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On (Not) Chick Lit – Summer Reads

In my younger, more foolish years, I was a bit of a book snob. I wouldn’t want to be seen to read anything too populist.

Then I had kids and got over myself. I realised that it’s not just literary style and, dare I say it, a dash of pretentiousness, that makes a ‘good read’. There’s got to be plot to keep you turning the pages, characters you can relate to in some way and are invested in their lives, and a mixture of light and shade, humour and pathos.

And so I stopped being a book snob, and learnt to love good writing, good stories and good books. Regardless of their pastel coloured covers and looped faux-handwritten titles.

Just as my tastes have broadened, so have book jacket designers. ‘Contemporary women’s fiction’ comes in many guises.

Three titles I’ve read recently, in a break from children’s fiction, are certainly worth reading, and come with my recommendation.

Never Greener – Ruth Jones

(ISBN 9780593078068  publiNever Greenershed in hardback April 2018; I had a proof copy)

As you would expect from a writer and actor who came up with Gavin and Stacy, and Stella, there are well-realised, funny and flawed characters aplenty. In essence, tit’s the story of Callum and Kate. They first meet on a shift at Callum’s brother’s pub in 1985. Despite their decades large age gap (and the not insignificant that Callum’s wife is pregnant with his third child), they get together and conduct a secret affair. Twenty years later, their paths cross again. How do they react? Is anything rekindled? Is the grass greener on the other side?

This is an excellent debut; Ruth Jones’ experience in screenwriting certainly shows. The domestic details, conversations, and the dramatic tension are all handled confidently.

I look forward to another novel; much more than ‘just’ a celebrity novel, the beginning of a good writing career ahead is possible.

Expect plenty of media coverage too…

 

How Do You Like Me Now?: – Holly Bourne

(ISBN     published in hardback June 2018; lovely proof from Hodder)

This is Holly’s debut ‘adult’ novel, having already published a range of YA novels. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Another book about existential angst at reaching the grand old age of 30? (I’m a decade ahead of that; I was giving birth the eve I turned 30 – best birthday present, ever! Any existential angst was overtaken with actual pain)

Although the main subject is reaching one’s thirties and wondering ‘how did I end up here? And with him?! Is this as good as it gets?’, I was engaged and amused by the ups and downs of Tori’s life.

Tori Bailey published a successful self-help style book, is a popular and engaging speaker, has been with Tom for years and years, has a great group of friends. What more could she want?

Well, her second book, a commitment from Tom, and – perhaps – the patter of tiny feet. Oh, and a sense of what comes next now she’s officially ‘a grown up’.

Tori is engaging, honest, funny and sweary; like your new best friend. This is a very contemporary book (Facebook updates, Instagram likes and preparing for a TED talk feature heavily) so it will be interesting to see how this book ages.

I really enjoyed it. I am immensely grateful for the apparent stability in my own life (married, two kids, part time job, not obsessed with Instagram likes), but know that this will strike a nerve with many twenty-something readers this summer.

(thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the advanced proof)

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

(ISBN 9780008126063 published paperback March 2018; I BOUGHT a copy!)

Admittedly, I haven’t read Dawn’s YA novels, but I know her ‘off of the telly’. My initial thought was, oh now, not another book about a group of female friends, dealing with ‘issues’. But it’s so much more than that. And VERY good.

The Cows (Paperback)Three modern women, making important decisions about their own lives.Cam is a popular blogger; Tara is a tv documentary maker; Stella is a PA. All are successful; all make a misguided decision with consequences. They’re not friends initially although their lives begin to intertwine. They’re all women upon whom society judges, through their decisions, actions, attitudes. Why does society judge women like this? Why are men not subjected to the same unrelenting scrutiny? Why are there double standards?

This is another book which is a cut above the run-of-the-mill books about women’s relationships. It is about relationships of all types, but also about society’s relationship to women; what society appears to expect and the judgement which comes when an unexpected decision is made.

It’s also funny, touching and heartfelt. I came to like all three central characters, and was invested in their stories. I gasped aloud at one moment! Definitely a book which stands out from the herd – not just because of the excellent cover design. Recommended.

 

And so, I have learnt not to be such a snob. It takes great skill to create characters a reader cares about. And to get them to do things readers find interesting, make decisions which really matter, have conversations which are believable and not just plot devices. These three combine humour with literary skill, good plot development with believable characters. All three are highly recommended in the sunshine with a g’n’t this summer!

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Posted by on 07/05/2018 in review

 

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Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

mermaid

What a tale! Most definitely a grown up story and all the better for it.

While reading it, I was reminded of Georgette Heyer’s Regency London, but one which shows more of the shaved, itching head under the powdered wig.

Set in London and its environs from 1785, it’s a tale of mermaids and courtesans, fortune and poverty, love and lust.

Jonah Hancock is a shipping merchant; staid, widowed, slightly shabby but just about managing; a middling, average, unremarkable man.  He’s plodding his way through life following the death of his wife and infant son, living in the same house he was born in with his young niece, Sukie.  Everything is transformed when his ship’s captain brings back a mermaid. Wizened and hideous, it’s not the beauty everyone expects,  but it’s still a mysterious bewitching creature. Oh, and it’s dead.

As well as a mermaid, Jonah meets Angelica Neal – one of the most notorious courtesans of the Ton. She posed for Reynolds, entertained the most eligible men, and knew exactly how to please her admirers. But she has been abandoned by her latest lover, left only with her companion, Eliza Frost.

Their paths cross and become entwined to the surprise of Angelica’s erstwhile madam, the ironically named Mrs Chappell. (As an aside, I noticed that all the women in Mrs Chappell’s ‘nunnery’ are referred to as ‘Mrs’; perhaps an honorary title, similar to that of a housekeeper in later decades, but with added services – less housework more ‘whore-work’?! Just a thought…)

Another mermaid is found, and the story becomes a little fantastical. I didn’t mind this element of mystical whimsy as I’d become as invested in the story of Jonah and Angelica as they had with each other; as entangled as a woman’s ribbons might become in her stays if removed too hastily in the heat of passion.

This is an immersive read. At times, it reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in the amount of detail provided for the minutiae of daily life in a long-ago age. The reader can see, taste, hear, smell and feel all the fabrics, interiors, cobbled streets, docklands, whore houses, coffee houses of the London of 1780s. The authors experience working in museums evidently put to good use as she vividly evokes daily life via the things needed to live in a Regency city.

It should be pointed out that there is an eye-raising scene in ‘the nunnery’ as a lavish, sensual show is performed by ‘sailors and mermaids’ for the obvious delight and titillation of society’s gentlemen. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it’s pivotal to the plot and perfectly encapsulates the excess and licentiousness of the age in that part of society.

It struck me while I was reading, that all the characters are questing to improve their lot in life, perhaps by fortune, discovery, a suitable match, or gainful employment.  Everyone wants to be elsewhere.  The presence of the second mermaid – a much more ethereal creature – unsettles the balance. Rather than looking upwards and outwards, those who encounter her start to look inwards and downwards, sinking into miasma. Perhaps the mermaid’s former freedom in the ocean and fluidity of her movements reminds us of our restrictive, gravitised lives in human society.

It also explores women in captivity, in its loosest sense. This novel is full of women but they’re all constrained: in their position in society, in their clothes, in what they can say. The uncaught mermaid is free; perhaps that’s an element of her attraction.

I loved the frequent and delightful use of contemporary expressions and terminology. I neglected to make a note as I went along, but those that stick in my memory are the insistence by one of the madams on the use of ‘cundums’ and a most memorable scene involving the use and emptying of a ‘bordalone’ (to all intents and purposes a Regency ‘she-wee’!).

This is truly sumptuous writing; a sensual delight created by mere words on a page. It’s a truly immersive read and comes highly recommended. Dive in!

 

ISBN 9781911215721 (hardback, February 2018)

 
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Posted by on 01/03/2018 in review

 

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Review: Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin cover

You must read this wonderful début! It’s full of ingenious inventions, great bravery and enormous heart.

Meet Christopher. He is a ‘proper’, a human orphan, growing up in Mr Absalom’s junk yard amongst a motley crew of robot mechanicals. There’s Jack who could be sold as a ‘real boy’, Round Rob made from a cooking pot, Manda who’s just a little bit wonky everywhere, Gripper the giant who’s as kind as he is strong, and Estelle, the other ‘proper’ who helps out ‘like a real grown up’.

Together they embark on a thrilling journey of discovery, adventuring to Ironhaven and the Crag, finding their inner strength and undiscovered skills.

This is a world like ours (in the 1930s) but filled with glyphs and mechanicals, Blakes and Runcibles.

A winning combination of Pinocchio with The Wizard of Oz and a bit of I, Robot.

I thought it was a delightful story of friendship, love, and what it means to be human.

What would your robot look like? Would you like to be a robot?

ISBN 9781911077657 pbk

 
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Posted by on 30/01/2018 in review

 

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Review: Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

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What a ride!

This is a great story for ‘middle grade’ readers full of amazing inventions, an exciting adventure, a pair of brave and clever twins, helpful animals and a heartless enemy. With added air ships.

Meet Arthur and Maudie, the Brightstorm twins. They’re inquisitive, adventurous, bright, and brave. They’re also about to be orphaned. Their father is an intrepid explorer who doesn’t return from his last expedition to try to rWhat each South Polaris, the furthest point known to humanity.  Maudie is an engineer in the making, reading and investigating mechanical workings as much as possible. Arthur is more thoughtful but always joins his twin on her adventures. She made his iron arm so he can clamber the rooftops alongside her.

The twins seek their escape from the ‘care’ of the Begginses by joining an expedition North. But will they choose the beautifully dressed, famous Eudora Vane or the young, reckless Harriet Culpepper?

On their adventures, they come across transforming houses, thought-wolves and learn the importance of a well-appointed spoon.

This story is full of imaginative inventions, bravery and friendship. There are moments of real peril, sadness and delight. The society of Lontown is well realised, and the wild landscapes of the Second and Third continents are exciting and untamed.

Now I’m off to dream of swamp cakes and honey tea while steering my own sky ship across the continents…

‘Love is what you decide to do – the choices you make.’

 

Thanks to Scholastic and Bounce Marketing for the gorgeously presented advance proof copy. The published book looks even shinier!

Published March 2018

 
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Posted by on 26/01/2018 in review

 

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Review: Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

9781784704919This is a perfect choice for Waterstones’ Book of the Month for January 2018.  Just as we’ve (possibly) spent a little too long in the company of relatives, and (definitely) overindulged in food, drink and the buying of things, let this story remind you of the vital essentials of life.

This novel simmers down into a deceptively simple love story of a couple in their twilight years.  Gerry and Stella Gilmore travel to Amsterdam for a post-Christmas break. As their stories gently unfold, we learn more about the lives of this architect and teacher; as parents and children, lovers and spouses, their frailties and their strengths.

Over their four days away, it becomes clear that, despite decades of happy marriage and their continued love for each other, Gerry and Stella’s lives are moving in separate directions: Gerry towards ‘just a smidgen’ more of strong drink, Stella towards a more devout Catholic life.

Both characters are Northern Irish expats living in Scotland; there is an excellent sense of place during their break in Amsterdam, with their memories of growing up on the North Eastern Irish coast and their lives together in Scotland.

This couple have a jokey, loving familiarity with each other and during their conversations and memories, their past years together are slowly revealed, returning to and circling around a significant event in their early marriage.

It was not as maudlin as I had feared; there is a great deal of dry humour, reflecting the familiarity and affection of this couple’s decades together. There was a great depth of emotion evoked; I really cared for Stella and Gerry.  (I also particularly liked the mention of my personal favourite medieval female mystic, Julian of Norwich (she of the eternally reassuring  ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’) and the Beguine community reminded me to look out my  undergraduate Theology dissertation…. I also noted the name check for Waterstones in Amsterdam: Gerry ‘liked the familiarity of the big W and the black frontage’.)

This is a subtle, internalised domestic drama of a couple in their twilight years together. It might not end far from where it began (as Gerry says, ‘the whole holiday has been a cul-de-sac’) but at its essence is an exploration of a couple remembering and learning how to cherish each other, acknowledging and then loving their differences.

This delicately nuanced portrait of a long-term relationship, their ageing together and shared significant experiences combine to make a seasonally warming read.

 

Thanks to Vintage Publishers for the advanced proof copy, way back in the Summer; it was worth the wait!

ISBN  978178404919 (pbk)

 
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Posted by on 04/01/2018 in review

 

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Review: Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Published January 2018 ISBN 978141146077 paperback

Wow! what a wild adventure!

The story of Eska, Flint, Blu, Bala and the various tribes of Erkenwald as they battle against the evil plans of the Ice Queen kept me gripped during the ‘inbetween-time’of Christmas and New Year.
This is a story of finding your voice (both literally and metaphorically), settling into your tribe, navagating your way amongst the wild, dangerous threats in the frozen North.

Abi’s ‘Letter to the Reader’ prepared me for some concoction of two of my favourite Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid, alongside shaman, icy kingdoms and determined children. Add into the mix an enchanted music box, a warrior-inventor and the bravery of desperation, this makes for an engrossing, emotional story. Abi did not disappoint!

Sky Song is set in the imaginary kingdom of Erkenwald, a far northern place where winters are long, frozen and dark and summers are short, light and not particularly warm. There are wild bears, rock giants, enchanted wolverines and persuasive eagles. And tribes: the Fur Tribe and the Feather Tribe, alongside the little-known Wanderers.

The fairy-tale style introduction quickly sets the scene: an evil Ice Queen has taken the adults from the Fur and Feather Tribes, capturing their voices in baubles on her trees in her icy palace. Winterfang Palace is deliciously eerie, where even the candles could be spies. The Ice Queen, in the tradition of Andersen’s Snow Queen, and Lewis’ White Witch/Queen Jadis, is tall, powerful and beautiful. With her magical black staff, dress made of her prisoners’ tears and her crown of snowflakes, she’s deliciously evil. Although she already has the adults’ voices, she also needs the voice of Eska, a young girl whose memory she captures in a locked box then enchants her to become a static dancer in a music box. There Eska is to wait for midsummer’s day where the Queen will capture Eska’s voice, unleashing the power of the Sky Song and reach immortality.

Eska is a fierce red-head, but no longer knows her family, her tribe, her place in Erkenwald. All she has is her voice, one which is ‘bold and unlikely’. The Ice Queen needs this cursed voice to complete the magic to achieve her immortality.

The boy who ‘could feel himself folded further into her story’ is Flint: a boy from the Fur Tribe who is always in trouble for his ‘detours’, lack of concentration on the ‘important’ matters of his tribe (of which his brother is the interim Chief). He loves animals, inventions and his little sister, Blu; the latter two are both affectively drawn. Blu has Downs Syndrome, but cannot be dismissed (as the Ice Queen mistakenly tried to do) as she too is a fierce, brave eight year old girl who proudly loves her brother, doing her utmost to save her brother and her friends.

Flint and Eska escape Winterfang, undertake an exciting quest to foil the Ice Queen’s plans, find the Sky Horn and allow the Sky Song to keep the stars shining, destroying the Ice Queen’s selfish plan for immortality. It is fast-paced, exciting story with a great furry, feathery, beating heart of friendship. Eska and Flint find their own strengths, their places in their world, their connection alongside the wild animals of Erkenwald. As Eska says, ‘I have a voice and I’m going to make it count!’

‘I don’t think you have to fight with weapons to be a warrior,’ Eska whispered, ‘You could fight with love and tears and adventures instead. That would probably be just as good.’

Highly recommended for an 8-12 year old readership, but anyone who loves nature, wildness, adventure stories, the search for one’s sense of self. I shall be enthusiastically talking to customers long after it is Waterstones’ January Children’s Book of the Month. Excellent!

 
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Posted by on 31/12/2017 in review

 

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Review: How To Stop Time

A: Read Matt Haig’s latest novel! Its beauty, depth and humanity will make you forget the end of your lunch break, miss your Tube stop, take you beyond sleep. It’s as though the reading of this time-bending novel can stop time itself with the power of Tom Hazard’s story. 

It kept me cool during the recent heatwave.

Tom may look like an ordinary forty-odd year old but he has actually loved centuries. Through the terror of witch-hunts, to the stench of London with Shakespeare; the ephemeral jazz age with Fitzgerald to the excitement on the South Seas with Captain Cook, Tom lives through it all, until we meet him attempting to teach history to reluctant pupils in Hackney. 

Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in ? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other ones from getting in? How, in short, do you live?

Tom has a rare condition which delays his aging; he is ‘an albatross’. Although not immortal, his aging process is so slow, he has to watch everyone he loves age around him. The skill of this novel is how Haig gets us to feel the emotional connection with Tom; his hope as he searches for his lost loves, how he tries to lose himself in the pleasures of the age, how he always feels disconnected from his surroundings.

…love food and music and champagne and rare sunny afternoons in October. You can love the sight of waterfalls and the smell of old books, but the love of people is off limits…’

Ultimately, this is a novel of hope, of joy in the present, of the power of love to sustain and give meaning to life. It is an easier read than these weighty themes might suggest; a unique love story with historical colour and humour .

That’s the thing with time, isn’t it? It’s not all the same. Some days -some years – some decades – are empty. There is nothing to them. It’s just flat water. And then you come across a year, or even a day, or an afternoon. And it is everything. It’s the whole thing.

As in his other novels, Matt Haig has successfully explored a complex idea with a light touch, injected both humour and pathos, to produce a joyful, moving and entertaining novel.     A delight to read! I shall be recommending it enthusiastically.
Thanks to Canongate for the prepublication proof.

 
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Posted by on 24/06/2017 in Life, review

 

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