Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Category: Authors W (page 1 of 8)

Shiny Linkiness

SNB logo tinyI’m back to school today, so scheduled this one in advance. A post of Shiny linkness to my fiction reviews in the recent Extra Shiny issue of Shiny New Books.

Do head over to see the full reviews, and feel free to comment here or there. Thank you.

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley


A multi-layered tale of a humble telegraphist,  a bluestocking scientist and a Japanese watchmaker, set in Victorian London under siege from the Fenians. Despite its vestiges of Victorian steampunk fantasy, at its heart The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a thriller, a remarkably effective one that draws you into its world from the beginning.

It’s hard to believe that this novel is a debut. It is so polished that you will genuinely believe that a clockwork octopus is alive too.   (9/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

Last-Pilot-cover-RGB-667x1024Behind every test pilot or astronaut is everyone they leave behind each time they set off.  Set during the beginning years of the space race in the 1960s, this amazing debut novel tells of one such human story, that of a fictional family set amongst the real life test pilots and astronauts, and their story blends seamlessly into that of history.

This book moved and excited me in equal measure, and will definitely feature around the top of my year end best of list. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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All Sorts of Possible by Rupert Wallis

all sort of possibleThis YA novel begins with a sinkhole – Daniel survives falling into the sinkhole, but falls further ending up at the bottom with no way out except to follow the water. He scratches the word ‘Help’ onto a cave wall. ‘Please,’ he says – and finds the way out. He is the miracle boy – the one who survived. His father though, is in an induced coma, he may not recover.

Daniel discovers that his ordeal has given him a psychic energy that when another receptive person seeks him out and helps focus it.  Surely it could be used for good, but when gangster Mason gets his hands on Daniel, things get rather nasty…

A different kind of paranormal teen novel, I enjoyed this blend of psychics and sinkholes!  (8/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Trapped in Genteel Poverty…

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Paying guestWhen we chose the second title for the Shiny Book Club, we wanted something totally different to the first (The Bees, which I reviewed here). It had to fit our criteria of being a Shiny New Book available in paperback in the UK. The obvious choice was Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, which came out in paperback in early summer.  (Note: It’ll be out in September in the US, so you can join in the Shiny Book Club discussion which will run until the next issue in October).  I’d bought the hardback last year, and very much enjoyed reading it, although holding it open (I don’t care to crack spines), made my wrist ache in bed!

A very quick synopsis of the basic plot. It’s 1922 and Frances Wray lives in genteel poverty with her mother in Champion Hill, the posh bit of Camberwell, South London. Her two brothers were killed in WWI. After that her father died, leaving them short of cash, they had to let their servants go, and Frances has taken on all aspects of running the house, being careful to keep up appearances for her mother’s sake. However, austerity is not enough, and reluctantly they decide to take in lodgers. Enter a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, who will take the upstairs rooms (excepting Frances’ bedroom). They will have to share the outside lav though.  After their visit to view, Frances is discussing them with her mother:

‘One good thing, I suppose, about their being so young: they’ve only his parents to compare us with. They won’t know that we really haven’t a clue what we’re doing. So long as we act the part of landladies with enough gusto, then landladies is what we will be.’
Her mother looked pained. ‘How baldly you put it! you might be Mrs Seaview, of Worthing.’
‘Well, there’s no shame in being a landlady; not these days. I for one aim to enjoy landladying.’
‘If you would only stop saying the word.’

And so it is that upper middle class Frances and her mother, become landladies to a working class couple on their way up. Quite a reversal.

Frances initially finds it difficult having a man in the house again, with his ‘jaunty whistling’ and ‘loud masculine sneezes’.  Len also has a habit of going out into the yard for a fag late in the evening, and stopping to talk to Frances on his way back through the kitchen.  He asks her about the garden and volunteers to help, telling her about his guvnor’s garden:

‘He even has cucumbers in a frame. Beauties, they are – this long!’ He held his hands apart, to show her. ‘Ever thought of cucumbers, Miss Wray?’
‘Growing them, I mean?’
Was there some sort of innuendo there? She could hardly believe that there was. But his gaze was lively, as it had been the night before, and , just as something about his manner then had discomposed her, so, now, she had the feeling that he was poking fun at her, perhaps attempting to make her blush.

Everyone settles down; Lilian puts her personal touch on their rooms with shawls and ornaments; Len goes out to work. Lilian gives Frances the rent money, and Mrs Wray gets hopeful about it:

‘I did just wonder, Frances, whether we mightn’t be able to afford a servant again.’

It is clear that there are tensions in Lil and Len’s relationship. This is obvious to Frances, who had begun to strike up a friendship with her lodger.  Then, one day, Frances lets out her big secret – she’d had a relationship with another woman, Chrissy, and was found out as the two of them had planned to set up home together. Far from scaring off Lilian, it switches something on in her and the pair become intimate, starting a secret affair.  Things soon come to a head though. It’s deeply stressful for all concerned in every which way. What happens next?  There are shocks and twists aplenty, but I’m not going to get more spoilery here. If you have read the book though, the discussion at Shiny Book Club does go into detail.

I thought that Waters nailed the situation of Frances and her mother in their enforced austerity perfectly. Mrs Wray was obviously perpetually mortified by it, and hated the idea that anyone might spot Frances cleaning the front doorstep or the like. Frances is hemmed in by it all, but throws herself into the chores to escape from her mother, except on those days she has trips into London to see her old flame Christina which is her only real relief from drudgery and the spinster life she has had to settle for.

Lilian at first appears flighty with Frances the dominant one, but as the novel progresses there is rather a role reversal. Frances falls so hard for Lilian it unnerves her, whereas Lilian gets strength from her large supportive family (who never find out all the secrets). Frances has been hardened by what happened before and regrets losing Christina, she thinks she’ll never find another lover and can’t believe it when Lilian reciprocates.  Their secret relationship is so intense and claustrophobic. At the beginning of the novel I really felt for Frances; I know she couldn’t help it, but the pressure she put on Lilian made me feel less for her and more for her partner in crime.

Topping just  over 560 pages in hardback, I did find this novel hard to put down, reading it in three long sessions. Once you get towards the closing stages, there is no way you’ll want to stop reading if you don’t have to, it’s so intense and gripping.  It feels very real in its post-WWI world (as The Night Watch did with WWII). It’s the 1920s, but there’s not a flapper in sight, this is suburban South London (and believe me it doesn’t change much!)

The Night Watch
remains my favourite Waters novel, but I preferred The Paying Guests to the slower-burning The Little Stranger (review here). The Paying Guests pulls you into its world right from the start. It is a complex morality tale that I enjoyed reading very much.

See also Harriet’s review and Simon’s at Vulpes Libris.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Virago, paperback, 608 pages.

Incoming and plans for August!

I don’t often review my new bookish acquisitions but there have been such recent riches that I couldn’t resist. Heaven knows when I’ll actually get around to reading most of them, so I’ve also included a smaller pile of the three books I am definitely going to read this August.

New books bought – batch the first:  I made the mistake of saying I’d meet my daughter in Waterstones and look what happened!

  • I couldn’t resist Stevie Smith whom I’ve never read.
  • Satellite People is a Scandi-crime book that sounds rather different and has a Saul Bass style cover.
  • Lock in is a dystopian medical thriller – just love those.
  • Victoria rates The Mersault Investigation.
  • A novel by Steven Berkoff about an actor – looking forward to that!
  • I did read a Stewart O’Nan book pre-blog, and he’s so highly thought of – this new one is all infused with F Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Jenny Eclair is wonderful and her books are too.

New books bought – batch the second:  from Abingdon bookshops.

  • I love Rebecca Front on the TV, so have big hopes for her book of “true stories and everyday absurdities” from her life.
  • This Miriam Toews novel mentioned The Stones and Marianne Faithfull in the blurb – gotta have it.
  • A YA novel about a family of third generation settlers on the red planet
  • I loved Victoria’s Shiny review of Heather O’Neill’s novel.
  • Similarly I loved Ana’s Shiny review of this YA novel with adult appeal.
  • Curtain Call is a mystery set in a theatre – again what’s not to like?

Moving on to reading plans…

My immediate review copy TBR pile looks like this:


It contains from the top, a romp of a novel set in 1799, two thrillers, a Russian novel set in the crumbling Soviet empire, a YA novel about a mermaid,  some Steampunk, and finally in this pile – Clive James new book of essays (out soon).  Much to look forward to here.

And finally:  Three from the TBR I plan to read in August…


  • August is Women in Translation month hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. I will enjoy seeing what everyone reads, and will join in with the first Commander Adamsberg novel by Frenchwoman Fred Vargas. I also have The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck to write up after we discuss it at Book Group tomorrow.
  • My Annabel’s Shelves project – D is for?  Well,  I’ve gone for DeLillo and his first novel Americana. I figured that this was the only way I would at least attempt to read one of his books.
  • The Shiny Book Club meets to discuss The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters on August 20th – so I’d better get a wiggle on.

I’m also hoping that I can squeeze some of the above into crossing off squares on my Book Bingo card, which I will update you on soon.

PHEW! So what are your reading plans this month?

A modern take on Jeeves & Wooster

Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

wake up sirJonathan Ames is apparently a bit of a cult author in the USA as novelist, essayist, columnist, storyteller and creator of a sitcom for HBO called Bored to Death. I’d not heard of him before, but was piqued by the premise of his 2004 novel Wake up, Sir! which has recently been published in the UK and is an unashamed contemporary tribute to Wodehouse.

Alan Blair is a thirty-year-old American writer with one book under his belt and is struggling to get started with his difficult second one. He is a drinker, single, Jewish and full of neuroses, sexual, mental – you name it he suffers from it. He lives in Manhattan sponging on his beloved Aunt and ghastly Uncle, but having come into some money via an inheritance, he employs a personal valet to look after him. Said valet just happens to be called Jeeves.

…I went into the kitchen and Jeeves was there, beaming in at the precise moment that I made my entrance, which he’s very good at. He’s always appearing and disintegrating and reappearing just when the stage directions call for him.

Now I come to think of it, given the Star Trek analogy, there is a Vulcan quality to Jeeves, matching the unemotional Mr Spock always looking after Jim Kirk isn’t there?

Even with the assistance of Jeeves, Alan can’t stop drinking and his relations have had enough. Tough love is required – they offer him rehab or eviction. Alan has already decided to take off for a writing retreat so chooses the latter option and goes to bed worrying.

I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration – Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror.

Blair and Jeeves set off for an upstate Jewish spa town Sharon Springs and arrive only to find it mostly boarded up, the bathhouse abandoned and ruined. Alan, drunk as usual, manages to get beaten up badly after a disastrous phone call to a number in a lavatory stall! However, they discover that in Saratoga nearby, there is a proper artist and writer’s retreat called the Rose Colony, and they have a vacancy. It would be the ideal place for Alan to dry out and get on with his writing …

We’re now halfway through the book, and so far it had been an entertaining slog with not enough happening, but once we’re through the gates of the Rose Colony the pace picks up and we finally meet a bunch of characters that are just as crazy as Blair himself. Blair is communing with novelist Alan Tinkle and his whisky bottle (falling off the wagon afresh each day). Tinkle is telling him all about his particular problem of overstimulation:

“Along with heavy drinking, I do preventative masturbation four or five times a day so that I can go out in public.”

This all sounded oddly familiar. Then I reassured myself: I might have shared some of his symptoms, but that can be said for most psychiatric illnesses.

“Why do you think this has happened to you?” I asked. “Maybe you should see Oliver Sacks. It could be neurological. Like the man who thought his wife was a cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t get any sex. That’s my problem. I’m thirty-one; I haven’t had sex in nine years.”

What could I say to comfort him? Nine years was a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East. …

It soon becomes clear that sex is high on everyone’s mind at the Rose Colony. Alan himself falls for an artist called Ava, who has a magnificent nose. They eventually succumb and there is a drawn out and often cringeworthy, but occasionally hilarious, sex scene:

The robe opened up. She was naked.
I put my hand on her full, fat breast. Then I put my hand under her breast. Nobody had enjoyed weighing something as much since Archimedes.

Alan manages to get into scrape after scrape, upsetting most of the residents and staff including the enigmatic giant Dr Hibben, the colony’s director. Thank goodness for Jeeves whose ubiquity will always save the day.


Fry & Laurie as Jeeves & Wooster from the ITV adaptation

Although the character of Jeeves in this novel could have been lifted straight from Wodehouse, that of Alan Blair is, while remaining true to Bertie Wooster’s essential nature is a little different.  Like Bertie, he is the narrator of the tale, and he shares Wooster’s dandyish tendencies, and naive refusal to grow up for instance. However, he is pathetic in his alcoholism and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him in his desire to deal with his condition, which is something I have rarely felt for the buffoonish Wooster. I loved the way that Jeeves is able to insinuate himself into any situation without anyone noticing. Indeed, in another review of this book in Quadrapheme web magazine, the reviewer wonders whether Jeeves might be a figment of Blair’s imagination? Upon reflection, that seems entirely possible!  (It didn’t stop me picturing Stephen Fry as Jeeves all the way though).

I did feel that this book took far too long to get going, we don’t reach the Rose Colony, scene of most of the comedy and bawdiness, until halfway through it’s 334 pages – the Wodehouse inspired Charlie Mortdecai books (well the first two, see here) are at least as racy, consistently funny and all over inside 200 pages.  Although not actually as filthy as I’d imagined reading the publicity, I enjoyed Ames’s creation which is more polished than mere pastiche, I just wish the first half had been compressed. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (2004, pub Pushkin Press, 2015) paperback original, 334 pages.

It's a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.


A case of the 'sweats' …

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

plague times 1 I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this, the first volume in Louise Welsh’s planned Plague Times trilogy (the second was published earlier this month), for it turned out to be a taut suspense thriller combining a murder mystery with a deadly pandemic – just my kind of book! Equally, I don’t know why I’ve never read any of Louise Welsh’s books before – I own several others after all.

Stevie Flint has just been stood up in a Soho Club. Irritated, but understanding, for Simon is a doctor and often gets called away she goes home, although ‘he had always phoned, or got someone to phone for him’ before.

The next evening she’s at work with Joanie – the pair are presenters on a TV shopping channel, you name it they sell it – dual action toasters today ‘My husband Derek, he likes his golden brown…’ says Joanie. Stevie and Joanie are good friends in real life too and make a great double act on TV with Joanie acting the married housewife and Stevie the smart singleton, roles that are close enough to real life, although Joanie and Derek are separated now. After the end of her shift, Stevie rings the hospital where Simon works only to find that he’s ‘on holiday’, and heads off to his flat to collect her things!

She finds him dead – in bed – with no obvious signs of murder. She does the right thing and calls the police. Later, having called in sick to work, she really is ‘gut-wrenchingly, jaw-stretchingly, horribly sick.’  It takes several days for the fever to work its way through her system. Stevie is one of the first survivors of what they’ve called ‘the sweats’, and few, if any others, are surviving, but it’s not the end of the world – yet!

When she discovers an ‘in case I’m dead’ type letter from Simon in her tea caddy telling her that he’s hidden a package in her loft, Stevie realises that he was probably murdered for it. The instructions he’s left her are to give it only to Dr Malcolm Reah. When Stevie finds that Reah is dead, and Simon’s colleague Dr Ahumibe is unnaturally interested in Simon’s package, she realises that something’s going on, and that she may become a target too. She has to investigate Simon’s death, so she can protect herself. Finding that the package contains a password protected laptop, who can she turn to? She asks Joanie’s ex Derek, a policeman, for help…

It’s a race against time for Stevie, people are dropping like flies all around her but she is obsessed with finding out who killed Simon, for she had been beginning to think their relationship may have been going somewhere. The question is will she like the answers if and when she gets them?

survivors-1972The spread of the pandemic is well-realised. At first it’s just a nasty virus that’s going round and the world must go on, but as the days go on and more people get the sweats, life begins to break down bit by bit. It brought back strong memories of Terry Nation’s TV series Survivors from the mid-1970s (not the poor 2008 spin-off, and how I loved Greg, Ian McCulloch, in that series, although he had to vie with Robin Ellis in Poldark for top spot in my affections back then!).

By combining the thriller with the pandemic, Welsh has created a wonderful hybrid which made for compulsive reading.  If pushed, I’d say that I was more interested in the pandemic strand than the medical thriller one, but the two themes have a synergy (I can’t believe I just used that word in a review!) that makes the novel more than the sum of its parts. The tension is palpable and the pace rarely pauses for breath.

In the early stages, I particularly liked the behind the scenes view of the TV studio. Welsh could have made Stevie a news or magazine programme presenter, but her choice of the shopping channel was absolutely brilliant. Being that cheesy on screen is not as easy as it looks.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to read volume two, Death is a Welcome Guest, which I have on my pile. The proof copy arrived complete with a kit of surgical mask, gloves and a forehead thermometer strip!  A Lovely Way to Burn would make perfect summer reading for fans of thrillers and dystopias alike, I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further via my Amazon UK affiliate link, please click below:

A Lovely Way to Burn: Plague Times Trilogy 1 by Louise Welsh. Pub 2014 by John Murray, paperback Jan 2015, 368 pages.
Death is a Welcome Guest: Plague Times Trilogy 2 by Louise Welsh. Pub Jun 2015 by John Murray, hardback 384 pages.

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