katewritesandreads

katewritesandreads

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Nine in December

 I read nine books in December.

 


The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Read for book group.

‘Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week. What happened to these three men out on the tower?’

Twenty years later the women in their lives are still coming to terms with the mystery – the mystery that has caused them to fall out with eachother. Now, a writer wants to talk to them and old secrets come to the surface.

Based on a true story and beautifully written, the book was described by Hilary Mantel, no less, as ‘the novel I’ve most enjoyed this year.’

 

 

Broken Ground by Val McDermid

I’ve been volunteering for my local Shelter shop for three years now, sorting out their book donations and shelves. Almost nothing gives me greater pleasure than arranging books. It’s costing me a fortune though (luckily a very good cause benefits) – I nearly always come home with some irresistible find ssuch as these two hardback Val McDermids.

They are the fifth and, the latest, the sixth in her Karen Pirie series of cold-case solving, set in Fife and Edinburgh. I hope there will be more.

 


 

Still Life by Val McDermid

(Editions other than hardbacks are available of course.)



Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire

Sasha Swire was (is?) her husband Hugo’s political researcher, both of them good personal friends of David and Samantha Cameron. Here she spills the beans on eg the infighting in the Tory hierarchy, the two referendum, and the appointment of the two subsequent prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

No one comes out of it well. And since katewritesandreads is not a political column I will stop there.

 


Looking Back with Love by Dodie Smith

Today, Dodie Smith (Dorothy, 1896-1990) is most associated with The Hundred and One Dalmatians – although it’s probably more likely that Walt Disney’s name would come before hers. (I like the films but the book is better than any of them.) Her other book which has more than stood the test of time and one I've read and reread is I Capture the Castle.

But in the 20s and 30s she was a much-performed playwright, the best known ‘woman playwright’ of her day. The others are forgotten now; only Dear Octopus had any real longevity.

She is a fascinating character. She was brought up in Manchester by her widowed mother, grandparents, three bachelor uncles and two aunts, who all lived in the same house and doted on her. It was a fun, noisy household with musical evenings and many outings to theatres; her uncle Harold was a leading light in one of the local companies.

All this adoring attention gave Dodie a very healthy ego. She ended up writing five volumes of autobiography (only three have been published). This is the first; it takes her up only to the age of fourteen when her life changed. Her mother married again and moved with Dodie and her new husband to London.

I love these Slightly Foxed books; they’re comparatively expensive but so delightful to hold and to look at – and to read of course.

 

Dear Dodie by Valerie Groves

I already had this biography of Dodie Smith and had read it but having acquired Look Back with Love I wanted to remind myself of what happened after she was fourteen.

She didn’t succeed in her desire to become an actress – she was slightly odd looking, very short with a large head and bust, and dressed in a startlingly individual style, so directors were more inclined to smile and send her on her way than to cast her – so she began to write plays and to keep the wolf from the door was a successful saleswoman at the famous London shop Heal’s for a time (and had a long affair with its married owner).

After marrying the wonderful (and long-suffering) Alec she lived in America during the 40s, adapting books for film and making friends with, amongst others, Christopher Isherwood.

Back in England she was given her first Dalmatian although it took her a long time to write about him. She was extremely extravagant and loved spending money even when she didn’t have it – but it seemed that a large cheque from some project always arrived in time to bail her out.

Hard to do justice to her in a few words – do read about her for yourself.

 


Snow Angel Cove by RaeAnne Thynne

A prettily-covered romance set in a picturesque American small town ticks a box for me and there are some great series of them. Here, I’m afraid I didn’t really take to Eliza, her inevitable heartstrings-tugging issues and the way everyone thought she was so wonderful. In fact, everyone thought everyone else was wonderful so it was all too sugary with no real conflict. Her little daughter, Maddie, was the only character who came over as a real and delightful individual rather than one from central casting.

 


The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

I went to the launch of this at my local (brilliant) branch of Toppings back in September. About three hundred of us (masked) crammed into a church near the shop to hear RO being interviewed by Scottish comedian and presenter Fred MacAulay. They’d evidently met before so there was some good banter between them.

I saved the book up for the Christmas hols and it did not disappoint; in fact I preferred it to the first. Great characters, great twists and a cracking ending.

 

On which note … that’s the end of 2021. Happy 2022 (we can but hope) and thank you for reading my blog.

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Seven in November

 

I read seven books in November.

 


Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

I wonder what it is that draws Anne Tyler to write so often about men who are misfits in various ways (see also below).

In this book, Micah, devoted to his own routines, is trying to navigate his way through the world and the people around him: his loving but overwhelming family, his girlfriend whose hints about living together he fails to pick up – and the boy who turns up wondering if Micah is his father.

This is her twenty-third and latest book, with a new one coming soon to celebrate her 80th birthday.

 


Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler

Here we have a wholly convincing portrait of shy, reclusive Jeremy whose paper collages are much sought after by art collectors. But his world changes when a beautiful runaway wife turns up at his mother’s boarding house.

 


Lily White by Susan Isaacs

It’s a long time since I read a Susan Isaacs book and it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with her style in what the New York Times called ‘a big, fat, happy feast of a book’.

Meet Lily White, Long Island criminal defense lawyer. Smart, savvy, and down-to-earth, Lee can spot a phony the way her haughty mother can spot an Armani. Enter handsome career con man Norman Torkelson, charged with strangling his latest mark after bilking her out of her life's savings. As the astonishing twists and reverses of the Torkelson case are revealed, so too is the riveting story behind Lee’s life.’

 

  

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Based on a literary mystery that has long puzzled biographers and academics – why did Jane Austen’s only sister Cassandra burn her letters?

‘Miss Austen’ is Cassandra in old age seeking out that correspondence and recalling her life with her beloved Jane, their five brothers and their parents. Gill Hornby gives Jane some brilliant lines of dialogue.

The explanation is very convincing – it could be the truth. What comes over (in fictional form but chimes with biographies I’ve read) is how fond the Austen family were of each other and what fun they had together. Delightful.

 


The Mitford Murders: Nancy Mitford and the Murder of Florence Nightingale Shore

by Jessica Fellowes

The first in a series featuring the Mitford sisters as sleuths. The author is the niece of Julian ‘Downton Abbey’ Fellowes and it would appear she is equally acquainted with the upper echelons of society. I quite enjoyed this mystery with lively young Nancy, harking back to the Golden Age of detective stories – but at the end there was a note about the unsolved brutal murder of the real-life Florence Nightingale Shore (god-daughter of her famous namesake). Making her murderer in the book also a real person who was never charged with the crime seems rather a tasteless thing to do.

 


Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

Thought by many to be the best thriller ever written. I haven’t read enough to make that judgement but it was cracking and I’m still thinking about it weeks later. I was transported to the depths of a Siberian winter and through a plot that I gave up trying to keep get a grip on and just enjoyed the ride.

 


Georgette Heyer: The Biography of a Best Seller by Jennifer Kloester

The second biography I’ve read of this amazingly prolific, clever, witty and very reclusive writer (‘the Queen of Regency romance’) whose novels have been beloved by four generations (so far) of readers.

She had to keep writing – she was the breadwinner of the family much of the time including supporting her two brothers plus she and her husband had a standard of living they didn’t want to give up – so she seemed to dismiss her work as a means to an end. She refused to be interviewed, even have her photograph on book jackets. On the other hand she took endless trouble to get historical details right.

A complicated and perhaps, despite this terrific book, ultimately elusive lady.

Monday, 15 November 2021

Times Two

 I’ve been published in two very different publications this week. 

 


My Sister’s Eyes is published in the Federation of Writers (Scotland) anthology Sea Change. It’s a great collection – it was a delight to hear some of the pieces read at the launch at the Poetry Library last Friday.

 

I posted on the background to the story here.

 

And I have a story in The People’s Friend Special, Christmas issue. It’s set in the 1960s. There’s been a snowstorm and the trains are cancelled so seventeen-year-old Annie is unable to get home to the Yorkshire Dales for Christmas. Her rather scary boss invites her to stay with him and his wife – what could possibly go right?

 


One is an uplifting, heart-warming story, the other … is not. No prizes for guessing which is which.

Saturday, 6 November 2021

Nine in October

 I read nine books in October.

 

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

When she was a small child, in the early 80s, American-born Hadley Freeman’s parents and paternal grandmother took her to Paris where some of her father’s elderly relatives lived, the one and only time she saw them. Much later, when her grandmother died, she found a shoebox of photographs and keepsakes that led her to research those relatives’ lives which had begun in Poland. Hounded out in a pogrom they fled to France where they were safe – until the 1930s and the rise of Nazi-ism. And the rest, as sadly we know, is history.

This is an amazing feat of detective work and piecing together all the back stories to bring her ancestors to life – and comes up to the present day when she meets distant cousins her own age and feels they already know each other.

The ties that bind.

 

A Dry Spell by Clare Chambers

I said last month that In a Good Light was my favourite of Clare Chambers’ backlist and so it was until I read this one.

In 1976 four students took a trip to the desert. Now the repercussions of that fateful summer are coming back to haunt them.

We drove down to London in October to visit family. We’d hardly started our return journey when we encountered a traffic jam (on the M25 if you’re the sort of person who likes to know these things) and four hours later we were only three miles. I wasn’t one of the drivers and was very grateful for my Kindle and for Clare Chambers whose characters removed me to another place and kept me very good company.

 

Bright Girls by Clare Chambers

Having read Small Pleasures and then all Clare Chambers’ backlist I only had one more title of hers to go – this contemporary and very enjoyable YA novel of two sisters, very different in personality, who have to go and stay with a relatively unknown aunt in Brighton for the summer because their home has become too dangerous to stay in.

 

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman sit across from each other every day . . . and they hate each other. Not dislike. Not begrudgingly tolerate. HATE. Lucy can't understand Joshua's joyless, uptight approach to his job and refusal to smile. Joshua is clearly baffled by Lucy's overly bright clothes, quirkiness, and desire to be liked.

Now they're up for the same promotion and Lucy, usually a determined people-pleaser, has had enough: it's time to take him down. But as the tension between Lucy and Joshua reaches its boiling point, it's clear that the real battle has only just begun . . .’

Described as ‘Charming, self-deprecating, quick-witted and funny’ by the New York Times, with which I agree. I see that it’s going to be a film – I wonder how that will work as so much of the story is inside Lucy’s head.

 

To all appearance, dead by Liz Filleul

I know of LF as a fellow women’s magazine writer. When she happened to mention in an interview that she’d written two cosy crimes set in the world of ‘GO’ books (Girls’ Own, eg the Chalet School series), I was very intrigued.

Goodness, I knew from some online GO forums that there are some keen collectors out there but if this is to be believed some of them will stop at nothing … great fun.

 

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholl

On the aforementioned visit south we visited Sir Winston Churchill’s house at Chartwell. In the grounds there was a second-hand bookshop with an honesty box and luckily I had some change with me to buy this.

Charlie has just left school. He is at a loose end and hates his home situation – his mother has left, taking his sister, and he lives with his morose dad. The last thing on his mind is Shakespeare … but when he meets and fancies Fran he gets involved in a production of Romeo and Juliet. She is Juliet; he is not Romeo.

The book certainly improved my knowledge of the play too. I loved this line especially:

Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

 

Family Album by Penelope Lively

A family of six children with a there-but-not-there father and a rather monstrous mother who wishes they were still little and who turns a blind eye to anything that doesn’t suit her view of things eg the behaviour of Paul the eldest, and the parentage of Clare the youngest.

Told in alternate viewpoints by the siblings, it’s cleverly constructed but as there is no principle character and no over-arching plot I found it all rather unengaging.

 

Love All by Elizabeth Jane Howard

And the same goes for this one, from another literary grande dame. I have liked other titles of hers especially The Beautiful Visit and Something in Disguise and loved the Cazalet Chronicles but this, her last novel, left me cold. Same structure as Family Album in being told by different characters but some of whom only made fleeting appearances and were never seen from the point of view of others. None of them get a happy ending.

It didn’t help that Persephone – a lovely name when you see it written down although I can see it’s a trifle cumbersome to say – is known as Percy which does not look lovely written down. And she was such a wet hen; I didn’t believe in her at all. In fact the only character who did seem to be made of flesh and blood was the child Harriet. Disappointing.

 

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

Crime to finish with – this one is in the Karen Pirie series of cold-case solving. Ultimately, the plot seemed very far-fetched but VD keeps you turning the pages so I’ll forgive her.

 

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Eight in September

 I read eight books in September.

 


Dear Reader by Cathy Retzenbrink

Read on Kindle. Yay, a book about books; what’s not to like. My favourite of the genre is Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm but what I loved particularly about this one was the behind-the-scenes glimpses of working in bookshops and Cathy Retzenbrink’s successful bookselling career before a family tragedy led her to become a writer.

 


Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Read for bookgroup. As you will have seen if you read last month’s post I am on a Clare Chambers jag at the moment. This is her latest one, published last year after a ten-year gap, which has been so successful that her backlist has been reissued.

Set in 1957 in smoggy suburban London, it’s about Jean, a journalist on the local paper who is asked to follow up a letter from a reader, Gretchen, who claims that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth.

No spoilers except to say that Jean’s life is changed as a result of meeting Gretchen and her family. Clare Chambers conjures up so well Jean’s small world, the aforementioned smog and the general grimness of life in just-post-ration Britain, with an edge of sharp black humour.

 


Back Trouble by Clare Chambers

Read on Kindle. ‘On the brink of forty, newly single with a failed business, Philip thought he'd reached an all-time low. It only needed a discarded chip on a South London street to lay him literally flat. So, bedbound and bored, Philip naturally starts to write the story of his life.’

Another bittersweet novel from CC.

 


In a Good Light by Clare Chambers

Read on Kindle. My favourite backlist CC (so far, I still have A Dry Spell to read; it is ready and waiting on my Kindle).

Esther’s life, living with her adored older brother, Christian, has become mundane until there are repercussions from her happy but eccentric childhood. I loved all the characters especially Donovan, one of the waifs and strays Esther’s parents were fond of collecting.

 


Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith

I suppose I must have eaten and slept and thrown the odd word to my other half between the Friday evening I started this and the Sunday afternoon when I finished but that was all a blur; for the time it took to read 1073 pages I was completely absorbed in the world of Cormoran Strike and Robin. A corker to end all corkers.

 


Death in the Woods by Jo Allen

Read on Kindle. The sixth outing for Jude Satterthwaite and this engaging series set in the beautiful Lake District.

A series of copycat suicides, prompted by a mysterious online blogger, causes DCI Jude Satterthwaite more problems than usual, intensifying his concerns for his troublesome younger brother Mikey. Along with his partner Ashleigh O'Halloran and a pyschiatrist he tries to find the identity of the malicious troll.

A distressing subject, beautifully handled.

 


The Keeper of Happy Endings by Barbara Davis

Read on Kindle. I think this was the free book I chose as a perk of being an Amazon Prime member (to which I signed up inadvertently a year ago … ).

The worlds of two people collide in 1980s Boston – Rory (Aurora) in her 20s, grieving the loss/lack of news of her kidnapped medic boyfriend in Africa, and Soline with a past in war-torn France that she’d rather forget.

I wasn’t mad on the writing (a bit repetitious) but I did like the story and shed a wee tear or two at the end.

 


Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Hadback from charity shop. The fifth (and long overdue but she has been writing other novels) outing for one of my favourite fictional detectives, Jackson Brodie (played by Jason Isaacs on TV in a series that inexplicably got axed). As with the first four, Kate Atkinson gives us several strands of story and ties them up miraculously.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Eight in August

 I read eight books in August.

 


Learning to Swim by Clare Chambers

Read on Kindle. I much enjoyed hearing Clare Chambers’ book Small Pleasures on Radio 4 and will be reading it for a forthcoming book group meeting. So I was keen to read her backlist. Learning to Swim starts when Abigail is a schoolgirl; she’s from a suburban what-will-the-neighbours-think sort of family, enthralled by her new friend Frances’ bohemian lifestyle and by her brother Rad. There’s a parting of the ways and then years later an unexpected encounter.

CC is so good on life’s little embarrassments, so good on detail and hitting the nail right on the head. I didn’t want it to end.

 


The Editor’s Wife by Clare Chambers

Read on Kindle. I was less enamoured of this one, written in the first person by a male narrator, but it was still an enjoyable read. Christopher (another product of a suburban, unambitious family) is writing a novel and he has been taken under the wing of an editor, Owen, and his wife Diana.

What I did love was all the booky chat – Clare Chambers began her working life as a secretary at Andre Deutsch when the legendary Diana Athill was at the editorial helm so she knows the London publishing scene as it was thirty or so years ago. And ‘the editor’s wife’ is called Diana … interesting …

 


Force of Nature by Jane Harper

I stayed up very late to finish Jane Harper’s first two books The Dry and The Lost Man a few months ago. This one has the same protagonist as The Dry. Aaron Falk is investigating a company for financial fraud and then gets caught up in a nightmare scenario. The company has sent two groups of staff members (one male team, one female) on a bonding exercise in the Australian wilderness. Of the five women only four make it back … and the missing one is Falk’s whistle blower. Engrossing.

 


The Survivors by Jane Harper

I’d not long finished the above book when I found JH’s newest book in hardback in a charity shop. What luck, although it means I am now up to date with all her titles. Unlike the others, this one is not set on mainland Australia but in a small coastal town in Tasmania. When a girl is found murdered on the beach bad memories are stirred up of another young girl who went missing years earlier.

Hope’s she’s working hard on a fifth book.

 


The Lark by E Nesbit

Found in a charity shop – didn’t know she wrote books for adults. This edition is in the Penguin Women Writers series. Enjoyable enough, frothy, but very dated and, frankly, unbelievable. Two young girls (orphan school leavers) have been diddled out of their inheritance by their guardian although they do have a house to live in. Somehow they make money by selling posies of flowers from their garden gate, enough for them to employ a char lady and a gardener …

 


Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler

I have not read all Anne Tyler’s books and I used to have others that for some reason I gave away. So I’m trying to build up a full set. This one was first published in 1996. Great stuff (as usual).

Duncan Peck is a restless man, always on the move. His wife, Justine, is a fortune teller who can't remember the past. Her grandfather, Daniel, longs to find the brother who walked out of his life in 1912 never to be seen again. All three are taking journeys that lead back to the family's deepest roots

 


The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Recommended by a friend. I took a while to get into it and I didn’t love it but it was a very thought-provoking read.

The Miltons are a powerful old New York family, the kind that runs the world. And in 1935, they do. For generations, Kitty and Ogden Milton revel in their own utopia, a small island they own off the coast of Maine, but it cannot last.

Across the generations, we see the Milton myth slowly unravel. In 1959, two strangers enter their circle, forcing each member to question what their family stands for. Then by the 21st century, the money has run dry, the island is up for sale, and their granddaughter is about to uncover disturbing evidence about her family's wealth
.

 


The Complete Short Stories by Ian Rankin

His two previous collections in one volume with an extra bonus story. Every one a gem. He lives near me; I saw him in the street yesterday and thought of telling him … but the moment passed.

Saturday, 14 August 2021

Eight in July

 I read eight books in July.

 

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

Paperback, bought with the birthday book token that also bought Rodham (see below). I hadn’t heard of Lily King before but Writers & Lovers was on the same table as Rodham in Waterstones and I thought it looked my cup of tea. And it was, a complete afternoon tea in fact with jam and cream and a cherry on top. I’ll certainly be reading her four previous titles.

Casey Peabody is writing a novel, living in a gloried garage, waitressing, recovering from a relationship break-up. So Writers and Lovers encompasses her struggles and otherwise to write and her working life in the restaurant with characterful co-workers; she has non-sugary romances with the two new, very different, men in her life; she tries to come to terms with the recent death of her mother and to mend bridges with her ghastly father.

Glowingly endorsed by fellow writers such as Ann Patchett and Tessa Hadley, the book, to my mind, occupies the sweet spot between commercial and literary fiction. 

 

Midsummer Magic at Miss Moonshine’s Emporium by Authors on the Edge

Read on (ancient) Kindle but I shall get a paperback too because the map of Haven Bridge drawn by Livi Gosling looks lovely but not seen to best advantage in black and white. I do love a map at the beginning of a book, ever since my sister and I used to pore over the Toytown endpapers in our Noddy books. I love the covers of the three Miss Moonshine books too – they were done by one of the talented authors, Mary Jayne Baker.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two outings for Miss Moonshine and on this evidence the series is going from strength to strength. The nine authors each have their own voice but the whole is made cohesive by their short stories all being set in the same place, the town of Haven Bridge, and in each story the amazing, time-travelling, Miss Moonshine sorts out everybody's problems.

 

Choose Me by Tess Gerritsen and Gary Braver

Read on Kindle. Taryn is a clever girl whose single mother is struggling to keep her daughter at a prestigious university. Taryn’s planned thesis has attracted the attention of a prominent feminist academic; together they are going to rewrite classical myths. But while Taryn’s work is about reclaiming history from men, in her personal life she is clingy to the point of stalkery. When she finally realises that her relationship with Liam is finished she overly responds to the admiration of married professor Jack Dorian to the ultimate tragedy of them both.

 

A Village Murder by Frances Evesham

Read on Kindle. Promising characters and plot but ultimately unsatisfying in outcome. The sleuth, a retired cop turned publican, made leaps of connections and puttings of two and two together that the reader (this one, anyway) couldn’t see; plus, we hardly met, never mind got to know, the villain  – so there was no ‘I wonder … ’ moment followed by feeling clever that you’d cudgelled your little gray cells and come up with the answer.

 

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves

Paperback from a charity shop. The latest case for Vera and one of the best, plus the title comes from my favourite poem, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, not an original choice I know but it’s popular for a reason.

 

Hand-grenade Practice in Peking by Frances Woods

Reissued in this lovely edition by Slightly Foxed. Frances Woods spent a year at a language school in China in 1975-76; the book is based on the letters she sent home. So she was there at the very end of the Cultural Revolution and the end of the life of Mao Zedung – at a time when China was virtually closed to outsiders.

Funny, fascinating and jaw-dropping.

I blogged here about my own, much shorter but still funny, fascinating and jaw-dropping, visit to rural China in 2011.

And to read about China somewhere between those two dates I highly recommend Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler.

 

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Read in paperback for book group. I thoroughly enjoyed American Wife by CS in which she imagined the life of Laura, wife of George W Bush – the result, I promise, is much more amusing and touching than I know you are thinking it could possibly be …

In Rodham, as you can see from the cover, she imagines what would have happened to Hillary Rodham, to the US, and indeed to the world, if she hadn’t married the charismatic Mr Clinton.

It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

 

I Know I Saw Her by E D Thompson

Read on Kindle. A really good psychological thriller. Alice’s quiet (quiet for a slowly revealed reason) home life is disrupted by new neighbours, and a game of cat and mouse is played out over one hot summer.

Eirin Thompson writes excellent women’s magazine stories; I look forward to seeing what she does next as her alter ego.