Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Six in February

I read six books in February.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey
This won the Romantic Novel of the Year in 2016. And deservedly so – it’s also won my Book of 2017 and it’s only February. Second World War love story? Tick. Modern love story? Believable tie-up between the two stories? Characters that walk off the page? Atmosphere? Tick, tick, tick, tick. The icing on the top – a nod to one of my favourite TV programmes Heir Hunters. And the cherry on top of that, it’s a genuine weepy. Adored it.

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones
Read on Kindle. Addison Jones is the pseudonym of Scottish-based American writer Cynthia Rogerson – I believe she’s using the name for her books set in the US. I loved this – it’s the story of the sixty-year marriage between Billie (later known as Milly) and Jacko and is seen from both their viewpoints but it’s Jacko, the devoted but philandering husband, who comes across most strongly.

What’s clever and original is that the story is told backwards in around five-yearly increments. So we start just when Billie and Jack meet, jump to them in old age, and then work back to that first encounter. It makes for a much more joyful ending – the handsome young man, the pretty girl, their whole lives in front of them – than if the story was written chronologically, and really made me want to read it all over again.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Another corker. We know right at the beginning that someone has died during a fund-raising event at a kindergarten (in a coastal village in Australia) and as we get to know the characters the reader is desperate to find out who and why – and how.

I rarely like books where the author has set out to write about an ‘issue’ of some sort. More often than not the characters are cardboard cutouts with an issue attached and you’re supposed to feel emotionally involved. It’s the difference between feeling sympathetic in a milk-of-human-kindness way if you hear something bad is happening to a friend of a friend of a friend – but you’re distraught if it’s happening to someone close to you.

There are plenty of issues in Big Little Lies, some as old as humanity and some very 21st-century. But Liane Moriarty’s characters, female and male, are so fully realised you cheer and rage on their behalf as if you knew them. Their ‘issues’ aren’t tacked on; they are part of what makes them real people; you understand why they are the way they are. And LM always has an edge of black humour, in this case provided by some very competitive parents.

Madeline was my favourite character. At the beginning you think she’s a stereotypical stiletto-heeled annoying yummy mummy but then you get to know her and she’s fab. I’d love her to be my best friend. And, quite frankly, I’d like to marry Ed. Although as he’s married to Madeline that would certainly be an ‘issue’.

Read on Kindle. Enjoyed this collection of stories (by a fellow Edinburgh Writers’ Club member) which encompass all manner of themes and characters. The inspiration for some lies in art, particularly old Dutch paintings. Other stories are blackly comic – who could resist the title Hettie Mcheeny – Serial Killer or the opening paragraph of The Defenestration of Dean Fortingall: ‘We’re not allowed parties any more, not since the Dean of Applied Arts fell out of the faculty window.’ The Numbers has a great twist. Queen Bee is a short story but also part of a novel called The Good Daughter which I would certainly like to read. Recommended.

Blank Space by Jennifer Young
Read on Kindle. Love a romantic suspense novel. This one is set in Edinburgh around the time of the G8 summit with a main character called Bronte O’Hara. Who could resist this opening paragraph?

My first thought, when I discovered the body on my kitchen floor, was that it was a criminal waste of an exceptionally handsome man. My second was that I’d seen him somewhere before. And even as I crossed myself, I realised he wasn’t dead.

The first in a series called Dangerous Friends – look forward reading more about Bronte and Marcus.

Elizabeth Pringle lived all her long life on the Isle of Arran. But did anyone really know her? In her will she leaves her beloved house, Holmlea, to a stranger – a young mother she'd seen pushing a pram down the road over thirty years ago.

As I lived on that beautiful island for a few years when I was a teenager I wanted to like this but I’m afraid I couldn’t warm to it. My main reaction was envy of Martha – I want a stranger to leave me a lovely house filled with interesting things. If it was on Arran that would be brilliant but anywhere really …

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Seven in January

I read seven books in January.


A black-tie ball under the stars in small-town Australia is the background for this romance between two old classmates. I believe these used to be decorous affairs, allowing men and women in very rural areas to meet potential partners. This one is a more modern fund-raising event but there’s still plenty of potential-partnering going on. Enjoyed this – as I did Flight to Coorah Creek by the same author.

An absolutely beautifully written memoir of growing up on a farm called Harmony in the Appalachian mountains. J D Ballam’s family, and their nearby farming relatives, had to be almost completely self-sufficient and from a very young age he was given a share of the work load; he turned out to be very practical and able to turn his hand to everything whether it was with animals or machinery.

Of course he’s not the first person to write about such an upbringing but what is special about this account (apart from, but not unrelated to, the lyrical writing) is that his childhood was not a century (or two) ago but in the 1970s, and he went on to get a first-class degree in English from the University of York.

The first book I’ve read in the Flavia de Luce series of novels featuring the eleven-year-old sleuth who is passionate about chemistry, particularly if poisons are involved. She lives on a decaying English country estate with her usually absent father and her two fearsome older sisters. Good fun – and a good plot.

Not That Kind of Girl by Catherine Alliott 
When happily married country-dweller Henrietta gets a job in London her life suddenly becomes complicated in unexpected ways. A lovely big chunky read for a winter's evening.

Some nice person gave me this for Christmas knowing my fondness for girls’ boarding-school stories – Malory Towers (I can still remember chunks of In the Fifth), Chalet School, Angela Brazil et al.

The author (whose grandmother was Jan Struther, author of Mrs Miniver) interviewed ‘girls’ who went to (English and Scottish) boarding schools during those years. The schools ranged from the extremely academic Cheltenham Ladies’ College to others where the teaching was minimal. The result makes for a very interesting slice of social history but perhaps you have to be one of those gals to find it ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year’ as quoted on the front.

Published by Slightly Foxed in a lovely little hardback edition, a pleasure to look at and to hold.

Palace of Deception by Helena Fairfax
A novella. Think of a Mary Stuart plot crossed with The Prisoner of Zenda and a dash of Rebecca, but with a setting and a heroine, Lizzie, and hero, Leon, very much its own. I enjoyed the lush descriptions of the strange little country of Montverrier and its mysterious Princess Charlotte, and went on to read the sequel:

The Scottish Diamond by Helena Fairfax
A novella. This time the couple are in Edinburgh where the murky goings on are not confined to the weather … With more twists than the stairs in the Scott Monument, the plot takes us through the capital city and out into the countryside as an old feud is brought to light and Lizzie and Leon wonder who they can trust – including each other.