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.




Friday, 23 July 2021

My Sister's Eyes


St Triduana (also known as Trøllhaena, Trodline or Tredwell) died in Restalrig, Edinburgh, a long way from her birthplace, at some point in the 3rd (or 4th or 5th) century AD.


Legend has it that she’d accompanied the party that bore the bones of Andrew the Apostle across the seas to the east coast of Scotland and the settlement that now bears his name.


She became known for curing blindness – even long after her death, evoking her name in prayer for eye ailments were said to effect a miraculous cure.


The gruesome side of her story is what has been passed down over these many years – what led to her being associated with blindness and the #MeToo resonance of that (plus ça change … ).


We’ll never know the truth of it all; at this distance that is impossible  – but what a gift for a writer to be able to fill in the gaps …


… which is a task I set myself to do in a short story called My Sister’s Eyes.


I entered the story to the Federation ofWriters in Scotland’s Vernal Equinox competition and was delighted to be placed third equal. Many thanks to them and congratulations to all the placed entries.


You can read all the adjudications and the entries here (or if you want to skip straight to My Sister’s Eyes it’s here).


Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash




Many thanks to those of you who opted to receive notifications of blog posts by email. Blogger is very unhelpfully discontinuing this service (‘in July’ so may already have done … ). To transfer to another email service involves signing up to Google Analytics which I have done but there is a password needed by Blogger that I cannot find. Online help forums shed no light (and it would appear I’m not the only one with the issue). If anyone can help please contact me via the comments.

Lovely email subscribers, I trust the situation will get resolved soon. (The list of names will remain after July.) In the meantime, perhaps you’ll be kind enough to check in with the blog every so often without a reminder.



Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Five in June

 I read five books in June.


The Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge

I read a few GHs in my teens and then inexplicably she dropped off my radar until a couple of years ago when my enthusiasm was ignited by my friend Anne Stenhouse (no mean Regency writer herself); she kindly lent me this biography.

GH was extraordinary in that she seemed to despise her own writing and she never gave interviews or did signing sessions or author tours or anything required (pre-pandemic anyway) of big-name authors today. And she was a big name, with legions of fans, despite being so private and elusive; her forthcoming novels were serialised in Woman & Home for which she received £10,000 in the middle of the last century. 

It was so interesting to read of her attention to detail and accuracy – she kept dozens of notebooks with historical minutiae and also invented her own slang words, just one of the things that make her writing so dazzling.


The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

‘When Sophy is sent to stay with her London relatives, she finds her cousins in quite the tangle. …
Fortunately, Sophy has arrived just in time to sort them all out – but Charles is eager to rid his family of her meddlesome ways. Has the Grand Sophy finally met her match?’

What do you think?


And now for something completely different:


The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None meets Lord of the Flies at a wedding on a small island off the coast of Ireland. And the consequence was … murder and mayhem and revenge.


Your Blue-Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore

Simone is in a very difficult situation. Formerly a lawyer in London who was able to take on badly paid cases close to her heart, she has now moved to a rural area to be a district judge – because her husband’s business is virtually insolvent and 75% of her salary will be going to pay debts and bank charges. He’s depressed (unsurprisingly) and they have two primary-school-age boys.

But the book opens with Simone in America twenty years earlier, in a relationship with an older man, a damaged Vietnam veteran – and as if she doesn’t have enough to worry about in the present day that relationship comes back to haunt her.

Helen Dunmore is (was, sadly) a wonderful writer (poet as well as novelist) and her descriptions are stunning. I loved this (the writing and the tension evoked) up until the end which – no spoilers – I felt a little disappointed by.


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This is a book lots of people seem to be talking about at the moment (and soon to be a TV series). In 1922 Count Alexander Rostov has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest by a Boshevik tribunal – or hotel arrest because he must spend the rest of his days in the Hotel Metropol, not in the grand suite he previously occupied but in an attic room.

But, the book blurb asks, can a life without luxury be the richest of all? How the Count passes his days (and months and years) makes for a delightful, if perhaps rather over-long, read.



Many thanks to those of you who opted to receive notifications of blog posts by email. Blogger is very unhelpfully discontinuing this service (‘in July’ so may already have done … ). To transfer to another email service involves signing up to Google Analytics which I have done but there is a password needed by Blogger that I cannot find. Online help forums shed no light (and it would appear I’m not the only one with the issue). If anyone can help please contact me via the comments.

Lovely email subscribers, I trust the situation will get resolved soon. (The list of names will remain after July.) In the meantime, perhaps you’ll be kind enough to check in with the blog every so often without a reminder.




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