NON-FICTION//Letters From the Suitcase- edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan*

Letters From The Suitcase (Jun) This is one of those books that I probably would never have picked up, but-oh!- I’m so grateful I was sent it. I always forget how much I enjoy collections of letters  and I enjoyed this collection very much.

Mary Moss and David Francis met in 1938 and fell in love almost instantly; the book is a collection of letters written by them to each other over the course of seven years. Two young people, from completely different backgrounds, desperate to be together but separated by war, poured their hearts out on paper. It’s a moving collection of letters that’s full of humour, frustration and utter, all-consuming love. I was also surprised at the modern tone of the letters- we tend to think of the 1930s/40s as being completely different to now, but here the couple write in a way that we would recognise: they call each other ‘honey’ and early on Mary hints at a pre-marriage pregnancy scare. Later, after their daughter Rosheen arrives, the parental pride is touching and the concerns that Mary has seem very similar to some of those I have for my own son now.

As war makes the separation deeper and longer, Mary’s descent into depression and David’s war work colours the letters. It’s a fascinating look at the way that war affected those working for the Allies (David works on high level projects and is posted to Africa and, later, India, where he would die of smallpox) and those left at home in a terrible limbo. The longing that permeates the pages is moving and heartbreaking. Little in-jokes, film reviews, the excitement over a Russian red winter coat, David asking Mary what he can send her as a treat- all these things help the reader see inside the marriage and feel sadness as it becomes apparent that the story does not have a happy ending.

After David’s death, Mary hid the correspondence in a suitcase in the attic, only to reveal to Rosheen that they were there. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to discover a cache of letters from a father you knew very little about- but I’m so glad that they have been published.

FICTION//Riders-Jilly Cooper*

Riders (May):  Riders came out the year after I was born and I remember seeing it in the library and bookshops quite frequently (and probably being scandalised by THAT hand placement, which seems to have become smaller on the cover of the copy I was sent.) I never knew anyone who read it, though, and it never featured in my teenage book list. To be honest, I’m not sure how I would have responded to it- I don’t know an awful lot about either posh people OR horses. Fun fact: I am actually terrified of horses.

Anyway, I’m a huge believer of reading the right book at the right time, which I’m sure must drive some of the publishers who send me books mad, but I tend to enjoy a book more if I’m in the right frame of mind. I read this book during a really stressful time at work- I didn’t want philosophy or deep thinking. Riders was perfect. It’s cheerfully bonkers (and there’s lots of bonking as well, although there was  one dubious ‘episode’ early on in which straw from a stable is used for… clean up. I winced. Surely that’s not comfortable OR hygienic.)

Characters are straightforward. The animals are noble. The people less so.  Rupert Campbell-Black is a git; albeit a handsome one. His wife is irritating and hysterical. I found myself cheering on Fen and furious with Billy when he broke her heart. Adultery is committed and then forgotten very quickly. The world in this book is so far removed from one I know that I was able to fully immerse myself, like in a good hot bath, and just let it wash over me. It’s a cheerful book- Cooper never lets us get bogged down in heartbreak for long (although there’s at least one scene where I thought ‘that’d never get in now without a lot of outrage’) and boring characters and plot are either resolved baffling quickly or they just… disappear. It’s a big book, but it’s not complicated. You’ll not be drawing up Game of Thrones style family trees here, I promise you.

 

FICTION//The Many Colours of Us- Rachel Burton*

The Many Colours of Us (Mar):

Full disclosure: Rachel is a Twitter friend of mine and I’ve seen her go through part of the process of getting her novel to publication. It’s a huge thrill to see her book finally come to print- and OF COURSE I wanted to have a read of it before it’s released.

Julia is in a rut that most of us find ourselves in at some point in our lives: she hates her job, her relationship is stalling and her relationship with her mother is strained. Everything changes, however, when she finds out that she is the sole beneficiary of the will of a man she has never met- her father. Suddenly finding herself single and wealthy enough to do whatever she likes, Julia begins to really learn who she is and what- and who- she wants in her life. Unfortunately, though, life is messy and the course of… well, pretty much anything, never did run smooth.

I read this novel quickly; I was stressed at work and it was the perfect antidote to that stress (I strongly believe in the right book for the right time, by the way.) On days where I felt I could cry with workplace frustration, I would come home and read a chapter with a cup of tea. It’s the sort of novel that just feels like a hug, a welcome relief and escape from the outside world. AND it made me wish that I was better at sewing. Again.

This is definitely a book that I’d recommend if you’re feeling a bit fed up and fancy a bit of summer-time romantic escape. It’s sweet, rather than raunchy, and would go well with a nice cold g&t (but maybe that’s just me…) It may also just make you evaluate your life- what would YOU do if you suddenly got a no-strings attached at a fresh start?

 

ROMANCE//Regency Gamble- Bronwyn Scott*

Regency Gamble: A Lady Risks All / A Lady Dares (Mills & Boon M&B):  I’ve always joked that I’d quite like to write a Mills and Boon story- mainly because it would be quite out of my comfort zone and would challenge me to think differently about what I read AND write. However, I realised that I’d never read a M&B book- indeed, I hadn’t read much romance in the last few years (a depressive phase at university was accompanied by many Jackie Collins novels.) It’s not to say I dislike romance- I loved the Point Romance books as a young teenager- it’s just my interests had veered off a bit. When I was offered the chance to read a M&B book, I took it. I was asked what sort of thing I’d like and I chose to read something from their huge Regency collection: after all, I live in Brighton.

The first of these stories- A Lady Risks All- actually starts out in Brighton (which is good, because I recognise places and bad, because I recognise that the house that has a huge garden wouldn’t have had it at the time the book’s set.) The story begins with a line about a man knowing how to handle his stick (knowing wink), followed by a line about a man having a fine crack (his shot being so good it makes the SNOOKER balls crack. Mind out of the gutter, please!) and then opens up into a tale about Mercedes, the daughter of a famous billiards-is billiards the same as snooker? I’m going to assume… yes? It’s all about playing with balls anyway…- who is tasked with watching, training and, of course, seducing her father’s new protege who is the second son of a minor aristocrat. Along the way, she is desperate to prove her own prowess on the pool table and fly in the face of social niceties. All the while having a jolly old time in the sack with  the protege that ultimately ends well, despite a few moments of mild peril.

The second story- A Lady Dares- is loosely linked in that Elise, the heroine, has met Mercedes. And although the story shares some of the same blueprint: disgraced son of a minor aristocrat, feisty female lead who will go to great lengths to get what she wants. In this case, it’s getting inside the pants of the hunky boat builder/disgraced second son who sort of reminded me of Poldark a bit AND building the final yacht designed by her father who has died in mysterious circumstances. Cue saucy scenes in parks, on boats and a series of terrifying encounters with some very dodgy men out for revenge/a new shipyard/fancy yacht.

I bloody loved the whole thing. I don’t even care what you think about it.

The thing is, there’s a huge snobbishness about these books, probably because they’re primarily read by women. But they offer an escape from a dreary world. Yes, they can border on formulaic, but so does lots of fiction- there’s no such thing as an untold story, after all .The familiar is comforting. It’s fun, it’s reassuring and that’s never a bad thing. And these are not damsels in distress, but women determined to make their own way in the world, take what they want and, ultimately, to damn the consequences. They’re not always perfect feminist role models, but then who is? They’re interesting characters to read about and I enjoyed their company for a brief while.

BRONTE PROJECT//Agnes Grey- Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey (June):  Poor Anne. Not even rated by her sister (Charlotte presented her as a bit of a wet lettuce in her introduction to the re-issue of her sisters’ novels; Agnes Grey didn’t even get a mention), she’s been relegated to being the forgotten sister. Her novels don’t have the astonishing power of Wuthering Heights, or the gutsiness of Jane Eyre, but they do have a special pull all of their own.

AnneBronte

Of all the sisters, I think you ‘see’ more of Anne as she was in her everyday life in her writing. The only one of the Bronte children to successfully hold down a long-term job, this is demonstrated through the realism of her work. Agnes Grey tells the story of a long-suffering governess and bears remarkable similarities to what we know about Anne’s own work as a governess. She may have gone down in history as the quietest Bronte, but I’d argue she was the Bronte with the sharpest observational skills.

Agnes herself is quietly devout (much like her creator) and is a very likeable protagonist. A bit like Jane Eyre, she’s a bit plain and surrounded by people who are not her equal in character, but unlike Jane she falls in love with a man who is actually a DECENT HUMAN BEING.

The Bronte romantic heroes can be problematic: I’ve made my views on Rochester fairly clear (I have since been told by many people that they disagree with me. Eh.) Heathcliff is clearly a damaged man, which is sort of understandable , considering he had a really crap childhood- although we’ll talk about that when I review Wuthering Heights. But Edward Weston is overlooked. He’s a decent man, a curate who is kind to parishoners and goes out of his way to get to know Agnes. He tracks her down after she moves away, yet does not force his presence on her. He is essentially a good, kind man- he reminds me a lot of my impression of Mr Bronte. But he is never spoken of in the same breath as his more famous counterparts, probably because nice men don’t make exciting heroes. But who would choose a bigamist who chucks his wife in the attic, or someone who decides to go on a murderous rampage of revenge over the man who rescues your dog from the evil local ratcatcher? Apparently most people. Yeah, OK.

ANYWAY. This is a short book and one that kept me company in a week in which I was full of cold and the weather was weirdly autumnal, despite being the start of summer, which felt strangely apt (I always think the Brontes are best enjoyed in the shorter days of the year for some reason.) I think everyone should have a go at reading Anne’s work, if only to appreciate the realism of her work. Although not as striking as the later Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it’s a good book if you want to understand the plight of lower middle class women in Victorian England.

 

Review: The First Thing You See- Gregoire Delacourt

The First Thing You See (Oct):

This is a translation from the original French and probably wouldn’t have shown up on my radar if it wasn’t for the news that Scarlett Johansson applied to have it banned (on the grounds that one of the characters looks like her.)

The premise is that one day, Scarlett turns up on the doorstep of a humble French mechanic (himself apparently a better looking version of Ryan Gosling), looking for some refuge from celebrity. Except she’s not really Scarlett, she’s a girl who looks very much like her. The two of them explore their lives and fall into a relationship.

It’s not actually a very interesting book and it’s a good job it’s quite a small one, too, as I’m not sure I would have lasted longer. I do wonder how much gets lost in translation and I often wish I was one of those people proficient enough in a language to enjoy reading a book in its original form, as I’m pretty sure that no matter how good the translation is, we lose some of the cultural signposts.

Anyway. It’s a nice enough story, I guess, enhanced by a dash of celebrity scandal.