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!

Bonus Post: Escapist reading

A bonus post from me, for you to enjoy this weekend as I recover from my nights.  I’m looking for escapist reading this week after a busy news week, so here are some suggestions for you as I try to read myself back into day time living.

Rosie’s Little Cafe on the Riviera by Jennifer Bohnet

I read this on holiday – it’s a sweet romance set in the French Riviera.  Rosie’s opening her dream cafe, but a Michelin starred chef is opening up a fancy hotel nearby.  She’d be mad, only she didn’t find him so attractive.  There’s also two friends – one recently widowed with a daughter and the other newly single – and you follow them all across the course of the first spring and summer season in business.  Perfect for a spring weekend, but t may make you want to move abroad though.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Immerse yourself in the world of Singpore’s super rich.  Rachel Chu has agreed to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend’s family.  But what she doesn’t know is that Nick is one of the island’s most eligible bachelors and that she doesn’t measure up to his family’s expectations for a potential wife.  There’s outrageous wealth, spoilt IT girls and culture clashes galore – not just Rachel’s ABC (American-born Chinese) background, but also the old money versus new money of Singapore’s old family’s and China’s new superrich.  It’s bonkers, it’s addictive and it’s perfect to escape from your normal life.

The Accidental Detective by Michael R N Jones

I read this modern Sherlock Holmes retelling on holiday.  Victor Locke is a beer-drinking genius, who’s banned from owning laptops or smart phones after getting caught hacking into something he shouldn’t have done.  Dr Jonathan Doyle is his court-appointed psychologist and the two of them race around Middlesbrough (of all places) solving crimes and outwitting shadowy government figures.  This is from my perennial favourites Fahrenheit press, so if you’ve read some of my other recommendations from them you’ll have an idea about the sort of tone we’re looking at.  Funny and escapist, read it with a drink in your hand like Victor would!

And if these three aren’t enough, try recent BotW’s Bet Me or the Roanoke Girls or one of my smart, funny romance recommendations as well.

Happy Reading!

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: 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.

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.

Authors I love: Christina Jones

During a trip to The Works this week I happened upon some of Christina Jones’ books that I didn’t own – having borrowed them from the library back in my days in Essex.  And then it occurred to me that this might be the time to make another entry in my very occasional series of posts about Authors I love (see previous installments on Katie Fforde and Georgette Heyer) as as far as I can see there’s no new book from her on the way at the moment which I might be able to rave about.

Paperback copy of Heaven Sent by Christina Jones

My copy of Heaven Sent – recently rescued from the pile of favourites next to the bed

Christina Jones writes wonderfully quirky romantic comedies, usually set in or around the Cotswolds.  They have often magical or mystical elements – which is not usually something I go for, but she does it so well – and come in interconnected series – where a secondary character in one book (a best friend for example) will end up being the lead character in the next book. Old characters often make cameos in later books so you get a chance to see what happened in their happily ever afters, without it being a sequel where they face strife and conflict.

As I said in my BotW post on Stealing the Show in June last year I first discovered her work when I came across a copy of Heaven Sent in a display of books nominated for the Melissa Nathan Award – as is often the way, it’s still my favourite of her novels, perhaps because I’m a sucker for a dark-haired bloke in eyeliner and Yaya is an absolute hoot.  Once I’d read that I started trawling my way through older books via the library – and buying new ones as soon as they came out.  I’ve got most of the reissues of her earlier stuff on the kindle – although I haven’t read them all as I’m trying to ration myself in the absence of new books.

A selection of books by Christina Jones on a bookshelf.

The Christina Jones shelf, such as it is, the rest are on my kindle as they were hard to get in paperback

But basically, these have everything I want in a light romantic fiction book.*  The heroines are smart and usually very good at their jobs**, they have supportive friends and find men who celebrate their achievements and love them for who they are without trying to change them.  There’s conflict, but it’s often based on misunderstandings rather than someone having done something actually terrible.  No one is perfect.  And they’re funny – mostly witty funny as opposed to laughing at someone’s humiliation funny, although there are some embarrassing moments in them too.

So, if you want to read your way into Christina Jones where should you start?  Well each novel stands alone – and as I said at the top of this post, my local branch of The Works had a cache of them at the moment – and they have the same ones online too Love Potions, Seeing Stars, Moonshine and the aforementioned Heaven Sent which are all in their 6-for-£10 promotion (sorry).  All of those would be fine places to start to give you a taster – and they’re cheaper there than Amazon or on Kindle.  There are few short stories/novellas available on Kindle for quite low prices  – but I never think they are a particularly good way of trying a new author (unless they’re free!) because you might be missing background, in jokes, world rules etc, so I would suggest the slightly older-but-recently-reissued Milton St John series, which are available as a bundled set on Kindle for £2.99 at time of writing – I haven’t read all of them yet, but the ones I have are good so that would be a cheap way of dipping your toe in the water.

Happy reading!

*Magic is an optional extra

**or at least they are once they get their head around the magical stuff.

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.