Recommendsday: Books with Amazing Houses

So yesterday I took advantage of the last of my post-nightshift days off to go on a family jolly to Blenheim Palace.  It’s less than an hour from home, but surprisingly I’d never been before – perhaps because it’s not National Trust or English Heritage so you have to pay.  It was fabulous – and I got my day ticket converted into a year pass (which doesn’t cost any extra to do) so I can go back again and see some of the bits we didn’t have time for on Tuesday.  Any how, after a day out at a country house, it got me thinking about books which feature amazing houses.  So here’s a few for you for Recommendsday.

Blenheim Palace

OK the sky wasn’t as blue as I was hoping, but at least we didn’t get rained on…

I know it’s totally the obvious choice, but I had to start with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  It’s not my favourite Waugh (that’s Vile Bodies) but I know I may be in the minority on that.  I had a massive Waugh kick a couple of years ago and read a whole load of his novels back to back and for the most part they still really work.  Brideshead tells of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and their upper class and crazy world.  The house is at the centre of it all as a character in and of itself.  Well worth reading if you haven’t already.  I definitely need to watch one or other of the TV/film versions soon.  And read Vile Bodies too.

Next, if you haven’t read any Roderick Alleyn books (and why not?) the first in the series, A Man Lay Dead, is set around a weekend party at a country house where one of the guests ends up dead.  Again, it’s not my favourite of the Alleyns (that’s Artists in Crime) but it’s a really good start to the series and a really good example of a country house murder mystery.

It feels like a while since I mentioned Rebecca on here, which is strange since the Du Maurier classic is one of my mum’s favourite books and I have a lovely Virago hardback copy which sits on my downstairs keeper shelf.  It’s creepy and gothic and has one of the most famous opening lines in literature in “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again”.  If you haven’t read it, why not and if you have go and reread it.  You won’t regret it*.

Finally, if you want something funny, try PG Wodehouse’s Blandings series.  The first one is Something Fresh, where you meet Lord Emsworth, his son Freddie and his secretary The Efficient Baxter and get a taste for the sort of high jinx that ensue.  I think I like them better than the Jeeves and Wooster books, but again I think I’m in the minority there.

I could go on – I haven’t even mentioned I Capture the Castle, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or The Secret Garden..

All recommendations for more books with amazing houses gratefully received, in the meantime

Happy reading!

*Even if, spoiler alert, you never trust a housekeeper again.

Book of the Week: The Riviera Express

Nightshifts are well underway here, so hopefully I’ll be asleep when this publishes.  I say hopefully, if day one is anything to go by I’ll have been woken up half a dozen times by  assorted phone calls, tradesmen and delivery people.   Anyway, as I said last week, I’ve been looking for a new cozy crime series. And as you know, I’m always looking for new historical crime series.  So this week’s BotW is a new historical crime novel from the cozier end of the spectrum which I’m hoping is going to be the start of series.

Cover of The Riviera Express

Cover of The Riviera Express

The Riviera Express is the first book from TP Fielden* about Judy Dimont, a newspaper reporter in a south-coast seaside town in the 1950s.  Miss D has a nose for a scoop, an editor who doesn’t always appreciate her and a rivalry with the paper’s other lady reporter.  The Riveira Express is both the name of the paper and the name of the train which brings holiday-makers to the resort of Temple Regis and one of Miss Dimont’s regular jobs is meeting the train if it’s got a celebrity on board.  But when she and her photographer arrive to meet film star Gerald Hennessey, they find him dead in his first class compartment.  Called away from the scene to a second death, Judy becomes convinced that there is a link between the two – even though the police aren’t convinced that either is the result of foul play.  Soon she’s investigating the links between the film star and the seaside town as well as between the two men and dealing with a couple of highly strung actresses who are mourning the dead star.  Will Judy find out the truth – and if she does will her editor let her publish it?

I hope that sounds like fun, because this book is a lovely romp through an English seaside town with pretensions of grandeur led by a charming character in Judy Dimont.  One of the toughest things to do in stories like this is create a leading character with an excuse to go poking about in murders and mysteries – and a reporter is an ideal one.  Judy has a perfect excuse to nose around and to get information from the police and the authorities.   It also means that she is going to keep coming across bodies in a more natural way than a private citizen would.  And it makes a change from private detectives of all shapes and sizes well.  The secondary characters are well drawn and there’s plenty of potential here for on-going plot strands without it feeling like there’s lots of set up being done.  I’m looking forward to finding out more about Miss D’s past in the next book.

Here’s the rub – The Riviera Express isn’t actually out for another 9 days yet – but you can pre-order the hardback from Amazon or Waterstones  and hope it turns up on the day or on Kindle or Kobo and it’ll download itself on the 23rd as a lovely treat.

Happy reading.

*I would love to know who TP Fielden is – this doesn’t feel like a first novel and there’s very little information that I can find on TP, but their Goodreads biography says that they are a “leading author, broadcaster and journalist” so it feels like a pen name – and I’d love to know who is behind it!

My Big Obessions of 2016

As regular readers will know, I’m a binge reader.  I find someone or something new that I like and I gorge on it.  One of the big reasons my to-read pile never seems to shrink is because I’m forever discovering new series and then buying them up to read and ignoring the stuff waiting on the pile. We’ve already revisited last year’s obsessions, and so to mark the end of the year here are my big obsessions of 2016.

Fahrenheit Press

Lets start with the obvious.  And yes, I know. You’ve heard so much from me about Fahrenheit Press this year that you’re starting to think they’re paying me (they’re not) but I could basically have written this whole post obsessing over their books.  But I’m trying to be restrained, so I’m only giving them one entry.  There is something about the books that they publish that just works for me.  They’re not all the same but they work as a group.  I haven’t read all the books that I’ve got through my subscription yet, but everything I have has that same slightly subversive, sideways look at what it’s doing – whether it’s old series they’re republishing (like Sam Jones) or new ones (like Danny Bird).  The truly excellent thing about this particular obsession is that I bought their subscription early in the year, so it’s been excellent value and they’re an ebook publisher so it hasn’t been adding to the actual physical pile. And as I’ve already bought a 2017 subscription I suspect I may be boring you all about them again well into the year.

Girls Own fiction

I’ve always been a sucker for a boarding school story and spent much of my childhood playing made up games about being at one (despite the fact that I’m fairly sure in reality I would have hated it), but until this year my reading in the genre has centred around the authors that were still in print when I was small (so Elinor M Brent Dyer, Enid Blyton, Anne Digby).  In 2016 I’ve managed to lay my hands on some who are more forgotten – like Mabel Esther Allen, Gwendoline Courtney and the downright obscure like Phylis Matthewman – as well as filling in more gaps in my favourites (like the end of Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells series) and some modern fill in titles for my favourite series and it’s been glorious. Some of them are just great stories, some of them are so bad it’s funny and often you’re reading them giving side eye.  I wouldn’t necessarily lend them to a child now, but for me personally they’re a fabulous escape from the misery of every day life.  In Boarding School-land bad deeds are found out, no one is ever bullied, and everyone loves their school in the end (if they don’t, they’re probably A Bad Influence and may not return next term).   I’m still not really into horse books and there’s only so much Guides I can take, but I’ll try anything – up to and including books about girls who want to be kennel maids…

The Chronicles of St Mary’s series

I don’t know how this had passed me by before.  In case you’ve missed it too, The Chronicles of St Mary‘s follows Madeleine Maxwell and her colleagues at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research – historians who have time machines and use them to go and investigate what really happened in the past.  It doesn’t often go to plan.  It’s made me laugh, it’s made me cry and it’s made me go and check up on some other periods in history that are out of my comfort zone.*  I stumbled across one of the free novellas on audible and listened to it on one of my jaunts to the Youth Hostel back in March and fell in love.  I went back to the start been working my way through the series since, but have been trying to pace myself so I don’t run out of books.  I’ve got just finished book six and I’ve got book seven waiting for me on my Kindle – but book eight isn’t out until July so I’m trying to control myself.

Sarah Morgan

I will confess to not having read any Sarah Morgan before I met her at Sarah MacLean’s London tea party in May and got a goody bag with one of her books in it.  Without that goody bag, I’m not sure I would ever have picked up one of her books, but I’ve read six novels and a prequel novella now, and have an advance copy of her next one on the stack and another few of her backlist on the kindle having picked them up on offer.  They  challenge my ideas about what I do and don’t read.  Morgan’s background is in category romance, which I haven’t really read since I glommed on a box of old-school Mills and Boons at my Granny’s house when I was about 12.  I don’t think that I would read a medical romance (which is what Morgan started out writing as she was a nurse) and I definitely don’t do secretaries and billionaires, but it turns out that I do like contemporary romances where smart, sassy women meet their perfect matches. Because I’ve enjoyed Sarah Morgan’s books I’ve ventured further into some of the other contemporary romance authors I’ve heard mentioned on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  And if the spines say Mills and Boon, at least the cover designs aren’t cringey any more!

Books with Brontes

This seems bonkers considering the fact that I’ve never read Wuthering Heights all the way through, and haven’t read Jayne Eyre since I was  about 9, but this year seems to have been the year of me reading books featuring the Brontes in some shape or form. I think I’ve read about half a dozen now.  Some have been amazing, like The Madwoman Upstairs or Jane Steele, some have been less so, none have made me want to re-read Jane Eyre (but lets face it, if Thursday Next couldn’t manage that, I don’t think anything will) or have another go at Wuthering Heights, but I’ve enjoyed them and done some more reading around the Brontes.  I think perhaps it’s because I don’t know much about them or their books that I enjoy them so much – there’s not much chance of me spotting mistakes or inconsistencies!  And on top of all this, Trisha Ashley’s next novel, which I’m lucky enough to have an advance copy of, is set in Bronte country as well!

So there you have it, my bookish obsessions of 2016. Place bets now on what might make the list in 12 months time.

*My comfort zone being Western European history post 1485, with a strong preference for post 1750.

Book of the Week: Sparkle Shot

I feel like I’m getting repetitive here, because this BotW is another Fahrenheit Press pick.  Seriously, my Fahrenheit subscription has been one of my best book-based purchases this year.  It was a total bargain (and I got in early so it really was a bargain!) and I’ve discovered older series I was too young for (or not in the right crowd for) first time around and new authors doing interesting things and who I’m hoping I can say that I was there at the beginning for.

And Sparkle Shot falls in the latter camp.  It’s Lina Chern’s first book and it’s short but it packs a lot in.  The subtitle is “A wannabe cowboy, a handsome cop and the search for a perfect breakfast cocktail” but that doesn’t really do it justice.  It is a perfect fit for the Fahrenheit family – Mara fits in somewhere between Sam Jones from Black Rubber Dress and Eva Destruction from Barista’s Guide to Espionage, in that she’s sassy, smart and runs with an interesting crowd which sees her getting tangled up with things she’d rather not be.  In this case, her roommate, a stripper who dances under the name of Karma misses a breakfast date with her and then phones in a panic – she’s witnessed a murder and needs Mara to help stop her being the next victim.

Sparkle Shot races along at 100 miles an hour, with boys with guns, girls with guns, wannabe mafia dons, cops and peril.  It’s probably technically novella length at 95 pages, but doesn’t suffer from any of my common complaints about novellas.  There’s not a hint of underdeveloped story or things feeling too rushed.  There’s plenty of plot, there’s backstory, character development and proper tension and proper danger – not just the sort of thing that is a misunderstanding or could be fixed with a simple conversation.  It does feel like it could stand a sequel or two – hopefully longer than this because it was over too fast – but even if it’s not more from Mara and her friends, I’m still looking forward to seeing what Lina Chern writes next.

You can buy Sparkle Shot on Kindle or in paperback from Amazon, or you could treat yourself to some Bad Santa Bucks from Fahrenheit themselves and buy a few of their books – the discount gets bigger the more bucks you buy – and given that I’ve already mentioned two Fahrenheit books that have been BotWs and I’ve also recommended Death of a Nobody and Murder Quadrille (this is why I think I’m getting repetitive with my love of Fahrenheit, but honestly, so many good books) that’s five there – even if you only buy the first Sam Jones book and not the series…  And if you’re still not sure, both Sparkle Shot and Barista’s Guide to Espionage would be good books to read if you’ve read Stephanie Plum or any of the other Janet Evanovich thriller series and are looking for where to go next.  And on that encouragement to buy books I’ll go away before I buy more myself.

Happy Reading!

Summer Reading Recommendations 2016

So you’ve read my Comfort Reading Picks post, now you want the Beach Reads don’t you?  Well, here we go…

Eligible

Curtis Sittenfeld’s retelling/reworking of Pride and Prejudice is my top pick for the beach. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of this before it came out here in May and had to restrain myself from raving about it straight away.  It’s part of the Austen Project and it’s so clever.  Sittenfeld has taken P&P and rather than translating it direct to the current day, she’s thought about what the modern equivalent of the books situations might be.  So we have Lizzy the magazine writer brought home by her dad’s health scare,  Jane the Yoga Instructor, Bingley the Reality TV star (and doctor) and Darcy the neurosurgeon.  Kitty and Lydia are crossfit obsessed Paleo fans and Mrs B is a kleptomaniac desperate to marry off her nearly 40 year old oldest daughter. I thought it was brilliant – funny and smart and spot on.  I lent it straight to my mother – I wasn’t sure if she’d buy into the changes the way I did, but she loved it too.  Perfect beach reading – it’s a hardback, but I’m hoping there’ll be airport paperback copies too if you’re buying en route.  If not: Amazon, Waterstones, FoylesKindle, Kobo.

Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins

If you’ve been watching the ITV series, you may already have read James Runcie’s books about Grantchester’s vicar.  I prefer them to the TV version and I particularly like their episodic nature – each book has several mysteries, some (most) involving deaths and some which don’t.  As you work your way through the series you see Sidney grow and mature.  He’s 32 in the first one – which is set in the 1950s, and by the fourth one we’re into the 1960s.  I haven’t read book five yet – because it’s only out in paperback, but if you’re looking for a series to read while sitting in the garden enjoying the British summer, a visit to Grantchester might be an ideal option for you.  I think it would work best if you start at the beginning of the series, but the latest paperback (Forgiveness of Sins) should be fairly easy to find in the shops at the moment. Forgiveness of Sins: Amazon, Kindle, Foyles, Waterstones, Kobo.  Shadow of Death: Amazon, Kindle, Foyles, Waterstones, Kobo.

Fahrenheit Press

Ok, so this is a second crime recommendation – and a much broader one.  Go have a look at Fahrenheit Press’s catalogue.  There will definitely be something that you’ll like.  I’ve already picked Black Rubber Dress, Murder Quadrille and Death of a Nobody as Books of the Week, and I could have added others to that list.  I have their subscription – and I have several books waiting for me to read on my Kindle – including more Sam Jones which I’m saving for a holiday binge.  There’s thrillers, more cozies, historical and pretty much every other type of crime there, all with a slightly different perspective.  I defy you not to find a beach read there – and more are being added at a rate of knots.  They’ve only just started bringing out actual physical books – so the best way to find them is to search for Fahrenheit Press on Amazon – or check out their website.

The Highlander

This is about as close to an Old School Historical Romance novel as you get in new books these days – and does all the best bits of those late 80s and early 90s books, but without the rape and rapey bits I find so problematic.  This is not subtle.  It’s big, it’s melodramatic, it’s very Scottish.  I recommended The Highwayman last year – and this isn’t quite as good as that, but it is very good.  It has governesses and secret identities – which I like – but also an asylum (which I didn’t like and might be triggering for some) and a subplot with a brother which I didn’t like.  I know that sounds a bit less than enthusiastic from me – but it’s not – I kept turning the pages and I was engrossed.  Worth a look if you like your romances Gothic with brooding damaged Scottish heroes.  Amazon and Kindle are probably your best bet for this, as although Waterstones lists the two earlier titles in this series, it doesn’t have this one there yet.

So there you go.  My Summer reading suggestions.  Slightly later than planned (sorry) but hopefully still in time for the summer.  And if you’re still at a loss – I’ve stuck to books I haven’t recommended before, so don’t forget The Little Bookshop of Lonely Hearts, Sunset in Central Park, The Tumbling Turner Sisters and Jane Steele which would all be great to read on the beach.

Pick Me Up Books

It’s a funny old time at the moment isn’t it?  There’s so much news about – and lots of it is depressing for various reasons, that working in news for my day (and this week night) job* is getting a bit tough.  I’ve retreated into the world of Happy Endings.  Dystopian fiction is firmly off the menu, as is anything that might end on death, destruction or a down note.  This means I’ve been revisiting some old favourites again as well as reading loads of romance and cozy crime.  You’ll get some posts soon on the best of the new stuff – but I thought I’d also share some of my favourite old friends and Not New books.

Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell books from Virago

Aren’t they gorgeous? And there are more coming later in the year too.

Witty interwar comedies, mostly of manners, set in Barsetshire.  They’re a bit Mapp and Lucia (but with more sympathetic characters) and they remind me of the Diary of a Provincial Lady as well.  If you like the world of Golden Age crime, but don’t want the murders, then come take a look for a bit of wry social satire.  Virago are re-releasing them at the moment – and they’re gorgeous – but you should also be able to get them from a good second hand shop too.  You may remember I had Northbridge Rectory as a BotW a few weeks back, but as well as that one, if you liked Provincial Lady… start at the beginning of the series with High Rising, but if you loved boarding school stories, start with Summer Half and if you liked Downton, start with Pomfret Towers.

Charlaine Harris

 

Charlaine Harris books

The Charlaine Harris shelf, several series, mostly matching but with a few size issues!

Sookie Stackhouse, Harper Connelly, Lily Bard, Aurora Teagarden (a new book coming soon!) or Midnight, Texas, it doesn’t matter.  Yes they all have a body count, and you might lose a character you like from time to time.  But as escapist reading they’re pretty much all you could want.  Soapy melodrama with vampires (sometimes), small towns and kick-ass women (although Rue can be a bit wet at times).  Perfect for binge reading to take your mind off the real world.  After all there aren’t any vampires, werewolves or witches in the real world.

The Cazalet Chronicles

I had four matching copies. Then the fifth book arrived. And I got the hardback.

Retreat into the world of Home Place, the Brig and the Duchy, their children and grandchildren.  You meet them in 1937 and you can follow them through the Second World War and beyond across five books – until the grandchildren are grown up with families of their own.  There are so many characters and so many different stories that you can read 400 pages without out noticing.  Everyone has a favourite or two – mine are Rupert (from the children) and Polly and Clary (from the grandchildren).  I think my mum’s copies are so well thumbed that they fall open to my favourite sections about each of them – especially in Casting Off.  Glom on them on the beach if you’re on holiday, as I resist the temptation to rebuy a new matching set – you can get all 5 books for £6.99 from the Book People as I write this.

Vicky Bliss and Amelia Peabody

My kindle go-to at times like these is Elizabeth Peters’ Vicky Bliss and Amelia Peabody serieses.  I tried to pick one, but I couldn’t.  I mentioned both in passing in my Nightshift books post back in this blog’s early days and Amelia got a shout out in my Summer Reading post two years ago, but I was shocked I hadn’t given either a post of their own.  Amelia is a female Egyptologist in the late nineteenth century.  Vicky is an art historian in sort-of fairly recent times.  Both end up in thrilling adventures.  Amelia picks up a crew of regular side-kicks along the way including, but not limited to a husband, a son, a faithful site foreman and an arch-nemesis and Vicky just keeps running into this gentleman thief-con artist type.  Both remind me in some ways of a female Indiana Jones, but funnier.

And on top of all that, there’s Georgette Heyer, Janet Evanovich, Peter Wimsey and a few of my recent BotW picks that would serve the same purpose and cheer you up too – check out Little Shop of Lonely Hearts, The Rogue Not Taken, Sunset in Central Park and Fangirl.  Also, if in doubt, read Georgette Heyer – start with Venetia or Regency Buck. Coming soon: Summer Holiday reading recommendations…

*In case you missed it I’m a journalist in real life.

 

Book of the Week: The White Cottage Mystery

We’re back in classic crime territory for the week’s BotW – although it’s a bit of a cheat as this is a reissue of whole book – Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery – but it is excellent and it gives me a great chance to talk about an author who I think is a bit neglected.

This is a tricksy and intriguing standalone mystery which sees a policeman and his son trying to solve the murder of a particularly nasty neighbour. Jerry happens upon the scene of the crime and soon has his Scotland Yard detective father involved.  This was originally a serialised book (just like some of Harriet Vane’s novels in my beloved Peter Wimsey) and you can really tell from the pacing and multiple cliffhangers. There is a clever drip feed of clues which method you turning the pages, and although I had suspicions about the culprit, it wasn’t until quite late on that I worked it all out.

This was my first non-Campion Allingham and it didn’t disappoint. I usually prefer my detective books to be part of a series (I prefer Miss Marple and Poirot to Christie’s other books) but this was a pleasant surprise. But then it’s not that different in style to the Campion series, you could almost swap the leads for Albert and his son and it would nearly work (except that Albert is not a cop) and that totally works for me! In case you haven’t met Allingham’s most famous creation,  Albert Campion is the younger scion of a noble family, who uses an assumed name and solves mysteries with the help of his faithful manservant and police officer friend. Sound familiar? Well that’s because it supposedly started as a Lord Peter Wimsey parody, but developed into much, much more (an BBC ran for much longer). Albert’s Bunter equivalent is a reformed (ish) criminal and Campion end up being much older than Peter.  They’re also more adventure stories than detective, most of the time you don’t have a chance of working out the solution to Campion’s cases but they’re such great fun you don’t care.

I discovered Margery Allingham when I was living in Essex – where she still had a large presence in their libraries as a local author, even though she’d been dead 40 years at that point. I devoured as many of them as I could lay my hands on, and although the series has its ups and downs, I defy you not to like them if you’re a fan of Wimsey, Marple and Poirot or even adventure stories like Amelia Peabody or Vicky Bliss. It’s not the first one, but start with Sweet Danger and I defy you not to get hooked.

My copy of The White Cottage Mystery can via NetGalley, but you can buy it in paperback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones  or on Kindle. You should also be able to find new or secondhand copies of Albert Campion too.   Don’t blame me for the spending spree that will ensue though…