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.

 

 

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July and August Books

I’m cheating a bit and doing a joint post for July and August, using the summer holidays as my excuse. Back to school tomorrow though, so back into all our usual routines as well, including a book blog each month!

summer books

The Hive by Gill Hornby

I have had this book for absolutely ages, bought on impulse on a Waterstone’s BOGOHP offer a couple of years ago. Somehow, though, I never quite got round to reading it until July. I’m so glad I now have, because I really enjoyed it – far more than I was actually expecting to. I knew from the blurb and a couple of reviews I had read that the ‘hive’ in question is a group of school-gate mums, all buzzing around the ultimate Yummy Mummy Queen Bee. To an extent this is my life, although I’m glad to say that school gate politics at my daughter’s school are either nothing like as complex and all-consuming (or they have passed me by completely!), and so I was a bit concerned that the satire in the novel would feel personal. I am generally very happy with my decision to be a stay-at-home mum and fit my very part-time writing around my young children, but I have had to fend off the odd nasty comment from acquaintances who have suggested I am wasting my education and training, missing out on the fulfilment of work and failing to provide a strong role-model for my daughters by making this choice, and I think I was worried that the whole novel might feel like fending off that kind of criticism.

Happily, it didn’t. The satire was biting at times, but rightly or wrongly I felt that the target was pushy mums and cliquey mums rather than stay-at-home mums who were the target. The characters were well-drawn, and while many of them were instantly recognisable deliberate caricatures others were better rounded and developed protagonists with whom you could feel a real rapport. It was well-written, engaging and thought-provoking and definitely deserved better treatment than a couple of years gathering dust on my shelf. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

My mum bought this as a present for me at the beginning of the summer, and she chose very well, because everything about it from the title onwards it is pure catnip for me. I love Veronica Henry’s books anyway (so much so that I even forgive her for beating Two for Joy to secure the RNA Contemporary Novel of the Year award a couple of years back!), and I love bookshops, and I love love stories, and so a Veronica Henry love story set in and around a bookshop could have been written for me.

As with many of Veronica’s books, there are several different characters and story lines depicted, with a common thread to link them all – in this case the link is a beautiful independent bookshop in a pretty Oxfordshire town. Emilia has been left the bookshop on the death of her father, and is trying against the odds to bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy. The novel also follows the stories of others in the town to whom the bookshop is important – the rich lady of the local manor and her daughter, a lonely teacher obsessed with food writing and cookery books, a new mum struggling to adjust to life in the countryside away from her busy London career. The characters are warm and believable and you are are instantly engaged with them, and the author has a magical gift for evoking a sense of place and making you want to pack your bags and move in immediately. This is a total feel-good, comfort read which I know I will come back to again and again. Thanks, Mum!

Superfluous Women, Death at Wentwater Court, The Winter Garden Mystery, Requiem for a Mezzo, Murder on the Flying Scotsman, Damsel in Distress, Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

I have my mum to thank for all these as well! When I went to stay recently, she lent me the latest in the series of Carola Dunn’s  historical detective novels featuring Daisy Dalrymple. She thought I had read the entire series, and I vaguely thought I had as well. I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Superfluous Women, which is the latest book, but as I was reading I decided that the characters weren’t all that familiar. I did a bit of research on Amazon, and discovered that I’d actually only read one or two of Carola Dunn’s previous twenty-odd books in the series, and hadn’t fully realised there were others. Luckily for me, the first four were available in a Kindle omnibus, so I bought those and raced my way through them while we were on our staycation, and I’m now systematically adding them to my Kindle collection as I work my way through the whole series.

They are modern novels set in the 1920s. As I have mentioned before, I am a sucker for a cosy crime type novel, and a sucker for anything set in the 1920s/1930s/1940s/1950s, so this series is a bit of a winner for me and I’m really enjoying them. They’re page turning  and totally enjoyable to read, whilst not being too intellectually or emotionally demanding, which has suited me perfectly over this summer. I’m absolutely racing through the series as well, which is good for my 52 books in 2016 target. The only thing which might stand between me and the whole series in the first half of September is the limitations of my Kindle budget!

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.

Of ships and shoes and sealing wax

Back-to-SchoolWe’re back from our grand summer tour, just one remaining mini-jaunt to the Kent coast planned for the week after next. It’s been a fabulous summer, reminding me why I love travel (hence ships), but I’m now back in London with a distinctly anticipatory back-to-school feeling, and really looking forward to feeling the first autumnal nip in the air. Hence shoes, because new shoes are always synonymous with back to school. I need to be Good Efficient Mummy and take Anna to have her feet measured (I’m really hoping they haven’t grown, because she has some adorable purple patent Mary-Janes my parents bought her in the spring, and which have been hardly worn due to summer weather which actually warranted sandals and Crocs as footwear of choice), but I have to guiltily confess to having spent a sneaky 30 minutes this morning browsing new shoes for me, and, ahem, during the course of this browsing I may have ordered a new winter coat as well. And I’ve identified the fact that my autumnal life will not be complete without black ankle biker-style boots. So that was a good and productive use of time really.

We arrived back from Corsica three days ago after a blissful week there. The weather was perfect, gloriously warm and sunny without quite tipping over into unbearably hot. Bastia, where we stayed, has a quaint old port surrounded by cafes and restaurants, and we fell into a comfortable and relaxing routine of an early dinner with Anna, then gelato for three as we strolled round to the lighthouse, watched the big ferries docking in the modern port, and then back to the flat to put Anna to bed, and curl up on the sofa to chat and read. I managed three new books in a week, which is pretty much a return to pre-baby levels. Izzy’s Cold Feet by Sarah Louise Smith and A Summer Fling by Milly Johnson were both fun and uplifting reads, and just what I needed, but I especially loved A Night on the Orient Express by Veronica Henry. I’ve always really wanted to travel on the Orient Express, and my husband has always promised me we’d do it for our 20th wedding anniversary, but seeing as I’m chronically impatient, and we only make it to three years this October, I’m trying to negotiate for 10th anniversary instead. Or, even better, 20th anniversary of getting together, which is a mere 6 years away. Or maybe even my 35th birthday…

Our own travel back from Corsica was a significantly less glamorous sleeper train experience. We’d taken the easy-but-boring option travelling to Corsica, and got a direct flight from Gatwick to Bastia, but coming home we decided to make the 6 hour ferry crossing from Bastia to Nice, then take an overnight train from Nice to Paris, then conclude the journey by Eurostar. In Pre-Anna days we’ve had several inter-railing holidays, and would have thought nothing of this journey, but this time around the closer it got, the more apprehensive as to how Anna would cope with 24 hours nonstop travelling, including a night spent on a train, we became. The last time we had shared a bedroom with Anna she woke at midnight and spent the entire remainder of the night screaming, until at 5am I gave up trying to get her back to sleep and decided to call it morning and start the day. Admittedly that was nearly two years ago, but it has instilled in us an almost pathological fear of being in the same room as Anna at night, and, in the run up to the journey, our decision to break this two year embargo by spending a night with all three of us cooped up in a six foot square compartment seemed…eccentric, shall we say. Luckily it passed smoothly. We arrived in Paris having all had a good night’s sleep, and with just enough time for a quick pain au chocolat in Place de la Sorbonne before hopping on the Eurostar back to London.

And now I’m fully refreshed and recharged and ready for the real new year (January is clearly an imposter, September is where it’s at). I have several projects on the go now. The most urgent and important of which is getting Anna ready to start school two weeks today. As well as the feet measuring, I need to go through her clothes and throw out things which don’t fit, and then purchase some indestructible, preferably wipe-clean, clothing as her school doesn’t have a uniform. She also needs a PE kit, but sadly, although my mum and I are both desperate to buy her one, I don’t think a new pencil case is really justified given that she can’t yet write. And appealing though those little protractor-set square-compass sets are, I should think they’d be positively lethal if introduced to a Reception class, so I think we’ll just have to exercise a little patience.

Secondly I need to finish writing my second book. Provisionally called To Have and to Hold it needs to be with my publisher by mid-October, which should be enough on its own to keep me busy.

Thirdly, our new kittens, Percy and Henry, will join the household two weeks on Sunday. Anna and I went to the pet shop this morning to purchase everything a feline (or four-year-old) heart could desire. When I left the house earlier, Anna was curled up in the fleecy cat basket, having spent the previous hour playing with the toy attached to the scratching post. I think when the actual flesh and blood kittens arrive she might spontaneously combust with joyous excitement.kittens

Fourthly, get some dates in the diary to catch up with friends we haven’t seen over the peripatetic summer.

Fifthly, before the cold weather sets in, our living room needs both some serious draught-proofing and a source of heat.

Sixthly, all my normal home-improvement resolutions about de-cluttering, streamlining our lifestyle, re-organising my wardrobe. And of course buying some new boots.

Seventhly, all my normal self-improvement resolutions about more exercise, reading the papers (and not just the lifetyle sections), blah, blah, blah. I never actually get round to them, so it doesn’t much matter what they are I suppose, it just makes me feel vaguely better to have them in the background.

So, that’s covered ships and shoes, but I should probably come  clean and admit that I don’t actually have much to say about sealing wax. Or even ‘ceiling wax’ as I always thought it was when my mum read me this poem as a little girl. I used to puzzle over why ceilings would be waxy. Was it the same kind of wax as you get in your ears? I remember lots of these kind of misunderstandings from my childhood, and my husband recalls hearing the “Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we” song, and mentally adding a non-existent comma which caused him to believe they were making a statement about their social class rather than their geographical location. It all makes me wonder what linguistic misapprehensions my daughter is currently labouring under.