The Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-HumeThe Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-Hume by Gordon Lawrie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s always great when a writer takes an intriguing character from a previous story (The Piano Exam) and further develops them, as is the case here with The Discreet Charm of Mary Maxwell Hume, a mysterious woman with many talents – not least music and the way she wears clothes!

This collection of stories about Mary and her efforts to better the city of Edinburgh (by committing the odd crime, but solving them too) is entertaining and laugh-out-loud in places. The book is peopled with fantastic characters and situations you will probably recognise in part. You might even find the odd reference to a certain Edinburgh department store familiar… Just the ticket for relaxing reading.

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Assured Attention – a Review

Assured AttentionAssured Attention by Jane Tulloch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Assured Attention is the follow-up to Our Best Attention, though you do not need to have read the first book. It tells the story of a fictional department store in Edinburgh through its staff and customers. Each chapter is more or less a short story that stands alone, but there are threads that weave through and everything comes together neatly in the final chapter.
The book is full of likeable characters and neat plot developments. It’s a light, enjoyable read. I don’t usually go for short stories as I don’t find them ‘satisfying’, but this pulls everything together enough for me not to feel it is just short stories.
A great holiday read – and it will appeal to fans of Alexander McColl Smith.

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Day and Night – a Review

Night and Day: a Dottie Manderson mystery (Dottie Manderson mysteries Book 1)Night and Day: a Dottie Manderson mystery by Caron Allan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do love a good crime fiction novel – and particularly when it’s historical crime fiction. That gives you added bonuses. You get the time period of the Golden Age of crime fiction, but with modern considerations, such as detailed characterisation and stories that aren’t just plot-driven.

I enjoyed Night and Day a great deal. There are plenty of likeable characters that you feel you want to read more about, a plot that moves along well and lots of enjoyable period detail. (I, for one, love reading about what people ate and long to live in a time where the servants leave me out cocoa and sandwiches when I come in from a night out…)

Dottie Manderson is a gorgeous character – sassy, bright and modern (for the 1930s, that is) and very relatable. She’s partnered with a detective and you just know this is going to play out satisfyingly in a ‘will they/won’t they’ way. There’s a Cluedo feel to the whole story, and I love it for that.

A great read and I’m looking forward to catching up with more of Dottie, Flora et al.

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Fates and Furies – a Review

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fates and Furies divided our book group – an even split between those who loved and hated it. I fell into the former camp, as I adored the book.

Lauren Groff’s tale tells the story of a marriage and how different it is to the two protagonists. The first part of the book ‘Fate’ tells the story from the husband’s point of view. Lancelot Satterwhite comes from a wealthy background but manages to alienate himself from his widowed mother. His marriage to Mathilde drives further distance between the two, but after a shaky start to his working life, after his mother cuts him off, Lancelot (or Lotto) discovers a talent for playwriting and establishes a wildly successful career, albeit with a few hiccups along the way.

When he dies, the viewpoint shifts to Mathilde, and it here the book becomes splendid. Nothing that seemed like luck or fate happened to Lotto. His wife was there all the time, working behind the scenes to manipulate circumstances – mostly in Lotto’s favour. She engineered their first meeting and marriage. She put in place obstacles to stop him reconciling with his mother. She re-wrote and edited his plays – a lot of the time he wrote them while drunk, so was unable to tell when Mathilde tidied them up – and she even managed to get his fiercest critic on board. And yet, Mathilde comes across as very sympathetic, a difficult, flawed woman dealing with a hugely ego maniac of a husband. (Who is also pretty likeable, incidentally.)

While my book group felt the writing was beautiful, we differed on our opinions about the story’s sensationalism. Did Mathilde’s story need to be quite so dramatic and terrible? (We later find out she was thrown out of her house as a child by her parents after an accident.) I didn’t mind the dramatisation, but perhaps the really brilliant story is that of two very ordinary people living together for years, and yet not really knowing each other?

There are plenty of twists and turns, and I do love a page-turner so the book appealed to me. I read it in three days. Read it and join the conversation!

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The Girls: A Review

The Girls in the GardenThe Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Girls* is a gripping read. I’ve read most of Lisa Jewell’s books over the years, and her latest novel is an accomplished achievement. As a writer, she just gets better and better.

The book tells the story of a family who move into a flat in London, which shares a large garden with the properties of other families. The story is mostly told from three viewpoints: that of the 12-year-old daughter, Pip; her mother; and a woman who is a long-term resident.

It starts with the discovery of Pip’s older sister Grace in the garden, unconscious and half naked. The story then moves back to the arrival of the family in the area, and how they adjust to their new lives and living with their new neighbours.

Jewell is known for writing intelligent women’s fiction, and this book is no exception. It has a crime fiction element to it too. Who attacked Grace and why? The final revelation is a surprise, and the author cleverly sets up a few red herrings on the way. Themes that run through the book include trust and adolescence. How would three girls, home-schooled and growing up in a close community react to strangers coming in?

My only minor criticism would be that Pip’s letters to her dad sound a little too grown-up from time to time. There’s the odd word or phrase that’s too adult. Having said that, through her depiction of Tyler and the three Howe girls, Jewell portrays fantastic characters and demonstrates a great understanding of what it’s like to be a teenage girl.

*The book I read was called The Girls, not The Girls in the Garden. Maybe it has a different title outside the UK.

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Mount! Review

Mount!Mount! by Jilly Cooper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Contains spoilers!
If anyone ever tells you the difference between self-published books and traditionally published book is editing – refer them to the new Jilly Cooper novel.

My sisters and I all read the Jilly Cooper books when we were teenagers – Imogen, Prudence, Bella et al. We loved Riders, Rivals, Polo and The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous.

Then, every few years more of the big bonkbusters came out – Wicked, Apassionata and more. Each book got progressively worse, but we kept reading them in the hope the old Cooper magic would come back.

As I got older, I started to find the politics in the books disturbing. Racial stereotypes abounded, and people who were left-wing or concerned about the environment were always portrayed as baddies – paedophiles in one book. A woman’s first loyalty was always to a man, never to her friends or even her children.

I bought Mount! to read while on holiday at the end of last year. It’s the kind of book that would never get you a book deal if you didn’t have the name and following already. Anyone giving feedback would say there are far too many characters – Jilly’s list of animals in the book goes on for several pages, for example.

It’s a cute Jilly thing to include mention of just about every character she’s ever created, but that obviously increases with every book you write. Mount is bursting at the seams with too many characters, and plot lines for so many of them.

Why didn’t an editor tell her to trim the numbers back?

I don’t mind silly plots, but a whole lot of them together makes a very bad book. I don’t mind an infidelity plotline either, but this isn’t the place for it. Cooper’s books are aimed at a mainly female audience, so why create an unsympathetic main female character who sleeps with her good friend’s husband?

There is a lot of detail about horse breeding and racing – too much. When you have detail instead of a plot, a book doesn’t work. Cooper’s acknowledgement at the end of the book is the longest thank-you note I’ve ever read. Clearly, she felt duty-bound to write about everything she discovered. A good writer or editor should make ruthless decisions about what to ditch.

Cooper always kept Rupert Campbell-Black, her hero of Riders and Rivals, faithful to his wife, Taggie. Given that he was such a playboy, that often felt unrealistic to me, but she was consistent with it. In Mount, RCB is unfaithful to Taggie – a mistake, I believe. Why change that now? It doesn’t feel like a thought-out plot line, more something thrown in randomly to add excitement.

Mount seems like a book that wasn’t read by beta readers, never mind an editor. It feels like a cynical publishing exercise – put out a book by a big name because it will sell regardless. Did anyone at Curtis Brown or Transworld Publishers do anything to this book, apart from proof-reading it?

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Golden Hill – a Review

Golden HillGolden Hill by Francis Spufford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Francis Stufford’s Golden Hill was the first novel award winner in 2016’s Costa Book of the Year awards. I haven’t read any of the other winning category books, but this one blew my socks off.

Set in the mid-18th Century, a young man called Smith arrives in New York with an order for £1,000 in his pocket. Can he be trusted? What does he intend to do with the money once New York’s merchants are able to honour the order?

The book is rightly described as a page-turner and you’ll find it impossible to put down. Smith is the most appealing male main character I’ve read in a long time. The exchanges he has with the book’s other characters are a joy to read and his thoughts on the then colony of America are beautifully descriptive.

Description isn’t something this book lacks. Vivid colour paints in pictures throughout. Stufford makes liberal use of 18th Century terms and language to add to the effect. The insults have a particular 18th Century feel to them and there are splendid ones thrown about. The beginning of the book acknowledges the novelists of the time – Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding – and it has awoken in me a desire to read those books.

Often, when a novel holds a mystery in its centre, the final revelation is disappointing. While small clues were dropped along the way, the final reason for Mr Smith’s visit to New York and where the money came from is still satisfying. The last chapter is another bitter-sweet surprise.

Read this book. It’s amazing.

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Storyworks Monthly Issue One: A Review

Storyworks Monthly #1Storyworks Monthly #1 by Stephen J Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Storyworks Monthly is an ambitious work. The author states at the outset that he wants to offer a cross-section of his writing, fiction and non-fiction, in multiple genres and story lengths. He’s modelled it on Smith’s Monthly and notes with amazement (as do I) that pulp fiction writers often produced upwards of one million words a year.
Storyworks Monthly is a collection of well-written and well-crafted short stories, novellas and the first part of a science fiction novel. The novella, Ship of Remnants, was far and away my favourite. The pacing was superb and I hope the author takes this story further, developing it into a full-length novel. There’s plenty of scope for that. There was also story about a retired Roman general that I enjoyed. Again, I felt this was a story and a character I wanted to know more about.
Stephen concludes with advice about writing, which is very useful for the aspiring novelist. He concentrates on how to structure a plot, starting with what you do at the beginning and taking popular films as his examples.
All and all an interesting and informative read.
Please note: I received a review copy.

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The Source – A Review

The SourceThe Source by James A. Michener
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Set aside plenty of time for this read – it’s a lengthy tome. But you’ll be glad you did put in the effort.

I love this book. I use the present tense because I’ve just read it for the third time and I anticipate I’ll read it again and again. My first reading was when my grandmother bought it for me not long after I returned from a stint on a kibbutz. The second time was when someone bought the book for me after I lost the original – I gave it to someone and they never gave it back, don’t you just hate that?. And now I’ve re-read it for the third time.

The Source is a hugely ambitious novel, taking in the history of civilisation and religion. It starts with a fictional archaeological dig and it takes the form of a series of short stories related to each layer of the dig interspersed with what is going on in the present day. Primarily, it’s about Judaism, but it also includes the birth of Christianity and Islam (and all the schisms in between).

If you love history and you find religion fascinating, you’ll love this book. I’m an atheist, but the explanations at the beginning for why a group of people might have started to believe in some kind of greater being were wonderful. All through the book, you see the various religious, political, cultural and societal issues emerge, and their contribution to what happens next.

It’s also darn good story-telling. Each of the short stories that take place years apart (in some cases thousands of years) is actually quite a long short story, but I found myself wanting to read on every time, even though I knew what was going to happen because I was reading the book for the third time.

At times, the archaeological dig pieces feel a little heavy-handed, two of the main characters basically serve as mouthpieces for two different peoples. But the extended end piece pulls everything together terrifically. The book was published in the mid-1960s, and there are several predictions in it about what will happen in the future. See if you agree with what Michener’s characters predict…

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Review of Thornfield Hall

Thornfield HallThornfield Hall by Jane Stubbs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. I was apprehensive at first, as I read Jo Baker’s Longbourn last year, a book that shared the same premises. The two books take classical stories and re-tell them from the viewpoint of the servants, Thornfield Hall is based on Jane Eyre, and Longbourn on Pride and Prejudice. As Jo Baker had already done it so well, I didn’t think Jane Stubbs would be able to match her book.

The books were only published three months apart, which seems to suggest both authors thought up the idea at the same time.

But back to Thornfield Hall. The narrator is the housekeeper, Alice Fairfax – herself a member of the gentry according to her mother’s strict specifications, who is forced into servitude through poverty. Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester are no longer main characters and instead the under classes shine. The Brontes used genteel poverty as a theme in their books, and frequently highlighted the limited choices available to women. Stubbs does the same with Alice Fairfax, neatly noting Jane Eyre’s own prejudices and snobbery towards her.

Bertha – the madwoman in the attic – is presented very sympathetically in this interpretation, as is her nurse Grace Poole. Jane Stubbs suggests a plausible and witty interpretation of what actually happened when Thornfield House burned down. She also gives Rochester a less than sympathetic character, particularly relating to his behaviour in the West Indies.

The ending felt very satisfying. The good received their just rewards – not just Jane Eyre, and the servants managed to get one over their masters. Excellent stuff.

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