The Book Club: what I’ve read so far this year

I miss my old office book club. It quietly ground to a halt when three of the four or five remaining hardcore members (including the designated organiser) all left within weeks of each other, but we still occasionally meet up to discuss books, watch films or go to the theatre. Still, that regular monthly-or-so community event with its collective nerdery and copious red wine is something I miss.

I’m not going to suggest an online book club, because we all know what happens. Continue reading →

I am Squarehead – Simon Frank and Margit Mulder

I am Squarehead book coverIt’s always awkward writing about something created by people you know. For the full record, Simon Frank is someone I’ve known for a fairly long while as part of former third sector agency Beautiful World; furthermore, my graphic designer husband Ashley was employed by them and still works with Simon on occasion at Bats in Belfries.

None of that, however, is why I’m writing this blog post (and I certainly wasn’t asked to). While I admire I am Squarehead greatly, I wouldn’t have decided to put my thoughts out there if my daughter hadn’t recently fallen in love with it after being given a copy by our friend, and Simon’s business partner, the inimitable Rochelle Dancel.

The thing is, it’s actually really difficult to get Ramona to like anything. Sure, parents can influence, show approval or outright ban stuff. But that doesn’t always come to much; both Ash and I absolutely love Jon Klassen’s beautiful and wickedly brilliant I Want My Hat Back but Ramona has gone from being gut-wrenchingly terrified of it to merely being deeply suspicious of it. Also, I swear she can sense enthusiasm and just says no to wind us up sometimes. Some books she has never taken to, or been scared of – Mog in the Fog, Edwina the Emu – others she has loved instantly – all the other Meg and Mog books, Possum Magic, The Day the Crayons Quit . Still others she has suddenly flipped from hating to loving, dependent on God knows what – like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. So for her to so quickly, passionately love a book with a deliberately scary moment in it – albeit one that is quickly turned on its head – is something we always find worthy of note.

See, Ramona is definitely a kid who does some round thinking in a square world – just like Squarehead, who has to leave town and make some friends who also don’t fit the spaces they’re being forced into before coming back to change things for the better for everyone. She’s always been immensely good at dealing with the things that I know often throw kids for a loop – changing nurseries, starting school, moving into a big girl bed – but she can also find some apparently innocuous things very hard. Sometimes this has included introducing new books, where she is very wary of scary moments. School, where she burned through the reading scheme and is now allowed to choose books written for kids two or three years older than her and reads them mostly independently, has really helped with this as her confidence is constantly climbing and she changes books almost daily. Still, she’s one of nature’s overthinkers (can’t imagine where she gets it from).

The thing is that, as Squarehead points out, once you’ve had a thought, you can’t unthink it. But, as Squarehead discovers, you can sometimes be accosted by something you think is utterly terrifying, only for it to turn out to be something you love very much.

I don’t know whether I am Squarehead appeals to Ramona because she sees herself in it at some level, as I do. I don’t know whether she just likes the idea of a story written by someone Mummy and Daddy know (Simon has since signed it, and now she reads the dedication aloud to me). I don’t know if she’s just charmed by Margit Mulder’s deceptively simple illustrations – my personal favourite is the bathtub with square bubbles. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it just seemed so perfect to me that I wanted to record this moment; too soon she’ll abandon this and move on to the next thing. For now, awkwardness aside, this is a snapshot I wanted to keep.

Book Obsession: Amelia Peabody Mysteries

I have a confession: I’m a little bit obsessed with murder mysteries.

And I’m not just talking about the gritty, modern types like Mark Billingham’s Thorne series – though I’ve read all of those now, I think. And there’s such a thing as too gritty; Jeffrey Deaver and Patricia Cornwell largely leave me feeling feeling ill, rather than exhilarated and slightly spooked. But I will admit to a fondess for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series.

Back to the point.

My other fondness is for classic mysteries that are steeped in their period, the most obviously example being Agatha Christie. On summer holiday after summer holiday in Greece I’d plough through Marple after Marple, Poirot after Poirot and occasionally dip into those weird ones like Death Comes as the End.

And it’s funny I should think of one set in Ancient Egypt, because that particular period is the focus of my new mystery heroine, Amelia Peabody.

Amelia, a Victorian feminist Egyptologist-slash-detective, is the creation of Elizabeth Peters (a pseudonym for American author and, funnily enough, Egyptologist Barbara Mertz), and I’m utterly in love with her. Her story begins with the birth of her independence; sole daughter to a father who also has worthless sons, she has been left with the burden of nursing him through old age. Without a decent son to heap such privileges on, she is able to access a far more comprehensive education than most women. She also inherits the family wealth, and sets out on a solo trip to Egypt to indulge her passions. But almost as soon as she arrives, she stumbles from one peculiar incident to another, and murderous intent is in the air…

The series has now swelled to more than fifteen volumes, and Amelia has amassed an extended family, but even many books later – with grown up children – she doesn’t lose her edge. She doesn’t just pay lip service to feminism; she lives it. Thanks to her education, she quickly picks up the moniker of the ‘lady doctor’, and while the early novels repeatedly stress her dedication to breaking female convention and fighting for opportunities and rights for her sisters, subsequent volumes see her facing her own latent prejudices and class and race privilege as well.

It’s inevitable that in some of the exchanges with the locals in Egypt there is going to be an element of uncomfortable colonialism. There’s also the inescapable sense of gracious white saviours, at least at first, although care is taken to stress the abilities of the local women to figure out their own ways of gaining power (though sadly this is often, though not always, through the sex trade, criminal enterprise or similar). Over time that starts to erode, and relationships grow to the point that they become known as her ‘Egyptian family’ even before that bond is cemented in law by a marriage. Several Egyptian women emerge as progressive and trailblazing in their own right, fighting for opportunities and status rather than having it graciously conferred on them.

Is it perfect? No. What is? Amelia is a woman who still carries enormous privilege, even as she lives in a world with very restricted roles for women. But what’s great is that the books tackle those issues head on in a way I’ve not seen in a long time – and certainly not in this setting before.

Best of all, they’re written in the most marvellously indulgent fashion. Sometimes when I ready back through my writing, I realise I have a bit of a fondness for slightly old-fashioned terminology (‘marvellously’, for one, and I’m also keen on ‘rather’); here I can indulge in that to my heart’s content. Amelia’s erudition is a delicious masterclass in Victorian melodrama. She doesn’t think, he ‘ratiocinates’. There’s a shadowy figure that dogs their heels over several books that she insists – to everyone’s annoyance – on labelling “the Master Criminal”. She lectures and quotes, pontificates and pries; in summary, she’s absolutely wonderful.

It’s impressive how well American Peters has come down on the right side of tea-drinking, carriage-riding twee-tastic Englishness, too. Although there is an element of cariacature, it’s all swept up in the general overblown nonsense of it all. The icing on the cake is a strong vein of wry humour and a cheeky nod to sexual chemistry – the series could teach E. L. James a thing or two about subtlety since it’s extremely passionate without a single graphic moment.

I’m very grateful for my beautiful and brilliant friend, and fellow Bea contributor, Erin Leclerc, for recommending these books to me. I got the first four in a bargain collection for Kindle, and suggest that if any of that sounds appealing, you do so too. Or buy paper versions. Or visit a library. Go on, then.


I’m taking part in the Transworld Dan Brown Summer Reading Challenge

…without actually reading any Dan Brown.

Transworld Publishers have done a nifty piece of blogger outreach by inviting anyone interested in reviewing some of their books to either get involved on their blog or, if they don’t have one (or don’t want to use it for the reviews), writing Amazon reviews. There’s no pressure to write a positive review, they just want word of mouth out there about their books, and you can choose which four you want from a list of 15 and they’ll be sent to you.

It’s all explained rather better on Transworld’s Between the Lines blog, where you can also leave them a comment to get involved if you’d like to.

The four books I’ve chosen are listed below, so I’m looking forward to receiving the first (once it’s read and reviewed, I get the next one). Since reading is the most relaxing thing to do apart from sleep between Ramona’s feeds and I mentally review every book I read anyway, this is perfect for me.

Bryant & May on the Loose by Christopher Fowler (review now published)

Amberville by Tim Davys (review now published)

E Squared by Matt Beaumont

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (review now published)