Sunday, 28 December 2014

A year in books 2014

Blimey, my first full year here on Miss Chapter's Reviews and I didn't think I'd get through quite as many books as I have done.  I'm quite impressed that I've managed an average of more than one book a week, alongside everything else that I do.

Favourites for the year though?! Funnily last year it was obvious to me who the contenders were, and for the year before, but this year.....?  Let me think.

If I'm being totally honest here, I don't think there was any one particular title that did it for me this year but there were authors who did instead.

This year I discovered the works of Rachel Joyce which I loved, both in Harold Fry and Queenie Hennessy.  I've got Perfect lined up ready to read in 2015.

I also found Menna van Praag who writes wonderful magical stories but for some reason is published by an American publishing house and not a UK one which frankly is bonkers in my opinion. The House at the end of Hope Street is bloomin marvellous.

I also found the delights of the Cazalets through Elizabeth Jane Howard and now have the full set to read at my leisure - why didn't I discover these earlier?  The Light Years is a wonderful beginning to a family saga and if you haven't devoured them already, I urge you too.  (The Book People are selling all five books for a mere £7.99 so grab the whole lot while you can)!

Also a mention to Suzanne Palmeiri whose Witch of Little Italy book I've loved too.  Looking forward to the new release in 2015.

And finally, an author I discovered at the end of 2013 but read a few more of in 2014 and hope to continue doing so in 2015 is Neil Gaiman - The Ocean at the end of the Lane is still a most fantastic read.

Next year I intend to try to read and blog just as much.  I want to try and add one non-fiction to the blog once a month if I can as I have lots here to read.  I think the fact that they take me a little longer to finish means that I usually choose a fictional title instead, but I'm determined to try to hold this resolution of sorts down.  I've already read January's non-fiction title and it's a weepy - can't say more than that, it's embargoed folks.

There's lots of lovely titles to look forward to next year - I've already read a couple of fab crime titles that come out in January, and there's a new Kate Atkinson to come - holding out in hope that it might swing by my way.  I also bought myself The Miniaturist as it's created such a storm I had to find out why!

Whilst 2014 marks a year in the life of Miss Chapter, I was reminded earlier this year that I have infact been reviewing books (albeit for other people) for about 7 years now which is quite an achievement I think.  I'd forgotten how long it has actually been.  Thanks to all the publishers who have graciously sent me titles this year, and who will, I hope, continue to do so next year too.  And a huge thank you to all of the authors who kindly took part In Conversation With too.

Happy New Year, and do tell, what are you looking forward to reading in 2015?

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Friday, 19 December 2014

Margot at War: Love and Betrayal at Downing Street 1912-1916

Margot at War: Love and Betrayal at Downing Street 1912-1916 by Anne de Courcy
Published by W&N
6th November 2014
Hardback Edition

Margot Asquith was perhaps the most daring and unconventional Prime Minister's wife in British history. Known for her wit, style and habit of speaking her mind, she transformed 10 Downing Street into a glittering social and intellectual salon. Yet her last five years at Number 10 were a period of intense emotional and political turmoil in her private and public life.

In 1912, when Anne de Courcy's book opens, rumblings of discontent and cries for social reform were encroaching on all sides - from suffragettes, striking workers and Irish nationalists. Against this background of a government beset with troubles, the Prime Minister fell desperately in love with his daughter's best friend, Venetia Stanley; to complicate matters, so did his Private Secretary. Margot's relationship with her husband was already bedevilled by her stepdaughter's jealous, almost incestuous adoration of her father. The outbreak of the First World War only heightened these swirling tensions within Downing Street.

Drawing on unpublished material from personal papers and diaries, Anne de Courcy vividly recreates this extraordinary time when the Prime Minister's residence was run like an English country house, with socialising taking precedence over politics, love letters written in the cabinet room and gossip and state secrets exchanged over the bridge table.

By 1916, when Asquith was forced out of office, everything had changed. For the country as a whole, for those in power, for a whole stratum of society, but especially for the Asquiths and their circle, it was the end of an era. Life inside Downing Street would never be the same again.

This is a fascinating insight to the running of British society at the start of the 1900s and during the period of the First World War.  Margot Asquith was no ordinary politician's wife, in fact she was the second wife of the Prime Minister Henry Asquith, and she changed the face of society and politics with her wit and glamour.

However behind the facade lay the infatuation of her husband with his daughter's best friend Venetia Stanley, also coupled with his extremely strong bond with his eldest daughter Violet from his first marriage.  She went everywhere with him, and his second marriage can surely be described as being at least that of a ménage à trois, if not with Violet then with Venetia.

This isn't just a political history, but the detail that Anne de Courcey provides as to the decisions and turmoil faced by Asquith at this time from all manner of society is fascinating.  It is also a book about social history and of the changing face of government as perceived by those outside of the cabinet.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, there was so much that I didn't know about this period that I learnt and never once was the detail dry or boring.  Henry Asquith and his family have certainly got to be one of, if not, the most scandalous family ever to live at number 10 Downing Street!

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Dress Shop of Dreams

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag
Published by Ballantine Books
30th December 2014
Hardback Edition

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.

Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

I first discovered Menna van Praag earlier this year when I read the delightful The House at the end of Hope Street which I reviewed here.  Her latest offering is out at the end of December and it's as equally wonderful.
The Dress Shop of Dreams centres around Etta, the shop owner, who sews a little bit of magic into every dress that is sold, her orphaned scientist granddaugher Cora, and the man who owns the bookshop further down the road Walt.  Cora loves Walt, and Walt loves Cora, but they don't know that yet and it's going to take a bit more than a sprinkling of magic to bring them together.  Coupled with this is the mystery of the fire that killed Cora's parents some twenty years ago, and the attractive, separated policeman Henry, who comes along to help work out what happened, as well as to add some drama into Cora's linear thinking life.

This book reminded me a little of The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin Mckean which isn't a bad thing as I enjoyed that too.  Despite being set in England though, in my head the characters were all American and living in the USA - albeit one that features Oxford University!

If you haven't discovered Menna van Praag yet, and you love a bit of magical realism in your life and in your stories, then I heartily recommend checking her out.  I raced though The Dress Shop of Dreams and closed it with a smile of happiness on my face and within.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mrs Hemingway

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood
Published by Picador
14th February 2014
Hardback Edition

In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France. They swim, play bridge and drink gin. But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife. Fife is Hadley’s best friend. She is also Ernest’s lover.

Hadley is the first Mrs. Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last. Over the ensuing decades, Ernest’s literary career will blaze a trail, but his marriages will be ignited by passion and deceit. Four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love the most famous writer of his generation, and each will be forced to ask herself how far she will go to remain his wife…

Luminous and intoxicating, Mrs. Hemingway portrays real lives with rare intimacy and plumbs the depths of the human heart.

This is a fabulous book about the four very different Mrs Hemingway's by Naomi Wood.  Having already read an account of Hadley, Hemingway's first wife in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain I was interested to learn more about the other women in his life - and by all accounts there were many!
Naomi Wood has written a fantastic account of the lives of these women, and of their interactions with each other through the man that they love.  It was at times sad but fascinating to read of the way that Hemingway treated them, picking them up, and discarding them as and when he chose, yet they all stuck with him until they could take no more.

Initially the wife I felt most sympathy for was Hadley but as the book progressed I began to feel more towards Fife, who out of all of the wives never seemed to manage to let her love for Hemingway lessen.  He was cruel but she never stopped loving that man she met in Paris.

I don't think you need to be a fan of Ernest Hemingway's work to enjoy this book.  It is a wonderful tale of sultry summers and of passionate love affairs, coupled with seering heartbreak.  The paperback edition comes out on the 1st January 2015 and I heartily recommend it.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Friday, 12 December 2014

Dying for Christmas

Dying for Christmas by Tammy Cohen
Published by Black Swan
20th November 2014
Paperback Edition

I am missing.

 Held captive by a blue-eyed stranger. To mark the twelve days of Christmas, he gives me a gift every day, each more horrible than the last. The twelfth day is getting closer.

 After that, there’ll be no more Christmas cheer for me. No mince pies, no carols. No way out …

 But I have a secret. No-one has guessed it. Will you?

For the final Christmas themed read of the week, it's a thriller billed as a similar read to best-selling novels Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep, both of which I've already read, so I was interested to see how Dying for Christmas would fare in comparison.  It tells the story of Jessica, in a relationshiop but a bit bored with her boyfriend, Christmas shopping on her own.  Having stopped for a coffee, she is joined by Dominic, a good looking man who manages to tempt her to go back to his flat.  Only that's where Jessica's 'Christmas cheer' comes to an abrupt end, because Dominic can only be described as a psychopath intent on making this Christmas the final one for Jessica.  The question is, why did he choose her, and what does he have in store as the twelve days of Christmas are counted down one by one?

Initially I was sceptical, I mean, who in this day and age, goes off with an apparent stranger, to his flat, without telling anyone, and expects to be safe?  Actually, probably quite a few people, so maybe this isn't that extreme a scenario.  Dominic, from Jessica's written description of events, is a complete nutter, and it is clear from the outset that he does not intend to let Jessica leave the flat, ever.  As the days count down, her family and boyfriend have no idea where she is, but as the police investigate, it becomes obvious that there is also more to Jessica than initially meets the eye.

The book takes a dramatic twist in the middle that I wasn't expecting, as I did wonder at times where it could be leading with so much of the story left to read.  I wasn't disappointed and I would argue that it is every bit as good as those titles it is compared to.  Dying for Christmas would make a cracking film!

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories by P.L.Travers
Published by Virago
6 November 2014
Hardback Edition

Friends come in many guises. In these autobiographical stories, three characters - an eccentric great aunt, a Chinese cook and a foul-mouthed ex-jockey - assert a lifelong influence on the narrator, as she looks back over her childhood. Much like Mary Poppins, each comes into the child's life just when she needs them most. And each, however unlikely, becomes a friend and a champion to the young girl.

Charming, tender and moving, these stories, which were given to the author's friends as Christmas gifts, contain all the hallmarks you'd expect from such a magical writer. They are also fascinating for anybody who, after watching Saving Mr Banks, wants to find out more about Travers' early life. And best of all, you will meet the woman who was the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

This is a collection of three stories written by P.L.Travers, who is probably best well known for her classic Mary Poppins.  These were stories that she wrote, and gave to her friends as gifts, and have finally been published together for the first time.  Three tales in all, they include an unlikely combination of a Chinese cook who chants threats at crying babies - not a recommended babysitter there then, Johnny Delaney who was a jockey with a foul mouth and temper to match, and Travers' own aunt Helen Morehead, known affectionately as Aunt Sass.

Having never read Mary Poppins, I can't say whether in terms of language that this is comparable, but I would say, that whilst the stories are for children in some respects, the language is such that it isn't overly accessible to the young, and even older children might need many of the words explaining to them.  In my opinion, I would argue that these are stories of childhood, but written for adults to reminisce and enjoy.

Aunt Sass was the inspiration for the character of Mary Poppins, and whilst I didn't picture her as Julie Andrews in my mind, I imagine that in the novel format, she is much more recognisable.  Many people watched and enjoyed the film Saving Mr Banks and I think that this collection of short stories can only add to the love and admiration of this author.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Mistletoe Bride and other Haunting Tales

The Mistletoe Bride and other Haunting Tales by Kate Mosse
Published by Orion
23rd October 2014
Paperback Edition 

I hear someone coming.

It has happened before. I pause and listen but no longer hear anything. I sigh. As always, hope is snatched away before it can take root. And so then, as always, I am carried back to that first December so very long ago...

Rooted in the elemental landscapes of Sussex, Brittany and the Languedoc, here are tales of ghosts and spirits seeking revenge, grief-stricken women and haunted men coming to terms with their destiny.

This is the first of my Christmassy reviews this week.  To be honest, I am not a fan of the short story genre.  I don't know why, but they usually leave me feeling incomplete, like the story just ended, without having gone anywhere.  One exception to the rule for me though is the work of Katherine Mansfield, and now I can happily add Kate Mosse to this too as I loved the stories contained within The Mistletoe Bride.

There are 17 stories in all, each very different from the other, but long enough to have left me feeling satisfied that they all had a proper conclusion.  What I liked most about the book was that each story started with a title, time and place so that as a reader I knew where in history I was going before I had begun reading.  I liked that.  After each story, Kate Mosse then goes on to explain the history behind each story, what made her write it, or what folk legend it was based upon.  I liked that too.

My favourite of all the haunting tales was that of The Mistletoe Bride.

At length an old chest that had long lain hid
Was found in the castle; they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay mouldering there,
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair.

Based upon the ballad The Mistletoe Bough by Thomas Haynes Bayly published in 1844, Kate Mosse tells the story of a young bride who with her other female guests plays a game of hide-and-seek from her groom and the other gentlemen of the wedding party.  The only problem is that her hiding place is so great that she remains unfound.  This was particularly haunting, and I really believed the story.  If you love ghost tales then I really do recommend this, even if you aren't a fan of the short story - it converted me!  A perfect accompaniment for a winter's night.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

In Conversation with Daisy Goodwin

Today I am in conversation with the wonderful Daisy Goodwin, author of The Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter.

Both My Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter are historical novels.  What is your favourite period of history and why?
I am fascinated by the Victorian era.  It is a time that is close enough for us to imagine but life was so different then, especially for women.  I also love the clothes.  I would be perfectly happy in a corset and a crinoline.

Not everyone may know, but you are also an award-winning television producer.  What prompted the decision to write?
Television is all about collaboration and I spend a lot of my time as a producer keeping people happy, but writing is something I can do alone.  If you spend all day surrounded by people trying to make things work, there is something very alluring about the empty page.

How did your publishing deal come about?
I had an idea for my first book, wrote the first three chapters and my agent sold it to a publisher,  then it got picked up by a tv book club and that made a huge difference to sales.

Any advice to anyone dreaming of becoming an author?
You can’t be an author if you don’t do any writing.  The only way to become an author is to keep writing.

Where do you get your writing inspiration from?
It’s a mysterious thing.  I read a great deal and I go to a lot of art galleries.

What are you working on next?
My new book is set at the court of Queen Victoria.

 If, heaven forbid, there was a fire, what possession would you grab first to save? 
After my children and my dogs, probably my diary.  I just hope I have backed up my laptop.

What five people, living or dead, would you choose to invite to a dinner party?
Jane Austen, Queen Victoria, Cary Grant, Shakespeare, Bob Dylan.

Thank you Daisy for taking part.  My review of The Fortune Hunter can be found here.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Monday, 1 December 2014

Life, Love and The Archers

Life, Love and The Archers: Recollections, reviews and other prose by Wendy Cope
Published by Two Roads Books
6th November 2014
Hardback Edition

Wendy Cope has long been one of the nation's best-loved poets, with her sharp eye for human foibles and wry sense of humour. For the first time, Life, Love and the Archers brings together the best of her prose - recollections, reviews and essays from the light-hearted to the serious, taken from a lifetime of published and unpublished work, and all with Cope's lightness of touch.

Here readers can meet the Enid-Blyton-obsessed schoolgirl, the ambivalent daughter, the amused teacher, the sensitive journalist, the cynical romantic and the sardonic television critic, as well as touching on books and writers who have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

Wendy Cope is a master of the one-liner as well as the couplet, the telling review as well as the sonnet, and Life, Love and the Archers gives us a wonderfully entertaining and unforgettable portrait of one of England's favourite writers.

A book for anyone who's ever fallen in love, tried to give up smoking, or consoled themselves that they'll never be quite as old as Mick Jagger.

I first discovered Wendy Cope in the mid '90s when studying for my A-level History exam and one of the women on the course had just bought her book Serious Concerns.  She read me some of the poems from it, and I was hooked.  I've loved Wendy Cope ever since. 

My favourite poem of hers is Two Cures for Love which goes like this:

Two Cures for Love

1.  Don't see him.  Don't phone or write a letter.

2.  The easy way: get to know him better.

This new book is an accumulation of articles and some previously unpublished poems that make up this fascinating writer.  It's a book to be dipped in and out of, and enjoyed at leisure, as we venture with Wendy into her childhood, and beyond.  I particularly like her recollection at meeting Billy Graham, the evangelist!

If you are looking for a poetry book, then this isn't what you will find here.  If you want to know more about Wendy herself, then this is an engaging read.  Having read it, I still love Wendy Cope, and maybe now, just a little bit more!

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x