Book Reviews

What to read and where my Book Reviews have two main strands Books to Read in your travel location and books that I have read and enjoyed recently. I never go anywhere without a book, my main criteria when choosing a handbag is that is large enough to carry a paperback book.  What do I like to read?  History books, science books, literary novels, chic lit, detective novels, cookery books and most of all travel books.  All I ask of a book is that it is well written and I come away with one useful fact or insight.

Cultural Wednesday’s Best Summer Books 2021

Summer holidays are all about reading for me. As the school holidays begin here is Cultural Wednesday’s Best Summer Books 2021. Time was, before the Kindle, more than half my luggage would be taken up by books and I would still buy more at the airport book store. No temptation at the airport this year as we won’t be flying anywhere! Let me offer some suggestions for Summer reading. Even better I have a copy of one of my Best Summer Books, A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago to giveaway, enter via the widget at the bottom of the post.

DISCLOSURE: Contains Affiliate Links if you buy a book from Waterstones I will get a tiny bit of money.  Some books were given to me by publishers, others via NetGalley and others I paid good money for.  Books which I don't enjoy, don't get reviewed.
Best Summer Books what to read on holiday

Best Fiction Books Summer 2021

Good fiction, in my book, transports you to another place. Time travel, proper geographical travel or just stepping into somebody else’s shoes. It doesn’t matter, sometimes all three together. Way back when I first joined Twitter it seemed a shouty place until I discovered Book Twitter. A group of us began to chat on a regular basis, we called our chat the LL’s (Literary Ladies) this summer a whole slew of them have books published, every one of them a gem.

The Asylum by Karen Coles

First LL novel in my selection is The Asylum by Karen Coles. Even if it were not written by my friend I would love it, as it has everything that keeps me turning pages.  Maud is in solitary confinement in the Angleton Lunatic Asylum, she can’t remember why, the reason is buried deep in medication and fear.  A new doctor comes to work at the Asylum who wants to try hypnosis rather than drugs to help solve patients problems.  Slowly Maud remembers and as she remembers, she wants revenge.  Mists rolls in from the marshes, obscuring views and memories.  

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

The Wolf Den takes you into the world of Pompeii’s brothels.  Amara was once a respected Greek Doctor’s daughter until her mother sold her into slavery.  Now she is forced to work in the Wolf Den but she is determined to buy her freedom and escape.  If it all sounds a bit lurid don’t worry, there is sex but not close up.  Far more important is the relationships between the women who work in the Wolf Den and the story of their lives.  More than once I was so engrossed in The Wolf Den that I very nearly missed train stop.  

Shadow in the Glass by J J A Harwood

Myth, history and gothic fabulousness are three things that I love in a novel.  Shadow in the Glass by J J A Harwood has all these things in spades from the title onwards.  We meet Ella, a servant in Mayfair mansion who once knew a better life.  One night she sneaks into the library to read and stumbles across a blank eyed woman lurking in a book who promises to grant her wishes in return for her soul.  What follows is a delicious mix of Cinderella and Faust.

The Surplus Girls’ Orphans by Polly Heron

Next from the LL’s stable is the second in the Surplus Girls series, The Surplus Girls’ Orphans by Polly Heron. Molly Watson has decided that it is better to be a surplus girl than marry her penny pinching controlling fiancé. She joins the Misses Hesketh Business School to acquire the skills she will need to keep herself. When her work placement takes her to the local orphanage she makes a series of blunders that make it look as if all is lost. The Surplus girls series in based in the outskirts of Manchester, where I have never been but Polly’s descriptions are so vivid that I feel I could walk round the roads without need for a map.  Once again I stayed up way to late unable to put the book down until it was finished. 

Common Ground by Naomi Ishiguro

Two rather beautiful red trees and the title were what initially drew me pick up Common Ground by Naomi Ishiguro.  Then the blurb promised me a coming of age story of two boys from opposite sides of the tracks set in Surrey and London.  What I found was a coming of age story but one that is threaded through with the search for belonging, the fact of exclusion and the taint of racism.  That Stan and Charlie befriend each other seems natural to them but the people that surround them in the Gypsy and suburban communities say that no good will come off it.  Whilst there were moments that I wanted to give both Stan and Charlie a good shake, overall Common Ground made me think and look anew at a community that lives in the margins of my own community. 

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

A Net For Small Fishes is a fictional retelling of the true story of a love so strong that murder was committed for it.  The Countess of Essex is stuck in a loveless marriage, her husband hates her and union has not been consummated.  The King’s favourite Robert Carr, soon to be the Earl of Somerset, falls in love with the Countess.  Cue much intrigue and scandal.  I first read of trials and tribulations of the Countess in Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of St James by Lady Anne Somerset and was intrigued by the tale.  A Net for Small Fishes brings everything to life,  the fashions, the food, the jewellery, the great wealth, the crushing poverty of life in the early seventeenth century is deftly depicted and the gathering storm keeps you turning the pages.  Historical fiction at its best. 

For a chance to win a copy of A Net for Small Fishes enter my giveaway at the bottom of this post.

Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

What is it about the Jacobean period this Spring? So many novels set in that era. Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee is takes us to 1620’s Lancashire, where witchcraft swirls in the air.  Sarah is a girl on the brink of womanhood who lives in an abandoned plague village with her mother and younger siblings.  Local people fear them but tolerate them for their knowledge of herbs and healing.  Sarah meets and falls in love with one of the village boys which sets off a firestorm of prejudice and hatred.  Cunning women is a dark powerful story that will have you thinking long after you have finished.  Oh and the cover is gorgeous too.

The Drowned City by K J Maitland

Another Jacobean tale, this time a Jacobean.  The Drowned City by K J Maitland is set just after the Gunpowder Plot.  Bristol is all but destroyed in a tidal wave, rumours reach the Court of Jesuit plot.  Daniel Pursglove is dispatched to the soggy, destroyed city to discover if the rumours are true, among the decay are a string of mutilated murdered bodies and Daniel is soon on the trail of the killer.  I absolutely loved this, my knowledge of James I was limited to art and the Gunpowder plot, so I learnt a lot and was intrigued by the plot.  The Drowned City is promised to be the first in a series of Daniel Pursglove novels, I look forward to his next adventure.

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal takes you into the world of the Victorian travelling circus.  Jasper Jupiter wants his circus to be better than all the rest.  Nell’s skin condition makes it hard for her to find acceptance in the village she grew up in.  Nell’s father sells her to Jasper and she morphs into Nellie Moon, so popular that even Queen Victoria wants to meet her.  Circus of Wonders has flown to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list in the week since its publication with good reason it is one of those books that stays with you, you wonder what Nell will be doing now.

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Away from Jacobean England and to post war Malaysia. Fragile Monsters tells the tale of Durga coming home to spend Diwali with her grandmother.  Over the course of the weekend fireworks and floods bring to light long buried family secrets.  Love and a small bit of lust underpin the story that takes in the brutality of war and of independence struggle.  Most of all it made me want to go to Malaysia.

The Communist’s Daughter by Aroa Moreno Durán

The division of Europe onto East and West was a very real part of my childhood.  Our school trips to Germany would always involve a trip to the border to see the watchtowers and barbed wire that stopped the people of the East coming West.  The Communist’s Daughter by Aroa Moreno Durán deals with a woman, slightly older than me, who is the child of Spanish communists who defected to East Germany.  She was born and grew up in East Berlin, falls in love with a West German boy and defects.  The story is of the life she found and the effect that her leaving had on her family back home.  I loved this book it made me think about what makes home, the hardlines that used to cut Europe in two and my hope that they never return and most of all about the perils of hasty decisions.  I was in tears at the end of the book but don’t let that put you off it is brilliant.

City of Tears by Kate Mosse

The City of Tears is the second in the Burning Chambers series, if you haven’t read the first don’t worry neither have I and I loved The City of Tears. We are in France during the Wars of Religion. The Protestant Henry of Navarre is set to marry the Catholic Margaret of Valois, it is a union that promises to bring peace to France. Our heroine Minou Joubert has also been invited to a wedding in Paris, the scene is set for an adventure that follows the twists and turns of the wars of religion.

The Old Ducks’ Club by Maddie Please

Third of the novels by the LLs, The Old Ducks’ Club has as its heroine a woman about to turn sixty.  Prior to the big birthday she has ditched her boyfriend and headed off to Rhodes to work on a book.  Just as she is about to put finger to keyboard a noisy crowd of women arrive in the next door apartment.  The Old Ducks’ Club made me nod with recognition but most of all it made me laugh.  If you are looking for the perfect feelgood, funny summer read this is it.

Voyeur by Francesca Reece

Voyeur tells the tale of Leah and Michael.  Leah is a young woman ambitioned out of London.  She has moved to Paris and is stuck in a series of low paid dead end jobs.  Her interest is piqued by an advert from a writer looking for an assistant.  Michael was once a very successful author but he has written nothing new this century.  Leah starts to work for Michael and he invites her down to spend summer with his family in the South of France and to transcribe diaries from his hedonistic youth. As the summer rolls on everybody is observing each other, it becomes clear that everything is not as simple as it first appeared.  Voyeur deals with privilege and near impossibility of getting work in ‘glamorous’ industries like the media and discomfort of enduring the male gaze.  Voyeur is Francesca Reese’s debut and I expect that we shall be hearing from her again soon.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

I love a Greek myth.  When Ariadne lay Jennifer Saint anded on my doormat I immediately sat down with a cup of coffee and dived in.  What a book!  Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphae, daughter of the sun god Helios.  Her brother was the Minotour for whom the labyrinth was built.  So quite a gilded but troubled childhood.  Then she falls in love with Theseus who had come to kill the Minotaur.  Jennifer Saint puts Ariadne at the centre of the story rather than Kings and Gods that swirl around her.  I absolutely loved Ariadne and barely moved from the sofa until the book was finished.  Add to all that the book is beautiful.  

The Stranding by Kate Sawyer

A post apocalypse novel is what we need right now. Life will be normal again, won’t it? The Strandig starts with Ruth discovering a dying whale washed up on a New Zealand beach.  Then we flip to London where Ruth is entangled in a relationship that she thinks promises much but bout which everyone one else is sceptical.  The flipping between present and past continues through the book.  Shortly after the whale dies a nuclear blast occurs which Ruth and a stranger survive by climbing into the dead whale.  The Stranding is a powerful beautiful book that is ultimately hopeful and about survival but boy are there tough times along the way.  An incredible book.

Fortune Favours the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

When I was a child my grandfather used to read Gollanz books with bright yellow covers.  Fortune Favours the Dead by Stephen Spotswood has a Gollanz yellow cover and I thought fondly of my grandfather every time I picked the book up.  He would have loved it.  Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker are private detectives in post war New York.  Willowjean used to be in the circus so has a useful array of tricks up her sleeve.  It is the perfect whodunnit that has you guessing right up until the end and then just as the ends all seem to tie up another surprise springs in.

The Railway Girls in Love by Maisie Thomas

Regular readers will be familiar with Maisie Thomas and her books chronicling the lives of a group of women who worked on the railways in Manchester during World War II.   Railway Girls in Love has wedding bells in the offing. But with the return of old flames and falling in love with men who are not their husband, the path of true love doesn’t run smoothly.  Maisie captures the relationship between the women excellently but what I really enjoy is glimpses into clothes, fabric and the nuggets of railway information. 

  • The Railway Girls in Love by Maisie Thomas
  • Published by Cornerstone
  • Paperback £6.99

Plague Letters by V L Valentine

Imagine London besieged by Plague. Not such a big stretch given all that we’ve been through in the past year but when V L Valentine sat down to research and write The Plague Letters what now seems timely was then fantastical.  We are in London, 1665, people are fleeing London, the dead are piling up.  Rector Symon Patrick sees that some of the bodies are covered in burns and tied with twine, the hunt for a murderer is on.  As you know I love an historical detective novel and this one has the added attraction of maps that show the steady spread of the Plague from Covent Garden in the West eastwards toward the City of London.  

Katharine Parr, the Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

Back when Cultural Wednesday was new the first in Alison Weir’s Six Wives series was one of the first review copies that I was sent. Now the final part has been published. Each novel has seen the title Queen become a three dimensional being rather than a just a name in long list.  Katharine Parr was always painted as plain and old with her most appealing feature being patience and ability to care for the old and ailing King.  Turns out that, whilst not a teenager like Katheryn Howard, she was far being old, she was very attractive and clever too.  My favourite wife remains Anne Boleyn (because she was a Norfolk girl) but I came away from each book viewing all the wives in more appreciative light.  If you haven’t discovered this excellent series yet, lucky you!  If you have, prepare to dive into the pool one last time.  

Best Summer Non-fiction Books Summer 2021

Facts I love a good fact. Even better is a set of new facts related to a subject that I already know that add extra depth and excitement.

Spring Cannot be Cancelled by Martin Gayford and David Hockney

David Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring, Normandy 2020 at the Royal Academy is one of my favourite London exhibitions this summer.  Martin Gayford and David Hockney wrote Spring Cannot be Cancelled about the creation of the works on show.  You’d expect lavish illustrations, which you get, but you also get insights into just how endlessly curious and inventive David Hockney is.  In 2018 he decided to move to Normandy to chronicle the arrival of Spring the following years.  Spring 2020 saw us all in lockdown but still Spring sprang and David Hockney captured it in exuberant fashion.  If you are not one of the lucky ones who managed to book tickets Spring Cannot be Cancelled captures the spirit of the exhibition perfectly.

Abandoned London by Katie Wignall

Getting out and about is the biggest perk of writing Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays the other is some of the incredible people that I have met on the way.  Katie Wignall is one of those people, she is a blue badge guide to London and does fantastic tours as Look Up London.   Now she has written a book called Abandoned London which is packed full of photos and facts about abandoned London.  \

Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee

Medieval princesses are the stuff of fairy stories.  Rescued from dragons, locked in towers, woken from century long slumber by handsome princes.  What was life like for the real medieval princesses?  If we know anything of them it is when they marry or are born and are not the hoped for son and heir.  Kelcey Wilson-Lee has delved deep into the archives to produce the remarkable Daughters of Chivalry about the five daughters of Edward I.  We meet a nun who lived in luxury, traveled widely and spent very little time in her nunnery and a fiery princess who married who she wanted.  All five sisters were skilled diplomats.  Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee sheds light on the lives of well born medieval women that were so much more than embroidery and prayer.

Best Summer Books 2021 Giveaway

Drumroll please! I have one copy of A Net For Small Fishes by Lucy Jago to giveaway, to enter click on the widget below. The prize can only be sent to UK addresses.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Which books will you read this summer?

If you seeking geographically themed reading inspiration check out my guides to books to read in The Netherlands, Germany and California.

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