Easter Bonus: Bank Holiday Reading

I don’t know about you but I’m hoping for some nice weather this Easter weekend so that i can sit in the garden and read. [Ed: Written more in hope than expectation, the forecast is promising clouds and rain] I always find this a weird time of year for reading – it’s too warm for wintry books, where people are snowed in or hanging around in front of fires with hot choclate, but it’s not warm enough for full on summer-y stories.  So here are a few ideas for things that you could read this weekend as well as what I’m hoping to read on my days off.

As you know I’m a big fan of cozy crime, and if you pick the right series they can be perfect for this time of year – you just want to avoid anything themed around a holiday or festival that’s not Easter, or stuff with snow on the cover!  Among the recent releases I’ve enjoyed (and haven’t already talked about!) is Lea Wait’s Tightening the Threads (a dysfunctional family in Maine turns deadly when a long-lost family member is introduced).  The third Max Tudor book, A Pagan Spring, is set around Easter time when a new arrival to the village dies after a getting-to-know-you dinner party.

Also Easter-y (but not cozy crime!) is Joanne Harris’s Chocolat.  Nomadic Vianne and her daughter arrive in a French village and set up a chocolate shop.  But Lent is about to start and Vianne is not a church-goer.  I just love it – and if all you’ve seen is the film then you’re missing out big time.

Not an Easter book, but another book which might work for this time of year is Lyndsay Faye’s The Whole Art of Detection – which is a collection of her Sherlock Holmes short stories. The mysteries are clever and Sherlock and John are good value, and although I haven’t read enough Holmes to really get the absolute most out of this, it looks like lots of Holmes-superfans really have enjoyed it.

Or you could start a series.  I love Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody and the first book is 99p this weekend on Kindle. Amelia is a feisty Victorian Egyptologist (or wannabe Egyptologist in the first book) who spends her winters on the banks of the Nile looking for undiscovered tombs while bodies just keep popping up.  When you meet her, her father has just died and instead of going and living with one of her brothers, as a good unmarried sister should (in their opinon) she up sticks to go travelling with her inheritance.  Stick with the series and she develops an arch-nemesis, a husband and a son – who eventually marries as well (that’s how long the series goes on for).  If you liked Veronica Speedwell, you’ll like Amelia Peabody.

As for me, I’ve snapped up Dandy Gilver and a Most Misleading Habit which is book 11 in the series and was 99p on Kindle as I was writing this, Fern Britton’s A Seaside Affair which is free on Kindle for Easter*.  I’ve also got a stack of short stories to catch up on and a couple of children’s books that I’ve been meaning to get around to.  All of which sounds a bit ambitious for a three-day (for me) weekend!

Whatever you’re doing this Easter weekend, happy reading!

*There’s a nice selection of freebies from Harper Collins this weekend – which also includes Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance which is a (1980s) classic when it comes to the rags to riches sagas.  And previous BotW Sunset in Central Park by Sarah Morgan is free on Kindle at time of writing too – well worth snapping up.

Gone with the Windsors by Laurie Graham

Recommendsday: Gone with the Windsors

While reading Royal Flush last week, where one of Lady Georgie’s tasks is trying to keep the Prince of Wales away from Wallis Simpson, I couldn’t help but think of Gone with the Windsors – my favourite novel that features Wallis.  Then I realised that I’ve mentioned it in passing several times on here* but never actually reviewed.  So Recommendsday this week seemed the perfect time to remedy that.

A copy of Gone with the Windsors

“A wicked comedy about the Romance of the Century” is pretty spot on

Gone with the Windsors is the story of Wallis Simpson’s romance with Edward VIII as seen throught he eyes of her (fictional) best friend, Maybell Brumby.  Maybell is a recently widowed Southern Belle who comes to London to visit her sister (married to a Scottish Earl) to one up her social rivals back home just as one of their old school friends is making a stir by stepping out with the Prince of Wales.  Soon Maybell is hobnobbing with royalty as Wallis (with the help of Maybell’s money) sets London society ablaze.  Maybell and her family are carefully woven into the real story and as someone who’s read a fair bit about the Edward and Mrs Simpson and the 1930s in general, I didn’t spot any howlers.

A quote from Gone with the Windsors

How could you not love Maybell’s insider view of the Abdication Crisis?

The Wallis of Gone with the Windsors is a ruthless social climber, with an aim in mind, who doesn’t mind stepping on anybody to get there.  David is weak and easily led, thinking more of his own pleasure than of his responsibilities.  But Maybell is a total joy.  I mean you wouldn’t want to be friends with her, but she is a brilliant prism to watch the slow motion car crash that was the Abdication Crisis.  She is delightfully dim (witness her dealings with her sister Doopie) and part of the fun is watching her misunderstand what’s going on – or miss the undercurrents.  Her sister is firmly on the Royal Family’s side against Wallis, while Maybell is convinced she’s picked the winner, which makes for fraught times on the summer holiday in Scotland.

Maybell finds new ways to keep herself occupied during a summer at her sister’s Scottish estate.

GWTW was my first Laurie Graham book – I spotted it in the window of Waterstones and had to have it – and since reading it she’s been an autobuy for me and I’ve picked up a lot of her back catalogue.  I like her straight up novels too, but my favourite are the ones like this where she takes a historical event or person and puts her spin on it.  I mentioned the Importance of Being Kennedy in my Inauguration Reading post, and The Grand Duchess of Nowhere was my first review for Novelicious, but A Humble Companion (about a companion to one of George III’s daughters) and The Night in Question (about a music hall comedienne who gets caught up in the Jack the Ripper panic) are also excellent.

My copies of Gone with the Windsors

They’re both gorgeous, but I have a soft spot for the white one – as it was the first version I had.

As you can see, I have two copies of Gone with the Windsors.  The blue one is a signed copy sent to me by the author after I cried and wailed on Twitter about losing my original (white) copy** and it being out of stock everywhere, the other one is a secondhand copy I bought because the signed edition was too nice to read.  So now the pristine blue on is on the shelf with the other Laurie Graham books and the white one lives by my bed for when I need a dose of Maybell.

A quote from Gone with the Windsors

Maybell is just so much fun. Often unintentionally.

In a fabulous twist of fate, Gone with the Windsors is coming out on Kindle later this month – I’d actually already written a sentence saying that I was said it wasn’t available Kindle so now I’m very overexcited at the prospect of having Maybell to hand whenever I need a pick me up.  So, you too can preorder Gone with the Windsors on Kindle, or pick up a secondhand hardcover or a (new or secondhand) paperback copy from Amazon.  I’m hoping the preorder link for her next novel – a sequel to Future Homemakers of America out in June – appears soon as it’s been more than a year since her last new novel came out and I’ve got withdrawal symptoms.

Gosh this has turned into a long post.  But I feel very good for having told the world about my love of Maybell Brumby and her crazy view of the world.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it – and I hope you get0 the book.

Happy reading!

*Usually when talking about another Laurie Graham book to say that GWTW is my favourite.

** I lent it out without writing my name in the front of it and never got it back. It was a salutary lesson.

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!

Inauguration Reading?

As you may have noticed (I think it’s hard to have missed it) Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as President of the United States.  It always seems strange to me that it takes America so long to swap over after elections, but here we are, today is Inauguration Day.  And being a news person, that means this week I’m thinking politics and books about politics.  Regular readers will know that I’ve been reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife for sometime – it’s been my bedside book, although this week it’s had an upgrade – and I’m also reading First Women which I got for Christmas.  All of which means my reading this week has been fairly American politics heavy.  I’m at work getting ready to watch The Donald take charge (oh the joys of scheduled posting), but if you’re not watching – or if you’ve watched and want more politics, here are some reading suggestions for you.

First Women and American Wife

My current politics-themed reading choices

Primary Colors By Anon (Joe Klein)

Primary Colors tells the story of Jack Stanton, a southern governor making a presidential run.  One of the blurbs coyly says that some characters and events ressemble real-life figures – but it doesn’t take much knowledge to work out that the people in question are the Clintons and that this is a fictionalised version of Bill’s presidential campaign.  I read this on holiday last year, and although it’s incredibly readable, I really hope that the machinations in this are an exaggeration.  If half of them go on in real life, it’s a worry.  Worth reading if you haven’t already – you’ll probably end up down a Wikipedia hole as you try and work out which bits are true(r) and which are made up.

John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

This is a proper weighty tome.  It covers all of JFK’s life – but not much of the fallout (and conspiracies) after his assassination.  I came away with a much better understanding of what he stood for and what his background.  It’s not salacious – although the other women do get mentioned – but you do get a lot of detail about his family background and his medical history and how all of this influenced him.  I came away with a strong dislike of his family and strongly mixed feelings about him, but it’s definitely worth it.

The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham

If you want a Kennedy fix, but don’t want a biography, (or if you’ve read the biography and still want more) try this.  Nora Brennan is newly arrived from Ireland when she gets a job as a nursery maid to a family in Brookline.  She ends up on the inside of American history as she looks after the Kennedy children and sees their parents try to build an empire.  It takes you through Joe’s time as Ambassador in the UK and WW2 and beyond.  Warning: you may not like many of them (detect a theme here with the Kennedys?) but it’s worth it for the wit and warmth.  The history is spot on as well which is what Laurie Graham does so well – if you like this, search out my favourite of hers Gone with the Windsors.

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Slightly left field this I’ll admit – because it’s not about American politics but an English aristocrat in the Eighteenth century.  But Georgiana (pronounced George-ay-na in this case not George-ee-ana like Pride and Prejudice) was a political activist as well as a famed beauty and the queen of fashionable society, and this biography deals with that as well as with her (very) complicated love life.  She’s another person who I didn’t like very much, but I was fascinated by her story.  A film of the book was made a few years back featuring Keira Knightley which I keep meaning to get around to watching.

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Sick of modern politics?  Need a reminder of how bad things used to be?  Read this. Turns out Imperial Russia was even worse that I thought – and I’m only just at the latter stages of the war against Napoleon.  So far there’s been patricide, filicide, plain old homicide, usurpers, wifes sent to convents, imprisoned deposed rulers and so many horrible murders and inventive torture methods.  So many. So gruesome.  Some involved spikes.  I’m listening to the audiobook and I can confirm that I run faster when listening to tales of horrible doings – probably because I don’t want any of them catching up with me!

What’s next on my list?  Well I have Paula Byrne’s book, Kick, about JFK’s sister sitting on the pile, so I might read that.  In all the Kennedy books I’ve read so far she’s probably come off as the nicest of them although she died young and had a bit of a tragicl life.  And as she married the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire – so it sort of ties in nicely with Georgiana too!

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!

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.

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.