Books I have loved

When Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays was young Book Reviews were among the first things that I wrote. Some of the books have gone on to be classics, others sank without a trace. Sadly almost all the reviews no matter how loved the book was at the time dwindle to almost no readers, so they all being moved here, where they can keep each other company. I loved all these books, I hope that you find old favourites or new reading inspiration here.

Disclaimer: Contains Affiliate links if you buy a book from Waterstones I will get a small amount of money.  Some of the books came as review copies from publishers, others from NetGalley and others I paid good money for.  I have enjoyed them all and do not review books about which I have nothing positive to say.
Books I have Loved collected book reviews of books that I have loved

Table of Contents

2019 Book Reviews

Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es

We’ve all heard the story of Anne Frank, this is the story of a different Dutch Jewish schoolgirl. This time Lien survived. Surviving the Holocaust and being unmarked by the Holocaust are two totally different things. Lien’s story is told by Bart van Es whose family had a connection to Lien. Along the way learn about the van Es family too. This is a profoundly moving book and once which forces you to think about how you would act in such circumstances and to hope that such divisions never split Europe ever again.

The Poor Relation by Susanna Bavin

Susanna Bavin writes sagas based in and around her native Manchester. The Poor Relation is set just before the First World War and has Mary as our heroine. Mary is bright girl but is constricted both by societies expectation of her and by her families.

Love is Blind by William Boyd

William Boyd is one of my favourite authors, this time he has come up with the tale of Victorian Scottish piano tuner. We get a love affair that rages in Paris, the sun soaked south of France, wintery St Petersburg and finally an island in the Indian Ocean. I wept buckets (in a good way) reading Love is Blind. Also, who know that tuning a piano was such an art.

Albert Einstein Speaking by Reg Gadney

Albert Einstein Speaking is a novel but is based on real events. It takes as its inspiration that fact that Albert Einstein took a phone call from a wrong number on his birthday. From that phone call sprang an unlikely friendship. We learn about Albert Einstein the man, rather than the physicist. His is a fascinating story and this would make an excellent film. I hope that negotiations are ongoing to bring it to a screen near me soon.

Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Gowar Hermes

History and myth are two things that I love in a novel, coupled with a page turning story. We are in Georgian London with a mermaid. Every last page is delicious. My top tip, if you were ever thinking of getting a mermaid, don’t.

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

First of all I was seduced by the cover. I know, I know you shouldn’t. A wood cut of storm bent tree and a raging stream. Then the blurb which promised to transport me back to 15th century Somerset. Then the premise that the story is told backwards in time. You start on Saturday. Then you learn what happened on Friday and finally you discover the truth of the matter of what happened early on Friday. I loved everything about this book and strongly urge you to have a physical copy of it as it is beautiful as well as brilliant

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

Victoria Hislop has returned Greece for her latest novel. This time she takes us from the 1930’s right up to the present day. I confess that I found the first half of the book a bit of plod. It is thick with the history of war time Greece and vivid on what living through a war means even for those who do not fight. In the second half the story really gets going and I began to care. My advice; take the history lesson (I learnt lots) and then enjoy the story

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

Things I like in a novel: History, Gothic, Mystery, Myth. Things in Jars has all these things in buckets. We are in the middle of Victorian London with a flame haired lady detective, a seven foot bearded lady housekeeper, a pugilistic ghost and a missing child with mysterious powers. What follows is a delicious romp.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

At the risk of repeating myself I do like History, Myth and Mystery in a book. Add in East Anglia and I’m even happier. Wakenhyrst has all these things, it takes place in the landscape of my childhood in the time of my grandparents. Wakenhyrst will have the prickles on the back of your neck raised whilst you feverishly turn the pages to find out what happens next. When I next go home I am going in search of wall painting in churches

Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

More History, Myth and Mystery. This time in Franco’s Spain. Labyrinth of the Spirts is the fourth and final part of Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Don’t worry if you haven’t read all the others it stands alone as well. Who is good? Who is bad? And will Daniel ever find peace? Labyrinth of the Spirits elegantly takes you on a journey that is often violent but always compelling.

The Golden Thread by Kassia St Clair

Not a novel this time. The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History is fascinating read. Kassia St Clair takes you through the story of fabric from the Stone Age to the Space Age. Every chapter is compelling. I confess that I do love to sew and have a thing about fabric but even if you are not a textile fanatic The Golden Thread take on our history via thread is fascinating.

Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is one of my favourite fiction writers. Rosie is all fact. It is Rose Tremain’s story up until she turns eighteen, when she stops being Rosie and becomes Rose. Her childhood was gilded but far from happy. Her novels are far from biographical, I have enjoyed each one for its story and I realise that I had no sense of who she is, beyond living in Norfolk. Now I feel that I know the girl she was and am happy that she went on to become a beloved novelist. Fascinating, thought provoking and occasionally teary.

Anna of Kleve by Alison Weir

Alison Weir has set herself the task of writing a novel a year about each of Henry VIII wives. Regular readers will know that I have already enjoyed Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. I confess that I stared knowing little of Anne of Cleves or Anna of Kleve beyond the fact that Henry took against her but that she ended up with a palace of her own. I couldn’t have even told you where Cleves was. Turns out Kleve is on Rhine by the Dutch German border. Alison Weir makes a rather rash assumption about Anna that I’m not sure buy into, but that didn’t stop me enjoying the book

2018 Book Reviews

SILENCE OF THE GIRLS by Pat Barker

The Iliad has been retold times without count. Now Pat Barker tells it from a 19 year old girl’s point of view.  Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus has been taken captive after the Greek’s sacked her city, she has been given to Achilles as his prize of honour.  He has killed her brothers and her husband and now she must sleep with him. We see the rape and horror of what it is to be a woman caught up in war.  This is a retelling of The Iliad for the #MeToo generation. One of the best books that I have read, ever.

A RESPECTABLE WOMAN by Susanna Bavin

A Respectable Woman is set between the Wars just as the old order is changing but the modern world has not yet begun.  Nell Hibbert has lost all her family in the First World War and has married Stan.  When the pregnant Nell discovers that Stan has betrayed her she runs away with son Alf to start a new life. Life for a single mother of two children was not easy, it is vital that Nell is not only respectable but seen to be so.  Despite the difficulties she manages to build a good life, befriended by Mr and Mrs Brent and Jim the window cleaner.  All seems well until Nell’s past catches up with her.

JANE SEYMOUR, THE HAUNTED QUEEN by Alison Weir

Part Three of Alison Weir’s epic novel a year about the six wives of Henry VIII. Jane Seymour this time about who I knew little apart from she was kind and the mother of Edward VI. Alison Weir sheds fills in some of the gaps and even though the story of Henry and his wives is a familiar one you want to turn the pages to find out what happens next.

2017 Book Reviews

WATLING STREET: TRAVELS THROUGH BRITAIN AND ITS EVER-PRESENT PAST by John Higgs

I love ancient pathways.  Watling Street has been a road since before the Roman stretching from Dover to Angelsey.  Nobody knows who first walked it or when. Don’t expect a linear passage through landscape and history. Very early on you are introduced to the concept of Noosphere, that is the swirl of human thought and belief. Quite distinct from the, more familiar, Geosphere (rocks and rivers) or Biosphere (plants and animals). By taking a journey along Watling Street we are to delve into what makes us the nation that we are today. I enjoyed Watling Street: Travels through Britain and her ever present past, it is not a straight forward look her and you will see this guide. It makes you think about the events that occurred in the past and how they shape how we are today. If you feel that echoes of the past can be felt in the present than this is the book for you, if you prefer a list of castles then maybe look elsewhere.

THE WORSE CASE SCENARIO COOKERY CLUB by Chrissie Manby

Forty-something Liz is left by her husband for Brittney, the twenty-something clean eating blogger.  Not only is her rival half her age, she also cooks.  Liz has never done anything more adventurous than put a ready meal in the microwave.  At least she can rely on her dog Ted for solace. Fed up with junk food she enrols on a cookery class. Love simmers away on the back burner.  Will Liz find romance?  

SOOT by Andrew Martin

Soot is an historical whodunnit, set at the tail end of the eighteenth century.  An artist is found dead, the only clue are the final silhouettes that he made.  Enter our hero who must identify the sitters and find out what motives they had to kill.  This is a wintery book all snow and soot, set between York and London.  What I learnt from Soot?  Don’t wear satin dancing slippers in the snow, you will ruin them.

WORDS IN MY HAND by Guinevere Glasfurd

Helena Jans is a maid in Amsterdam in the house of a bookseller.  Rene Descartes comes to stay.  She is an illiterate servant with a thirst to learn and he is a famous philosopher.  This is a romance but not a soppy romance.  This is Guinevere Glasfurd’s first novel and she has used the real facts that Descartes did spend time in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century and spun out the hidden tale of a poor woman.  She was so good at evoking the sense of deep chill of winter that I needed to cuddle up under a blanket even though it was summer.

ELMET by Fiona Mozley

Elmet, the place, lies to the east of Doncaster and the south of Castleford and is where my mother’s forbears came from.  In many ways Elmet is a mythic place.  I confess the rural woodcut on the cover and the title lulled me into thinking Elmet would have mythic qualities.  It does, sort of.  Not in a mistily romantic way but in a feral, on the edge of twenty-first century society sort of a way.  Violence threads through Elmet, the closeness of family and the beauty of the Elmet also weave in and out.  Elmet is a book that gets you thinking from the first word, this is Fiona Mozley’s first novel and I look forward to her next.

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles

Set in Moscow in 1922 with the Bosheviks firmly in power.  Count Alexander Rostov is summoned to the Kremlin expecting the worse.  He escapes with his life but is sentenced to house arrest in a grand Moscow hotel.  Outside the world is in flux but inside the hotel the Count starts to explore the hotel and finds that everything that he once took for granted was not as important as he once thought it was.  This had me snorting out loud and thinking about the faded huge hotel that I once stayed in one the edge of Red Square.

DAUGHTERS OF INDIA by Jill McGivering

The Daughters of India tells the tale of two women both born in India but on opposite sides of the Raj divide.  The story is set just before and during the Second World War as India edges toward independence.  So nail biting were the final chapters that I stayed up until 1.30am compulsively turning the pages until I reached the end.

  • DAUGHTERS OF INDIA by Jill McGivering
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COLLECTING THE WORLD: THE LIFE OF CURIOSITY OF HANS SLOANE by James Delbourgo

You’ve heard of Sloane Square?  Well it was named after Hans Sloane.  You’ve heard of the British Museum?  Well it was the vast volumes of stuff that Hans Sloane collected that formed the nucleus for the British Museum collection.  He also donated the land on which the Chelsea Physic Garden was planted.  His life and times intrigue me and I would like to spend some cosy evenings by the fire reading this biography.

THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood

If you have been gripped by THE HANDMAIDS TALE on TV then delve into another of Margaret Atwood’s novels.  THE BLIND ASSASSIN is not a vision of a dystopian future but rather a novel within a novel.  We start of in the present day with our narrator Iris Chase remembering the events and people of her childhood.  She and her sister Laura grew up in Southern Ontario, well-off but motherless.  Laura dies young having written a novel ‘The Blind Assassin” which we also read.  Suffice to say that they book had me on the edge of my seat and that the twist in the tale came from nowhere and yet made perfect sense.

THE SUMMER OF SECOND CHANCES by Maddie Please

Lottie has lost everything; home, partner, friends and money.  Luckily she has one loyal friend and a straight talking much married sister.  The friend offers her a place to live in the form of a remote Devon cottage in return for doing the place up, whilst the sister provides red wine and wise words.  Next door lives a handsome man, will Lottie find love?  THE SUMMER OF SECOND CHANCES had me snorting out loud at some of the whip smart one liners, all in all a heartwarming rom com made for the sun lounger.

THE DESERTERS DAUGHTER by Susanna Bavin

Carrie and Evadne are half sisters living in 1920’s Manchester.  On the eve of Carrie’s wedding it is revealed that her father far from being a hero was a deserter.  We watch the two sisters cope with stain of being deserter’s daughters.  Shell shocked soldiers and awful tales of those ‘shot at dawn’ are woven round the girls quest for a new life.

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

Everybody knows an Eleanor.  They are odd, not nasty, just odd.  They wear clothes that might have been fashionable once, they don’t come to the office party and they put loose change in the leaving collections.  Eleanor is fine with all this and the snide comments that she knows happen behind her back until one day a random act of kindness starts to change everything.   This is a wonderful, wonderful book about being lonely and about coming to terms with being different.  Oh and it makes you laugh out loud in places too.

GREATEST HITS by Laura Barnett

GREATEST HITS provides you not only with something to read but something to listen to as well.  It tells the story of Cass Wheeler and singer songwriter in the mould of Joan Baez or Stevie Nicks.  Each chapter begins with song lyrics, not being hugely musical I usually struggle at such literary moments but this time it is different as author Laura Barnett has collaborated with Kathryn Williams who has put the songs to music and has an album out as well.  Clever concept and a very well told tale.

ANNE BOLEYN: A KING’S OBSESSION by Alison Weir

Second in the, six wives, six books, six years series by Alison Weir. Anne Boleyn is my favourite of Henry’s wives: she always strikes me as having been clever and spirited, most important of all she came from Norfolk.  Last year Alison Weir made me appreciate that Katherine of Aragon had also been a clever and spirited woman and I confess that I was a little fretful that Anne would not come out of this book well.  The tale of Henry and his wives has been told so often that you feel that every aspect must have been told a thousand times.  Alison Weir manages to shed new (well new to me) light on Anne’s early life and later motivations.

Henry doesn’t emerge from this tale well.  With Katherine we saw him as young and handsome, eager to do the right thing.  By the time he meets Anne he has been in power for a long time and used to everybody saying yes.   To have been the object of his passion must have been terrifying.

GUSTAV SONATA by Rose Tremain

Gustav and Anton have been friends since kindergarten but they come from very different backgrounds.  THE GUSTAV SONATA tells of how their parents differing experiences of the Second World War affect both their lives and how love and friendship are more important than ambition.

THE SPORT OF KINGS by C E Morgan

THE  SPORT OF KINGS is a heavy book in all senses of the word.  Its page count of 560 makes it one to read on the Kindle or investment in a really large handbag to carry it around in.  The page count may be high but the chapter count is not, there are just six of them and five teeny tiny interludes.  It is not an easy book to read, not because of its size but because some of its themes are deeply disturbing and yet it is a good book to read.  Some of those disturbing themes had never crossed my mind before, or if they had I had glossed over them.

GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill is set in November in eighteenth century New York.  Mud and snow cloak the small colony and nobody knows who the mysterious Mr Smith is or whether the bill due to be paid in sixty days that he had presented to the bank is real.  GOLDEN HILL is a glorious romp of a novel, you a drip fed crumbs of information and when the final twist is turned everything is very satisfying and yet totally unguessable.

A CRIME IN THE FAMILY by Sacha Batthyany

Sacha Batthyany is a Swiss journalist with an aristocratic background.  He like, millions of others, is the grandson of people who were displaced and dispossessed by the second world war.  One quiet weekend shift he discovered that his great aunt was suspected of involvement in a mass killing of Jews right at the end of the war.  This stunned him, nobody in the family had ever mentioned anything about the accusations.  Now he started to ask questions. The exploration of his families past causes Sacha Batthyany to question how he comes to terms with the deeds and displacements of his forbears.  At the end of the book I did question how a journalist equipped with an enquiring mind didn’t think to enquire about his very famous family before it was forcefully bought to his attention. 

THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE by Elif Shafak

Three Daughters of Eve starts in an Istanbul traffic jam.  Peri, a wealthy middle aged housewife is on her way to a dinner party accompanied by her grumpy teenage daughter.   A drug addled thief snatches her handbag from the backseat of the car, instead of doing the sensible thing of driving on, Peri goes in pursuit of the man and bag.  In the scuffle that ensues a polaroid picture of three young women and a man falls out of the handbag.  Once back safely in the car the daughter asks who the people in the photo are.  Now the story can begin. Three Daughters of Eve made me think about religion, politics and power.  I stayed up late unable to put the book down.  And yet at the end I felt a bit unsatisfied. 

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

Destruction, divorce and death; there is little that Paul Auster scruples to visit upon his characters.  Not that this a doom laden 880 pages.  Yep, 880 pages, 4 3 2 1 is a heavyweight novel in every sense. On the surface 4 3 2 1 is all about what if, just like Sliding Doors but more literary.  It’s that game that all but the most secure of us play at one point or another.  How would my life have panned out if my parents were rich or if I went to a different university?  During the course of this big what if session we are immersed in a crash course of mid century American politics and thrown into the mind of a sex obsessed teenage boy.

ADVENTURES IN MODERN MARRIAGE by William Nicholson

Do women crave sex as much as men?  That is the question at the centre of ADVENTURES IN MODERN MARRIAGE.   Three middle-aged couples, based in Sussex and Notting Hill, dance around each other in a week when the 2015 General Election takes place.  Not that this is a bed-hopping bonkbuster, no this is a considered look at love, ego and power. Power and the loss of it is also larded through the story.  In the wide world we see Messieurs Cameron, Clegg and Milliband teetering on the brink of loss or glory, meanwhile our heroes grapple with the loss of job and potency.  Everything is beautifully observed, some of it is “laugh out loud” funny.  There were times when I want to shout at the characters to tell them not to be so stupid.

MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE MANUSCRIPTS by Christopher de Hamel

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is not a book to read on the train.  It is not handbag friendly.  You could read it on a kindle but that would be wrong for this is a book about books.  Not just any books but ancient beautiful manuscripts, written and illustrated by hand.  Christopher de Hamel was Sotheby’s manuscript man, he selects twelve medieval manuscripts for us to meet.  Each has a lavishly illustrated chapter devoted to it. Facts spill out of the pages.  My biggest revelation:  Carmina Burana is a book.  Carl Orff didn’t just dash out some suitably Latin sounding lyrics to go with his rousing music.  No, he acquired a facsimile copy of the original and was inspired to write the music.  It is the oldest collection of secular songs in the world.  Those lyrics they really are Latin.

ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry

Victorian gothic novel but written in the twenty-first century.  The recently widowed Cora Seaborne heads out to coastal Essex where rumours of a serpent swirl around amid the sea frets.  Love, loss, identity, ambition and belief (both Christian and older more animistic ones) thread through the gothic wonderfulness.  All that wrapped up in one of the most beautiful covers that I have seen for a long time.

2016 Book Reviews

HIMSELF by Jess Kidd

Mahony is an Irish orphan bought up by nuns and the Himself of the title.  We watch him arrive in Mulderigg, a small Irish coastal town and begin to shake things up.  First of all the dead keep on appearing, not in a spooky zombie type way more of a magic realism type of way.  Secrets are hidden deep in Mulderigg and Mahony digs and delves until the truth is known.

How many genres can you fit into one book? HIMSELF manages to be an Irish murder mystery, a ghost story, a love story,  with just a spot of magic realism thrown in for good measure.  Sounds over-crowded?  It’s not.  Every twist and turn makes perfect sense.  Characters are drawn with skill; the creepy priest, the elderly actress or the publican that used to be a looker but has now run to myopic flab, all leap off the page. Loved every last comma.

UNDER A POLE STAR by Stef Penney

Snowy landscapes in the era of exploration obviously fascinate Stef Penney.  She drew an incredible picture of trudging across the snowy Canadian plains in THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, so much so that when I saw that she had written another ice epic I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.  The action in UNDER A POLE STAR takes place in Greenland and at its heart it is a love story. Lots of interesting facts are smuggled into the text. Did you know that the Pole Star changes?  No, neither did I.  Well I knew that the Earth changed its rotational axis but had not made that final leap that as it changed so must the Pole Star.  All in all my kind of book: exploration, love and facts.

HOLDING by Graham Norton

Graham Norton?  Novel?  Yup, THE Graham Norton has written a novel, Holding.  He has produced a murder mystery/romance is what you get and he’s done it rather well. Will our hero solve the mystery?  Will he find love?  What happens if the pursuit of truth and of love take him to the same place.  What of our heroines, will they put aside the Sauvignon Blanc?  Will they find their way out of unsatisfying lives and into the sunlit uplands?  The path to answering all these questions was well made, not a laugh out loud comedy but gentle thought provoking stuff.

NAPOLEON’S LAST ISLAND by Thomas Keneally

Napoleon is endlessly fascinating.  A man who fought on the side of a republic and yet had himself installed as an Emperor.  A man who conquered much of Europe but didn’t know where to draw the line.  A man so feared by people who finally defeated him that they incarcerated him on a tiny island in the middle of a vast ocean.  St Helena was NAPOLEON’S LAST ISLAND, this book takes an historical fact to weave fiction. Made me want to meet Napoleon and visit St Helena.

SERIOUS SWEET by A L Kennedy

Reasons why I wanted to read SERIOUS SWEET:  it was long listed for the Booker Prize, it is based in London and one of the characters is described as being a bankrupt accountant.  All the action in Serious Sweet takes place over the course of one day.  We start at dawn on Telegraph Hill and end there twenty-four hours later but skip all over London in between. I confess that the main characters didn’t engage me but the portrait of London had me avidly turning the pages.

THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY by Siddhartha Mukherjee

When I was at school genes were all about peas, finches and the double helix. They still are but our understanding of the gene has undergone a revolution since I last studied biology. Since then the entire human genome has been mapped opening the doors to all manner of possibilities that was previously the stuff of particularly outlandish science fiction. Siddhartha Mukherjee takes us on a journey of immense complexity in a chatty and easily understand manner.

VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

Taming of the Shrew and Anne Tyler what a perfect match, who would not want read her take on Shakespeare’s forthright heroine?  Vinegar Girl is just that, Kiss Me Kate without the music and part of a wider project whereby famous modern authors rewrite Shakespeare plays to mark the playwright’s 400th anniversary. Kate is a nursery school teacher and default carer to her younger sister in the wake of their Mother’s death.  Father is a dysfunctional but brilliant scientist.  Pytor, his assistant whose visa is about to run out, needs to marry fast or else he will have to go home and the project they are working on will fail.  Step forward Kate the reluctant bride.  Will she, won’t she? If you love Anne Tyler and like Shakespeare then give Vinegar Girl a whirl, let me know what you think.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

Heroes and heroines should be handsome, clever and talented.  Lauren Groff has provided us with a pair of gilded beings to star in FATES AND FURIES.  Lancelot, known as Lotto to his friends, is tall, handsome, rich, clever and popular.  Mathilde is a different kettle of fish.  Also beautiful and clever but reserved and unpopular.  So beautiful that she is a model.  They marry, of course. Being effortlessly beautiful, happy and successful takes hard work and lots of deception.  Broadly I loved FATES AND FURIES, the twisting of the viewpoint making you see things in a different light was very clever.

A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING by Jackie Copleton

Bookworms love words, at least this bookworm loves words.  Any novel with the word ‘dictionary’ in the title will always get a second glance from me.  A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING is true to its promise and every chapter is headed by a Japanese word with its meaning. So much for etymology, what about the plot?  We are in Nagasaki with a grieving mother and flit back and forth from the present time to Nagasaki before the bomb. The story kept me engaged but most of all I loved the words and geography. 

MY LIFE IN HOUSES by Margaret Forster

Looking back at your life through the houses that you have lived in is such clever idea for a memoir.  Where you live says everything about what you can afford, what you like and what you want.  A house is so much more than just bricks.  Margaret Forster lived her life through a period of huge social and technological change, she herself moved far away from her working class, Carlisle roots whilst never denying or betraying them.

All in all, a beautiful, thought provoking book.  Each house is so precisely described that you feel you are walking around the rooms with her.  The process of choosing a new home, moving in and making it your own is captured perfectly. 

THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP by Joanna Cannon

Jackie magazine and Angel Delight: the stuff of growing up in the 70’s, along with the long, hot summer of ’76.  Joanna Cannon sets her novel in that shimmering summer with lashings of Angel Delight.  Grace and Tilly are ten, when Mrs Creasy goes missing.  They decide to pose as Brownies in pursuit of badges to search for God in their cul-de-sac and find Mrs Creasy whilst they are at it. Ultimately this is a fantastic journey to go on but while the destination is worth the trip maybe it is a tiny bit disappointing once you arrive.

SIX TUDOR QUEENS: KATHERINE OF ARAGON, THE TRUE QUEEN by Alison Weir

Alison Weir, has set herself the task of producing six novels in six years based on the life of the six wives of Henry VIII.  The first one weighs in at 595 pages, so she’s not going down the novella route.  She must be tethered to her keyboard.  We start at the very beginning with Katherine of Aragon.  My history books told me that she was old, ugly, not very clever and barren. Turns out she wasn’t. Until Anne Boleyn turned up she was Henry’s perfect Queen.

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE by Maggie O’Farrell

Seventy-four years and four continents are what it takes Maggie O’Farrell to tell the tale of Daniel and Claudette.  He is an academic, a father, a divorcee and Irish American.  She is British and an enigma.  Theirs is a love story but will it have a happy ending? We zoom back and forth in time and zig zag across the globe, as the story unfolds.  And that happy ending?  It’s well worth embarking on the time slipping, jet setting journey of THIS MUST BE THE PLACE to find out for yourself.

THE IMPROBABILITY OF LOVE BY Hannah Rothschild

Imagine the tales that objects could tell if only they could talk.  Hannah Rothschild has done just that. THE IMPROBABILITY OF LOVE has a painting telling her own story.  The action starts as our heroine is set to become the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, then we wind back to her discovery in a junk shop. On the way we glimpse inside the world of fabulously expensive art. THE IMPROBABILITY OF LOVE was one of those books that had me hooked, the house went untidied and children unfed whilst I sat with nose in the kindle until the very last page.  Best of all Hannah Rothschild ties up all the ends with a thumbnail sketch of what each of the main characters goes on to do.

THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BOY by Monica Wood

One day an eleven year old boy scout is assigned a task to do odd jobs for a one hundred and four year old woman for three months.  Love, loss, the pursuit of impossible dreams and a rather fantastic road-trip all unfold.  At times The One-in-a-Million Boy had me in pools of tears but then later (usually when sitting on a train) it would cause me to laugh out loud.  Ultimately the book is about making the most of what you have whilst you can and never to give up on the pursuit of your dreams.  All of which sounds a bit preachy but it’s not.  You really root for all the characters, despair when they make stupid decisions and cheer when things go well.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS AND WHY IT’S MAKING US ANXIOUS by Melanie Whippman

Happiness; that’s we all want, right?  Certainly all the big letters on the cover seem to assume that it is HAPPINESS that will sell the book to us.  The smaller letters add a note of caution …. and why it is making us anxious.  Can it really be true that by trying to be happy we just make ourselves miserable?

Melanie Whippman followed her husband to California.  Back home in the UK she was a successful TV producer, in sunny California she was a stay at home mum without a network of friends of family.  Silicon Valley sometimes delivered no adult interaction all day until her husband walked back in from work. So she set about seeking the people who promise to deliver happiness. This is not a self-help book but does shine a light into the pursuit of personal fulfillment that at times seems to be offered from all sides.

SHTUM by Jem Lester

Shtum: Silent, non-communicative.  That is what my dictionary tells me.  Shtum tells the story of three generations of men locked in silence for all these reasons. Ben is father to Jonah who is ten and profoundly autistic. Georg is father and grandfather to both of them. All three have different problems with communication. Shtum might look as if it is about Autism but for me it is all about love. Love of a husband for a wife, love of a father for a son, love of a grandfather for a grandchild, love of a son for a father and love of friends.  At times all of these loves are ignored or expressed in a way that makes them almost invisible. Sometimes I laughed out loud but mainly I wept whilst reading SHTUM, not in a bad way but do ensure that you have a ready supply of tissues before you embark on the book.

QUINCES: GROWING & COOKING by Jane McMorland Hunter & Sue Dunster

One Christmas my parents gave me a Quince tree for Christmas, it has thrived and every autumn we have a glut of Quince. When I saw Quinces: Growing and Cooking it was purchased within seconds. If you too have a Quince tree or are just interested in the fruit that is thought to have been the apple in the Garden of Eden then this is the book for you.

THE SECRET LORE OF LONDON edited by John Matthews with Caroline Wise

Myth, legend, folklore and London; all things that fascinate me.  THE SECRET LORE OF LONDON completes its siren call with an intricate and alluring cover.  So much for title and cover what about the content?  Here are some of the fascinating facts that I learnt.

London has a creation myth; of course she does, any City worth its salt has one.  It’s just that had you asked me what it was last week I wouldn’t have even begun to tell you.  Brutus the Trojan was told by the goddess Diana to head to an island beyond Gaul.  So off he set and made landfall at Totnes, battled some giants, named the land Albion and headed off to found London.

London has a Stone.  Not just any old stone but the London Stone.  Just like the ravens in the Tower, as long as the Stone is alright then London will prosper. 

London has giants, two of them.  Gog and Magog.  Effigies of the pair can be found in the Guildhall and are paraded through the streets once a year for the Lord Mayor’s Show.

UPROOTED: ON THE TRAIL OF THE GREEN MAN by Nina Lyon

Children of Norwich know their City to be a fine one and exploration of our Cathedral is as important a part of our education as learning about Nelson.  One of my many school trips there, I remember being entranced by a roof boss in the cloisters.  Not your usual bible story but a fierce looking man with leaves growing out of his temples and snorting from his nose: he is a Green Man.  So the title of this book acted as a magnet to me, I vaguely imagined a lavishly illustrated travel guide with a bit of history thrown in.  Wrong.  Not bad wrong, but not the book that I expected when I picked it up.

Along the way we get to meet assorted friends and family.  None of people are given names just letters.  I presume that these letters recognise themselves as do their acquaintances.  Made up names would have pleased me more.  Nomenclature aside UPROOTED provides a lively and interesting exploration of the origins of the Green Man and the philosophy that still make him attractive to many. An interesting book and well worth a read.  Now is anybody out there in the process of writing a lavishly illustrated, thought provoking travelogue about the Green Man? Because there is at least one customer out here.

THE BUTCHER’S HOOK by Janet Ellis

Janet Ellis will be better known as the Blue Peter presenter who wasn’t Lesley Judd to many of us.  THE BUTCHER’S HOOK is her first novel and could not be further away from sticky-back plastic if it tried.  Georgian London is lovingly described in all its teaming fetid nastiness.  Butchery with its frightened beasts and flashing knives is brought to bloody life.  This is an accomplished novel that will have you turning its pages in eager anticipation.

THE TAMING OF THE QUEEN by Philippa Gregory

Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. We all know about the wives of Henry VIII. Although if asked I would have said that Katherine Parr was old and plain. Turns out that Kateryn (as Philippa Gregory spells her) was beautiful (as was the much maligned Anne of Cleves) and only 31.  She was also clever, so clever that she was the first English woman to publish a book under her own name.  Recently widowed, she was in love and waiting until her period of mourning had ended before marrying again.  Henry’s proposal put a stop to those plans.  Nobody said no to Henry.

Given that we all know how story ends, even if we have made all sorts of wrong assumptions, telling the tale and keeping us enthralled is a big ask.  Philippa Gregory rises to the task with aplomb.  I stayed awake turning the pages into the small hours fretful that the next knock on the door would bring news of Kateryn’s arrest and execution.  After all this is a work of fiction!

THE MAKER OF SWANS by Paraic O’Donnell

Leaping into a new book is always a voyage of discovery.  Usually you find where you are pretty swiftly, not so with the Maker of Swans.  You start in a decaying stately home and its surrounding parkland in what I assume to be the 1950’s and then you think that maybe it’s a bit earlier or a bit later.  In fact the time in which THE MAKER OF SWANS is set is irrelevant: you are firmly in the world of the imagination of Paraic O’Donnell and a fine gothic place it is. Magic runs throughout the book, not the Harry Potter wand waving stuff but a deeper more elemental force. Both Mr CW and I loved The Maker of Swans.

  • THE MAKER OF SWANS by Paraic O’Donnell
  • Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson
  • Paperback £8.99, Kindle £5.99

THE SILVERED HEART by Katherine Clements

Silks rustle, diamonds flash and bosoms heave in THE SILVERED HEART. The action takes place just as the Roundheads are defeating the Cavaliers in the English Civil War. Lady Katherine Ferrers, our heroine, is deeply enmeshed with the Royalist cause. As a child she lived in Oxford whilst King Charles held court there and his Queen gave her the silvered heart of the title to bring her luck. Rather unfortunately she swiftly lost all of her family to illness and was married off for the convenience of her step family rather than her own interests. Katherine naturally becomes a highway woman. Rip roaring fun.

EXPOSURE by Helen Dunmore

For those of us born in the Sixties the Cold War was our reality.  Us and them, staring at each other across clearly-defined geographical and ideological barriers.    Exposure flings us right back to the dawn of the black and white Sixties with all its clear cut certainties.  We start with the moles buried deep within the Admiralty.  So far so spy. Enter Paul and his wife, respectable Civil Servant and teacher. Cue plots, blame, prison and a rather thrilling end game.

THE PORTABLE VEBLEN by Elizabeth McKenzie

What is a Veblen?  No idea.  A squirrel?  Certainly the cover of THE PORTABLE VEBLEN features a squirrel.  By the end of the first paragraph you have been introduced to your heroine and realise that it is she who is Veblen but why is she portable?

Paul and Veblen are engaged to marry and THE PORTABLE VEBLEN is their love story.  They seem to be ill-matched, both come from damaged family backgrounds and appear to be running away with no clear of idea of where.  Will they run to each other or spring apart.  Whilst they wrestle with ambition and emotion, they are watched all the time by a squirrel.  Well Veblen thinks it is always the same squirrel; Paul naturally has other ideas. Through in a bit of economics (as a former business and economics journalist I always like a bit of economics) and you have a satisfying story.

THE NOISE OF TIME by Julian Barnes

Way back in 1983 I stumbled across Granta magazine in a bookshop in Newcastle.  It was the Best of Young British Novelists edition filled with examples of work from the twenty brightest young things on the British literary scene.  Ten of them of have accompanied me through my adult life, Julian Barnes was one of them.

THE NOISE OF TIME starts with a man standing by a lift waiting to be taken away for questioning.  He has chosen to stand and wait rather than be ripped from his bed in the night to avoid distressing his wife and children.  Our hero is Shostakovich, the twentieth century Russian composer, whose professional life coincided with the Soviet era.  We meet him on three occasions, shortly after his Opera was mocked and vilified by Stalin, attending a conference in New York and finally being chauffeur driven round the streets of Moscow.  His ongoing conversation with Power is the central theme.  Should he stand by his convictions and face the political music or bow to the demands of a fickle and vengeful regime?  Fear dominates his life, even when Stalin is dead and the years of harshest control appear to be over, Power always makes it clear what it requires him to do and the consequences of non-compliance.

2015 Book Reviews

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Eleven is the number of books that Jonathan Coe has written. Number 11 was published on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The number appears so often that it comes as a shock when an address important to the plot is 15 and you feel a just a tiny bit let down. My favourite 11 is the information that that is the number of the bus route that circumnavigates Birmingham, a fact I shall treasure for ever. Reality television, basement extensions (11 storeys deep, naturally), publicity seeking policemen, vitriolic knee jerk newspaper columnists, tax dodging billionaires, right-on stand up comedians and out of touch politicians all come in for scathing observations. Each target in skewered with gentle humour. Schlock horror movies run as a theme throughout the book and the page-turning finale has our heroine being pursued by creatures from our darkest dreams.

A BETTER MAN  by Leah McClaren

Nick and Maya fall in love at University and head off into the wide world together.  He sets up a successful production company and she becomes a high-flying lawyer specialising in divorce. Then they have twins and she becomes a stay-at-home Mother. Then it all goes wrong. At this point I lost patience, as the mother of twins who gave up a high flying career to look after them I found the cliches too much.

A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler

Blue car, blue paint, blue eyes and blue sky appear from the cover onwards but the blue thread tying them all together doesn’t appear until the very last moment.   We start with an estranged son ringing to drop a bombshell, his parents who immediately disagree about how the bombshell should have be handled.  Then we head back to discover the family dynamics that lie beneath the surface of this all-American family and their rather impressive house.  Almost every truth that you learn about the characters seems to be debunked at some point but not in a way that makes you feel cheated.  Each shock makes you look at the person that you thought you knew in a different and generally from a more sympathetic angle.  I confess that by the last page I was in tears.

THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS by Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien is one those authors whose voice you can hear reading to you.  The Little Red Chairs opens in familiar O’Brien territory; rural, remote and coastal Ireland. Life plods on in much the way that it always has with the added gloom of the economic fallout of the Celtic Tiger.  Into this close-knit world comes a charismatic stranger.  He is handsome and has heeling hands.  The whole village falls under his spell and one woman more than all the others.  His sudden unmasking leaves the village reeling. Now we move to London and the world of refugees. A wonderful book that had me blinking as I emerged into reality at end of total immersion in the story.

THE BEES by Lilane Paull

Bees are the kittens of the insect world, it would take a hard-hearted person to look on the fluffy bumble bee and her chums with a malevolent eye. Life in the hive is well ordered and harmonious. That was my view, but now I’ve spent a happy few hours immersed in hive of Laline Paull’s imagination. Rivalries rent the hive, wasps invade. You will never look at a bee in the same light ever again. One of my favourite books ever..

THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley

Menace and love hang over The Loney like the mist and fog of the novel’s location on the Cumbrian coast. Proceedings kick off with the discovery of a corpse and then we a tilted back to the early 70’s.  Our heroes are the nameless narrator and his older mute brother, Hanny.  Also here to keep them company are two Catholic parish priests, their parents, Mummer and Farther, and a clutch of fellow members of the congregation of St Jude’s in Finchley. Horror is not usually a genre that I would pick up but I confess that I was lured by the cover.  Thank goodness for that, as landscape, faith and love are all embraced in equal measure. 

CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West.  CIRCLING THE SUN joins her on the historic flight and then flashes back to tell her fictionalised life story. Growing up motherless and untamed on a horse farm, when she turns sixteen her world implodes as her father’s farm goes bust and he heads off for South Africa.  Left with a choice of going with him or marrying, she plunges into a disastrous marriage.  Had Beryl been meek and dowdy there would be no story but thankfully she is beautiful and plucky and so sets about becoming the first female racehorse trainer in Kenya, as you do. An amazing woman with an incredible story.

THE TEA PLANTER’S WIFE by Dinah Jefferies

The Tea Planter’s Wife is nineteen year old Gwendolyn Hopper.  We meet her as she is about to arrive in 1920’s Ceylon to be reunited with her new husband Laurence.  The pair met in London, he is an older widower and she has never been to Ceylon before. With shades of Rebecca, the young wife finds it hard to fit in. All seems to be going well until as Gwen falls pregnant with twins.  What happens next forces heart-breaking choices.

HIPPY DINNERS by Abbie Ross

Way back in 1972 when Abbie Ross was two, her parents upped sticks and moved from metropolitan Islington to rural North Wales in search of a better life.  Spring forward five years and this memoir begins with a vivid description of the impending visit of splendidly groomed and determinedly suburban Grandparents.  The children eagerly anticipate presents and sweet treats that are usually banned, whilst the parents rush round getting out previous gifts that have languished in cupboards since the last visit.  You can feel the Grandparental disapproval of career, home décor and fashion choices being met with exasperation from Abbie’s parents.

A CHORUS OF INNOCENTS by P F Chisholm

It is October 1592, a pregnant woman bursts into Lady Widdrington’s house having been raped and having witnessed the murder of her husband.  Lady W loses no time riding into the Scottish Border lands to find out what happened. We are in a world of clans and reivers, men who will steal anything that is not nailed down. We meet James VI of Scotland and his favourite Lord Spynie. All in all a rattling Tudor whodunnit.

  • A Chorus of Innocents by P F Chisholm
  • Out of print

SKIN by Ilka Tampke

Skin is more than just skin to the people of Caer Cad.  It is their identity, their history, their culture.  Without skin you are are nothing.  Ailia does not have skin. Once you’ve got round this heady concept immerse yourself in the time when Rome snaps at the shores of Iron Age Britain but lucrative trade deals and troublesome tribes make invasion not worth the effort.  The uneasy truce is thrown into jeopardy when the leading appeasing tribal leader dies. Expect wise women, mythical lakes, obscuring mists and shape-shifting men. Perfect if you love Game of Thrones.

A Proper Family Adventure by Chrissie Manby

As the engines started to roar on the “Normandie Express” I clicked open my Kindle and embarked on A PROPER FAMILY ADVENTURE. OK so I was onboard a catamaran bound for France rather than a luxurious cruise ship described in the novel, but a girl can dream. Squabbling children, grieving widows, teens on work experience, star-crossed lovers and a rather grumpy Teddy bear all add colour and excitement to our whistle stop tour around the Western Mediterranean. Each landfall is described beautifully and adds to unfolding drama. Our cross channel crossing was a little to short to finish the book but it was easy to ignore my own family and finish the book swiftly soon afterwards.

GUTENBERG’S APPRENTICE by Alix Christie

Once upon a time only rich people could read books.  They were luxury items handwritten and lavishly decorated, as befits a high status object.  Then along came Gutenberg and changed all that.  Alix Christie takes real people and real events and imagines how the first information revolution might have started.

We are immersed in the busy streets and the bitter rivalry between Guildsmen and Church of medieval Germany.  What kind of metal do you need to produce the letters, what kind of a type face, which ink recipe?  The need for complete secrecy in the face of a Church anxious to keep control of books. Woven in through the gripping technical and political tale is a love story.  Boy meets girl, they fall in love and there are barriers to be overcome.  Will they or won’t they?  Lots of facts and a compelling love story, my kind of book.

THE PARROTS by Alexandra Shulman

Mayhem in Mayfair; if anybody can spin a good yarn about everyday life in Mayfair then it is the editor of Vogue.  Alexandra Shulman has at the centre of her novel a successful married couple: he runs an art gallery and she dabbles in calligraphy.  They have a busy social life, she thinks that he is faithful and their son is at university about to fledge into the world.  What could be nicer? Then Katherine, the calligrapher, notices that parrots have taken up residence in her back garden causing the native birds to squawk and protest.  A pair of Italian siblings and a Russian oligarch and his wife swoop into her own life and soon the avian disquiet is echoed in the human sphere.

  • THE PARROTS by Alexandra Shulman
  • Paperback £8.99

THE SILENT HOURS by Cesca Major

Tears are streaming down my face. For the past couple of days I have been submerged in mid-west France during the Second Word War.  Shortages, anti-Semitism, families uprooted and torn apart; you know the kind of stuff but this book slowly reveals deep secrets. that came as a revelation to me. Six people narrate the story.  The Silent Hours is based round a real event about which I had not heard previously and now marvel at my ignorance. When you buy this book, and I urge you to, make sure you buy a large box of tissues at the same time.

THE VERSIONS OF US by Laura Barnett

“What if?”  is a question we all ask ourselves at some point. The Versions of Us gives us not only two but three ‘What if’s?’.   We meet our heroes Jim, Eva and David in 1958 when they are all students at Cambridge. Eva either gets a puncture and meets Jim or she doesn’t and from there on we meet all three of them at points that remain unchanged despite the different paths that are being followed.  Birthday parties, first night parties, funerals: the sort of events that go on whatever we do. An excellent exploration of the possibility of unchosen roads.

THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO by Brian Cathcart

Waterloo, as any child of the 70’s can tell you, propelled ABBA to fame. News of their Eurovision victory was beamed direct into millions of living rooms across Europe. Official news of Wellington’s victory took three days to reach London, that’s an average of three miles per hour. Even when horses and sail power were the only way to travel that seems like a mighty long time. At the time London had 56 daily newspapers but not one of them had thought to send a correspondent to Brussels to cover the battle. We glimpse into the drawing rooms of High Society, into the offices of London’s newspapers, into the Cabinet room, onto the battlefield and traverse the rutted and unreliable roads of the early nineteenth century.

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2 Comments

    • Catherine
      Author
      December 23, 2016 / 3:29 pm

      That sounds excellent, will keep an eye open

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