katewritesandreads

katewritesandreads

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Ten in May

 I read ten books in May.

 


Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

Regular readers will know I love Katherine Heiny’s first novel, Standard Deviation, so much that I have read and twice reread it since it came out in 2017. So that was a very hard act to follow – but she’s done it again and I look forward to my first reread of Early Morning Riser soon. Here’s what some others have said about it:

‘Gorgeous. Very, very funny in a knowing wry way but so tender, so beautiful. I loved all the characters.’ Marian Keyes

‘Warm, witty, touching – and frequently hilarious’ David Nicholls, author of Sweet Sorrow

‘You put the book down and feel glad to be alive’ India Knight, Sunday Times

 


The Long Hot Summer by Kathleen McMahon

‘The MacEntees are no ordinary family. Determined to be different to other people, they have carved out a place for themselves in Irish life by the sheer force of their own personalities. But when a horrifying act of violence befalls television star Alma, a chain of events is set in motion that will leave even the MacEntees struggling to make sense of who they are.’

Cleverly told from nine points of view.

 

Then, in need of distraction, I took to crime.

I used to work in London for the publishing company who published Ruth Rendell (I met her once) and I have copies of most of her books. I embarked on a galloping reread of six of them, picking up one as soon as I’d finished the one before.

The first five feature Inspector Wexford, one of my favourite fictional detectives, and the last is a standalone.

Hadn’t reread them for a good few years. The plots have stood the test of time and her writing is terrific (in Murder Being Once Done London comes alive as much as any of the characters) but my goodness how much the world has changed since the 1960s/70s. Technology of course and attitudes, but it’s particularly hard to believe that back then there were streets of grotty bedsits in areas of London like Notting Hill, now only affordable by the mega rich.

 

The Speaker of Mandarin

 


Murder Being Once Done


 

The Best Man to Die


 

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter


                                                               

                                                          Wolf to the Slaughter

 


                                                             The Secret House of Death


And still on a crime spree:



Remain Silent by Susie Steiner

The third book (after Missing, Presumed and Persons Unknown) featuring DI Manon Bradshaw (and her complicated personal life, so best to read them in order). Here she is investigating the death of a young Lithuanian man who was a migrant worker in a horrible chicken factory. His fellow workers are frightened to talk about it. Manon’s colleague, Davy, goes to Lithuania to find out more about the dead man.

A satisfying police procedural, with heart. And worth reading alone for the laugh-out-loud scene when Manon tears into the unfaithful husband of her best friend.

 


The Lost Man by Jane Harper

I could hardly tear myself away from this story of a mysterious death in the Australian outback. Told from the point of view of the dead man’s brother, it’s a tale of old and new family secrets played out in a relentlessly hot and dangerous landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Nine in April

 I read nine books in April.

 


The Long, Long Afternoon by Inge Vesper

Read on Kindle. If ‘debut novel’ implies that the author is a beginner and will do better … well, that’s hard to believe. This will be a very hard act to follow. The Long Long Afternoon encompasses racism, domestic abuse, (what we now call) PTSD, sexism and other issues but these are in the very fabric of this gripping mystery; they are not added for the sake of it.

Inge Vesper conjures up the stifling Californian heat and the stifling lives of 1950s’ housewives through terrific characters and a structure that works brilliantly.

The story is told through three characters: Joyce, the missing woman; Detective Mike Blanke; and Ruby, the hired ‘Negro help’ who knows these women’s secrets.

I’d love another book featuring this detective. It would be great if Ruby were there too but on the other hand I hope she’s got out of her current life and into the better one she so deserves.

 


This Time Next Year by Sophie Cousens

Read on Kindle. ‘2021’s most heart-warming love story.’ – for me, it didn’t live up to that hype. My heart was not warmed.

The heroine with a knack for choosing the wrong man? The hero with commitment problems? An unusual way in which they originally meet? The wacky best friend? The mother (mothers in this case) and friends with ‘issues’? The funny set pieces? The ‘sliding doors’ aspect?

Yes, it ticked all these romcom boxes but it read as if the boxes came first and the characters second.

My opinion … 5000 reviewers giving it 5* think otherwise.

 


I Thought You Said This Would Work by Ann Garvin

Read on Kindle. Samantha and Holly and Katie were best friends when they were at university. Twentyish years on Samantha and Holly don’t speak but they are still both close to Katie whose cancer has reappeared after a remission.

Circumstances then dictate that Wisconsin-based Sam and Holly have a mad car journey to reclaim Katie’s diabetic Pyrenees mountain dog from her ex-husband many hundreds of miles away in Utah, coming together for the sake of their beloved friend.

Funny, poignant, definitely heart-warming, and an American road trip – what’s not to like?

 


Death in the Lake by Jo Allen

Read on Kindle. The fifth outing for DCI Jude Satterthwaite and his colleague and lover Ashleigh O’Halloran. More murder and mayhem in the beautiful Lake District (the contrast works so well). Look forward to number six.

When a young woman, Summer Raine, is found drowned, apparently accidentally, after an afternoon spent drinking on a boat on Ullswater, DCI Jude Satterthwaite is deeply concerned — more so when his boss refuses to let him investigate the matter any further to avoid compromising a fraud case.

 


Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

I think her early ones are still her best – but this is a page-turning and enjoyable read.

Meet Jessie, Cara and Nell. Married to brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam Casey. Three very different women tied to three very different men. Every family occasion is a party - until the day the secrets spill out.

 

 

Shared Histories: Transatlantic Letters Between Virginia Dickinson Reynolds and her Daughter, Virginia Potter 1929-1966  Edited by Angela Potter

What it says on the tin … this is a collection of (some of) the letters exchanged by mother in America and daughter in England, focusing on the Second World War years.  

Virginia Jnr elected to stay in Britain during that time when she could have returned to the safety of the States, and although she was in the upper echelons of society she mucked in and did her bit in digging for victory, keeping hens and so on.

Virginia Snr (a near relative of poet Emily Dickinson) mostly griped – she was prejudiced against almost everybody to an unpleasant degree. But it was interesting and extraordinary to hear about her wealthy and generous Canadian brother-in-law, Huntly Redpath Drummond, donating thousands to the British war effort including paying £10,000 for a Spitfire named after Virginia Jnr’s little daughter, Jennifer.

 


The Ex Girlfriend by Nicola Moriarty

The gripping and twisty psychological thriller.’ Georgia thinks she’s found ‘the one’ when she meets Luke; he says his ex can’t accept their break up.

An enjoyable example of ‘Aussie noir’.

 


The First Lie by A J Park

Pity the poor blurb writer … this is ‘The most gripping psychological thriller you’ll read all year’ – until the next ‘most gripping’ I suppose. It certainly kept me turning the pages even if the original action – the first lie – did take a bit of swallowing.

 


 Mistress Masham’s Repose by T H White

Ten-year-old orphan Maria is the owner of a vast palace, most of which is uninhabitable, and acres of unkempt grounds. She has two horrible guardians who, if only they can find the paperwork, plan to grab the property for themselves.

Within the grounds there is an island, the wonderfully named Mistress Masham’s Repose, where Maria finds a community of Lilliputians, the tiny people (and their animals) whom Gulliver encountered on his famous travels. When their presence becomes known to the greedy guardians they – and Maria – are in grave danger.

Magical and delightful. I have an ex-library copy, scruffy with no jacket, a 1963 reprint. The illustration here is from a newer edition. (NB I chose this cover because I thought it was the sweetest of various options but other, cheaper editions are available.)

 

 

 

 

 

 




Monday, 19 April 2021

The Saturday Scribblers

 

In 2005 I did two things that changed my life. I started going to a drop-in creative writing class run by Edinburgh Council and I joined Edinburgh Writers’ Club. As well as meeting lots of lovely people I discovered a whole new world of writing prompts and exercises.

Although I’ve subsequently (and with no little thanks to both these organsiations) had a novel, four magazine serials, and around seventy short stories published, I still go to both the class and EWC and it’s still a thrill to get a great writing prompt to respond to.

So when it came to writing a fifth People’s Friend serial I decided to move from my previous locations in rural Scotland* and set it in a writing group in a fictional town in the north of England (in my mind, it’s near Alnwick).

In my writing class there can be up to eighteen people and more than that at an EWC meeting but of course I couldn’t have that many in a story.

So it was fun to think of a reason why the class would be small (it’s migrated to Jess’s house when funding is withdrawn from it being held in a library) and to dream up the attendees, Tina, Madeleine, Clarissa and Neil, and decide on their varying reasons for joining, and of course their lives when they’re not being ‘Saturday Scribblers’.

I’ve found in real life that everyone responds differently to a writing prompt and personalities emerge so that turned out to be a good way for the characters (or some of them anyway … ) to find out more about each other.

I was delighted with the illustration (see above) for the first instalment (in issue dated 17 April) and (I have a subscription so get an early copy) here’s a sneak preview of the second.

 


* my first four serials are now available on Kindle; the first three are in a ‘boxset’ Kindle edition and in large-print library editions:

 

The Family at Farrshore

The Ferryboat

A Time to Reap

Jinty's Farm


 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

The Castilians

I am very pleased to be featuring fellow Edinburgh Writers’ Club member V E H Masters (Vicki) on my blog today to ask her questions about her debut novel The Castilians* which was recently placed second in the Scottish Association of Writers’ self-published book competition.

*only 99p on Kindle until 16 April; also available in paperback

 

The blurb:

 

Scotland 1546 … and a preacher is burned at the stake. In revenge a group of lairds infiltrate St Andrews Castle and murder the instigator, Cardinal Beaton.

 

Local lad Will is among them, fighting for the Protestant cause. His traitorous activities place his family in grave danger, forcing his sister Bethia into an unwelcome alliance.

 

As the long siege unravels, Bethia and Will struggle over where their loyalties lie and the choices they each must make — whether to save their family, or stay true to their beliefs and follow their hearts.

 

This debut novel closely follows true events of the siege of St Andrews Castle and its dramatic re-taking

 

 


 

KB Welcome, Vicki, and congratulations on your success in the SAW competition. Did you decide at the outset to go down the self-publishing route?

 

VM Thanks Kate, I was very chuffed.

I know a few people who have self-published successfully so I shamelessly picked their brains. I also had a few ideas about how to promote my novel and, even if I’d been successful in finding an agent and then a publisher, I didn’t really want to give up the rights to my book. So I decided from the outset to go the indie route, and I’ve found learning how to market more enjoyable than I expected

 

 

KB Most people probably think of St Andrews in connection with its university or its golf course without knowing of its place in Scottish history – but even from a quick visit you can see the remnants of buildings that were there in the time you were writing about, six hundred years ago.

Apart from the Castle (looked after by Historic Environments Scotland) which landmarks would you encourage visitors to see (albeit virtually at the moment)?

 

VM Growing up in St Andrews was like living in the middle of a history lesson. Probably my favourite is St Rule’s and you get a fabulous view from the top. When I came to write The Castilians I realised how much the towers and spires of St Andrews were also about creating distinctive landmarks from the sea. For pilgrims coming there at the height of the pilgrimage era from the 13th to the 15th centuries their first sight of the town must have been something – like arriving in a second Jerusalem.

 

 

Margaret Skea, winner of the Beryl Bainbridge Award, has said of the book: ‘A clever blend of fact and fiction, with engaging characters, gripping tension and drama galore, and a dash of romance. For lovers of Scotland and Scottish history this is a great read.’

 

KB With which I can only agree … by coincidence I’ve read a couple of other novels recently which mix fact and fiction and I think yours is done the most successfully.

To be fair to the other two, perhaps it helps that you have written about a period of Scottish history that hasn’t often been fictionalised and as less is known about it there’s more space for a novelist’s imagination.

Certainly I finished The Castilians feeling that I’d read a really gripping story and also seamlessly learned some history along the way.

 

Did you have a lot of research that, for the sake of the story, you had to leave out?

 

VM Lots and lots and lots of research and most of it was, indeed, left out. I was convinced an academic from the university was going to pick the novel up in the local bookshop up and go through it with a red pen, so I was very anxious to be historically accurate. It boosted my confidence no end when Dr Bess Rhodes, an expert on the period, agreed to be part of my online launch.

 

KB And thinking of a different kind of research – I don’t want to give a spoiler but there is a very hairy scene at the end of the book, involving one of the characters whose only escape route involves a steep cliff and a churning sea below … how did you manage to conjure that up?

 

VM There was a point when I realised I needed to go St Andrews at low tide and study the cliff, and the access to the castle by sea. The uncovered rocks were slippery with seaweed and I ended up crawling over them determined to reach the seaward side – most undignified, but no doubt entertaining to those on the nearby beach. The castle is very dramatic to look up at from the rocks below, on its seaward side. It was all worth it, as I was then able to describe accurately what it was like to clamber off the rocks, although I still had to do some imagining because both the cliffs and the coastline will have changed over the past five centuries.

 


 

KB I was thinking that it was an interesting decision on your part to set a historical novel in the present tense – until I remembered that Hilary Mantel’s trilogy is done that way. It does give immediacy to events of so long ago. Was that something you always planned to do or did it evolve that way? And were there any difficulties in sustaining it?

 

VM Early drafts skipped back and forward, and sometimes half way through a chapter. In the end I liked the immediacy of the present tense and stuck with it. It does feel as though the action is happening now when write, rather than in the distant past.

 

KB If there were to be a film of The Castilians who would you like to see cast as Bethia? And as John Knox?

 

VM Peter Mullen would make a great John Knox (although he’d need to do an East Coast accent). Bethia would have to be an unknown actor  — it could be a great part for someone!

 

KB It certainly would. What are you writing now? Are we going to hear more about the Seton family?

 

VM I’ve just finished the first draft of the sequel, which will be out later this year if all goes to plan. I’m also planning on working in parallel on a WW2 novel I have half finished – I’ll soon find out if I’m being over-ambitious!

 

KB That sounds terrific – look forward to both of those. Thank you for answering my questions, Vicki, and all the very best with your writing.

   

 

VEH Masters was born and brought up on a farm a few miles outside St Andrews. The first time she ever visited St Andrews Castle was aged twelve, when her history teacher took the class on a school trip. She was fascinated when they crept down the siege tunnel and peered into the bottle dungeon, where Cardinal Beaton's body was said to have been kept pickled in salt for the fourteen months of the siege. When she heard the group had called themselves The Castilians, she thought, even then, what a perfect title for a book. 

Keep up with her on Facebook

 


 

 

 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Seven in March

 I read seven books in March.


The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

That’s Mary*, the middle sister from Pride and Prejudice. This is an extremely enjoyable read – a standalone but of course all the better if you’ve read P&P / seen the film(s).

The first quarter of the book is the timeframe of P&P, seen from Mary’s point of view. Thereafter <spoiler alert> with her four sisters married and her father deceased, she and her mother live with the Bingleys where Mary is tormented by the ghastly Caroline.

So she moves on to Pemberley but here she feels like a gooseberry in the midst of the Darcys’ domestic bliss – so much so that she gets herself invited to stay in her old home, Longbourn, where the Collins now reign. Unexpectedly, she finds more in common now with the much-maligned Mr C than she does with her friend Charlotte, née Lucas.

It was lovely to catch up with these old acquaintances before we made some new ones.

Mary then goes to London, to the welcoming home of her mother’s brother and sister-in-law, the Gardiners.

And there I will leave you, gentle reader, to find out for yourself what happened next. (I succumbed to a supermarket paperback but it is currently 99p on Kindle.)

 

*I too was inspired to write about Mary Bennet, in a modern-day story called The Real Thing; it was long-listed for the Jane Austen Short Story Award a few years ago. You can read it in my collection Another World.

 

 

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Read on Kindle. Still on a JA jag here.

The blurb said it was a fictionalised account of a group of people who saved the Austen’s house in Chawton, Hampshire to be a museum to her, and bought back various Austen artefacts that had been sold abroad. I did get absorbed in their various stories (especially Dr Benjamin’s) while at the same time thinking that in places the dialogue was a bit clunky.

Then I got to the end where a note says that all the characters are entirely fictitious and not based on anyone who was involved in that (real) exercise. Not sure what to make of that.

 


The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

A Christmas present. I knew a little about the long siege of Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg), which began in September 1941, and I knew a little about the Hermitage Museum there because they lent objects for a National Museums Scotland exhibition some years ago.

But I didn’t know that Hermitage Museum staff and some of their families spent that dreadful time actually in the museum, cataloguing and wrapping the precious paintings and objects for safekeeping.

In this novel, partly set in present-day America, former guide Marina, now slipping into dementia, can still walk through the Hermitage in her mind and recall especially the paintings of the Madonna. It’s a time of her life that her children and grandchildren don’t know about – and one that I was very interested to read about.

 


Lucy Crocker 2.0 by Caroline Preston

I’d finished The Madonnas one evening and thought I’d go for a reread rather than embarking on a new book (anyone else do that?).

This is a quirky novel, set (indeterminately) around the early 1990s, about Boston-based Lucy who is artistic, slightly hippyish, upset at how much time her 13-year-old twin boys spend on their computer – but who nevertheless has made up a multi-million-selling video game called Maiden Quest.

For various reasons, she rebels against what her life has become and nostalgically recalls her father’s cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin, still in the family but unvisited for fifteen years. She enrols her urban and very unsporty lads in a canoe summer camp she’d loved when she was a girl and, without leaving a note for her husband, sets off to relive her youth.

I love this book! (I bought my ex-library copy some years ago for 80p).

 

 

 Jackie by Josie by Caroline Preston

So having happily reacquainted myself with Lucy I reread this equally enjoyable novel by the same author.

Josie has been asked to do some research (ie look for scandal) at the Kennedy Library for someone who is writing a biography of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She’s going to be well paid so she temporarily moves back with her small son to her mother’s large, ramshackle house while her husband takes up a teaching post in California.

It’s difficult having that (pre-mobile) distance between them; her mother’s asked a convicted arsonist to move in; and her own dissertation on an obscure woman poet has ground to a halt.

Warm and funny.

 

 

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Read for book group … the ‘long petal’ being Chile. The book begins in Spain during the bloody civil war; when dictator Franco wins, the losing side disperse in various directions. Victor, Roser and baby Marcel are picked by poet and activist Pablo Neruda to embark on his rescue ship, the Winnipeg, to begin a new life in Chile. Years later, they find their lives turned upside down by another dictator, General Pinochet.

This is a fictionalised version of historic events. I learned a lot that was interesting and it was page-turning but the novel part of it was rather unsatisfactory; it seemed to play second-fiddle and the tone made me feel as if I was being hastily told a story rather than been given the chance to get involved with the characters.

 


 

The Castilians by V E H Masters

By coincidence, another novelised version of historic events, this time of the siege of St Andrews Castle (1546/47). Here, the characters spring to life and carry the story of this little-known or long-forgotten extremely dramatic part of Scotland’s history.

Look out for my interview with the author coming soon.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Ten in February (2)

 I read ten books in February. Five of them are here, five in the previous post.

 

 

Life and Death in the Woods by Cecilia Peartree

A proposal to build a museum of trees on the outskirts of a town in central Scotland brings together a disparate assortment of people – and a dead body. Max, curator of a small university museum, gets involved against his better judgment. Janice, the owner of a local sandwich shop, finds herself becoming an eco-warrior, against her better judgment. A good cosy crime with some light-hearted fun-poking at academic institutions and the machinations of local government.

 


Dead Stock by Rachel Ward

I much enjoyed the first outing for amateur sleuths Ant and Bea, The Cost of Living. Twenty-one-year-old Bea is on the checkout of a supermarket and Ant, with whom she was at school, does shelf-stacking, floor-wiping and other odd jobs. I love that the titles of the books reflect their environment so aptly.

Here, cats are going missing and a body is found on the bypass. Ant and Bea investigate but juggling that, work, and their difficult home lives takes its toll. The dialogue between them, and the other characters, crackles with life.

 


Expiry Date by Rachel Ward

Bea is worried for the safety of one of her regular customers and the discovery of a body on a building site causes an upheaval in her own family. Meanwhile, Ant finds himself homeless. Another corker; more please.

 


House of the Glimmering Light by Jane Shaw

First published in 1943 and reissued by Girls Gone By Publishers. Jane Shaw, best known to girls’ story aficionados for her Susan series, has two engaging heroines here, Angela and Noel. They meet when they are both staying in the House of the Glimmering Light built on a rocky promontory in the wilds of Argyllshire.

Yes, of course the plot, of two young teenagers outwitting a dastardly enemy in their midst to save Great Britain from devastation, is to be taken with a cellar-full of salt but it is gripping and told with the author’s good sense of humour and great sense of place – plus the fact that it was actually written when the outcome of the war was unknown gives it an urgency.

 


Motherwell, A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Read on Kindle for book group. DO was brought up in Motherwell in the west of Scotland in the 60s/70s, a turbulent time of industrial unrest for that area where most of the men, including her father, were employed at the steelworks, Ravenscraig, later closed by the Thatcher government.

A clever and artistic child, Deborah was encouraged at school by her parents – but only up to a point. What they really wanted for her was to stay virgo intacta until a suitable husband presented himself, then she should live round the corner and give them grandchildren.

There’s a pun in the name of the book and the name of the town – because since she grew up and defied them by moving away (becoming a respected journalist in London and marrying and divorcing Will Self) she has pondered at length on the personalities of her parents, particularly her mother, and come to less-than-flattering conclusions about them. That they were controlling of her and had baggage of their own is undeniable but she appears to blame them totally for subsequent toxic relationships she had.

I thought her writing was terrific and the snapshot of 1970s industrial Scotland she shows the reader is an important one, rarely seen. I was totally on her side for more than half the book but then I began to think of it as a misery memoir which isn’t really my cup of tea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten in February (1)

 I read ten books in February. Five of them are here, five in the next post.

 


A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

It’s seven years since ML’s last book was published, a very long but worthwhile wait and its timing turned out to be perfect for me. I picked my copy up click and collect from The Edinburgh Bookshop in the afternoon and had my first vaccine a few hours later. I didn’t feel fluey the next day but just a bit ‘wabbit’ as we say in Scotland, the perfect excuse to put my feet up with coffee and toast and marmalade to hand – and a new book to read.

ML lives in Kingston on Thames now but grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada; all her books are set there (with a foray to London in one of them, of which more later) and the landscape is as much a character as the people.

A Town Called Solace, set in 1972, is told from three perspectives. Precocious Clara, aged seven, has taken up vigil by the window in case she misses the return of her adored older sister Rose who has run away. Liam moves into the house next door (unaware that he is being observed by Clara); he has mysteriously been left it in the will of a woman he barely remembers from his childhood. The third perspective is that of Elizabeth, Liam’s benefactor, as she lies dying.

No less a person than Anne Tyler says of Mary Lawson: ‘Each of her novels is just a marvel.’ I can only agree so I had to have a reread then of two of her previous ones.

 


Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

When I read this, her first novel, almost twenty years ago, I knew that it was a keeper, a book to literally hug to myself. 

It is about so much more but primarily it’s a story about siblings, particularly the relationship between Kate and Matt. In the rural farming community of Crow Lake the Morrison children – Luke and Matt in their teens, Kate aged seven and toddler Bo – are orphaned. Offers of help from far-off relatives would mean splitting the family up; clever Luke and Matt sacrifice their ambitions to keep the family together. The story is narrated by Kate, twenty years on, a zoologist, now living in Toronto and feeling emotionally distant from the family who once were her whole world.

I loved the book so much I didn’t dare to read it again in case it wasn’t as good as I remembered – but having dared I found that it had only improved over time.

 


Road Ends by Mary Lawson

This is her third book. I will reread her second, The Other Side of the Bridge, soon but I skipped to this one because fleetingly we meet Luke and Bo again from Crow Lake.

This is mostly Megan’s story though. Her mother keeps having baby boys (six when the story opens); she loves babies but loses interest in them when the next one comes along. Megan, the only girl and an incredibly practical one, keeps the household clean and fed but she has told her mother that when the latest baby is on his feet she will be leaving.

She ends up in London (in the 1960s, a planet away from small town Ontario) where her practical skills are put to use running a hotel. But back home things are disintegrating – and there’s yet another baby boy.

 


Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

First published in 1933 and reissued. Told through illustrated letters, it's a delight with all the period detail. Hilary, from Edinburgh, finds work in London in the book department of (a thinly disguised) Selfridges. She writes home to her parents and doctor fiancé. 

I took against said fiancé because a) he was called Basil, a name that should be reserved for TV foxes, and b) he wasn’t at all supportive of her wanting to work for a year before their wedding; plus he refers to twenty-seven-year-old Hilary as ‘my dear child’. So I was glad that <spoiler alert> there was someone nicer waiting in the wings.

What I mainly liked though was hearing about the work of the book department, not just selling books from the shelves but sending out books on subscription – recording readers’ likes and dislikes on a complicated card index system.

 

Slow Horses by Mike Herron

Described as ‘the best thriller of the last decade’ by The Times. The ‘slow horses’ are a crew of men and women who, for various reasons (alcoholism, fouling up a mission etc) have been banished from actively working in the Intelligence Service to pen push in Slough House in a seedy part of London. But none of them joined the service to pen push and when the opportunity comes to be ‘spooks’ again they take it.

Terrific; really great characters and great writing. This is the first in a series and I’d love to read the others.