Monthly Archives: November 2016

Book review: The French Lesson

Hallie RubenholdThis is an entertaining account of Henrietta Lightfoot’s time in the Paris of 1792 during the French Revolution, a period of which my knowledge is scanty. The French Lesson is a women’s story told with authority by social historian Hallie Rubenhold, at a time when the new order replaced the old and changed women’s lives in the process.

Years after the event, Hettie writes her account of what happened at the request of a benefactor. As the novel opens, she is living in Brussels with the love of her life, George Allenham, 4th Baron Allenham of Herberton, expecting to be married and so calling herself Mrs Allenham. But when Allenham’s mysterious work takes him to Paris, he does not return. She receives a letter from him saying Paris is dangerous and though he must stay there for his work, she must return to England for her safety. But Hettie follows her heart to Paris.

With the Revolution threatening, she is attacked, robbed, rescued and so finds herself indebted to Mrs Grace Elliot, an English woman who survives in Paris as a lover to rich important men. Hettie is drawn into this life too. The French Lesson is an enjoyable account of a fast-paced, thrilling and bloodthirsty moment in history, combining real characters – d’Orleans, known as Philippe Égalité after the Revolution; his current mistress, Agnès de Buffon; and former mistress, Mrs Elliot – with fictional characters Hettie and Allenham.

As always in war, people are not what they seem. Hettie is driven on first by love, then by the need to survive. She is told by Mrs Elliot not ‘to trust’ and it is a hard lesson to learn.

I learned after reading The French Lesson that it is the second of a trilogy – the first is Mistress of My Fate – though it can be happily read as a stand-alone novel.

Read more about Hallie Rubenhold’s books at her website.

If you like ‘The French Lesson’, try these other novels set in France:-
‘In Another Life’ by Julie Christine Johnson
‘An Officer and a Spy’ by Robert Harris
‘Citadel’ by Kate Mosse

‘The French Lesson’ by Hallie Rubenhold [UK: Doubleday] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: Deadly Descent

Charlotte HingerIt all begins when West Kansas historian Lottie Albright receives a submission for her oral history project. Written by Zelda St John, aunt of political hopeful Brian Hadley, the piece examines torrid racist attitudes in the family’s history. This is the sort of book you settle into and read with relish. Deadly Descent by Charlotte Hinger is a mystery thriller which moves with steady detailed steps as the tension twists and twists like a screw being slowly turned.

A first murder is followed rapidly by a second, Lottie is sworn in as a deputy and balances her twin jobs of detecting and collating historical records. The two jobs fit neatly together until anonymous letters start to arrive. Lottie is ably supported by her quiet long-suffering husband Keith, and her clinical psychologist twin sister Josie. Remember the twin thing, it is important later. Sam Abbott, sheriff of the woefully-underfunded Carlton County police, welcomes the resources of the Kansas Bureau of Investigations and so distracts Lottie with research into an old dead case: the old Swenson murders. This feels like a massive diversion, but go with the flow of this book and you will be rewarded.

Hinger plots intricately and draws a totally believable picture of the historical society in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets. Lottie’s project involves everyone writing the story of their family: for some people, the shame is too much.

This is the first of the Lottie Albright series of family history mysteries. For more about Charlotte Hinger’s books, visit her website. Hinger is a Western Kansas historian who edited more than 500 family submissions for county history books.

If you like ‘Deadly Descent’, try these other genealogy novels:-
‘The Blood Detective’ by Dan Waddell
‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘Deadly Descent’ by Charlotte Hinger, LottieAlbright#1 [UK: Poisoned Pen Press] Buy at Amazon

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Great Opening Paragraph 91… ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ #amwriting #FirstPara

SJ Watson

“The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”
‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by SJ Watson

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
True Grit’ by Charles Portis 
Sea Glass’ by Anita Shreve 
I’ll Take You There’ by Joyce Carol Oates 

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Does this make you want more? BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP by @SJ_Watson #books via @SandraDanby

Book review: The Museum of You

Carys BrayThis novel by Carys Bray starts with a wonderful description of twelve-year-old Clover watering her father’s allotment on a hot summer’s day. It is the beginning of the summer holidays and it is the first time she has her own front door key and is allowed out on her own. I smelt the dust, could see the shimmering heat and feel the cool of the water splashing from the tap.

It is not a book in which a lot happens; rather it is a sensitive portrait of a single father and his daughter and how the past refuses to be ignored.

After a school trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, Clover decides her holiday project will be to curate an exhibit of her mother. She has no memories of her mum, who died soon after Clover was born, and her father never talks about the past. Clover never used to mind about this, not wanting to press him and cause distress. But now, poised on the edge of womanhood, her curiosity mounts. And so she ventures into the spare bedroom, a repository of the unwanted and unused. Amongst the piles of old clothes and broken things, she discovers objects which enchant her, things which belonged to her mother. From these pieces she compiles a picture of the mother she never knew.

What follows is an enchanting tale of a motherless girl, her bus driver father, neighbour Mrs Mackerel (what a great name), grandfather and unpredictable Uncle Jim. It took me quite a while to sort out who is who. We see Clover’s life through the lens of her childlike but observant eyes, balanced by the story of her father Darren who feels the daily struggle of a man raising a daughter alone: how to tie a towel turban on her head, what to tell her about boyfriends. It is a very real story about an ordinary family, touching but sometimes caustic, funny and believable. It could be a mawkish read about long-term grief, but Clover energises the story. Her family is surviving, despite the difficulties it faces. Darren’s sections tells us the truth about the things Clover finds, which makes some of her museum exhibits so poignant. I loved the scenes between Clover and schoolfriend Dagmar at the allotment, though Mrs Mackerel’s malapropisms became a little wearing towards the end.

If you like ‘The Museum of You’, try these other novels about family secrets:-
‘The Girls’ by Lisa Jewell
‘Somewhere Inside of Happy’ by Anna McPartlin
‘Beginnings’ by Helen J Christmas

‘The Museum of You’ by Carys Bray [UK: Hutchinson] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: Another World

Pat BarkerWorld War One, a speciality of Pat Barker, is present in every page of this tale of war veteran 101-year old Geordie, living through his final days with his grandson Nick. Woven through Geordie’s story are the threads of Nick’s life, his extended family involving wife, step son and half-siblings. In the modern day there are tensions between siblings, as there were between Geordie and his brother.

Pat Barker is an author who does not flinch from showing the human reactions that in real life we prefer to hide: sibling jealousy, sibling hate and underlying it all, selfishness. How these emotions affect this family, from 101-year old Geordie to his great-grandson Jasper, a toddler, is fascinating and often a difficult read.

A sideline from the main story is the life of the family who lived in the house where Nick has just moved with pregnant wife Fran, Fran’s son Gareth, and Fran and Nick’s son Jasper. Also visiting is Miranda, Nick’s daughter. I said the family ties were twisted. Tidying an overgrown rose on the wall of the house, Nick unveils a plaque labelled ‘Fanshawe’. This is the name of the family who lived in this house, Fanshawe made his money from armaments. When parents and children strip wallpaper off the walls, they unveil a portrait of a family. Is it the Fanshawes, or is it them? And so Barker introduces the ghostly strand with uncanny echoes between then and now.

This is a slim volume, read quickly, but not so quickly as to miss the delicacy of Barker’s writing. Here is Nick on his grandfather: ‘Nick feels he’s never known him, not because they’ve been distant from each other – far from it – but because they’ve been too close. It’s like seeing somebody an inch away, so that if you were asked to describe them you could probably manage to recall nothing more distinctive than the size of the pores in their nose.’

A slim volume with such acute observations about human nature, Another World makes you feel uncomfortable and ask questions of yourself. I read every novel Barker writes. Her ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, including the 1995 Booker Prize-winning The Ghost Road, is a must.

Here are my reviews of Barker’s ‘Art’ trilogy:-
Life Class
Toby’s Room

If you like ‘Another World’, try:-
‘The Lie’ by Helen Dunmore
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope
‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

‘Another World’ by Pat Barker [UK: Penguin] Buy at Amazon

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Book review: The Translation of Love

Lynne KutsukakeHow to describe The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake? What a charming and unusual novel it is, if at some times a trifle confusing. The setting is unusual, post-war Tokyo when the country is being run by the US General MacArthur and at times it reminded me of Rhidian Brook’s wonderful The Aftermath set in post-war Berlin. It is about war and what it does to us, how a broken society can ever begin to heal, how the young will ever be able to live a normal life, when the word normal ceases to exist.
Sensitively written, each page draws a picture of Tokyo from a different point of view – Aya, a Japanese-Canadian schoolgirl feels the odd one out in her new school; her classmate Fumi misses her elder sister who left home to find work; Sumiko has a job in a dance hall dancing with the GIs but is ashamed to tell her family what she is doing; Kondo Sensei, the teacher of the younger girls and also part-time translator and writer of letters; and Matt Matsumoto, the Japanese-American soldier who translates the letters sent to General MacArthur by Japanese citizens.
Letters are an important tool in this story which is essentially a young girl’s quest to find her sister. When Fumi finds out that Aya can write in English, she asks for her to write a letter to General MacArthur asking for his help to find her Sumiko. As the letter changes hands and Matt and a colleague become involved in searching for Sumiko, the story unfolds gently against a terrible backdrop of bomb damage, poverty, starvation, pride, culture clash and above all the determination to survive.
It was a while before all the Japanese characters, and some of the Japanese vocabulary, started to fall into place. A touching story inspired by the letters written by Japanese citizens to MacArthur, it draws a picture of a period in Japanese history of which I knew nothing.
Amazon UK

If you like this, try:-
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ by Haruki Murakami
Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden
One Morning like a Bird’ by Andrew Miller

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Letters to a general in Tokyo: THE TRANSLATION OF LOVE by @LynneKutsukake #bookreview via @SandraDanby

A poem to read in the bath… ‘On Turning Ten’

This is the second time this year I’ve chosen a poem by Billy Collins [below] but I make no apology. He had me by the second stanza [below], I was ten again having already been a champion showjumper and a soldier.

Billy Collins


Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library.

‘On Turning Ten’
… At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
By drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

I defy you to read this poem, and not remember when you also were ten.

Billy Collins


Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes‘ by Billy Collins [UK: Picador] 

Read these other excerpts and find a new poet to love:-
‘Elegy’ by Carol Ann Duffy
‘Cloughton Wyke I’ by John Wedgwood Clarke
‘Poems’ by Ruth Stone

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Book review: Jellyfish

Lev D LewisGenre fiction can sometimes be a bit predictable but often that is why we buy it: because we know what we are getting and we become attached to the characters. Crime series in particular fit this description, but sometimes a new voice appears which is a little bit different. Jellyfish by Lev D Lewis is such a debut novel, featuring the Philip Marlowe-obsessed private investigator Frank Bale.

Frank is a solicitor who lost his legal career because he liked the girls too much. Now he works as a PI but most often as a process server, tracking down individuals and giving them the legal papers they do not want to receive. But he longs to be a PI like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Classic detective fans will love this novel, I am sure there are loads of Marlowe references I missed. I love Frank’s wry turn of phrase, such as the goon who has a face ‘a bit wonky, like it had been painted on by children.’ But Frank doesn’t just have a smart mouth, there are hidden depths: he prefers the radio to television, he knows his Doric columns from his Ionic, but beneath the swagger is a gentle man. Frank’s dilemma is that when he gets into trouble, his smart mouth makes it worse.

One day he serves divorce papers on a wife who subsequently hires him to photograph her cheating husband. Frank stumbles onto a dodgy lap-dancing club and a dead body and quickly finds himself the main suspect. Sky, the dead girl, was living a double life: law student by day, exotic dancer by night. Investigating Sky’s life, Frank meets her flatmate Shreeti and the two set out to uncover the real murderer. Shreeti is the calm member of the team which is just as well as they find themselves drawn into the underbelly of South London, searching for a murderer amongst jellyfish which do more than sting.

A refreshing new voice.

Read more about Lev D Lewis and Frank Bale here.

If you like ‘Jellyfish’, try these other hard-boiled detective novels:-
‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler
‘Set in Darkness’ by Ian Rankin
‘The Maltese Falcon’ by Dashiell Hammett

‘Jellyfish’ by Lev D Lewis [UK: Alleyway Press] Buy at Amazon

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My Porridge & Cream read: Sue Moorcroft

Today I’m delighted to welcome contemporary women’s novelist Sue Moorcroft.

“I wish I still had my dad’s copy of A Town Like Alice. It was one of those Reader’s Digest leather-bound books, bright red with gold. Sadly, I lent it to someone. Sue MoorcroftA Town Like Alice was the first adult book I read. I was nine. I watched the film one afternoon with Dad and he told me he had the book. As a bookworm, when the film finished the obvious thing to do was locate it in the bookcase and carry it off to my room. If I close my eyes I can still see the red ribbon to mark reading progress and the dark blue and white pattern on the inner cover.

In A Town Like Alice Nevil Shute taught me a lot about storytelling. He showed me that a story arc doesn’t have to contain a mystery (Famous Five) or a school (Malory Towers) and can be set against the ugliness of war and yet contain one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. That love can triumph over seemingly impossible odds, even over man’s inhumanity to man. It taught me a lot about characters having flaws and acting like real people, too, when Joe and Jean finally found each other again and realised they still had their own issues to deal with.

I bought the book again when I lost touch with Dad’s copy. It wasn’t in print so I had to buy it second-hand but I reread it every few years, whenever I feel it’s faded in my mind enough that I’ll enjoy it all over again. I wouldn’t like to guess how many times I’ve lived the story of Jean and Joe!

A Town Like Alice began a lifelong love affair with the works of Nevil Shute. I have every one, even those published posthumously. The social niceties are a bit dated, now, but every one is a great story.”

Sue Moorcroft’s Bio
Award-winning author Sue Moorcroft writes contemporary women’s fiction with occasionally unexpected themes. A past vice chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and editor of its two anthologies, Sue also writes short stories, serials, articles, writing ‘how to’ and is a creative writing tutor. She’s won a Readers’ Best Romantic Read Award and the Katie Fforde Bursary.

Sue Moorcroft’s links

Sue Moorcroft’s latest book
Sue MoorcroftFor Ava Bliss, it’s going to be a Christmas to remember …
On a snowy December evening, Sam Jermyn steps into the life of bespoke hat maker Ava Blissham. Sparks fly, and not necessarily good ones. Times are tough for Ava – she’s struggling to make ends meet, her ex-boyfriend is a bully, and worst of all, it’s nearly Christmas. So when Sam commissions Ava to make a hat for someone special, she makes a promise that will change her life. She just doesn’t know it yet …

‘The Christmas Promise’ by Sue Moorcroft [UK: Harper Collins]




Porridge & Cream


What is a ‘Porridge & Cream’ book? It’s the book you turn to when you need a familiar read, when you are tired, ill, or out-of-sorts, where you know the story and love it. Where reading it is like slipping on your oldest, scruffiest slippers after walking for miles. Where does the name ‘Porridge & Cream’ come from? Cat Deerborn is a character in Susan Hill’s ‘Simon Serrailler’ detective series. Cat is a hard-worked GP, a widow with two children and she struggles from day-to-day. One night, after a particularly difficult day, she needs something familiar to read. From her bookshelf she selects ‘Love in A Cold Climate’ by Nancy Mitford. Do you have a favourite read which you return to again and again? If so, please send me a message via the contact form here.

Discover the ‘Porridge & Cream’ books of these authors:-
Claire Dyer
JG Harlond
Shelley Weiner

Sue Moorcroft


‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute [UK: Vintage Classics]

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Book review: Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage

MC BeatonAgatha Raisin: PR supremo, city lady, now retired to the Cotswolds. Where she reaps havoc as a cross between Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes and Hattie Jacques as Matron in the Carry On films. This is the fifth in the series by MC Beaton, and it is helpful to read them in order because of ongoing story threads.

Agatha is about to get married and she can hardly believe her good luck. And that is the key to what happens next: Agatha’s [unfortunately not] ex-husband turns up, the wedding is off, and the ex is murdered. Agatha, suspected bigamist, is now a suspected murderer too. Plus, her fiancé has done a runner.

So begins another murder hunt in which Agatha stumbles along, putting her foot in it, making mostly wrong but sometimes right assumptions, and generally stirring things up. In the course of which she reviews her first marriage, and her second marriage which never happened: had she really been in love at all?

These are formulaic, fantastic, funny novels that I cannot resist reading.

Read my reviews here of the first four Agatha Raisin mysteries:-
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death AR#1
Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet AR#2
Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener AR#3
Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley AR#4

If you like Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage, try:-
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
Wilderness by Campbell Hart
‘Murder at Catmmando Mountain’ by Anna Celeste Burke

‘Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage’ by MC Beaton, AR#5 [UK: Constable] Buy at Amazon

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