Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Nine in February

 I read nine books in February.


Deception by Helen Forbes

This was indeed the ‘compelling’ read promised in the blurb – heightened for me because I know the locations in Edinburgh very well. Who knows what lurks behind those doors?

It was an unsettling read, taking in a host of social problems ... and with an unexpected (or maybe not?) villain. My heart was in my mouth almost the whole time I was reading as I followed Lily in her attempts to change her life and keep her little boy safe.

Terrifically atmospheric writing and a great cast of characters.


Murder at Snowfall by Fleur Hitchcock

More murder – but this time off-stage and written for a 10+ age group. This is a children’s mystery twenty-first-century style and I loved it: the Famous Five had their excitements but finding a body in a suitcase wasn’t one of them. A satisfying plot and I liked the developing relationship between the two step-siblings.


And more murder. You can’t go wrong with ‘a Vera’ – or two.



And another murder, a cold case this time, the first of five books I read while on holiday.


Stay Buried by Kate Webb

I’ve enjoyed Katherine Webb’s historical books, especially her first one The Legacy. She has a new author name for her first foray into crime.

Detective Inspector Matt Lockyear reopens the case he was involved in fourteen years earlier which sent a woman, Hedy Lambert, to prison. At the same time he is making ongoing investigations into the murder of his own brother.

A very good read which does finish in an ends-tied-up way but there’s also a bit of a cliff-hanger ... The follow-up is due this autumn I believe.


Closing In by E. D. Thompson

A psychological thriller this time. Caroline has a nice life, personally and professionally, until someone turns up – someone she’d rather forget and with whom she shares a secret past. That secret is a difficult one, bravely tackled.  


Then I caught up on more of my Kindle ‘pile’, three from Amazon Prime’s First Reads.


Three More Months by Sarah Echavarre

Over-wrought, and repetitiously written, but I was totally on board with the (impossible) premise.


Five Winters by Kitty Johnson

Liked the structure of catching up with the characters every December for five years but didn’t find the characters very convincing.


Good for You by Camille Pagán

My favourite of the First Reads as I’m a sucker for American beach houses; the one here is on Lake Michigan and has been half-inherited by Aly from her adored brother Luke – half, because she has to share ownership with Wyatt, Luke’s best friend whom Aly disliked first time they met. You can guess the rest.

Friday, 10 February 2023

Seven in January

 I read seven books in January.


Bibliomaniac: An Obsessive’s Tour of the Bookshops of Britain 

by Robin Ince

Signed copy, a lovely Christmas present.

When Robin Ince’s stadium tour with Professor Brian Cox was postponed because of the pandemic he decided, as you do, to go on a bookshop tour, by public transport.

As well as giving talks (customized to each venue) he bought books either in the shops or adjacent charity shops, and was given books as gifts – leading to lugging heavy loads around on buses and trains. What an enviable way of spending time …

Here’s a flavour: ‘Edinburgh probably represents my highest per-day date of book purchases of any city I visited. I won’t list my favourite purchases, but rather the one I most regret leaving behind.’


French Braid by Anne Tyler

Pleased to have a hardback version (from Waterstones’ hardback half-price sale).

When her children grow up and leave home then, inch by inch, their artist mother Mercy does too. But family life turns out to be inescapable …

I got very involved with all the characters who we follow at various stages of their lives and was frustrated by some gaps and unfinished stories – but, hey, it’s Anne Tyler; she’s forgiven.


Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

Delightful heroine (called Hero) and her marriage of convenience to the dashing Lord Sherry, on whom she’s always had a crush. Not-really-a-spoiler – the book ends with one of my favourite Heyer scenarios: a chase through the darkening countryside and a showdown in an inn.


The Village of Lost and Found by Alison Sherlock

‘Scandal-hit party girl Lucy Conway needs to leave London fast, so she packs her bags and escapes to the sleepy village of Cranbridge to take care of her beloved Uncle Frank.’


Blurb your Enthusiasm: An A-Z of Literary Enthusiasm by Louise Willder

Bought with my Bookshop.org voucher. Fab. How are we persuaded to buy/read the books we do? Louise Willder (who’s written 5000 blurbs) tells of the tricks of the publishing trade and discusses among much else what she sees as the best and the worst blurbs of all time.


Talking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern

Bought in the Christian Aid Booksale last year. Published in 1943. Two writers, famous in their day, discuss most eruditely a writer unsung in her day but now one of the world’s most known and beloved.


The Art of Falling by Danielle Mclaughlin

When Danielle Mclaughlin won the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award in 2019 her story ‘A Partial List of the Saved’ was available online and I thought it was terrific. Since then she has published a story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets and I should have bought that instead of this, her first novel, which left me cold.

I can understand, of course, that it’s stressful for Nessa having problems at home and at work but my understanding is of the situation not of the effects on the character who, with the rest of the cast, I did not believe in never mind care for. There was much that didn’t add up – eg Luke was said to be ‘very fond of Eleanor’ when to my recollection they hadn’t met.

It’s interesting that an author who I thought wrote brilliantly about relationships (and much else) in her short story failed to convince me about any of the relationships in a much longer piece.

Friday, 6 January 2023

Twelve in December

 I read twelve books in December.

 I had three days away in a cottage in Sutherland, then I had a few days of feeling peaky and having to cancel various things, then I was on holiday from work/regular activities – all of which allowed lots of lovely reading time.



Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

I’ve been saving this up for the Christmas holidays. I bought the splendid edition Waterstones produced with the periodic table printed in blue down the fore edge.

I didn’t study chemistry beyond second year at school but if our heroine here, Elizabeth Zott, had been my teacher I could well have been persuaded.

The book lived up to the hype for me, and then some. It’s got everything really – an inspirational main character, a family mystery, a love story, social history, a setting in 60s America, and more.



Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

I was lucky enough to be given a Bookshop.org voucher for  for my birthday – which was months ago but I took ages to make up my mind what to spend it on. I ended up with five titles including this: again, a book that lived up to its reputation. It’s a novella most beautifully written by this Irish author. Her portrayal of the dilemma faced, in 1985, by family man Bill Furlong when he delivers coal to a convent that takes in unmarried mothers, stays in the mind long after you put the book down.

Buying through Bookshop.org was easy by the way; it’s a site that supports independent bookshops. In my case it benefitted my local Edinburgh Bookshop.


Bedpans and Bobby Socks by Barbara Fox and Gwenda Gofton

I love reading books about nurses (see this article I wrote for Corazon Books on the subject) and I love road trip books especially if they are set in America. So this (another Bookshop.org purchase) was a double whammy. Five British nursing friends took jobs in American in the late 1950s and then intrepidly set out in a very unreliable car to see as much of America as they could, making lots of friends along the way. A treat.


Death on the Crags by Jo Allen

The ninth book in the satisfying DI Satterthwaite series.


Hancox by Charlotte Moore

Bought in the Christian Aid book sale, this is the story of the family who has owned Hancox, ‘a Tudor hall house in rural Sussex’, since the end of the 1900s. The author was brought up in Hancox and lives there now. Luckily for her they were/are a family who never throw anything away – her difficulty was deciding what to leave out from the extensive archive. She doesn’t hold back on the streak of severe mental illness that runs through the family.


Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

This would have been one of my purchases with my voucher if it had been in paperback, but that’s not coming until the end of this month. However … Waterstones had a half-price hardback sale and lo and behold this was included. I absolutely loved her Writers and Lovers and will definitely seek out her other novels.

Five Tuesdays in Winter is a short story collection. My favourite was the title story; it’s a love story featuring a grumpy bookseller – what’s not to like?


Murder on Christmas Eve

What it says on the tin; an excellent collection.


Also with Christmas in mind – I read all the Little House on the Prairie books to my children and I recalled that there was a scene where a neighbour of theirs came through a snowstorm with Christmas candy for her and her sisters. I thought it was On the Banks of Plum Creek but it wasn’t so I started the series at the beginning and up until the end of December I read these others.


The Christmas scene was actually in Little House on the Prairie – and I’d misremembered something else: Mr Edwards walked 40 miles there and back to the town of Independence for the candy and struggled home not through a snowstorm but through high floodwater.

The account of enduring seven months of snow and blizzards and -40F temperatures in The Long Winter made me thankful for a watertight (if not always warm) house, plenty to eat and the electric blanket, and stopped me moaning (for a while) about feeling cold.


I also wanted to reread the books before embarking on the ‘true’ story, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser – a big brick of a book (charity shop purchase) that I shall report back on in due course.

Thursday, 8 December 2022

Six in November

 I read six books in November.


Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

‘Two young Vietnamese women go missing decades apart.’ A debut novel (the author has previously published short stories), longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction. Fantastic, in both senses of the word.

It has been extensively praised – one review that particularly chimed with me was from Booklist – ‘a strange and wondrous story … magically manages to create a story both epic and intensely intimate.’


A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson

Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville West and was brought up partly at Sissinghurst Castle. That much I knew before but Vita’s lineage was new to me – she was the granddaughter of a Spanish dancer. A privileged upbringing? Yes, of course in some ways; we don’t all have a castle in the family. But in other ways, definitely not: each of the seven generations was pretty bad at parenting. A fascinating memoir.


The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Much hyped and going to be a Reese Witherspoon film, I think. It lived up to the hype for me. I loved the atmospheric writing and the American east coast setting and the structure was very clever – an event and its aftermath took place over one day, and in between we learn of the narrator’s life and what led up to this point. I was a little disappointed (not the only one looking at the reviews) by <spoiler alert> the ambiguous ending. And be aware there are some unpleasant scenarios.


A Book of Railway Journeys by Ludovic Kennedy

I love train journeys, including vicarious ones. This is a very enjoyable set of book extracts (fiction and non-fiction) and poems by eg Charles Dickens, Stephen Crane and Paul Theroux. Here are grand old trains and historic journeys, horrific wartime adventures, spectacular crashes, the romance of rail travel and more.


Something Sensational to Read on the Train by Gyles Brandreth

Staying with trains … this huge volume is, we are told, a mere fragment of the diary entries he has kept since he was a lad. Amazing he has time to do anything else – but do something else he has, in fact a huge number of something elses including: writing hundred of books, presenting on TV-am, starting a teddy bear museum, acting in panto, owning a chain of knitting wool shops, starting the National Scrabble Championships – oh, and being an MP (all to varying degrees of success). Doesn’t sleep obviously.

I’ve been to a show of his at the Edinburgh Festival which was very entertaining, and I admire his relentless energy and enthusiasm. But the tone of the diaries irresistibly reminded me of a fictional diarist, Simon Crisp (in Christopher Matthews’ Diary of a Somebody, published in 1981). It’s not a flattering comparison.


Joe Country by Mick Herron

Love this series … failed spies – known as ‘slow horses’ – are sent to Slough House, a grimy office presided over by the equally grimy Jackson Lang where they continue to work and often meet sticky ends. I’m not reading the books in order but the writing is so clever that doesn’t matter. An edge of very black humour alleviates the grimness and the tense situations the characters (and thus the readers) find themselves in.


Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Jingle bells, jingle bells ...


New collection of short stories available for pre-order now:

Fourteen short stories, all previously published, six with a Christmas theme. Other topics include the pros and cons of vinyl, teenage rebellion, sunbathing, long-distance love, names given to babies and to storms, punctuality and a king’s coronation. 


My story A Year to Remember is the first one in The People's Friend Annual this year (available in bookshops).



And I have the last story, Pass the Parcel, in The Magic of Christmas (from newsagents).


And if you'd like to read about a snowy Christmas in Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders:

May all your wishes come true this Christmas.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Six in October

 I read six books in October


Scottish Women Writers: 1800 to the Great War by Eileen Dunlop

Many of these novelists, playwrights, poets, memoirists and journalists were new to me.

Most have been forgotten, although not scientist and writer Mary Somerville (pictured on the cover) whose name lives on in the Oxford college named after her. But what about brave Charlotte Waldie and Christina Keith who, respectively, visited Waterloo and Flanders in the immediate aftermath of battle? Literary multi-tasker and brilliant businesswoman Christian Isabel Johnstone? And Emily Gerard, from whose travel memoir The Land Beyond the Forest Bram Stoker directly lifted the most blood-curdling elements of Dracula?

Eileen Dunlop has brought around thirty women writers into the light in this most readable book.


The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell

Read for book group, non-fiction. Essentially, this is a history of Berlin by a half-Scottish, half-American writer who moved there around twenty years ago.

I have never been to Berlin but I found this excellently written book unexpectedly fascinating, taking in as it did town-planning, politics, wars, family life, delves into archives, feng shui – and an extraordinary kind of exorcism.


Well behaved Wives by Amy Sue Nathan

This was the free Kindle book from a selection for Amazon Prime members. I chose it because America in the 60s is generally a fascinating time to read about – especially the proscribed lives of women, sent back to the kitchen after the comparative liberation of the war years. (For example, I enjoyed this book a few years ago.)

Five women meet at a class for wives … advice on how to shut up and support your husband in his career basically. One of them, Ruth, is new to the area having just got married to a local man; she keeps quiet for a while about her college degree and her desire to be a lawyer.

The theme is hammered home to the detriment of any story, I felt, and each woman stands for some aspect of those proscribed lives (eg one suffers from domestic abuse), rather than being a rounded character.

<spoiler alert> a note at the end says that the book is based on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States until her death in 2020.


Flowers in the Rain and other stories by Rosamunde Pilcher

Bought in charity shop (occupational hazard of volunteering in a branch of Shelter).

Rosamunde Pilcher’s world is both irritating and seductive. Most of these stories were published in the early 80s yet some of the characters are as if from an earlier generation. Women over 60 are always wise grandmothers; several of the girls get married aged 20.

But amid today’s uncertainty, it was comforting to sink into a world of homes belonging to the same family for generations, surrounded by gardens and beautiful scenery, to hear the Labrador’s bark of welcome, to know the happy ending is just a few pages away …


The Ghost of Gosswater by Lucy Strange

I loved two other books by this author, especially The Secret of Nightingale Wood which breaks your heart clean in two and puts it back together again. This gothic tale packs a huge punch too, so atmospheric and so well told, with a clarity and pace that might have been lost if written at greater length for adults.


The Dinner Lady Detectives by Hannah Hendy

I liked the idea and setting and the dinner ladies, Margery and Clementine, but there was confusion too – a lot of characters, some I thought superfluous to the story until the end … and mixed messages about the personality of the deceased, and about the ages and behaviour of all the characters. Also, a bit of a parallel universe school-dinner-wise considering this is set now – the ladies cook huge roasts of beef and chocolate pudding made with expensive dark choc. Not a turkey twizzler in sight.


… and a bit of

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

I’ve read Little Women countless times and was thrilled to be able to visit the Alcott home, Orchard House, in Concorde, Massachusetts, some years ago. So I fell on this book at the Christian Aid book sale.

I was totally onboard with the premise that Jo had had a late baby girl and that her descendants were living in contemporary London and that a stash of letters by Jo March/Bhaer was discovered in their attic.

But I was sorely disappointed. The few ‘letters’ I read were okay but the modern story was hard-going – reams of unrealistic dialogue, and the fact that virtually no verb went unqualified. When I read (on p58) ‘ … where she was contentedly doing a crossword puzzle while the dishwasher hummed happily … ’ I stopped reading. A missed opportunity (unless you want to read about happy dishwashers).