My December Books

I did’t get much of a chance to read during December due to lots of cooking/wrapping/shopping/preparation, but I did manage two new books, bringing my total for the year to 63, which I’m very pleased with. At some point I’ll be doing a post of my top ten books of the year, but for now I’m still very much in Christmas mode – lots of cooking, lots of eating, a fair amount of wine and lots of time hanging out with friends and family, but not a lot of anything else.

A Christmas Feast by Katie Fforde

I picked up this book of short stories on the book stall at the school Christmas Bazaar, and it obviously couldn’t be more perfect for a feel-good comfort read at this time of the year. I couldn’t photograph it as I’ve already lent it to a friend – which is always a good sign! I’m not normally a huge fan of short stories as I like to really get stuck into a book, but it was actually the perfect reading for very busy days and snatched 5 minutes to read while I waited for the pasta to cook or before I fell asleep each night.

The Rose Revived by Katie Fforde

Not one which counts towards my total, as I’ve read this book hundreds of times before, but it is my must-read Christmas countdown book. Actually a lot of the novel is set in autumn and spring too, but some of the key action takes place over Christmas, and it always gets me in the festive mood!

Gone West by Carola Dunn

I’ve been reading this series of detective stories set in the 1920s throughout the year, and just happened to spot this one in the library a couple of weeks ago. A very successful library visit, as I also managed to get Spot’s Christmas and Spot’s Birthday Party for a certain little girl who loves Spot and was about to turn two just ten days before Christmas. And, an even greater triumph, these books were all due back on Christmas Eve when I definitely didn’t have time to get to the library, but I managed to remember to renew them in time. I’m awarding myself a silver star for that, to be upgraded to gold if I actually manage to remember to take them back the first week in January.

Hens Reunited by Lucy Diamond

This was another find at the Christmas Bazaar, and one I was really looking forward to. I’ve read a fair bit of Lucy Diamond this year, and have really enjoyed the books. This one followed the stories of three women – Katie, Georgia and Alice – who met at university and had all been bet friends at each other’s hen nights as they made fairly disastrous marriages during their twenties. As the book is written they are in their mid-thirties, and still trying to cope with the fallout of those marriages, and the effect they have had on their future romantic relationships and their friendships with each other. Not deep and meaningful, maybe, but likeable characters and really good fun.december-books

 

 

My November Books

nov-books

In an unprecedented move I’m actually early with this month’s post rather than late. November has not been the greatest. I had a heavy cold when it started, and the cold became sinusitis and a chest infection, then the chest infection became suspected pneumonia, a diagnosis downgraded to bronchitis only after spending six hours having all sorts of fairly unpleasant tests in hospital. You can tell I’ve been really ill, because I haven’t even felt like reading, and if I have read I’ve wanted a well-thumbed comfort read rather than something new.

However, despite  a sluggish month, my grand total of new books read for the year is now 61! Back in January I set myself the target of 52 new books in 52 weeks, and so I thought I should go back through these posts and count up how I’m doing, and see what I have to manage in December. But I’ve smashed it already. It’s been a really good resolution, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the push to try new things rather than just relying on my favourite comfort reads, although of course there’s been a lot of that too.

Anyway, my November reads:

Five Go Parenting by ‘Enid Blyton’

You’ll probably have seen these spoof Enid Blyton books around in the last couple of months. This one arrived as a fantastic surprise for me one rainy afternoon because my parents thought I needed cheering up and sent so sent me a little treat. It was accompanied by a notecard instructing me to read it while Sophia had her nap, with my feet up on the sofa and with a mug of hot chocolate to hand. Well, everyone knows you have to do what your mother tells you…

I did just that, and I really enjoyed it. I was a huge Famous Five fan as a child, and hugely enjoyed re-discovering them with Anna as we read the entire 21 book series together over the last year or so.

The vintage-style illustrations in these editions are absolutely perfect, and the gentle satire on the difficulties of modern parenting (favourite moment: Julian and Anne pretending to be Catholic in order to get the child they’re looking after into the best local school!) absolutely suited my need for amusing distraction without intellectual exertion!

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

If you want comfort reads you have to go a long way to beat Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. Sparklingly witty dialogue, loveable heroines, devastatingly attractive heroes, hilarious and achingly romantic plots. I thought I’d read all of them, but I was browsing around looking for something to read, and The Nonesuch caught my eye. It’s one of a number of lovely hardback books I inherited from my great-aunt a couple of years ago – mostly book club editions from the 1950s and 1960s.

The first treat about this book was that when I opened it, my aunt had written her name and the date (1964) on the inside cover. This is one of the things I love about books, and why my Kindle, with all its convenience, could never replace them in my affections. In 1964 my dad was still at primary school. The Beatles were at the start of their career. Mary Quant was just pioneering the mini skirt. The death penalty was yet to be abolished in Britain, homosexuality was still illegal, and the contraceptive pill had only been available for three years. The internet was still a generation away.

I can imagine my great-aunt coming home, maybe having been to tea at her sister’s and read a story  or played a game with her little nephews and niece, looking forward to the new Georgette Heyer that arrived from her book group that morning. She opens it and writes her name and the date, begins reading and is instantly transported into Heyer’s magical Regency world. Fifty-two years later, I come downstairs after putting her nephew’s grandchildren to bed, and open the same book, begin reading, and am transported to that self-same world. And because this is 2016 I then blog about it!  The word and naught else in time endures…

Living Dangerously by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde, my other comfort read heroine! I have no idea how many times I have read this book, but I love it every time. Bizarrely I have now caught up with the heroine, Polly, in age terms. When I first read Living Dangerously I was about fifteen, and thirty-five seemed absolutely ancient.

At one point in the book an unpremeditated night of passion leads to her considering whether she could be pregnant, and I remember genuinely thinking that of course she couldn’t be, she was far too old. And feeling a little sad for her that, although she ends the novel in romantic bliss, she probably wouldn’t be able to have a baby because of her age. Now, thirty-five myself, I have a (still, just) one-year-old, and a very high proportion of my mid-thirties friends and contemporaries are up the duff or have new babies. I sometimes can’t believe I was only 27 when I got pregnant with Anna as it seems so…young!

But even though I read this first as a teenager, living with my parents, studying for my GCSEs, as footloose and fancy-free as it’s possible to get, I still love it just as much twenty years later when I read it as an escape from the responsibilities of a house and mortgage, two young children and a novel of my own waiting to be completed.

 

 

My April Books

Yes, I know I’m a little late with this. My excuse is that given it was snowing on Friday I found it a little hard to believe that we were really going into May Bank Holiday weekend.

April booksRecipe For Love  by Katie Fforde

I had read this this fun and frothy Katie Fforde novel in the past, but was tempted to re-read it because I had been binge-watching  the early series of Great British Bake Off, and this seemed a suitable accompaniment. The main protagonist is a contestant on a TV cookery competition and she falls in love with one of the judges. Fforde was inspired to write it after becoming addicted to Bake Off herself, and it seemed highly appropriate for matching my reading to my viewing. Does anyone else do that?

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

This book is part of the British Library re-prints of Golden Age classic crime novels. It was a birthday present from Anna back in February, but I saved it until April because I knew we were going on holiday to the South of France then, and so it seemed appropriate. I think John Bude’s novels are probably by favourite of the British Library series so far, and this one didn’t disappoint. It was well-written, excellent at creating the atmosphere of the French Riviera in the 1950s, and had a very clever solution. Good present choice, Anna!

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

This was another birthday present, from my parents this time, which I also saved for our holiday in France.  The week before my birthday I’d coincidentally chosen this novel as a present for a friend, so I was very keen to read it and see if I’d made a good choice!

While I was reading it I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, and I’m still not entirely sure. It was an interesting and though-provoking read, quite different from my habitual literary diet of chick lit and detective fiction. The characters were intriguing and sensitively drawn, and the concept – of a man running a ‘literary pharmacy’, able to prescribe books to cure all human emotional ills except his own – really appealed to me, not least because this is often how I tend to treat books myself.

The downside for me was that I found the language and some of the scenarios just a little too far-fetched and verging on self-indulgent. Perhaps some of the language issues are related to translation as this novel was originally written in French. I always worry about translated works as, inevitably, the translator has as much influence on the finished text as the author, and that gives me an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty as to who actually intended what. However, not much to be done about it as there is no way that my nearly two decade old A-level French is up to this!

I don’t think this is something I will re-read as I didn’t absolutely love it, but I am very glad to have come across it.

Murder at Ashgrove House and Murder at Dareswick Hall by Margaret Addison

I felt a little bit low last week for some reason, and Sophia was teething and having a horrible time of it, so I was tired, had even less time than usual to read, and when I did get a chance I wanted something interesting  but undemanding and comforting.

This modern series of detective fiction set in the 1930s which I discovered on my Kindle turned out to be absolutely perfect.The sleuth is a London shop girl, Rose Simpson, who gets almost accidentally mixed up in aristocratic circles with a very high suspicious death rate. The books are an open pastiche, or perhaps tribute, to Agatha Christies’s country house classics, with a strong element of Downton Abbey thrown in.

They follow all the conventions of classic detective fiction, are cleverly plotted and fun to read. You definitely have to be a big Golden Age detective fiction fan to enjoy them, but I am, so that’s alright.

My March Books

I absolutely definitely do not have time to write this blog post! We are off to France for a week on Saturday, and I have a lot to do to get ready. It is a home exchange holiday, so in addition to all the usual pre-holiday prep of packing and so on, we also have to leave the house in tip-top condition for our guest family. And, of course, the children need feeding, watering and entertaining as usual. Just to make life even more fun, our drinking water went off this morning, and so I spent quite a lot of time I definitely did not have boiling and cooling water, and organising an emergency plumber. And then a lady from First Utility called to have a matey chat about my kilowatt unit costs and how I could be reducing them. It felt too important to hang up, but wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending 20 minutes of Sophia’s precious nap time!

However. If I don’t write my March books up today, then it won’t happen until mid-April, so I have despatched Anna to tidy her bedroom (possibly for ‘tidy’ read ‘curl up on her bean-bag and listen to her Paddington CD), and Sophia is in her cot. The chatting and burbling indicate that she is in no way asleep, but I am choosing to ignore that for the time being and call it nap-time. So, March books here we go.

March booksCasting Off  and All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

It feels like a long time since I finished the final two novels in Howard’s amazing family saga, right back at the very beginning of March. Having absolutely loved the first three in the series, these two definitely did not disappoint. We follow the lives of the Cazalets into the social change and economic uncertainty of the years immediately following the Second World War. The characters whom we met as children are now grown up, many of them with children of their own. The intimacy of the writing is such that every turn of the plot feels like news or gossip about old friends. “Ooh, Polly’s had twins!” or “Thank goodness Hugh has met someone else at last.” or “I always thought that Wills was probably gay”. I absolutely loved, loved, loved these books, and know that I will return to them again and again.

A Summer at Sea by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my top go-to authors for romantic escapism and comfort reading. I can also report *gets ready to boast* that she is an absolutely delightful person. I met her at the Romantic Novelists Association awards when my own book, Two for Joy was short-listed for Contemporary Novel of the Year a couple of years ago. Sadly I didn’t win, but it was fantastic to meet Katie, and she was kind enough to say that she had really enjoyed my books, which was a fantastic compliment. Anyway, a new Katie Fforde is always cause for celebration, and although I buy most of my books in our fantastic local Waterstone’s, when I saw this on special offer in Sainsbury’s as I did the weekly food shop one rainy Monday morning I just couldn’t resist.

Emily, the central protagonist, is a midwife – a career I seriously considered myself for a while – so it was particularly interesting for me. As always, Fforde has obviously done her research very thoroughly. Throw in some beautiful Scottish Highlands scenery, a heavily pregnant best friend and a ruggedly handsome Scottish doctor, and you’ve got a total feel-good read which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I understand very well just how much effort goes into writing a book, and it feels downright churlish to publicly tear all that to pieces because it doesn’t meet your personal taste. I would never say I enjoyed something I didn’t, but prefer to operate on the principle of ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. In this case, though, the author has been dead for many years, and so is unlikely to be hurt by my saying that this was one book I just couldn’t finish. I got about half way through, but found both characters and plot so implausible I was actually looking for excuses not t0 read! I decided enough was enough, and just skim-read to the end to discover whodunnit. I won’t be counting the book as one of my 52, but I have included it here for completeness.

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

After not enjoying Murder of a Lady I was looking for something to really get my teeth into, when this book by Margaret Forster caught my eye on a display in Waterstone’s. I still had book tokens from my birthday, so was able to treat myself, and I’m really glad I did.

The book does what it says on the tin. It is an account by Forster of every house she lived in during her nearly 80 years. She was born in a  two-up, two-down council house in Carlisle, and ended up with two homes, one in affluent Dartmouth Park on the borders of Hampstead Heath in London, and a holiday home in the Lake District. The book covers the personal – the story of her family, education, marriage, children, career and the illness which ultimately killed her, and the socio-political – how our homes and what we expect from them has changed over the course of the 20th and early 21st century.

Forster’s personality shines through her vivid descriptions, and so it was particularly poignant reading it just a few weeks after she died. The enormous importance and significance of ‘home’ to her is also something I feel very strongly myself, and so there was that fantastic chord of recognition which is one of the chief pleasures of reading.

Death in Devon by Ian Sansom

I wasn’t sure if I was going to love or hate this book before I read it.  It is the second in a new series of detective fiction set in the 1930s. They are a very deliberate ironic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novels I love so much, and at first I wasn’t sure if I would find the satire annoying. In the end, I didn’t. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was an affectionate, ironic satire, rather than a biting attack, and I enjoyed it. The narrator, a Spanish Civil War veteran, is highly likeable, and the plot was cleverly thought out, with a shock ending in the best tradition of Golden Age fiction. I will definitely be looking out for more books in this series.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

I had a bit of a Wodehouse-fest last month when I wasn’t well. Thankfully I haven’t had tonsillitis this month, but we did have an evening with a financial advisor talking about life insurance. The intellectual effort of trying to bend my mind around figures and statistics and probabilities and the pros and cons of different models, combined with the existential horror of contemplating a scenario where I am a widow with two young children, or my babies have been left motherless or orphaned meant that by the time our (very nice, helpful, friendly and intelligent) financial advisor left, I was in no fit state for anything but a mug of hot Ribena, bed and an instalment of Jeeves and Wooster. That made everything ok again.

 

 

My January Books

At the start of this year I resolved to read 52 new books by the end of it, and review them as I go. Here we are off the blocks with January’s selection.

January booksThirteen Guests by J.Jefferson Farjeon

One of my strongest literary passions is the detective fiction of the Golden Age – roughly speaking the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century. It was the subject of my dissertation at university, where it made a very pleasant change from Chaucer, and, in the highly unlikely event I ever have the time and money to indulge myself in an entirely useless PhD, it will be the subject of that too. Obviously I love Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Michael Innes, but many of the other novels which were wildly popular in their day have been out of print for decades.

It probably makes me a geek to admit it, but some of the happiest hours I have ever spent were sitting in the warmth of the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library perusing some of these books which I had ordered up from the stacks (the Bodleian is one of only three libraries in the country which has copies of every single book published in the UK).

Sadly my life now does not permit me, let alone require me, to spend hours at a time shut away in a library in a city I don’t even live in. Happily, to get my fix of Golden Age crime, I no longer need to.

The British Library have started re-publishing whole swathes of these forgotten novels, and they are a pure delight. They are lovely editions with attractive vintage style covers and intelligently written introductions.

Thirteen Guests was a Christmas present from my parents, and it took a good deal of self restraint to wait until after I’d cooked Christmas dinner before diving in. Good thing for my hungry family that I did, because it is a real page-turner. It is a proper classic of the genre, well-written and pacy, with a classic country-house setting. I felt that parts of the novel, especially a few of the characters, owed quite a lot to Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys. Perfectly possible, as Christie had published that a decade earlier. More intriguingly, a key element of the plot recalled a plot device used by Christie herself in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. That wasn’t published until the 1970s, although it had been written many years earlier, but still considerably later than The Thirteenth Guest, so, if any borrowing occurred, in this case it must have been Christie borrowing from Farjeon. Either way, it is a cleverly plotted novel, and the period setting is a pure delight. Throroughly recommended!

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

I bought this sequel to Notes from a Small Island as a Christmas present for my husband, in the sure and certain knowledge that I would enjoy it as much as he did. I wasn’t wrong. Bryson is still side-achingly laugh-out-loud funny, and his wry observations are absolutely on the nail. A favourite in our household!

Any Way You Want Me by Lucy Diamond

I’ve read some of Lucy Diamond’s other books, and enjoyed them, and so was very pleased to spot this on the swap shelf at the church where I take Sophia to a play group. Sadie is a stay-at-home mum to two young children and feels her sense of self has been totally subsumed under the dirty nappies and pear puree. When registering on a Friends Reunited site she invents a much more glamorous identity to impress an old boyfriend, and things get much more complicated from then on. This was a fun read, but also frustrating as I wanted to give Sadie and good shake and some sensible advice. People have said something similar about Ella, the lead character of my novel To Have and to Hold, and I’ve always felt slightly indignant on Ella’s behalf, but I get it a little more now. I was also left with the feeling that I’d like to read a book starring a mum who feels she has lost her identity, but doesn’t re-discover it through a traumatic but passionate extra-marital affair. Maybe she gets a hobby, or takes evening classes or goes back to work or her husband has the kids more so she can see her friends. If you know of one, let me know! Otherwise I’ll just have to write it myself…

Finger Food for Babies and Toddlers by Jennie Maizels

Well, I did say that there’s probably be cookery books included. I spotted this on the book stall at the school Winter Fayre and, given that I am proud possessor of a baby spoon refusenik I thought it had to be worth 50p. It really was. Jennie Maizels has created loads of delicious sounding, imaginative recipes which you’d think would tempt any child, however finicky.

I want to be the kind of mum who cooks from this book regularly. I really do. However. My only foray into it so far was making cherry tomatoes stuffed with feta and couscous. I didn’t resent one moment of the fiddly preparation when I was basking in the glow of giving my child a tasty and healthy lunch. I did slightly resent it when said child threw them all to the floor without tasting a single one. I picked them all up (waste not, want not) and ate them for my lunch, and can confirm that they were really yummy. But for the moment I am back to being the kind of mum who gives the baby what her sister is having, lets her dive in with her hands and clears the mess up afterwards.

Also this month…

The purpose of this exercise is to motivate me to read new books, and so I am not going to review old favourites I have re-read, but I will list them for completeness. This month I have re-read Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde, and enjoyed it as much as ever – Fforde is one of my ultimate comfort-read authors. I am also half way through The Ballroom Class by Lucy Dillon, but that is going to be pushed onto February’s page as I haven’t finished it yet.