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Sunday, 29 September 2019

Review: The Postcard, Zoe Folbigg

 This novel is a delightful romantic comedy from Zoe Folbigg. Maya and her boyfriend, James, are off on a year-long travelling adventure, starting off in India and making their way through Asia. After an opulent start, they endure discomforts of comically epic proportions while trying to find their stride, from sleeping in a luggage-esque compartment of a bus, to a spa selling self-applied colonics in an attempt to spice up Maya's travel column. 

Maya's best friend, Nena, meanwhile, is back at home with her newborn, Ava, and Arlo, her stepson, trying desperately to navigate her way through the special yet incredibly exhausting and lonely time that is the first stage of motherhood. 

Maya's and James' travelling, however, is married by a sub story of a woman called Manon, who has disappeared. The reader meets Manon from time to time, and must be suffering from some kind of hallucinations as she is regularly tormented by Napoleon Bonaparte. 

The Postcard is a wonderfully enjoyable read, full of humour, warmth, and sparkle. It's very much along the lines of Jojo Moyes and Marian Keyes, and I would add that it's every bit as well written as a Moyes or Keyes story. 

The Postcard is available now. 


Saturday, 21 September 2019

Review: A Map Of The Sky, Claire Wong

NB: I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Plot: Just before the end of the his school's summer term, Kit is pulled out of school by his mum, who takes Kit and his sister up north to a remote coastal village, near Scarborough. They stay for a little while at a guesthouse until their new home is ready. They meet an assortment of guests there, but Kit is most drawn to Beth, one of the owners, who suffers from an illness he doesn't understand. He decides to try and help her, like a knight going on a quest in one of his favourite stories, but soon realises that as much as he tries to know and sort out the problems around him, the real problems are right under his nose.

Claire Wong has crafted an intimate, innocent, and discerning novel that takes a look at an issue that is not often talked about, and less understood - the nature of chronic illness and the effect it has on those whom it afflicts. Through Kit's eyes, we learn about it in an open and curious manner. Claire's bitterness at her suffering comes through softly, but not too much that it's dismissed. While Kit focusses on helping Claire, though, he's missing out on rescuing someone who actually wants to be rescued - in his own family, no less.

The landscapes in the novel enhance the story at its core, and almost tell their own story. There's a moment where Kit stands alone on a clifftop, viewing the magnificent north sea before him, and Claire's words transport you there so well you can almost feel the salty air. It's quietly dramatic, and although there's not a lot of action, per se, it's not necessary. Claire makes you invest in her characters, and you want to know the intimate details of their life, and what has brought them together.

Altogether, it's a gorgeous and quietly dramatic book that explores the nature of, and coping with, misunderstood illness, but more than that, the need to simply see the humanity in one another and act with kindness accordingly.  

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Review: Over A Thousand Hills I Walk With You, Hanna Jansen

This haunting and harrowing novel about the Rwandan genocide comes from a writer called Hanna Jansen, the adoptive mother of a young girl called Jeanne. Folks who have watched the film 'Hotel Rwanda' will already have an inkling of what is to come in the story. It's a terribly important read, not just as a witness to those who were massacred, but for the western world to take responsibility for turning a blind eye to the atrocity.

The story begins with Jeanne and her siblings at her grandmother's farm, at which they spend every summer holiday. The family is large, close, and thriving. They are also Tutsi, a simple label which means only one thing in the months to come.

Jeanne's family is fairly well-to-do. Her father is a professor; her mother is a teacher; they live in a large house in the centre of a busy town and they are able to afford servants. Jeanne describes life much as any child would - the games and rivalry with her siblings, her complaints of school and just wanting to play - but all of that changes very quickly.

The Tutsis and the Hutus are the two main tribes in Rwanda. The Belgians, who had colonised it, declared the Tutsis to be the upper class and the Hutus to be the lower class. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hutus carried out uprisings forcing Tutsis to flee. When Rwanda became independent, the Hutus formed the government. This didn't stop the Tutsis, though, who tried to invade multiple times.

This story begins in 1994, shortly before the President's plane is shot down. This comes at the worst possible time, in the middle of peace talks between the Hutus and the Tutsis. As a result, trouble brews and whispers among the Tutsis begin of Hutu violence.

It doesn't take long for this violence to come. Jeanne's father takes their whole family to a nearby commune, under the protection of the Mayor, but they are later betrayed. The Interahamwe carry out a massacre of the Tutsis under the now-ceased protection of the Mayor, and Jeanne watches her own mother being hacked to death. Jeanne escapes with her brother and father, but events later conspire which result in her father disappearing and her brother murdered in front of her.

Then, a stroke of luck. A Hutu woman, who had been married to a Tutsis (now killed), demands passes through the country to return home. She takes Jeanne and a few other children besides her own, claiming them to be relatives. An arduous journey leads them home but the men of the house make their displeasure clear. Soon, this inevitably ends in more bloodshed.

There isn't a happy ending to this story, per se. How can there be, when a young girl survives a genocide but has witnessed her family being brutally murdered and escapes by the skin of her teeth? Knowing that one million of her fellow citizens have been cut down by their former friends and neighbours? Jeanne escapes to her aunt in Germany and eventually gets adopted. This story was written as a witness to her life and her family's, and the pain of these events bleeds through every word. Hanna, the author, begins each chapter with an observation on Jeanne, how she's reacting, what this process is doing to her. It needs to be done but what is uncovered cannot ever be forgotten. Jeanne's pain becomes her own.

It's also a cry of shame for the world who turned its back on it. After the Holocaust, the world swore 'never again.' And yet genocides have occurred the world over - not to the same scale or industrial undertaking, but genocides still the same. Reading these stories is a responsibility that we shouldn't ignore.

Friday, 30 August 2019

New Review: Butterfly in Frost, Sylvia Day

Sylvia Day is a multi-million bestselling author primarily known for her romance novels. Her bestselling Crossfire series has sold over 13 million copies. Her new book, Butterfly In Frost, introduces readers to a host of new characters, the protagonists being Teagan and Garrett.

Teagan is a successful reality-TV surgeon who moved from NYC to the state of Washington after a lot of personal trauma, including a divorce from a famous actor. She isn't quite agoraphobic but she has to work quite hard to take small steps, including going outside. However, her quiet world is turned upside down when Garrett Frost, a photographer and artist, moves next door. They literally collide into each other on their first meeting and, despite his simmering anger, sexual tension immediately simmers between them. It's not long before Garrett barges into her life and sweeps her off her feet. Teagan is not the only one who is hurting, though, and she fears opening herself up to Garrett when he is clearly battling demons as well.

The romance between them builds up slowly but intensely. The description of their relationship will surely be a delight for any romance fiction fan, but there are deeper layers to the story as well, as they reveal more about their pasts and entrust their secrets to each other.

There is an unexpected ending, however, and I did not see this twist coming at all. In fact, afterwards I did a quick scan of the whole book again to see how I could have missed the clues.

If you are a fan of steamy romance fiction with a good story and happy ending then this book will definitely be for you.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Upcoming Review: Butterfly in Frost by Sylvia Day



I'm taking part in the blog tour for this upcoming release! Come back on Friday for my review.

Review: We Have Always Lived In The Castle, Shirley Jackson

This was one of the books suggested to me by the librarian of the school I work at as a History teacher. I'd never read any of Jackson's work before, although I had heard of "The Haunting of Hill House", thanks to the Netflix adaptation.

For those whom have not read this book either, We Have Always Lived In The Castle centres around the remaining three members of Blackwood family. I say remaining, because the rest were murdered six years before the beginning of this book. The beginning of it perhaps inspired the start of another book, I Capture The Castle, as the two seemed very similar in tone, although the protagonists artre very different.

Mary Katherine, called 'Merricat' by her sister, Constance, is the only one of the Blackwood family to leave the house since the murder. She meticulously documents the family's weekly routine. Tuesdays and Fridays are the worst days, she explains, as she has to go to the village for groceries and books. Most of the villagers believe that Constance, accused but acquitted of the murders, is responsible, and as such they treat Merricat with the same contempt. She treats her walks to the village like a game, and she wins if she makes the round trip without anyone tormenting her. If they do, she imagines the harm she would do to them with alarming detail.

Uncle Julian is the last of the three of the surviving Blackwoods. He seems to be senile, whether that's from old age or the lingering effects of the arsenic (the murder was committed through someone putting arsenic in the sugar bowl) but is determined to document the whole event and write it in a book.

Their comfortable existence is soon disrupted by an apparent cousin called Charles. Merricat dislikes him straight away, calling him a ghost and a demon. He has more luck charming Constance, but is no match for Merricat and Uncle Julian, although he does slyly threaten to turn Merricat out of the house. It seems his only motive to be there is not to reacquaint with the family but to try and get his hands on the Blackwood fortune.

For a short book, (only 146 pages), it packs a hell of a punch. The small world consisting, (apart from the walk through the village at the start), solely of the house is built up room by room and the grounds around. There is even a jaunt to the ruined summerhouse in which Merricat enacts in her mind a dinner, of sorts, with her deceased ancestors, in which they treat her as she imagines they should have done.

The twist at the end is not altogether shocking - the book builds it up piece by piece throughout - but the rest of the story, particularly Merricat's inner mind, makes more sense once that piece of knowledge is secure.

It's a commanding, strange, and (at times) whimsical piece of fiction, with enduring and endearing (in Uncle Julian) characters. It's hard to guess at an ending for this kind of story but it is done remarkably well - I'll leave it for you to find out.

Friday, 19 July 2019

New Review: The Thunder Girls, Melanie Blake


Melanie Blake is an author, playwright, TV critic, and former music manager - one of the best in the industry. Hers is a true rags to riches story, and she uses the richness of material from her career to write a thoroughy enjoyable, nostalgia-inducing, and shocking story about a girl band called The Thunder Girls. She writes in her book that none of the characters are based on real life people, but everything that happens in the book - good, bad, and ugly - has happened in the music industry, and then some.

It starts with betrayal. Chrissie, Roxanne, Carly and Anita are at the top of their game, until Chrissie sells out the rest of the girls. She signs a contract as a solo artist and the Thunder Girls are no more. 

Thirty years later. Chrissie arrives home from her honeymoon to find out that her new husband has taken her for a ride - persuading her to open joint accounts, he has quite literally drained all of her wealth and done a runner. Chrissie is at risk of destitution, until her manager, Jack, offers her a way out. 

The idea is to reunite the Thunder Girls for a huge eighties gig at Wembley. It comes with the promise of renewed fame and fortune, but at a cost. Chrissie will have to get down on her knees and grovel - hard. Meanwhile, Jack's sudden interest in their renewal isn't at wholesome as it seems. 

I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. There was never a dull moment. Melanie Blake's experience of the industry pours out from every page and, even though this is technically a work of fiction, the fact that she said the music industry is all of this and more makes you think about how much more rough of a business it is than what we see. All we get, as consumers, is the end product. We don't see the behind the scenes battles between artists, producers, managers, and execs. We don't see the power plays, unless it comes out on social media. The recent exposure by Taylor Swift of how hard it is for writers and artists to own their work, even if they have the money to pay for it, is just one small example.

Melanie writes with flair, aplomb, and compassion as well. As a manager, she will no doubt had to support people in the valleys as well as on the mountains, and it shows. Despite the flaws of these characters, you can't help but feel sympathy for them - even Chrissie, begrudgingly at times - and you root for them, knowing that as teenagers they were pawns in a much bigger game but, with the benefit of experience, they have learned to fight for themselves.

And that's what Chrissie, Anita, Carly, and Roxanne do. They come out fighting. I really loved this book, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it, particularly as it's coming up to the summer holidays. It's a perfect summer read.