Armadale by Wilkie Collins

I think – well I know – I have a book hangover from this glorious novel. Read as part of a buddy read-along, I actually finished ahead of the game, because I could not put the book down. In fact, at the moment, this may be my favourite book from the pen of Wilkie Collins.

Collins’ characterisation in this novel is outstanding, which is a key reason that I found the book engaging. The characters embody the narrative, each so clearly individual and representative of the role they are going to play. The villains are fabulously villainous although, as the tale progresses, Miss Gwilt (if that is who she really is) starts to become a little conflicted.

This book, some may say, could have been ahead of its time, as the strongest, most determined character in the book is a female. We all know that there is a continuous debate about females being represented in fiction, but Collins packs no punches with his character Miss Gwilt. Strong, determined, independent – she is fabulous (although you are probably not supposed to be a fan of her).

The tale is excellent, as with many of Wilkie Collins books. There is mystery, intrigue, mistaken identity, scandal – the list goes on. It is all just wonderfully thrilling from the word go (No Spoilers!).

If you have not read a book by Wilkie Collins or a Victorian sensation novel, then this could be a great place to start.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

I have read this as part of a Twitter History Bookclub, however, it is not like I really needed an excuse, as I have been kee to get my hands on a copy as soon as I knew this book was going to be brought to the world.

I am fascinated by stories from history – good job as I am a history teacher. And, like many who have a passion for history, it was not any of the big stories or artefacts that sparked that passion – it was a story of a portrait and an execution, told to me by a Beefeater at the Tower of London. So, ‘Dead Famous’ is perfect, despite being about the history of celebrity, for lovers of some of those lesser-known tales. You will have heard of some of the characters you encounter, but, for me, much of the joy came from reading tales of those that I did not know. Again, sparking an interst to find out so much more (pleased to say Greg Jenner kindly supplies additonal reading material at the end – so don’t be surprised if your to-be-read pile shoots up).

This book is beautifully written, with humour throughout, is not a daunting read, but fully informative as it attempts to tackle the complex idea of celebrity; something that you will certainly be left rethinking by the end of the book.

I can certainly call this book a lockdown highlight and would urge you to pick up a copy if you can. You may come to the end of it with a new love of histoty, or at least much more of an idea of exactly what makes a celebrity, ot what creates a celebrated figure.

Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

I have been desperate to read this book for ages – so decided to order a copy as a lockdown treat. And what a treat this book is – I am not sure that I can do it justice.

This is a stunning novel, in more ways than one. Just starting with the cover; what a beauty. The illustrations throughout the book are beautiful and bring the wonderful words to life.

We follow Michael in this coming of age story. Michael blossoms into the beautiful Black Flamingo – as his find his identity and place in the world as a gay man. This touches on so many subjects, like racism, homophobia, realtionships (of all kinds) and identity; all handled so well through the beautiful writing of Dean Atta. His perfect prose tells Michael’s story with such warmth and emotion, creating a beautiful page-turner that is impossible to put down.

This lovely YA book is one that I will be recommending to everyone to read, as it is absolutely brilliant – I can already see a re-read on the horizon.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

This is the third novel I have read by Jane Harper – and, yet again, I really enjoyed it.

This is a clever tale: a locked room mystery, yet set in the vast Australian outback. It is amazing how somewhere so open could be so suffocating – but it certainly can be isolating.

Cam dies, at the site of the isolated grave of the stockman: a landmark that has become infamous with all the stories surrounding it. And now there will be another story: why would Cam be there alone when he knows the territory and the dangers so well. So easily it is written off as a choice Cam made, but his brother Nathan is not so sure.

As the tale unfolds, secrets are unearthed and characters are called into question. Especially the character of Cam. Could someone have killed him after all?

This is a brillaintly atmospheric book. Using the landscape of the Australian outback, not just as a setting but also as a chracter. I could not put it down, as there are a number of interesting threads that lead into the overall mystery.

I would really recommend the books of Jane Harper, so why not give them a go?

One, Two, Buckle my Shoe by Agatha Christie

Wow – my Agatha Christie reading has been behind this year. I have not kept up with ‘Maidens of Murder’ 2020 at all. So, I guess one lockdown highlight is that I have managed to catch up with the April read.

I was excited that I could read ‘One, Two, Buckle my Shoe’ as it is a Poirot mystery – and he is my favourite of Christie’s characters.

It must be a good one as, in one Sunday, I managed to consume the whole book. I love Christie’s books, however, I always seem to find them hard to review because they are such classics and I never want to spoil the surprise readers.

However, in my humble opinion, the great thing about this narrative is that there appears to be absolutely no reason for the death of the dentist Mr Morley. In fact, it is only Poirot who has any suspicions about the death. Japp is quite happy to write it off as a suicide, as that is what all the evidence points to. But, Poirot’s little grey cells are not satisfied with the obvious. As events unfold it appears, of course, that Poirot is correct and the truth must be uncovered.

This is a great read and the clever use of the ryhme ‘One, Two, Buckle my Shoe’ adds to the joy of the narrative.

If you love Christie and Poirot, you will love this novel.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

‘Queenie’ has been everywhere over the last year or so. However, as usual, I was late to the ‘Queenie’ party. It had been on the wishlist and thanks to a bookswap with the lovely ‘Priarie Chicken Pages’ I finally had a copy to read.

‘Queenie’ had been billed as the new ‘Bridget’. Now, being part of the ‘Bridget’ generation, having loved the books and the films, that was a bold claim. However, it is also an unfair one, because Queenis is so much more. Queenie is a leading female character for a whole new generation. She is not the new Bridget – she is Queenie Jenkins.

What makes ‘Queenie’ a really special novel is that Candice Carty-Williams has had the confidence, and skill, to tackle some topics which can be taboo. Mental health, identity and relationships are tackled head-on in the story of Queenie Jenkins. Occasionally, her story is painful but, at all times, you are rooting for and supporting the wonderful Queenie. Don’t get me wrong, she has her flaws, but she has her flaws, but she also has an amazing inner strength that maybe we should all search for.

The writing style is easy to read but there is so much warmth and emotion in each and every sentence. There is also a clever use of memory throughout the narrative to help us build a full picture of Queenie, past and present.

I would highly recommend this book because I don’t think it will be what you expect – I think you will find that it is far more than you expect it to be. It was certainly far more than I expected it to be. Do not compare Queenie to anyone else, because she is a hero in her own right.

The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton by Anstey Harris

Miss W lent me this book quite a while ago and I am ashamed to say it has been sat on the shelf for a while.

If I am totally honest, if I had judged this book by its cover, I would probably not have picked it up. It looks a little like cheesy chick lit, which is not my usual bag. However, I would have missed out on a gem of a book if I had done that – so, as they say, ‘never judge a book by its cover – use Miss W’s recommendations.’

This is a beautiful story of self-discovery about three fabulous characters. Although they may not be your usual trio, together they form a strong bond, mainly revolving around their love of music. As Grace thinks her world is falling aprat (not for the first time) and it has all been fiction, Nadia (a rather headstrong teenager) and Mr Williamson (he is eighty you know) help her realise that maybe she hasn’t really started living. In fact, maybe they can each help other start living.

By the end of the novel, you will be desperate to visit Paris and Italy (mulitple parts). You will wish you could play an instrument (if you do not already), and you will definitely realise you have to appreciate all the friendships you have in your life.

It has been wonderful to discover a new author and I look forward to more from the pen of Anstey Harris.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

One of the wonderful things about the bookstagram work is that it can encourage you to read books you may not usually read or that have been on that to-be-read pile for quite some time. So, when one of my bookstagram buddies, Mrs D, suggested a buddy read for ‘Vanity Fair’ I jumped at the chance (especially as we can’t do our usual fun of sharing photos of our lovely manicured nails and pretty books).

Now, ‘Vanity Fair’ looks pretty daunting at nearly 900 pages, and I was really hoping that I would enjoy it. I had basic knowledge of the story from TV and film adaptations and had enjoyed those, so I was hopeful, but you can never be sure with these classics.

However, I had nothing to fear once I started. Although it takes a while to get used to the writing style (it is very much of its time), once you have embraced it, there is no stopping you. It is simply beautifully crafted with excellent chracterisation to represent the best and, at times, the worst of society. Becky Sharp must be one of the greatest characters ever created for readers to love to hate (or thoroughly dislike).

The book has all the best themes interwoven into the narrative: romance, scandal, humour, and at moments, sadness. However, this thing it does best is present a satire of society, and really comments on the weaknesses that are created by vanity, especially the vanity of men. And how easily those that suffer from such a ‘curse’ can be manipulated, especially by the fairer sex.

However, Thackeray does allow true goodness to eventually triumph in this wonderful piece of classic literature.

So, if there is that book on the shelf that you have been a bit unsure about tackling, take a chance and pick it up. You may be missing a great adventure!

Normal People by Sally Rooney

This novel has been around the bookblogging and bookstagram community for quite some time – and it has probably been on my shelf for as long. I picked it up as I has been reminded I owned it, and thought maybe it is time to give it a go.

Now, I am not sure I share the same love of this book that so many of you do. I understand why so many readers would love it. I am just not one of those readers.

It took me a while to warm to the story. I found it picked up pace about half way through. I was more invested in the loves of Marianne and Conell once they were at university.

I can see the significance of this tale – I can understand the importance of the title ‘Normal People’ to the narrative – and some of the issues it tackles are challenging. However, for me, it was just not a favourite.

I am not even sure what was missing, as I started this book expecting to love it. There was just a little bit of magic missing for me.

The novel is beautifully written and Sally Rooney is a talented author. I would like to read ‘Conversations with Friends’ to see how I find that book. Maybe as reader and book we would be more compatible.

Have you read Sally Rooney’s novels?

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Why did I not pick this book off the shelf sooner? This could be one of my favourite reads of 2020. What a book!

Hallie Rubenhold has told the story of five fascinating women who, over time, may have lost some of their identity. These are the women who became victims of the infamous Jack the Ripper. I hesitate to refer to ‘The Five’ as this, though, because they were, of course, so much more and it suggests that ‘Jack the Ripper’ is almost the one who deserves the attention. (Don’t get me wrong I have had and still have an interest in one of the most famous unsolved crimes of all time, but now I have a different perspective).

This book, introduces the context, tells the full tale of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary-Jane, and reaches a fascinating conclusion. I felt like I learned so much about these people, misconceptions were broken down and clear historical context added. This is not a story linked only to Whitechapel, but a story about England and beyond. These women were victims of their circumstances, tragedy was almost written in the stars, and we should remember the five women as they lived and not just for how they died, providing fuel for the Victorian media circus.

Rubenhold’s book gives them back their identity and, by the end , they are most certainly not just ‘The Five’.