A Net for Small Fishes, by Lucy Jago (book review)

Based on a true story, the book opens with our narrator, Anne Turner, being led to meet with Frances (Frankie) Howard in her chambers, having been called there by Frankie’s mother to dress her to meet the King. We are immediately thrown into Anne’s world. It’s dark and tearful as we wind our way through candlelit passages and corridors of palaces to Frankie, who has been badly beaten by her husband.

‘My lady,’ I said with a deep curtsy, for this unhappy creature was the Countess of Essex, Frances Howard. She was wife to an earl, daughter to an earl, great-niece to an earl and lady-in-waiting (second rank) to the Queen. The Howards were as close to the King as his own family; oftentimes they appeared more favoured. I had not seen Frances in three years since her wedding nor had I ever known her intimately, but we were acquainted, both our families being Catholic and living within a short distance of each other in the country, near Saffron Walden. ‘My husband is Dr Turner, your husband’s physician.’

She gave no indication of having heard me. Slowly, however, after much hiccupping and sniffing, her crying subsided. The silence that ensued was not of the peaceful kind. No one moved, the fire did not spit, all eyes were on a bowed figure, even her dog gazed into her face with concern. As her stillness became unbearable, she extended an arm. Without hesitation, the maid with the cup stepped forward and placed it in the girl’s outstretched fingers. She drained it and sat back on her heels. With eyes closed, she pushed the hair back from her damp face. Only then did she look at me.

A Net for Small Fishes

Anne dresses her in a “carmine skirt, pinning up the hem to reveal her ankles… from the shambles of this whipped child rose a castle, every swag and buttress testament to her worth.” Anne finishes the look with a ruff dyed yellow with her own patent starch recipe. Frankie receives the approval of the King and, as Anne continues to dress her, the two become close friends. However, it is a dangerous world they live in and Frankie needs to be free of her violent marriage because she has fallen in love with another man. Despite the new business that comes from dressing Frankie, Anne faces poverty following her husband’s death and, as her children start to fall ill, she too must make decisions in order to protect them and herself.

For months after that night, Frankie did no more than nod in acknowledgement of Sir Robert Carr, but feelings for him began to stir her heart. She had reached an age to choose for herself whom to love and she was falling for a man who eminently suited her. It worsened her distress in her own marriage, for now she had someone to compare to her husband, and in no area did Essex triumph…

A Net for Small Fishes

It took me a few chapters to get into the rhythm and narration of this book, but once you fall into it, you are immersed. The detail about in the early 1600s, from the sounds and the smells that seem to radiate off the page, to what people were doing and wearing, and just how hard life was for the majority of people, I found this book fascinating to read.

It was also difficult read and as much as I was invested in Anne and Frankie’s stories, I didn’t warm to either of them all that much. As Anne comments, they are both used by the people around them in awful and manipulative ways, but when they get the chance to manipulate others to get what they want, they do it. This book is as much about survival as it is about love and freedom.

It’s a beautifully detailed book and all the more amazing as I kept thinking how Anne and Frankie were real and had to go through these ordeals. I recommend this to readers who enjoy historical fiction (you guys will *love* this), but also to anyone who enjoys a really well written story.

A Keeper, by Graham Norton

This was my second book of the year and also part of #beatthebacklog which I’ve been following on Twitter. To recap, this idea was set up by @Owlbesatreading and aims to encourage us to select from our shelves before buying new books. Sometimes it works…. and sometimes you just need that new release. But A Keeper has been on my list to read for a few years – it came as a recommendation from my mum and I’m glad that I have finally given it the attention it deserves.

The book follows a dual timeline: ‘Before’ and ‘Now.’ The ‘Now’ timeline follows Elizabeth, as she returns from New York to Ireland following her mother’s death. She does not feel much happiness about coming back to her family home, indeed she finds it filled with rats and quickly vacates again, but before she leaves she finds a box of letters written to her mother in 1973 by the man she realises was her father, Edward. The timeline then switches to ‘Before’ and to her mother, Patricia’s, story.

Elizabeth put the pile of letters on the floor and leaned against the wall. Her father! Edward Foley. That name had been all she had ever known about her father. She picked the pages up again and her hand was trembling. The man her mother had never let her know had touched these bits of paper. she knew it was ridiculous but seeing the neat handwriting, the black ink soaked into the blue Basildon Bond, she felt connected to him. Had her mother put them here knowing that she would find them? were they her gift to her from beyond the grave?

A Keeper

Patricia had grown up in a small town and, under a friend’s advice she put an ad in a lonely hearts column to help meet someone. The only person to respond to her was Edward, his letters filling her with hope of a life away from the monotony and loneliness. Elizabeth never knew her father and the only thing Patricia told her was that he died. Through the letters from Edward she starts to piece together what happened between them and the secrets, that have been covered up for so long, slowly start to come to the surface.

Outside seemed very bright and loud. Cars were streaming along the road beyond the car park in front of the station. Looking around she quickly saw the kiosk with the large ‘Cork Examiner’ sign above it and there… just behind it, she recognised Edward waiting for her. In truth, the way he had positioned himself it seemed closer to hiding than waiting. She wondered if he had seen her. He was staring studiously in the opposite direction. God, this had all been an awful mistake. She wanted to walk straight back into the station and get on the next train home, the next one anywhere. No. She had come all this way and his letters had been lovely. Edward Foley was going to meet her whether he wanted to or not.

A Keeper

I didn’t particularly warm to the characters in it, but I read on because I wanted to know how the story would unfold. It takes Elizabeth on a tour of the small village where she grew up but also out to her father’s farm where he lived with his mother who was still grieving the death of her other son, and blamed Edward for how he died. I found this book genuinely shocking in parts; the things that happened to Patricia whilst she is with Edward are chilling to read.

I think this book is the perfect accompaniment to all this stormy weather we have been having! Grab a cuppa and get cosy. Have you read this book? Were you surprised by all the twists and reveals?

Breathless, by Amy McCulloch: There’s a Killer on the Mountain (Book review)

That was the thing about mountaineering. It tested every single one of your faculties, in a place that was depriving your brain of oxygen. That’s why it was all about putting actions into logical steps, a series of checks, making steps so foolproof that even when you were being a fool, you wouldn’t get it wrong.

Be bothered.

Keep your gloves tethered to your body. She tightened the straps attached to her gloves round her wrists. She felt like a toddler, with mitten strings running up through the back of her jacket so as she wouldn’t lose them. But she needed it to be toddler-proof.

Breathless

Cecily, a journalist, has arrived in Nepal to climb to the summit of Manaslu as part of a team led by world-famous mountaineer Charles McVeigh. Manaslu is the last of Charles’ attempt to summit the fourteen highest mountains in the world in under a year without the help of oxygen or ropes. This could be the biggest scoop of Cecily’s career, but in order to get that interview, Charles has told her she has to reach the summit with him.

Cecily is not a climber. In fact she is most well known for a blog post she wrote about not being able to reach the top of Snowdon during the National Three Peaks Challenge she had tried to complete with her boyfriend. Now ex-boyfriend. That’s another of her worries as James is breathing down her neck all the way from London, furious that she has the chance to write the story he thinks should be his.

But that is the least of Cecily’s worries. She has a mountain to climb, she has camping in freezing temperatures and acclimatising to the mountain air to worry about. Also, people keep dying around her in tragic accidents which, as she keeps being reminded, is part of the risk of being on the mountain. But, when she is consistently woken up in the night by the sound of someone prowling and whistling near her tent, she starts to think that maybe these deaths weren’t accidents. Or is that the altitude sickness talking?

If you have ever wondered what it must be like to take on one of the summits in Nepal; what the camps would be like, the sherpas, the food, the waiting for the weather to change, then this is the book for you. It is jam-packed with glorious detail about the gruesomeness and the exhilaration of the climb. But it is also a gripping, fast-paced thriller that has you guessing to the end. Has Cecily become paranoid due to lack of oxygen, or are these deaths not accidents at all?

Cecily frowned. ‘You don’t think what Charles is doing is impressive?’

Ah, no – of course it is impressive. But there are so many big male egos here. Oh sure, it was fine to climb these mountains with ropes and climbing sherpa support and oxygen when it was just men. But now women are starting to get a foot in, suddenly it’s not good enough and you had to go ‘alpine style’ to be a real climber. Fuck them. We deserve to be here just as much as they do.’

Breathless

I really enjoyed this book. I thought all of the characters were interesting to read (I wouldn’t want to be stuck up a mountain with any of them, apart from the sherpas). And it was perfect to read while I was listening to the wind from Storms Dudley and Eunice whilst being wrapped up cosy under my duvet.

Joyous and Endearing: Dear Mrs Bird, by AJ Pearce (Book Review)

I started off this year with a promise to myself: that I would not buy any new books until I had read some of the ones that I already have. At the last count I had around 120 unread books dotted about my house (!) and I don’t have a big home. They are on bookshelves but also in piles on the floor by the bookcase, on tables, on the stairs, in just a random pile on the floor in the spare room. Anywhere I have space! And it is lovely to have my own library of books, but the problem is I never have time to read any of them because I’m always reading that new book that I just had to buy.

So, this year I have joined the #beatthebacklog crowd, set up by @owlbesatreading on Twitter, to try and “make myself” (for want of a better phrase, obviously there’s so many worse things in the world than making yourself sit and read books you already own), so I can free up some space in my home (to buy more books later, obviously), save a few pennies, and discover some of the wonderful stories that I already have in my possession.

So, I started the year with Dear Mrs Bird which has sat on my bookcase for far too long, and I really do have to take a moment to congratulate myself for choosing it to start of the year – what a great choice! I loved every page of this book and was quite bereft when it ended. Set during World War Two, we follow Emmy Lake as she volunteers as a telephone operator for the fire brigade and tries to start her career as a journalist.

Emmy wants to be a Lady War Correspondent and when she sees an advert to work for The Evening Chronicle she applies for it. However, the job is not what she thinks it is gong to be. Instead of writing for the newspaper, she instead becomes an assistant for the ferocious Mrs Bird, the resident agony aunt for Woman’s Friend a magazine that is published by the same group as The Evening Chronicle. It is Emmy’s job to read through the letters received each day and pass them on to Mrs Bird for response. However, Mrs Bird has very strict rules as to what sort of agonies she will print a response to. Topics that will not be written about include (but are not limited to): marital relations, pre-martial relations, extra-marital relations, sexual relations in general, The War, and cookery. When Emmy reads the letters she has to reject, she cannot help but want to give the writers a response.

I still wanted to be a proper Correspondent. A lady war journalist like the ones I had read about who marched off to report on Spain’s Civil War with nothing more than two fur coats and a fierce determination to find out the truth. I wanted to be part of the action and excitement.

But trying to become a news journalist could wait. Mrs Bird was stuck in another age. Her views may have been accepted thirty years ago but they were out of date now. This wasn’t just her war. It was everyone’s. It was ours.

I wanted to make a go of it. I wanted to stay at Woman’s Friend and try to help the readers out. I still didn’t know exactly how I would do it, but people needed a hand.

Dear Mrs Bird, AJ Pearce

This book so brilliantly walked the line between humour and sadness. AJ Pearce portrays the brutality of the blitz, and what it must have been like to live in London at the time, but through the eyes of a young woman who wants to go out to the cinema and go dancing with her best friend, Bunty. There’s joy and excitement going on whilst bombs drop in the background. And then there’s the mornings when she emerges from working all night on the telephones and parts of the street have completely disappeared: shells and foundations of homes, bedroom furniture suddenly exposed to the world and shocked people left to sift through the rubble.

But the thing I loved most, was Emmy’s voice. The capitalisations of words peppered throughout paragraphs For Humour and Tone just add to the character of the book and I had such a distinct voice in my head as I read. It really felt like it had that wartime brusqueness but it was also oh so funny and warm.

‘I’m so very sorry,’ said Bunty again. ‘Would you like a hankie?’

She offers me hers. It was nice and clean, with lemon edging.

‘No thank you,’ I said, remaining polite in what was clearly A Difficult Situation.

Bunty looked distressed. ‘Would you like to sit down?’ she said. ‘Perhaps I shall sit down. Is it Edmund? Poor, dear Edmund.’

Dear Mrs Bird

Reading in the Author’s Note also made me think abut how the book connects our modern lives to those in 1940. AJ Pearce explains that idea came after reading reading the Problem Page in a 1939 women’s magazine. “Among the hundreds of letters I went on to read… there have been many that made me smile – such as asking what to do about freckles, or trouble with people who pushed into queues. Most of all, though, I was struck by the huge number of letters in which women faced unimaginably difficult situations in the very toughest of times.” I think this book was such a unique way of looking at women’s lives in the War. But also it creates a link across the generations and how some problems, such as relationships ending, mealtimes going wrong, we can all still relate to.

AJ Pearce has written a sequel called Yours Cheerfully, and the minute my book-buying ban is over (hopefully in time for the paperback to come out), I’ll be getting it. I can’t wait to head back into Emmy’s world and see what’s been going on there since we left.

Imaginative, hilarious, gruesome: How to Kill Your Family, by Bella Mackie (book review)

Limehouse prison is, as you might imagine, horrible. Except maybe you can’t imagine it, not really. There are no games consoles and flatscreen TVs, as you have surely read about in the newspapers. There’s no friendly communal vibe, no sisterly tribe – the atmosphere is usually frantic, hideously loud, and it often feels as though a fight will break out at any moment. From the beginning, I’ve tried to keep my head down. I stay in my cell as much as possible, in between meals that could optimistically be described as occasionally digestible, and attempt to avoid my roommate, as she tiresomely likes to be called.

How to Kill Your Family

Grace Bernard is in jail for murder. She has murdered people; many people, her family in fact, but it is not for these murders that she is currently serving jail time for, and she would like justice.

I was hooked by this book from the off. Grace has such an unmistakeably strong voice and her sarcastic and darkly humorous observations of life and the people around her made me snort with laughter.

I have a plan in my mind, but no idea whether I’ll be able to pull it off. I have a wig that I bought at cosmetics shop in Finsbury Park, which looked convincing enough under the store strip lighting, but appears worryingly flammable in the Spanish sun. Despite this free-floating anxiety about my lack of preparation, excitement spreads through me. As I fix my wig and apply my makeup, I feel as though I’m getting ready for a brilliant date, and not at all like I’m on the way to kill my grandparents.

How to Kill Your Family

We learn that Grace’s father, Simon, a millionaire businessman with dubious moral standards, left her mother, Marie, when she was pregnant to go back to his wife and baby daughter. He cut Grace and Marie out of his life and told them never to contact him. As Grace grew up watching her mother struggle to make enough money for them to survive and Simon ignoring her pleas to help them, Grace swore revenge against not only her father but his entire family.

So that’s my dad. Not the one I’d have picked had I been consulted, but there we are. Some people have fathers who beat them, some have fathers who wear Crocs. We all have our crosses to bear.

How to Kill Your Family

If you are a fan of Killing Eve, you will love this book as it tears round London, Monaco, Marbella and St Tropez, following Grace on her murderous excursions. She’s the anti-hero you can’t help but root for. The murders are also wonderfully imaginative and comically gruesome (frogs, that’s all I’ll say). But they are also totally believable in terms of the length of time and effort this character would put into killing her victims. Pure enjoyment, if you like that sort of thing.

Now, the ending. Full shocker. I hated it because it wasn’t the ending I wanted for Grace, but it was very clever and probably a far superior fate for Grace than one I could ever think up. I honestly can’t wait for Bella Mackie to write another book.

Have you read this book? What did you think of Grace and Simon?

My Top Ten Books of the Year (Part 2)

Ho, ho, ho, it’s *nearly* time to say goodbye to 2021! It wasn’t all bad as I had lots of extra time at home to read this year! This is the second half of my Top 10 list. The books are in no particular order and if you want to read the first half (posted last week) then the link is here: https://luggageandscribble.travel.blog/2021/12/12/my-top-ten-books-of-the-year-part-1/

Let me know what you think!

The Summer Job, by Lizzy Dent

Birdy arrives at Loch Dorn, a luxury hotel on the Isle of Skye, ready to take on the job of their new sommelier ahead of their expensive and highly publicised re-launch. The only problem is… she knows nothing about wine. She is impersonating her friend, Heather, who is a wine expert, but has suddenly left the country to follow a boy to Rome leaving the Loch Dorn position open. Birdy, who both jobless and homeless, decides to give it a go. How much is there to learn about wine, really? The answer: quite a lot.

The book follows Birdy as she tries to find her feet in Scotland and do Heather proud. But, will she be discovered? And what about that handsome chef?

This book is full of the hustle and bustle of being in a professional kitchen and the love of preparing good food. It stands out in my memory because I genuinely loved Birdy; she makes some bad choices in the book but always from a place of love and trying to do good by the people around her. Be warned, it will make you hungry.

‘I love the intensity of service. The creativity of working with food. But when it comes down to it, it’s that one dish. Everything that’s on that plate, from the sea salt to the squid ink, has taken time to get to that point. Someone’s alarm went off at four a.m. to go out on the boats. The weather was just right. Someone else had to know the perfect soil… And I get to transform it. Take its perfect natural state and warm it, or pickle it, or dry it, you know? And sometimes I barely touch it. I kiss it with the pan and season it. Whatever. And the I plate it. And even though they’re perfect strangers, cooking that meal for them is one of the most intimate things you can do…’

The Summer Job

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The storm comes in like a finger snap. That’s how they’ll speak in the months and years after, when it stops being only an ache behind their eyes and a crushing at the base of their throats. When it finally fits into their stories. Even then, it doesn’t tell how it actually was. There are ways words fall down: they give shape too easily, carelessly. And there was no grace, no ease to what Maren saw.

The Mercies

This was an incredible read. The kind of book that, when you put it down at the end, you wonder ‘how on earth did she come up with that?!’

The Mercies is set in 1617 on a remote Norwegian island called Vardo. It starts on Christmas Eve when a freak storm occurs and all the adult men living on the island, who were out fishing at the time, are killed. Maren watches as her father, brother and husband-to-be, simply disappear into the storm that stops as suddenly as it starts. In the village, the women who are left start to learn how to survive without the men, but they also start to divide. Maren’s mother and sister-in-law, for example, are now at odds with each other and other groups start to form.

Ursa arrives on Vardo from Bergen with her new husband, Absalom Cornet. He has been sent because it is suspected that evil has been allowed to prosper amongst the women and now it must be found out. The novel rapidly picks up pace as the danger some of the women face on the island also rapidly increases.

I couldn’t put this book down, it was such an immersive and chilling story.

Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce

This book was a pure joy to read. Set in 1950, Margery Benson abandons her job teaching miserable and mean children, to follow her life’s passion: searching for an undiscovered beetle in New Caledonia. Margery takes with her her new assistant Enid who, in her pink travel suit and peroxide hair, is not the assistant she had originally hoped for. But, once in the jungle, the two form a strong bond in order to survive.

I loved this book. It was so full of fun and adventure as the unlikely pair make their way around the world and then through the jungle to try and find a beetle that may or may not exist. It was packed with humour and love. Just pure joy.

Could she go without an assistant? Of course she couldn’t. she couldn’t possibly manage all the equipment and, anyway, it wouldn’t be safe… There was only one choice left, and admittedly it was scraping the barrel. With three days to go, Margery wrote to Enid Pretty and offered her the job. In terms of packing, she told her to travel light. A hat, boots, three plain frocks, plus one for special occasions. All bright colours, flowers, feathers, pom-poms, ribbons, etc. were in the worst possible taste and entirely to be avoided. She ended with an instruction to meet at nine beneath the clock at Fenchurch Street station where she would be easily recognised by her safari outfit. True to form, Enid Pretty’s reply made absolutely no sense.

bear miss denson. Please to acept! pink hat!

Miss Benson’s Beetle

Ariadne, by Jennifer Saint

I am truly enjoying all the recent books that are re-telling Greek mythology from the women’s perspective, and Ariadne is such a great example of this being done well.

The world felt poised, suspended in a perfect balance between night and day, and I felt as though I stood on the very cusp of something momentous. The day that this sun heralded would be the end of the life I had led so far. What it would start, I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t pin down the fluttery dreams the wreathed around me. It would be exciting, it would be different, that I knew. But that was all.

Ariadne

The story is told from the perspective of Ariadne and her sister Phaedra, both princesses of Crete, daughters of the fearsome Minos and sisters to Asterion, more commonly known as the Minotaur. When Theseus arrives in Crete with the aim of destroying the Minotaur, Ariadne betrays her family to help him and the book follows what happens to her and Phaedra after this.

I knew nothing about this story and it was so full of surprises that I don’t want to say any more about what happens, only that it was so very good! It will definitely make you want to open a bottle of red wine, however.

The Stranding, by Kate Sawyer

Ruth arrives in New Zealand with the hope of helping whale conservation, but in fact, she arrives in time to witness the end of the world.

‘Is it real, do you think? Is it the end of the world?’

‘I don’t know.’  

Ruth pushes herself to sit, looking out at the ocean before her. At the edge of the sea there is a pink light. ‘Look.’

Nik sits too and looks where her finger directs. The horizon appears to be glowing; the colour is starting to spread.

The Stranding

With a complete stranger, she climbs into the mouth of a dead whale stranded on a beach and somehow they are protected from what happens next. When they emerge, burnt by the acid in the whale’s mouth, it is to an entirely different landscape where they may be the only two left alive.

I found this story captivating. It’s a quiet and subtle story of survival and loss. Through flashbacks to Ruth’s life pre-whale, we learn about her family and friends and ex-boyfriend, and the things that led to her being on that beach. I cared about Ruth so much by the end of the book I wasn’t ready for it to finish.

Did you read any of these books in the last year? What should I pick up in 2022? I’ve decided (due to the ever increasing size of my TBR pile and the diminishing amount of space in my home), I’m going to borrow more from the library next year, so I’ll need suggestions.

Here’s to many more good reads in 2022!

The Arctic Curry Club, by Dani Redd: the perfect winter heart-warmer!

Maya moves to the Arctic to accompany her boyfriend, Ryan, as he embarks on some very important scientific research to do with tracking polar bears. She has left a life in London including friends, a job, and her own home, to come to a land that’s in perpetual darkness and sub-zero temperatures, and she finds the move harder than she ever imagined she would. Maya starts to experience panic attacks again for the first time in a while and struggles to get out of bed or leave the house for fear of getting lost in the snow.

There was an old radio station, which had been converted into a luxury hotel, somewhere out there. And a Soviet ghost town, in Svalbard there was a rule that you weren’t allowed to demolish anything. Abandoned trappers’ huts, explorers’ camps, defunct mines – they were all still here, slowly degrading in the wind and being covered over by snow and ice. An archipelago of ghosts.

The Arctic Curry Club

In India, Maya’s father is about to get married and when Maya goes to visit for the wedding, she is given her late mother’s cookbook. Following her mother’s death when Maya was eight, her father took her to live and grow up in London and, as a result, Maya grew up feeling that she didn’t really belong in India but also didn’t really fit in in the UK.

When Maya returns to the Arctic and starts cooking her mother’s recipes, and as winter starts to fade with the light gradually coming back, Maya starts to find her feet on the ice. Unfortunately, Ryan’s feet may have taken him off somewhere else.

I thought this book was so vivid in its descriptions of the snow-covered, freezing cold Arctic with its isolation and ‘no one will hear you scream’ vibes, to the contrasting brightness and loudness of India. I love books that take you round the globe and this does just that.

The air conditioning in Uma’s car was faulty so I cranked open the windows and inhaled a lungful of warm, particulate-laced air. At least there was plenty to look at. In front of us a woman in a burka cut a red light on her bicycle, narrowly avoiding the traffic streaming towards her. the moto scooter next to me wobbled under the weight of a family of four. Men swarmed the pavements outside a tea stall, drinking from paper cups and smoking cigarettes, while school kids queued for chaat sold by a street vendor from a tin pail. I felt ashamed to be looking at a place I had once called home with the eyes of a foreigner…

The Arctic Curry Club

I also thought the book explored the themes of identity and finding where your home is so well. There’s a range of interesting characters who have found themselves out in the Arctic for one reason or another, whether they like the extremes of the weather, the isolation that it provides or the sense of escape. The book also delves into mental health and anxiety and how hard it can be to recover from childhood trauma.

Also, the food. Long-time readers of the blog will know that I love descriptions of good food in books. This book does not, as the title suggests, disappoint.

Over the next hour, I did my best. I fried onions, garlic, and ginger, then added chopped tomatoes. Pureed and strained the mixture. Added a hefty dollop of butter, and a small splash of cream, then honey, to offset the acidity of the tomato. The I focussed on the spicing. At first, I was conservative, adding just a level teaspoon of each. But after tasting the sauce I knew I had to be more generous. I doubled, then tripled the quantities. Sealed the chicken in another pan, then added it to the simmering sauce.

The Arctic Curry Club

This was a warm and uplifting story about finding happiness and somewhere to call home even if it is somewhere you had thought was inhospitable. It’s full of friendship, humour, and good food. It has to be read, and I mean has to be read, with a steaming hot bowl of butter chicken.

London: who wants to go on a bookshop tour of Covent Garden and Charing Cross?

Who doesn’t love looking round unique independent bookshops? Who wouldn’t want to spend all their money in them? On a recent trip to London I walked this route around the Covent Garden and Charing Cross area to try and visit as many bookshops as possible.

The walk takes around two hours depending on how long you spend in each shop, how long you linger outside each window, and how many coffee breaks you choose to have (because, obviously, the best thing that goes with books is cake). It starts off in Cecil Court, also known as Bookseller’s Row.

Cecil Court

Stepping away from the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road, you feel a real sense of peace descend on you the minute you step onto this street. Since the 17th century, Cecil Court has been full of second-hand bookshops that nestle in next to each other today, each with their own brand and unique collections. It’s a beautiful row of shops and you could happily get lost wandering in and out as you go from one to another. Some of my favourites are:

Alice Through the Looking Glass – this bookshop is for all Alice enthusiasts. It specialises in rare illustrated and first editions and Alice iconography. It is a treasure-trove that will set your imagination alight.

Goldsboro Books – as a big bookish Twitter fan I got very excited seeing this shop in real life. It specialises in first editions and signed copies of books and it was so fun to walk round and see them all on the shelves.

Travis & Emery Music Bookshop – this shop is full of beautifully original scores of music. My dad is a huge fan of opera and as I was perusing the window of this shop I saw sheet music for Die Walküre that looked like it had been treasured by a previous owner (stained with time but in a lovely condition). I was so close to buying it.

Watkins Books – an unusual bookshop that I wasn’t expecting to see, Watkins specialises in spiritual and esoteric books. It is full of books that ‘awaken the spirit’ and ‘refresh the mind.’ I really enjoyed looking round and seeing what else they sold such as Tarot decks and crystals. They describe themselves as having a ‘unique ambience’ and I found it a very welcoming place and one that you could really get lost in.

Marchpane – I didn’t go inside this one but had a great time looking at the children’s books they had on display outside. It has copies of Enid Blyton books that bring back so many memories for me, copies of The Wizard of Oz, and all the CS Lewis stories. A very charming bookshop!

As Cecil Court says about itself, it is a whole street of “uncommonly good independent shops” and I had such a good time exploring it. Rumoured to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books, it definitely has a bewitching feel. Add it to your ‘to-do’ list for next time you are in London.

After Cecil Court, it’s time for a tea break: head to Stanfords travel bookshop, less than a ten-minute walk away which has a very nice cafe in amongst the books.

Stanfords is a specialist seller of maps and travel books, and if you are anything like me who loves a good travel book, then you will explode with joy when you see this place. Full of books by people recounting journeys through foreign lands, cookbooks telling you how you can recreate scents and tastes from around the world, and all the travel accessories you could need: I wanted to buy everything.

My purchase in Stanfords (it was tough limiting myself to one thing!)

Next it’s not far to a run of bookshops on Charing Cross Road, including Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes Books: two second-hand bookshops, packed to the brim with books, but also sell those hard to find editions.

Want to know how I would round off this walk? With a Portuguese egg custard tart, of course! Santa Nata which sells the most delicious pasteis de nata is less than a five-minute walk away. Baked in store (you can watch them in the window), you can buy them fresh out of the oven – you’ve earned it! Because it was Christmas, we also walked round Covent Garden to see all the decorations including the giant mistletoe and glitter balls hanging in the market whilst enjoying a very seasonal mulled wine.

Have you been to any of these bookshops? Do you have any recommendations for when I am next in London for bookshops in a different part of the city?

My Top Ten Books of the Year (Part 1)

Inspired by many other book bloggers, I’ve come up with my own list of my top ten favourite books I’ve read in the last twelve months (they might not have been published in the last year). I will talk about the first five this week and the other five next week.

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

I think this lovely book made a lot of ‘top reads’ list this year. This book reminds me of summer: I remember reading it out in the back garden in those glorious few days of sunshine that we had – the sun on my legs, eating magnums like there was no tomorrow, and a nice chilled g&t.

I have nothing but praise and admiration for Sarah Winman for creating such an epic story that follows a ‘family’ through four decades across war-torn Italy, to dingy pubs of London, and then back to Florence. Births, death, love and loss are all contained in these pages. Oh, and there’s a very eloquent parrot called Claude.

You’re putting me in a bit of a bind, miss.

Oh, I’m sure you’re no stranger to that.

Do you believe in fate, Miss Skinner?

Fate? It is a gift. According to Dante, anyhow.

A gift? I like that. Come on then, miss, hop in.

Oh, drop the ‘miss’, for God’s sake, said Evelyn, sitting down next to him. My name’s Evelyn. And yours?

Ulysses.

Ulysses! How wonderful! and is there a Penelope waiting for your return?

Nah. Just a Peggy. And I doubt she’s waiting, and he turned the ignition and the jeep pulled away.

Still Life, Sarah Winman

Last One at the Party, by Bethany Clift

Great book, very funny. Quite disturbing in the level of detail it gives about decomposing bodies.

The floor was already covered in all manner of bodily fluids and by-products. There was a group of bodies to the left of the counter and they had been leaking copiously for some time. It was like I had stepped into the money shot from the world’s worst torture porn movie.

Last One at the Party, Bethany Clift

A book about a global pandemic in which only one person seems to survive. The disease is called 6DM (stands for 6 Days Maximum, as that’s all the time you have left if you catch it), and it’s pretty gruesome in how it kills you.

Our protagonist thinks she might have avoided catching it because she went on a big night out the night it was announced the world was ending, and she then proceeds to spend the next few days vomiting. She then lays out the blueprint for what I will do should I ever find myself the last person alive on the planet: go to the most luxurious hotel I can get to and drink every minibar dry, rally, and start growing vegetables.

This book was full of surprises and highly entertaining: I loved it from start to finish… and, I mean, can we talk about that ending!?

Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey

Salty and briny, this a story that will transport you away to the Caribbean, to the huts of fishermen and rum drenched bars next to the sea.

Whenever I see the first leatherbacks arrive, I always feel happy. I know she, my mermaid, will soon appear, happy too, to greet me. I used to look out for her every evening from April onwards. She always knew where to find me, by the same jagged rocks where we first ketch sight of each other, one mile off Murder Bay. Still a private place, even now, since all the damn fish in the sea get fished out. I look out for Aycayia more than half mih damn life. I have plenty women since those days long past, all kinda women – friend, babymother, lover – but nothing ever again like she.

Mermaid of the Black Conch, Monique Roffey

This book sticks out in my memory because of the way it is written, the patois, the different voices in this story are all so strong, as well as the heart-breaking story of Aycayia; the young girl cursed forever to live in the sea as mermaid by the women of her village who were jealous of her beauty.

She is pulled from the water one day by ignorant American tourists who quickly decide they will sell her to make money. Then she is rescued by David Baptiste, a local fisherman. Slowly, she loses her tail and starts to come back to being a woman, but curses run deep in the sea and it wants to take back what has been given to it.

This book is truly unforgettable.

The Split, by Laura Kay

The train was late. And it cost me more than £100. There ought to be some kind of discount for those travelling at the last-minute with broken hearts. I thought about billing Emily and the look on her face when she saw the request pop up on her phone. Tempting.

The Split, Laura Kay

We’ve all been there: dumped and escaping to our parental homes for some wallowing time. Ally returns from London to her dad’s house in Sheffield after her break-up with Emily, the only other thing she brings with her is Emily’s cat, the very unimpressed, Malcolm. Back in Sheffield she meets up with an old school friend, Jeremy, also heart-broken and who somehow convinces her to sign up for a half-marathon, the idea being that it will signal to their exes how much they have changed as people.

Heart-breaking and, at the same time, heart-warming. This book in no way made me want to start training for a half-marathon but it did make me want to go for a night out in Sheffield. I loved Ally and Jeremy and their friendship, helping each other get over their break-ups, it’s a book that everyone will take something away from.

Pretending, by Holly Bourne

I’m ashamed by how long this book has sat on my shelves waiting to be read. When I finally did get round to reading it, it had such an impact on me, voicing a lot of my anger regarding society’s treatment of women.

I hate men.

There’ I’ve said it. I know you’re not supposed to say it. We all pretend we don’t hate them; we all tell ourselves we don’t hate them. But I’m calling it. I’m standing here on this soapbox, and I’m saying it.

I. Hate. Men.

Pretending, Holly Bourne

Fed up of being messed around and lied to, April creates a fake dating profile for ‘Gretel’ the woman she believes every man wants to be with: a “Regular Everyday Manic Pixie Dream Girl Next Door with No Problems.” Soon, Joshua sends Gretel a message.

Pretending is a powerful book about the double-standards women face every day, from not feeling safe to walk home alone at night, to the oodles of money spent on all kinds of cream, moisturisers and make-up we’re told we need. It’s about being the survivor of assault and the legacy that can have.

It’s cleverly written; April is not perfect, she’s not always like-able, but she’s very relatable and some of the things she says are just so spot on.

Come back next week to find out the other five in my top ten!

The Women of Troy: part two of Pat Barker’s superb re-telling of the Iliad

Pat Barker got me interested in Greek mythology. But, more importantly, she got me thinking about the women who were lost in the stories.

The Women of Troy, the second part of Pat Barker’s series, after The Silence of the Girls, is a re-telling of the Iliad but told from the point of view of Briseis; a former Princess of Lyrnessus, a city that fell under attack from Achilles in the Trojan War. In The Silence of the Girls we learn how she was given as a war prize to Achilles, after she had watched him kill her brothers and destroy her home. The Women of Troy picks up where the first book stops, after the death of Achilles, and the Greeks getting ready to climb in to the wooden horse that will take them into Troy.

A wooden box crammed full of men – it’ll go up like a funeral pyre larded with pig fat. And what will the Trojans do when their hear screams? Run and fetch buckets of water? Like bloody hell they will; they’ll stand around and laugh…

He’s halfway to his feet when a spear point appears between the heads of two men sitting opposite. He sees their faces blank with shock. Instantly, everybody starts shuffling deeper into the belly, as far away from the sides as they can get. Outside, a woman’s screaming at the top of her voice: ‘It’s a trap, can’t you see it’s a trap?’ And then another voice, a man’s, old, but not weak, carrying a lot of authority. It can only be Priam. ‘Cassandra,’ he says. ‘Go back home now, go home.’

The Women of Troy

The war ends with the Greeks destroying Troy (I hope I haven’t spoilt that for anyone), and the women of Troy now belong to the victors. Some are sold off immediately to slave traders, some are kept to be slaves in the Greek compounds, the others are shared out as prizes, and those who are pregnant are killed in case they are carrying sons. Each female fate is decided by the men who led the Greek armies. It falls upon Brisies, pregnant with Achilles’ child, to look after the women when they arrive, a task she thinks should have fallen to Andromache who now belongs to Pyrrhus (Achilles’ son and the killer of Priam and Andromache’s son). But as Brisies knows, she has had to learn to survive living in the Greek compounds, so close to Achilles and his men, the women have to learn to obey their new masters.

When the royal women were shared out among the kings, there’d been a lot of joking at Odysseus’ expense. Agamemnon and several of the other kings had got Priam’s virgin daughters, Pyrrhus a sprightly young widow – plenty of go in that one, if she’d only cheer up a bit – whereas Odysseus was left with a scraggly old woman. Odysseus just shrugged, brushing the laughter aside. He knew he’d be taking home the only woman his wife, Penelope, would have accepted – and, with any luck, he might be able to convince her that he’d slept alone for the last ten years with nothing to while away his lonely evenings beyond the occasional game of skittles with his men.

The Women of Troy

While Troy has fallen and the war has ended, the Greeks are still stuck in the compounds built on the edge of the sea, unable to return to their homelands. The wind has changed, constantly blowing against the ships, the sky a permanent jaundice colour. The men start to question if this is the work of the Gods. Through Brisies’ watchful eye we meet the royal women of Troy: Andromache, Hecuba and Cassandra, we learn their fates and their curses. We see their cunning plans that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, as they try to find any inch of power that they can against their new owners.

We also meet some of the slave women such as Helle, who was a slave in the Trojan halls and is the same now for the Greeks, but who’s spirit is resilient enough to come to lead the women around her. We also meet Amina, who seethes and plots to avenge the death of Priam. The women are constantly overlooked by the men of the camp but, as Barker shows, they are the ones that know everything and find ways to influence and manipulate. In one scene, Pyrrhus, discovering that someone has tried to give Priam a burial, comments that there are only two Trojans in camp (both men), what Brisies is quick to think is that there are hundreds, but they are women so can’t be seen as a threat.

I loved this book as much as I loved The Silence of the Girls. It’s full of tension and fraught with danger, but also full friendship and strength as the women try to protect each other in such terrible situations. The weather is such an omnipresent force throughout the whole novel, too, as the men are itching to get home but have to live in the ashes of the pillaged burnt-out city. The descriptions of the dead sea-life that washes up on the beach every morning out of the brown and thunderous waves. I also like the language Barker uses throughout, words that I hadn’t come across before but that paint such vivid images of the beaches and the life there: words such as ferrous, fungoid and frowsty. Some of the more modern language and terms did jar occasionally, but I also thought it helped make it feel real and accessible.

I highly recommend The Women of Troy, but I would recommend you read The Silence of the Girls first just so you can hit the ground running with this one and know who everyone is, but it is all explained in this one too. This book would be best enjoyed with a cup of wine, and some bread, cheese and olives.