Recommendsday: Standard Deviation

Another day, another great holiday read to recommend, this time it’s Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny which filled some very happy hours on the plane and the beach last week and which I’m sure I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people this summer.

The cover of Standard Deviation

I love the origami figures but I’m still not quite sure the cover of this really does it justice.

Graham Cavanaugh is on his second marriage.  Wife #2, Audra, is one of Those Women – you know the sort – who know every one, who makes friends effortlessly and opens her arms (and home) to any waif or stray of her acquaintance (no matter how tenuous the connection) who needs help. They have one child, origami-obsessed Matthew, who has Asperger’s and sees the world slightly differently and finds a lot of it a bit challenging.  When Wife #1, Elspeth, re-appears in Graham’s life, the contrasts become apparent.  Because of course Audra wants them to be friends with Elspeth and so their lives get tangled up together all over again.

This is a fun, witty and touching look at the choices that we make and how our lives can change. Just reading about life with Audra makes you tired, but despite that and despite her nosiness and lack of boundaries you still warm to her.  I don’t think I’d want to be friends with her in real life, but then the same applies to Graham and to Elspeth too.  They all have their monstrous moments, but it makes for fascinating reading.  It has some heart-warming moments too – mostly dealing with Graham’s hopes for Matthew as he grows up and Audra’s efforts to try and give him a normal life.

This is Katherine Heiny’s first novel, but it doesn’t feel like a debut.  It feels like the work of an author who is already well in their stride, with confidence in the characters that they have created and the stories that they are spinning.  But perhaps that is unsurprising given Heiny’s background in short stories.  She’s been published in the New Yorker and had a collection of short stories – Single, Carefree, Mellow – published a few years back*.  This article from the Guardian says that she’s written more than 20 Young Adult novels under various pseudonyms, but frustratingly doesn’t give me any titles (and nor does good reads) which doesn’t help me with my need to glom on everything that she’s written.  Luckily I have a New Yorker subscription so I can go back and read the full version of How to Give the Wrong Impression from back in 1992.

If you like Nora Ephron movies and books, this may be the beach read for you.  In writing this I’ve seen lots of comparisons to Anne Tyler (who I’ve never read but always meant to) so I’ll be recommending this to my mum who’s had a bit of a Tyler thing recently.  My copy of Standard Deviation came via NetGalley, but it’s out now in hardback (sorry) and you should be able to get hold of a copy from all the usual places and it’s also available on Audible (the link may only work if you’re signed in) Kindle and Kobo.

Happy reading!

*which is now on my wishlist unsurprisingly!

 

Book of the Week: Written in Dead Wax

We had a lovely time on holiday last week and I read a lot of books.  A lot. And the pick of the bunch was Andrew Cartmel’s first Vinyl Dectective novel, Written in Dead Wax.  I’d had my eye on this for a while but finally managed to pick myself up a copy at Big Green Bookshop a few weeks back now.

Copy of Written in Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel.

My copy on the beach in Croatia last week. Lovely setting, made better with a good book!

The Vinyl Detective hunts down rare records.  In fact he makes his living by selling the records that he finds while out and about in London.  Then one day a mysterious woman shows up and asks him to find the unfindable – a priceless, impossibly rare jazz album.  And so he sets off on an oddessy around the record shops, car boot sales and charity shops hunting for the elusive record.  But soon it seems he has competition.   Ruthless competition.  He’s not a detective, but when people start turning up dead, he start trying to work out what’s going on.

This has a blurb on the front from Ben Aaronovitch – and Andrew Cartmel also co-writes the Rivers of London graphic novels so I thought that it might be right up my street and I was right.  It was so much fun.  There’s no magic here (apart from the magic of vinyl) but it definitely has some points of comparison with Rivers of London – there’s a similar sense of humour and wry way of looking at the world and it has the geekery that I love too – that makes you feel like you’re a member of a special club of people in the know – even if all you know about LPs is what you learned on your parent’s old record player* and what you’ve read in the book.  The mystery is clever and twisty, there’s plenty of action and it’s really hard to figure out where it is going next.

If I had a problem with it, it was that the female characters weren’t always as three dimensional as they could be – but that was kind of in keeping with the Vinyl Detective’s record-centric world view: he’d be able to tell you (in depth) all the details about a rare record that he once saw, but he wouldn’t remember what you were wearing if you made him turn his back and describe your outfit to you! I tried to make myself read it slowly – and that worked for about 150 pages, and then I just needed to know what happened next and how it would all work out.  Luckily it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this that book 2 is already out and so I can get another fix soon.

If you like PC Grant’s adventures, read this.  And if you like this, then I think you might also like The Barista’s Guide to Espionage – which is really quite different but keeps coming into my mind when  I was writing this review and trying to come up with if you like this then read thats.  You should be able to get hold of Written in Dead Wax from any good bookshop – I’m planning a trip back to the Big Green Bookshop at the weekend to get hold of book 2 – or it’s also on Audible (you might need to be a member for this link to work), Kindle and Kobo.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.  I’ve already lent my copy to my dad…

Happy Reading!

*I spent parts of my childhood dancing around the dining room to a small selection of my parents’ records.  A bit of ballet, the Beatles, some Carpenters, Stevie Wonder, and Tony Orlando and Dawn, the records I created routines too aren’t as cool as the ones the Vinyl Detective is looking for – but I still have my first LP (the Postman Pat soundtrack) even though I don’t have a record player plumbed in to play it on.

Book of the Week: The Roanoke Girls

As you may have noticed, I read a lot of books on my holiday.  But actually this week’s BotW was an easy choice because Him Indoors read The Roanoke Girls after me and really enjoyed it too – and he doesn’t read anywhere near as many books as me and our tastes don’t always coincide.

The Roanoke Girls

My very pretty ARC of The Roanoke Girls – which has all sorts of nice touches to it

Lane Roanoke goes to live with her grandparents and her cousin Allegra after her mother’s suicide.  They live on a large estate in Kansas and are top of the town hierarchy.  But Lane only spends one summer there. 11 years later, Lane returns to the estate after Allegra goes missing.  Roanoke girls have a history – they either run away or they die.  Which has happened to Allegra and what is the dark secret that threatens the Roanoke girls?

I can’t say any more than that about the plot – because it will spoil it.  This has been billed as a provocative thriller – and I’d agree.  It’s dark and shocking and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  But I was absolutely and totally engrossed and gripped.  I couldn’t stop turning the pages, even if on occasion it was from between my fingers with horror.  The Roanokes are by turns fascinating and horrifying and it is a great book to read on the beach.  In fact, it’s a great beach book – because if you read it on the sunlounger it will help chase the darkness away.  Although rural Kansas is fairly hot and steamy, so that might not work.

I’m still thinking and digesting it a week on – but I think it might be my go to summer holiday book recommendation.  For people who can cope with the darkness…

I lucked into an advance copy, but the Roanoke Girls is out now in hardback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and on Kindle and Kobo.  The paperback is preorderable – but it’s not out until September, which might be too late for your holidays.

Happy Reading!

Interview: Duncan MacMaster

Longtime readers, heck even short-time readers know that I’m a big fan of what Fahrenheit Press do (Exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F and I could go on) and as a special treat today, I’ve got an interview with one of their authors, Duncan MacMaster, whose new book, Hack is out this very day.

Hack tells the story of Jake Mooney, a ghost-writer who lands the biggest job of his career, but ends up fending off attempts on his life.  My review of Hack is coming up tomorrow, but read on to find out more about the man behind the book.

First of all could you tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a Canadian, I studied film at university, I wrote comedy for a while, & I had an up and down career before finding a home with Fahrenheit Press with my first crime novel A Mint Condition Corpse.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe what you write?

I write mysteries and crime thrillers with healthy doses of dark humour and satire.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of Hack, where did you get the idea for Jake, the ghost-writer who ends up with a price on his head?

My first crime novel A Mint Condition Corpse had Kirby Baxter who is a sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot tradition and I wanted to do something different. I was thinking of an investigator who was the opposite of Kirby Baxter, in that he had no real sleuthing skills, and was more adept at collecting injuries than clues. He succeeds more through dogged determination to stay alive and hopefully get the girl.

I needed an excuse for an unskilled amateur to get involved with murder and mayhem and consciously thought a ghostwriter doing an autobiography full of scandal and secrets was a good way to do it. Subconsciously I was venting a lot of my career frustrations indirectly through Jake. I had suffered some truly ridiculous setbacks over the years and I needed to get them out, even if it involved making up fictional ones for Jake.

Rick-the-corpse was the star of a Miami Vice-esque TV show and it felt to me like there was a bit of an homage going on to that sort of TV show going on – speed boats, surgically enhanced (or altered at any rate) women, tropical islands – was that fun to write?

It was. I’m a child of the 80s, the golden age of excess, and shows like Miami Vice sort of set the standard for style and swagger. It seems so silly and strange to us now, but back then everything about those shows seemed so cool. It was also a time of indulgent drug use, pre-AIDS sexual irresponsibility, and attitudes that would be shocking to our modern politically correct sensibilities. It’s a ripe target for both a little nostalgia and satire.

Your last book was a whodunnit at a comic book convention, this is a thriller-y mutter in the tropics – what can we expect from you next? Something else completely different or a familiar face? (Please more Kirby, please more Kirby!)

I’m working on more Kirby. I just finished the first draft of the sequel to A Mint Condition Corpse called Video Killed The Radio Star. It puts Kirby, Gustav and Molly in the world of reality television. I still have a lot of work to do on it to make it worthy of public consumption. I’m also developing a more experimental project about unreliable narrators and male archetypes, as well as outlining a potential sequel to Hack called Hacked, where Jake gets involved in a Hollywood computer hacking scandal.

And finally, what have you been reading recently that you’d like to shout about?

While I’m writing I try to avoid reading fiction, because I tend to be a stylistic sponge, and I don’t want to inadvertently imitate anyone. Right now I’m reading nonfiction, specifically Something To Do With Death by Christopher Frayling. It’s an incredibly researched biography of Sergio Leone, who was the master of the “spaghetti western.” It’s full of the sort of details about backstage life that I like to file away for later use.

However, I must give a shoutout to the other writers at Fahrenheit Press, who are a wonderful band of misfits that everyone should be reading.

Come back tomorrow to find out what I thought about Hack, but if you can’t wait and need to read it now, click here.

Book of the Week: Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars

I had such a tough job picking a book for BotW this week, because I really didn’t read anything that I whole-heartedly loved.  I started reading a lot of books and then gave up on them, and I finished a few – including a real stinker.  But in the end I plumped for Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson.

Cover of Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars.

As I mention below, Im not quite sure the cover for this is quite right.

Anna Treadway is a dresser, working in a London theatre and living above a Turkish cafe in Soho in 1965.  When the actress who she works with disappears, she sets out to try and find her as the trail grows cold and the newspapers lose interest.   As she hunts for the mysterious Iolanthe Green she finds herself in new world of jazz clubs, police cells and backstreet doctors.

Whilst this wasn’t perfect, it was an interesting idea and a great cast of diverse characters. It’s got an interesting mystery that’s well thought through and several different plot strands which tie together quite nicely.  Underneath the mystery of where Iolanthe has gone there are issues of prejudice and race and people struggling to be heard and believed. From the look of the (UK) cover and some of the write ups I was expecting it to be ultimately more uplifting, but perhaps given the issues that it’s dealing with, I was being unrealistic.

This is Miranda Emmerson’s first novel and it does a great job of creating the atmosphere of 1960s London and the grimier side of life.  In fact that was what I liked best about it – the mix of people thrown together, some times living side by side without ever intersecting.  I think I would have liked more of Anna’s backstory and I wanted a bit more of what happened next at the end, but I pretty much always want more of what happened next at the end!

My copy came via NetGalley, but you can get Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle and Kobo.  It only came out a couple of weeks back so it’s hardcover and the ebooks are priced accordingly too I’m afraid.  The paperback is out in July, so it may drop a little then, if you want to add it to your wishlist and wait it out.

Happy Reading.

Book of the Week: Crooked Heart

Quite a tough decision on what to pick for BotW this week – there were several contenders. But in the end I’ve plumped for Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart, which I devoured over the weekend while we were away for an extended jolly for my birthday.   This was another book which had ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile and resurfaced because of the Big Box Up and I’m so glad that it did.

Copy of Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans.

Mine had an extra cover on it – the actual cover is prettier.

 

Crooked Heart tells the story of Noel, who is evacuated to Hertfordshire in 1940.   Noel is an unusual 10 year old.  He’s been brought up by an old lady and is precocious and smart beyond his years.  He ends up with Vera – a 36 year old single mum struggling with debt, a recalcitrant and secretive son and her demanding mother.  Vera is sure there is some money to be made out of the war, but the trouble is that she’s not very good at making a plan and sticking to it.  But Noel is a different proposition.  He’s smart, he’s calm and he might be the answer to Vera’s problems.  But of course they’re not the only people making money from the war, and there are dangers other than air-raids in Noel’s new life.

I really enjoyed this.  Noel and Vera are engaging characters who make a good team.  Vera is almost a proto-Del Boy – but with Noel to help she has the chance of her deals actually going right.  In some ways Noel reminded me of  William in Goodnight Mr Tom (that’s a good thing) – Noel has had more advantages in his education and home life that William did, but he’s still a little boy who has had to grow up too fast and deal with things that children aren’t meant to deal with.  And one of the themes of Goodnight Mr Tom is finding your own family and your own place in life and there’s a lot of that here although Vee is very different to Tom.

It’s a heartwarming romp through the grey, greyer and uglier areas of life on the home front.  I could easily have read another 100 pages of Vee and Noel, but actually the ending is a brilliant touch.  I haven’t read any of Lissa Evans’ books before, but my little sister still has a copy Evans’ first novel, Spencer’s List, on her shelf which I bought for her back in the day 15 years ago, so I’m going to have to borrow that off her and read it.  Coincidentally someone posted a trailer on Facebook for the upcoming film Their Finest on the same day as I read this – and that’s based on Evans’ previous book Their Finest Hour and a Half, which I totally need to read now as well.

You can get a copy of Crooked Heart from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles or on Kindle or Kobo.  And it looks like there might be a (slightly retitled) tie-in edition of Their Finest Hour and Half coming out too.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week: The Making of a Marchioness

This week’s pick comes from the bottom of the to-read pile – which is now the top because of the unfortunate fireplace situation.  I acquired a little stack of Persephone Print books from a friend a year (and the rest) ago and some how they ended up getting relegated to one of the piles behind the sofa arm.  What a mistake to make.  Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness, although not perfect, turned out to be a little gem.

The Making of a Marchioness is a story of two parts.  Both are about Emily Fox-Seaton, a well-born lady in her early 30s (so on the shelf for the era – this was published in 1901) who has very little money and who supports herself by running errands for people better off than herself.  In part one, she gets invited to visit a country house to help out and during the course of her stay her fortunes change.  The second part chronicles how she adapts to her change in fortunes.

Now, in order to explain my feelings about this book, I’m going to have to give some spoilers. Sorry. So, if you don’t want to be spoilt (so to speak) then don’t read below the photograph that’s coming up.  But if you like a Cinderella story, but one that’s populated by really quite unromantic people who aren’t all beautiful or clever, than this might well be the book for you.  The latest Persephone edition, although not quite as pretty as mine is £9.00 on Amazon and Foyles as I write this or in the edition that I own for £14 from Waterstones, but the total bargain is the ebook because both Kindle and Kobo have a free versions.

Photo montage of The Making of a Marchioness

I do love these Persophones – plain unassuming grey cover and then a beautiful design inside.

And now the spoilers.  I did warn you.

I really, really, liked the first part of the book – with Emily winning the Marquess by being herself and realising what she was doing.  Emily is an immensely likeable character who is cheerful and uncomplaining and just generally indispensible.  Part two, where we see her adapting to life as a Marchioness is really very Gothic and melodramatic and I didn’t like it as much – perhaps because it was so different from the first part of the book.  Emily’s obliviousness to the machinations of the unsuitable heir and his wife (and her maid) started to annoy me a little after a while and I just wanted her to buck up and write that letter to her husband (away in India on government business) or confide in Lady Maria who would have sorted it all out.  The two parts were originally published as separate books, and I can’t work out if I would have liked the second part more or less if I’d read the first part in isolation and then come across its sequel.

What is true of both parts is that they are very well written and without the overblown romantic transports of many similar novels.  And the way it portrays marriage is also very different from other novels of the time.  Emily is not on the prowl for a husband in part one, she’s content to try and live her life without a man (even if she is worried about old age and poor health) but when she does get married, her husband is not a romantic hero – in fact he’s really not sure why he settled on Emily at some points – and their relationship is very stiff and Victorian (and Edwardian).  There are some slightly dated attitudes in here – but I’ve read much (much) worse and it’s on the nicer end of the attitudes and problems of its time.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading an adult novel by an author that I only knew for her famous children’s stories like The Secret Garden – and I’m really looking forward to reading more of the Persephones on my to-read pile.

Happy Reading.