Book Review

Book Chat: Christmas Fireside Stories.

When I saw lovely Pan MacMillan publicist Natasha tweeting about review copies of Christmas Fireside Stories being available I knew I needed to ask for a copy, it included short stories from some of my mom’s favourite authors. When it arrived I handed it straight over and now, on Christmas Eve, she’s here to share her thoughts about the book.

From the back cover:
imageSnuggle up by the fire with this festive collection of Christmas short stories from six bestselling authors.

Christmas at Briar Farm by Diane Allen
Christmas preparations are in full swing at Briar farm as the Bainbridge family get ready for a traditional 1960s Christmas – with all the trimmings.

Kate’s Miracle by Rita Bradshaw
It’s Christmas 1919 in the north of England and things are looking bleak for Kate and her two small children. That is until Kate discovers the strength of friendship and community at Christmas time . . .

The Gift by Margaret Dickinson
Christmas Eve, 1914. A moment of hope unites soldiers on both sides of the trenches as the spirit of Christmas reaches those divided by war, and an act of generosity changes one man’s life forever.

Christmas at Thalstead Halt by Annie Murray
The station master at Thalstead Halt has the unexpected task of sheltering snow bound passengers, in the run up to Christmas 1886. And that’s not the only unexpected occurrence at Thalstead Halt . . .

You’ll Never Know Just How Much I Love You by Pam Weaver
Christmas Eve, 1943. The post office at Goring-on-Sea is up against bitter winter weather but nothing can stop an emergency delivery, or the power of true love at Christmas time.

A Wounded Christmas by Mary Wood
Can friendship, humour and a Boxing Day party help to ease the heartaches of 1942? A heart-warming story featuring characters from the saga novel Proud of You.

This collection includes delicious Christmas recipes recommended by the authors.

Did you enjoy the book?
Yes I really enjoyed the stories, they covered a range of times and settings but they all shared a similar theme of that Christmas spirit. In between the stories each author has written a personal piece about Christmas, I found those really interesting to read.

Can you pick a favourite story from the six?
Christmas at Briar Farm because there was so much of it that reminded me of my own childhood Christmases. Lots of the things that happened brought back memories and I really related to the characters.

You mentioned when you finished reading that you were slightly disappointed with the book itself, can you explain why?
Only that I thought the stories and then the recipes were going to take up the whole book, instead it finished partway through and then had samples of the authors’ other books. A couple of them were extracts from books I’ve already read. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the Christmas stories, I was just expecting them to be a little longer.

Did you like the inclusion of the recipes in the book?
Yes, though I would have liked to have seen them placed at the end of the festive stories rather than after the extracts. They all sound delicious and I’ll probably try a couple of them.

Were you familiar with all of the authors before you read this book?
No, I’d read books by all of the authors apart from Pam Weaver. Both Annie Murray and Margaret Dickinson are two of my long time favourite authors.

Will you now read more from the authors you weren’t so familiar with?
Yes, I’ll certainly look out for books from all of the authors who featured in this book. After loving Christmas at Briar Farm I’m particularly keen to read more by Diane Allen.

Christmas Fireside Stories is published by PanMacmillan in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review: The Seafront Tea Rooms by Vanessa Greene.

SeafrontTeaRoomsThe Seafront Tea Rooms is a peaceful hideaway, away from the bustle of the seaside, and in this quiet place a group of women find exactly what they’ve been searching for.

Charismatic journalist Charlotte is on a mission to scope out Britain’s best tea rooms. She knows she’s found something special in the Seafront Tea Rooms but is it a secret she should share? Kathryn, a single mother whose only sanctuary is the ‘Seafront’, convinces Charlie to keep the place out of her article by agreeing to join her on her search. Together with another regular, Seraphine, a culture-shocked French au pair with a passion for pastry-making, they travel around the country discovering quaint hideaways and hidden gems. But what none of them expect is for their journey to surprise them with discoveries of a different kind…

Sometimes you want a book that you can dive in to head first, a book you can become completely wrapped up in and ignore the world. The Seafront Tea Rooms is just such a book, a truly lovely gem of a read. I liked the sound of it from the synopsis – what could be nicer than a book about tea and cake? Upon reading it I discovered that as well as being full of mouth watering descriptions of afternoon teas galore it was also full of life and heart.

The book centres around three women, Kat, Charlie and Seraphine. Brought together early on in the book, the trio work together to research the piece Charlie is to write on the best tea rooms in Britain. They each have challenges going on in their lives, and each have a need for the sort of support that comes from the best of friendships. Watching the friendship grow between the three ladies was wonderful, and left me thinking about the similar sorts of friends I have in my own life. I think sometimes that in fiction friendship can be overlooked in favour of romance so it was nice to see friendship take such a central role here. I particularly liked that the main friendships were all new yet strong – sometimes we meet someone and click as friends instantly, length of friendship isn’t necessarily an indicator of strength of friendship.

There are romantic subplots running through the book, I found that whilst I could see where Kat and Charlie’s stories were going fairly quickly it was Seraphine’s that was the surprise. I don’t want to elaborate too much, the synopsis and material around the book have been careful to allow the reader to discover this for themselves so it would be wrong for me to not follow suit. That said I will say that it was a pleasant surprise and added a whole new layer of appreciation for this book. There’s a gorgeous epilogue that ties up all of the romantic elements of the book, it’s beautiful and made me shed more than a tear or two.

In addition to the three main characters this book has a strong collection of supporting characters. These are well created, I felt like I got to know and understand them. Charlie’s sister Pippa was one of the stand outs for me – she has a long journey to go on throughout the course of the book and I found I cared a lot about this. Kat’s son Leo is very lovely, he reminded me a lot of children I’ve known in the past – always a sign that a young character is well written. And finally I must mention Bagel the Beagle – what a great name for a dog!

I haven’t read all that many books aimed at adults recently, this book has absolutely reminded me that the grass is green on every side of publishing irrespective of target audience. This is the author’s second book, I’m now going to be making sure I read her debut The Vintage Teacup Club too.

The Seafront Tea Rooms is published by Sphere in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review: The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop.

TheSunriseIn the summer of 1972, Famagusta in Cyprus is the most desirable resort in the Mediterranean, a city bathed in the glow of good fortune. An ambitious couple are about to open the island’s most spectacular hotel, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots work in harmony. Two neighbouring families, the Georgious and the Özkans, are among many who moved to Famagusta to escape the years of unrest and ethnic violence elsewhere on the island. But beneath the city’s façade of glamour and success, tension is building.

When a Greek coup plunges the island into chaos, Cyprus faces a disastrous conflict. Turkey invades to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority, and Famagusta is shelled. Forty thousand people seize their most precious possessions and flee from the advancing soldiers. In the deserted city, just two families remain. This is their story.

I’ve read and loved a couple of Victoria Hislop novels in the past, I love the way her writing style transports me back to the historical setting of the book. When I saw her new book focused on the conflict in Cyprus I was really interested in it – I know not a lot about this piece of modern history so what better way to get a bit more informed?

The book opens with a timeline of the events in Cyprus leading up to the 1972 setting of the book. I found this a very useful whistle stop tour, giving some useful background information. Following this the book has a brief period of scene setting, introducing us to Famagusta – the city setting for the book – and the Papacostas – the ambitious couple opening the luxury hotels that are to provide much of the focus of the story. This first chapter is quite long, and I found initially that I didn’t feel like I was gelling with it. I think I just wanted the story to get going and to draw me in.

By the end of the first chapter I was beginning to get drawn in, and then very quickly I was hooked and couldn’t read quickly enough. The core cast of characters is plentiful, I felt like I got to know all of them and was invested in their individual stories. Whilst the stories of both Savvas and Aphroditi Papacosta are interesting, for me it was the Georgious and the Özkans who really captured my attention. The two families come from the two warring sides, the Georgious are Greek Cypriot and the Özkans are Turkish Cypriot – this allows the reader an immediate view into both sides of the dispute from a very human, relatable position.

The two books I’d previously read by the author had both featured a modern story intertwined with a historical story. I must admit I’d expected this book to follow the same pattern and it was only when I reached the mid point that I realised this book was instead following an entirely linear narrative. It worked well for this story, I don’t think having a modern story woven through it would have added anything to the reading experience.

I liked the way that the author has tried to present a very balanced take on what happened in Famagusta in the 1970s, showing that both sides were following strong convictions and in doing so both sides committed crimes and atrocities. This never feels heavy handed, instead very matter of fact. I think having young children included in the two families helps with this – questions are asked by Mehmet Özkan in particular that allow for discussion of the human side of the conflict. This feels a particularly timely read as we’re currently living with many conflicts ongoing that are pitting two sides of communities against one another.

This book is atmospheric, and gripping. It covers a time in history that I knew virtually nothing about but by the time I reached the end of the book I felt both that I knew a little more and would like to do some reading of my own to learn more still.

The Sunrise is published by Headline Review in the UK from 25th September. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson.

OfThingsGoneAstrayMrs Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight …

On a seemingly normal morning in London, a group of people all lose something dear to them, something dear but peculiar: the front of their house, their piano keys, their sense of direction, their place of work.

Meanwhile, Jake, a young boy whose father brings him to London following his mother’s sudden death in an earthquake, finds himself strangely attracted to other people’s lost things. But little does he realise that his most valuable possession, his relationship with his dad, is slipping away from him.

Of Things Gone Astray is a magical fable about modern life and values. Perfect for fans of Andrew Kaufman and Cecelia Ahern.

The first thing that drew me to this book was that gorgeous cover. The synopsis sounded pretty great too, but this was absolutely a case of choosing a book based on its cover.

To try and describe this book is going to be incredibly difficult. It’s one of those books that needs to be read to be understood. It follows a number of characters who have lost something, the focus rotates between them for each chapter. The chapters are short, some less than a page long, each giving us another little glimpse into the character and their life since they lost whatever it is that is dear to them.

The things that each character have lost vary from physical objects to less tangible things – skills, feelings, purposes. The more we get to know the character the more we understand why they might have lost this, why it was so important to them and what its loss means to them. This made the book a captivating read for me, I love trying to understand characters (and people for that matter) and so this book appealed to the part of my brain that loves nothing more than to try and unpick someone’s make up.

The different characters’ stories do intertwine a little, the author manages this in such a way that it doesn’t feel forced or overly convenient. I enjoyed each and every character, I’d have to pick Mrs Featherby as my favourite I think. There are perhaps other characters whose stories are more obviously interesting, but she’s the one I wanted to keep delving deeper with.

Of Things Gone Astray is an impressive book, made all the more impressive by the fact it’s a debut novel. On the basis of this book I suspect we may be seeing quite a bit more of Janina Matthewson over the next few years.

Of Things Gone Astray is published by The Friday Project in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book News · Book Review

Not a Review: The Child by Sebastian Fitzek.

Every now and then a book comes along that I get really excited about, and then when I come to read it something just doesn’t click and I have to give up part way through. Sadly this is exactly what happened when it came to The Child. Rather than not cover it I thought I’d still write about it – just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t me it won’t be for you.

For starters this is no ordinary book. It’s an audiobook, produced by Audible Studios as a multi-cast recording. This appealed a lot to me, I’ve found audiobooks don’t always keep my attention but radio plays do so I thought this would be something I’d get on well with. The audio cast has some great names – Rupert Penry-Jones, Emilia Fox and Andy Serkis to name a few.

childFINAL

The synopsis:
Defence attorney Robert Stern can scarcely believe his eyes when he meets with the mysterious client who has summoned him to a godforsaken industrial park. To his astonishment, the defendant is a ten-year-old boy, a fragile child with a chronic illness who insists that he was a murderer in a former life. Robert Stern’s surprise turns into horror when he searches the cellar described by Simon and finds a human skeleton whose skull has been split by an axe.

Mystifying, thrilling and often terrifying, German author Sebastian Fitzek’s international bestseller finds a perfect medium in this multi-cast audio dramatization, featuring an all-star cast.

The trailer:
In addition to that synopsis Audible have produced a trailer to whet your appetite for the book

My experience:
My attention was grabbed immediately by this audiobook, and for the first thirty minutes or so I was hooked. Then unfortunately I started to become increasingly disturbed by the subject material and before the first hour was up I had to make the decision to stop listening. I’m usually pretty unflappable when it comes to content but this was just too strong for me. It’s hard to talk about what I didn’t like because I don’t know how spoilery it would be (if you’d like to know more specifically do please feel free to email me.)

Other experiences:
For balance I thought I’d find a couple of alternative reviews from bloggers who did listen to the whole book, it gets good write ups at both Crime Thriller Girl and Jack Croxall’s blog.

The link:
If you are interested in The Child it is available from Audible here.

Book Review

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

StationElevenDAY ONE

The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.

News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

WEEK TWO

Civilization has crumbled.

YEAR TWENTY

A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.

But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

STATION ELEVEN

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan – warned about the flu just in time; Arthur’s first wife Miranda; Arthur’s oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed ‘prophet’.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything – even the end of the world.

It feels like I’ve been seeing buzz for this book online for months, though I’m sure it’s actually just been a few weeks. When the publisher offered advance eBook copies for the longest day of the year I jumped at the chance to find out for myself why everyone was so excited about this book.

The first part of the book feels a little like it’s telling a number of discrete stories from different time periods – whilst I knew they would come together at some point I had no idea how this would happen. This only added to my desire to keep reading, this book is definitely one that’ll glue you to your seat! There is no one main character, instead a number of characters are focused on throughout the book. I love ensemble casts when they’re done well, and this book definitely pleased on that front.

The book covers a number of time periods; you have the contemporary story set in year 20 (time is now measured post the flu epidemic that wipes out much of the world’s population), and then a number of past settings including the time just around the flu epidemic and then earlier in some of the characters lives too. I found this easy to navigate, it’s always clear when the events on the page are unfolding and I really liked the way reading another few pages would add a little more backstory to one or more characters and I would feel like I understood them that little bit more. I particularly enjoyed the way that seemingly small inconsequential mentions of things would reappear later in the story and gain more significance.

The non-linear nature of this book also gave me moments where I had to stop and think a bit about what I had just read, memory is such an important part of this book – some of the characters are old enough to remember what life was life before the flu whereas others aren’t. A number of the characters in the contemporary story have connections to the Museum of Civilisation – a collection of things that held importance to individuals, whether a gadget or a stunning pair of shoes. I thought this act of remembering was so interesting, civilisation has changed so completely yet there is this desire to remember what was and will likely never be again.

The arts also play a significant role in the book. The opening section is set in a theatre where a production of King Lear is underway, just prior to the flu epidemic. Much of the contemporary story telling focuses on a travelling band of performers, both classical musicians and Shakespearean actors. When we live in a time where funding for the arts is frequently in the first swathe of cuts to be made when savings are deemed necessary I found the emphasis on the enduring passion for an value of the arts to be really meaningful. There’s a definite exploration of what the arts mean to us, what they do for us and why we try our hardest to cling to them.

This book is a fascinating, thought provoking, gripping read that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. Definitely a book to look out for.

Station Eleven will be published on 10th September 2014. Whilst I was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review: The Flavours of Love by Dorothy Koomson.

FlavoursOfLove‘I’m looking for that perfect blend of flavours; the taste that used to be you. If I find it, I know you’ll come back to me.’

It’s been 18 months since my husband was murdered and I’ve decided to finish writing The Flavours of Love, the cookbook he started before he died. Everyone thinks I’m coping so well without him – they have no idea what I’ve been hiding or what I do away from prying eyes. But now that my 14-year-old daughter has confessed something so devastating it could destroy our family all over again, and my husband’s killer has started to write to me claiming to be innocent, I know it’s only a matter of time before the truth about me and what I’ve done is revealed to the world.

My name is Saffron Mackleroy and this is my story.

I’ve been a big fan of Dorothy Koomson for a long time now, I’m always so excited by her new books. There are certain things I’ve come to expect from her books; characters to root for, emotional plotlines that keep me glued to my seat until I’ve finished reading them, skilful use of different time periods. The Flavours of Love delivers on all three counts.

At the start of the book Saffron and her family are grieving for their dead husband and father, the opening chapter throws the reader straight into the story with the family being hit by yet another life changing bombshell before jumping back to the time when Saffron first met her husband Joel. I liked this a lot, introducing him through flashbacks so quickly meant that he felt like a vital character despite the fact that in the contemporary storyline he’s present only as a memory.

There are so many different facets to this story. It is a thriller, with Joel’s killer making increasing contact with Saffron and becoming increasingly disturbing. At the same time it’s a quiet story about grief and working out how to carry on when it’s the hardest thing to even imagine yourself doing. And then it’s about family and how your relationships change and reform after they get pulled and tested in the hardest of circumstances. Reading it, no single facet felt more than the others, they’re deftly balanced and woven around one another.

I really felt for Saffron and her children Phoebe and Zane. All of them do things that are hard to read about, the distance you have as a reader means you can see implications more easily and understand the potential ramifications of actions. I found Saffron particularly difficult to read at times, some of the things she felt and said were so familiar to me it was like looking in a mirror. This ultimately only made me feel more connected to her and more invested in what was going to happen to her – something I’ve found before with the lead characters in other books by the author (I remember in particular being amazed by how similar Ceri in The Cupid Effect was to me).

This is not a book with a neat ending tied in a pretty bow, and it’s brilliant because of this. The plot aspects that need a concrete resolution get one, and this is very satisfying. Many of the plot elements don’t require endings, they simply require progress and this again is exactly what they get. The characters are works in progress, like we all are as humans, rather than the ending being one that is neat and finished it is one that holds potential and hope for the characters – I closed the book feeling like they were all going to get there in time.

This is another excellent book by Dorothy Koomson, I’m already looking forward to the next one!

The Flavours of Love is published by Quercus Books. Whilst my copy was provided by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.