What I’ve Been Reading

Fiction

I haven’t had a lot of time for reading in the past few months, so I’ve mostly been turning to comfort reads in my fiction, and continuing with three quite different detective series that I’ve been very much enjoying.

A Winter Memory, Lulu Taylor.

I met the very charming Lulu Taylor at the Yeovil Literary Festival last year, when she interviewed myself and the Duchess of York. When she told me that her latest book was set in Scotland, of course I wanted to read it – and I was thrilled and honoured to receive a signed copy.

This is exactly the kind of story I love. Set across two time periods with lots of turns and twists and interlinking stories. Even better, as promised, much of it is set in the north west coast of Scotland. The front story has Helen, who has come to Ballintyre House, her husband’s family home, with her husband Hamish and her two children. Hamish has lost his job and seems to be having some sort of breakdown. Helen is just about holding the family together, but she could do without her mother-in-law Josephine’s interference and she would love to know where her sister-in-law has disappeared to. In the back story, we have Tigs, madly in love with handsome James from Ballintyre House (Hamish’s father, but that’s all I can say without spoiling it). Its the Sixties, but the sexual revolution is passing Tigs by as is her life, devoted to a man who barely even notices her.

The links between the two stories are well-hidden at first. There’s tons of mystery, tons of ambiance, and a main protagonist in Helen who you really feel for, though at times you want to give her a huge shake and tell her to open her eyes. This is a genuine page-turner, an enthralling and thoroughly satisfying story that I didn’t want to end. And as for the ending, which is nearly always the stumbling block for me in this kind of tale – it was perfect! Loved it, a great winter comfort read and even better, I now have a new-to-me author with a back catalogue I can work my way through.

The Mystery of Mercy Close, Marian Keyes

I decided to read this for a second time after watching Marian Keyes on the BBC series Imagine, where she talked very frankly about her depression. She is so honest, so candid, and her bravery in exposing her own frailty takes my breath away with admiration.

Mercy Close was written after a prolonged bout of depression, and there’s a great deal of Marian Keyes’ own experiences in what Helen, the main protagonist suffers. When I first read it back in 2013 I was disappointed because it was such a change in style for one of my favourite authors, but reading it again in the context offered by the Imagine interview really gave me a very different view of the book.

It’s witty, of course it is, this is Marian Keyes. Her observations of life generally and life in Ireland in particular are so funny and so perceptive. A boy band named Ladz!!! With the gay one, the boring one, the talented one, and the one with the funny hair! A range of paint called Holy Basil – I just loved that! And a Saturday night chat show that no-one ever admits to watching but everyone sees. Mercy Close is chock full of gentle rib-poking humour and as ever when I read Keyes I wish and wish and wish that I could be as funny.

But this story has a very dark side, and it’s about depression. Helen, sharp, witty, self-sufficient, snarky Helen, is falling down a black hole. There’s lots of reasons for it and yet there’s no reason. She’s terrified and ashamed – it has happened before, she thought she was cured. She cannot face living, but she cannot explain why this is. She has an illness, but no-one recognises it as that. It’s a state of mind she can will herself out of, they say – and she tries really hard to believe them. She can’t, so Helen decides her only option is to kill herself, but it’s surprisingly hard. She worries about the maid in the hotel being traumatised by finding her in the bath, and actually goes so far as to planning the note she’ll tape to the door to prevent her going in – and she buys the paper and the Sellotape as well as the Stanley knife too. Helen is not tragic, that’s what she’s determined not to be. She’s a survivor but she simply doesn’t know how to survive any more. She can’t explain herself to anyone, barely even any professionals. She can’t bear to be pitied, she can’t talk about what she’s going through, but she’s baffled by people’s inability to suss it out. She’s ill!!!

To weave a story like this into a detective story, and another episode in the saga that is the Walsh Family takes genius and a really light touch. Marian Keyes pulls it off. I have always been a fan girl. I think I always will be. 

The Night She Disappeared, Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell is another of my favourite authors, one I know I can turn to when I want a reliable page-turner with interesting characters I can invest in. She is brilliant at constructing mysteries that keep you reading long past when you should be doing something else, and even more brilliant at weaving the past and the present stories together, cutting off from one to jump to the other just at the point where you’re desperate to know, what next, what next. Her characters are multi-faceted, there’s never any black and white goodies and baddies, and she explains rather than apportions blame.

I’m not going to say anything about the plot in case I give anything away. My only minor gripe is that I felt it was a bit rushed towards the end, and I’d have liked to know more about – ah, but that would be telling you the plot! If you haven’t read any of her books before – lucky you! And this is an excellent place to start.

The Searcher, Tana French

This was very different from other Tana French novels I’ve read. Much more of a character study than a murder, the story focuses on the relationship between Cal, an ex-cop from Chicago who has retired to a small Irish village, and his various neighbours who include a young person called Tre. I’m not going to say any more about the plot, except that it concerns the disappearance of Tre’s brother, because it’s very much secondary to the story of life in the village, and how the landscape, human and physical, affects Cal.

I am guessing that this won’t appeal to people looking for a more classic murder, but I found it fascinating. This is a funny book, extremely observant as you’d expect from Tana French, and really very touching. Cal is a complex and troubled man who thinks he wants to be left alone, who thinks he wants to stop being a cop – but he can’t! I wonder whether this is one of those novels that French has been wanting to write for ages just to see if it would work out – the kind of story that you carry in your head for years thinking, is this really a novel? In my opinion it was, and a very good one. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing from her.

Non-Fiction

Unusually, most of my non-fiction reading in the last few months has been fairly random. Not connected with specific research, but rather allowing me to drift, research-wise, feeling about for ideas. It’s been great to get back to real bookshops too, and wonderful to be able to browse real books, and just follow your reading nose.

Noble Ambitions – The Fall and Rise of the English Country House after WWII, Adrian Tinniswood

This is a lovely looking book, with lots of great pictures of the houses in question that make you absolutely desperate for more. You want to step inside these houses and experience them for yourself. You want to see the ones that are crumbling and the ones that have been restored and the ones that have been re-structured (for good or bad) for their new owners. You want to feel and smell the history. This is a book about many houses. It’s a general tale with specific examples, not a case study of one or two. That’s absolutely not a criticism, it’s because the writing and images are so evocative that I yearned for more – I wanted to linger in almost every single house.

This is a history (lovely and gossipy in places) of the decline and rise of the country house. There’s nothing new or sensational in it, but it presents a bleak, well-informed, coherent and sympathetic (though far from fawning) tale of the people who struggled to preserve a way of life in the face of massive taxes, massive social revolution and several wars. There’s some profligates in there, some from long lines of profligates, but the majority of the families were trying their best to beat the odds, keep their homes and their traditions. What to do with a stately pile if the National Trust don’t want it? You can sell it to one of the nouveau riche (and there are some fascinating examples of very successful and long-lived purchasers), or you can sell it off bit by bit before bulldozing it, or you can let it slowly crumble. In places this latter was really quite tragic to read. In other places, you got a sense of an old beast whose time was past. The other solution is to open it to the public yourself, and maybe add in a few lions or a theme park. We are so accustomed to this now, that reading about Longleat, for example, and the disgust the owner faced from his fellow peers and landowners, actually really surprised me.

This wasn’t a perfect read for me though. Ultimately, I found the book a little bit unsatisfying. I wanted more of some things and less of others. There were enough nice gossipy bits to whet my appetite, but if they’d been left out, there would have been more room for the houses themselves and I wouldn’t have missed them. Maybe I’m being unfair. Is it wrong to penalise a book for not being long enough? Or maybe I need to pick and choose my own further research or even attempt some visits!

I really enjoyed this book. I adored the pictures, and the narrative was very well-written. It gave me tons of ideas for locations for my own books. It whetted my appetite for more. Maybe that’s the point.

The Barbizon, The New York Hotel that Set Women Free, Pauline Bren

Another book that I picked up on a whim in a bookshop browse that’s given me lots of ideas and satisfied my love of gossip.

This book uses the Barbizon Hotel as a vehicle for looking at the women’s movement. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and needless to say instantly wanted to go and take a look for myself, even if it isn’t a hotel now. My only reservation was that the gaps in the research (not the author’s fault, she simply couldn’t get hold of a lot of info) were filled a bit too much with the Mademoiselle magazine angle. I’d have liked to have known more about the less famous women who lived there, the ones who were boarded by the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School for example. Nonetheless, this was an entertaining and informative read, really well written, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Cliveden, the Place and the People, James Crathorne.

This book was directly linked to what I was writing at the time – which was my second collaboration with Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. (I’ll just do a minor plug here! Our first book, Her Heart for a Compass the first book, has just been released in paperback. Our next book, A Most Intriguing Lady, will be released in February next year.)

When I first visited Cliveden last year, I was determined to use it as a location in a book, though I wasn’t sure which! Luckily, it turned out that my lovely co-author Sarah Ferguson also loves Cliveden, and so it plays a pivotal role in our second collaboration, which gave me the excuse to purchase this book. It is essentially a coffee table book, but it’s an excellent one and my copy is now extremely well-thumbed. The book covers the whole history of the house and its various owners, not only the era that we were interested in, and it’s a house that is steeped in scandal. Of course everyone knows that it’s where the Profumo Affair started (sadly you can’t see the famous swimming pool unless you pay to visit the spa) but there’s scandal built into the bricks of the house and every corner of the grounds (which makes it perfect for our purposes!). This book delivered big time for my needs, which was a glossy history of the house and grounds – what was constructed where and when and what it was used for – but it also gave a nice chatty and very informative history of each of the owners, how they saw Cliveden, what they used it for, and who came along as their guests to enjoy it.

As I write this blog, I’m on my way north from a second visit to Cliveden, determined to use it again as a location in another story. So this a book that’s going to become even more well-thumbed in the future.

One More Croissant for the Road, Felicity Cloake

Another impulse purchase from the Waterstones book store browsing tables. This book could have been written for me, and I loved it with a big love. A cycle around France, eating! A travelogue with copious amounts of food and drink, written by a protagonist who is not afraid to laugh at herself, and who loves France maybe even more than I do.

I already enjoyed Felicity Cloake’s writing from her Guardian food column, and regularly turn to her ‘best recipe for’ columns when I’m cooking a classic. (
She is a keen cyclist but she’s not the kind who wants to conquer all the hardest routes or steepest gradients, and she is most certainly not one of those ‘my body is a temple’ people who consume only what is ‘good’ for them. In this beautifully written, witty and fast read, she cycles from one gourmet region of France to another, using the train when it’s too far to cycle, to sample the signature dish of the region. And while she’s doing so, heroically not only samples – say – three cassoulets in two days (even I couldn’t contemplate more than one) but has at least one croissant every day in an effort to find the ‘best’ in France.

This is one of those books you can devour in one go, or you can ration yourself to a course/chapter at a time. You can read it as an amouse bouche before something else, or dip in to the next chapter in order to cleanse your palate. It’s the perfect kind of book to leave in the loo (don’t shake your head, we all do it!) or in my case, to have with your morning coffee. I loved it. I just found out she’s written another. Can’t wait. 

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.

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2 Comments

  1. How do you find time to read all these and still write? Each one of these sounded so interesting! I will never be able to get through all the books on my to-read list, and now you’re adding to it 🙂

  2. I do most of my fiction reading in the middle of the night when I don’t sleep! Not something I’d recommend. But if you do read any of these, do let me know what you think.

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