Sunday, 2 April 2017

Six in March

I read six books in March.

A few years ago I read a book called Class by Jane Beaton and loved it – Malory Towers for grown-ups. I thought about it off and on but couldn’t remember the title. Then the other month it was revealed that ‘Jane Beaton’ was actually Jenny Colgan who in the meantime has become a humongously successful romantic novelist (and as Jenny T. writes Dr Who books). There will be six books in this series – the first one has been repackaged as Class: Welcome to the Little School by the Sea and this is the second. It was good to catch up with Maggie, a teacher in the school on the south coast of England but originally from Glasgow, the other teachers and the girls. (But I do think ‘the Little’ is currently being very overused in book titles.)

Brigid Keenan was/is a journalist and former Times fashion editor. In the late sixties she married ‘A.’ who became an EU diplomat and as a result the couple lived in various parts of the globe such as India, Trinidad and Kazakhstan. Fascinating anyway to read about the different lifestyles – but as BK can be very funny and self-deprecating I really enjoyed this. I loved her story of the event that started as a po-faced official banquet but took a different turn when the President of Kazakhstan, after a few drinks, suddenly took off his jacket and asked her to dance – just him and her, in front of two hundred guests...

Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit
Read for book group. A book of emails between English journalist Bee, and May, an academic living in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. They were originally in touch so that Bee could write an article but kept up a correspondence which was eventually published to help raise money to bring May and her husband to England. Brings home what living in a war-torn country is like day-to-day … May was in danger every time she stepped outside her house and not always safe inside it. Recommended (but don’t expect a lot of ‘talking about Jane Austen’, I think she was mentioned once.)

Losing it by Helen Lederer
Millie is a writer, middle-aged, single mother, overweight. Her only child, the more serious-minded Mary, is doing research in Papua New Guinea. I enjoyed the part where Millie visits her daughter – their relationship needs a lot of work – wished there had been more of that.
Millie’s behind with her mortgage and owes money to a loan company so when she gets the chance, through a magazine editor she works for, to earn £20,000 if she loses three stone she jumps at it (or would if she could jump). What follows are her efforts to do that – exercise, colonic irrigation, trying and failing to say no to a giant Toblerone etc …

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton
Haven’t read any in this private investigator series for a long time. This was a corker – what an achievement to keep up such a high standard for so long. I see that V, W and X are now available so must catch up with those. Mine is a hardback copy, bought for £3.00 in the Amnesty Bookshop, Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh – and thence I shall return it, pointing out that the only one on Amazon is priced at £32.97.

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty
I’ve read three other Liane Moriarty books and loved each one (see Big Little Lies review here) more than the last. The Last Anniversary – set on the wonderfully named Scribbly Gum Island, just off the coast of Sydney, Australia – has a very original family secret (or at least the way the secret's been kept is probably unique) and, as usual with LM, a cast of characters you really feel you know and are very sorry to leave. I’ve just started Three Wishes … watch this space.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Wine, winning and song

The Scottish Association of Writers’ annual conference was held last weekend in the lovely Westerwood Hotel in (not-so-) sunny Cumbernauld, two days of camaraderie, competition adjudications, workshops, readings, after-dinner speaker Helen Lederer, a quiz, a talent show with some fabulous singing, and eating and drinking twice as much as usual …

I was delighted to win the Woman’s Short Story Competition and to be the first recipient of the lovely trophy above.

I couldn’t enter any competitions last year as I was adjudicating this one.

This year it was judged by Kirstin Zhang who has won several major short story competitions including one run by Harpers Bazaar magazine which resulted in twelve literary agents vying to sign her up – so it was an honour and a thrill to have my story picked out by her.

As you don’t always know what an adjudicator is looking for in the Woman’s Short Story Comp I’d hedged my bets by putting in two entries, one a more traditional magaziney love story. But The Shimmering Shores is set in the early 1970s and its protagonist, Joy, has an unhappy home life from which she escapes every Saturday by taking the bus to North Berwick and ‘the shimmering shores’ of the Firth of Forth. It’s actually a story I’m thinking of expanding into a novel and, when I told her that, Kirstin said she’d thought that there was more to be said about Joy. Watch this space …

The 2017 Harpers’ short story comp has a theme – ‘the anniversary’ – closing date 30 April. More details here

And I came third in the General Article Competition, judged by Gill Hoffs. 

I don’t usually enter this competition (I prefer to make things up) but I’d written a piece of memoir after we had a workshop led by Bashabi Fraser at Edinburgh Writers’ Club so I thought I’d put it in.

Anyone who belongs to a writers’ club in Scotland which is affliliated to the Scottish Association of Writers is automatically a member of the Association and can attend the conference. I have been in Edinburgh Writers’ Club now for around twelve years and I love it. Thirteen members attended the SAW conference this year and won fourteen competition places, including four first prizes – a great way to celebrate the Club’s 70th birthday.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Six in February

I read six books in February.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey
This won the Romantic Novel of the Year in 2016. And deservedly so – it’s also won my Book of 2017 and it’s only February. Second World War love story? Tick. Modern love story? Believable tie-up between the two stories? Characters that walk off the page? Atmosphere? Tick, tick, tick, tick. The icing on the top – a nod to one of my favourite TV programmes Heir Hunters. And the cherry on top of that, it’s a genuine weepy. Adored it.

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones
Read on Kindle. Addison Jones is the pseudonym of Scottish-based American writer Cynthia Rogerson – I believe she’s using the name for her books set in the US. I loved this – it’s the story of the sixty-year marriage between Billie (later known as Milly) and Jacko and is seen from both their viewpoints but it’s Jacko, the devoted but philandering husband, who comes across most strongly.

What’s clever and original is that the story is told backwards in around five-yearly increments. So we start just when Billie and Jack meet, jump to them in old age, and then work back to that first encounter. It makes for a much more joyful ending – the handsome young man, the pretty girl, their whole lives in front of them – than if the story was written chronologically, and really made me want to read it all over again.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Another corker. We know right at the beginning that someone has died during a fund-raising event at a kindergarten (in a coastal village in Australia) and as we get to know the characters the reader is desperate to find out who and why – and how.

I rarely like books where the author has set out to write about an ‘issue’ of some sort. More often than not the characters are cardboard cutouts with an issue attached and you’re supposed to feel emotionally involved. It’s the difference between feeling sympathetic in a milk-of-human-kindness way if you hear something bad is happening to a friend of a friend of a friend – but you’re distraught if it’s happening to someone close to you.

There are plenty of issues in Big Little Lies, some as old as humanity and some very 21st-century. But Liane Moriarty’s characters, female and male, are so fully realised you cheer and rage on their behalf as if you knew them. Their ‘issues’ aren’t tacked on; they are part of what makes them real people; you understand why they are the way they are. And LM always has an edge of black humour, in this case provided by some very competitive parents.

Madeline was my favourite character. At the beginning you think she’s a stereotypical stiletto-heeled annoying yummy mummy but then you get to know her and she’s fab. I’d love her to be my best friend. And, quite frankly, I’d like to marry Ed. Although as he’s married to Madeline that would certainly be an ‘issue’.

Read on Kindle. Enjoyed this collection of stories (by a fellow Edinburgh Writers’ Club member) which encompass all manner of themes and characters. The inspiration for some lies in art, particularly old Dutch paintings. Other stories are blackly comic – who could resist the title Hettie Mcheeny – Serial Killer or the opening paragraph of The Defenestration of Dean Fortingall: ‘We’re not allowed parties any more, not since the Dean of Applied Arts fell out of the faculty window.’ The Numbers has a great twist. Queen Bee is a short story but also part of a novel called The Good Daughter which I would certainly like to read. Recommended.

Blank Space by Jennifer Young
Read on Kindle. Love a romantic suspense novel. This one is set in Edinburgh around the time of the G8 summit with a main character called Bronte O’Hara. Who could resist this opening paragraph?

My first thought, when I discovered the body on my kitchen floor, was that it was a criminal waste of an exceptionally handsome man. My second was that I’d seen him somewhere before. And even as I crossed myself, I realised he wasn’t dead.

The first in a series called Dangerous Friends – look forward reading more about Bronte and Marcus.

Elizabeth Pringle lived all her long life on the Isle of Arran. But did anyone really know her? In her will she leaves her beloved house, Holmlea, to a stranger – a young mother she'd seen pushing a pram down the road over thirty years ago.

As I lived on that beautiful island for a few years when I was a teenager I wanted to like this but I’m afraid I couldn’t warm to it. My main reaction was envy of Martha – I want a stranger to leave me a lovely house filled with interesting things. If it was on Arran that would be brilliant but anywhere really …

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Seven in January

I read seven books in January.


A black-tie ball under the stars in small-town Australia is the background for this romance between two old classmates. I believe these used to be decorous affairs, allowing men and women in very rural areas to meet potential partners. This one is a more modern fund-raising event but there’s still plenty of potential-partnering going on. Enjoyed this – as I did Flight to Coorah Creek by the same author.

An absolutely beautifully written memoir of growing up on a farm called Harmony in the Appalachian mountains. J D Ballam’s family, and their nearby farming relatives, had to be almost completely self-sufficient and from a very young age he was given a share of the work load; he turned out to be very practical and able to turn his hand to everything whether it was with animals or machinery.

Of course he’s not the first person to write about such an upbringing but what is special about this account (apart from, but not unrelated to, the lyrical writing) is that his childhood was not a century (or two) ago but in the 1970s, and he went on to get a first-class degree in English from the University of York.

The first book I’ve read in the Flavia de Luce series of novels featuring the eleven-year-old sleuth who is passionate about chemistry, particularly if poisons are involved. She lives on a decaying English country estate with her usually absent father and her two fearsome older sisters. Good fun – and a good plot.

Not That Kind of Girl by Catherine Alliott 
When happily married country-dweller Henrietta gets a job in London her life suddenly becomes complicated in unexpected ways. A lovely big chunky read for a winter's evening.

Some nice person gave me this for Christmas knowing my fondness for girls’ boarding-school stories – Malory Towers (I can still remember chunks of In the Fifth), Chalet School, Angela Brazil et al.

The author (whose grandmother was Jan Struther, author of Mrs Miniver) interviewed ‘girls’ who went to (English and Scottish) boarding schools during those years. The schools ranged from the extremely academic Cheltenham Ladies’ College to others where the teaching was minimal. The result makes for a very interesting slice of social history but perhaps you have to be one of those gals to find it ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year’ as quoted on the front.

Published by Slightly Foxed in a lovely little hardback edition, a pleasure to look at and to hold.

Palace of Deception by Helena Fairfax
A novella. Think of a Mary Stuart plot crossed with The Prisoner of Zenda and a dash of Rebecca, but with a setting and a heroine, Lizzie, and hero, Leon, very much its own. I enjoyed the lush descriptions of the strange little country of Montverrier and its mysterious Princess Charlotte, and went on to read the sequel:

The Scottish Diamond by Helena Fairfax
A novella. This time the couple are in Edinburgh where the murky goings on are not confined to the weather … With more twists than the stairs in the Scott Monument, the plot takes us through the capital city and out into the countryside as an old feud is brought to light and Lizzie and Leon wonder who they can trust – including each other.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Listen to my story!

A few months ago The People’s Friend began to release some already published stories as free-to-listen audio readings.

I am delighted to say they have chosen one of mine:

Virtue is rewarded in this appealing story by Kate Blackadder, as The People’s Friend Presents…

Making A Scene
I had imagined meeting my hero many times, but I had never pictured things turning out like this!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

My Life (maybe)

My Life (maybe) – according to the books I read in 2016

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
So Many Books, So Little Time

What is the best advice you have to give?

Thought for the day

How would you like to die?
Can’t Wait to get to Heaven

Your soul’s present condition

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

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Four in December

Or, more accurately, I read three books and finished a fourth in December.

Family Britain 1951-57 by David Kynaston

This has been one of the non-fiction books I dip into between novels. (I previously read his Austerity Britain 1945-51.) I started it a while ago and finished it this month – 776 pages (including notes and index) encompassing exhaustive research through newspapers, books, magazines, Mass Observation diaries and other archives.

As the blurb says this was the era when: ‘Britain was starting to move away from the hardships of austerity. Great national events jostle alongside everything that gave 1950s Britain its distinctive flavour from Butlin’s holiday camps, Kenwood food mixers and Hancock’s Half Hour to Ekco television sets, skiffle and teddy boys.’

I was born during this time so one item gave me particular pause for thought. There was a very popular radio quiz programme called Have a Go! compered by ‘Halifax’s Wilfred Pickles’. His opening catchphrase – ’Ow do, ’ow are yer? – was followed by ‘amiable chat with the mainly working-class contestants about their lives’ and there was (my italics) ‘a large round of applause if a contestant turned out to be over 60’.

From which I conclude that 90 is the new 60.

Gingerbread and Cupcakes by Claire Watts

As hinted above I am an ‘OA’ and not a Young Adult at which market this book is aimed. I was already aware of the author’s excellent non-fiction book The Covenanters so was interested to know about her novels. She is one of four YA authors who have collaborated to publish their books under the banner Paisley Piranha.

Although this title is the third in a series about a group of 17/18-year-old girls it can be read as a standalone. It’s the summer before Lily and Simon go to university. Simon has been one of their school’s heart-throbs (to use an OA expression) while Lily is quieter, more in the background. They are thrown together when Simon’s cake-shop-owing mum has an accident and he and Lily step in to help. Their sweet romance is told from both their viewpoints – and there is bonus material in the form of cake recipes at the back. Loved it.

Betty MacDonald is an author I re-read, most recently in October this year. So I was delighted to find out that there are a couple of biographies newly out on her. It was great to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge about her  – her four books for adults (she also wrote very successfully for children) are ‘lightly fictionalised’ accounts of her life. This book is self-published and my only gripe is that I would like to know what the author’s connection, if any, was to Betty MacDonald/her family. They sound such fun – even during the Depression they were able to keep cheery in their overcrowded household and made a ceremony out of every meal however frugal.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is 514 pages but I read it in just over a day in the Christmas holidays – not as impressive a feat as it might appear as the type in my hardback copy is large and many of the chapters are just one page so there’s a lot of white space.

I’ve loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s books which are all quite different. The last one was Sisterland which I read in March this year. She’s such a stylish writer.

So I was really looking forward to Eligible, her modern take on Pride and Prejudice. Her Fitzwilliam Darcy is a neurosurgeon newly moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where live the feckless Bennett family. Mr Bennett has had a heart attack and as Mrs B is more interested in her Ladies’ Luncheon Club than in looking after him, 40-year-old Jane and 38-year-old Liz come home from New York to help. It was fun seeing what CS did with the characters (although perhaps too many ‘issues’ are ascribed to them) but it’s told in a kind of reportage style which I found distancing (and another reason why it was a quick read); all in all I confess I was rather disappointed.

What would Jane Austen make of 21st-century life were she to take this as her guide? I expect she’d be delighted that women can now live independently, and amused to know that they can make the running in a relationship … but I’m sure she’d be sad that, in 2016, romance (dictionary definition: a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love) would appear to be well and truly dead.

Let’s hope that’s just in Cincinnati ...

Wishing you a happy and peaceful 2017. Oh – and, wherever you are, if you are looking for a book that does give a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love, may I recommend ...

See reviews here. And buy it here. And may all your Christmas wishes come true.