Friday, 18 May 2018

Seven in April

I read seven books in April.

Hygge and Kisses by Clara Christensen
Bo is in a relationship – or is she? And she’s just been made redundant. So when her flatmate Kristen suggests Bo have a holiday in Kristen’s native North Jutland off she goes. She meets an annoying girl who calls everyone Babe, and a new love interest, and she makes chocolate muffins quite a lot. And that’s about it. ‘Bo’ is short for Boughay, apparently a family name but we’re given no clue how to pronounce it – Buffy? Boogie? I’m afraid I found this book ‘bo’ – short for boring.

The Button Box by Lynn Knight
Bought in the bookshop of the V&A in London and it kept me excellent company on the train all the way home to Edinburgh. Lynn Knight tells the story of three generations of her family, and the larger story of women at home and in work from the Victorian age to the 1960s, through the clothes they wore and the clothes they made. A book you definitely want to have a print copy of so you can admire the buttons on the cover.

Loved this! The characters have such depth – we are shown their back-stories which flesh them out and perfectly explain their contemporary situations and personalities. The opening of a (second-hand) bookshop is always going to be a subject that appeals to me, and I also loved the setting of the Solway Firth, a part of Scotland that is not as well-known as it should be. The descriptions, while not overdone, make it sound absolutely beautiful.

In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon
Really enjoyed this book set in Edinburgh in the days of the early photography pioneers, in particular D O Hill. I was sent an advance copy to review on the Capital Writers website. You can read the the review here.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Read on Kindle for book group; this has been long/shortlisted for the major literary prizes. A Muslim family find themselves divided by radicalism and politics. Told from several viewpoints, the siblings’ stories give more insight than any news report can, and make a gripping read.

Simon Brett was the keynote speaker at the Scottish Association of Writers’ Conference this year; he is extremely funny. He is also a very prolific writer. Mrs Pargeter is one of his sleuths, a most original creation. She is wealthy widow, on the right side of the law, which is more than can be said for her late husband. This means she has all sorts of experts who will come to her aid in an instant – safe crackers, bodyguards and so on. A hoot.

Lilian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney
This I just adored. It was inspired by a woman who was the highest paid female in American advertising in the 30s.

Now aged 85 in the 1980s, Lilian is at a bit of a loose end on New Year’s Eve. She’s been invited to a party that won’t start until midnight and although it is in an unsalubrious part of New York (more dangerous then than now for the late-night wanderer) she decides to walk there. As she travels through familiar and unfamiliar areas, she meets and charms a variety of characters, and she recalls her life. It’s a potted history of her beloved city as well as of Lilian herself. The book is cleverly constructed; I loved the writing and Lilian herself is an inspiration. Go read!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Seven in March

I read seven books in March.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
Read for book group. What I like about Helen Dunmore, apart from her fabulous writing, is that she never writes the same book twice. Her previous one, Exposure, was a spy novel set in 1960. This one is set in Bristol in 1792 but it also has the background of the turmoil in Europe and the French revolution. Lizzy’s family are Radicals (her pamphlet-writing mother is based on a real person) but her new husband, a property developer of what are now Bristol’s grandest houses, has everything to lose from the reality of social upheaval.

I enjoyed it but was puzzled by the first chapter which is contemporary and involves <spoiler alert>an interesting narrator we never hear of again. And there was a major aspect to the plot that I would prefer not to have known about so early on. But it was a fascinating period (‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven’ as Wordsworth said) and Helen Dunmore shows us a different side to it through the resourceful Lizzy.

How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster
Knowing I was going to be reading Margaret Forster’s schoolgirl diary for the book group at the beginning of April, I went on a little MF jag after seeing this and Isa and May in a charity shop.

Tara/Sarah has moved from London to the north of England, changing her name after a shocking event in her life. Although determined not to get involved with anyone she does find herself sort of friends with her rather lonely, older neighbour (who was brought up on a farm, hence the title). I thought it petered out towards the end and wondered if I’d got to know Tara any better than I had at the beginning.

Isa and May by Margaret Forster
Isa and May are the narrator’s two grandmothers: Isa is the posh one and May is plain speaking and working-class. The narrator, Isamay, is called after both of them. She is trying to write a thesis on grandmothers in history but as she talks to her own two she begins to find out family secrets.

Relationships are Margaret Forster’s big thing and although I like her novels I prefer her non-fiction on the same theme such as Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir.

This book made a stir when it came out last year, with some reviewers claiming that it ‘explained’ why the current president of the United States got elected. The author (in his early thirties) was brought up in Ohio, in ‘hillbilly’ country. His mother, although alcoholic and changing husbands frequently, instilled a love of learning in him. For day-to-day parenting though he relied on his maternal grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw). But while there was real love and the feeling that family, however dysfunctional, always had your back, there were also physical and verbal fights of the most ferocious nature between any combination of people, and Mamaw’s gun was never far from her hand.

Joining the Marine Corps changed Vance’s life and he ended up studying law at Yale University. But it seems you can take the boy out of hillbilly country but not all the hillbilly out of the boy. Despite his extreme change in lifestyle his loyalty to his roots is unwavering. He is clear-sighted about the problems in what is known as ‘rust-belt’ America, acknowledging, for example, the issues that some of the population have in sticking to a job when they have one, and bemoaning the disappearance of the industries that once were major employers.

Whatever your Democrat/Republican preferences are, do read this book – because it’s terrifically written and as gripping as any novel.

My (not so) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella
Katie, from deepest Somerset, is determined to make a life for herself in London. But the glamorous photographs she puts on Instagram do not reflect her ghastly commute, the tiny room she rents and her weird flatmate, and the lowly admin job she has in a PR company. When she is ‘let go’ she has to slink home to her dad’s farm and try to pretend that it’s just a temporary measure.

Sophie Kinsella is the absolute best at mixing serious with spluttering hilarity and this is no exception.

Diary of an Ordinary Schoolgirl by Margaret Forster
Margaret F died two years ago. Although they never read them while she was alive, her family knew she kept diaries as they were referred to, to check events or dates. But they didn’t know that the diary keeping had started early until they found ones she’d kept as a schoolgirl, including this one in 1954 when she was fifteen. It’s been reproduced most beautifully. There were no big revelations – she was a very enthusiastic scholar, with no interest in boys or make-up (‘soppy’). Brought up in a council house in Carlisle, she helped a lot with the housework; made some of her own clothes; went on long walks, sometimes by herself; loved listening to radio plays and going to the library. Ordinary stuff maybe, but a glimpse into someone else’s life is always of interest to me.

But you won’t ever read my teenage diary.

A Colonial Experience by David Allison
As the author says: a ‘colonial experience was the somewhat derogatory term that was given to young men who made their way from the UK to Australia in order to gain worldly and practical experience working on remote sheep and cattle stations.’ David Allison had his ‘colonial experience’ in the 1970s, going out from Scotland to work in the Australian outback – and then as an overseer on a coconut plantation in Papua New Guinea, a time full of drama to say the least.

David is my cousin and I was spellbound when I heard him talking about his Papua New Guinea adventures; he is a great storyteller. Much of that verve has been transmitted to the written word here.

It was interesting too, to read the last chapter in which he tells of a recent visit back to Papua New Guinea, finding much that was changed and much that was the same.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Six in February

I read six books in February.

Read for book group, and by chance the group met on 8 February, the hundredth anniversary of the old boys allowing some women to put a cross on a ballot paper. MB shows how history has treated powerful women with examples ranging from the classical world to the modern day, from Medusa and Athena to Theresa May and Hillary Clinton.

One story in particular made my blood boil. As she loyally waits for her husband Odysseus to come home from the Trojan war Penelope’s young son Telemachus takes it upon himself to tell her in front of a gathering: ‘ … go back up into your quarters … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all … ’

I wonder if history would be different if, instead of going meekly upstairs, Penelope had told him not to be so cheeky to his mum.

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux
Bought with a Christmas book token. I love reading about train journeys and the master train-journey writer is Paul Theroux. And I love reading about China after a visit there in 2011 so this is a double-whammy as PT takes various trains across this vast country. None of them sound at all comfortable so I was glad to be travelling only vicariously in his company. His writing is so vivid – ‘The yak is a lovely long-haired animal, like a cow on its way to the opera.’

He took this journey in 1988 – it would be fascinating if he retraced his steps given the changes in the last thirty years.

The Break by Marion Keyes
Bought in a charity shop. An interesting premise: after being happily married to Amy for fifteen years Hugh, deeply affected by the deaths of his father and a close friend, decides to take a break and go travelling for a year – and also take a break from their marriage.

I’ve read all MK’s books and will continue to do so but I wasn’t mad about this one. Amy’s dysfunctional family doesn’t have the charm of the Walshes who appear in some of the earlier books, and there are no hilarious set-pieces – my favourite is the beauty-parlour scene in Sushi for Beginners.

My main gripe though is that there are so many minor characters and a lot of them have such unusual/unusually spelt names that they become a distraction: Steevie, Urzula, Druzie, Premilla, Thamyres, Raffie (all women) to name but a few.

Maine by Courtney Sullivan
Bought in a charity shop. Regular readers will perhaps remember that I am very keen on books set in New England. In other books (and probably in real life) people who have wonderful summer houses on New England beaches are monied – not that that makes them happy, usually quite the opposite. 

The more ordinary family in this contemporary book own two houses built on land acquired in lieu of a debt fifty years ago, so now it is worth mega bucks. None of them are very happy either, actually, or awfully likeable apart from granddaughter Maggie – Alice, the matriarch, is a difficult mother and mother-in-law and there are lots of untold secrets, the biggest one being <spoiler alert> that Alice has made a will leaving the houses to the local Catholic church. A bit of a find, Courtney Sullivan. Will read more.

The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Frightened myself to bits reading this late into the night. It’s Scandi noir (set in Iceland) that is certainly très noir. Excellent though, very satisfying conclusion. May have to frighten myself again; this is the first of a series.

Fifty-something Shona McMonagle is clever at everything (yes, everything), and she’s very practical and resourceful – as she would not hesitate to tell you herself – being the product of the ‘finest education in the world’ at Marcia Blaine School for Girls (readers of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will recognise the reference).

When Miss Blaine herself returns after a gap of many (many) decades to Edinburgh and seeks out Shona in Morningside Library, she asks the former pupil to carry out a mission for her – in 19th-century Russia. It turns out to be both a dangerous and a wonderfully absurd mission and while the reader comes to suspect what’s going on, Shona, for all her much-vaunted education, is oblivious until it’s almost too late.

An absolute hoot (described by one Amazon reviewer as ‘Anna Karenina written by PG Wodehouse’) – I would urge you to make Shona’s acquaintance asap.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Seven in January

Seven in January

I read seven books in January. (I know it’s almost March but this month I’ve published a new story collection and had other news to report … )

Yes, the Tom Hanks. And it’s a signed copy, courtesy of the wonderful Topping bookshop in St Andrews and my (also wonderful) husband.

Each of the stories involves a manual typewriter in either a minor or a major way (TH has collected about a hundred of them). Some of the stories have the same characters. Some are very thoughtful, others very funny. I think my favourite, and falling into the funny category, was the very first one, about three best friends, two men and a girl, Anna. One of the men, the narrator, makes the mistake of having an affair with Anna for ‘three exhausting weeks’, after which they revert, with mutual relief, to their previous relationship.

Between Friends by Jenny Harper
‘Love, secrets and loyalty’ in contemporary Edinburgh. When Marta bumps into an old acquaintance, Tom, during the Edinburgh Festival and asks him to dinner, a whole domino effect of disasters occurs, as Marta is unaware of the effect that Tom’s appearance will have on her two best friends Jane and Carrie. Of course the Edinburgh setting was bound to appeal to me but I also enjoyed this gripping story of female friendships.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
I read this author’s The Whaleboat House last year and loved it. Enjoyed this one too which is set in Tuscany in 1958. A young English scholar tries to decode the clues in a mysterious garden and in doing so uncovers secrets of love, revenge and murder from 400 years ago and much more recently …

The house Susan Hill shared with her Shakespearian scholar husband had bookshelves everywhere. One night she went in search of Howard’s End. She couldn’t locate it but she did realise that there were books on their shelves that she’d forgotten they had, some she would love to re-read and perhaps two hundred that she hadn’t read at all. So she decided to give up buying new books for a whole year, instead going through the house shelf by shelf. At the end, with great difficulty, she compiled a list of the forty books she would keep if she had to give the others up.

I liked reading about her experience – and although I could do the same (check my to-be-read pile, print and Kindle!) I’m afraid I would not have the self-discipline.

Year of the Tiger by Lisa Brackman
A thriller set in China, with flashbacks to the war in Iraq where the narrator, Ellie, was a medic. Ellie’s friendship with a missing local artist leads her into big trouble when both Chinese and American government agents hound her about him.

I’m mad keen on books – fiction and non-fiction – set in China since a visit there a few years ago. 

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange 
'1919. Henry [Henrietta] moves to the countryside with her family, scarred by her brother's untimely death. Her only friends are characters from her favourite books - until, one day, she wanders into the woods and meets Moth, a striking witch-like woman. Together they form a bond that could help Henry save her family and overcome her grief.'

Henrietta is twelve, but this could be read by anybody of any age. Adults will read it on an extra level, knowing about the horrors of the First World War and of the way mental illness (not just of war veterans) was treated at this time. 

I adored this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Excellent contemporary police procedural. A workman falls from the top of a half-finished building – accident or murder? The answer – spoiler alert – has its roots in the Nazi occupation of Holland and a present-day extortion racket. Great sense of place and an interesting protagonist in Lotte Meerman, a police detective who has just returned to work four months after being shot; not all her colleagues are pleased to see her … 

This is the second Lotte book; I'd like to read the other two (which is why, see above, I could never do a Susan Hill).

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Writer of the Week

I have a story in this week’s People’s Friend called Goodbye Sukey (issue dated 24 February). I was delighted when the editor, Shirley Blair, said that she was going to make me ‘Writer of the Week’ and sent me some questions to answer about how I came to write that story and, more generally, about my writing.

You can read the interview here.

If you like Goodbye Sukey you can read more of my short stories in these three collections. All of the stories have been previously published in The People’s Friend, Woman’s Weekly and elsewhere, or have been placed in competitions.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A sweet treat for St Valentine's Day

A sweet treat for St Valentine’s Day. Fourteen stories, zero calories.

The Palace of Complete Happiness and other love stories published 14 February.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Fourteen stories to make the world go round

According to Wikipedia, ‘Love makes the world go round’ was first used as a song title in 1896.

And on Valentine’s Day each year it makes the world go round even faster, I expect, leaving red roses whirling in its wake so that the earth looks rather like this:

These 14 stories for the 14th of February (or any other day of the year) were all previously published in women’s magazines. And if you think women’s magazine stories are all in a 1950s time warp then do think again …

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 from the life of the imperial family.

The Palace of Complete Happiness and other love stories is available to pre-order now, and will be delivered to your Kindle on St Valentine’s Day. 
Go on, spoil yourself.