Friday, 10 July 2015

Summer wishlist

There are some brilliant books coming out this summer and later this year which are already piled high on my Waterstones wishlist! Here is my pick in the best of a very strong bunch:

The Ecliptic - Benjamin Wood (out now)
I was very lucky to receive a proof of this book a couple of months back, but I am so excited now that it has been released so that I can finally talk about it with other readers! It is one of the most mind-blowing, brain-twisting books I have ever read! There are so many layers and complex characters, that I just know my book group will love dissecting this (like we did with its predecessor The Bellweather Revivals). For an intelligent beach read, look no further than this mesmerising novel.

Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee (released 14 July)
No list would be complete without the surprise publication of a sequel to a true classic. I am ashamed to say that I have only just discovered the characters of Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch. To Kill A Mockingbird has always been on my 'to read list', but I was worried it would not live up to the much adored hype. I was wrong of course and the great thing about the publication of this sequel is that it has made thousands of readers revisit the book they read in their teens for school, or read it for the very fist time. I, like many of others are intrigued to read about an adult Scout and to find out what happened to a group of unforgettable characters.

Everything Sweet - Meringue Girls (released 30 July)
I first discovered the Meringue Girls at a food festival a few years ago when I fell in love with their beautifully coloured and uniquely flavoured meringue kisses. I have been hooked ever since! Their first book was a colourful and trendy collection of good looking and tasty recipes which I have successfully been able to produce with their easy instructions. As the hosts of my favourite instagram account, I have been so impressed with their new range of new bakes from flower lolly pops to eclairs, which I really want to recreate!

Devestation Road - Jason Hewitt (released 30 July)
I absolutely loved this author's debut The Dynamite Room and this second book is another wartime novel based on an unlikely friendship. I am expecting another compelling novel exploring the devastation of WWII as it tells the story of a man waking in an unknown country, injured and confused as he attempts to make an extraordinary journey home.  

The Taming of the Queen - Philippa Gregory (released 13 Aug)
I am huge fan of Philippa Gregory's richly written historical novels, especially her heart-stopping Cousin's War and Tudor Court novels. This new novel takes us back to the reign of Henry VIII and his affair with Kateryn Parr. I can't wait to enter the dangerous world of the Tudor Court again with its secrets and suspicions. The publication of the book will be supported with some special talks with the author including an event at the National Theatre.

Quinntessential Baking - Frances Quinn (released 27 August)
The winner of 2013's Great British Baking has been taking her time to release a gorgeous, well thought-out and beautifully designed book which I cannot wait to get my hands on! Her photos of genius bakes on social media and her website have been building up to this release and I am looking forward to see how her talents in baking and design will combine together to create a unique book.

After You - Jojo Moyes (released 24 September)
Another sequel, this time to the bestselling, tear inducing Me Before You. Written while Jojo was writing the script for the film adaptation of the first book which is currently in production, After You will revisit Lou and her family. What I loved about Me Before You (and the amazing The One Plus One) was the realness of the characters and their situation. Jojo really knows how to pull at the heartstrings as well as finding humour in relatable circumstances.

The Lost Tudor Princess - Alison Weir (released 1 October)
Another novel to document the scandal and intrigue of the Tudor court. Alison Weir is focusing on the little-known Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. With a family tree full of monarchs, she fell in love twice with unsuitable men. Imprisoned in the Tower of London on three occasions, and being at war with two queens, this is a story that needs to be read. There are some great author events supporting this release, including one at my local library, so I am looking forward to finding out more!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Illustrated Edition (released 6 October)
Surely all book lovers by now will have read the novels, seen the films, been on the studio tour, drank butter beer and ate some Bertie Botts every flavour jelly beans and bought tons of merchandise, but this autumn release is going to be something very special. Illustrated by Jim Kay, the pictures that have already been released evoke such a strong feeling of Hogwarts and the wizarding world as well as excellent depictions of much-loved characters, this is going to be at the top of many a Christmas list!

The Lake House - Kate Morton (released 22 October)
I am a huge fan of Kate Morton's previous releases including The House at Riverton and The Secret Keeper. With common themes of lost family secrets, grief, abandoned houses and stunning locations, her books always have me turning the pages well into the night. The Lake House is set between a Midsummer Eve party in 1933 and Cornish cottage 70 years later. The importance of correspondence and words are a recurring theme in Kate Morton's novels and with a budding author at the heart of the story, The Lake House promises to be no different.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Shadowing the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction - A Spool Of Blue Thread

Our book group was very fortunate to be selected to shadow the Bailey's Prize for Women's   Fiction and was sent a very exciting box full of copies of this beautiful book along with book plates, bunting, book marks plus a bottle of Baileys! We will be enjoying the Baileys on a Summer picnic so alcohol will in no way be affecting our views on this book! It is always a worry being included in an exercise like this. What if we hate the book? Luckily we were allocated a brilliant read!

After a couple of disappointing reads, our group was full of praise and superlatives on Anne Tyler's writing style. It is glorious and really captures the family dynamic of the Whitshanks. It follows the story of three generations of the family and succeeds in celebrating what defines a family, the stories that are passed on and how everyone rallies together and puts aside differences in a crisis. Surely everyone will see at least similarity to their own family experience while reading this book. The problem that we have had had with American novels in the past is that we have found it difficult to engage and relate to unfamiliar surroundings and situations, but A Spool of Blue Thread manages to recreate these locations and characters and be both new and familiar. 

The Whitshank family are a colourful bunch. The father Red is a stable part of the family, running his own construction company and providing for this children, offering some of them jobs as adults. Mother Abby is slightly less conventional, collecting a cast of characters to invite to dinner which are branded her 'orphans' by the rest of the family. The book opens with the worry and predictableness of the black sheep child of the family Denny. Despite going awol for several months at a time, he returns to the family when they need him and we all couldn't help but like him. Brother Stem (real name Douglas, but there is a lovely moment when we find out he reason for his adopted name) is the most Whitshank of them all, despite him not being a biological child. His struggles as revelations come to light feel real and his relationship with Denny is a complex one.

Daughters Amanda and Jeannie are always there in the background, visiting their parents with a cacophony of grandchildren and becoming involved in chores. But one of our favourite characters was Stem's wife Nora who takes on her role of moving in with her in-laws with relish - taking over the cooking and household chores and annoying Abby by calling her 'Mother Whitshank'. The main character of the piece though seems to be the family house on Bouton Road and we hear the romantic story in which it first came to be owned by a Whitshank - Red's parents Junior and Linnie Mae, who's real story is not as romantic as we are first led to believe. We go back in time to their story of how they came to live in Baltimore, which is both amusing and a little disconcerting. We soon learn that although the men have the credit, the real orchestrators of the family are the unassuming eccentric women. The colour blue is a recurring theme and the story of the blue swing on the porch is an iconic one. We also loved the description of the annual family holiday, when they are next door to the same family every single year but have never thought to speak to them, instead watching and surmising about them. This encapsulates one of the greatest human joys - people watching!  

Our box of goodies!

We agreed that this a story written by a woman for women. Matriarchs across the world will sit up with sudden recognition while reading this book and it is one that I would definitely recommend to older women. However, our young group thoroughly enjoyed it (one read it in a day!) and even the man of the group conceded that although there was not enough action for him, it was brilliantly written and engaging. This is the point of the book. It is a study of family life, one that anyone who has been part of a family can identify with. It is subtle, easy to read, full of glorious descriptions and unforgettable, 'real' characters and for us should be the winner of the Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction!

The winner will be announced on Wed 3 June. You can join in by voting for your winner here and join in with the conversation on Twitter with #ThisBookClub and #3WordReview of your favourite book written by a woman!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Letters Live - Fri 3 April 2015

Letters Live - Freemasons Hall Fri 3 April 2015
Last night I was very lucky to be in receipt of tickets to see the latest instalment of Letters Live in the beautiful art deco surroundings of the Freemasons Hall in Holborn. These unique events are a result of the popular twitter feed @lettersofnote, which shares iconic, poignant and amusing letters and keeps the dying art form alive. Released as a best-selling book and with previous events at the Southbank and Hay Festival, Letters Live took over this beautiful venue for a week, with each night's line-up a well kept secret.

I have walked past this beautiful building many times and wandered what it was and what lay inside, so it was a treat in itself to enter the ornate doors and discover marble pillars, stone staircases, ornate ceilings and stained glass windows. The acoustics were fantastic and every seat seemed to have a great view of the cast of readers. The first half was full of excitement as we didn't know who would be appearing on stage next and each person was greeted with gasps of delight.

The headliners were Letters Live regulars Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey who were both fantastic. Cumberbatch took on a range of roles and voices, the highlight for me being when he reprised his role as Alan Turing to read a letter written to his beloved Christopher's mother after his death. Knowing his heartbreaking reason in simply asking for a photo to remember him by made this letter extremely moving and seeing an Oscar nominated performance being recreated before our eyes was a real privilege. Louise Brealey had her share of poignancy reading a letter from Charlotte Bronte after the death of her sister Emily. It was beautifully read and she was obviously moved, making a hasty exit from the stage. She also did a lovely reading of Beatrix Potter's A Tale of Peter Rabbit, which was my highlight of the first half.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading as Chris Barker
The Sherlock cast mates also read their regular series of letters from WWII sweethearts Chris Barker and Bessie Moore from the book My Dear Bessie. It is an extraordinary story as Chris serving in North Africa decided to write to old friends including an old colleague of his called Bessie. Her unexpected reply continued in a series of funny, honest and passionate letters as they fell in love via their letters. Their performances were brilliant as the whole audience was hanging on to every words and roaring with laughter at the unexpected turn of phrases - 'Digestion? How is yours?!'

Other amusing moments came from Geoffrey Palmer reading the famous Arkell v Pressdram letter sent by Private Eye, Sanjeev Bhuskar as Spike Milligan writing back to a 'fan' who was not impressed by the recent volume of his autobiography ('If you're disappointed by it, I am as I spent a whole year gathering material. I didn't know whether to make a suit or a book...') and the wonderful Samantha Bond reading Tina Fey's replies to internet trolls. But my favourite was Olivia Colman reading a letter from Elvis fans to the White House, concerned that their hero was going to have a G.I haircut. Her own unique style of reading had me in tears of laughter.

Other readers included Downton Abbey's Joanne Froggatt with an impressive American accent, Tom Sturridge as Mark Twain and Henry James who did overact a little in his readings (and was told off by Geoffrey Palmer for not turning the page!), Colin Salmon, Gemma Chan who only had one reading and Andrew O'Hagen. Tom Odell provided some beautiful renditions of songs about the art of letter writing.

This was a great evening of entertainment, as well as a thought-provoking celebration of the written word. If you get a chance to go to one of these events - do go! Each one is curated especially for each evening and the performers change each night so no two performances will be the same.
All the evening's readers taking their bows

Keep an eye on upcoming events and watch videos here

Visit The Letters of Note website to browse the letters or order the books here


Saturday, 3 January 2015

The A to Z of You and Me

The A to Z of You and Me is narrated by Ivo, a forty year old man coming to the end of his life in a hospice.

His kind carer Sheila encourages him to keep the mind active by naming a part of his body with each letter of the alphabet. With each letter unravels his tragic story from the death of his parents, to his bad influences from friends, experiences with drink and drugs and the heart-breaking tale of this love of his life.

The A to Z game is a good plot device and fells like an imitate way to get to know Ivo and relate to him. Although set in a hospice surrounded with the idea of death, there is a positive outlook on his experience there and the kind staff especially his wonderful carer Sheila. There is also a lovely friendship with a wise teenager called Amber who's mum is dying in the next room.

There is plenty of frustration as Ivo recounts his mistakes and his sister and friends slowly ruin his life, by encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle when his has been diagnosed with diabetes. While laying in his bed, Ivo not only struggles with the health of his body, but with who the blames lies with for the tragic circumstances which occurred years previously.

This could easily have been a depressing book, but it is strangely uplifting as well as heart wrenching and explores how people should take responsibility for their actions and do what is best for themselves as well as loved ones.

A blanket made with love features heavily in this book. I was given a proof copy along with wool and needles and a challenge to knit a square to return to the publishers and I have a feeling that lots of blankets will be made as a result of reading this book!

The A to Z of You and Me is published in March 2015 by Transworld . Thanks for the advance proof!

The Two Of Us

The Two of Us
The Two of Us is another romantic comedy suitable for both genders in the same vein as One Day and The Rosie Project. Fisher narrates his relationship with Ivy, which is just a few days old but has already seen them fall head over heels in love, travel across the country and meet Fisher's quirky family. After a whole nineteen days together, something happens which will change both of their lives forever and test their love for each other.

There are some really sweet moments in this moment and Andy Jones certainly captures the real romantic, everyday parts of a relationship as well as the uncertainty. Although the main characters have the archetypal glamorous and well paid jobs in the city - advert director and make up artist respectively - it is refreshing and heart-warming to read about Fisher's relationships with his two closest friends, Esther his elderly neighbour and El, a childhood friend in the late stages of Huntingdon's Disease.

As well as the laughs, there are some tearjerker moments and although I would have liked to have known more about Ivy and what she was thinking, the first person narration really reflects on Fisher's doubts and insecurities.

Like One Day and Me Before You, The Two of Us almost reads like a screenplay for a hit film and I would not be surprised if we see this on the big screen in a year or two. Like all good rom-coms its heart-warming, poignant, frustrating and its ending feels like a big warm hug.

The Two of Us is released in February 2015 by Simon and Schuster. Thanks to their team for the advance proof!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Vanishing Witch and meeting Karen Maitland

I really enjoy reading Karen Maitland's dark tales, in particular loved The Company of Liars and The Owl Killers. All her books have a unique narration from five different narrators in The Owl Killers to a mandrake in The Gallow's Curse. The Vanishing Witch is no different and is told from a all-seeing ghost and their pet ferret, with the odd chapter of first person narration from two key female characters.

The book starts with Maitland's usual list of players and a grim tale about a snake. We are then introduced to our narrator and Robert of Bassingham, a wealthy wool merchant in Lincoln. He is asked for help in investments by Mistress Caitlin who has been recently widowed and he soon becomes close to her and her enchanting teenage daughter Leonia must to the annoyance of his wife and son. Robert begins to see an eerie cloaked figure following him and there are some suspicious deaths and incidents throughout the town and surrounding villages, but who is to blame?

The Vanishing Witch is a mix of the supernatural, witchcraft, old wives tales and historical detail. Set during the unrestful reign of Richard II, the author explores how the poll tax affected the village folk and landowners and what caused ordinary people to rise up and rebel causing destruction and horrific deaths. Each chapter begins with a charm which can ward off evil. Some are amusing while others are terrifying. The author provides the reader with a timeline of events by splitting chapters up into months and introducing each chapter with either a location or the name of the narrator.

I did guess one of the twists early on, but there is a reveal on the last pages which I did not expect and Maitland's clever storytelling slowly builds up the climax. The action centres on the London riots during one part of the book as a couple of the characters get caught up in the destruction of John of Gaunt's palace. The book concludes with some historical notes and a glossary of terms which was very interesting and proves how well researched her books are.

I was fortunate to buy this book when Karen Maitland was visiting my local Waterstones store in Uxbridge and we had a lovely chat with her about her interests in old tales and the imposing English countryside. She joked about the dark themes she was interested in and how The Gallow's Curse was the first book to be narrated by a root vegetable! Thanks to the lovely staff at Waterstones for arranging this!

Friday, 5 September 2014

I Can't Begin To Tell You

I have read a lot of WWI and WWII books and this book really intrigued me as a woman's point of war in the spy network during WWII. The idea of the story is a great one, but I found the editing and style of writing really poor. The dialogue especially is really weak, with almost every sentence uttered by a character ending with an ellipsis or containing one. While researched well with the way codes worked when sending messages, the book came across as poorly researched with key conversations completely abandoned with sentences such as 'They discussed this further' or 'After more talking'. (These are not direct quotes by the way, just what I remember the writing being like).

I could not connect to any of the characters and the characters based in London Ruby and Mary are introduced so briefly and suddenly I kept thinking I had missed pages out. The beginning chapters begin with 'Day One' up to 'Day Three' but this is then abandoned and I found the concept of time hard to understand. A short line at the beginning of each chapter introducing the location, month and year would have been really useful as the storyline kept jumping around with no warning. However, I did read a proof copy so hopefully the final publication will be easier to read and better edited. The main part of the book is set in Denmark and the names of dogs, horses and even a spy - Thor, Odin, Sif and Loki -felt really lazy.

I really would not recommend this book - if you are looking for a story of women involved in underground resistance during WWI head for Citadel by Kate Mosse instead.

**SPOILERS** I also found the end so odd - with the whole family together when two of them are supposed to be undercover spies. The relationship between Tanne and Felix was not realistic at all and the way Felix trusted Kay and Tanne almost immediately did not ring true.