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: Difficult Women

This week’s BotW is Roxane Gay’s short story collection Difficult Women.  I’ve been reading this as my bedtime book for a few weeks (which is where short story collections often end up in my house!) and have really enjoyed reading.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

My copy of Difficult Women

Difficult Women is a collection of stories about very different women, all of whom might be termed “difficult”.  The term “difficult women” conjures images of angry or confrontational women, but that’s not necessarily who these women are.  These are women who don’t fit into neat categories.  They’re women who have had bad experiences.  There’s abuse, violence and infidelity and a whole host of trigger warnings here, but no two women are the same.  There’s poverty and privilege, there are single women, married women, violent women and women who are in fish out of water situations and there’s some sci fi too.

Some of the stories are sad.  But somehow this is not a sad book.   It’s thought provoking and clever and really beautifully written.  There were women that  liked, women I didn’t like and women who had life experiences a million miles from mine but there was always something in the story to make you feel empathy with the women, no matter how terribly they were behaving.

The last short story collection I raved about on here was American Housewife (I think) which is totally different to this, but both reminded me that when done well short story collections can be as satisfying as 500 page novels. I’ve been following Roxane Gay on Twitter for ages and have heard people raving about her but until now I’d only read odd stories in isolation or her essays.  I know I’ll be going out and finding more of her writing after reading this.

You can get hold of Difficult Women from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo.

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.

Christmas Reading

The schools have broken up, offices are starting to wind down and although I’m only midway through my run of nights, it really is starting to feel a lot like Christmas.  So if you’re already in full-on festive mode, here are some Christmassy reading suggestions for you.  All my links in this are to the Kindle editions – partly because there are so many e-specials in here, but also because it’s so close to Christmas now you’re probably not going to be able to get the actual book in the post in time.

As with every year there is a healthy crop of new festive novellas about.  In the main, I think they mostly work for people who are already fans, rather than people who are new to the author, but if you’re a fan of Katie Fforde, you can check in with some old friends in Candlelight at Christmas, or with the characters from Cathy Bramley‘s Plumberry School of Comfort Food in Comfort and Joy.  Alex Brown returns to Tindledale to write a emotional story about finding a new love in Not Just for Christmas.  Liz Fenwick has written a Christmas Carol-inspired novella, A Cornish Christmas Carol, for those of you who want to see a Scrooge converted.  And there are short stories from Jennifer Crusie, Donna Alward and Mandy Baxter in It Must Be Christmas – I liked the Crusie the best, but be warned it’s been previously published (I discovered I’d already read it) and I think it’s a little expensive (over a fiver at time of writing) for what it is as I thought the other two stories each had a problem or two with them.

I reviewed Sarah Morgan‘s Christmas novel Miracle on Fifth Avenue for Novelicious – it’s wonderfully Christmassy even if it’s not quite grovelly enough in the resolution for me.  Morgan writes excellent Christmas stories – I read the first book in her Snow Crystal trilogy, Sleigh Bells in the Snow, a couple of weeks back and that’s great as well.  I’m currently trying to resist the urge to buy the other two in the series.  It’s not new, but I read Tessa Dare‘s Spindle Cove fill in Once Upon A Winter’s Eve this year – and whilst I took an early dislike of the hero and didn’t think it was long enough for him to be able to redeem himself fully, I know that other people have loved it.  I’ve also read the last in Sabrina Jeffries‘s Hellions of Halstead Hall series this year, Twas the Night after Christmas, which is actually mostly set in the run up to Christmas.  I found the characters a bit stubborn and the central plot device is a bit melodramatic and overblown, but other people ha

There’s also no shortage of Christmas books in the series that I follow and I’ve read quite a few of them this year.  The latest in Robin Stevens‘ Wells and Wong series , Mistletoe and Murder is a Christmas one – as I’ve already mentioned in a BotW post and you’d be fine starting the series there if you really wanted to.  And I think Donna Andrew‘s Duck the Halls would be fine for someone to read if they haven’t read the other 15 Meg Langslow books – although you’d be missing the background to Meg’s eccentric extended family so she might come across as barking mad.  I’m behind in the series (because I collect them in papberback but wait for the secondhand prices to come down because of the backlog) so there’s another Christmas-y Meg after this one, The Nightingale Before Christmas as well as an earlier festive one, Six Geese Are Slaying.  Alan Bradley‘s fourth Flavia de Luce novel is set at Christmastime.  In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Flavia is cooking up a trap for St Nick but a film crew is snowed in at Buckshaw and a murder is committed. The fifth in Kerry Greenwood‘s Corinna Chapman series, Forbidden Fruit, is a Christmas book – but it’s Christmas in Australia which makes a lovely change from snow scenes and roaring fires.  It also has recipes at the back, which is always a bonus – and one of things I like about Trisha Ashley‘s books.  I’ve mentioned her a fair bit here before – but she has some fabulous Christmas books – particularly my favourite A Winter’s Tale, which I usually re-read at this time of year.

Some of the series have Christmas fill-in novellas too – in Jodi Taylor‘s Chronicles of St Mary’s series When A Child is Born sees Max and the gang in England for Christmas 1066 and all does not go as planned (but then when does it ever?) and A Christmas Present had me in tears twice as Max goes back in time to avert a double tragedy.  this year I’ve also enjoyed Silent Night and Twelth Night, the two Christmas fill-ins in Deanna Raybourn‘s Lady Julia Grey series but much as I love her,  I really do think you need to have read the other books to be able to get the best out of them.

This is a real monster list (much longer than I thought it would be when I started writing it) and I hope this has provided plenty of Christmas-y reading for you – but if this is still not enough, here’s last year’s Christmas-themed reading post with some more suggestions.

Book of the Week: Angel

You may be relieved to hear that this weeks BotW is neither Fahrenheit Press book or a Christmas book – even though the title might suggest that it could be the latter.  It is however the perfect book for curling up with on a sofa on a wintry afternoon.

hardback copy of Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

My second hand copy- the stain on the front was there when I got it, the dent in the top… I’m not sure.

The titular Angel is the spoilt darling of a grocery shop proprietress, who spins fantasies to her school mates about a glamorous house where her aunt is a maid.  When she is found out she takes to her bed, refuses to return to school and starts to write novels.  These turn out to be bestsellers – at least at first – even if they’re wildly inaccurate, far-fetched and slated by the critics.  But Angel doesn’t care – she believes she is one of the world’s greatest writers and nothing and nobody is going to stand in her way.

Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) has created a monster.  Angel is dreadful in every way – delusional, deceitful, ungrateful, selfish, vain and more.  But you can’t stop reading about her in a sort of fascinated horror.  She is oblivious to her faults and to the way that others view her and is able to sail through life in the comfortable delusion that she is clever, witty, brilliant and under-appreciated.  You would never want to spend any time with any one like her in real life, but I could happily have spend hours more reading about her antics.

There are a fair few women in books who become writers as a response to straightened circumstances – often with a trusty maid in attendance.  But they are almost always portrayed as gentlewomen brought low by financial troubles not of their own making.  Angel is not one of these – she starts writing as a way of getting her own way – initially she’s more interested in showing her neighbours that she’s better than them.  Then the money enables her to exert power over her mother, who in her attempts to allow her daughter to go further in life by scrimping and saving for a better education for her has created a stubborn tyrant who will brook no opposition.  As we follow Angel through 40 plus years we see the changes in British society as it moves from the Victorian era, through two World Wars – and we see Angel rewrite her past and invent new fictions for herself – which she believes even if those around her know other wise.

Although Angel is the centre of this book we also get to see the people she uses up and spits out – her mother, her aunt, a wannabe poetess, her husband, her servants – and the people who manage to survive her onslaught – only really her publisher and his wife.  It’s a portrait of a tyrant and it’s very, very good.

My copy of Angel is a lovely Virago Designer Hardback which I got second hand and seem to be quite hard to come by, but it’s also available in paperback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and on Kindle and Kobo.  And as it was first published in 1957, you have a fighting chance of being able to find yourself a second hand copy in a charity or second hand bookshop.

Happy reading.

Book of the Week: Cheerfulness Breaks In

As you may have seen, I didn’t read much last week.  It was a busy, stressful week at work and my brain was fried.  And then there wasn’t a lot to chose from for BotW.  And I know I’ve done an Angela Thirkell BotW before (not that long ago) but although this has its problems, it was still my favourite of the books I read last week.

 

Cheerfulness Breaks In sees the start of the Second World War and all the changes that brings.  It starts with Rose Birkett finally getting married (after having been engaged goodness knows how many times) and is very funny as that flighty damsel wonders if she can squeeze in a trip to the cinema on the morning of her wedding.  Then she’s off abroad with her serviceman husband and everything starts to change.  Some men are conscripted and go away, some are left at home fretting about how they’ll be treated because they haven’t been conscripted.  All the jolly hockey sticks girls throw themselves into nursing and the war effort and waves of evacuees arrive.  There are some very funny and poignant sections in here.

But – and there is a but – it does feel a bit dated because of some of the scenes with the evacuees and the Mixo-Lydians.  Thirkell’s view of the upper class/lower class divide is not as simplistic as some, because there are good people among the evacuated people – and some real idiots among the posh ones, but it is quite broad strokes, and strokes that favour the country people over the urban people.  But then Thirkell was writing this at the time these things were actually happening, so I’m chalking it up as having attitudes “of its time” and giving it a slight pass.  I suspect this is the reason why this one is an ebook only re-release from Virago rather than a pretty paperback like a lot of the others have had.

It’s available on Kindle or Kobo or you can pick up a secondhand paperback copy – but it’s not the best of Thirkell so don’t start here – go with Summer Half for some of the characters from this or Northbridge Rectory (actually the book after this in the series) or start at the beginning with High Rising.

Book of the Week: The Madwoman Upstairs

This week’s BotW was a tough decision, with two books in serious contention.  But in the end I’ve picked Catherine Lowell’s debut novel The Madwoman Upstairs.  The other contender, Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August, also gets an honourable mention – and if you’re looking for a rich people problems summer holiday book, set on an island in Maine (and inspired by Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April) this would make a good read for you – I’ve already lent it to my mum. But I digress.

My copy of The Madwoman Upstairs

This week’s fetching photo was taken on the train, where I read 300 pages in two trips!

The Madwoman Upstairs tells the story of Samantha Whipple, the last remaining descendant of the Bronte family, starting at university and trying to avoid the attention that her family name has always brought her.  She had an unconventional childhood, brought up by her eccentric father, who died in a fire, and who, it’s rumoured, left her a treasure trove of secret Bronte documents.  As far as Samantha knows, the mysterious Bronte literary estate doesn’t exist – or if it does no one’s told her about it.  Then she receives a copy of a Bronte novel, annotated by her dad, and finds herself caught up in a literary treasure hunt, set by her father.  She sets out to solve it, helped – or hindered – by her handsome but cantakerous and combative personal tutor.

I’m not a big Bronte fan.  I’ve read Jane Eyre once, tried to read Wuthering Heights several times and never made it, and gave up on the TV adaptation of Tennant of Wildfell Hall.  However I seem to be reading increasing numbers of Bronte-themed/based books – and really enjoying them.  This isn’t quite up their with The Eyre Affair, which is my all-time favourite, but I liked it even more Jane Steel (a BotW a few months back) – which was promising at the start but faded a little.  This keeps the pace going to the very end – which left me having a spoiler-filled moment on Litsy (I added spoiler tags don’t worry) because I had Thoughts I needed to put out there.  It’s really fun and quite funny – although I wouldn’t precisely call it a “a light-hearted literary comedy” as some of the tag lines would have it* – I was thinking more darkly comic in places.

I’ve already lent this out to a friend – I suspect my mum may want to read it as well, and I think this would generally be a great book to read as the schools go back, starting as it does with Samantha arriving at university.  But equally if you’re off on a late summer break, this would keep you engrossed and smiling on the plane (or on the beach).

I was lucky enough to have an advance copy which was paperback, but sadly it’s only out in hardback at the moment.  You can get a copy from Amazon, Kindle, Kobo, Waterstones, Foyles – or pre-order the paperback for a nice treat you’d forgotten you’d bought when it arrives in April – on Amazon and Waterstones.

Happy Reading

*I see the paperback cover – and the current ebook cover feels much lighter and less gothic than the cover I had, which fits with the light-hearted comedy idea much better than the one which I have.