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Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible is the fourth retelling of a Jane Austen novel in the Austen Project series and arguably the hardest to do because of how well known and loved Pride and Prejudice, the source novel, is but I think Curtis Sittenfeld has pulled it off with aplomb. 

The Bennet sisters have been summoned from New York City.

Liz and Jane are good daughters. They’ve come home to suburban Cincinnati to get their mother to stop feeding their father steak as he recovers from heart surgery, to tidy up the crumbling Tudor-style family home, and to wrench their three sisters from their various states of arrested development.

Once they are under the same roof, old patterns return fast. Soon enough they are being berated for their single status, their only respite the early morning runs they escape on together. For two successful women in their late thirties, it really is too much to bear. That is, until the Lucas family’s BBQ throws them in the way of some eligible single men . . .

Chip Bingley is not only a charming doctor, he’s a reality TV star too. But Chip’s friend, haughty neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, can barely stomach Cincinnati or its inhabitants. Jane is entranced by Chip; Liz, sceptical of Darcy. As Liz is consumed by her father’s mounting medical bills, her wayward sisters and Cousin Willie trying to stick his tongue down her throat, it isn’t only the local chilli that will leave a bad aftertaste.

But where there are hearts that beat and mothers that push, the mysterious course of love will resolve itself in the most entertaining and unlikely of ways.

If you’re going to carry off a successful modern retelling, you can’t simply transplant a 200-year-old story to a modern-day setting. There will of necessity have to be changes, compromises and tweaks to the original and these all work for me here. The author transfers the action to modern-day Cincinnati, with brief excursions to New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, and really makes that work for her characters and the story. I could understand why Curtis Sittenfeld told the story the way she did, and in doing so, I think she creates something which is a clever retelling of the story with attention paid to how it would play out in a contemporary setting but also something which could stand on its own as a novel and quite happily be read for its own sake and enjoyment. Read more

Book Review: Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

A darker, more addictive read, Susie Steiner’s brilliantly written Manon Bradshaw series gets personal when a murder case threatens characters and relationships so well established in Missing, Presumed, which I reviewed here.

As dusk falls a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding heavily from a stab wound. He dies where he falls; cradled by a stranger, a woman’s name on his lips in his last seconds of life.

DI Manon Bradshaw can’t help taking an interest – these days she only handles cold cases, but the man died just yards from the police station where she works.

She’s horrified to discover that both victim and prime suspect are more closely linked to her than she could have imagined. And as the Cambridgeshire police force closes ranks against her, she is forced to contemplate the unthinkable.

How well does she know her loved ones, and are they capable of murder?

Detective Manon Bradshaw returns and happily for this reader, despite having spent some of the intervening time since Missing, Presumed with the Met Police in London, she is back with the Cambridgeshire squad for its sequel, Persons Unknown.

While Manon retains the qualities which made me completely fall for her as a character in the first book, she’s also experiencing changes both in her personal life and her position on the force. This development is something which I really rate because it gives a sense of the characters’ lives progressing and carrying on… whether or not the reader is there to witness it happening! And this in turn makes them feel more real to me, in much the same way as Susie Steiner showing us the police not only working an investigation but also in their downtime, does. Read more

Cover to Cover bookshop in Mumbles #IBW2017

My second post this Independent Bookshop Week (IBW) is a bittersweet one because the bookshop in question is closing this Saturday, 1 July, and my squirrel sidekick and I will miss our trips there very much.

Run by Sarah Rees and her friendly staff, who always give us a warm welcome and sound book suggestions no matter how busy they are, Cover to Cover is a gorgeous little bookshop in Mumbles.

Squizzey and I first discovered it when we included it in our inaugural IBW bookshop crawl. Since then, we’ve seized every opportunity to add it to a Swansea or Gower-bound road trip itinerary. It’s a real treat to head round Swansea Bay, parking up overlooking the mud flats of Mumbles and climbing the hill past Oystermouth Castle to visit Sarah’s shop on Newton Road.

Cover to Cover always has great window displays to entice you in after spending a proper amount of time admiring them. I especially like this one featuring The Girl in the Red Coat, or the coat at least, which was done for a Kate Hamer event.

The shop entrance is off to the right-hand side which always made me feel as if I were sneaking in. That first sight of the interior is magical and a little overwhelming; here is an Aladdin’s cave filled with bookish treasure and pretty gifts to tempt you.

From children’s books and soft toys at the front of the shop, it progresses from young adult to adult to crime fiction along the side wall on the left until you reach the till. I can understand Sarah and her team wanting to place the crime section right in front of where they’re working, so they can keep an eye on things! New releases and hardbacks are behind the counter and in the middle of the front of the shop, gift ideas. A narrow passageway lined with bookish totes and maps and notebooks leads you through to poetry, nature, travel and other non-fiction sections.

It’s a lively, friendly shop with people popping in for book chat and recommendations, to place or pick up orders, and to put their names down for an author event. I particularly enjoyed going to a nearby beach cafe for a Kirsty Logan event where she read from and talked about her wonderful floating circus book, The Gracekeepers, while we munched on Gracekeeper character cookies and mobiles spun about above our heads. And afternoon tea with Susan Fletcher in a small hall was really fun and entertaining when she was there to talk about her novel featuring Vincent van Gogh, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew.

So, this is my THANK YOU to Sarah for always being so welcoming, and especially for being so squirrel-friendly. (I know it’s not always easy!)

Thank you for making us feel as if we were your only customers even when the shop was busy with others.

Thank you for somehow remembering small things said on an earlier visit.

Thank you for always making time to chat and recommend books to us.

Thank you for all the books, cakes, chocolate and cookies, and tote bags.

Most of all, thank you for being there. We’ll miss you!

For more info, go to the Cover to Cover website or their Facebook page or Twitter feed.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, Sarah’s been in touch and while the shop is closing this Saturday, it will reopen in August under the ownership of Tim Batcup which is wonderful news. We won’t miss her any less but it’s good news that this marvellous Mumbles bookshop stays on our road trip itineraries.

Book Review: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Having read and enjoyed Susie Steiner’s debut novel Homecoming, I was excited to read her second, Missing, Presumed, and the first in a new crime series introducing police detective Manon Bradshaw.

Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace.

Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

I defy anyone not to completely fall for Manon Bradshaw. She’s brilliant. It’s such a shame she’s not real. Although she certainly feels real enough on the pages of Missing, Presumed. She’s frank and ballsy, brusque but vulnerable, clumsy yet perceptive. She finds it hard to leave her job behind at the end of a shift and falls asleep to the police radio on low volume. She’s refreshingly independent while also putting herself out there on a string of disastrous Internet dates; she wants some kind of social life leading to a home life but in the meantime doesn’t see why she needs to contemplate living like a nun.

Just as she does with Manon Bradshaw’s character, Susie Steiner builds a credible team around her, peopled not by stereotypes but those who are more like flawed and realistic human beings. One of the joys of this book is seeing the way that this team of officers is built up, where its strengths and potential weaknesses lie, and it’s a bit of a blow to discover that Manon’s plans might soon see her moving on to a new force. I’d got to know this one, and would be upset not to have at least some of them in any sequel. Read more

Book-ish in Crickhowell #IBW2017

It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so I’m posting about some favourites in my part of Wales, starting today with Book-ish in Crickhowell, run by the energetic and lovely Emma and Andrew.

It’s not exactly my local but as it’s only about 45 minutes away by car and close to where my in-laws live, I often wangle a bookish stop off on the way to or from there. And in between those visits? Well, Book-ish is always worth a special trip of its own, if you’re even remotely close to the area.

Crickhowell is a pretty town on the banks of the river Usk, just south of the Black Mountains. Apart from the wonderful walking and beautiful surrounding scenery, Crickhowell has managed to keep independent shops on its high street and that one of these is a bookshop makes it especially appealing to me.

Earlier this year, Book-ish moved a couple of doors up from the corner shop it started life in and now has more room for books, stationery, gifts and toys than ever before. It has a well curated book choice and I always find something new when I’m browsing the shelves and either come away with an exciting find or a previously unknown (to me) author. There’s usually a good selection of books signed by the author as well, largely thanks to its programme of events. I lust after their stationery selection, have sent quite a few of their greetings cards to friends, eye up a new Lamy fountain pen every time I visit and crave bookish gifts for myself from among their totes and mugs. Read more

Book Review: The Faithful by Juliet West

Juliet West’s timely second novel The Faithful has Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts pitch their summer camp near a sidelined and restless teenager’s seaside home, forever changing her life, if not the course of history as is their wider intention.

July 1935. In the village of Aldwick on the Sussex coast, sixteen-year-old Hazel faces a long, dull summer with just her self-centred mother Francine for company. But then Francine decamps to London with her lover Charles, Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts arrive in Aldwick, and Hazel’s summer suddenly becomes more interesting. She finds herself befriended by two very different people: Lucia, an upper-class blackshirt, passionate about the cause; and Tom, a young working-class boy, increasingly scornful of Mosley’s rhetoric. In the end, though, it is Tom who wins Hazel’s heart – and Hazel who breaks his.

Autumn 1936. Now living in London, Hazel has grown up fast over the past year. But an encounter with Tom sends her into freefall. He must never know why she cut off all contact last summer, betraying the promises they’d made. Yet Hazel isn’t the only one with secrets. Nor is she the only one with reason to keep the two of them apart . . .

I think most people will be able to identify with Hazel, her lack of direction and boredom at the prospect of facing a long, hot summer largely left to her own devices, exacerbated by her best friend rushing off to Wales with her family to visit their sick grandmother. It’s only natural that she watches these incomers with interest: the blackshirts march through her town, and later relax on the beach on the other side of her garden wall. I can’t blame her for feeling drawn towards these new people, particularly when she experiences those first sparks of recognition and connection with Lucia and Tom, that friction which can catch you off-guard, signalling the beginning of a friendship or relationship, be it love or lust.

This week turns out to be life-changing for Hazel: her own curiosity is partly at play here, and her choice of summer reading almost makes it inevitable. But Hazel’s coming-of-age is both tender and shocking and it’s her reaction to that which made this book for me. Hazel is a revelation and the character who surprises me in The Faithful: there are hidden depths to her. While I started by sympathising with her summer predicament, I ended up admiring her strength and determination to make the best of the situation. In contrast to others in the book, it has far less to do with ideology for her, and more to do with practicality.   Read more

Book Review: The Silent Hours by Cesca Major

Cesca Major’s debut historical novel The Silent Hours takes as its inspiration a truly shocking event which happened during World War II, the anniversary of which fell on 10th June.

Set in wartime France, The Silent Hours follows three people whose lives are bound together, before war tears them apart:

Adeline, a mute who takes refuge in a convent, haunted by memories of her past;

Sebastian, a young Jewish banker whose love for the beautiful Isabelle will change the course of his life dramatically;

Tristin, a nine-year-old boy, whose family moves from Paris to settle in a village that is seemingly untouched by war.

Before I read The Silent Hours, I didn’t know anything about the real-life event around which the novel’s based and I resisted googling it until afterwards so as not to distract from the author’s version of it. I’m so glad I did this because she crafts a real mystery around a woman called Adeline, who we first meet in 1952. She’s in a nunnery, where she has been living for some years. No one can get through to her and her muteness is putting her remaining there in jeopardy. That, together with some memory loss, initially makes it unclear how much she can remember or is choosing to forget about who she is or where she came from, let alone what happened to her. Although both the nuns and the reader can guess at some trauma in her past. Read more

Book Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell #Exquisite #BlogTour

I know from personal experience how intense a week’s writing retreat can be; they forge lasting friendships and can be as life-changing for the individual as they are for their writing. But I’m incredibly relieved they’ve never proved to be as devastating as the one which sparks off the central female relationship in Sarah Stovell’s Exquisite.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Exquisite’s main characters Bo and Alice are writers, albeit at different stages of their careers. And when you have people who make things up for a living telling the story, they might not be the most reliable of narrators. They’re both persuasive storytellers, possibly prone to exaggeration and bending the truth or shaping things to fit their own narrative. To further muddy the waters, there’s an unnamed narrator to try and identify before Sarah Stovell’s ready to reveal them, who could help shine a light on what’s going on here. All of which helps to make this a deliciously dark, fast-paced psychological thriller that not only messes with the minds of its characters, but also that of the reader. It makes you question who you believe, what you’ve read and witnessed, and causes you to doubt your own understanding of events.

Exquisite is a book of contrasts, some of which are real and others illusory. It contains love and beauty, nurture and openness, kindness and generosity alongside calculated behaviour, cruelty and manipulation, lies and deceit. An already damaged person perpetuates more damage on themselves and others to devastating effect, exploiting their vulnerability and openness, and affecting the lives of innocents.      Read more

Book Review: This family of things by Alison Jameson

I happened upon Alison Jameson’s novel This family of things towards the end of April on Twitter. It must have been the feathers on its striking cover which caught my eye and once I’d read the blurb, I was left in no doubt. This was a book written for me.

On his way back up from the yard Bird had seen something white and round – a girl who had curled herself into a ball. Lifting her was like retrieving a ball of newspaper from out of the grass or an empty crisp bag that someone had flung over the ditch. She seemed to lack the bones and meat and muscle of real people. She felt as if she was filled with feathers.

On the day Midge Connors comes hurtling into Bird Keegan’s life, she flings open his small, quiet world. He and his two sisters, Olive and Margaret, have lived in the same isolated community all their lives, each one more alone than the others can know.

Taking in damaged, sharp-edged Midge, Bird invites the scorn of his neighbours and siblings. And as they slowly mend each other, family bonds – and the tie of the land – begin to weigh down on their tentative relationship. Can it survive the misunderstandings, contempt and violence of others?

When I say the book was written for me, it’s because this is a book about characters living outside the mainstream, both geographically and by their nature. While Midge Connors may have lived all her life in Tullyvin, Co. Wicklow, she’s never felt wanted by either of her parents, or the wider community. Left behind by her siblings and treated like the runt of the litter, she tries to look out for her mother and deflect some of her father’s punches and anger. She seems more like a battered and bruised angry pixie, always on the verge of vanishing, than a grown woman. Tossed about by life and thrown from a moving car, it’s little wonder she protects herself with a spiky and defensive nature or by curling up into a ball.

Bird and his sisters, Olive and Margaret, on the other hand, live outside Tullyvin near a lake. Bird works the family farm, in tune with the rhythms of the seasons, his livestock and the farmwork but barely existing once indoors, where the only warmth to be found in the damp farmhouse is in the kitchen. After their father’s death, Olive and Margaret moved out and took their sisterly co-dependency act to the nearby Lodge, where they may have made an altogether cosier home of the house. Their relationship is a strange dance around each other, one which falters every time Bird visits. They desperately need something to shock them into opening up and when Midge lands in Bird’s field and their lives, she’s the catalyst for this but also one of the initial beneficiaries alongside the brother and his sisters.

Alison Jameson captures the sense of place and steady rhythm of nature so well in this book, and it’s one which you can feel the characters moving to especially for the Irish sections of the book set in Co. Wicklow. I liked that no matter how erratic or tentative the characters’ behaviour at times, there is that constant going on around them, and demanding their attention. It links them to the land and that community in a way that they can’t seem to do on their own until Midge and the Keegans’ worlds collide.  Read more

Book Review and #Giveaway: Everything Love Is by Claire King

Having roamed across its summer meadows with peach juice dribbling down chins, while exploring grief in her evocative debut novel The Night Rainbow, Claire King returns to Southern France for her second, Everything Love Is. The novel shifts between a floating community on the slow-moving waterways just outside Toulouse and into the city itself where the political situation seems altogether more fluid and fast-moving. And, as you can probably deduce, this time Claire King turns her attention towards love.  

What I want is something that makes me feel alive. Joy, passion, despair, something to remember or something to regret. I want to have my breath taken away.

Moored on his beloved houseboat at the edge of Toulouse, Baptiste Molino helps his clients navigate the waters of contentment, yet remains careful never to make waves of his own.

But between Sophie, the young waitress in his local bar who believes it is time for Baptiste to rediscover passion, and his elegant, enigmatic new client Amandine Rousseau, this fragile status quo is now at risk. When the rising tensions on the city streets cause his mysterious past to catch up with him, Baptiste finds himself torn between finally pursuing his own happiness and safeguarding that of the one he loves.

Born on a train to a mother he never knew and raised by adoptive parents in their countryside cottage, Baptiste lives a simple, pared-down existence on the houseboat, Candide. Although his work involves helping others to find out what brings them contentment, he pays little heed to his own happiness, convinced instead he has all he can hope for and considering that to be enough. He’s careful not to get too attached to people although inevitably he forms some connections among the community on the canal. There is a sense that he needs to feel as if he could cast off at a moment’s notice.

Two characters share the storytelling in Everything Love Is, Baptiste’s one and another, unnamed. Baptiste’s chapters are headed up with a kingfisher to which he’s likened in the book, the others by an owl. It’s a beautifully unobtrusive way to make it clear who’s narrating, especially when other things are less so. There were moments reading Everything Love Is when I felt uncertain, as if things were shifting around me: that moment where you’re about to step aboard a boat and it shifts slightly away from you and there’s nothing below you but air and water. Yet you don’t fall, and you won’t here. Claire King’s a skilled writer and ensures that you’re soon back on firmer ground. It’s worth steering your way through these brief disturbances; those light ripples may be disconcerting but shouldn’t be enough to capsize.    Read more

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