Friday, 9 March 2018

Six in February

I read six books in February.

Read for book group, and by chance the group met on 8 February, the hundredth anniversary of the old boys allowing some women to put a cross on a ballot paper. MB shows how history has treated powerful women with examples ranging from the classical world to the modern day, from Medusa and Athena to Theresa May and Hillary Clinton.

One story in particular made my blood boil. As she loyally waits for her husband Odysseus to come home from the Trojan war Penelope’s young son Telemachus takes it upon himself to tell her in front of a gathering: ‘ … go back up into your quarters … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all … ’

I wonder if history would be different if, instead of going meekly upstairs, Penelope had told him not to be so cheeky to his mum.

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux
Bought with a Christmas book token. I love reading about train journeys and the master train-journey writer is Paul Theroux. And I love reading about China after a visit there in 2011 so this is a double-whammy as PT takes various trains across this vast country. None of them sound at all comfortable so I was glad to be travelling only vicariously in his company. His writing is so vivid – ‘The yak is a lovely long-haired animal, like a cow on its way to the opera.’

He took this journey in 1988 – it would be fascinating if he retraced his steps given the changes in the last thirty years.

The Break by Marion Keyes
Bought in a charity shop. An interesting premise: after being happily married to Amy for fifteen years Hugh, deeply affected by the deaths of his father and a close friend, decides to take a break and go travelling for a year – and also take a break from their marriage.

I’ve read all MK’s books and will continue to do so but I wasn’t mad about this one. Amy’s dysfunctional family doesn’t have the charm of the Walshes who appear in some of the earlier books, and there are no hilarious set-pieces – my favourite is the beauty-parlour scene in Sushi for Beginners.

My main gripe though is that there are so many minor characters and a lot of them have such unusual/unusually spelt names that they become a distraction: Steevie, Urzula, Druzie, Premilla, Thamyres, Raffie (all women) to name but a few.

Maine by Courtney Sullivan
Bought in a charity shop. Regular readers will perhaps remember that I am very keen on books set in New England. In other books (and probably in real life) people who have wonderful summer houses on New England beaches are monied – not that that makes them happy, usually quite the opposite. 

The more ordinary family in this contemporary book own two houses built on land acquired in lieu of a debt fifty years ago, so now it is worth mega bucks. None of them are very happy either, actually, or awfully likeable apart from granddaughter Maggie – Alice, the matriarch, is a difficult mother and mother-in-law and there are lots of untold secrets, the biggest one being <spoiler alert> that Alice has made a will leaving the houses to the local Catholic church. A bit of a find, Courtney Sullivan. Will read more.

The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Frightened myself to bits reading this late into the night. It’s Scandi noir (set in Iceland) that is certainly très noir. Excellent though, very satisfying conclusion. May have to frighten myself again; this is the first of a series.

Fifty-something Shona McMonagle is clever at everything (yes, everything), and she’s very practical and resourceful – as she would not hesitate to tell you herself – being the product of the ‘finest education in the world’ at Marcia Blaine School for Girls (readers of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will recognise the reference).

When Miss Blaine herself returns after a gap of many (many) decades to Edinburgh and seeks out Shona in Morningside Library, she asks the former pupil to carry out a mission for her – in 19th-century Russia. It turns out to be both a dangerous and a wonderfully absurd mission and while the reader comes to suspect what’s going on, Shona, for all her much-vaunted education, is oblivious until it’s almost too late.

An absolute hoot (described by one Amazon reviewer as ‘Anna Karenina written by PG Wodehouse’) – I would urge you to make Shona’s acquaintance asap.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Seven in January

Seven in January

I read seven books in January. (I know it’s almost March but this month I’ve published a new story collection and had other news to report … )

Yes, the Tom Hanks. And it’s a signed copy, courtesy of the wonderful Topping bookshop in St Andrews and my (also wonderful) husband.

Each of the stories involves a manual typewriter in either a minor or a major way (TH has collected about a hundred of them). Some of the stories have the same characters. Some are very thoughtful, others very funny. I think my favourite, and falling into the funny category, was the very first one, about three best friends, two men and a girl, Anna. One of the men, the narrator, makes the mistake of having an affair with Anna for ‘three exhausting weeks’, after which they revert, with mutual relief, to their previous relationship.

Between Friends by Jenny Harper
‘Love, secrets and loyalty’ in contemporary Edinburgh. When Marta bumps into an old acquaintance, Tom, during the Edinburgh Festival and asks him to dinner, a whole domino effect of disasters occurs, as Marta is unaware of the effect that Tom’s appearance will have on her two best friends Jane and Carrie. Of course the Edinburgh setting was bound to appeal to me but I also enjoyed this gripping story of female friendships.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
I read this author’s The Whaleboat House last year and loved it. Enjoyed this one too which is set in Tuscany in 1958. A young English scholar tries to decode the clues in a mysterious garden and in doing so uncovers secrets of love, revenge and murder from 400 years ago and much more recently …

The house Susan Hill shared with her Shakespearian scholar husband had bookshelves everywhere. One night she went in search of Howard’s End. She couldn’t locate it but she did realise that there were books on their shelves that she’d forgotten they had, some she would love to re-read and perhaps two hundred that she hadn’t read at all. So she decided to give up buying new books for a whole year, instead going through the house shelf by shelf. At the end, with great difficulty, she compiled a list of the forty books she would keep if she had to give the others up.

I liked reading about her experience – and although I could do the same (check my to-be-read pile, print and Kindle!) I’m afraid I would not have the self-discipline.

Year of the Tiger by Lisa Brackman
A thriller set in China, with flashbacks to the war in Iraq where the narrator, Ellie, was a medic. Ellie’s friendship with a missing local artist leads her into big trouble when both Chinese and American government agents hound her about him.

I’m mad keen on books – fiction and non-fiction – set in China since a visit there a few years ago. 

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange 
'1919. Henry [Henrietta] moves to the countryside with her family, scarred by her brother's untimely death. Her only friends are characters from her favourite books - until, one day, she wanders into the woods and meets Moth, a striking witch-like woman. Together they form a bond that could help Henry save her family and overcome her grief.'

Henrietta is twelve, but this could be read by anybody of any age. Adults will read it on an extra level, knowing about the horrors of the First World War and of the way mental illness (not just of war veterans) was treated at this time. 

I adored this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Excellent contemporary police procedural. A workman falls from the top of a half-finished building – accident or murder? The answer – spoiler alert – has its roots in the Nazi occupation of Holland and a present-day extortion racket. Great sense of place and an interesting protagonist in Lotte Meerman, a police detective who has just returned to work four months after being shot; not all her colleagues are pleased to see her … 

This is the second Lotte book; I'd like to read the other two (which is why, see above, I could never do a Susan Hill).

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Writer of the Week

I have a story in this week’s People’s Friend called Goodbye Sukey (issue dated 24 February). I was delighted when the editor, Shirley Blair, said that she was going to make me ‘Writer of the Week’ and sent me some questions to answer about how I came to write that story and, more generally, about my writing.

You can read the interview here.

If you like Goodbye Sukey you can read more of my short stories in these three collections. All of the stories have been previously published in The People’s Friend, Woman’s Weekly and elsewhere, or have been placed in competitions.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A sweet treat for St Valentine's Day

A sweet treat for St Valentine’s Day. Fourteen stories, zero calories.

The Palace of Complete Happiness and other love stories published 14 February.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Fourteen stories to make the world go round

According to Wikipedia, ‘Love makes the world go round’ was first used as a song title in 1896.

And on Valentine’s Day each year it makes the world go round even faster, I expect, leaving red roses whirling in its wake so that the earth looks rather like this:

These 14 stories for the 14th of February (or any other day of the year) were all previously published in women’s magazines. And if you think women’s magazine stories are all in a 1950s time warp then do think again …

Two for Joy
Superstitious Jess is looking for true love – will the magpies or the tea-leaves point her in the right direction?

Bonnie Prince Charlie
Isabel has an unexpected guest staying for Bed & Breakfast – and there are people who would pay to know his whereabouts.

Sam Something
Sam is enjoying a cappuccino while waiting for his colleague – when he overhears his name being mentioned at the next table.

Summertime Blues
It’s the year of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, but Lindsay, part-time record-spinner on a Scottish island, is feeling far from chirpy.

A Green Wedding Dress
As Caitlin attends a rather strange, small registry office ceremony she can’t help comparing it favourably with her own lavish and traditional wedding.

Please, Mr Postman
When Petra tries to track down some missing letters she ends up meeting some of her new neighbours.

Ae Fond Kiss
When café owner Mary takes part in a flash mob to sing one of the Robert Burns’ love songs she finds herself standing next to one of her customers.

A Parallel Universe
Louise meets David for the first time in fifteen years and wonders about the life they might have had together – is it too late?

See You Later, Alligator
Lizzie’s met an explorer who wrestles alligators but is she intrepid enough to fall in love with him?

And Pomona Came Too
There’s a third party in Nick and Jill’s relationship – his metal detector. He even wants to take it on their weekend break to Basking-in-the-Wold …

Making a Scene
Of course her little boy’s birthday party is Lorna’s first priority but how she wishes she could be in two places at once.

Meet Your Match
Patsy decides it’s time to look for a new partner on a dating site but she gets distracted by her memories, and by three items that have arrived in the mail.

For Love or Money
Jackie is about to marry someone who’s made a lot of money – is she trying to leave her two oldest friends behind?

The Palace of Complete Happiness
While escorting a school party through the Forbidden City in Beijing, Milly comes to the conclusion that she can learn a lesson from the life of the imperial family.

The Palace of Complete Happiness and other love stories is available to pre-order now, and will be delivered to your Kindle on St Valentine’s Day. 
Go on, spoil yourself.

Monday, 15 January 2018

My Life (maybe) – according to the books I read in 2017

Describe yourself

How do you feel?

Describe where you currently live

If you could go anywhere where would you go?

Your favourite form of transportation is

Your best friend is

You and your friends are

What’s the weather like?

Favourite time of day

If your life was a book

What is life to you?

Your fear

What is the best advice you have to give?

Thought for the day

How would you like to die?

Your soul’s present condition

This is a fun idea I saw first on Portobello Book Blog:

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Four Capital Writers

Three fellow writers and myself, all Edinburgh based, have set up a website together. Appropriately, we call ourselves Capital Writers

And to give you a flavour of our writing we have produced an anthology, Capital Stories, one story from each of us.

The stories in the anthology are arranged chronologically and are set in Edinburgh, from Regency times to the present day:

A Close Encounter
Anne Stenhouse

Afternoon Tea with Angelica
Jennifer Young

The Letter
Jane Riddell

An Ordinary Joe
Kate Blackadder

Apart from being writers living in Edinburgh we have something else in common. None of us were born in Scotland’s capital city but we have come to live in it at different times and for different reasons – and we love it.

We have each posted on the website an account of how we came to be here. This is mine, a tale that encompasses the murder of Rizzio, a horde of mice, and a name on a telephone list …

Anne, Jane, Jennifer and I propose to blog about things that interest us, to tell of the delights of Edinburgh including its past and present literary heritage (and promote our books along the way … )

We are looking forward to that and hope that you will travel virtually from wherever you are to join us …

… and we hope that you enjoy Capital Stories (99p).