Friday, 30 December 2011

The Secret of Happy Ever After by Lucy Dillon

****
The third book of Dillon's set in Longhampton, where the local people are unusually accommodating of dogs and romance is generally in the air! It's also good to have flashes of Longhampton's other residents who have featured in previous novels, it's comforting to know they're doing okay after their own happy ending!
I love Lucy Dillon's books and had purposely saved this to read over Christmas, expecting a well written but cosy, heart-warming story to delve into, and as the beautiful cover (they always are good!) predicts, that's just what you get.
Anna is struggling to be a good step-mum to husband Phil's three daughters and manic dalmatian, Pongo.  Anna has recently lost her job in the local library and relies on her love of books and the fictional comfort they provide whilst she juggles the dancing classes, Britain's got talent auditions, GSCE and A-level revision by always putting herself and her broodiness last.  Her high powered friend, Michelle has sold her flashy car, left her controlling husband Harvey and set up the "Home Sweet Home" shop in the high street to provide lifestyle goodies to the yummy mummies of Longhampton.  Although she gives little of herself away and has no personal life, business is booming and she wishes to expand into the sadly, neglected bookstore next door, but a local solicitor, Rory, soon informs her that the condition of becoming the new tenant is that the shop is maintained as a bookstore for at least twelve months.  Never one to miss an opportunity, Michelle offers Anna the chance to manage the bookshop and plans to slowly shift her home stock into store as book related extras, to prove that book selling isn't a viable option long term.  Unfortunately, she doesn't let Anna know of this plan!
Anna pours her unfilled love for her own baby into the bookshop and it becomes a focal point for the community.  Throw in a couple of unexpected pregnancies, a needy and much-aged dog and the mix is complete.
What I loved about this book, and it shouldn't come as a great surprise with my massive reading habit, is the genuineness of Anna's affection for literature, particularly children's classics.  The author interview at the end and aspects of Anna's childhood did more than strike a chord - I was that child too!  I still go back to my childhood favourites for comfort and pure nostalgia; and I do so using my job as a major excuse if anyone is looking!  Although I never was a fan of 101 Dalmatians, I loved all the others and maybe will do a blog on those another time. 
The trials and upset of being a new step-mum is believable and well written, Anna's sense of isolation and frustration is real.  I actually liked Chloe at her most horrendous and extreme drama-queendom but didn't really see the point of Phil, he was a bit of a non-event and I never really saw what attracted Anna to him in the first place.
Although I really enjoyed this book, what made it lose the star (and I'm really sorry) was the character of Michelle.  I just couldn't warm to her; I thought she was pretty horrible and so undeserving of Anna's time and understanding that I didn't actually feel she needed her "happy ending".  I get that she was control-freaky to protect herself, I got that Harvey was horrible and I still hated her mother, even after she finally saw the light...but what I couldn't get was how the grim events at her boarding school could be held over her for so long and be used by Harvey to manipulate her.  I understand that what happened would be horrific for any woman and that the trauma would effect her ability to move on but just didn't feel her responses not only to Harvey, but to her family and future friendships were particularly realistic, or maybe I had just created an even worse possibility as I went through the book?  Maybe I'm just being harsh and hate people with perfect houses?!!  So sadly, that made it a slightly less than perfect read for me, but I always look forward to Lucy Dillon's books and can't wait for the next one.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Magic of Christmas by Trisha Ashley

*****                                                                                                                 
Lizzy, founder member of the Christmas Pudding Circle lives in Middlemoss, a Lancashire village with the usual cast of odd-bods, soap stars, broodingly handsome Nick and the new Vicar. She manages to get by through self sufficiency and writing homely books about her cooking and gardening, with her son Jasper and her love rat husband. Saved from leaving her marriage by his sudden demise she continues to throw herself into village life, including the Boxing Day Mystery Play, but who will play Adam to her Eve?
Well, it's no secret that I love Trisha Ashley, she does "older" chit-lit with a light touch and a quirky sense of fun.  This is in her usual vein, based "Sweet Nothings" an oldie of hers that is terribly difficult to get hold of.  Lizzy is another engaging heroine and although the exaggerated and cosy village vibe is a bit "Vicar of Dibley" it's a cheerful, fluffy Christmas read, which is just what I needed and it's got me in the festive mood.
Now all I need is a glass of mulled wine, but I'm not sure about the mashed potato fudge!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

An Autumn Crush by Milly Johnson

****
Juliet has recently split from her husband after he had an affair with her best friend, rather than being down and depressed, she has a gorgeous new flat and a lovely new flat mate, Floz, to share the mortgage.  With a lovely family, including handsome and brooding twin brother Guy, and best friend Coco to support her, life is pretty good and not even internet dates from hell seem to put her off her stride.  Surprisingly, an antagonistic relationship with Guy's best friend Steve, the wrestler, develops into something else and she has to rethink her plans for the future.  Guy has had a troubled past and is definitely focusing on his career as a chef, the arrival of Floz puts him into turmoil as he's unable to show how attracted he is to her.  Floz is ready for a fresh start after the messy breakdown of her marriage, but an unexpected email reopens old wounds and makes her vulnerable and sad.  Can Guy make things better?
It's no secret that I love Milly Johnson! Her books are always light, witty fun and the fact she's a South Yorkshire girl who always manages to get a trip to Meadowhall in, just appeals to me.  It's nice that some old characters make tiny cameo appearances too.  It's also no secret that despite the trials and tribulations and a couple of laugh out loud moments, that everyone will get their happy ending.
I did enjoy this one, but have given it a slightly lower rating simply due to me not being convinced by Floz, if I explain why, it'll give the plot away...but I thought her a bit weak and waaaaay too naive to be likable.  Good stuff, but I liked "Here Come the Girls" a bit more!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

****
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group! This book was read and reviewed as part of the Transworld Book Challenge. A dual time book linking the stories from both 1947 and the 1850's.
Martin still struggles to come to terms with the horrors he saw during WWII and so jumps at the opportunity to record the events of the end of colonisation in India for posterity.  His wife Evie hopes the move will allow them to get their marriage back on track but although their young son thrives in their new world, she finds life as a new memsahib difficult.  A chance find of old letters and journals from the mid nineteenth century enthralls her and finally give her the strength to make some difficult decisions.
Felicity was born in India but sent back to England for her education where she becomes great friends with Adela.  With the British Raj at it's peak they are expected to find good marriages in India, but they have other ideas and go "jungli".  Living an unconventional life they create scandal but find their own joy.
I found the main strength of this book was the vivid descriptions of the India which were lovingly done and full of colour and vibrancy.  For me the story of Evie was less interesting and although she finally learns to be less judgemental, I didn't really understand her.
The Adela and Felicity aspect was really good (although I felt the Sarah Walters touch was an unnecessary bolt on) and I wanted more of this, the difficulties of Victorian women taking charge of their own destinies are facinating and I became a bit frustrated in leaving this to go back to 1947!

I read "The Book of Unholy Mischief" by the same author and enjoyed it, but I do feel this is a more "complete" book.  It sweeps you up into a different time and culture and is well worth a look!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas

*****
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group! This book was read and reviewed as part of the Transworld Book Challenge.

I was sooo pleased to get this book, as am a huge fan of Louise and loved her previous two novels.  This one is a bit different and certainly darker, but even better than I expected.

Sarah takes some time out in Sicily with her understanding sister and brother-in-law to try and make sense of her life.  The infidelity of her partner after the devastating loss of her baby son has left Sarah feeling rootless.  During her holiday she meets the charismatic Alexander and his charming young son Jamie.  She discovers that Alexander's beautiful and talented wife, Genevieve has recently left him and her need to be loved and to nurture leads her to the make the snap decision to move from Manchester to live with Alex and Jamie in Somerset as their housekeeper.
However, the move from city to rural life has it difficulties, not least the questions raised by the locals about Genevieve's sudden disappearance.  Is Alexander all he appears and what isn't he telling her?

In her acknowledgements, Louise Douglas mentions the impact of several classics as inspiration for this novel and it shows; it's brilliantly written and has a modern slant on the Gothic theme. It's very reminiscent of Rebecca in terms of the theme of previous wife and the secrets around her, and how the character that we never meet in the book can completely dominate. 

It's very atmospheric with a brooding, claustrophobic tension that gradually builds.  I read the whole thing in a day and stayed up late reading (despite it being the night before the start of the new school year) as I couldn't leave it without reaching the conclusion.   It's really difficult to review this book as I don't want to give the ending away, but it's a fantastic read, I can't praise it enough!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The House by the Sea by Santa Montefiore

****
Ten year old Floriana, an Italian urchin, abandoned by her mother and left to care for her alcoholic father, falls in love with the gardens of the Villa La Magdalena and the owner's son, Dante.  Convinced it's her destiny to marry Dante and to live happily ever after in the beautiful villa, she ignores the difficulties of money, class and Dante's dangerous father.
Forty years later, Marina and her husband Grey run a luxury hotel on the coast of Devon, but face financial and familial difficulties. Marina is relying on finding a resident artist to boost their income, but this seems unlikely until the charismatic, Argentine Rafa Santoro appears.  He sweeps in and makes everything appear better, but is he all he appears?

I have a bit of strange relationship with Santa Montefiore's books...some are fabulous, I sobbed at the end of "Forget-me-not Sonata" and I loved "The French Gardener", but a couple of the others have been disappointing, i.e. "The Affair" and some other suspects.  I keep buying hoping each new one will live up to my expectations...and this one, nearly did!
The dual stories of Floriana in Tuscany, forty years ago and the present day tribulations of Marina in Devon eventually weave together.  Maybe I read too many books along similar lines or am just familiar with the recurring themes in Montefiore's books, but I knew straight away where it was going and how Rafa fitted in.  I thought far too many clues were dropped when he first arrives at the hotel and so I dropped a star for being predictable!  However, it is beautifully written, particularly the Italian setting and I did want to go along with the ride.
The Italian story was interesting and I got a bit frustrated when it was stopped by the modern day, whinging Clemetine. Floriana's combination of toughness and idealism was understandable and engaging;  I thought Dante a bit two-dimensional, but his weaknesses drives the plot.
Marina is mysterious and contradictory, which is necessary.  Her relationship with everyone in the hotel, including her husband seems to be too needy and she lacked the spark that she must have had when younger.  Rafa is almost a "fairy-godfather" character!   He's too good to be true, but not in a bad way, I still loved him...gorgeous, wise, genuine...he comes in and spreads his fairy dust on everything and everyone, even the self-centred and spoilt Clementine.  Now this was a bit of a problem for me!!  I truly disliked Clementine, all the way through, even when she tried to redeem herself!  I get that Rafa is such a complete and special person that he could see through the "pain and damage" she'd done to herself in maintaining her hatred for Marina, but I couldn't see any redeeming characteristics underneath.  Clementine is spoilt, spiteful and allowed to get away with it and for no good reason - she should have got over it and grown up years ago.  It may be simplistic but I like characters to "earn" their happy ending and Clementine (for me!) came nowhere near!!
There's a lot of supporting characters that I didn't feel were really necessary.  I wanted to know more about Rafa's childhood and how he developed his ability with people, simply having good parenting didn't explain it all.  The whole Raffles/ Baffles plot was a red herring and I thought other parts of the book could have been further developed if it had been dropped.
However, even with my minor grumbles, it's a really pleasant wallow that takes you to another place (good holiday book) and I did enjoy it, so although not one (only in my opinion) of her greatest, certainly worth looking at.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Promises, Promises by Erica James

****         Maggie is the put upon wife of "Mr Blobby", aka Dave. She cleans other peoples' houses all day only to return home for more of the same for her unappreciative husband and son. The highlight of her week is the stolen afternoon reading romantic novels in the library. She dreams of a better life but her inability to stand up for herself means she probably faces only further drudgery and the occasional night at the bingo with her mum's cronies, unless she can change. An unexpected windfall and meeting the handsome Daryl, nephew of her elderly neighbour's new gentleman friend, might spur her into doing just that.
Ella is recovering from the end of a traumatic relationship with a widower and his hateful daughter. She's still angry by Lawrence's weakness and Alexia's machinations but her success as a specialist painter means she is commisioned by Ethan and his bitchy wife, Francine. Ethan's business is suffering in the recession but it's his home circumstances that are making him even more miserable. He sees Ella as a glimmer of hope and wants to get to know her better, but things are further complicated by Lawrence's sudden suggestion (with Alexia's blessing) that he and Ella try again.
Unhappy relationships and new beginnings for everyone in this novel!
I really like Erica James and have given her several 5 stars in the past! (Tell it to the Skies being one of my all time favourites!)  You pretty much know what you're going to get and again she's delivered a really good read.  It didn't quite make it to the full Monty for me, maybe because it was a bit "more domesticated" than some of her other books.  In retrospect, at times it read more as a Milly Johnson style story - which isn't a criticism (as I love Milly Johnson, too!) but just unexpected.
As usual, it's extremely well written and the character of Ella is particularly strong, the whole set up with Lawrence and Alexia was convincing and well written.  I think  Erica James comes into her own when writing about uncomfortable circumstances and the tension between the characters is really well done.  Ella is likable and a good heroine without being too perfect,  I too dance to Viva la Vida!  I couldn't see the attraction to Lawrence, who is a bit of a numpty all the way through and his only redeeming features seemed to be he looked a bit like Colin Firth and provided excellent wine!  Ethan is interesting, but not your usual romantic hero.  The back story of his childhood explained some of his situation, but at times he just seemed indecisive and weak.  I wasn't overly convinced that Ella was enough to make him change his sordid behaviour in the past either, but as it's romantic fiction, I'll just have to trust she was.
The Maggie plot wasn't as strong for me and this is the main reason why I've given the book 4 stars overall.  The whole domestic drudge to sex goddess didn't convince, even though I got that she was unhappy and taken for granted, I thought the stereotyped, nasty grasping family was overplayed and not necessary, although I did laugh at the barbecue debacle!  Is it likely that a thirty something could be such a drudge and have no friends of her own at all and have to rely on her tarty and downright horrible mother for what constitutes as a social life?  If Daryl was sooo amazing, why her? And why when she was married?  It all came too easily and tidily for her and I actually didn't want her to get her magical happy ending, I wanted her to become her own person by herself.
There's a huge cast of supporting characters and maybe due to this they are drawn as polarised love or hate types.  There's a lot of ground is covered in the book, it's well paced and I wanted to read on.
So, to sum up - it's a good, enjoyable read, just not quite up there with my favourites from this particular author.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Nothing but Trouble by Rachel Gibson

***
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group! This book was read and reviewed as part of the Transworld Book Challenge.

Chelsea Ross is a struggling actress who agrees to become carer/assistant (with a $10,000 sweetener, to stick with the job for three months!) to the famous ice hockey player Mark Bressler.  Bressler was injured in a serious car accident, six months previously and despite being rich and gorgeous, has a reputation for being extremely difficult.  He has fired several previous carers and has no intention of letting Chelsea interfere with his life, he determines to be as difficult as possible to push her out.  However, Chelsea is no pushover, she's had to struggle as personal assistant to a tranche of D-listers to fund her limited acting opportunities in dodgy slasher flicks.  She's determined to get the cash and so the two of them clash with interesting results.

I've never read anything by Rachel Gibson before, although her books have occasionally cropped up on my Amazon recommendations - so with the Book Challenge it seemed a good opportunity to have a go!  As I started to read, I had a few reservations, firstly it's an American "chick-lit" and I have read some pretty dire examples in the past; secondly it's the fifth in the "Chinook" series and I can be pretty anal about having to read series in order (sad, but true!) and I was worried that characterisation would be affected by assuming some prior knowledge.  Finally, it's about an ice hockey team, which I know nothing about and have no desire to further my understanding!  Not a promising start, but thankfully, none of this really mattered, although it's clear that some of the characters and incidents have been covered in earlier books, it didn't affect the main plot and I never felt I'd missed anything important.  However, as a minor grumble, some of the US brand names and acronyms baffled me at times!

I can't be unfair and criticise this book - it does exactly what it says on the tin!  The two main characters, although both initially irritating do allow you to warm to them.  The supporting cast are fairly thinly written, but I forgave this as I assume some come through more strongly in the series when it becomes their turn to take the lead.  It's a quick, light, totally predictable chick-lit read.  It's very straightforward and there are no complicated situations or alternatives provided to create distractions from the two main characters.  It was never a case of "will they-won't they", right from the start it's simply a matter of when and where. Unfortunately, as I'm at least ten years older than the target audience and very well versed in this genre, I prefer a bit more before my happy ending.
I've given it 3 stars as it just didn't do much for me, but if it's your bag, you'll enjoy it it!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll

****
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group!  This book was read and reviewed as part of the Transworld Book Challenge. 

Garet James, a young jewellery designer, is having a rough day.  After being told her father has left them in a precarious financial situation, she wanders off her usual path home, gets caught in a rainstorm and so wanders into a strangely old-fashioned shop to ask for help.  Here she is persuaded to open a mysterious silver box which just happens to have the same seal as a ring that Garet was given by her deceased mother.  Although the box does strange things to her eyes, she agrees and takes it home where she lives with her father over his art gallery business.  That night after she opens the box, she is awoken by burglars breaking into the gallery and shooting her father.  From that point things become increasingly bizarre, she finds her mother's sudden death ten years earlier prevented her from telling Garet that her ancestors were "watchtowers" responsible for protecting the mortal world from evil and she is quickly drawn into the supernatural world of fairies and vampires where she has an important role in saving New York from despair and discord.

Although I do occasionally dabble into Urban fantasy novels, and have enjoyed quite a few of them it's not my usual reading matter.  However, through the Transworld Book Challenge (and this is the first time I've ever had any freebies!!) I saw it as an opportunity to try something slightly different without being out of pocket if it wasn't to my taste.  And...I really enjoyed it!
So, I'm not a hard core UF reader and that's possibly why it appealed to me, it seemed a little "gentler" than some of the other stuff I've read and more of a modern fairy tale.  I enjoyed the literary and artistic references...it even used one of my favourite films "The Red Shoes", which I always found compelling but slightly creepy, so I was kept a happy bunny throughout!

As the main character Garet is maybe a bit underdeveloped, but what I did think was a strong positive element was that she started out as a generally, normal young woman, with a job, friends and some kind of life and remained pretty much the same throughout, whereas in other UF the female protagonist tends to be an outsider who has always felt different and is desperate to be initiated into the supernatural and then has a complete personality transplant!  I liked that she struggled with her new abilities and couldn't do it all by herself and so still needed rescuing at times.  It was also refreshing that she didn't suddenly become irresistible to everyone she encounters (another irritating feature in some other UF I've read), but I liked that she remained "human" despite all that she sees and experiences.  
Will Hughes, also seemed a bit two-dimensional, and he's a bit "vampire light" but again, I'm hoping this is just down to being the first installment.  I'm not convinced about the love through the generations part of his relationship with Garet, but it didn't worry me enough to be a problem.

Overall, I found it an entertaining read, I love the fairy tale aspects and will definitely look for the next in the series to see where it all goes.  Sadly, some of the New York references were lost on me, but I'm sure people in the know will have understood them; it really felt throughout the book that the writers had done their homework, but didn't push it by inserting great chunks of research.  I thought the confrontation towards the end was a bit of a disappointment after all the initial excitement, but the ambiguity of who is "good" and truly wants to help Garet or is just out for themselves was interesting, particularly Oberon.  I enjoyed all the fey characters, especially Lol, who is a complete star, and the idea of fairies running a coffee shop and having late night radio shows appealed to my sense of the bizarre.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Heartless by Gail Carriger

****1/2
The fourth book of the Parasol Protectorate series, with the next one due out later this year.  I enjoyed this one and feel the series has found its way back to what attracted me to Soulless in the first place.  Apologies, for spoilers, but the series does need to be read in sequence to make any sense and its difficult to give a synopsis without giving anything away to newbies! (Look away, now if you don't want to know!)
After the adventures in the last book, a very heavily pregnant Lady Alexia Maccon is back in London and for reasons, best explained in the book, it is decided that it is best for "infant-inconvenience" if she and Conall reside in Lord Akeldama's second best closet.  There's an awful lot going on...Buffy is struggling to cope with his unavoidable lifestyle change; sister Felicity has not only joined the suffragette movement, but wants to stay with the Maccons; mysterious friend Madame Lefoux is up to something and a ghostly message implies that the Queen is in danger. As muhjah, Alexia is quickly on the trail, which unearths more secrets from her husband's previous pack.  Is there enough treacle tart and tea to cope with all this?
It's great to have the series back on form and this is a brilliant, fast paced romp.  It remains witty and fun and despite my continued reservations about Madame Lefoux, worked really well.  I knew where it was heading with the vampires swarming, but think it'll be a good move for future stories as it gives greater scope for Lord Akeldama to widen his interests and may avoid the constant dashing to the country for the werewolves (which always seemed a bit pointless, plot wise).
Conall is still (in my opinion) slightly sidelined, I would like a return of how he was in the first book. I love Floote (give him an even bigger role), Lord Akeldama is fabulous and Lyall remains for me one of the most intriguing characters is thankfully developing an interesting back story. 
My only (very petty) criticism is that the person on the cover looks nothing like I imagine Alexia - what does anyone think?

Blameless by Gail Carriger

*** 1/2
Oops! As I was writing the review for #4 in the series, I realised that I'd missed this out out!  Sorry!! As it's a while since I read it (last September) apologies for being brief, but I think I need to make a small comment to cover the whole series so far...
So, a brief overview and apologies for spoilers (stop reading now if you don't want to know!)
After discovering she is pregnant Alexia's husband Conall has thrown her out, believing that as a werewolf he cannot father a child and so assumes that she has been unfaithful.  Alexia has to return to her much loathed family.  The "infant-inconvenience" is creating many problems, most importantly it is putting Alexia off her food, but more dangerously, the vampires are out to assassinate it (and her)!  After an attack from mechanical ladybirds, Madame Lefoux and Floote accompany Alexia to Italy, the birthplace of her father to discover more about being soulless.
I enjoyed this more than the previous one, but...couldn't believe that Conall would behave the way he did and the ending seemed a bit weak; I'm think Alexia needed a greater outburst of her usual forthrightness.  I'm not sure about Madame Lefoux, I still see her more as a plot device, rather than an integral part and I'm really worried that Biffy won't be as appealing, or as beautifully dressed now!
Better and still great in parts, but not up to Soulless...still!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

****
The premise for this novel is that Jane Austen kept a personal journal which was found in an Navy chest, bricked into the attic of her house at Chawton, a lovely idea, but one which sadly remains within the realms of fiction!
The story describes the time from when Austen's father decides to retire to Bath through to when Sense and Sensibility was published.  This covers the period sometimes described as the "missing years" when Jane is in her late twenties to early thirties.  There's no evidence of personal letters of this time and although she had completed first drafts of three novels, her writing seems to have gone quiet.  The premise the book takes is that her family (mainly Cassandra) destroy all evidence to protect the parties involved at that time from scandal.
After the death of their father, Jane and her sister Cassandra along with their mother are at the mercy of their brothers to provide a home for them; what follows is a unsettled and rather miserable time being shunted between houses, taking up child care and family duties.  To cheer her up, Jane is taken on a visit to Lyme by her brother Henry, where they meet Frederick Ashworth, the wealthy son of a baronet who owns the Pembroke estate in Derbyshire.  Although their time together is cut short and despite various misadventures and misunderstandings their relationship develops.  The Austen women are also offered the chance to live at Chawton, which becomes a happier and settled place for them all to live and allows Jane to take up her writing again.

Now I know that the purists will loathe this book and in some respects I can understand why.  It creates a romantic heroine from Austen and seems to buy into the idea that a spinster with no "love" experience could have possibly created the masterpieces that she did.  It jarred a little that many of the set pieces within Austen's novels e.g. Mr Collin's marriage proposal to Lizzie were flagrantly recreated throughout the book and it also draws very heavily upon her characters to create the fictional and padded out "real" people throughout.  I find it difficult to understand why it's necessary to give the impression that Austen didn't develop her own characterisations but lazily borrowed from people she met and knew and their conversations.
However, despite these reservations, I'll readily admit that once I got over my "issues", I admired the research that had clearly gone into this novel.  I should confess to enjoying the many "Austenesque" follow ups and differing points of view novels of varying quality that are out there as a bit of easy reading fun, so I read it in the manner I think Syrie James meant it to be approached - light entertainment.
The characterisation of Jane didn't offend me, and the relationship with Cassandra, although probably a bit too modern in tone, was fine.  Frederick Ashworth was suitably well mannered and highly connected to be the hero and love interest - a sort of amalgam of Darcy (with the big house!), Edward (for the romantic entanglements) and Mr Knightly (for being an all round good type, with a sense of humour!) which was just right for the book.
So if you're a pure Janite, you'll probably hate it, but for a bit of light fun, which is instantly forgettable - enjoy!

Calling Romeo by Alexandra Potter

**1/2
Juliet lives with her boyfriend Will and over time things have become a bit dull.  After Will left his well paid job, flashy car and designer suits to set up a garden design business with his friend, he has gradually settled into a smelly, bobbly fleece and nights in with a chicken jalfrzi, dozing in front of the telly. The final straw for Juliet is when he forgets a long planned Valentine Day's meal and leaves her alone and mud splattered on Oxford Street.  Her chance meeting with Sykes; gorgeous, half Italian ad man puts romance back into her life and reminds her of what she's been missing.  Despite the warnings of her brash American friend, Trudy, Juliet can't stop herself being drawn in by a loved up weekend in Verona with her new admirer.

Okay, it's chick-lit, but in my opinion, not the best but to be fair, it was published nine years ago, and it suffers slightly due to this.  It seems really cliched at times and has everything thrown in it, including bitchy female boss, brutally honest BF, down to earth northern family, masked ball, unexpected pregnancy...need I go on? But, I've read a few of Alexandra Potter's more recent books and although I enjoyed them a little more, I always finish them feeling a bit disappointed.
I think my main issue with this particular book is that I didn't like Juliet (at all, ever!) she's whiny and self-absorbed and I personally believe in light fluffy books as this is, your heroine should be more honest than Juliet is and not start an affair whilst still in a relationship.  Skyes wasn't convincing as either romantic lead or love-rat and Will is far too one dimensional to be remotely interesting.  Even Verona got a duff deal and was made to sound uninteresting.
To sum up - this was passed on by a friend and if I'd read it when first published, I might have enjoyed it more, but don't bother now - read something more current.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Roses by Leila Meacham

****
A huge family epic, which starts when our heroine is ill, aged and sitting in her lawyers office! It sooo reminded me of the Barbara Taylor Bradford et al TV mini series my mum was addicted to years ago!!  Funnily enough, I've never managed to get beyond page 40 of any BTB novel, but I flounced through this in just over a day.
It tells the story of the three founding families of Howbutker in Texas; the Tolivers are cotton farmers, the DuMonts are upmarket shop owners and the Warwicks are timber merchants.  They have a long standing pact which involves sending red and white roses to seek and give forgiveness. (It's a major theme through the book, obviously with the title, but I never really thought it was necessary!) Anyway, in 1916, pretty but headstrong, sixteen year old Mary Toliver inherits Somerset from her father over her mother and elder brother.  Her family are understandably miffed and it goes downhill from there.  Mary gives her life and happiness to save the plantation and her decisions impact on future generations. 
Scaling several wars, many deaths and love affairs it is a fabulous holiday read, suspend your disbelief and just wallow in the whole saga and you'll love it! 
On a more picky note, I actually found myself disliking virtually every female character, (except Sassie) and saved my special vitriol for Rachel (boo, hiss!!) even when the author tried to redeem her! I thought the male protagonists where far more sympathetic, particularly Percy and I would have liked stronger characterisation of Ollie to avoid him simply being a plot device. It doesn't deserve the comparisons to Gone with the Wind that are used on the cover, either.
However, I still think it's a great beach read, even if the 600+ pages will be heavy in your suitcase!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith

****
Anyone who follows this series, and this is eleventh book, will know exactly what they're getting and there's not a lot I can add to my earlier review.  Another gentle and mildly moralistic stroll through Precious Ramotswe's investigations, where her assistant Mma Makutsi still awaits her marriage to Phuti, but a terrible accident and his possessive No 1 Aunty gets in the way until the fabulous and slightly scary, Mma Potokwani triumphs again!!  A cosy, quick read that makes the world seems a nicer place and it's acknowledged that "you do not change people by shouting at them"!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Here Come the Girls by Milly Johnson

*****
This is Milly Johnson doing what she does best - a fabulously entertaining holiday read!  I've read all her previous books, but have never managed to write one up on here, so I'm putting that straight, right now!
It's not deep and it won't change your life (unless it encourages you to be a cruise convert!) but it's well written and engaging and whilst I'm having a heavy time at work, this was brilliant light relief.
Roz, Olive, Ven and Frankie were best friends at secondary school in Barnsley, dreaming of brilliant careers, huge salaries, big families and a fancy cruise for their fortieth birthday.  Unfortunately, twenty five years later, real life hasn't turned out that way.  Ven loses her job and her husband rips off half her inheritance.  Olive is an unpaid skivvy for her scrounging husband and useless family.  Roz has become bitter and unable to trust people after being let down by her unfaithful husband and had a huge falling out with Frankie, who on the surface seems to be the only one doing alright.  Just before her fortieth birthday, Ven wins a fabulous all expenses paid cruise and drags her friends along...can a luxury cruise fix all their problems?  Is this top class chick-lit?  Of course, it will!
There's not a lot else to add.  Okay, there were no surprises and like all readers I sussed the "issues" and exactly where it was all going, but that doesn't detract from an enjoyable, escapist read!

The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

*****
Lady Julia and her fabulously dark and brooding husband in their fifth installment - yay!!  It's no secret, that I've loved this series and I think this is one of the best.

Julia and Brisbane have returned to set up home in London, after their extended honeymoon and murderous diversion in India, covered in the last novel.  Brisbane returns to his work as an investigator and Julia is desperately trying to show her worth as a genuine partner, but also dabbles in gunpowder and photography! Julia's very proper brother, Bellmont, who despite disapproving of her husband, asks him to secretly investigate Madame Seraphine, the resident medium of the Ghost Club.  Julia becomes drawn into the case after following her husband to protect him and a couple of untimely deaths unravel a heap of sinister secrets that leads them into personal danger.

As in the previous novels there is a fine balance of humour and drama.  The March family are a brilliant creation and have the potential to fill many more books.  I love Lord March's ongoing disagreements with Auld Lachy, the hermit; "...as I reminded him, one ought never to hire a hermit without proper references."
Julia remains pretty much the same, she's clever and beautiful, but also vain, bloody minded and a bit of a liability.  So who cares if she's a twenty-first century woman transported via a crinoline into Victorian times, it works for me.   Brisbane remains a favourite hero amongst my most recent reads, fitting the strong, handsome, flawed type that I favour!  The gradual disclosure of Brisbane's past, including the sojourn into the gypsy camp, is enthralling, Raybourn is gradually revealling just enough information to keep the flow, but there's obviously a lot more to come!  Yes, it still feels a bit Amelia Peabody-ish at times, but that's bound to happen where there's a strong Victorian female lead getting into danger.  I just hope a Sethos type character doesn't make an appearance, because that would kill it for me!
This is the first of the series that I've given the full five stars to, and although it isn't perfect, it was such a brilliant romp, I read it in a day and I wish there was an immediate follow up.  I feel that the main characters are now well established and the introduction of Sir Morgan Fielding has also opened up further opportunities for Nicholas and Julia to delve into more complicated situations, so I'm really looking forward to Book 6.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Lucky Break by Esther Freud

***
I really, really wanted to love this one...I'm going through another "theatrical" phase, had an amazing theatre fest during half term (will try put something about that on my other blog, at some point!) and wanted to wallow in total thesp-ville.  Unfortunately, although I liked it - I didn't love it.
But I did really like these things...
1. the cover!
2. it's beautifully written;
3. it starts off well and brought back vivid memories of the drama students I hung out with when I was at uni.  The whole arty, terribly self-conscious, clever-dickiness of them! Bless...but I can say that, as only a real friend would help them learn lines from Ibsen without the aid of alcohol!  It also reminded me that the tutors were even more pretentious than the students!
4. I liked the character of Nell and although I thought it pretty obvious that she'd probably be the "success" story, she was interesting and well developed.

So there's lots of things to like and I would certainly say to give it a go.  I've never read Esther Freud before, but will look at her other novels.  But overall, I just found the whole thing a bit unsatisfactory and superficial.  I was expecting more and I felt the ending was just too "fairy tale" in a book that at times was brutally honest about an actor's life.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Yay! 1000 views!

Sooo happy! The blog has had 1000 views...now I know that's insignificant to a lot of blogs out there, but for me, I'm chuffed!
Huge thank you to everyone reading and to all bloggers who have a link to me!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Diplomatic Incidents by Cherry Denman

****
A bright, breezy and delightfully indiscreet trawl through the perks and trials of being a diplomatic wife.
Cherry Denman has lived in many countries over the past twenty five years and has a wealth of anecdotes of people, housing, food and toilets.  It's a quick and amusing read, with some amusing illustrations and I loved it!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Recipe for Scandal by Debby Holt

**
Life is gently plodding along for Alberta Granger; living in Bath with her partner, Tony and son, Jacob. The catering business keeps her busy, and the only cloud is the general lack of contact by her high achieving daughter, Hannah.

But Bertie’s world is shattered by the death of her father, the well-known politician, Lord Trussler, in scandalous circumstances. Revelations about her mother, also hit the press and it causes her to question how well she knew the men in her life.

I’ve ready a couple of other books by this author and found them to be easy, light reads. There’s nothing wrong with this one but my main frustration is that nothing happened in the first hundred pages and so I didn’t care when the plot started to move. Generally, the characterisation wasn’t strong enough to make me interested; Alberta is one of the most dull and least self-aware characters I’ve come across for a while and I couldn’t see why she was so interesting to so many people. The tribulations of Hannah’s life were dull and Jacob had the most potential but was quickly shunted off to France (why?!).

The scandal and subsequent “outings” weren’t particularly shocking and although would, understandably create a family crisis, I didn’t find it particularly believable.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn

****
The fourth of the Lady Julia Grey series, although now she's married to Brisbane, the name's a bit misleading!  I love this series, mainly because it helped fill a small part of the huge hole left by the Amelia Peabody books.  The similarities lie in a strong Victorian female lead and a dashing husband and the general tongue in cheek tone will probably sit well with Amelia fans!  Being a way into the series, this book is probably not the best introduction; although it doesn't rely on previous knowledge, it will help.
Julia and Brisbane are enjoying an extended honeymoon, when two of Julia's siblings arrive and convince her to travel to India with them to help Portia's old flame, Jane Cavendish, out of a sticky situation.  Jane is pregnant, recently widowed and extremely nervous amidst fears that her husband was murdered.  Whilst living on a remote tea plantation the toxic situation isn't helped by the weird and wonderful neighbours surrounding the plantation. 
It's a fair paced mystery that continues the tempestuous relationship between the newly weds.  There's also further revelations about Nicholas Brisbane's family history.  As before the humour is provided by the feuding Marches.  My main criticism is that Brisbane is missing for large parts of the book and it just seems to flow better when he's there!  There also seemed to be some setting up in preparation for future books, which is cheering as I look forward to more (and there's one out this summer!) but again seemed to slow the action down a bit.
Overall, a great read and good fun!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Truth to Tell by Mavis Cheek

***
With her husband constantly harping on about the dishonesty of politicians, Nina Porter questions her own level of truthfulness in everyday life; why does put up with doing things she doesn't want to? How can she allow her best friend to remain oblivious to the faults in her odious lover?  Nina's decision to avoid the small lies we all tell to smooth life over leads to martial discord and an uncomfortable few days on her own when she refuses to accompany her husband on a business trip.
Is it possible to lead a totally truthful life? An unexpected trip to Venice offers temptations that will be difficult to own up to and friends and family fail to see the benefits of always telling the truth.
Over time I've read the odd Mavis Cheek book and have generally found them to be enjoyable.  I was a bit "meh" about this one, mainly because I couldn't see the point, or am I being stupid and that was the point?!!...we all know that we aren't truthful the whole time and usually it's to ease social wheels and avoid hurting others feelings.  Nina was neither likable or interesting and I didn't really warm to any of the other characters.  Even Venice didn't make the whole thing any more appealing.
It wasn't awful, just not for me.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Seagulls in the Attic by Tessa Hainsworth

****
Second book by this author detailing her downsize from high powered executive for "The Body Shop" to Cornwall postie in a picturesque seaside village.  It's more of the same really...but a cosy, easy read, that makes such a huge change seem really appealing.
Mainly consists of a variety of small episodes about animals, gardening and misunderstandings where a uptowner (even in her second year in Cornwall) gets things badly wrong. Not a lot happens, but the scenery is lovingly described and she and her family obviously enjoy their new life.
A very pleasant read and gives you lifestyle envy, but her fascination with foraging remains a total no for me!

Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Italian Quarter by Domenica de Rosa

***
This book tells the story of the di Napoli family, the present story of Sophie and the historical background of her grandfather, Cesare.  Sophie is managing an ordinary life, she teaches English, looks after her cat and has an intermittent love life after her failed grand passion with Robertino in Rome.  All this changes when a journalist takes an interest in Cesare's war records and informs the family that he was a fascist and incited a riot whilst in prison.  Sophie realises that she doesn't truly know her grandfather or her family history and is keen to find out more.  She unravels a story of Naples and how her family moved to Clerkenwell and their drive to become successful.
This is Domenica de Rosa's first novel and I've already read her later books and enjoyed them.  There's many similarities in the warmth and affection shown towards her characters that I liked in this one.  Sophie's modern dilemmas were engaging and I preferred this to the rather large "lump" of wartime history that was thrown in.  Although interested I felt that it could have been woven through more carefully (which she has done far better in later novels).  Maybe my ignorance about Italian politics during WWII didn't help?!
For me the ending was a bit sudden and left to many open ends and although I did like many things about the book, overall I felt it needed tidying up a bit.  Three stars overall - but I do like this author.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Hester's Story by Adele Geras

***
Estelle Prevert escapes an unhappy childhood and becomes Hester Fielding, prima ballerina.  The story charts her career and the difficulties within her personal life through to her middle age when after retiring from performing she reinvents herself as the organiser of the Wychwood Ballet Festival where unexpected events force her to face her past.

Considering that one of my favourite books as a child was "Ballet Shoes", there were elements within this novel that I loved!  It was an indulgent holiday read and I devoured it in a day! Yes, it was predictable and full of stereotyped dancers, but the whole backstage, gossipy aspects made me feel twelve years old again!

Half-Truths and White Lies by Jane Davis

****
This book looks at the bonds between friends and family and the influence of people in our lives and also those that are missing.  It explores the idea of different truths and the lies people tell themselves as well as others.
Andrea Fellows relatively sheltered life is shattered when her mother and father are killed in a brutal road accident on their silver wedding anniversary. The apparently immediate demise into dementia of her maternal grandmother and the reactions of Aunty Faye and Uncle Pete, leave her questioning her own background.
The book shifts between the stories of Faye and Pete explaining the decisions they made, with Andrea's narration showing the unfolding story of her forgotten childhood.

This came as an Amazon recommendation ages ago and has been stuck on my TBR shelves.  After mulling over lots of historical fiction I fancied a change.
I enjoyed this one and found it a quick and light read.  It was fairly predictable, but not in a bad way. The characterisation was interesting but did leave me wanting more.  Andrea was convincing in terms of grief and the need to clarify her family situation but beyond that seemed a bit lacking.  I thought Faye had more potential and I didn't quite get Pete and his motivations.  Would he really have acted that way to save his friends marriage? Why did Faye help him? I didn't really buy into it being atonement for previous actions.  I thought the most interesting character was Tom (Laura's "dad") but he was also the most elusive.  As Tom dies in the first chapter, we never hear his voice and only see him through others eyes.  He's probably the character that goes through the most changes and I wanted to know more about him.  Laura (Andrea's "mum") suffered from the same problem and this was compounded by the adoration within Pete's narrative.  beyond being beautiful and the whole reason for the traumatic events, to me she was a completely self-centred and unsympathetic plot device.
Re-reading the above paragraph it sounds as if I hated the book, but I really didn't... if I'd gotten more from the characters I'd have rated it higher.  I thought the whole set up was interesting and thought provoking and I loved the nostalgic aspect of childhood in the seventies.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

***
This tells the story of Sally Naldrett, lady's maid to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon in the late nineteenth century. As a last resort to cure her mistress's consumption it is decided that Sally and Lady Duff Gordon will go to Egypt. Due to lack of money, the two women go alone. Egypt is a revelation to them both and although the move is initially shocking, the introduction of dragoman Omar allows them to settle and they "go native". They are less impressed with the ancient sites but enthusiastically embrace the Egyptian culture, its language and people; they encapsulate the move away from the restrictive expectations of the Frangi society but adopting traditional Egyptian dress.

Sally is loyal and proud to serve her mistress, but as time goes on and they settle in Luxor, they become further removed from their previous lives and the relationship changes. The household becomes more relaxed, Lady Duff Gordon becomes involves with local dignitaries and writes home about the unfair plight of the fellahin. Omar proves to be chameleon-like, with his quick ability to take on new roles within the household, including becoming Sally's first lover. On discovering their relationship, Lady Duff Gordon's retribution is terrible for Sally and made more painful by the continued support and affection she shows towards Omar. Sally struggles to cope with her rejection and seeks a new life whilst staying in her new adoptive land.

I hate to admit (being a total Egyptophile!) that I wasn't aware that this was based on real people and circumstances until I started reading the book...my only excuse is that I'm an Ancient Egypt fanatic!! Pullinger does a beautiful job of evoking Egypt in the 1860s and I really wanted to love the book, however, I felt a bit let down by it, mainly because I didn't really get deep enough into the characters to understand their motives.
The first section was probably the most enjoyable. Sally is full of enthusiasm and loyalty; the novelty of a new start in Egypt is engaging and the descriptions interesting. However, Sally isn't a strong personality and her passivity means that she is always on the sidelines, and in the second half of the book, many events are described to her by other minor characters. Once she starts her affair with Omar, my interest drifted off...mainly as I couldn't understand why he behaved the way he did...was it love? Manipulation? He was so thinly drawn it was difficult to see what he wanted to achieve. Why was he so obsessed with maintaining his position with Lady Duff Gordon at the expense of his own family and Sally? Was he simply weak and overawed by his mistress or was there a master plan?
I also couldn't reconcile Lady Duff Gordon's treatment of Sally when she was her only link to her family in England and showed such empathy in other situations. It didn't gel and there was insufficient detail to make it work.
So, overall, it had interesting points and I loved sections of it, but fell a bit flat for me.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Encore Valentine by Adriana Trigiani

***
After her grandma's marriage and move to Italy,Valentine Roncalli becomes joint owner of Angelini's Shoes with her brother, Alfred.  Although not a partnership made in heaven, the determination to expand the business takes her to Buenos Aires to meet a long lost division of the family.  Gianluca, her Italian leather tanner and part time love interest is on and off the scene, but her friends and families marriages are under strain too and will this affect the choices she makes?
I've read most of Adriana Trigiani's books and loved most of them..."Lucia, Lucia" is a particular favourite! This one is the follow up from Very Valentine, which I read about 18 months ago and really liked.  The world of couture shoe making was interesting and the typically Trigiani over the top family was great entertainment.  Unfortunately, this one didn't quite hot the spot and I was a bit disappointed.
Firstly, I don't remember Valentine being such a wet whinge in the first book!  I found her increasingly irritating, mainly due to the fact that she has everything going for her (business, supportive family and friends and gorgeous Italian bloke panting for her!) and yet she dithers around feeling unsure or just moaning.  As a slightly more mature chick-lit heroine (35 years old) I wanted her to get a grip!  The shoe aspect of the book is less important in this novel, but the whole Buenos Aires section seemed a bit of a red herring and didn't really lead anywhere - unless there's a further book planned??!  Gianluca is gorgeous, but totally two-dimensional by being too perfect; okay, I know I like my flawed heroes and so maybe he's not my type (novelly speaking), but he's a paragon of patience as well as being far too well dressed and charming!  Quite honestly I wouldn't have blamed him for going off with Carlotta the Mink lady.  The two redeeming characters are June and Gabriel and even they fall into chick-lit stereotyping at times.
So to sum up - it's okay, inoffense and a light read but Trigiani has done soooo much better and am a bit "meh!" about this one.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Walking Back to Happiness by Lucy Dillon

****1/2
Newly widowed Juliet has nothing left in her life since the death of Ben except their dog, Minton and daytime TV.  Despite her family's best efforts it is only when she is forced into looking after her parents ageing Labrador, Coco, that she begins to face the world. She finds that dogs are easier to cope with than people, but through the doggie network she finds herself in great demand for her dog-walking, pet sitting skills.  An attractive spaniel leads to her meeting her gorgeous, freshly divorced owner too.
With her fledgling career, Juliet and Minton are still rattling around a tatty semi with the loudest neighbours ever.  Despite her reluctance to become involved in the Kelly's raucous rock 'n' roll lifestyle, their lodger Lorcan, becomes a trusted friend as he gradually helps refurbish the "forever house" in her own way and gently helps to become more sociable.
As she moves past the first year alone, Juliet realises that she needs people around her and she has to rebuild not just her own life but the relationships within her family.

I was looking forward to this as I loved "Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts" and this has the same type of pretty, twinkly cover!  It revisits the town of Longhampton and gives brief references to the dog rescue centre and a few characters from the previous book.  It's definitely a dog-lovers book and Minton is a complete star!
I did enjoy it, but not quite as much as "Lost Dogs", mainly as it seemed to take a while to get going.  Juliet's grief is (obviously) the major point of the narrative, but that also means that she doesn't do or say a lot whilst in the throes of despair.  Juliet is a pleasant enough character and her actions are totally believable, but she's a bit dull.  Her mother, the nicely interfering Diane, is realistic and well meaning, but I didn't really get to like the high-powered sister, Louise.  Post-baby crisis didn't excuse her behaviour or attitude for me, I just found her a spoilt brat, type.  The Michael and Lorcan set up was no contest for me...give me a handyman anytime!  The Kelly family next door were light relief and added much needed humour at times.
It's a gentle, cosy, heartwarming read and handles a bittersweet theme very well.  I will definitely buy her next book, it just didn't quite hit the mark as much as her earlier one with me.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Godmother: The Secret Story of Cinderella

*
Lillian lives in a seedy flat in New York and works in a bookstore.  She recalls her previous life as a fairy and how being chosen to be Cinderella's Fairy Godmother was her undoing.  Lil is banished from the magical land and forced to live as a human where she grows old and has to hide her beautiful white feathered wings.  Flashbacks of her previous life show how the rather vain and selfish Lillian seeks to get her own wish rather than ensuring Cinderella and the Prince fulfil their destinies. Now Lil is lonely, miserable and desperate to return to her fairy friends, she sees her chance to redeem herself through helping her bookstore boss, George find true love with the quirky Veronica.
What starts as an interesting premise disintegrates as the story develops and the reader is left with the dilemma of deciding whether it's a fairytale ending or a serious case of undiagnosed mental health issues brought on by guilt and trauma in Lillian's youth.
Lillian is pretty unlikeable at any stage in the book and everyone else is so thinly characterised to be completely insignificant.  There's also one particular image quite early on that was just eeeuch!
So I think it's pretty clear that I didn't like this book.
Godmother came as an Amazon recommendation and as I love twists on traditional fairy tales, I assumed this would have been just right for me...unfortunately, not. I just didn't get it.

Monday, 7 February 2011

This Charming Man by Marian Keyes

***
Charming politican Paddy De Courcy is finally getting married.  This announcement throws several women into turmoil as Paddy isn't all he first appears.  The book charts the history of Lola, Grace, Marnie and Alicia's relationship with him and how he affected their lives.  All four women write from their divergent viewpoints.
Lola is a dippy stylist who thought she'd met the love of her life.  When she finds out about his forthcoming wedding to Alicia, she goes into meltdown and is convinced by her band of devoted friends to drop out and recover in a small cottage in a village filled with Irish stereotypes (a bit like the old TV show Ballykissangel).  Here she gets a fling with a surfer dude and has her Friday nights taken over by a bunch of cross-dressers.  As she grows used to life without Paddy she starts to remember what her relationship was really about and that love wasn't what kept her bound to him.
Grace is a journalist with an odd family, a beloved aging Auntie with cancer, a fantastic bloke and an alcoholic twin sister, Marnie.  Grace is frantically trying to keep all the balls in the air but a guilty secret is making it really difficult.  Marnie is a deluded drinker who had the perfect life but throws it away with her empty vodka bottles.  The sisters know Paddy from way back when he was Marnie's first love and he's proven to be an impossible act to follow.  Alicia is the lucky lady who's going to marry Paddy, but does she know what's she's letting herself in for?
I ought to say I have a good history with Marian Keyes, I relied on her earlier books as my major holiday reads and loved them.  However, in the past few years her novels seem to have become thicker and thicker and as I haven't had a pure beach holiday for such a long time, I have missed most of her later books and so got this from a friend to do a bit of a catch up!
Sadly, I didn't think this was great... (dare I say it?) it just seemed a bit boring, lacked humour and was way too long, it could have easily lost 300 pages.
I know Keyes can do the "darker" stuff, particularly addiction as some of her earlier stuff touched on, but alcoholism, depression, sex trafficking, domestic violence and the machinations of politicians aren't what I want in my chick lit.  She does cover the horrendous themes sensitively, but it just didn't sit right with the pretty, fluffy cover.
The Marnie sections were almost indulgent in their misery and I didn't care enough about her to wallow in all the gloom and self pity; Grace was almost as bad in that she inspired little empathy.  The only flashes of humour came from Lola and due to the other aspects of the book, the silly situations she finds herself in managed to feel a bit forced.  The abbreviated, text talk writing of Lola's sections were also annoying to read...yes, they were in character, but I'd have preferred it to be done differently.
I still think Marian Keyes is brilliant...she's a witty and clever lady, but this isn't (in my opinion) her best.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

***
Iris James is the new postmaster of Franklin; she spends her time watching the townspeople and keeping their secrets.  Emma Fitch is newly wed to the local doctor and moves to the Cape Cod town, she is desperate to find her niche and have someone to look after her.  Frankie Bard is a journalist, covering the war in London, reporting back to America via radio.  The war is far removed from the town, but it affects all three women.

This is a Richard and Judy book club choice and had great reviews...I'm a sucker for all that and liked the cover, so I gave it a go.  Unfortunately, I can't say I like it.  Yes, it's well written and there were parts when Frankie was in Europe that I found compelling, but overall I was underwhelmed and glad to get to the end.
I didn't really warm to any of the main characters.  Middle-aged Iris moves to Franklin, but there's no backstory to the move.  What is so important about her getting a certificate from the doctor? What makes the relationship with Harry work, because I couldn't see any point for either of them.  Harry's convenient demise when he finally finds what he's been looking for was really annoying and felt like a cop out.  Emma seems simply needy and I can't really blame her husband for disappearing to London, although he is a bit of a sap too.  Frankie is the strongest character, and her coverage of the plight of the Jews is fascinating, but I wasn't convinced by how it changed her.  The book slips over some potentially interesting questions, such as how did Frankie get out of Europe?
All the major characters are either watching or being watched, this made the book feel claustrophobic but also strangely removed.  The idea of keeping secrets and withholding information fitted well into the wartime setting, but I couldn't really see the point.  Emma had clearly worked out that for whatever reason her husband wasn't coming back and both Frankie and Iris deciding to avoid the issue seems fairly pointless.
The idea of being the story of the edges of the photo is threaded throughout the book and I felt that as a reader I was being kept at a distance, very much at the edge and the whole thing was rather superficial.  The love stories woven through just didn't touch me and so the losses were correspondingly less affecting.
I think it's best to sum it up as a "classic book club" choice as there is lots to discuss, but not necessarily enjoy.  Parts are beautifully crafted and there was evidently huge research behind it all, but I just didn't get it.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

What makes me happy. Part 1...


Books and a completely over the top pair of shoes that I love, but haven't had the occasion to wear yet!



Monday, 24 January 2011

Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers

****
Retired spinster Julia Garnet has been an uninspiring history teacher and lives a narrow life in an Ealing flat with her friend Harriet.  When Harriet dies, the unexpected void forces Miss Garnet to suddenly decide to live in Venice for several months.  The move leads to Miss Garnet meeting new people and into realising that she has been blind to people and opportunities.  The interwoven parallel apocryphal story of Tobias and the Angel Raphael share the theme of overcoming blindness and accepting change.

I thought the audiobook was excellent as Miriam Margolyes is such a fabulous reader, the characterisation was perfect. 
Julia Garnet is a clever, but rather naive lady, who has closed herself from life with few friends and little fun.  She is judgemental and blinkered, strong in her atheist and Communist views with little tolerance for others.  The move to Venice is completely out of character but the city entrances her with its plethora of churches and religious images.  The people she meets, although not necessarily what they first appear, lead her to greater awareness.  
The story unfolds very gently and Julia gradually becomes more open, realising she never appreciated Harriet when she was alive and how she has belittled people for not sharing her views.  As she widens her interests Julia is able to understand, accept and forgive others. 
Ultimately it is Harriet, with her penchant for silly hats and inappropriate shoes, who gives Miss Garnet the opportunity to make a permanent change and although I felt the ending was a bit too neat and would have like it to be more ambiguous, I really enjoyed the book. 
I wasn't sure about the Book of Tobit sections at first, mainly because I have very little biblical knowledge and don't really go for religious themed books, but as I got further into the story the links really worked for me and I wished that I was a bit less of a dunce in this area!
What really made it for me was the gorgeous setting of Venice, the descriptions were evocative and beautifully done - I was there. (Even stuck in traffic on the motorway, going to work!)
Lovely!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Mr Darcy Presents his Wife by Helen Halstead

***
A sequel to Pride and Prejudice which begins with Elizabeth and Darcy's wedding preparations. The title really says it all, as it charts the introduction of the new Mrs Darcy into London society and the continuation of events for the other main characters.
It begins with Lady Catherine de Bourgh writing to Lizzy to let her know how she refuses to acknowledge the marriage and will do all she can to make her presentation to the Ton as difficult as possible.  Darcy also receives a similar missive from another member family and so despite their love, they are in for a potentially difficult time. 
However, the charming Mrs Darcy manages to dazzle almost everyone with her wit and is quickly on friendly terms with the very best people in society.  This creates tension between her and Darcy for not only is she in great demand from people he doesn't necessarily approve of, she becomes the unwitting muse of a inappropriately devoted playwright.  The ongoing tensions within the marriage seem to bring out the flaws in Darcy that Lizzy initially despised. 
I found this an interesting read and felt that it was one of the better attempts to continue P&P, certainly in terms of not making it a "Mr Darcy constantly beds his new wife" book, which many of the sequels are.  I'm not being over critical of those sequels, I've read many and found them good fun, but this one at least tries to fit with morality of the original.
However, although I enjoyed it whilst reading it, on reflection, I'm not sure about where the story went.  I liked the continuation of the sister's stories, particularly Kitty, who always seemed overshadowed by Lydia and the self righteous Mary.  Kitty gets her chance (however briefly) to sparkle and become a more rounded character.  Sadly, Jane and Bingley are much reduced and less interesting and although Wickham gets his comeuppance, I thought Lydia got off far too lightly and deserved a messy and undignified end! (But I'm nasty like that!)  Mrs Bennet remains an embarrassing trial, but again is sadly diminished in creating cringing horror for her daughters.  Other new characters are introduced but I felt that there were too many to find any depth and not particularly useful in themeselves to add to the story except as being a way of making the basic plot work.
Now my real grumble, I actually started to find myself annoyed by Elizabeth at points.  She became too clever, witty and attractive for her own good and I found myself disliking how she almost has her head turned.  Although she retains her slightly cynical air, it was really irritating that everyone loved her and was completely unrealistic in terms of the closed shop that Regency era society was.  Darcy's reaction is to be jealous of her new friendships and to resort to his previous overly proud and withdrawn behaviour which is understandable but goes against how the events and growing understanding of each other in the original novel had changed them and made them better people.
Overall, it's an enjoyable, light read but I was disappointed in how some of my favourite characters develop.

Writing Jane Austen by Elizabeth Aston

**
This is the story of Georgina, an American living in England whilst completing post doctorate research.  She rents a room in the house of Henry LeFoy, his teenage sister Maud and housekeeper Anna.
She's a published author specialising in historical misery.  Although her debut novel was critically well received, it appears that no-one actually enjoyed it and unfortunately she's struggling to write her next book.  Her scary editor, Livia, makes her an offer she shouldn't refuse, when publisher Dan Vassey "finds" the opening chapter of a long forgotten, never completed Jane Austen novel.  Georgina has to complete the book in double quick time for loads of cash which will allow her to stay in England.
The problem is that Georgina has never read any Austen and sees it as the antithesis of her gritty, downtrodden understanding of the nineteenth century.  She refuses to do it but circumstances, lack of money and pressure from her friends force her to reconsider.

Although I'm only giving this two stars, there was something strangely compulsive about this book and I did want to see how it all worked out, but there were just too many things that I didn't like to rate it any higher.  Firstly, I didn't like Georgina at all and if I can't warm to a lead character I tend to struggle. (That might just be me, but there it is!) I found her to be a literary snob in thinking that Austen is twee, fluffy and lacks realism.  She spends the first half of the book simply running away from anyone who is trying to make her write the book, making it a chain of events rather than a definite plot.  She is sneering about all the Austen haunts that she visits and comes across as a weak, bigoted character with major author angst. 
When she finally reads all the Austen novels (in a ridiculously short time that wouldn't allow anyone to truly appreciate them) she has a complete turnaround and tries to avoid writing the book as she realises she isn't worthy of the task!  Georgina is a self confessed procrastinator and there's even references to helpful websites (but I didn't check if they were real!)  The middle section of the book is all about the process of writing and heck, does it seem painful...this is enough to put any budding author off!  This focus on effort and process manages to kill off any interest in the story and characters for me...it became a grind for me too.
Henry gradually becomes the romantic hero, but he's so weakly written that he's practically transparent.  Maud is possibly the most interesting character and I though Livia would have been far better approaching her to write the Austen book!  But there's an over reliance on stereotyped misunderstood teenage girl for her to be a stand alone character.
The final denouncement when Georgina finally writes the much demanded book wasn't a big surprise, but did manage to tie everything together. There are several sub-plots going on throughout that relate to Austen plots, but these are unnecessary and a bit forced, as was the quirk of putting in names of Jane Austen's many characters as an in-joke.
I had this on audiobook and couldn't understand why they'd used an American reader.  Georgina was the only American character and it made the whole thing sound out of place as the attempts at an English accent were patchy at best.  The use of "Americanisms" by English character's was also annoying and should have been edited out.  Maud as a private school teenager, would never use the word "sneakers"
and there were other examples that were just wrong!
Similarly to the Mr Darcy ruined my Life book, it had a spark of potential that it didn't live up to.  For something that has so much content on the process of producing a book, I though the author needed to take on her own advice a little more.  Disappointing and a bit pointless for me.  Sorry!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

***
I truly expected to love this book. It’s had great reviews which is how I found it initially and I’m only a few years behind the main characters, Emma and Dexter, as they graduate in 1988 and that’s the year I went to Uni. So I prepared for a nostalgic trawl through my teens and twenties, being able to identify with the protagonists and indulge a bit.


One Day begins in Edinburgh in July 1988 in Emma’s student flat. It’s St. Swithin’s Day, they’ve just graduated and to Emma’s surprise she’s finally managed to bag the handsome Dexter Mayhew, her crush through Uni and they’ve spend a night kissing and talking about what the future will bring. Emma Morley, hopelessly naive and chasing every good cause wants to make the world a better place, whilst Dexter has no great aspirations other than to be rich. The book follows almost twenty years of St. Swithin’s days charting the pair’s relationship. Their careers, families, friends, successes and dismal failures; they go from an almost romance, to best friends, falling out and finally marriage.
It takes a while for Emma, normal northern lass with a double first class degree to find her niche, going from a co-op Theatre in Education with a beaten-up transit and selection of misfits, waitress in a tacky Mexican restaurant, to the inevitable English and Drama teaching in a tough comp and finally popular author. She holds a candle for Dexter throughout a couple of dubious non-stick relationships and never seems to find anything that matches his sparkle.
Dexter has the rich-kid gap year and then by default, as he’s good looking and can read an autocue ends up as a yoof TV presenter, all estuary English and “big up”. He loves the party life and himself a bit too much, but a reliance on these props makes his career stall. A new girlfriend, Sylvie, helps clean up his act, but a brief marriage and a daughter later, Sylvie moves onto Dexter’s old Uni friend Callum. Another minor breakdown and finally the time is right for Dexter and Emma to get together.

Sadly, and I really did want to love it, it just didn’t do it for me. For once I do think some of my discontent could have been down to listening to the unabridged version of the audiobook, instead of reading the text. The female narrator was fine through most of it, but the majority of the female voices were all over done as "super bright shouty" voices which was intensely jarring and made it difficult to distinguish between characters in some scenes.  It also seemed that the word “really” was massively overused in the dialogue which also got on my nerves, but maybe the narrator just over emphasised it?!  The northern accent used for Emma wasn’t great and at times made her sound dim, rather than from Leeds, but I managed to get over that.
However, despite those “audio” complaints, I stuck to the end,but I became increasingly annoyed and irritated. I just didn’t like either Emma or Dexter enough to care. Emma starts out as a bit of an idealistic but well-meaning character who drifts through life. I didn’t engage with her, but she was inoffensive. Dexter was a different matter. He’s useless, self-pitying, self-indulgent and completely self obsessed. There’s nothing to like about him and although he did improve a little, I didn't feel that he really grew as a character.  There were times during Dexter’s twenties and when handling new baby Jasmine, that I was cringing. It was so painfully awful (and not in a good way) I couldn’t see why Emma had stuck with such an absolute lowlife as this. The number of occasions when he treats her badly, blatantly lies to her and others (within her hearing) and she still gives up the potential of happiness with Jean-Pierre in Paris for him – why?!
There were sections, particularly the early twenties that I did smile at and I identified with the descriptions of post-student life; the scrotty flats, no furniture and cheap posters. The bands, clubbing and restaurants brought back life in my twenties before the endless round of weddings and the new obsession with babies. I completely agreed with Emma’s take on being a surrogate “auntie”. Despite these impressively real flashes, the overall effect still left me a bit underwhelmed and mildly depressed. There wasn’t enough sugar to make it bittersweet for my my tastes; although I’d sussed very early on that the only way the book could end after twenty years was to have an unhappy ending and unlike some other people I preferred the simplistic, non-dramatic way this was handled, the final stages of the book seemed to rush through a tumult of grief and so I was glad when the whole thing had finished.
It’s well written, and it’s brilliant idea to take one day to illustrate the changes over years, but I felt it was a bit too self consciously clever and I just didn't connect or empathise with Emma and Dexter, it just wasn’t for me.