Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Ice Child

The Ice Child by Elizabeth McGregor

Bought this one as an ebook after hearing the author speak at the Wimborne Literary festival. The novel combines a true historical story - of John Franklin's doomed expedition to chart the north-west passage in the 1840s - with a current day story of an archaeologist and his son who are obsessed with the Franklin story.

Jo Harper is a journalist asked to cover a story about an archaeologist who is missing in the Arctic. When he is found and she meets him, they fall in love and they have a child. But their relationship is doomed - he is killed in an accident for which his older son John blames himself. John, distraught, goes off the radar on archaeological digs and eventually on an expedition of his own to try to find out more about what happened to Franklin's men. Meanwhile Jo's child falls ill with a rare disease, and needs a bone marrow transplant to have any hope of survival. The best match is with his half-brother, John, but he too, echoing his father and Franklin before, is missing in the Arctic.

Entwined with this story is the tale of Franklin's expedition, told from the viewpoint of ship's boy, Gus. The ships become icebound and are eventually abandoned. The crews die, one by one of scurvy, pneumonia, TB and starvation.

This was a brilliant novel - fantastic prose, fascinatingly researched. With Frozen Planet on the TV and a recent ski trip under my belt I felt I could identify with the descriptions of the Arctic. Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


Expected by Sarah England

Kindle self-published book by fellow women's mag writer. The author describes it as 'anti-chicklit' which sounded interesting so I thought I'd give it a go. It's a lively, quick read with some very funny moments.

Sam Sweet is in a relationship with a bloke she doesn't much like, but whom she is expected to marry (by her mother, his family, and him). She's expected to have children with him too. There are problems at work (she sells and demos Botox-like facial fillers and the company is being taken over). Then she meets the George Clooney lookalike new MD and falls for him in a big way. Can she extricate herself from everyone else's expectations and make a new life and career for herself?

I would, I'm afraid, class this book firmly in the 'chick lit' camp, not anti-chicklit. The heroine's main obsessions are men, her clothes and her weight. She doesn't want marriage or children but she does want a hunky man. I couldn't work out why she was living with the repulsive Simon in the first place - she seemed very weak at the start of the novel. She does eventually get what she wants - or does she? There's a bit of a twist right at the end to keep you guessing.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Mondays Are Red

Mondays Are Red by Nicola Morgan (Kindle edition)

I got this sent for free when I bought some of Nicola's other books as Christmas presents for my sons. Read it on my journey to and from London last week - it was the perfect length.

Teeange Luke comes round from a coma and finds he has synaesthesia - his senses are muddled so that he hears colours and smells sounds, etc. There's a demon lurking in his brain which makes him do bad things; there's also a beautiful girl with cinnamon skin and 'hair as long as the sound of honey' who may or may not be a figment of Luke's imagination. He wants nothing more than to regain his strength, particularly in his bad leg, so he can run in school sports day. The demon has other ideas. Luke's sister is in trouble - stalked in Luke's head by a sinister man in a metal mask, then captured for real by a perverted man who stalks the nearby woods. Luke has to battle both real and imagined foes to save her.

This book has been taught in schools and I can see why. It's a wonderful example of what can be done with language - words stay simple while phrase and simile soar with beauty. Writing from the POV of a character with synaesthesia gives the author unlimited scope for describing things in wholly new ways, and Nicola has done just that. The imagery melts on your tongue like the colour of birdsong.

(I only once experienced the joy of muddled senses, whilst, ahem, 'under the influence' many years ago. I listened to Duran Duran's Save A Prayer, and saw that the song was a rich velvety chocolate brown.)

Monday, 21 November 2011

Home for Christmas

Home for Christmas by Cally Taylor

Cally's second book, and it's a romantic comedy corker.

Beth works in a quirky independent cinema in Brighton (closely based on the real life Duke of York's cinema, which was a favourite haunt of mine when I was a student in Brighton back in the dark ages). Her boyfriend dumps her, right when she was on the point of telling him she loved him. A large cinema chain are trying to take over the Picturebox, led by handsome Matt. Beth falls for Matt, Matt falls for Beth, but circumstances keep getting in the way, and poor Beth has to go through several tortuously embarrassing situations before everything works out happily.

The novel is genuinely funny in places, and had me blinking back the tears in other places. The prose is as sparkly as the cover. I raced through this one. It's exactly what you expect from a chick lit rom com book, and I can highly recommend it.

Friday, 18 November 2011


Snowdrops by AD Miller

This was one of hubby's books - he thought he was buying a thriller then was mystified by this book and suggested I'd like it more than he did. But he did finish the book, and he doesn't finish books he doesn't like, so the combination of him saying he didn't like it but actually finishing it, made me curious.

Well, I really enjoyed it and raced through it. It's a pretty short book (250 pages) and it takes 150 pages before you really get what's going on. Before then, well stuff was happening but it was hard to say what the plot was or what the book was about.

Nicholas is an ex-pat late-thirties corporate lawyer living in Moscow. The book is written as a confession to his soon-to-be wife, who we never meet, after his return to England. In Moscow, he'd met a couple of Russian girls - sisters, they told him. He started an affair with one of them, and got sucked into a scheme they had to 'help' an elderly friend move to a new apartment block on the edge of the city. Meanwhile at work, he's involved in a plan to build an oil terminal in the north of Russia - he handles moving the money around from the banks who are investing in the project.

As I said, pages and pages go by with not a huge amount happening, but the book is so well written and evokes Moscow so well, you keep turning the pages. Gradually you realise that nothing is quite what it seems; everyone and everything in Moscow is corrupt; and Nicholas himself is either an unreliable narrator or terribly naive and pretty stupid.

I found the ending very satisfying. The book leaves you with an urge never to visit Moscow as long as you live, and a deep dislike for Nicholas, but for a writer to be able to keep you reading and unable to put the book down despite your negative feelings for both setting and character is quite an achievement.

Friday, 11 November 2011

A Collector of Hearts

A Collector of Hearts by Sally Quilford

Second book read on my Kindle! This book was previously published as a My Weekly pocket novel. It romps along in Sally's excellent bouncy style, and is hard to put down.

Caroline is companion to retired actress Mrs Oakengate. When they attend a Halloween house party strange things start to happen, and Caroline is haunted by the ghost (or is it?) of Cassandra, a witch who collected her lovers' hearts in a jar. Nothing is quite what it seems, least of all the sexy last-minute arrival Blake Laurenson who Caroline finds herself falling in love with.

I think Kindles are perfect for novellas and short story anthologies, and all those hard to publish formats. I'll definitely read more of this kind of thing - in fact I've another of Sally's already downloaded.

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

First book I read on my Kindle! The link above is to a free Kindle edition. I've read lots of classics over the years but very little Dickens. This was one I felt I should read. It's a great story, of love and loyalty, but I must admit I skim-read some of the longer descriptive passages to get back to the action. I didn't really get on with Dickens' style, though I loved the occasional flashes of humour and the characters are very strongly drawn. It's not the Victorian-ness of Dickens - I'm a huge fan of his contemporary, Wilkie Collins.

Anyway, have read it now and on the whole enjoyed it.

The Damnation of John Donellan

The Damnation of John Donellan by Elizabeth Cooke

I first heard about this when reading the flyer for the Wimborne Literary Festival and knew the book was right up my street. Stupidly I bought it before the festival rather than waiting and getting a signed copy.

It's a kind of Georgian Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and is completely brilliant. I loved every minute of it - from the well-researched backgrounds of all the characters, to the extracts from the trial transcripts.

John Donellan married up, into the landed Boughton family. The current baronet was one Theodosius Boughton, who was 20 and syphilitic. One morning his mother stood over him while he drank a draught of medicine: within an hour he was dead, apparently of poisoning. His brother-in-law, John Donellan, got the blame and hung for it. The case was notorious at the time, and makes fascinating reading now. It was all handled so badly by so many people.

Donellan was accused of poisoning Theodosius with arsenic yet the whole case rested on his mother's testimony that the medicine smelt of almonds - which points to an entirely different poison. And no-one looked into Theodosius's history of epilepsy - the symptoms of a severe fit match the manner in which he died. The body was buried for several days in mid-summer before an autopsy was carried out, by which time it was too rotted to yield many clues as to cause of death. It's a catalogue of errors.

Did Donellan murder Theodosius? You can make up your own mind! I got the impression the author had decided he was innocent. I think - well - if he was murdered then Donellan was probably the murderer; but there's a strong possibility it was natural causes all along... or was it the mother? And what about the apothecary who was prescribing endless medicines to Theodosius?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Can't quite remember what enticed me to buy this one, but the hardback was sitting in my TBR pile for some time before I got round to reading it. Why do I buy hardbacks? They're so blinking heavy to read in bed and take up so much space on my bookcase. I suppose I buy them when I can't wait for the paperback, but in this case it was so long before I read it the paperback had come out! Have decided to buy no more hardbacks unless they're books by writing buddies.

Anyway. Having previously read The Line of Beauty I had an idea what I'd be getting with this latest Hollinghurst. Every male character seemed to be gay - mind you there's less gay sex in this one than in the last! Delightful prose - he's a master at natural sounding dialogue and this is a good book to read to learn how to handle writing multi-person conversations.

The book covers a time period of about 100 years. It starts just before the first world war, when Cecil Valance, a poet and heir to a large estate visits a middle class family. He's having an affair with the younger son, but writes a poem to the daughter, Daphne. When he dies during the war, the poem becomes adopted by the nation as an evocation of that idyllic pre-war time. Daphne goes on to marry Cecil's younger brother. Later in the century, a biographer tracks down Daphne to write Cecil's autobiography, and uncovers (or thinks he's uncovered) all sorts of secrets about the family. It's not an easy book to summarise, but is masterfully written and a joy to read.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Why Does E=mc2

Why Does E=mc2 by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Don't ask me how to make the 2 on mc squared go up the top where it belongs in the line above! I may now know how relativity works and how spacetime curves and where mass comes from but I can't manage fancy fonts on Blogger.

I bought this book for my physics A level studying son last Christmas, and decided to give it a go myself. I like a bit of popular science now and again. Not just because I think Brian Cox is dead cute, honestly. (Did you know he was the keyboard player for D:Ream, of Things Can Only Get Better fame?) He is cute though, isn't he?

Anyway, the book. It's written in gloriously simple, sparkly prose which is a joy to read even if you're not understanding what you're reading. While you do have to read a few mathematical equations and get to grips with gluons it is all beautifully explained. At least the first half and the last chapter are. I kind of got lost somewhere in the dark depths of quantum theory. Give me the big stuff to do with stars and planets over teensy weensy quarks and positrons any day.

Well, for once I'm not going to summarise the book or give away the plot. Einstein was a genius and by building on his work physicists can now explain the universe (nearly). As long as the speed of light is a fixed universal speed limit. (Which it may not be, according to recent results from CERN. Oh dear.) Read this if you like science, but give it a miss if your eyes glazed over at the title of this post.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I'm a fan of Mitchell's books so had to give this one a go. It took a while to get into - it's not an easy read and it is full of words - but what a brilliant novel this is! The man is an amazing writer. Like Cloud Atlas, this book has left me with the feeling that I've never read anything like it before.

It's set in Japan around the year 1800. At that time Japan was a closed nation, allowing no Japanese to leave and no foreigners to visit, though it had a limited trade agreement with the Dutch East India company (VOC). Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk for the VOC, posted to Dejima, the man-made island off Nagasaki where the VOC are permitted to trade. Corruption is rife, politics and diplomacy within the company and with the Japanese are delicate and tricky. De Zoet meets a young Japanese midwife who has facial scars, and falls in love. But she is forced to join a shrine where sinister and immoral activities take place. De Zoet needs to rescue her. When the VOC goes bust the Dutch are stranded in Dejima until a British warship comes... but there is so much plot I can't tell it all and wouldn't want to give it away.

The book is written in third person present tense which is not a favourite of mine. But the language is amazing, the characters are intriguing and fully alive, and the plot is so unusual and as I said, like nothing I've ever read before. If you like meaty historical novels this one is for you.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Florence & Giles

Florence & Giles by John Harding

Bought this one after reading Nicola Morgan's wonderful review of it. Sometimes a book sounds so refreshingly different to everything that's come before that you just have to buy it and read it yourself. This was no disappointment. If you like all your books to be much the same as each other, written in similar styles and following a similar plot, don't buy this one. If you enjoy new writing styles, unusual narrative voices and different plots then this has all that.

Florence is 12, and in 1891 lives in a mansion with her younger brother and a few servants. The children are orphans and wards of their uncle whom they've never met. Florence isn't supposed to be able to read or write - their uncle disapproves of educated women - but she sneaks into the library and has taught herself. She narrates the tale in her own, highly unusual but captivating style. A governess is hired for Giles, but she meets with a nasty accident which Florence rather glosses over, to the reader's increasing unease. A second governess arrives, whom Florence is convinced is the ghost of the first, come to spirit away her little brother. Weird things begin to happen, and the book becomes deliciously creepy and gothic.

Loved the book, loved the inventiveness of the language used, and loved its brilliant if scary ending.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Fallen Grace

Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper

Bought this one after reading a post by the author on the History Girls blog. I hadn't previously heard of Mary Hooper but her books sounded just what I like to read so I decided to give this one a go.

Grace is a poor young orphaned girl looking after her older but simple sister, in London 1861. She's been raped, made pregnant and her child was apparently stillborn. She sneaks a bundle she believes contains the baby's body into someone else's grave and while at the cemetery meets two people who become very influential in her life - Mrs Unwin, part of the dodgy-dealing Unwin family who specialise in funerals and funeral paraphernalia; and James Solent, a kind young solicitor. The story rattles along at a good pace and I really cared about Grace - she's a feisty young girl who needs a bit of a break in life.

I read this one while on holiday and it was the perfect holiday read to lose yourself in. I certainly enjoyed it. The plot relied on a few coincidences and lucky breaks but the book was so well written and the characters so likeable I could forgive this. Will certainly try more from this author.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

When God was a Rabbit

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

This book's had so much hype it doesn't need any more from me, which is good, because it's not going to get any. Bought it on an impulse in WHSmiths because it was there, right under my nose, as it has been under most people's noses for months now.

It's being pushed as a book club book, and I can see why- an easy, shortish read with lots to discuss. Most people seem to love it. I only quite-liked it.

Elly is the younger child of two in an unusual and quirky family. She narrates the story in first person. She has an older brother who discovers he's gay at a young age and falls in love with his best friend. She has a film-actress aunt who's also gay. Her aunt fancies her mum, who kind of fancies her back. Elly also has a single best friend. When the family win the Pools they move to a large house in Cornwall and open a B&B, which quickly becomes populated with more gay and theatre people who seem to stay for ever. Elly and her brother grow up and remain close. Stuff happens then more stuff happens and frankly, probably far too much happens so we don't really ever feel involved in all these events in this unlikely family.

Despite the self-centredness of the characters world events also have a part to play, so when Elly's brother finds himself working in New York at the start of the millennium you just know he'll get caught up in 9/11. Which he does. Which made me sigh, as it was predictable, although to be fair, this part was beautifully written.

Don't let me put you off. It's a well written book which will make you laugh in places and possibly cry in other places (though I never felt close enough to the characters to cry over them). As I said, I quite liked it. Great title. (Elly has a pet rabbit named god when she is small. It speaks.)

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Constance - the tragic and scandalous life of Mrs Oscar Wilde

Constance by Franny Moyle

Bought this one after reading a post about Constance on the wonderful Virtual Victorian blog, which included a link to the book. I like a bit of biography now and again and was intrigued to find out what kind of a woman was married to Oscar Wilde.

Constance was Irish, like her husband. She and Oscar seemed, in the early days of their marraige, to be a perfect match for each other. Constance wrote children's stories and housekeeping articles, accompanied her husband on his many social engagements and joined in with the aesthetic movement starting up around that time. The couple had two sons.

And then Oscar began spending more and more time with the numerous young men who flocked to his side. One, especially - 'Bosie' Douglas - was a bad influence on him. Bosie started out as a friend of the family and Constance herself often invited him to come and stay, until she realised that he was breaking apart her marriage. Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, began to make trouble -attempting to disrupt performances of Oscar's plays when he was in attendance, etc. When he openly libelled Oscar, Oscar felt he had no option but to press charges.

When the case came to trial however, Queensberry had put together a host of witnesses who would swear to Oscar's homosexuality and the trial quickly collapsed, to be followed by Oscar's arrest on charges of indecency. He was, of course, found guilty and sent to prison.

Constance had stood by her husband throughout all this, but exiled herself to Switzerland while Oscar was in jail. She was urged by friends to divorce him, but didn't, though she took steps to ensure that on his release from prison he would not be able to fritter away her money and leave their sons penniless. On his release, she might even have taken him back, had not Bosie intervened and lured Oscar away with him.

Constance died not too long after the trial, at the age of just 48, after surgery to help with a long-standing neurological problem went wrong. Oscar died shortly after.

The book is an easy and enjoyable read - you get a good sense of this intelligent and loving woman who went so quickly from being half of England's most feted couple to being shunned by society and forced into exile. The fin-de-siecle was a fascinating time of change in society and Constance was there at the forefront.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Write On!

Review on my other blog - here.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

I must be a bit of a fan of Kate Morton as I seem to have read everything she's written and enjoyed them all. This book's no exception - it's a big fat juicy mystery, with the main action taking place in two time periods - during the second world war, and in 1992. I love novels where a contemporary story unfolds alongside a historical story - they are definitely my current favourite reads.

In this one, three elderly sisters live in a Gothic castle in Kent. The youngest of them is mad - she lost her fiance during the war and has not been the same since. All of them are keeping secrets from each other. A young woman, Edie, gets caught up in their story while trying to solve related mysteries of her own. Her mother had been evacuated to the castle during the war, but she too is keeping secrets from her own daughter. And the three old ladies come from a literary background - their father wrote a famous children's novel but never told where his inspiration came from...

This is a long book, and at the start I wondered if it might be better edited down a bit to get the action going sooner. It's possibly a bit repetitive in places- we are certainly told things more than once, or shown then told, and some points get rather hammered home. Having said that, I loved the writing, got fully immersed in the story and didn't want the book to end. All the story strands come together nicely at the end, and all the mysteries are solved, though the resolutions Edie believes are not actually the truth.

I took it away last week on our camping trip and would definitely recommend this as a holiday read. It's got me all inspired as well - would love to write this kind of book!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Their Finest Hour and a Half

Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans

Someone recommended this to someone on Facebook and I went to have a look and liked what I saw. Very glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book. An unusual plot and structure, some memorable (if perhaps a little stereotyped) characters, and lots of humour throughout.

It's wartime and Catrin is working for the Ministry of Information making propaganda films, when she's asked to join a team of writers putting together a script for a film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. The book then follows the stories of other people caught up in the film -a vain aging actor, a spinster seamstress who gets a job in the wardrobe department - as well as Catrin's story as she breaks up with her partner and finds her boss falling in love with her.

It's a great depiction of the home front, from an unsual angle. Bombs are falling all around but the filming must go on, as the powers that be are hoping the film might help bring America into the war. I loved this book, and will search out more from this author.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

This one's been sitting on my TBR pile for ages - think I bought it in a 3 for 2 offer somewhere. I'd enjoyed The Time Traveller's Wife so was keen to see what the author had written next.

This book is a ghost story, with a whacky plot involving identical twins, souls coming loose from their bodies and resurrection.

Twins Valentina and Julia are left a flat near Highgate Cemetery by their estranged aunt Elspeth. They move in, but find their aunt's ghost is still in residence and her grieving boyfriend Robert lives downstairs. The aunt and the twins' mother are also twins, with a deep dark secret which is revealed when Robert finally gets round to reading the papers Elspeth left for him. Meanwhile he's fallen in love with Valentina. So far so good, but then it all gets weird. Won't say how in case you read it!

One thing I found really annoying about this book is the constant shifts in point of view. Within a single short paragraph you could easily jump between three or four different heads. The result was that you never felt close to any of the characters, and the parts of the novel which should have come across brimming with emotion just fell flat.

It's an intruguing novel and gets top marks for originality, but I didn't like the style in which it was written.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Somnambulist

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

I've been a follower of the author's Virtual Victorian blog for some time, so was eagerly anticipating the arrival of this book. It's got a gorgeous cover which drew admiring glances as I sat on the train for two days last week reading it.

Phoebe lives with her militant Christian mother Maud and singer/actress aunt Cissy. The two older women are so different there is constant tension between them. Phoebe goes with Cissy to watch her perform at a music hall, and there spies a strange but enigmatic man whom her aunt seems to know well. Soon after, Cissy dies. The stranger, Nathaniel Samuels is discovered to be someone Cissy had a relationship with long ago, and who owns the house Phoebe and Maud live in. Maud disapproves of this man, but when he offers a position in his household as companion to his sick wife to Phoebe, they accept. Long buried secrets gradually reveal themselves in this deliciously gothic novel. The title refers both to an actual painting by Millais, which in the novel is owned by Cissy and looks very like her, and to the fact that the lives of the principle characters were all determined by a tragic accident which happened while Nathaniel Samuels' daughter was sleepwalking.

I'd pre-ordered this book and read it almost as soon as it arrived. It didn't disappoint. I loved the plot with its various twists and turns, and the settings - London's east end, Hyde Park Gate, rural Herefordshire - really came alive. The book is populated with well-drawn and larger than life characters. It's beautifully researched and as with all good historical novels, at the end I felt I'd learned something more about the era in which it is set.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Unseen

The Unseen by Katherine Webb

This is the author's second book. I loved her first book, The Legacy, and bought this one after Amazon sent one of those annoying emails telling me I might like it. (Actually they were right. Marketing does work.)

This is exactly the type of book I want to write myself. There are two linked stories unfolding - one in 2011 and one in 1911. In the present day, a well-preserved WW1 soldier's body has been uncovered in a Belgian peat bog. A sealed tin in his pocket contains a couple of intriguing letters. Journalist Leah tries to find out his identity and the story behind the letters, while also dealing with some demons from her own past. In 1911, Hester (the writer of the letters) is living in a sex-less marriage with her vicar husband. Her household contains Cat, a suffragette maidservant with secrets of her own, and a house-guest who is a leading expert on theosophy. He and the vicar are convinced there are fairies in the nearby water meadows.

The novel jumps back and forth between the two time periods, each chapter ending at a point where you just have to read on, no matter how late it's getting. The setting is an old rectory near Thatcham in Berkshire. I used to live in Reading and am fairly well acquainted with the location. It's always an added bonus when a novel's setting comes alive for you, as this one did.

For lovers of historical novels, this one's a corker. Thoroughly recommended. I'm looking forward to the author's next one.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Write to be Published

Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan

Along with every other English-speaking writer with a smidgen of sense I've been a fan of Nicola Morgan ever since I discovered her wonderful blog. When I first found it, I was busy writing womag stories and doing ok at getting them published, so much of her advice on writing novels and approaching agents or publishers was not so relevant to me. But I loved the blog anyway and kept going back.

And now, just when I'm embarking on editing my first completed novel, with a view to sending it out into the big scary world in a few months time, the wonderful woman distils her blog's advice into a handy paperback which you can read in the bath.

It's simple - all you have to do is "write the right book in the right way, send it to the right publisher in the right way and at the right time." Then they'll publish you. Nicola takes you through all the steps of this process. There's no guarantee - you do have to be able to write, and there's a mention of some necessary fairy dust which I believe you need to sprinkle into your submission envelope - but if you follow the advice in this book you'll definitely increase your chances.

I've just read it cover to cover - including the acknowledgements at the end which includes womagwriter! Cheers, Nicola! I'm going to re-read the bits on editing your book soon when I get going with the edits. And I'll re-read the bits about submission when I get to that stage.

A very helpful, easy to read and enjoyable book for anyone who likes to write and wants to be published.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

This is the latest in the Jackson Brodie series of detective novels by Atkinson. I've read a couple of her earlier novels, including her first two and the first Jackson Brodie book. Bought this while browsing in WHS one day.

It's a complex plot so I'm not sure I can summarise it here. Back in 1975 a small child who'd witnessed a murder went missing - the whole episode was hushed up. WPC Tracy Waterhouse was one of the police who found the mother's body, but despite her efforts she could not find what had happened to the child. Now, Brodie has been asked to find an adopted woman's roots, and he stumbles across the story of the murder and thinks there might be a link. But someone else seems to be following up the same leads as well. Meanwhile, Tracy, now a middle-aged spinster, somehow finds herself abducting a little girl to fill an aching gap in her life. Brodie himself acquires a small dog in an unconventional way - lots of small displaced creatures throughout this novel.

The story twists and turns and ends in a satisfying way.

I found myself struggling to get into this book for the first 100 pages or so, but then it rattled along at a good pace and I enjoyed the second half. I think this was because of Atkinson's stream-of-consciousness style. She starts a scene, then wanders off to tell some backstory, then wanders off that backstory to tell some other backstory and it can be pages later that we get back to the scene. This worked well (if I'm remembering correctly) in her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, because the theme of that book was all in the backstory - what had happened before. But at the start of this book I found it a bit annoying. We needed to know Tracy's character, but did we need to be told how her parents met?

If you're a fan of this author you'll like this book. And I will certainly read more of hers - overall I do like them. One thing I noticed was the complete absence of cliches. Wish I could do that.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Ann Barrows

What an utterly delightful read this was! Bought on an impulse in WHS. It's all told by letters. Main character Juliet is a writer, time period is just post-WW2. Juliet enters into a correspondence with first one member then many members of a Guernsey book club, and eventually her curiosity takes her to visit the island as she decides to write about them. There are some fabulous quirky characters in this novel - the type you want to know more about after the book ends. There's a satsifying love story, and you get to learn lots of history of the German occupation of the Channel islands during the war. What more could you want from a novel, apart from to have written it yourself?

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Knife Man

The Knife Man by Wendy Moore

I've previously read and loved Wendy Moore's book Wedlock so was looking out for more by her. This one's a biography of Georgian surgeon, John Hunter. He was an unconventional pioneer of surgical techniques and anatomical investigations. He obtained (mostly via grave-robbing!) thousands of bodies to dissect, and as a result added an enormous amount to the world's knowledge of the human body. He didn't stop at humans - also dissected and experimented on animals, from dogs and sheep to exotic species brought back by explorers.

It's a fascinating read. If you're a bit squeamish I'd advise against it, but I absolutely loved it. Really well researched, easy to read, and very informative.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

White Lies

White Lies by Lynn Michell

I bought a couple of books from Linen Press last year and thoroughly enjoyed them both, so was looking forward to this year's crop. White Lies certainly did not disappoint - I have barely been able to put it down since I started it!

At its heart, the story is of a love triangle between Mary; her husband David whom she married young, pre-WW2, and found she didn't really know after the war years kept them apart; and Harry, David's friend and colleague. But the whole thing is set against an unforgettable backdrop - 1950s Kenya, and the beginnings of the Mau Mau uprising. That's not a period in history I knew a lot about, and I always love learning a bit more history from reading a novel. David, Harry and Mary are stationed in Kenya, living the colonial life with plenty of black servants at their beck and call - loyal servants now but some are beginning to violently turn on their white masters. Mary and David have two young daughters. The story is told in David's, Mary's and their daughter Eve's voices, and in places you get three versions of the same events. Everyone rewriting history, telling white lies, to suit themselves.

This book is beautifully written, and was a real page-turner. I loved it, and thoroughly recommend it. If you are tempted to buy it, please do so from Linen Press direct rather than from Amazon for reasons explained here.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Adventure of English

The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg

Bought this when visiting the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library a couple of weeks back, and decided to read it straight away. I've always been fascinated by etymology. This book is laid out as a biography of the English language, and Bragg writes about English almost as though it were a living, breathing, conscious entity. How did a language first brought to England by Saxon invaders in around 500AD become the globally spoken language of commerce and business that it is today?

The book leads us from Old English (whose words still make up the core of our language - Churchill's We shall fight them on the beaches speech almost entirely consists of words from old english), through the Middle English of Chaucer, to the modern English of Shakespeare. And then on - English has an amazing knack of absorbing words from other languages (unlike French which actively resists adopting phrases such as le weekend) and perhaps because of this, is able to express more ideas more precisely than other languages.

So there are chapters on the influence of American English, Indian English, even Australian English by drongo, and Jamaican. Utterly absorbing and brilliantly written. Loved it.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Confinement by Katharine McMahon

I love the cover of this book. So did a complete stranger (a middle-aged man) who commented on it while I was sitting waiting for a train at Southampton station.

It's one of my favourite type of novels - set in two time periods. In Victorian England, Bess Hardomon is teaching at the Priors Heath school for the daughters of clergy. She's determined to improve the welfare and fortunes of the girls. In the 1960s/70s, Sarah Beckett is a student at Priors Heath girls' school. She's studious and hard-working, but befriends wild child Imogen. In the 1990s Sarah returns to Priors Heath, now a comprehensive, as a teacher. Imogen is the new head teacher, trying to update the school in her own way. Throughout, the theme of women being confined by their gender and duties is explored.

The school itself becomes a character in this novel - I love the way it develops over the years, changing with the times but not losing its identity. Thoroughly enjoyable novel - the third of McMahon's I've read and it won't be the last.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Touching the Void

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

I used to read a lot of mountaineering accounts but that was before this one was published, and while I knew the story I had never actually read the book or seen the docu-drama that was later made. Bought this book in the little Waterstones in Aviemore when I was there last week, and decided to read it straight away while the memories of walking up mountains in deep snow were still fresh.

Warning - people of a nervous disposition should not read this book. It's a brilliantly written but harrowing story of survival against all the odds.

The author and fellow climber Simon Yates were descending a remote Andean peak after a difficult ascent, when Joe Simpson fell and badly broke his leg. They had miscalculated how long the climb would take and were already out of fuel for their stove and food, so despite the incoming storm they decided to try to continue descending. Simon lowered Joe, rope length by rope length, much of the way down the steep snow slope, until on the last lower, Joe went over an unseen ice cliff and was left dangling. After some time Simon found himself being pulled over, and realising the choice was between one death and two deaths, decided to cut the rope.

Joe fell, Simon assumed he'd be dead, especially when he saw the crevasse Joe had fallen into and continued the descent back to base camp. Joe amazingly landed on an ice bridge across the crevasse, still alive. With supreme mental strength he managed to get himself out of the crevasse then crawled and hopped his way for the next two days across the glacier, down the valley and back to base camp, arriving there close to death.

It's an incredible story. Both men showed enormous mental strength throughout. If you like real-life adventure then this is almost certainly one of the best ever. Joe is a brilliant writer. He's written several others which I think I will have to search out.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York by Miranda Dickinson

My son bought me this for Christmas as he knows the song of the same name is one of my all-time favourites. I was intrigued to read the author was a member of Authonomy and this book came through that process. I've never looked much at Authonomy though I was once a member of YouWriteOn which has a similar set-up. I'm always pleased to read of any author finding success through these less than conventional routes.

The book is narrated by Rosie, an English woman living in New York, running a floristry business. She's emotionally scarred from having been jilted at the altar, and is unable to form any new relationships. She meets handsome and charming Nate, who is himself engaged but clearly keen on Rosie. And then there's serial-dater Ed, her best friend and work colleague. When her ex, David, turns up in New York and asks her to do the flowers for his wedding, Rosie has to confront her feelings and learn to move on.

The book is written in a lively style which I've come to associate with the best of chick-lit. So it carries you along nicely. I found a few aspects of the plot seemed a little unbelievable but maybe things are different in New York... The ending was satisfying if a little predictable.

Overall it was a pleasant read - would be a good one to take on a long plane journey when you need a little escapism.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Him indoors raved about this book and its sequels. I'm not really into crime novels or thrillers so this was a departure for me.

There was huge hype surrounding this book, maybe partly because the author died after completing the trilogy but before publication.

Hmm. What can I say about this book?

At the beginning I couldn't get into it, but stuck with it because so many people seem to love it. After 200 pages my main thoughts were that if those 200 pages had been edited down to 100 pages, they might be quite reasonable. The plot picked up later on, and at times was intriguing, but the main whodunnit was guessable from an early point. The other crimes, and the ideas behind the novel, are clever and I suppose that's the other aspect that fuelled the hype.

But overall I found the book flabby, with too many sentences along the lines of 'He took off his clothes and went to bed.' Too much pointless detail which didn't move the story on or provide characterisation. The main characters are interesting in a way, but they all talk the same. The dialogue sounds alike whether its the 40-something journalist, the elderly industrialist or the 20-something female Goth computer hacker talking.

There are two further books in the trilogy. Jury's out re whether or not I'll read them. Possibly as holiday reads, skimming over the flabby prose.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

It felt like time for a bit of science, so I picked up this one. I'm a fan of Dawkins' books and have read several of his earlier works. This one's subtitle is The Evidence for Evolution. It seems crazy that here in the 21st century we still need to publish books on this subject, amazing that there are people out there who need convincing of it. Dawkins calls them (the creationists) 'history-deniers' and it is an apt name. What frightens me is that history-deniers, especially in the USA, teach in schools and colleges and run for high political office. Evolution is not a theory any longer - it's proven fact and there is an immense weight of evidence behind it. In my opinion (and Dawkins') only the spectacularly uninformed can argue against it.

Anyway, this book. Dawkins doesn't just argue his points, he demolishes any opposition step by step, systematically and comprehensively. He is a very good science writer, with the ability to lead the reader through some difficult concepts. He's entertaining as well. The book covers a wide range of topics from geology - the dating of rocks (which also dates the fossils in them and proves the earth is far older than the 10,000 years Creationists give it); embryology - how an organism grows from a single cell to a complex creature in just a few months; plate tectonics - explains why all marsupials are found in Australia and nowhere else; microbiology - experiments with generations of bacteria showing evolution happening before our very eyes.

It's all fascinating stuff. There were no ideas in this book which I didn't already know about but I loved reading about the evidence, research and experimentation which back them up. Some bits made me say wow, or laugh out loud. In mammals, there are two nerves running from the brain to the larynx. One goes straight there, the other goes down to the heart, loops around the aorta and back up again. In a giraffe, that's a bloody big detour. It's like that because of the way mammals have evolved from fish, and how each part of the body has evolved from some earlier organ. In sharks, the equivalent nerves don't have a detour. Oh you know what, I'm explaining this really badly - best to read the book yourself. But the point Dawkins is making with this chapter is that a so-called 'intelligent designer' would not have designed mammalian bodies like this. A designer would have gone back to the drawing board and routed the nerve sensibly. But evolution can't do that. It has to make do with tiny, step by step changes, and each change has to be an improvement on the last. So the nerve can't evolve a new route because the intermediate steps would be worse than before, not better. Once it finds itself looped around the aorta it just has to keep stretching as the giraffe's neck lengthens.

And why is the koala's pouch upside down with the opening at the bottom? Bit stupid for an animal who spends its time up trees. But when you discover the koala is evolved from a ground-living wombat-type creature who dug burrows with its front feet it makes perfect sense. You don't want to be shovelling dirt into your pouch, do you, much better to have the pouch opening backwards.

Anyway, I guess Dawkins is preaching to the converted here, if that isn't completely the wrong metaphor. In any case I have to agree with him when he says this.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Birth Machine

The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines

Came across this one via the blogging circles in which I meander aimlessly when I ought to be writing my novel. I sometimes read the author's blog, and I was fascinated by her tale of how this was published - first in a different version years ago, snapped up by earth-mothers as a plea for natural childbirth which isn't quite what she intended to say with it, and now republished in its original form by Salt, that champion of literary short fiction.

It's beautifully written - the kind of style I've come to expect from Salt (and I've read one of the author's books before). Lyrical and introspective - much of the action takes place within the main character's head: flashback or a new take on old events, from the perspective of a woman in labour?

Zelda is in induced labour, before her due date. They're inducing her as an experiment into inducing for convenience, not because there's anything wrong, although she doesn't know this. She's having lots of drugs pumped into her, and they cause her to return to the past, her childhood, and the murder of a playmate.

I must admit, to me the book read as a plea for natural childbirth, and minimum intervention, even though the author's postscript explains her intended themes. Zelda's experiences are horrible and leave her feeling completely unconnected with her baby - I really felt for her. The book was perhaps slightly dated - it was originally published in 1983. The National Childbirth Trust has come along since then and had an influence - they just don't do things like that anymore. Thank goodness.

I enjoyed the book, its language and imagery, and the delving into Zelda's head and memories, but I couldn't help but think I might have enjoyed the 1983 version more -where you start with Zelda rather than starting with the professor and his theories on induction. You never really see the professor after that first chapter, so I found the beginning of the book a little disjointed.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Everyone I know who's read this book is raving about it. And I am going to rave too. It is definitely up there in my top 10 books of all time. What a marvellous example of writing in distinctive voices. Best characterisation I've ever come across - those women really come to life.

It's set in Mississippi in the 1960s when, to quote Bob Dylan as the author does: 'the times they are a-changing'. There are three first person viewpoints - two are black maids working for white families, bringing up the children but not allowed to so much as use the same toilet as the whites. The third viewpoint is one of the white women - a young writer who has rather more forward-looking views than her friends. She gets to know the black women and together they write a book about what life is like for the black servants. They're treading on dangerous ground in those days of racial segregation and KKK lynchings.

The use of dialect and the rhythm of the language had me even thinking in a deep south accent after a while. I could feel the heat of the Mississippi summers radiating off the page. It's a truly wonderful book and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Alchemist's Daughter

The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon

I bought this after having read another book by this author - The Rose of Sebastapol, which I'd bought from a charity booksale for 10p, thus proving that such second-hand book sales CAN benefit the author! I was so taken with The Rose that I bought 2 further books by the author from Amazon.

This one's set in the early 1700s. The heroine is Emilie who's been brought up by her alchemist father, pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. When, aged 18, she meets a dashing young man who comes to learn from her father, the inevitable happens and she falls in love. He is only interested in alchemy if it can make him money, but when he meets the pretty young heir to a large estate he sees another way of making money, and seduces her. She falls pregnant and marries him. Her father apparently casts her off, wants nothing more to do with her. She loses the baby and over the next year or two the marriage breaks apart. Emilie's father dies, and so her husband takes over the estate and begins to shape it into the fashionable country retreat he dreams of. He's having an affair with Emilie's maid Sarah, who becomes pregnant. Emilie, meanwhile, is beginning to notice the local rector, a widower who has an interest in scientific experiment (though not alchemy!) She realises her father was right, she's married the wrong man. She sends Sarah away, but then, after nearly blowing herself up in an alchemical experiment, she discovers that she herself was the daughter of a fallen woman who turned up at her father's door, heavily pregnant and very sick. Her father had taken the woman in, and adopted the child. She decides to go to London to find Sarah and help her. Her husband, now broke, goes off in a slaving voyage in an attempt to make his fortune. Emilie finds Sarah, sick and dying but with the help of a midwife manages to save the baby. The ending is open - but we can assume the husband won't make it back and Emilie can make a new life with Sarah's baby and the rector, and an annual allowance her father had set up for her in the event of her husband leaving her....

Ooops, I seem to have given away the entire plot. Well, no one reads this blog anyway. It's a good book, with a reasonably satisfying ending though not as good as The Rose of Sebastapol. I did enjoy the depiction of the early 18th century - a very different feel to it than to the 19th century books I've been reading a lot of lately. The experiments of Emilie and her father bridge the gap between earlier witchcraft and later true science. A very interesting time, and the book came across as well-researched and well-written.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Christmas Holiday reading

I only read a couple of books on the skiing holiday - too busy drinking vin chaud and going to bed early to nurse my knackered knees to read much. Enjoyed the books I did read though:

Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex by Alice Turing
I can't add a link for this one because it is out of print - the author self-published and only printed a hundred or so copies. I got to hear of it via her blog and thought it the wackiest title I'd ever heard of, so I just had to buy a copy. It's really well-written and certainly quirky. Full of new-age cults and magic and mind-reading and plenty of gay sex. It really isn't possible to do the plot justice in a short review so I won't even try. But I do hope the author writes more books and manages to get a mainstream publisher interested - the world needs her sparky prose and fantastic imagination.

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse
Bought this in a 3 for 2 deal when I was supposed to be buying Christmas presents. It is always dangerous to wander into a bookshop while Christmas shopping. I always end up buying loads for myself. I've previously read Labyrinth which I liked but didn't love, though I can't remember now what it was I didn't love about it, as I always enjoy time-slip novels where historical and present-day stories unfold at the same time. In The Winter Ghosts, it is the 1930s and the hero is still mourning the loss of his brother in the Great War. He finds himself snowbound in an isolated Pyrennees village, and there meets a young woman. They spend the night talking and she helps him to come to terms with his loss. But in the morning she disappears, and he goes searching for her. He uncovers a 700-year old tragic mystery - a community was buried alive in caves in the mountainside...

This is a deliciously creepy, short but satisfying ghost story. Definitely one to read by the fireside during the next snowfall.