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Book review: The Cornish House by Liz Fenwick

When my family moved back to the UK from Germany, shortly before my baby brother was born, my Welsh father and Scottish mother couldn’t agree where to live, so they looked to England as a compromise solution. And (for any English people reading this) a very fine compromise it was, too! Dad had always loved Cornwall and would have loved to have lived there but he didn’t quite make it. He was offered a job in North Devon, which he accepted happily enough because it put us close enough to the Cornish border to make forays over it at weekends and during the school holidays. And so, my childhood was filled with places such as Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and Clovelly, the ‘Lorna Doone’ country of nearby Exmoor and trips over the border to King Arthur’s reputed birthplace at Tintagel and Daphne du Maurier’s Fowey. And growing up in a small fishing village, with cobbled streets and narrow alleys that seemed to echo with the ghosts of smugglers and seafaring men, it’s little wonder that I devoured books filled with the stories and legends inspired by the country around me.

I think that’s why place is still every bit as important to me in books as are the characters. The best books are the ones where the place a story is set is just as much of a character. I want to feel wholly immersed in the world the writer’s created, to the extent where I could be sitting in the same room as the characters or walking along a step or two behind them. So opening a book like Liz Fenwick’s The Cornish House and having not only Cornwall but Trevenen, the house of the title, so effectively realised was wonderful. It felt like coming home. Every time I opened the book, I was sucked in and that, in turn, made me feel more involved with the lives of the main characters Maddie, an artist, and her step-daughter Hannah. Read more

Book review: Summer of ’76 by Isabel Ashdown

On the day that Isabel Ashdown’s third and latest novel launched, London enjoyed the first real heat of the year. For a lot of people at the event, it seemed as if the weather had been specially ordered. There we all were, sweltering away, while celebrating the launch of Summer of ’76, a book set in the summer of record high temperatures and a severe drought that brought with it water rationing and standpipes and heat that made Brits and their gardens wilt.

Until that week, I think most people in Britain would have said that it hadn’t been a good year for weather, unless you’re the sort of person who likes every kind of weather on the same day and is fit enough to carry all the accompanying wardrobe changes that might necessitate. All of which leads me to think that there is perhaps some wizardry at work when Isabel Ashdown takes up her keyboard – or pen, if she still writes her first drafts longhand. The release of her novel about the summer of a famous heatwave seems to have heralded in another one, just when Brits were beginning to despair that this summer might turn out to be another washout like last year.

I believe it entirely possible that Isabel Ashdown is capable of conjuring up a heatwave. She does just that within the pages of Summer of ’76. Met Office reports at the start of every chapter give us the raw temperatures but its her deft prose that really makes you feel the heat of that long hot summer and how everything and everyone suffered, browned and some others even unravelled under it. I think I drank more (water!) while reading this book than I’ve ever drunk for any other book. And Summer of ’76 made me thirsty in other ways. I found it almost impossible to put the book down once I started it and managed to read it in what was an incredibly busy weekend for me. Read more

Book review: Tony Hogan bought me an Ice Cream Float before he stole my Ma by Kerry Hudson

As unusual book titles go, Tony Hogan bought me an Ice Cream Float before he stole my Ma is right up there. Team that with a distinctive cover showing the silhouette of a jumping girl holding a red balloon on a blue background and I knew I wanted to read this debut novel even before its author, Kerry Hudson, dropped by here last year as part of her blog tour for the book’s publication.

Given all that ‘new book from a new author’ excitement, I can’t really explain why it then took me almost a year until I finally got around to reading it. Part of me is still kicking myself for the delay and that lost time in which I could have been getting to know such a captivating character as the narrator of Tony Hogan.

You see, as great as the title and cover are, it’s only when you start reading Tony Hogan that the real magic happens.

Every so often you come across a distinctive new voice in a novel. There’s something about it that really speaks to you: you can hear it even when you put the book down for a break, so you re-run snatches of dialogue, quips and anecdotes and laugh or wince at them again. That voice grabs your attention and, once it has you, you’ll pretty much follow it anywhere it wants to take you. Even if that’s to somewhere unfamiliar or uncomfortable, worse than anywhere you’ve ever known or are used to, places you may never have been to in real life or those you might well want to shy away from, even when they’re safely contained within the pages of a novel. Read more

Book review: Searching for Captain Wentworth by Jane Odiwe

One of the fun things about being a reader today is sometimes getting the opportunity to meet a favourite author at a book event or getting to chat to them on their blog or through social networking sites. But if they’ve been dead for almost 200 years, this is sadly  – and clearly! – no longer an option. You can only imagine what such a meeting or conversation would have been like… OR you can let someone else do that for you. Someone like Jane Odiwe, for example, as she’s now done for Jane Austen admirers everywhere in the excellent Searching for Captain Wentworth. Here’s a little about what happens in the book:

When aspiring writer, Sophie Elliot, receives the keys to the family townhouse in Bath, it’s an invitation she can’t turn down, especially when she learns that she will be living next door to the house Jane Austen lived in. On discovering that an ancient glove belonging to her mysterious neighbour, Josh Strafford, will transport her back in time to Regency Bath, she questions her sanity, but Sophie is soon caught up in two dimensions, each reality as certain as the other. Torn between her life in the modern world, and that of her ancestor who befriends Jane Austen and her fascinating brother Charles, Sophie’s story travels two hundred years across time, and back again, to unite this modern heroine with her own Captain Wentworth. Blending fact and fiction together, the tale of Jane Austen’s own quest for happiness weaves alongside, creating a believable world of new possibilities for the inspiration behind the beloved novel, Persuasion.

The prospect of an encounter with Captain Wentworth was enough to make me want to read Searching for Captain Wentworth. (I think I might have mentioned before that Persuasion is my favourite of all Jane Austen’s novels and the passionate sea-faring Captain Wentworth my favourite hero of hers.) However, there was even more to recommend this particular book to me: it has an aspiring writer as the heroine, and not only does she get to live in Bath (one of my favourite cities, even if it wasn’t ever one of Jane Austen’s) but this is also a time slip novel. Which means that Sophie, the aspiring writer, gets to visit not one, but TWO versions of Bath, and travels back from the modern-day city to that of Jane Austen’s time. Oh, and once there, she promptly meets one of its most famous residents – Jane Austen herself! And if it that wasn’t enough there was also a hint that the book would contain some real romance between Jane Austen and the man who might have provided the inspiration for Captain Wentworth. And let’s face it, who doesn’t sometimes want the hero of a book to actually come alive or to have been a real person? So, with all of this in the mix, Searching for Captain Wentworth could have been written with me in mind as its ideal reader. Read more

Book review: The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn

Judith Kinghorn’s beautifully-written and evocative debut novel The Last Summer was one of my favourite reads of 2012. Which might help to explain why, on the eve of her second novel coming out, I’m only now getting around to trying to do it justice in a review.

The Last Summer has been marketed as a book that viewers of Downton Abbey would enjoy. I can understand why, given that it opens in the country estate of Deyning Park in 1914, the year in which the first series of Downton Abbey ends, and involves a love affair between two people from different social classes. But if, like me, you were one of the few people who didn’t enjoy the show and switched off at the beginning of its second series, please don’t let that be the reason you miss out on what is a wonderfully rewarding read in itself.

What I particularly enjoyed about The Last Summer is how much depth there is to the story. Clarissa, the heroine, is on the cusp of adulthood and about to embark upon her first real love affair: “I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken”. But the world she inhabits is also about to undergo a profound transformation: “the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift: a realignment of my trajectory. It was the beginning of summer and, unbeknownst to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.Read more

The Penny Bangle

The Penny Bangle is the last in a trilogy of books following the lives and loves of various members of the Denham family. It’s a series I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading and a family who I’m sorry to have to leave behind, no matter how fitting an end The Penny Bangle is to the series.

In The Penny Bangle, it’s the turn of Alex and Rose Denham’s twin sons, Robert and Stephen, to take centre stage. It’s 1942 and both men are home, recovering from injuries they suffered at Dunkirk. Into their lives comes nineteen-year-old Cassie Taylor, newly arrived from Birmingham after her granny sent her away to the country where she thought she’d be safer, and very reluctantly about to be the new land girl tasked with helping out on their parents’ farm.
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Run Rabbit Run

I must admit to having a bit of an aversion to pink. With the notable exception of the singer, P!NK, I try and avoid the colour, especially when it liberally covers a book. But I was only too happy to overcome this irrational dislike if it meant I could read another Kate Johnson novel

I read and thoroughly enjoyed Kate’s fantasy novel The Untied Kingdom last year and was looking forward to reading one of Kate’s Sophie Green mysteries. Run Rabbit Run is the first of these to be published by ChocLit, an independent publisher of fiction with an element of romance. (The previous four books in the Sophie Green series were published as ebooks in the USA.)

You don’t need to have read any of the previous Sophie Green books to be able to enjoy this one. It works perfectly well as a stand-alone.
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Highland Storms by Christina Courtenay

Having already read and enjoyed Christina Courtenay’s previous two novels, Trade Winds and The Scarlet Kimono, you’d think that I would have learned my lesson and left Highland Storms for a weekend when I had some uninterrupted reading time. But no, despite knowing that I find it incredibly hard to put one of her books down, I picked it up on a Tuesday evening and started to read. Although I did manage to put it down long enough to get some sleep on Wednesday night, my dreams were vivid, heather-coloured ones, full of dashing heroes running about brandishing dirks! And when I woke up on Wednesday morning and really should have been working, I reached for Christina’s book instead and spent the rest of the day in the Scottish Highlands. This might help you see why that might have happened:

Betrayed by his brother and his childhood love, Brice Kinross needs a fresh start. So he welcomes the opportunity to leave Sweden for the Scottish Highlands to take over the family estate.
But there’s trouble afoot at Rosyth in 1754 and Brice finds himself unwelcome. The estate’s in ruin and money is disappearing. He discovers an ally in Marsaili Buchanan, the beautiful redheaded housekeeper, but can he trust her?
Marsaili is determined to build a good life. She works hard at being housekeeper and harder still at avoiding men who want to take advantage of her. But she’s irresistibly drawn to the new clan chief, even though he’s made it plain he doesn’t want to be shackled to anyone.
And the young laird has more than romance on his mind. His investigations are stirring up an enemy. Someone who will stop at nothing to get what he wants – including Marsaili – even if that means destroying Brice’s life forever …

One of the things I love about Christina’s writing is how quickly she draws you into the world of her books and Highland Storms is no exception. Rather than reading Brice Kinross’ story, I felt more as if I were taking the journey alongside him, as he leaves behind his family in Sweden for a new and uncertain future running the family estate in Scotland. I moved about the family home with him and felt as if I really knew it and could feel its stone beneath my hands. Christina’s descriptions are so good and work on all your senses. She’ll have you smelling the peat fires, the sweat of the horses and the hay in their stables; feeling the wind and water on your skin; and tasting the whisky warming your body after a night out on the hills. Your heart will positively pound as dirks are drawn, you’re taken captive and then later go on the run.

Highland Storms tells the story of Brice Kinross, the son of Killian and Jess from Trade Winds, and, coming from such impressive hero stock, Brice had a lot to live up to in order to convince in his own right. Happily, he’s different to his father but no less appealing, and I especially liked that Christina didn’t create a mini-me version of Killian but let Brice grow into his role on his own terms. I loved Marsaili’s character and how she is strong and capable while under attack, rather than simply being a damsel in need of a rescuer. Special mention also has to go to her wise and faithful protector, Liath, who was another of my favourite characters in the book.

I don’t want to give any more away about the storyline or the other characters involved but I can wholeheartedly recommend this as an engrossing read from an author who has become a firm favourite of mine. and The Book Depository. Christina’s previous novels Trade Winds and The Scarlet Kimono are also available from Choc Lit and all good booksellers. Trade Winds was short listed for the Romantic Novelist’s Association’s Pure Passion Award for Best Historical Fiction 2011. To find out more about Christina, you can read her Author Page, visit her Author Website or Follow Christina on Twitter

And if you’re near Abergavenny this Saturday between 1pm and 3pm, why not pop into Waterstone’s and meet Christina? She’ll be there, together with fellow ChocLit author, Margaret James, to chat about their books and to sign any copies purchased. Naturally, their books would make excellent Christmas presents.   

Persuade Me by Juliet Archer

If I tell you that Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors and has been since I was a teenager; that Persuasion is not only my favourite of all her books but one of my all-time favourite books; and that Captain Wentworth is my favourite literary hero, then you’ll probably understand why I might have been slow to flick open Juliet Archer’s Persuade Me, a modern retelling of Persuasion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for modern revamps of classic books and films. When they’re done well, they can give you a fresh take on the original and guide you back to revisiting an old friend or introduce you to a new one. But when they’re done badly, they’re a travesty and I rue the loss of valuable reading or viewing time.

Happily, Juliet Archer has done a fantastic job with Persuade Me and my love of Persuasion not only remains undimmed but it might even have been reinforced, if that’s possible. The beauty of ChocLit titles is that they offer you the story not only from the heroine’s perspective but also from that of the hero and, with such an appealing hero as Rick Wentworth, that’s one of the main draws here. You finally get inside Wentworth’s head and find out what he’s thinking and feeling. Being able to do so does mean that the Will-they?, Won’t-they? suspense of the original is compromised slightly but Juliet Archer handles things in such a way that she still manages to retain much of the tension, right up to the last possible moment. Besides, it was terrific fun to see just what a modern Wentworth might be like. Rick Wentworth, marine biologist, is a clever imagining of what Austen’s hero could be today. He’s every bit as passionate and impulsive as the Captain Frederick Wentworth of the original.

The heroine, Anna, is a character that I couldn’t help liking and wouldn’t mind being friends with, were she real. I also loved the Musgrove family and the Crofts every bit as much as I did the ones in Austen’s novel and I definitely approved of Mrs Smith’s modern-day equivalent and her situation. That was a lovely touch. It was a lot of fun to recognise each and every modern equivalent of much-loved (or hated, in some cases) characters and I enjoyed how Juliet Archer updated the key events, making it especially relevant in our seemingly celebrity-obsessed times.

You don’t need to know or love Persuasion to enjoy Persuade Me. The book easily holds its own and is a great read in its own right and, if you haven’t read Persuasion, you’ll hopefully enjoy Persuade Me enough to want to see where the inspiration for it came from.

I read Persuade Me straight through in one sitting. I hadn’t meant to but once I started I didn’t want to put it down, even though I knew exactly how the story would end. I eventually finished it around 5am on Monday. That’s the sign of a good read in my book.

Persuade Me is Juliet Archer’s second book in the Darcy & Friends series (modern retellings of Jane Austen’s six complete novels) published by ChocLit. The Importance of Being Emma is also available from them. You can find out more about Juliet Archer on her Author Website, by reading her Blog or you can Follow Her on Twitter.  

Please Don’t Stop the Music by Jane Lovering

Jemima Hutton is determined to build a successful new life and keep her past a dark secret. Trouble is, her jewellery business looks set to fail – until enigmatic Ben Davies offers to stock her handmade belt buckles in his guitar shop and things start looking up, on all fronts.

But Ben has secrets too. When Jemima finds out he used to be the front man of hugely successful Indie rock band Willow Down, she wants to know more. Why did he desert the band on their US tour? Why is he now a semi-recluse?

And the curiosity is mutual – which means that her own secret is no longer safe …

When Jane Lovering visited The Nut Press to kick off her blog tour for Please Don’t Stop the Music at the beginning of January, she promised us a novel full of Dark Secrets. I’m happy to report that she fully delivers on that. So much so that she had me doing something I rarely get the chance to do anymore. I ignored everyone and everything around me until I had read Please Don’t Stop the Music from cover to cover in one sitting.

It wasn’t only the promised Dark Secrets that were responsible for this, but also the characters. In Jane’s book, they’re refreshingly different to the ones you often find between the pages of a romantic novel. The characters in Please Don’t Stop the Music are very much an “alternative” cast: they certainly don’t have perfect lives, nor are they perfect themselves. These are flawed human beings with problems, handicaps or baggage. I loved that about them because they were all the more real for it. Not only did I actually believe that they could exist out there somewhere in the real world but I also thought that if I ever met them, I would like them and possibly even be friends with some of them.

The main character, Jemima Hutton, is a gifted jewellery artist who wields sarcasm about her like a ferocious ninja in skinny jeans. This defence mechanism helps protect someone who is a flawed and deeply troubled young woman, continually on the run from her past. While searching for stockists for her jewellery, she meets the enigmatic Ben Davies, who now works in a music shop but was once in an indie band. As their friendship develops, it threatens to upset her coping mechanisms and force her to share her secrets with him. But Ben’s also keeping a secret of his own and Jemima has a similar impact on him. How he feels about this is cleverly conveyed through extracts from a journal he keeps.

Please Don’t Stop the Music is funny, poignant and heartbreaking in places. I really felt for the characters, both because of what they had gone through and what they were having to deal with now, as a result of their pasts. Jane handles her characters’ stories with great understanding and dexterity and, for me, it’s a fantastic example of how to sensitively incorporate disabilities and troubled backgrounds into romantic fiction. Before you start thinking that the book is altogether too dark for you, it’s not. I laughed a lot too. Jane puts her wonderfully unique sense of humour to very effective use throughout.

Please Don’t Stop the Music was an exhilarating and lively read because it was so full of life. Real life. It feels like a fresh take on romantic fiction because this is something that could happen to people that you or I might know in the real world. It’s a book about friendships, about how they change, grow and develop, and, most of all, about how important they are, and can be, in all our lives. I know that I’ll remember these characters and their story long after closing the book on them. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, my first Jane Lovering novel, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. In the meantime, I’ll be checking out her back catalogue until the next exciting new release from her.

Please Don’t Stop the Music was published by 

or The Book Depository. Jane can be contacted at her Author Website or you can Follow Jane on Twitter.

Come back on Saturday to help The Nut Press kick off the blog tour for another ChocLit title, The Scarlet Kimono by Christina Courtenay, whose debut novel, Trade Winds, I loved.