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eBook Review: A Quiet Winter by Isabel Ashdown

With all the other demands on your time during this Festive Season, your reading time might be taking a hit. I know mine certainly is with friends unreasonably expecting me not to snuggle up on my sofa with a stack of books and chocolate but to be sociable and go out with them instead.

One excellent way of ensuring that you still squeeze in some quality reading time though is with a good short story and happily, there’s an excellent one just out by Isabel Ashdown which is an intensely satisfying read.

Ironically, it’s called A Quiet Winter, something I suspect I’m not alone in craving: who doesn’t fantasise about booking a remote cottage for the holidays, rather than entertaining the whole family on Christmas Day? Well, Sarah Ribbons has no family but she doesn’t want her friends to feel as if they have to include her in their plans, either.

Two years after her father’s death, Sarah Ribbons prepares to spend the festive season on her own in his crumbling old cottage. It’s not the idea of being alone that bothers her – she’s determined not to be a burden on well-meaning friends who try to coax her into joining them for Christmas – in fact, Sarah thinks she has life as she likes it: firmly under control.

But when an unexpected email raises the ghosts of a distant past, she finds herself questioning this way of life – and discovers friendship in the least likely of places.

If you’re new to Isabel’s writing, this is a wonderful introduction to her beautiful prose and a perfect place to start. Her writing’s measured, calming, almost meditative, and as I read, I could feel myself breathing out and relaxing, safe in the hands of an assured storyteller. Isabel writes so exquisitely about the mess that is modern life, the relationships we have, as well as those we do our best to avoid. Her characters always feel like real people you drop in to see for a while and she paints the landscapes in which they move incredibly beautifully.

A Quiet Winter is a timely seasonal short story about working out what’s important in life: about making connections with other people when all you may feel like doing is running away, and how sometimes those very same connections come along at the time we need them, if from the most unexpected quarters. A Quiet Winter works well as a stand-alone story but Sarah Ribbons is also the main character in Isabel’s second novel, Hurry Up and Wait, so if you enjoy this, and I think you will, you’ll be able to spend more time with Sarah during some very different chapters of her life before discovering Isabel’s other books and characters. I hope you enjoy A Quiet Winter. I know I did.

A Quiet Winter is a short story written by Isabel Ashdown and published by Myriad Editions. It is available as an ebook here or from Amazon UK or Amazon US. To find out more about Isabel and her books, visit her Author Website or Facebook Page or Follow Isabel on Twitter

 

Book review: Under A Cornish Sky by Liz Fenwick

There are three things I look forward to at this time of year: the way blossom drifts like snow in kerbsides, that the Hay Festival is on later this month and that a new Liz Fenwick novel will be out.

In fact, it is out. Today.

Under a Cornish Sky is Liz’s fourth novel and I was fortunate enough to snag an early signed proof for review on Twitter. Here’s what it’s about:

Demi desperately needs her luck to change. On the sleeper train down to Cornwall, she can’t help wondering why everything always goes wrong for her. Having missed out on her dream job, and left with nowhere to stay following her boyfriend’s betrayal, pitching up at her grandfather’s cottage is her only option.

Victoria thinks she’s finally got what she wanted: Boscawen, the gorgeous Cornish estate her family owned for generations should now rightfully be hers, following her husband’s sudden death. After years of a loveless marriage and many secret affairs of her own, Victoria thinks new widowhood will suit her very well indeed . . .

But both women are in for a surprise. Surrounded by orchards, gardens and the sea, Boscawen is about to play an unexpected role in both their lives. Can two such different women find a way forward when luck changes both their lives so drastically?

Liz Fenwick’s latest novel, Under a Cornish Sky, shows how a change in circumstances affects not one, but two female characters: two very different characters in Demi, an architect who’s missed out on a job and is betrayed by her boyfriend, and Victoria, who seems to have it all with her beautiful house and gardens and affairs with younger men while her husband works away and foots the bill for it all. And of course, while some of the action takes place in London, the heart of the book is once again to be found in Cornwall and centres around the Boscawen estate on the banks of the Helford river, and around Falmouth Bay.

Liz Fenwick’s love for Cornwall and ability to conjure it up for the reader comes through in all her novels but it feels as if she’s really hitting her stride with Under a Cornish Sky. The story took over and the characters spoke for themselves; I didn’t hear the author’s voice cut in anywhere while reading this latest novel. The house and gardens of Boscawen both seem alive and you get a real sense of the inevitable movement of the seasons and nature’s changes as much as you feel that it’s time for the other, human characters in the book to effect their own changes and come to terms with their past, if not break with it, and catch up with this forward movement. Read more

Book review: Letters to my Husband by Stephanie Butland

It’s a sad fact of life that sometimes we only get to know a person after their death. Funerals can be revelatory affairs. I’ve been to a fair few in the past year and have always come away knowing far more about the person whose life we were celebrating than I did when they were alive. Admittedly, those same funerals have been for friends I’ve only known through shared interests, societies or classes, and thankfully not those of close family or friends, but it’s still made me think about how much I know anyone in my life, whether family member, close friend or acquaintance.

Stephanie Butland’s debut novel, Letters to my Husband, asks this same question about the person we’re closest to: our partner, spouse, husband, wife, significant other, whatever label you attach.

Dear Mike, I can’t believe that it’s true. You wouldn’t do this to me. You promised.
Elizabeth knows that her husband is kind and good and that he loves her unconditionally. She knows she hasn’t been herself lately but that, even so, they are happy.
But Elizabeth’s world is turned upside down when Mike dies in a tragic drowning accident. Suddenly everything Elizabeth knows about her husband is thrown into doubt. Why would he sacrifice his own life, knowing he’d never see his wife again? And what exactly was he doing at the lake that night?
Elizabeth knows that writing to Mike won’t bring him back, but she needs to talk to him now more than ever . . .
How much can you ever know about the people you love?

Mike may have physically drowned but I don’t think I’ll be the only reader to get the sense that Elizabeth is also drowning in her grief. Initially this makes her distant and difficult to know, unreachable as she is, and I felt as if I was watching her function in a water tank. She’s not alone in having to come to terms with Mike’s sudden death, but she certainly feels isolated in her grief. Not least because she’s the outsider here, having crossed oceans and left behind her life in Australia to move to England and live with Mike in his hometown. Read more

Book review: Bryant & May: The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

The Burning Man, the twelfth book in Christopher Fowler’s successful and highly popular Bryant & May series of detective novels came out yesterday. Although friends praise the series and recommend them to me, I’d never read one until this week. Here’s what the latest instalment in their case files is all about:

London is under siege. A banking scandal has filled the city with violent protests, and as the anger in the streets detonates, a young homeless man burns to death after being caught in the crossfire between rioters and the police.

But all is not as it seems; an opportunistic killer is using the chaos to exact revenge, but his intended victims are so mysteriously chosen that the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in to find a way of stopping him.

Using their network of eccentric contacts, elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May hunt down a murderer who adopts incendiary methods of execution. But they soon find their investigation taking an apocalyptic turn as the case comes to involve the history of mob rule, corruption, rebellion, punishment and the legend of Guy Fawkes.

At the same time, several members of the PCU team reach dramatic turning points in their lives – but the most personal tragedy is yet to come, for as the race to bring down a cunning killer reaches its climax, Arthur Bryant faces his own devastating day of reckoning.

‘I always said we’d go out with a hell of a bang,’ warns Bryant.

Is this the final Bryant & May adventure? Well, I hope not, having only just discovered them. But if it is, I can console myself with the fact that I haven’t read the previous eleven books in the series. Read more

Book review: The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Today is the publication day for the second Curtis Brown book group choice, James Hannah’s debut novel, The A-Z of You and Me.

Ivo fell for her.
He fell for a girl he can’t get back.
Now he’s hoping for something.
While he waits he plays a game:
He chooses a body part and tells us its link to the past he threw away.
He tells us the story of how she found him, and how he lost her.
But he doesn’t have long.
And he still has one thing left to do …

I think we’ve all played the A-Z game at one time or other, perhaps not with body parts, but something else: places, foods, people’s names, pop songs. But our games were probably played on holiday, either in the car to and from our destination or on a rainy day in the caravan to kill time.

In The A-Z of You and Me, it’s not time but the game player himself, Ivo, who’s dying and he plays the game while lying in his hospice bed. It’s something he does grudgingly and only at the suggestion of one of his carers, Sheila. She believes it will help him focus on something other than his terminal illness, and keep him alert and occupied. But all Ivo initially wants to do is to deaden himself to any sensation or feeling and shut himself off from everyone he’s ever known. Read more

Book review: The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel The Ship was the first book chosen for the Curtis Brown book group, a new online book group I’m a member of this year. The Ship proved to be an excellent choice because it offered so many topics for discussion, not least what we would have done when faced with the same choices. Here’s what the book’s blurb says:

WELCOME TO LONDON

BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT

Oxford Street burned for three weeks. The British Museum is occupied by ragtag survivors. The Regent’s Park camps have been bombed. The Nazareth Act has come into force. If you can’t produce your identity card, you don’t exist.

Lalla, sixteen, has grown up sheltered from the new reality by her visionary father, Michael Paul. But now the chaos has reached their doorstep. Michael has promised to save them. His escape route is a ship big enough to save five hundred people. But only the worthy will be chosen.

Once on board, as day follows identical day, Lalla’s unease grows. Where are they going? What does her father really want?

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF SALVATION?

When the novel opens, we’re in a future London which is both frightening and claustrophobic. I think I was actively taking big gulps of breath while reading the first couple of chapters. I know that I would have really struggled in Lalla’s situation. Where Lalla’s world once extended to the new banks of the Thames and Regent’s Park, it’s become confined to the flat she shares with her parents, which feels more panic room than home, despite or perhaps because of its bolted front door and the restrictions on their movements, and the British Museum, where Lalla’s mother, Anna, takes her most days.

The British Museum seems to serve as their one escape and they use it as Lalla’s classroom, home away from home and playground but I also believe that Anna has another reason for going there. As I got further into The Ship, I couldn’t help thinking back to the time that Lalla and Anna spent there as one of Anna preparing her daughter for what she feared was yet to come; doing what little she could with the scant resources left to prepare her daughter for a life beyond the four walls of their flat or the British Museum, and this could be another reason why Anna seems to delay their departure for as long as she does. (Although there’s a valid argument for saying she stops short of voicing her concerns to Lalla, which would have benefitted her most of all. But perhaps she was afraid of being ‘overheard’ by someone?) Read more

Book review: Losing It by Helen Lederer

Ten years ago this coming August, I went on a week’s Novel Writing course at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre. It was a pretty magical week: both in terms of what it did for my writing and because of the fantastic group of writers I met while there. One of those was Helen Lederer whose first full-length novel, Losing It, is published today by Pan Macmillan.

So, now that I’ve disclosed how we know each other, let’s talk about the book. Here’s what it’s about:

Millie was at one time quite well known for various TV and radio appearances. However, she now has no money, a best friend with a better sex life than her, a daughter in Papua New Guinea and too much weight in places she really doesn’t want it.

When she’s asked to be the front woman for a new diet pill, she naively believes that all her troubles will be solved. She will have money, the weight will be gone, and maybe she’ll get more sex.

If only life was really that easy. It doesn’t take her long to realize it’s going to take more than a diet pill to solve her never-ending woes…

Losing It is the first book in what Helen hopes will become Mid Lit: novels for women who have outgrown chick lit and aren’t quite ready to settle for reading grey lit. (Helen thinks she also may have coined that term, by the way!) It’s a book full of witty and often biting observations about a woman, the world she inhabits and the people in it, that had me laughing out loud on the day I read it. And yes, I did gobble it up in one go while sitting on the sofa one Sunday. I know Helen won’t thank me for saying that because it took her much longer than that to write it. But once I started reading Losing It, I couldn’t stop until I had seen Millie through this difficult period in her life. (When you read Losing It, you’ll discover that she’s not the only one having difficult periods!) Read more

Book review: Wake by Anna Hope

Anna Hope’s debut novel, Wake, depicts a mere five days in 1920 Britain but it’s an important period in the post-First World War world, covering as it does the repatriation of the Unknown Soldier from the battlefields of France to his final resting place at Westminster Abbey, and what happens in the lives of three women in London.    

Remembrance Day 1920: A wartime secret connects three women’s lives: Hettie whose wounded brother won’t speak; Evelyn who still grieves for her lost lover; and Ada, who has never received an official letter about her son’s death, and is still waiting for him to come home. As the mystery that binds them begins to unravel, far away, in the fields of France, the Unknown Soldier embarks on his journey home. The mood of the nation is turning towards the future – but can these three women ever let go of the past? Read more

Book Review: If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel

I have to confess that I didn’t know much about the story told in Judy Chicurel’s debut novel before reading it. (It turns out that there are multiple stories, and as the novel’s set in a working class community, you get a real sense of that from the shifts in emphasis, with different characters coming to the fore while others fade into the background for a while.)

It’s set on a fictionalised Long Island of 1972. Now, Long Island’s not somewhere I’ve ever been but it’s one of those places that I can’t help wondering about whenever I hear it referenced in fiction or on TV and in films, and this was an interesting time for America, with young men returning from the Vietnam War, and young women having more freedom to make choices about their future than ever before.

But all I really knew going in to this was that I liked the look of the cover and the title – If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go – was long, yes!, but also intriguing. (It did also have me secretly hoping that the novel would be about more than the love story it suggests. Which it is.) And, much as I love the title, I’m going to be calling it This Beautiful for the rest of the review. 

“I’d been hanging around Comanche Street for three years and there were still times when it felt like I was watching a movie starring everyone I knew in the world, except me.” Read more

Book review: That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler

Tom Vowler’s second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, opens with what could be a recurring nightmare: a boy on the cusp of young adulthood gets off the school bus in Spring 1983, full of hope and fuzzy expectations and, on his way home, walks into something that quickly shatters that child’s happy innocence forever.

The book then fast-forwards to Autumn 2012 and Stephen, a grown man with a family of his own and a job that stems from one of his passions. Unfortunately, unresolved anger issues and drinking are jeopardising everything: he’s been suspended from his job and his wife has told him that they can’t go on like this for much longer. Things appear to be quickly unravelling when he gets called back to his home town. He’s avoided going there in the past but now it seems as if he must return, not only to see his mother who’s unwell, but also finally to see if he can deal with what happened there in 1983.  

One of the reasons this book works so well is because Tom Vowler manages to sustain the suspense for so long. The reader deliberately isn’t told what the tragic event was until quite late on in the book and so can only guess at what happened, or how, and tweak their ideas each time they’re drip-fed further information. The slow reveal is brilliantly done and left this reader with just enough new information each time before another layer of the story was peeled away to reveal the next one. Even when I thought I knew what had transpired, it turned out that I didn’t have all the details and still needed to adjust how I was looking at things, when more was revealed. I found my attitudes towards the characters and their place in the story continuously shifting, which made for both a compelling and unsettling read.  Read more

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