Sunday, 16 December 2012

Three little books

Cornish Killing by Chrissie Loveday (Easy Reads Intrigue #2)

Emma travels to Cornwall to stay with a friend who has just inherited a clifftop cottage. But Charlie is nowhere to be found, and her car has been found burned out with an unidentifiable body inside it. Emma cannot believe Charlie is dead, and sets out to find what happened to her, with the help of dishy local policeman Sam.

This was an enjoyable mystery with lots going on, although I found the baddies were rather clearly signposted, and there were perhaps not enough surprises and twists in the plot. The characters were very likeable and it certainly kept me turning the pages.

I hope that with the return to old-style Pocket Novels, there will still be a place for this kind of crime story which I very much enjoy.

The Ghost of Christmas Past by Sally Quilford

I got this for Kindle when Sally was offering all her 'Midchester' books for free one weekend. This one's set in Victorian times. One December a man's body is found in the snow, and two children are chased across an icy pond and fall in. The vicar's daughter Elizabeth is trying to find out who the dead man is, who killed him, and who put her brother in danger on that icy pond. She's also fighting her own feelings for the town's newcomer, doctor Liam Doubleday, who seems to be caught up in everything that's going on.

This novella has a distinctly Dickensian feel to it, both because of its setting and its wonderful cast of larger-than-life characters. There's the busybody elderly sisters, the grumpy titled lady, the creepy man who's trying to get Elizabeth to marry him...

As always with Sally's novels this one twists and turns and keeps you guessing right to the end, when all the plot elements are neatly sewn up. Very enjoyable read.

How to Crack Cryptic Crosswords by Vivien Hampshire

Vivien's name will be well known to readers of Writers' Forum. I have a go at the Evening Standard crossword on my train journeys home from London and needed a bit of help. This book takes you through the main types of clues and shows you how to solve them, with lots of examples. A great little book for crossword lovers.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

My son, studying A level Chemistry, borrowed this from his school library, then I read it after him.  The sub title is 'and other true tales from the Periodic Table'. It's a lively romp through the periodic table, telling the stories of how elements were discovered and named, and the stories of the characters who found them.

There are all sorts of fascinating facts in here- and the science covered is much more than just chemistry. I thoroughly enjoyed it though can't pretend to have understood every word. If you like reading about science I'd recommend this one.

Incidently the disappearing spoon of the title is one made from gallium. It looks just like aluminium, but melts at just over room temperature, so the minute you stir your tea with it it'll disappear.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

1Q84 books 1 and 2

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami books 1 and 2

I saw a rave review of this book somewhere and thought I'd give it a go. I did not realise there's a 3rd book and they are not standalone stories. This one should be a lesson to me to read more Amazon reviews before committing to a novel.

At the beginning I thought I would love it. Two interleaved stories, of Aomane who's a gym instructor and assassin of men who've abused their wives; and Tengo, a maths teacher and writer. Tengo is re-writing a book by a teenage girl set in some strange fantasy world, where there are two moons in the sky, and 'little people' controlling our destinies. Aomane begins to notice that things seem a little different to usual, and then spots there are suddenly two moons in the sky. But which is the real world?

Right from the beginning everything seems a bit surreal, and this feeling increases as the novel progresses. It's not the weirdness that I disliked. It's everything else. None of the characters were likeable. They all seemed sociopathic - not one of them is having any kind of normal relationship with another person. There's lots of mentions and hints of sex with underage girls. The book plods along and is highly repetitive - the author seems not to trust that we'll remember what happened two chapters ago.

I did finish it, eventually, though the jury's out on whether I'll buy book 3 to find out the end of the story. (1 & 2 come as a package for Kindle). Not my cup of tea at all.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Bonfire Memories

Bonfire Memories by Sally Quilford

Can't add a link as it is an Easy Read from DC Thomson, not available on Amazon, or anywhere else online I don't think.

This is one of the first four Easy Reads to be published, and it is the first in the Crime - Intrigue category. Set mostly in 1966 with a few bits from 1946, it follows wannabe journalist Cara who is interviewing Australian actor/film director Guy Sullivan who has unexpectedly turned up in the fictional village of Midchester. Cara falls for him almost immediately. But Guy has secrets, and is here to find out what happened to his long lost sister, who disappeared in Midchester just after the war. As bonfire night approaches, Cara begins to remember events from 20 years earlier, when as a child she witnessed something very odd. And then there's a murder...

This was a really enjoyable quick read. The plot is full of twists and turns, and Sally keeps you guessing throughout - who IS the sinister narrator in the 1946 sections? She skilfully leads you up all sorts of blind alleys, and like a little puppy I trotted after her up each one. The final reveal, when it came, was a genuine surprise. I've read several of Sally's pocket novels now, but this is definitely my favourite of the lot, and I would recommend it. You'll have to be quick to get out there and buy it in book form, as they'll only be in the shops another week or so. But Sally will no doubt e-publish it later which will be worth watching out for.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Fan Tan Players

The Fan Tan Players by Julian Lees

Not sure where I heard about this book but I liked the sound of a story set in Macao in the 1920s so bought it for Kindle.

It starts off in Macao in 1928, following Russian refugee Nadia who lives with her mother and uncle who runs a tobacconist shop. She meets Scotsman Iain Sutherland, who's working for the British Consulate trying to stop smuggling. He's interested in her, though is it to get information on Chinese gangsters or for her own sake? Nadia's father was lost in Russia during the revolution, but it is not known whether he is alive or dead. To win Nadia's heart, Iain goes to Russia to try to find him and bring him back. And then they marry and go to Scotland, and then war breaks out (1939) and Iain is put in a Hong Kong internment camp, from which Nadia must rescue him.

Does this synopsis sound muddled? That's because the plot is, too. There's an awful lot of plot in this book. I started off thinking it was an interesting historical novel, with that unusual and enigmatic setting of Macao. Then it becomes a thriller, then an adventure-quest, or is it a love story, then it's a war story.

It's not a bad book - there are some lovely descriptions in it, some beautiful prose. I found myself reading some lines twice because I loved them so much. But the plot twists and turns had me frowning. The author could have stretched this out into about 4 different books if he'd wanted to. In the end, I just wasn't sure about this book. I can't say it's not my genre, because there are so many genres represented in it!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Dear Agent

Dear Agent - Write the Letter that Sells your Book by Nicola Morgan

Here's a book that does exactly what it says on the tin - teaches you how to write the perfect covering letter to go with your submission. Well not the perfect one perhaps, but a really good one that won't put off an agent and will hopefully entice them to actually read your submission.

I've read it quickly as I'm not yet ready to send out any novel submissions, but will refer to it no doubt when I am. I got the impression you could almost paint by numbers - include the paragraphs Nicola suggests, add your own details and twists, hone it and polish it and you're done. 

This book and Write A Great Synopsis (both available for Kindle) should take away all the fear of writing these pieces, leaving you with more time and mental energy to focus on the important bit - your book itself.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Gillespie and I

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris 

I read this on my Kindle, and bought it after friends told me I'd love it. And I did. I've previously read the author's The Observations which I loved too.

Harriet Baxter, newly arrived in Glasgow in 1888, befriends the Gillespie family. Head of the family is Ned, a talented but as yet unrecognised artist. Harriet becomes friends with his wife and mother, and with their two little girls, wayward Sybil and sweet little Rose.

Tragedy strikes when Rose goes missing, apparently abducted.

Harriet is telling the story from nearly 50 years later, as an elderly woman living alone in London. She wants to set the record straight, and tell her side of the story.

But as you read on, you gradually realise there's definitely more than one side to this story, and is Harriet's really the truthful one? This is a delicious unreliable-narrator novel. I'm in awe of any author who can pull that off convincingly and Jane Harris has certainly done that here.

The characters are fully rounded, believable though not all of them likeable. The plot keeps you turning the pages, especially once you pass the half way mark. The language used is absolutely convincing for the period and yet it flows along brilliantly.

I loved this book and just wish I could write like that...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Reef by David Kendrick

David was once in my Thursday writing class so when I heard he'd published Reef for Kindle I had to buy it, as I remembered bits of it from when he'd read it out in class. The paperback is just out as well, if you prefer that to an ebook.

Reef is set in New Zealand. An artificial surf reef has been built, and is apparently upsetting the local Maoris, particularly Gnat. Englishman Shaun and his pregnant girlfriend Chloe arrive to investigate the reef with a view to building a similar one in Bournemouth. Gnat causes trouble when he sets fire to some surfers' cars and in the process badly injures one of them. But it is surf shop owner Mickey who has most to lose from the reef. Shaun befriends him but Chloe instinctively mistrusts him.

The story twists and turns at a rapid pace. There's lots of detail of Maori culture in there, and a good sense of place. I've been to the area in New Zealand where this is set, and funnily enough live very near Bournemouth's failed artificial surf reef which was presumably part of the inspiration for this novel. So on a lot of levels I liked this book very much. My only gripe is that is could have done with a better proof-read - there were quite a lot of errors which I found distracting.

But as a story it races along, the plot is brilliant, the characters are memorable and I loved the way they all developed during the course of the novel. Well worth a read if you enjoy a thriller with an unusual setting.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

August Books

Read the following in August, either just before my holiday in Peru, or during it.

This Little World by Imogen Parker
The third book of the trilogy about Kingshaven. This one takes us through the 90s and into the new millennium. Again there are tight parallels with the royal family, so of course you are waiting for the big car crash in 1997... It happens, but not in quite the same way things turned out for Diana (can't say, spoilers!)

This book concentrates mostly on Iris, who has been present in all 3 novels. Here she's coping with her young child and her seriously ill oldest friend. We are also introduced to a wholly new character Cat who is hard to place for a while though I had my suspicions who she was and they turned out to be correct. It's a while since I read this and already the details of the plot are fading, but I did enjoy it. As with any trilogy, by book 3 you know everyone so well they are like old friends. In this 3rd novel, the scenes are a little longer than in the previous two, so it jumps around less than the earlier books. I'd got used to that however, though in the beginning I found it a little disconcerting.

An enjoyable trilogy overall, and recommended as perfect beach/holiday/recuperation reading where you need to lose yourself.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Came across this recommended on another blog somewhere though I can't quite remember where. Read it entirely on the plane on the way to Lima - it's a short book.

This is the story of 15-year old Mary in 1830 who is sent by her bullying father to be a maid and companion for the local vicar's invalid wife. There she learns to read and write, taught by the vicar, and her story is written with unusual punctuation and grammar, reflecting her newly acquired skills. The vicar begins to expect 'payment' for his tutoring skills, and Mary gradually reveals why it is she has such an urgent need to tell her story.

Very unusual and distinctive voice in this book, and it is captivating. The ending is shocking and unforgettable. I couldn't put this one down.

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James
Bought this for Kindle because I loved the idea of a murder mystery involving the characters and settings of Pride and Prejudice. I should have read the Amazon reviews before I bought it. It's rare that I dislike a novel as much as I disliked this one. I've not read anything else by PD James so I don't know if this is her usual style or if she was attempting to copy Jane Austen's style. It's a poor imitation - the prose lacks all the sparkle and wit of Austen's. The characters sit around making long speeches to each other. For the first third, the plot of P&P is recalled and summarised in a very 'tell' kind of way. I was waiting for the novel to get going and for some dramatic scenes. But even when the body is found, the scenes are very 'tell' throughout. Most of the novel is written from Darcy's point of view -disappointingly we see little of Elizabeth.
Overall I hated this, and am not sure why I persevered to the end.

The Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham
Bought this in Cusco having just completed the Inca Trail and visited Machu Picchu. This is the centenary edition - American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu almost by accident in 1911, and his account was first published in book form in the 1950s.

It's a fascinating story, and was all the more real to me as I'd been there, seen what he found, experienced what he'd experienced. The book contains an introduction with a brief biography of Bingham, then an account of the last few Inca chiefs and their fate at the hands of the Spanish invaders, then the story of Bingham's search for the last Inca capital and how he stumbled upon Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish, and as such was better preserved than other Inca settlements. It's also in the most stunning, dramatic location. It is these facts which have made it so world famous today. Walking there via the 4-day Inca trail was one of the best experiences of my life.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Game

The Game by Leigh Forbes

I first met Leigh online via our blogs, then joined an online writing group, then met her in 'real life' a couple of times, then went walking up Cairngorm with her in deep snow on an unforgettable day last year. Of course I was going to read her Kindle novella!

I read it during a long train journey last week. Lovely little book, and thoroughly recomended. Cecile is resisting a proposition by charismatic actor Jean-Luc. She's sure he just wants to get her into bed for the conquest, whereas she won't sleep with anyone she's not in love with. He's determined to make her fall in love with him - as he has, for her, as we gradually begin to realise. Good old-fashioned love story. Looking forward to more by this author!

The Things We Do For Love

The Things We Do For Love by Imogen Parker 

This is the second book of a trilogy about a fictional Dorset seaside town, Kingshaven. I saw the author speak at an event last year and bought the whole trilogy. They're great books - they read like a soap opera. Took a bit of getting used to the frequent changes of view point and very short scenes, but once you get into the book I rather liked this style.

The town hotel, the Palace, is run by the King family. They are like the British royal family in miniature, with parallel lives, and this of course gives you clues as to what will happen. The first book of the trilogy covered the 50s and 60s; this book covers the 70s and 80s, and I'm currently reading the third.

Like the best soap operas, it's impossible to summarise the plot in a few words so I'm not going to try. What I love most about this book is the sense of era you get - lots of little references to songs in the charts, fashions, world events. Brilliant.

Friday, 13 July 2012

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian  by Marina Lewycka

One of those books which has had such a buzz about it, you know that sooner or later you must get round to reading it. I got the Kindle edition.

Nadia and her sister are trying to cope with their elderly, eccentric father who after being widowed, decides to marry a much younger, tarty woman Valentina who's obviously only after the money she thinks he has. When the marriage inevitably breaks down, the sisters scheme and plot to get Valentina out of their father's house, get him a divorce, get her deported back to Ukraine. Throughout the novel are extracts of their father's book - on tractors. And the back story of the family - their horrendous experiences during the war, and how they got out from behind the Iron Curtain to the west, is gradually revealed.

Well, it's a quirky book - don't think I've ever come across anything else where the main characters are Ukrainian - and I suspect that's partly why it did so well. I liked it though not as much as I thought I would. The most likeable character is the old man, for whom you mostly feel sorry. He's manipulated by his wife and then by his daughters, and the author doesn't grant him a lot of dignity, poor man. Valentina is a bit of a stereotype. At one point I thought she and Nadia were going to become friends despite it all but that didn't happen, disappointingly. Valentina has several men-friends on the go, but the ending was a bit predictable.

What I did like was the old man's obsession with writing about tractors, given all that was revealed about his and the Ukraine's past. A banal history of machines, when he could have been writing a wide ranging and tragic history of a people.

Shakespeare on Toast

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

Great title, isn't it? Tells you the book is easily digestible yet good for you. Got this book on a whim after seeing something about it in Writers' Forum (I think).

The book teaches you how to understand Shakespeare. Why did he write in poetry, what difference does the metre make and why does it change, what's with all the thees and thous, how does he still manage to direct actors four hundred years after his death?

It's a quick and enjoyable read. I've read some Shakespeare but never seen any acted. This, according to the book, is a mistake as of course the plays were originally intended to be seen and not read, and make far more sense on the stage than on the page. Nevertheless whether you are watching or reading Shakespeare, this book will certainly help you understand the meaning and how the Bard intended the plays to be performed.

Worth reading for anyone interested in language, whether or not you're especially a Shakespeare fan.

Sunday, 1 July 2012


Meltdown by Ben Elton

I think hubby bought this as a holiday read a couple of years back - been lurking on my TBR pile since. As with most of Elton's books, it was highly topical when written (in 2009) - covers the credit crunch, the cash for honours scandal, the MPs expenses scandal, the banking crises.

Jimmy and his mates are rich and successful - making money faster than they can spend it during the 90s and early noughties. But when the crunch comes, futures trader Jimmy loses his job and finds himself several million in debt. He and his wife have to learn how to do without a nanny and a cook, how to clean their own house, how to survive on just a few quid a week while also trying to find a way to resolve their debts. Jimmy's MP friend is caught up in the expenses scandal, his bank chairman friend is caught up in the banking crisis, his architect friend can't get any work and his best mate, easy going Robbo has lost all his family's money and died in a car crash. Things can't get any worse (but they do...)

This is a typical Ben Elton novel - some great one-liners, funny and well-observed, and reasonably fast-paced. The main character is likeable and you do root for him. The novel is a bit preachy in places - some scenes seem to be included so that the author can tell us his views on state education etc. Would be good as a beach read.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Other Hand

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

My writing tutor used this as an example of a literary style in class one day, and as she loved it I decided to read it, and bought it for my Kindle. Looking at the reviews on Amazon, people seem to be fairly evenly split across all 5 stars.

I'd give it 5 stars. I loved it.

It's the story of an African girl, Little Bee, who has come to England as an asylum seeker, trying to escape the men from an oil company in Nigeria who are trying to kill her because of what she has witnessed. And an English woman, Sarah, who once met Little Bee in extraordinary circumstances, back in Nigeria (can't say what as it would be a spoiler) and who becomes her only hope of refuge in the UK.

There are novels with a great plot which stops you putting them down, and novels which are so well-crafted you savour every sentence. This novel, for me,  falls into both those categories. I highly recommend it.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Beauty in the Beast

The Beauty in the Beast by Hugh Warwick

Subtitled Britain's Favourite Creatures and the People Who Love Them.

This is a completely delightful book. I'm not a wildlife freak - prefer mountains and distant horizons to spiky, scaly, winged or stingy creatures - but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I bought it because one chapter is about my lovely friend Volewoman, read her section first, then started from the beginning again and read the lot. Each chapter covers a different animal, and a different nutter wildlife enthusiast championing it. They're not all rare or endangered - there's a chapter on robins, another on sparrows and another on foxes.

The author is into hedgehogs, and after having a hedgehog tattooed on his leg he decided he would get one other tattoo on the other leg, but what animal to depict? It was up to the animal ambassadors to sell him their species - whether it was the cutest (voles, obviously), the most endangered in Britain (probably otters), or the most interesting. He went out on field trips with each enthusiast, and managed to get some great sightings of most of the animals (except, oddly, moths).

The book is engagingly written, with the human characters just as fascinating as the animals. I'm still not likely to spend hours sitting in the cold, wet or dark hoping for a glimpse of a shy creature but I admire the people who do this, and after reading this book have an inkling of why they do it.

I probably like foxes best. I see one most weeks, just hanging out in my back garden, often in broad daylight. The usual visitor is a large male with a scrawny tail. He likes to sit on the lawn and drag himself along using his front paws, to give himself a good arse-scratch. Just like dogs do.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Novel in the Viola

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

I heard this author speak at a literary festival last year. I'd already bought this book, but it took me a while to get round to reading it - too many books, too little time!

I knew I'd like this one, and I wasn't wrong. It's set in Tyneford, which is closely based on the real-life village of Tyneham in Dorset, which was requisitioned by the MOD during the second world war, for training purposes. The entire village, including the manor house, was evacuated and used by troops training for D-Day. The villagers were never allowed back, and today the village is a museum, open only when the army aren't using their nearby firing ranges. I've been to Tyneham and it's a beautiful, magical place, so I knew I'd love a book set there.

Elise Landau is a Jewish refugee who comes to England in 1937 escaping persecution in her native Austria. She takes a job as a maid in Tyneford House, where she falls in love with Kit Rivers, the son of the squire. The late thirties is such an evocative time to begin a novel - the reader knows more than the characters of what's to come. And in this case, even after the war starts, we know that sooner or later the MOD are going to take over the village, and life will never be the same again.

What makes this book special, for me, is the description. The author is brilliant at describing the Dorset countryside, the farmland, hills, rocky coves that make up the area around Tyneham/Tyneford. And she's also a master at creating quirky village characters - fisherman Burt in this novel will stay with me a while.

The novel in the viola refers to a novel Elise's father wrote, and hid inside a viola which Elise brought to England with her. It symbolises hope for the future - that one day Elise will be reunited with her family again, and her father's last novel can be published. But as the war starts and then intensifies, can that ever happen?

Beautiful book, definitely recommended. I've read the author's first, Mr Rosenblum's List, also reviewed on here. I'm looking forward to her next.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pear Shaped

Pear Shaped by Stella Newman

This was recommended to me by my friend Kate Long who'd been a tutor on an Arvon course, where Stella Newman was a pupil while she finished this book.

Sophie is a dessert designer for a large supermarket chain. She's a woman who knows her food and loves her job, except for her crappy boss. She meets James, older, rich, good-looking, and falls head over heels in love with him. But he's the kind of man who can't commit to a relationship, and thinks women should be stick-thin and always perfectly presented. Sophie tries to be what he wants her to be, but it costs her her happiness. All her friends tell her to ditch James. Eventually when the relationship breaks up, Sophie breaks down in a bad way, and then has to rebuild herself and her self-esteem.

This is a sparkily written, amusing romp of a chick-lit novel, but one which has a serious message about the importance of moderation in all things and being true to yourself. It's a great book for foodies - the author includes some recipes and restaurant recommendations at the end. In some places the book reads like a beautifully written catalogue of all the very best desserts - do not read if you are on a diet! But do read it if you love chick lit, and want a satisfying story of a woman's relationships with food, her body, and her men.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Time Of Our Lives

The Time Of Our Lives by Imogen Parker

Bought this last Autumn at the Wimborne Literary Festival, after hearing the author speak. It covers a time period from the Coronation in 1953 through to a Woodstock-type music festival in 1969. It's set in a fictional Dorset coastal town of Kingsaven. At the heart of the novel are left-wing young teacher Michael who is falling out of love with his ambitious wife, and pretty schoolgirl Claudia. When the two meet there is an instant attraction.

But they don't act on this attraction straight away. The author deftly handles a huge cast of characters and dozens of subplots throughout the book. The action unfolds against a backdrop of the changing times, and in this book the background events almost felt like bitpart characters themselves. I found myself studying it from a writer's point of view - how did she do that?

It's a whopper of a book, and reads like a soap opera. At the start I found the frequent point of view changes and enormous number of characters frustrating - you just got into one character's head and it was time to get to grips with someone else. But by the end I was completely hooked and didn't want it to finish.

Just as well there's a further two books in the trilogy then!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I bought this for my Kindle. Shorter novels are better value bought as ebooks, and that's one area where I think ebooks really win - making short novels, novellas and short story collections more cost-effective for the reader. This book was last year's Booker prize winner, and I always like to read the winning novel.

The story is narrated by Tony Webster. The first section covers his school days in the fifties, where he befriended intellectual philosopher Adrian, to whom he was in awe. Adrian was everything average, ordinary Tony and his other friends were not.
At university Tony has a girlfriend Veronica, whose family rather look down on Tony. After they split up, Veronica goes out with Adrian. And then, a while later when Tony has lost touch with him, Adrian commits suicide. He leaves a note explaining that suicide is the only true philosophical question, and that as he'd never asked for life, ending it was the only true answer.

Many years later, when Tony has married, had a child, divorced, and altogether led a mediocre, average life, he finds that Veronica's mother has bequeathed to him Adrian's diary. Why she would have the diary he has no idea, nor why she should leave it to him. But prickly Veronica won't give it up to him. Tony meets with her a few times and eventually, finally, begins to 'get it'.

This is a beautifully written novel, very introspective. And it's quite depressing. Tony's illusions about Adrian are gradually shattered, blow by blow, and so are the reader's. It's a fascinating look at the arrogance of youth from the perspective of old age. It's the kind of novel that stays with you, keeping you pondering, long after you've finished reading it.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Sealed Letter

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Read this on my Kindle while away in the Lake District. It's set in the 1860s, at a time when some women were just beginning to campaign for their rights, and when divorce had just been made a little easier, but was heavily weighted in favour of the husband. It's based on the true story of the Codrington divorce case as reported in the newspapers of the time.

Emily Faithfull, known as Fido to her friends, bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington. Fido is, we eventually realise, in love with Helen. Helen is glamourous, pretty and charming, and all to ready to use people for her own good. She's unhappy in her marriage and ropes Fido into colluding with her in her affair with a young army officer. When her husband finds out, he wants a divorce. He takes the children - in those days, the children almost always stayed with the father. Helen dupes Fido into lying to her solicitor about an episode which could form the basis of Helen's defence in court. The mysterious sealed letter of the title was presented in court by Helen's husband.

This book is written in 3rd person present tense which is not my favourite form, and didn't feel quite right for a historical novel. However after a while you stop noticing it. I enjoyed the book - especially as it was based on a true story. I love seeing what different writers can do, turning facts into fiction. The characterisation was excellent and the story moved along at a good pace.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Two books for writers

The Duties of Servants by Jan Barnes

Borrowed this from a writer-buddy (thanks David). It's a reprint of a Victorian book describing who does what in a large household. While the footmen are out with the carriage, who should answer the door to callers? Whose job is it to set the breakfast-table in the housekeeper's room? A great resource for all writers of historical fiction.

The Crime Writer's Guide to Police Practice and Procedure by Michael O'Byrne

Another one borrowed from David. The author is a retired senior police officer. Even if you're not writing crime, this is a fascinating guide and well worth a read.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Tickling the English

Tickling the English by Dara O'Briain

We spent a weekend with friends a couple of weeks ago, and watched a DVD of one of Dara O'Briain's live shows. It was hilarious. The next day I spotted this book on their bookcase and began reading it, and they allowed me to bring it home to finish it.

The book is Dara's observations on the English, told through the lens of his 2009 comedy tour (actually, the same tour the DVD we watched was from). For each place he visits, he gives a bit of history, a few highlights of the show, and some general observations about the English.

Being married to an Irishman, I've heard many of these before - eg how come England feels its ok to mess with county borders whereas Ireland's have been fixed for 500 years? Why is it the British are at their happiest when they've got something to complain about?

It's laugh out loud funny in places, deeply thoughtful in other places. And leaves you making a resolution to go and see him next time he tours anywhere near.

Successful Novel Plotting

Successful Novel Plotting by Jean Saunders

The last of the books acquired at the Dunford Novelists' Conference! I won this one - third prize in the 60-word competition with this piece of rubbish on the theme of Revenge:

‘Keep the dinner warm for us,’ Jack had said. ‘I want to impress the boss.’ I bet you do, thought Lydia. He’d always cared more about his job than her. Well, she would be treated as a slave no longer. Her suitcase packed and a casserole prepared, she popped it into the freezer. Best served cold, as the saying goes.

Ahem. Anyway, as I've recently begun writing another novel this couldn't have come at a better time. Jean Saunders published hundreds of books under various names during her long career, so who better to teach the art of novel plotting? This is a very readable little book, in which Jean takes you through how to create memorable characters, how to plan chapter by chapter, and the importance of ensuring that your novel is a chain reaction - each event leads logically from what has come before. Near the end, she analyses one of her own novels, and you see just how much plot she puts into her stories! Definitely an inspiring read.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Miss McGuire is Missing

Miss McGuire is Missing by Eileen Robertson

I met the author at the novelists' conference earlier this year, and bought this, her first novel from her.

It's a unusual and great read - a thriller where the main characters are retired. Miss McGuire is an elderly ex-school teacher who goes missing while on a pensioners' mystery coach trip. Ben , wife Rosa and her sister Anna decide to investigate, and go back to the pub where she was last seen. Ben ends up getting kidnapped, and the two women, with the help of the pub landlady, need to find him and rescue him. Meanwhile the pub landlord is seriously ill and the dodgy local doctor looks like he's trying to bump him off...

There are some quite sinister undertones to this book, although it reads like a light-hearted romp through middle England. There are more twists and turns than the country roads through which the mystery coach tour passes. The book is unusual because of its main characters and because of the imaginative plot. Very readable - I couldn't put it down. It may seem expensive on Amazon as a hardback Robert Hale publication - I'd urge you to go find it in your local library.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Mr Rosenblum's List

Mr Rosenblum's List by Natasha Solomons

This author gave a talk at the Wimborne Literary festival last autumn and I bought this book from her then.

Mr Rosenblum is a German Jewish refugee who moved to England before the second world war. The novel takes place in the early 1950s. Jack Rosenblum is relatively well off, from his successful carpet-manufacturing business. But what he wants more than anything is to be accepted as a true Englishman. His List is based on a pamphlet of advice given to refugees when they first arrive in England, and he has added to it ever since. Last on his list is to be accepted as a member by a golf course.

But no golf course will take him. So he decides to build his own. He and his wife Sadie move to a Dorset village and buy a ramshackle cottage with a few acres of hilly land. He sets about building the golf course - on his own to start with but as he gradually makes friends with the locals they come to help him. He's determined to open the course in time for the Queen's coronation in 1953. There are numerous setbacks but his enthusiasm and determination, then his friends faith in him, mean he is finally successful.

This is a lovely, heart-warming book. Jack Rosenblum is one of those characters once read, never forgotten. And the evocation of deepest rural Dorset in the 50s is brilliant - full of tales of the elusive Dorset woolly pig and other mythical creatures. Wasn't sure about the way the point of view jumps around - this was a little unnerving in places - but overall it's a great read.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Catching the Eagle

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

A writer-friend went to a talk by this author, and told me about this book, which I then bought for Kindle. The author had researched her family tree and found a fascinating story which she then fictionalised. Having done something similar myself I was intrigued to see what this novel was like.

In 1809 a huge amount of money was stolen from a Northumbrian estate. In the subsequent days, labourer Jamie Charlton was seen flashing money around, and was arrested on suspicion of having done the robbery. His brother William perjures himself to get Jamie off, but a while later more evidence emerges and Jamie is rearrested and eventually sentenced to transportation. The novel is told from several viewpoints, primarily William's, who is struggling with his feelings for Jamie's wife. The novel romps along, some great descriptions of the hardships of Georgian provincial jails and pre-industrial revolution countryside. The characters, especially Jamie and William, are particularly well-drawn.

I found this an enjoyable novel with a realistic and satisfying ending. The eagle of the title is a thread which ties the whole book together - it's been seen flying around and there's a reward offered for its capture. Jamie's son strikes up an unusual bond with the bird. It is only finally captured at the end, when Jamie is on his way to London prior to being transported to Australia.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Silk and Steel

Silk and Steel by Catherine King

And another book bought directly from a writer I met at the Dunsford novelists' conference! Actually Catherine was my tutor for the small group sessions, too, so I got to know her quite well.

This is a proper thumping good read - a gritty story of 1840s Yorkshire. When Mariah Bowes's mother does, her father reveals he's not her real father and throws her out. She gets brutally raped in a revenge attack - mistaken as the sister of Daniel Thorpe, Mariah's father's ironworks foreman - and takes refuge in the home of midwife Dora, Daniel's aunt, to recover. She finds her niche in life as a dressmaker, and earns some commissions for the local gentry. Daniel is the obvious choice (obvious to the reader!) of perfect man for her, but the author throws endless obstacles in their path, which keep you turning the page and reading late into the night, to find out how they're going to overcome them and get together. I won't reveal all the twists and turns of the plot!

As I'm writing historical novels myself, I read this with a view to learning how it's done. It's certainly inspired me and given me plenty of food for thought.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Jeremy & Amy

Jeremy & Amy - The extraordinary true story of one man and his Orang-utan by Jeremy Keeling

We live not too far from Monkey World in Dorset, and went for a visit yesterday, where I bought this book. I sat down to read it as soon as I got home and stayed up yesterday evening until I'd finished it.

It's a memoir, covering the story of how the author, aided (not much) by his orang-utan Amy whom he'd hand-reared, along with Jim Cronin set up Monkey World which is a sanctuary for abused primates. Jeremy grew up in a zoo - his parents owned their own zoo and kept pumas in the back room. He had a horrendous childhood, although is thankful for the opportunities he had to learn about animals. After various jobs in zoos or looking after private menageries, he met Cronin and shared his dream of building the sanctuary, which finally got off the ground in the early 90s and is now world-renowned.

It's a lovely read - the animal characters come at least as alive as the humans, and I was left impressed at the author's obvious dedication to the animals. They aim to look after primates who've been abused in laboratories or discarded pets, or ex-circus. They don't enter into the politics of the situations - they just take the animals and nurse them better, then give them a wholly better life.

Yesterday it was cold, and a lot of the animals were indoors. But the capuchins were lively, and an orang-utan put on a brilliant show for us, swinging on a strip of towel she'd looped over a bar, and kissing the glass between her and her appreciative audience with every swing. Happy animals (on both sides of the glass!) I recommend a visit, as well as the book!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Getting It Off My Chest

Getting It Off My Chest by Janice Day

Another book bought after meeting the author at the Dunford novelists' conference. It's a cancer memoir. Aged 39 Janice was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Over the following years she had several more operations, lost seven stone and a husband, and reinvented herself. Along the way she refused chemotherapy in case it upset her children, but survived nonetheless.

This book is sad, funny, honest and wise. At times I laughed out loud - the author has a side line as a stand-up comedienne and it shows! Woke him indoors reading it last night - he was asleep beside me and although I tried to keep quiet, the bed shook rather a lot...

If you're a bit squeamish beware - there are some detailed descriptions of how a breast can be reconstructed using unwanted tummy fat; and you'll be crossing your legs tightly when you find out where the surgeons get suitable flesh to make a new nipple.

Brilliantly written, an engaging read and whether or not you've suffered from cancer I'd recommend this book. At the end you feel uplifted and full of respect for a warm, brave and witty woman.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

How To Do Everything And Be Happy

How to do everything and be happy by Peter Jones

I met Peter at a novelists' conference last weekend, and bought this book direct from him. My husband likes self-help books. Not sure I've ever read one before - but I loved this one. It's written in a cheerful, engaging style. There are lots of great ideas for ways to improve your life - from having days off, where you don't plan anything and just go with the flow (Peter calls them Boxing Days for reasons explained in the book); to keeping lists of things you want to do, goals you want to achieve. Then he explains how to make time (book appointments with yourself in your diary) to do those things and progress those goals.

He's preaching to the converted here - I discovered the value of setting goals (or resolutions) a few years ago, and enjoy nothing more than a pottering-about weekend. But even so, following the book's advice I've set up a Now List memo on my phone, and am having next Friday as a 'Boxing Day'...

This is the perfect book (available as a paperback or ebook) if you have a vague 'is that it?' feeling about your life, and want to do more and be more. Thoroughly recommended, and the author is a very nice chap indeed.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Coward's Tale

The Coward's Tale by Vanessa Gebbie

I've 'known' Vanessa online for many years and have read some of her short fiction, so I was intrigued to see how her unique style would translate to longer fiction. This book is no disappointment - it's certainly original and has a lilting, lyrical voice which I defy anyone to read without hearing a Welsh accent.

The book is really a collection of short stories, linked by place, characters, and history. It's set in a fictitious Welsh mining town, the scene of a pit disaster which is just within living memory - at least the town beggar, Ianto Jenkins, remembers it. The townspeople all have their own quirks and foibles, and Ianto knows their stories and their parents' stories, and will tell the tales to anyone who'll listen. In many cases, it was the pit disaster which left its impact on the families for several generations.

There are all sorts of unusual characters in this book - the woodwork teacher who tries to carve feathers from wood; the undertaker who points his stick and walks everywhere in the straightest possible line; the illiterate ex-collier who is keeping his hands black with coal, as he told his wife he would only look for another job when the black left his hands.

There's a dreamlike quality to some of the stories. There are some beautiful images, quirky though not terribly real characters, and the strongest sense of place I've ever come across in a novel. It's a sad, wistful read and gets my vote for most original voice.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Before She Was Mine

Before She Was Mine by Kate Long

Another brilliant Kate Long book.

Freya was adopted as a baby but as an adult got in contact with her birth mum. Since then she's been juggling adoptive mum Liv, who is a down to earth environmentalist, and birth mum Melody who is vibrant and bohemian, acting as though she's still a teenager. Freya herself feels as though she doesn't really fit in with either mum and at the age of 23 doesn't really know where she's going in life. When Liv gets cancer and Melody gets pregnant, both mums need to lean on their daughter for support, and Freya is pulled in several directions. Add to this her best friend is marrying a man Freya fancies, and then the wedding falls through, and Freya's disastrous on-off relationship with her loser boyfriend and she's got loads to deal with.

As always with Kate's books I felt I really got to know all the characters well. The little details she sprinkles throughout make you feel you're living the plot along with them. The voice of Freya is particularly strong. There's humour mixed in with the heartache too. The ending is lovely, but slightly open which makes me wonder whether a sequel is possible...

An excellent book, currently only out in hardback but I think the paperback is due in March 2012. Definitely highly recommended.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (Kindle edition)

If I buy books of a certain length for my Kindle, I can read the whole thing on my train journey to and from London which I do once a fortnight. I'd been wanting to read this book for a while.

Lovely, classic ghost story, with a wonderful build-up of tension. A young solicitor is sent to go through the papers of a deceased, reclusive woman, who lived in an isolated house on an island reached by causeway, in the middle of a marsh. At high tide the house is cut off. Despite warnings from the locals, the young man, of course, decides to spend the night there. All sorts of creepy things happen, all the better for most of them being only heard or felt rather than seen.

Very enjoyable book if you like something a bit creepy (though not macabre).

Saturday, 7 January 2012


Drood by Dan Simmons

Bought for me for my birthday, by my 16-year old son who scored a huge hit last year when he bought me This Thing of Darkness. From the blurb I thought he'd done it again - a Victorian-set novel, narrated by Wilkie Collins, starring Charles Dickens and a gothic fiend, Drood. What's not to like?

Well, almost 800 pages later, my verdict is that I quite liked it. It could have been great but was actually vaguely disappointing. The author has clearly done A LOT of research into the lives of Dickens and Collins, and included all of it. The novel might have been stronger had he cut a lot of it and made it half the length.

It's a hard plot to summarise, but here goes. Five years before the end of his life, Dickens was involved in a train crash (fact). Flitting amongst the survivors, was a spectral figure named Drood (fiction) who Dickens becomes obsessed with, and passes his obsession onto Collins. Drood inhabits the tunnels and sewers and labyrinthine catacombs which exist beneath London, and the two men undertake an expedition into Undertown to search out Drood. As time goes on, Collins becomes more and more dependent on 'medicinal' opium, and also becomes more and more jealous of Dickens's success compared with his own. He gradually becomes an unreliable narrator, and his drug-fuelled delusions and fantasies become hard to separate from reality. Dickens by contrast seems increasingly well-grounded, although he's working himself into an early grave. Collins's obsession with the mysterious Drood leads him to believe he's being controlled by the fiend, and needs to commit a murder in order to be free. Who better to murder than his friend and rival, Dickens?

The ending, constrained as it had to be by history, is a little disappointing, though I have to admit I was glad to finish it and more than ready to read something different. Having said that, the book was intriguing, and Simmons has done a great job of mimicking the style of Victorian fiction especially that written by Collins. I'd recommend this if you're a huge Dickens and Collins fan, and have a lot of time to spare to read.