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!

 

Recommendsday: Sidney Chambers

I finished reading the sixth Sidney Chambers book last night and it broke me. Absolutely broke me.  In a youth hostel dorm.  Crying in a corner with a pile of used tissues*.  I’ve mentioned this series in passing before (like last summer’s reading suggestions) but never done a proper post about them.  James Runcie has said that this is the last book in the series, and while there is (apparently) a prequel on the way, now seems like a good time to talk about Grantchester’s crime solving vicar.

Cover of Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love

I love the original covers for this series – they’re just so pickupable.

The first thing to say is that you may well be familiar with the TV series based on the books  – Grantchester.  The books cover a much longer period of time than the show has and has diverged from the plots of the books somewhat.  I loved the first series, but trailed off in the second series as it moved further and further away from the books and I have the third sitting on the TiVo box waiting to be watched.  Personally, although James Norton has a strong appeal to me, I prefer the books.
Here are the basics in case you’ve missed out on Sidney altogether:  at the start of the series, he’s a 32-year-old bachelor in charge of the parish of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, who gets tangled up in a mysterious death.  Sidney becomes friends with the detective investigating and soon Geordie is calling him in on other cases.  And this is the pattern for the books, which are based around a series of shorter mysteries (not all of which are murders) rather than one big one – which works really well for the series.  There’s a cast of supporting characters that evolves as the series goes on – initially his housekeeper Mrs Maguire, but also including curates, friends and love interests.

Author James Runcie is the son of former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and the books are packed with details about ecclesiastical and vicarage life in the period which really lifts the series beyond your normal historical cozy crime novel.  I love Sidney as a character – his difficulties in concentrating on being a vicar and not getting involved in crimes and the difficulties and challenges of life as a vicar.  I’ve really enjoyed the series – and although I want more, the final story of the sixth book is probably the most beautifully written and resonant that there has been in the whole series, so it’s a good note to go out on if this is it.

cover of Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

The TV tie-in cover for the first book with the lovely James Norton.

I’d suggest you start the series at the beginning – you should be able to find them in all good bookshops – or you could order from the Big Green Bookshop and support an indie bookshop.  The Kindle edition of the first book was £1.89 at time of writing and 31.99 on Kobo.

Happy reading!

*NB the fact that I have a cold may have contributed to the snot bomb this book caused.

Book of the Week: The Stars Are Fire

This week’s BotW is Anita Shreve’s new novel, The Stars Are Fire, which came out last week and which I finished at the weekend.  Shreve has been on my list of authors that I really ought to have read, and this piqued my interest when I saw it on NetGalley so it seemed like an opportunity to rectify that omission.  And it turned out to be a good decision.

Cover of The Stars Are Fire

I think this cover is pretty – but I’m not sure it really represents Grace.

The Stars Are Fire is set in Maine in 1947 where Grace Holland is struggling with her marriage.  Her husband Gene is distant and won’t talk about the war, her mother-in-law hates her, she has two small children and a third on the way.  When a massive fire breaks out after a long summer drought, Gene goes to join the volunteer firefighters to try and prevent it from reaching the town.  Grace is left alone to try and defend their house and protect their children.  When the flames arrive, she watches her home burn to the ground and is forced into the sea to shelter from the waves.  When the morning comes, her home is gone and her husband is missing and she’s forced to try and build a new reality.

I was a little sceptical about this book when I started reading it, and while I still have a few reservations, the book was engrossing and kept me turning the pages eager to know what happened next.  My main issue with the book was with Gene, who doesn’t feel like a fully rounded character.  You’re not meant to like him, but I struggled to get a sense of who he was and why Grace had been interested in dating him in the first place.  For me the most enjoyable part of the book was the middle section, but I always knew that it wasn’t going to last.  The final section of the novel felt a little rushed and underdeveloped.  I was a little worried about how it was all going to be resolved (or if it was going to be resolved) but at the end I was happy.

That all sounds a little negative, but they’re fairly small quibbles when set against the beautiful writing and how engaging and intriguing Grace is as a character.  She’s strong and reslient and seizes opportunities out of the ruins left by the fire.  I hadn’t heard of the Great Fire of 1947 before I read this book and Shreve paints a vivid picture of the heat and drought leading up to it as well as the terror of the actual events.  The stifling atmosphere before the fire is mirrored in the way that Grace feels in her marriage – although she doesn’t realise how trapped she feels at the time.  Although the fire brings her personal loses, it is also the making of Grace and the woman we leave at the end of the book feels very different to the one we met at the start, which makes for a satisfying read.

The Stars Are Fire is out now in hardback (sorry) and ebook.    As previously mentioned, my copy came from NetGalley but you can get hold of it from on Kindle or Kobo and from Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles or you could order it from the Big Green Bookshop.  I suspect it’s the sort of book that will be out on the tables in bookshops and at the airport, although I don’t suggest that you read it on the beach or somewhere hot as it may leave you paranoid about wildfires!  I read it on the train and it made several journeys to and from work fly by.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week: Southern Fried

It was actually a really tough choice picking this weeks BotW partly because I didn’t read as much last week and partly because none of what I read was an absolute stand out for me.  So in the end, I’ve settled on Tonya Kappes’ Southern Fried – a cozy crime mystery that comes out today, which has its issues, but overall was the book I had the most to say about of last week’s reading!

The cover of Southern Fried

I like the cover – simple but actually relevant to the story.

This is the second in the Kenni Lowry series – about the sheriff of small town in Kentucky who is assisted on the job by the ghost of her grandfather (no, don’t walk away, it’s not quite as nutty as it seems) who was also the town’s sheriff.  Kenni loves her job, but her mother isn’t best pleased about her daughter’s vocation – and neither are some of the townspeople as the local crime rate starts to rise.  In Southern Fried, Kenni is investigating the death of a man found dead in the greenhouse of his former (as it turns out) employer in the run up to a cook off that they were both taking part in.   In working out what happened, Kenni gets tangled up in family feuds and local intrigue just as election season is starting to get underway.  As the danger mounts, Kenni, her dog Duke and her new (and handsome) deputy Finn must work out what’s going on before the rising death toll scuttles Kenni’s chances at holding on to her dream job before the voting even starts.

There’s a lot that I liked about this – I love the southern setting, the mystery is fast-paced and twisty with a potential slow burn romance running alongside.  However as a Brit, I struggle to get my head around the idea of elected sheriffs and the hyper-local police forces and at times Kenni doesn’t help with this.  In the first book in the series I found her spacey and not entirely convincing on police procedure (especially for a police academy graduate) but she seems much more competent in this one, which helped me cope with the fact that she’s taking advice from a ghost!  Regular readers will know that I have a strange releationship with the supernatural and parnormal in books*, but in the main this works for me.  There were still a couple of points where I raised my eyebrows at Kenni’s actions – an amateur detective can get away with a lot more than a sheriff can – but the book moves quick enough that you only notice this when you stop to think!

This book also made me muse on the role of the knowledgeable background character in cozy crimes.  Kenni being the sheriff is a double-edged sword – it means that she has the right to be investigating crimes (and indeed is likely to come across them) in a way that many of the sleuths in cozies don’t, but it also rules out an important source of information and means that at times the sleuth can come across as not being very good at her job.  there’s a couple of points in this where Finn the deputy seems like he knows what he’s doing more than Kenni does.  But this is only book two in the series and is a big step on from book one so there is lots of potential for development and improvement as the series goes on.

My copy came from NetGalley, but you can buy Southern Fried on Kindle or in paperback from Amazon from today.

Happy Reading.

* As in sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t but I can never work out in advance what I’m going to like and what I’m going to hate!

Book of the Week: The Little Teashop of Lost and Found

This week’s BotW is the latest from long-time auto-buy author of mine, Trisha Ashley.  If you’ve been here a while this choice will not surprise, you because you’ll know that I’m a big Trisha Ashley fan.  I’m on her mailing list, I go to her London readers’ tea party, I keep her books on the special downstairs bookshelf of books I might need to have handy to read again AND I have copies of most of them on Kindle.  So you can imagine how delighted I was when I got an advance readers copy of her new book The Little Teashop of Lost and Found – and how much willpower it took not to squeal all over the place, read it straight away and then immediately blog about it.  But I have been restrained.  Very.  It helped that I had to pack all the book piles away for the fireplace work – and that they still haven’t been properly unpacked.  It helped that I knew I had nights coming right before it was due out and that this would be the perfect book to save as a post-nights* treat to myself.  But still.  Points for will power for waiting to read it so that I could post this the week that it comes out.  Anyway, you want to hear about the book, not about my crazy fangirling, so here we go.

Trisha Ashley's Little Teashop of Lost and Found and some daffodils.

Check out my attempt at pretty photography. I like the contrast of the daffodils and the book cover.

The Little Teashop of Lost and Found tells the story of Alice, abandoned on the moors above Haworth as a baby, adopted and then abandoned again in various ways by various people as she grows up into adulthood.  Always feeling like an outsider, after her latest setback she buys a rundown cafe in Haworth in the hope that being close to where she was found might help her find the home and the family that she’s been searching and longing for.  While she’s setting up her tea emporium – and writing her book – she makes friends and starts to try and unravel the mystery of who she really is.  But will she get her happily ever after?

Trisha Ashley’s heroines tend to be looking for a second chance at love and have tragedy in their past – and Alice is no exception.**  She’s had so many knock backs and tragedies that it’s a wonder she’s still in any way optimistic about the future.  And life in Haworth isn’t plain sailing at first, although she soon acquires a surrogate family to help her along.  I liked the interludes with extracts from the dark and twisted fairy tale that Alice is writing and I loved the secondary characters – the Giddings family, Lola and the rude waitresses with the hearts of gold are all brilliant.  And I really liked the other intercut sections that I can’t talk about without giving too much of the plot away – they’re so cleverly done that I had to go back and reread some of them at the end in shock to check I hadn’t missed something earlier!

This is warm, witty and uplifting as well as being a great slow-burn romance where the reader and every one else around the heroine can see what’s going on so much more clearly than she can.  This is also (obviously) set in Yorkshire rather than the more traditional Trisha-world of Lancashire but there are some familiar faces here despite that.  If you’ve read the novella Finding Mr Rochester you’ll spot some characters from there – in fact I need to go back and read it again to see exactly how many characters from that pop up in this.

The Little Teashop of Lost and Found is out in hardback on Thursday (the 9th) and you can get your copy from Amazon (for a bargainous £6.99 at time of writing), Waterstones and Foyles or buy it on Kindle or Kobo.  The paperback isn’t out until June, but you can pre-order that from AmazonWaterstones and Foyles too.  I need to get myself a copy too – because the ARC doesn’t have all the recipes in the back!

Happy Reading!

*Proof reading this was a real hoot – I wrote this when I was still quite nightshift-brainy and when I came back to check it, well lets just say it was a haven for unfinished sentences, typos and mismatched tenses.  I think I’ve fixed them all, but hey, if a few have crept through, I’m sorry!

**In fact I think the heroine’s backstories are getting sadder – Tabby from Christmas Cracker had been in jail (she was someone else’s dupe), Cally in Wish Upon a Star had a seriously-ill daughter, Izzy in Creature Comforts had been involved in a serious car crash, now Alice abandoned at birth.  I don’t know how the books still end up being so cheerful and uplifting!

Book of the Week: Pretty Face

I know.  This is a day late.  What can I say – nightshifts really wiped me out.  I have spent so much time sleeping – and then a lot of life admin to do to try to catch up after two weeks of living nocturnally.  So this is a Recommendsday post instead – and you can wait until tomorrow for February stats.  Sorry.  Anyhow, this week’s BotW really brightened my nightshifts commutes up last week – Lucy Parker’s second book, Pretty Face.

Cover of Pretty face by Lucy Parker

You know its in London because of the bridge!

Lily Lamprey is an actress.  Unfortunately she’s handicapped by a sexy voice and curves that saw her cast as a man-stealing bitch in a popular period drama.  But now she’s leaving the show and she wants to do something different.  Respected theatre director Luc Savage has poured his heart and soul into restoring his family’s London theatre and now he’s casting the opening production.  Some of his partners think that Lily giving a role would be a great way to sell tickets.  But he’s not convinced she can pull it off.  When the two meet there are sparks – and instant attraction.  But Lily’s mum has a reputation for getting ahead through her relationships and Lily knows what people will say if she starts seeing Luc.  Luc’s long-term relationship has just finished and he’s older than Lily – he’s sure it’s just a mid-life crisis and he’s not willing to risk his career and reputation on it.

This is just what I like in a romance.  It’s an enemies to lovers story with witty banter, plenty of snark and a great set up.  Both characters have their issues and their reasons for avoiding a relationship with each other and the way things are worked out and worked through is fun to read about.  Parker’s depiction of the world of the theatre is great – full of well-rounded characters and personality.  If I have a problem with the book it’s that a few of the British references and British-isms jarred for me and didn’t ring entirely true.  But that’s little nitpicky details that most people probably aren’t going to spot/be annoyed by.

Pretty Face was just what I needed last week – fun and romantic, with a bit of emotional peril and a satisfying conclusion.  And I liked it more than I liked her first book, Act Like It, too.  I just hope we don’t have to wait too long for another one.

My copy came via NetGalley, but you can get an ebook copy from Kindle or Kobo, who also have Act Like it as well (Kindle, Kobo).

Happy reading!

Book of the Week: You Can’t Touch My Hair

Two non-fiction books in a row as BotWs?  This is unprecedented I hear you say.  Well yes, given that I read (on average) 1 non-fiction book a month, this is quite unusual.  But both these books were very, very good and truly deserve their spots as my Books of the Week.

Phoebe Robinson is an actress and comedian, and one half of the Two Dope Girls podcast (the other half is former Daily Show star Jessica Williams)  – which I need to add to my ever growing list of podcast subscriptions.  Her book of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain takes a look at the daily life of a young black woman in America today. As a stand-up comedian she’s used to finding the funny side of things and looking for humour in situations, and she is very, very good at that – so good in fact that at times I found myself sitting back and thinking “hang on, she’s being funny, but this is seriously bad”.

This book deals with serious and sensitive issues – stereotypes, bigotry, coded language and more – and it does it directly, apologetically but with such an engaging voice that you never feel like you’re being shouted at or lectured.  Robinson writes at length about the “Angry Black Woman” trope – and the difficulties that it creates in her life, in trying to get her voice and her opinions heard and valued, but she also discusses – at some length – her ranking of U2 in the order she’d like to sleep with them and how a female president would change the world.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to describe this book and its effect on me.  I finished it a week ago and I’m still digesting it. This whole book is measured, articulate, affecting and thought provoking.  And on top of all that, its so, so funny. It should be compulsory reading  – particularly at a time when the world seems so divided and divisive.

My copy came via NetGalley, but you can get one from Amazon, Waterstones (who have it mislabelled as by Jessica Williams who wrote the foreword) and Foyles (mislabelled again) and on Kindle and Kobo. You can even have Phoebe herself reading it on Audible.  And I suspect it may even make it in to the non fiction sections at some of the bigger WH Smiths and supermarkets.  It certainly deserves to.

Happy reading!