may be about to change …