My March Books

Better late than never, as they say. My less than grand plans for the Easter holidays took a rain check when Sophia was violently sick all over herself and her pram within ten minutes of me collecting Anna from school on the last day of term! We had a few days of poorly toddler, sleepless nights and frantic bleaching, but thankfully she was well enough to go up to Liverpool as we’d planned. What I was right about, however, is that I haven’t had much (any) time for blogging. Mother-in-law has stepped up to the plate this morning, however, and agreed to look after both my little darlings for a couple of hours, so I am sitting in a cafe, relishing the perfect peace of being responsible for no-one except myself and a laptop, and thinking that it might be a good idea to get my March books post written before I’ve entirely forgotten what I read!

The Unmumsy Mum Diary by Sarah Turner

I follow Sarah on social media, and love her wryly witty take on life with young children. I somehow missed her first book when it came out, but when I saw someone selling this on my local Facebook Sell or Swap page, I leapt at it. I really wasn’t disappointed. Sarah writes so well, and she can switch gears effortlessly from laugh-out-loud funny poo stories, to capturing the anxieties and frustrations of balancing work life and family life, to moving and bittersweet reflections on mothering without a mother, as sadly her own mum died when she was a teenager. Much as I love reading blog posts online, there is nothing quite as satisfying as curling up with a nice, fat hardback book to get stuck into, and this one was a real treat.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Another massively serendipitous moment in a year when I’m not buying anything new, was spotting Lisa Jewell’s latest novel on the free book-share stand in my daughter’s school reception! I have to say, the offerings there are normally more along the lines of ancient copies of Gina Ford – spines battered and broken where they have presumably been hurled across the room in frustration as parents realise that diligently as they have studied their child’s ideal routine, the baby doesn’t seem to have read the book at all. But this was freegan gold!

As I’ve said before, I do feel slightly guilty about second-hand books, because writers do have to eke a living out of writing them. However, for whatever reasons, lots of people don’t like to keep books once they have read them, and will pass them on to friends or charity shops or the book stall at the church bazaar. So someone is going to buy them second hand, and frankly it may as well be me.

I like the slightly darker and more suspense driven tone of Lisa Jewell’s most recent novels, and this one was a case in point. A man turns up on a beach in Yorkshire having lost his memory, and meanwhile a young woman in the South-East is investigating the disappearance of her brand-new husband. Discovering how these situations relate to each other takes us twenty-five years into the past, and Jewell is predictably skilful at juggling different viewpoints and time periods in a way which keeps the reader’s interest at fever pitch and never ends up being confusing.

My only criticism of this novel is that I would have liked it to be longer. There are several fascinating characters introduced, and in pursuing the central ‘mystery’ plot I felt like some of their stories were under-developed or side-lined, which is a shame as I still think that Lisa Jewell’s most luminous gift as a writer is her ability to create characters as compelling as people we meet in real life. I would have loved another couple of hundred pages to explore some of their stories a little bit more.

Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin, The Corinthian and Venetia by Georgette Heyer

After breaking out of the mould and reading two completely new books, I reverted to some more comfort reading. Actually, Charity Girl, Sprig Muslin and The Corinthian are all more or less new to me – Kindle purchases this month. I may have read them from the library when I was in my early teens, but my recollection was hazy enough to make me feel I was enjoying the treat of a new book. Heyer’s effervescent, sparkling wit is the perfect tonic, and whatever horrors may be happening in the 21st century I find it impossible not to be cheered up by a trip to Georgette Heyer’s Regency world. To misquote AA Milne – “no-one can be uncheered with a Georgette Heyer novel”. Or, as a meme I saw on Facebook this week had it – “Imagination is the only thing that stands between us and reality”.

My top books of 2016

I planned to write this post last week, but somehow it didn’t happen. However, although time is going at snail’s pace this cold, wet January, it’s still only the 16th day of 2017, so I don’t think it’s too late to come up with my favourites of the sixty odd books I read for the first time last year.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

I’m not normally much of a non-fiction reader, but this memoir of a British journalist’s move to Denmark and what she learnt about the Danish culture and way of life was absolutely fascinating. Apart from the cold and dark, it all sounded pretty idyllic and made me want to up sticks and move to Copenhagen pronto. Failing that I’ll just make another batch of cinnamon buns.

The Cazalet Chronicles Elizabeth Jane Howard

This is actually five books, but I couldn’t possibly choose between them. I found this epic saga of four generations of a large upper-middle-class family’s experiences of the sweeping changes of the 20th century simply mesmerising. The characters continue to live in my head nearly a year after I finished reading, and I know they will be books I return to again and again as well as recommending ad nauseum to anyone and everyone I think might listen.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop  by Veronica Henry

You know when you go into a restaurant and there’s a dish the menu which combines all your favourite foods? For me this is on the brunch menu at Bill’s and it’s their veggie special – mushroom, and guacamole, and houmous, and tomato, and chilli, and toast, with poached eggs to top it off. Anyway, this book was the literary equivalent. A small town, a variety of people with secrets, problems, heartache, all finding comfort and resolution through the books they read and the friends they make in the local independent bookshop. Heaven!

Who Do You Love by  Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner writes sharp, funny, observant and moving novels. She’s one of my absolute favourite authors, and this was one of her best novels in my opinion. A bit like One Day in its theme but *whispers* far, far better.

The Girls by Lisa Jewell

Another favourite author of mine, and the kind of writer I aspire to be when I grow up. The Girls is a darker subject matter than many of her other novels, and it was absolutely gripping. She writes with such vivid immediacy, taking you straight into the head of the character she’s describing. This was absolutely unputdownable.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

This was the first novel I’ve read by Liane Moriarty, and if they’re all this good I’m so looking forward to reading some of the rest in 2017. This story of a woman who loses her memory after a head injury and wakes up believing she is 28 and happily expecting her first child with her husband when in actual fact she is nearly forty and a soon-to-be divorced mum of three, is totally compelling. It’s a really thought-provoking read, forcing you to consider how the tiny niggles or compromises that affect you every day can actually end up ruining your life if you allow them to.

So there’s my round-up of the year. I’ve decided to carry on with my monthly book reviews on the blog, with a rough aim of reading around fifty new books again this year. That feels like a realistic number, stretching me to try new things, but at the same time allowing me plenty of time to enjoy my favourite comfort reads when I feel the need.

 

 

My September Books

Is it just me, or has September been a very, very long month? I think it’s because it encompassed the tail-end of the school holidays, the back-to-school rush, a mini-heatwave complete with lovely day trip to the seaside which made it feel like we were back on holiday, and then this last week alone has lasted at least a month as I’ve been at home with poorly off-school seven year old and teething toddler whilst battling extreme PMT!

I also seem to have managed to read a lot more than usual as well, so my September book list is quite long (even though a couple are missing from the photo because I had to take them back to the library!).

september-books

Die Laughing, Gunpowder Plot, Heirs of the Body, The Case of the Murdered Muckraker, Mistletoe and Murder, The Black Ship, Sheer Folly by Carola Dunn

As last month, I have been racing through this detective series set in the 1920s. It was getting a slightly expensive Kindle habit, but luckily our local library has a good selection, so I’ve been able to feed my addiction. I’ve now read almost the entire series, which is probably just as well, because I’m reaching a stage where I’ve come across so many literary bodies in unexpected and theoretically innocent scenarios, that I’m starting to feel slightly surprised that my average day doesn’t encompass a murder or two. It might be time to take a little break from the crime, but I have thoroughly enjoyed my binge while it lasted.

The Girls by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell is one of my absolute favourite authors, but I somehow missed this book when it was out new. I was thrilled to discover it in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago when I was searching out Rainbow Magic fairy books for my daughter (don’t ask; if you’re a seven year old girl these are A Big Thing). Now I’m an author I always feel slightly guilty about buying books in charity shops because the author doesn’t benefit at all. However, on the positive side, the purchase (along with a stack of the fairy books) was a donation to the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, which is a very worthwhile beneficiary.

I gobbled up the book in 24 hours, reminding myself why these days I often choose to re-read old favourites rather than tackle something new. The thing is, I am slightly addicted to reading, and when in the grip of a new book by an author I love, I do tend to let everything else in my life slide. Which includes neglecting my children a bit. Nevermind, at least I read quickly, so they didn’t have long to put up with burnt toast, a lack of home-made cooking and distinctly absent-minded responses to their chatter. And I remembered to pick Anna up from school on time and everything.

The book is set in modern day London, following the lives of the families living in the houses set round a pretty shared garden over the course of one intense and eventful summer. Lisa Jewell’s overwhelming strength is her characterisation. She is able to get inside the heads of alcoholic single mums, disillusioned forty-something dads, bereft teenage girls, neglected teenage boys and many more totally convincingly. Even the most minor characters are beautifully drawn and contribute to the overall verisimilitude of the story. As with all her novels, I would absolutely recommend it.

Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner is another favourite author of mine. She is American, and I always find it interesting to spot the differences and similarities in culture, identity and social mores between Britain and America when reading her books.

Who Do You Love has something of the feel of One Day by David Nicholls about it. Controversially, I’m not a big One Day fan – to get on my feminist high-horse, if it had been written by a woman it would have gone utterly unremarked upon by most critics; dismissed as chick-lit. Because it was a man venturing into the world of love and relationships it was deemed worthy of critical note. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate One Day, and Nicholls is a talented author, but I just think that authors like Lisa Jewell and Jennifer Weiner are writing wonderful novels with stunning emotional depth, vivid characterisation and wittily detailed social observation, but that because they are written by women they get lumped into ‘women’s fiction’ genre rather than being treated as mainstream literature. Which is a pity. Rant over.

Who Do You Love follows the lives of a bi-racial boy from a poor area of Philadelphia and an upper-middle class Jewish girl from Florida over the course of three decades. The book is their love story, but it is also the story of how who and what and how we choose to love is the biggest influence on all of our lives. A brilliant read, unfortunately leading to a little more benign child neglect. Although apparently the biggest factor in whether a child grows up to love books and reading is how often they see their parents enjoying books, so perhaps I have actually been a model parent after all this month.

My June Books

June books

I seem to be getting later and later with my monthly book posts, and my only excuse is that life seems to be busier and busier. It’s coming up to the end of term, which means a plethora of sports days, tea parties, end of year shows with the accompanying need to provide costumes and practise lines, dance routines and songs. We also spent a lot of time campaigning before the EU referendum – sadly to no avail. I must admit to finding the result, not to mention horrible fallout of increased racism and hate crime,  so demoralising and upsetting that I have really struggled to find my writing mojo over the last couple of weeks. I’ve also been a little bit unadventurous with my reading choices, with only two ‘new’ books again this month. It’s lucky that I read so much in February, as it means I’m just about on target, having reached half way through the year on 26 new books! Phew.

Toddler Taming by Christopher Green

Someone gave us this book when Anna was toddler age, but I never really looked at it. The toddler years weren’t particularly difficult with her (or maybe that’s just rose-tinted hindsight) but for whatever reason this had been sitting on my shelf for the last few years, but caught my eye recently. Because oh my goodness, would I like to know how to tame my toddler! She’s almost unfailingly good-natured, but can seem totally feral. She loves to run and jump and climb, but her risk evaluation skills are frankly extremely limited. She is constantly on the move, so much so that even getting her to sit still in her high chair for the duration of a meal is a challenge. When she has consumed just enough to sustain her for the next set of adventures, she has a tendency to throw her plate to one side to indicate she has finished, and then clamber to her feet. Safety harness? Pah. What do we think she is, a baby?

I’m not sure really if the book has left me much the wiser. As Dr Green points out, toddlers, like the adults they will become, have distinctive personalities, and it is impossible, not to mention undesirable, to try and erase those personality traits in order to create a toddler who complies with our notions of what makes life easy. One suggestion to cope with difficult mealtimes was to ensure that everything was totally prepared before you sat down to the meal – table set, drinks prepared, food all ready. What a good idea, thought I, and put the advice into practice at the next meal. Which is why, having filled Anna’s water cup and put it on the table, I came back into the dining room from collecting plates and cutlery in the kitchen, to find Sophia sitting on the table, soaked to the skin, having poured the contents of the water cup all over herself.  Epic mummy fail. I’m not at all sure my toddler is tameable.

Taken at the Flood and Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

I am passionate about Golden Age detective fiction, and Agatha Christie is arguably its greatest, certainly its most celebrated, proponent so of course I have read these books before. I realised this month however that I didn’t have copies of either of them, and hadn’t read them for several years. Baby brain means, therefore, that I may as well have not read them at all. Unfortunately this goes for anything I read before 2009, which is unfortunate given that I spent 3 years gaining a degree in English Literature, and so know I have read all the classics, even have a very fancy bit of paper to prove it, but have no actual memory of the seminal works themselves. Hey ho, maybe a project for retirement.

I had some money left on the Waterstone’s card my parents had bought me for my birthday, and so treated myself to these two very attractive editions when Sophia and I had our day out in central London recently. And all that I can say is that re-reading them was an absolute pure, indulgent pleasure. For me, Agatha Christie is the literary equivalent of warm bubble baths, cashmere cardies or hot chocolate (and can often be enjoyed in combination with one or more of these), which was just what I needed this rather unsettling month.

The Secret Diary of a New Mum Aged 43 and Three Quarters by Cari Rosen

This is an absolutely hilarious autobiographical account of one new mum’s journey through pregnancy and the first couple of years with her daughter. As the title indicates, she is an older mum, but I should think that mums of any age can relate to most of her anecdotes. Having had a fairly large age gap in between my girls, I don’t have that many local friends with children the same age as Sophia, so there is less of the constant swapping of tales of woe and development milestones than there was when Anna was a similar age. Books like this are great for creating that ‘all in this together’ feeling, and a reminder to see the funny side of parenting a young child.

After the Party by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell is one of my all-time most favourite ever authors. I absolutely love her ability to get inside the head of a huge range of characters, and her imaginative ability to create original and thought-provoking scenarios. Ralph’s Party was her first novel, and I have read it more times than I care to remember. It was my go-to comfort read as a twenty-something Londoner. After the Party picks up the story of the main protagonists, Ralph and Jem, a decade later, when cool inner-London flat-shares and drunken nights out have been swapped for life in the suburbs with two young children. The demands of this have placed an enormous strain on their relationship, and the novel looks at what happy ever after might be like in reality.

I read this when it first came out a few years ago, and to be honest found it hugely depressing, and not at all the uplifting experience a Lisa Jewell novel normally is. It is as brilliantly written as always, but Anna was a baby at the time, and the message I took from it was that it was impossible to have a baby (let alone two babies) and retain a happy, loving relationship and a sense of your own identity. For some reason I picked it up again this month, and enjoyed it a lot more second time. I think the main reason is that I am now more secure in my identity as a mother, wife and writer -it certainly isn’t easy balancing all three elements of my life, but it’s not as impossible as I feared it might be. I also know that, demanding as the sleep-deprived baby and toddler years undoubtedly are, things do get a bit easier, and with an older child there are many more opportunities for reclaiming a bit of time for yourself as well as enjoying  being with them.

A romantic evening

I may have mentioned a while ago that I was lucky enough to have Two for Joy shortlisted for the RNA Contemporary Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Monday just gone was the big night where we discovered who had won in each category (Contemporary, Historical, Comedy, Young Adult and Epic), and who had won the overall Romantic Novel of the Year Award.

This meant a big glitzy award ceremony in Central London, of the kind I’ve never been to before. Just planning what to wear was exciting – I don’t have many chances to dress up like that. In the end I settled on a black silk dress which I’ve had for years. It’s slightly fifties style with a very full circular skirt, the top layer of which is sheer, floaty tulle. I felt pretty sure that I’ve read numerous magazine articles over the years assuring me that you can’t go wrong with an LBD. I also have a narrow, emerald green belt which looked good with it, and I successfully (miraculously) bid for a  pair of patent leather high heels on Ebay in the exact matching shade of green. My final bargain was a £3 necklace, from the BHS sale of all places, a Y shaped one with delicate pale green crystal flowers and leaves which looked perfect in the deep v-neck of the dress.

One of the casualties of my post-child life is time to get ready. I remember as a teenager that the getting ready was the best bit of a night out. My group of friends would all get together, usually at Julie’s house, and we’d do each other’s make-up and borrow each other’s clothes while singing along to the radio and gossiping about who might pull who. It’s been a while since I did that, but until Anna was born I used to enjoy a long soak in the bath, carefully blow-drying my hair, painting my nails, experimenting with make-up before I went out. Now, not only do I not go out that often, but when I do I normally have to get ready in about ten minutes flat while simultaneously reading Anna her bedtime story and feeding the cats.

I was determined that this time it would be different. The event started at 6pm, and I’d arranged for my friend (thank you Haf!) to pick Anna up from school and give her tea. I’d booked an appointment for 3pm to have my hair blow dried, and then I could spend an hour or so pampering and preening and trying out my new Benefits make-up. Ha ha ha.

The day didn’t start particularly well when I came home after the school run and supermarket shop to find Percy (the black catten) playing with a dead mouse in the hall. I’m not unaccustomed to dead mouse disposal, but am a little out of practice, and Percy wasn’t particularly keen to relinquish his new toy. Playing tug of war with a dead mouse is pretty grim. And then afterwards I noticed that our mail on the doormat was rather bloodstained. I picked it up gingerly and contemplated throwing it straight out, but then noticed one of the items was a new cheque book, so that had to be de-enveloped and disinfected. I then felt rather unsettled because I wasn’t sure whether this had been a visitor mouse, an outdoor mouse or, most disconcerting possibility, a resident mouse. I had to go on mouse patrol, Dettol spray in hand, checking for ‘signs’ as the disposal people euphemistically call them. They mean droppings. When they say have you noticed any signs, they mean check behind your fridge and along the worktops for mouse poo. Thankfully there were no ‘signs’ on Monday, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this was a one-off mouse, and that his fate will filter down the mouse rumour mill to deter others. In medieval times traitors’ severed heads were stuck on spikes over the gate into the town as a dire warning. Maybe that’s what I should have done with our dead mouse…

Anyway, after this I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous, so I decided to go for a walk and have lunch in a cafe to try and recover my equilibrium. It was while checking my emails that I saw the one from my publicist checking that I was ok to be at the venue for 4.30pm for photos and interviews before the main event. Arrgghh! Given that, a) This was the first I’d heard of a 4.30pm start, b) It was now 2.30pm and I was in jeans and a possibly-mouse-bloodstained-tshirt with unwashed hair and no make up, and c) It would take me an hour to get to the venue, I could say with a fair amount of confidence that a 4.30pm arrival was not going to be ok.

Feeling rather stressed I quickly got in touch with the event organisers and explained there’d obviously been a mix up, and managed to get my deadline moved to 5.15pm. I then raced home and got ready in the twenty minutes I had to spare before my hair appointment. I then painted my nails while my hair was dried, and booked a taxi to take me straight from the hairdressers to the station. And made it just on (the revised) time.

I’d been so stressed by the time problem that at least I’d forgotten to be nervous, which is probably just as well. Suddenly I was plunged into a very glitzy, chandelier bedecked room, with views over the river and the London Eye, and uncomfortably aware that I knew no-one. Within seconds I was having my photo taken with the other shortlistees, including Lisa Jewell, who is one of my alltime favourite authors. Afterwards I got chatting to her, and Jenny Colgan (as you do) and was completely charmed by how lovely, and nice and normal they were. And how patient they were with my starstruck babbling. Over the course of the evening I also chatted to Veronica Henry, Chris Manby, Katie Fforde and lots of other lovely and talented writers. And drank quite a few glasses of bubbly.

I didn’t win the award. Veronica Henry won both my category and the overall award with the fabulous A Night on the Orient Express. I’m thrilled that a book I really love won, and, cliche though it may be, just felt so honoured to have been there, to have been shortlisted, to be a part of it all. And in one of the best bits of the evening, I discovered that if you want to turn a roomful of (mainly) female authors who are (mainly) over thirty into what seems like a group of ten year old girls at a One Direction concert, then you need to give Helen Fielding a lifetime achievement award and let her make a speech. She’s just as funny as you would expect, and hearing her talk really was the icing on the cake of an amazing evening for me.