I can’t believe I haven’t done a reading update since July! I have been reading, I just haven’t had time to talk much about it. As usual, I have put reviews of everything I’ve read on Goodreads, but here is a small selection of the best.
First up, two books that I decided to read after seeing them all over social media. It has to be said that I’ve had very mixed results from this sort of thing in the past, but both of these more than lived up to the hype.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Martha, the main protagonist suffers from an unspecified and (for most of the book) undiagnosed mental illness. She’s so desperate for a child, she pretends that a child is the last thing she wants. Her sister Ingrid on the other hand, keeps having children that she claims she doesn’t need. Their mother appears to be a failed artist who is a selfish drunk. Their father seems to be a doormat. Their aunt appears to be a snob.
Nothing is as it seems. Everything is seen through Martha’s completely skewed perspective, from her clam-like attachment to her sister to her growing loathing of her husband. She doesn’t know why she thinks as she does. She doesn’t know why she behaves as she does. She does believe it’s her fault, and that she ought to be able to do better. Yet she can’t. It’s how she is. Why can’t she change into what other people want of her – of what she thinks other people want of her.
This was an extremely witty read, sharply observed, with a main protagonist who is as prickly as a porcupine, deeply unlikable at times, but always heart-breakingly vulnerable. It’s a highly emotional read too, a novel about mental illness, though we never do discover what particular brand – I believe because the author didn’t want it branded, very cleverly. It was a difficult read, an infuriating one in places because even though you know that Martha is mentally ill you can’t help but want to shake some sense into her – and you think that even though you know that you can’t either. Ingrid is a brilliantly-drawn sister who loves her deeply but feels useless to help her, and the twists and turns in Martha’s other close relationships are beautifully, sensitively and believably portrayed.
I had no idea what to expect of this book, but I am very glad to have stumbled over it, moving, funny and heart-breaking as it was.
How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie
I heard of this on TikTok (where I’m still having fun but not exactly reaching lots of followers) and though I’ve had more meh books than not from social media, I took a chance on it because I loved the premise. It worked! Really, really dark humour (my fave!), slickly written, and an empathetic protagonist – yes who also happens to be a serial killer. I romped through this, actually laughing aloud (sorry, LOL-ing) in some places. My only gripe was the ending. It’s not that I didn’t see it coming, it felt (unlike the rest of the book) contrived and a bit rushed. But other than that, an excellent, dark, pacy and very well-written read.
Next up, a new departure from a favourite author. I am a big fan of Sara Sheridan’s Mirabelle Bevan books. I love her sense of time and place and her really strong but conflicted and often quite bloody minded protagonists – something that is really difficult to do, but that she does very well. The Fair Botanists is set in Edinburgh (one of my favourite cities) during the visit of King George IV – a setting I’ve written myself in A FORBIDDEN LIAISON WITH MISS GRANT. So obviously I was inclined to like it. And I did.
There are three very strong women in this story. Elizabeth, who is newly widowed (and somewhat relieved to be), has come to Edinburgh to make a new life, though she’s entirely dependent upon a relative. Clementina is her dead husband’s aunt, an outlandish (I love that word) woman who her nephew wishes to keep hidden away, outspoken and overtly political. And then there’s Belle, a sex worker of noble birth who uses her profession to fund her ambition to make a love potion. Each become bound together by a rare agave that is about to flower for the first and only time in thirty years, in the newly-formed Botanic Gardens – at least the location is new.
I love Edinburgh and know it really well, and Sara Sheriden created a city that I lost myself in. It made me want to go back (again!) and look anew at the locations, and I have no doubt that’s exactly what I will do very soon. I loved the story too, and the way the king’s visit was interwoven into it, fact seamlessly interleaved with fiction, to give a great ambiance. You are rooting for the women’s various ambitions, even when you question their approaches – Belle’s in particular. In fact I liked Belle better than any of the other characters simply because the author does something so very different in creating a driven, hard-headed sex worker that you can really empathise with. Belle is single-minded, selfish, she tramples on those who get in her way (especially if they are men) and yet she has her own very strong moral code.
I found that Elizabeth became a bit tedious. I wanted her to learn more from Belle in terms of being single minded and independent – which I know is not necessarily right, because as a gentle-woman of the time, she ought to have run a mile from Belle (as she very nearly does) and she certainly wouldn’t have imitated her. I don’t mean I wanted her to take up Belle’s profession, but I wanted her to have a bit more of Belle’s gumption. She’d had a horrible past, but I felt her ending was just a little bit too dependent on being saved rather than having her save herself. Again, I know that’s not necessarily true to the era, so maybe I’m being unfair – but I find the more I like a book the more I am enjoying the characters, the more harshly I judge them. Now that is highly unfair, so let me say again here, I really like Sara Sheridan’s female protagonists and I did enjoy this book very much.
My main issue though, was with the ending. It felt very rushed, and it felt like there was suddenly way too much history woven into the story for the word count. More words or less plot for me would have worked better. However, this was a very different story, and I’d happily recommend it.
The Whistleblower by Robert Peston
I will say upfront that I’m a huge fan of Robert Peston as a journalist, and when I met him on the set of the Alan Titchmarsh show last year, I was thrilled to bits. We had a chat about writing too– he said he found writing fiction liberating. So basically, I was going to be very much inclined to love this book. And I did, though I was also deeply troubled by it.
The story is a fictionalised account of events leading up to the election of New Labour and Tony Blair in 1997, the ‘things can only get better’ campaign. At the time I was, like so many people, caught up on the wave of optimism that Blair and his government might just actually make things better, and I still remember the euphoria of sitting up all night and watching them win seat after seat. For a long time, New Labour could do no wrong in my eyes or in the eyes of the electorate. Then came Iraq and…
The main protagonist in this book is Gil, an economic journalist who so closely resembles the author in history, achievements and personality that it is very difficult at times to recall that he’s not Robert Peston. Which in turn makes it very difficult at times to separate fiction from fact (actually, in essence I guess this is what the book is about, a re-telling of history that may or may not be what actually happened). Gil’s sister, a top civil servant, dies in a cycling accident that arouses his reporter’s curiosity. Nothing about the accident seems to make sense to Gil, so he sets about uncovering the truth – and by doing so, manage his own grieving process in his own particular way (a way that lots of the other characters simply don’t get). I’m not going into the very complex plot here, but suffice it to say that if you lived through the fall and fall of the Maxwell group and the 1997 election, all of this will be painfully familiar.
The big question is – is this Peston the journalist’s re-telling of the truth or not? I guess history will eventually let us in on that. The other question then is, is this a political thriller or not? Hmm. I find this a very tricky one to answer since it’s not a genre I read a lot of. In terms of fiction, I found some of the prose (and I hate to say this) a bit clunky. Gil as a character was very heavily drawn at sometimes – to the point were it felt to me as if someone had taken a read and said, you need to make him emote more, or give him more empathy. His relationship with his father, for example, and the way it was turned around, felt like it was added in at the end, and wasn’t in character for Gil – or for the father character. There was also a lot of detail in the book that I know was meant to illustrate Gil’s OCD but was way over the top. However, first novels are cathartic because they are full of things that a writer has been dreaming of putting on the page (believe me, I speak from experience) that don’t necessarily add to the book.
I found this story deeply disturbing because it raised so many questions in my mind. The ending in particular, I had a visceral reaction to that really took my aback. Politics in the UK has changed beyond recognition since New Labour – and in my view, sooooo not for the better. I look back on the Blair days with nostalgia, despite all that has since come out in the wash, to a time when senior politicians at least had integrity. So without giving anything away, the ending of this book had me gutted.
I’m not sure that I’d go back for the second planned book, but that’s mostly because the genre isn’t one I enjoy. However, I do want to try to find out – if it’s even possible – a bit more of the history behind this story. So I’ve bought Peston’s WTF? And I’m still a huge fan girl!
I don’t read a lot of historical romance any more because I’m always terrified of having my own writing in the genre influenced, but it’s one of my first loves and every now and then I like to read one purely for pleasure. Never Fall for Your Fiancee by Virginia Heath delivered. Witty and fun, this is a lovely romp of a historical romance with serious undertones.
Hugh has invented his fiancee Minerva to get his mother off his back. He doesn’t want to marry, he is afraid that he’ll make an appalling husband, he’s a total commitment-phobe as well as a sexual butterfly and besides, he’d rather concentrate (secretly) on keeping his estate in order, on learning new land management techniques and modernising his properties – and those of his many tenants. Like his name, Hugh is a man of contrasts and contradictions who isn’t all he seems.
I loved the choice of Hugh, which is so not a hero’s name in my mind. It’s so staid and clunky, conjuring up a man who wears socks with sandals and cardigans with leather patches. Virginia Heath’s Hugh is the exact and total opposite – gorgeous, basically. And yet is he really so far from my Hugh? Does he secretly want to quit the life of the beau monde and settle down in his country estate with a cardigan and leather patches? He would never do the socks and sandals, and he’d wear his cardigan with panache – hmm, I could almost be persuaded.
But I digress. I loved Hugh is what I’m trying to say, but I loved Minerva more. His imagined fiancée brought to life, Minerva is very, very far from being a Regency Galatea, and she’s determined not to be transformed into one. Minerva is impoverished, the eldest sister who has been forced into a maternal role very young, and whose mothering gene forces her to do what Hugh wants, and to fake it for a few weeks to fool his mother. There are no flies on Minerva and she doesn’t take any prisoners. She sees through the rakish Hugh to the cardigan version (sorry, but now the image has stuck, I promise he really is gorgeous) and she likes the cardigan version. Against her will and her experience, she lets down her guard, and finds herself taking his side when her sisters challenge her and so does her conscience.
This is a fun story, crisply and wittily written that romps along, with some serious political and emotional undertones. There’s an excellent supporting cast that will no doubt pop up in the next book, and Virginia Heath makes the trope fresh. I must admit, I did get a bit fed up with the way Hugh was so determined not to fess up to his very perceptive mother, and there were times I wanted to shake him and say, just tell her. But I got why he didn’t – and more importantly, so did Minerva. I could definitely see this working on film, and now I’m going to ponder just who would do justice to Hugh!
I’ve been much slower at reading non-fiction in the last few months, and most of what I’ve been reading has been simply for pleasure rather than research – well, sort of.
Dead Famous by Greg Jenner.
Greg Jenner is the man behind Horrible Histories and the fabulous podcast, You’re Dead to Me, and this book reflects his dark, subversive take on history too. It’s very, very funny as you’d expect from him, he’s the master of the pithy vignette. But it’s also extremely erudite and incredibly well-researched, combining ‘straight’ history with quite a range of sociological interpretations of ‘celebrity’. What is it, how do we perceive it, when did it start, what’s the difference between celebrity and fame? From the Romans all the way through to today’s social media influencers, examples are dissected and studied, and held up to the definition that the author comes up with in the early chapter of ‘celebrity.’
I’m making this sound like a rather boring and dry read. It’s not. It has some wonderful, hysterical characters in it that are almost unbelievable. It is funny – I think I said that! And erudite. And I really enjoyed it.
At Home, A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
This is an interesting concept for a book, taking a house (his house, an old vicarage) from the basement up and writing a history of the rooms or their associated purposes. Judith Flanders does it to excellent effect in The Victorian House. For me, Bill Bryson’s version of the same was more of a mixed bag.
The early chapters stuck to the brief – how did this room come about, how has the use changed, what sort of people used it (and didn’t) and how was it furnished. However, there were points where the connection between the room and the content of the chapter were somewhat dubious and I felt a bit short-changed. In the last chapter on the attic, for example, which wandered off into the history of evolution and the protection of ancient monuments. Now, I get that these are big concerns, and also major concerns of Bill Bryson’s, but they felt as if they had been sandwiched in for no particular reason other than to voice his worries. (And I wonder, because they came at the end of the book, whether they have coloured my view?)
In other rooms, there was a ton of history – the bathroom for example, and the bedroom, which focused on clothing. A lot of it was history I was very familiar with from my own research, but I love Bill Bryson’s humour and was more than happy to read it again. And the sections where he talked about the changes over time of what it would have been like to live without – for example – running water, or decent light – were also evocative. I must confess, I found the detail on the dirt, vermin and pests that hang out with us difficult to read, but that was probably because I was reading with my breakfast!
Overall, another witty book of popular history from a favourite author, full of arcane facts (oh, I love those) and continuity stories – by which I mean, recurrent characters and their history in the different chapters. It’s not my favourite of his, but he’s one of the authors I tend to set the barrier high for. A really good and entertaining read.
Dirty Bertie by Stephen Clarke
This was a rollicking read, nice slutty history which I thoroughly enjoyed. It does exactly what it claims, maps Bertie aka Edward VIIs love affair with France, and attempts to show how this influenced his reign. I don’t know enough about his reign to comment, but the author does make a good case for revising Bertie’s reputation as a diplomat at least, upwards. There was a ton of anecdotes that were laugh out loud and shocking, and personally, it was extremely helpful to me in researching the book I’ve just finished writing. So top research, but…
The author’s particular bias and prejudices finally got to me in the end. He makes sweeping statements and backs them up with his own previous book about France as his source. Then there’s his rather patronising attitude to the people he claims to love, the French. Here’s one example: ‘He (Loubet) was cheered all the way back to the Elysee, a rare occurrence for any French leader who hasn’t just won a ware (and there haven’t been many of those’.’ It’s the kind of snide, supposedly funny but actually snarky remark that makes my toes curl and makes me think of all those people who shout very loudly and slowly in English when they are in France. So I found it really off-putting, and I have to say, the more I came across these little digs, the less I enjoyed it.
That said, it’s rumbustuous history and fun, and it did inspire me to try to find the time to find out more about Edward VII. I have to add that the comparisons with this monarch and our current one could not but spring to mind. A mother who kept him well away from official business, who lived way past anyone’s expectations and who continually seemed to undermine his credibility? Hmm.
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.