Showing posts with label Friday book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Friday book review. Show all posts

Friday, 20 April 2012

Friday book review - The Parisian's Return by Julia Stagg

Ever since I first set eyes on the House With No Name, I’ve been addicted to reading books about France. Recently, as well as re-reading Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, I’ve whizzed through Je t’aime la Folie by Michael Wright and, of course, Karen Wheeler’s wonderful trilogy about hanging up her high heels and moving across the Channel.

And this week I’ve discovered another author who’s brilliant at bringing the intricacies of rural France to life. Julia Stagg lived in the mountainous Ariège-Pyrenees region for six years, where she ran a small auberge and “tried to convince the French that the British can cook.” Now based in the Yorkshire Dales, she’s written two novels about the inhabitants of a tiny French village – L’Auberge and The Parisian’s Return.

I’ve just read The Parisian’s Return and even though it’s set the opposite side of France to House With No Name country, it evokes the French way of life so vividly it made me want to hop on the Eurostar right away.

The character at the centre of Julia’s novel is Stephanie Morvan, a single mother who’s moved to the village of Fogas to make a new life for her and her daughter. She works at a local restaurant and dreams of launching her own organic gardening centre. But the whole community is thrown into turmoil when Fabian Servat, the tricky nephew of the couple who own the village grocery, returns from his hotshot job in Paris to take charge of the store. Worse still, Stephanie almost kills him twice in quick succession – once by braining him with a stale baguette and then by crashing into his bike on a lonely mountain road.

Charming, funny and authentic, the novel covers everything from inheritance law in France (complicated!) to wine (thanks to Julia I now know that if I ever come across a 1959 Bordeaux it’s worth a lot and I should sell it, not drink it). But the bits that resonated most were her wise words about the people who move to isolated villages in France to “get away from it all.” As she perceptively points out, the newcomers who make it work are the ones who keep their feet firmly on the ground, speak French and become friends with the locals.

“… those who eventually called this place home arrived with their eyes wide open and not a rose-tinted lens in sight,” she writes. “They appreciated the distinct seasons which made the mountains so beautiful to live in but sometimes so hard to live with. They understood the vagaries of the weather and the curses and blessings they bestowed. And they didn’t fight the pace of life, where there was no such thing as a quick hello, only a slow goodbye.”

The Parisian’s Return by Julia Stagg (Hodder, £7.99)

Friday, 13 April 2012

Friday book review - The Bumper Book of London by Becky Jones & Clare Lewis

The biggest treat when I was little was a trip to London to stay with my mum’s great friend Sally. At the time Sally was editor of She magazine and lived in a top floor flat in Stafford Terrace, just off Kensington High Street.

In the evenings we listened to Daydream Believer by The Monkees (RIP Davy Jones) and learned a mad card game called Spit that we still play to this day.

But during the daytime Sally always had an action-packed itinerary planned. She encouraged me and my sister to run round the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens and race up the tube escalators at top speed (full of energy and pzazz, she didn’t believe in just standing there doing nothing). She took us to the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds and Kew Gardens, to cool shops like Biba and Mr Freedom and was furious if we ever said anything was boring. “It’s only boring if you make it boring,” she’d retort.

London is the most brilliant place for children, and if you’re looking for ideas about where to go, The Bumper Book of London is the perfect guide. Written by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis and subtitled “everything you need to know about London and more,” it’s stuffed full of history, folklore, funny street names, the modern skyline, London lingo, the best free and fun things to do, the best places to buy sweets, ice creams and toys, recipes, songs and much much more. I particularly liked the lists of children’s stories set in London – from Madeline in London by Ludwig Bemelmans to Mary Poppins by PL Travers and Beverly Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth. 

For children (and adults) who love random facts, there are plenty to chew over. Thanks to the book, my favourite new discoveries are that all black cabs have a turning circle of only eight metres because of the narrow roundabout at the entrance to the Savoy Hotel, that the sphinxes at the base of Cleopatra’s Needle are positioned the wrong way round and that the London 2012 Velodrome has been nicknamed the Pringle – because it’s the same shape as the crisp.

The Bumper Book of London by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis (Frances Lincoln, £9.99)

Friday, 6 April 2012

Friday book review - Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Snow, gridlocked traffic, hosepipe bans – the lead-up to Easter hasn’t exactly been cheery this year. In lots of ways I’m quite pleased to be hunkering down at home for the weekend with (hopefully) a stash of chocolate eggs and a pile of good books.

If you’re doing the same in your neck of the woods and are looking for a great read, I can’t recommend Alys, Always highly enough. I’d been interested in Harriet Lane as a writer for a while, ever since I read a moving Daily Telegraph piece about her sight problems. A former staff writer for Tatler and The Observer, she suffers from a rare auto-immune disorder affecting her optic nerve and has lost the sight in one eye.

After losing the journalistic career she loved, Lane decided to turn to novel writing and joined a creative writing class. It was a wise move. In May 2010, the germ of an idea for her debut novel appeared in her head and she began writing. Five months later she’d found a publisher.

Alys, Always is the story of Frances, a lonely, 30-something sub editor on a paper called The Questioner. At work, the literary editor and her bumptious 23-year-old deputy treat her like a skivvy, and at home she leads a colourless, solitary existence where nothing much ever happens.

But one winter evening, as she heads back to London after a visit to her parents, she spots an illuminated shape through the trees. A car has crashed off the road and inside the crumpled wreck a woman is dying. Weeks later, the woman’s family contacts Frances “to meet the person who was there” and she is drawn into their brittle, privileged world - with life-changing consequences.

Alys, Always is a subtle, beautifully observed and exquisitely written novel – the sort of book you read in one beguiling go. I can’t wait for Lane’s next.

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (Orion, £12.99)

Friday, 23 March 2012

Friday book review - Blue Monday by Nicci French

My admiration for husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French knows no bounds. Just before my husband took up a new post in France we spent a month working in the same office at home. It did not work. He drove me mad pacing about and talking at top volume on the phone, while he couldn’t stand my cluttered workspace (he’s a fan of the clean desk policy) and leaning towers of books.

But Gerrard and French are an inspiration to working couples everywhere. They’ve been married for more than 20 years and in that time, as well as writing separately, they’ve turned out a cracking run of stand-alone thrillers under the pseudonym of Nicci French. Gerrard writes in the attic of their Suffolk home while French works in a shed in the garden. Most of the time they write alternate chapters and email them back and forth until they’re happy with them.

I’ve read quite a few of their books but I reckon their latest is the best. Blue Monday, now out in paperback, is a completely new departure - the first in a series of eight crime novels starring psychotherapist Frieda Klein.

In her late 30s, Frieda is an insomniac who walks the streets of London in the dead of night, drinks whisky and much to the irritation of her office, doesn’t own a mobile phone. The first book of the series focuses on a child abduction case and isn’t for the faint-hearted. But it’s a classy, nerve-jangling and addictive read, with the promise of more Frieda Klein stories to come. The second, Tuesday’s Gone, is out in July and I can’t wait.

Blue Monday by Nicci French (Penguin, £6.99)

Friday, 16 March 2012

Friday book review - The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sue Townsend’s bestselling The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. It seems no time at all since I first read it and so many details, from Adrian’s spots to his obsession with Pandora Braithwaite, have stayed in my head to this day.

Penguin has just brought out a special edition of the book to celebrate (with a foreword by mega-Mole fan David Walliams). And if that’s not enough, Townsend’s new novel has just been published in hardback.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is the story of Eva Beaver, a 50-year-old wife and mother who reacts in a very extreme way when her teenage twins leave home for university. Eva disconnects the phone, chucks tomato soup over her favourite armchair and goes to bed, not for a quick kip, but for a whole year.

After spending her entire married life looking after her astronomer husband Brian and their gifted but distinctly odd children, she wants some time to think.

As word spreads about Eva’s bizarre behaviour, an army of onlookers gathers outside the house. Some are convinced she’s an angel with special powers, while others swamp her with fan mail and set up a ”Woman in Bed” Facebook page in her name.

With her own family utterly wrapped up in themselves, the only kindness comes from two strangers – the window cleaner and a dreadlocked white van man who helps her empty her bedroom of everything except her bed and paints the whole room white. Her mother is as mystified as everyone else and tells a local TV news team that Eva’s always been “a bit strange.”

The Woman Who Went To Bed for a Year is a patchy read and it’s occasionally hard to keep track of all the walk-on characters, but it’s also a funny, poignant and often bleak look at modern family life. One moment you’re chuckling at Eva’s tortuous instructions to her inept husband on how to “do” Christmas. The next you’ve got a lump in your throat at the ghastliness of being married to a two-timing husband who’s more interested in who’s going to cook his dinner than in talking to his wife. Actually, I reckon Brian’s bedtime routine – which involves gargling, spitting and hunting for spiders under the bed with a fishing net  - would be grounds for divorce. Let alone his affairs, sludge-coloured clothes and dreadful mother.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend (Michael Joseph, £18.99)

Friday, 9 March 2012

Friday book review - The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The two books that have made the biggest impression on me so far this year are the Costa prizewinning Pure, by Andrew Miller, and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

Coincidentally, I read The Snow Child at the end of January, when most of the UK was blanketed in snow. As I watched snowflakes drift gently past my Oxford window the view looked tame in comparison to the desolate Alaskan landscape where Ivey’s novel is set.

Alaskan born and bred, she knows the place like the back of her hand and excels at describing a magical world where wild animals appear out of hidden crevasses, waterfalls of ice cascade off the mountainside and the snow is so deep that you can get lost just a few minutes from home.

Ivey’s first novel is set in the 1920s and tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple who move to the wilds of Alaska to start a new life.

They expect “a land of milk and honey” but are in for a rude awakening. Winters are harsh and food is scarce. Jack finds working on the land backbreaking, while Mabel experiences acute loneliness and despair. To add to their plight, they’re both struggling  to cope with the loss of their only child, who was stillborn ten years earlier.

But one winter’s night, their mood lifts when they make a little girl out of snow, complete with red scarf and mittens. The next morning the snow child has completely vanished. But all of a sudden, Jack glimpses a small blonde figure dashing through the trees, red scarf at her neck.

As the child comes and goes as she pleases, often with a red fox at her heels, the couple start to love her as their own daughter. But is the little girl real or a figment of their imagination? Cooped up in their remote homestead, could their minds be playing tricks on them?

Ivey was inspired to write The Snow Child after discovering an old Russian folk tale about a couple who see the little snow girl they sculpt turn into a real-life child. The result is a touching and truly exceptional portrayal of heartbreak and hope.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review, £14.99)

Friday, 2 March 2012

Friday book review - Tout Soul by Karen Wheeler

From Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence to Michael Wright’s J’aime la Folie, I love books about people who’ve thrown up their safe lives in the UK and started exciting new ones in France. But the writer who really strikes a chord with me is Karen Wheeler. She’s the former Mail on Sunday fashion editor who hung up her high heels and fashionista life and moved to a house in a small village in rural Poitou-Charentes. Well, she’s still whizzes back and forth across the channel to pursue her career as a beauty journalist, but for most of the time she’s in France – or as she calls it, “the land of the long lunch.”

I’ve never met Karen but I feel as if I’ve known her for years. I’m an avid fan of her blog, Tout Sweet, and was thrilled when it turned out she read House With No Name too. She once added a comment on my blog saying that House With No Name’s windows would look “tres chic” in pale grey. Guess what? I took her advice and she’s absolutely right. They look chicer than chic.

So I was thrilled to discover that Karen had decided to write a series about her new life in France. She told House With No Name about them in yesterday’s interview and with the third book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, out next week, I couldn't wait to read it.

I don’t want to give anything away but at the end of the second book Karen seemed to have it all - a dog called Biff, a charismatic Portuguese boyfriend and loads of friends, some French, others ex-pats. The new book opens with her dashing across the departure lounge at Stansted Airport after a journalistic assignment in the UK, wearing sky-high Prada heels, laden with organic vegetables and desperate to get back to her idyllic life in France.

Only it turns out that it isn’t so idyllic after all. Out of the blue comes a shattering discovery and as the year progresses Karen needs to summon up every ounce of fortitude she possesses.

If it sounds downbeat and depressing, rest assured – it isn’t. Karen writes in such a vibrant style and conjures up life in France so beautifully that you can see her small village, with its narrow streets, little square and three cafés, in your mind’s eye as you read. She said in yesterday’s interview that she hoped that in amongst the sad bits there is an “uplifting message” at the heart of the story, and there really is. Certainly some of the sad bits made me cry, but the overall theme of the book is one of love, joy and appreciation of the important things in life. Like friendship, kindness, an adorable dog, a stunning, sunflower-filled landscape and the odd glass or two of champagne.

Karen's latest book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, is available for download now, from Amazon. The print version will be launched on March 7 at £10.99, and to coincide with the launch, the e-book version of Karen's first book, Tout Sweet: Hanging up My High Heels for a New Life in Rural France, will be available at a special promotional rate of £2.99 from March 7.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Friday book review - The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas

I’ve been a fan of Rosie Thomas’s novels for years. I’ve read virtually all of them and reckon my favourites are Follies (set in my home city of Oxford), Sunrise and White. Those three are certainly the ones that have made me cry the most.

Rosie is a keen traveller and over the years she’s climbed the Himalayas, competed in the Peking to Paris car rally and trekked across Antarctica. Not surprisingly, her exotic travels have provided the backdrop for lots of her books, including her latest, The Kashmir Shawl, which is out in paperback next week.

Her 20th novel, it’s set in two locations - the hills of North Wales, where Rosie grew up, and remote northern India. The story begins in 1939, when Nerys Watkins and Evan, her serious-minded Presbyterian husband, set out on a missionary posting to the Himalayas. After Evan travels further afield to preach, Nerys joins a group of glamorous friends in the lakeside city of Srinagar. The women live on houseboats, dance, flirt and fall in love – a world away from life with their husbands.

Sixty years later, long after Nerys’s death, her granddaughter Mair returns to Wales to clear out her late father’s house. There, hidden in a chest of drawers, she discovers an embroidered pashmina, with a lock of silky brown hair wrapped inside. There are no clues as to whose it was, so Mair decides to travel to Kashmir and unravel the story for herself. 

Rosie, who’s twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year award, is a wonderful storyteller. The Kashmir Shawl isn’t quite as breathtaking as White (and I found Nerys’s story far more interesting than Mair’s) but I was completely captivated by the images she paints of the rugged Himalayas and Kashmir’s beguiling beauty. When she describes Nerys’s arrival in Leh, a barren town cut off by snow for half of the year, you can sense the young woman’s shock at the cold, isolation and high altitude. “It was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of her brain and her blood,” writes Rosie, “leaving her whole body as limp as string.”

The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas (Harper, £7.99)

PS. The Kashmir Shawl has been shortlisted in the epic romantic novel category of the 2012 Romantic Novel of the Year award.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Friday book review - A Midsummer Tights Dream by Louise Rennison

Once described as “Enid Blyton meets Cosmo Girl,” Louise Rennison’s books are hilarious romps for teenage girls who love sparkly nail varnish, Topshop and boys.

With their fluorescent covers and wacky titles, Rennison’s stories are snapped up in their millions by fans around the world. Her last novel, Withering Tights, won the 2011 Roald Dahl Funny Prize, set up by writer Michael Rosen to celebrate books that make children laugh.

Withering Tights was the first of a trilogy about an irrepressible teenage heroine called Tallulah Casey, who enrols at Dother Hall, a performing arts college in the wilds of Yorkshire, only to discover that she can’t actually act or sing. Oh, and at first glance there don’t seem to be any boys around either.

Now the second in the series, A Midsummer Tights Dream, is out and it’s just as crazy (and strewn with exclamation marks!!!) as the first. After a barnstorming performance as a comic Heathcliff earned Tallulah a place at Dother Hall for another term, she’s determined to throw herself into the experience with gusto. The trouble is that she's worried about her gangly legs and her cousin Georgia’s “scoring system for snogging” and her feelings for local bad boy Cain Hinchcliff and whether she’ll ever “climb the ladder of showbiz.” And if all that isn’t enough, it suddenly transpires out that the future of Dother Hall hang in the balance.

Warm-hearted, with snappy dialogue and a clutch of laugh-out-loud jokes, girls aged 12 and over will love it. 

A Midsummer Tights Dream by Louise Rennison (HarperCollins, £10.99)

Friday, 10 February 2012

Friday book review - The Soldier's Wife by Joanna Trollope

After failing to be 100 per cent convinced by Joanna Trollope’s Daughters-in-Law, I decided to give her latest novel a go this week. The Soldier’s Wife certainly sounded promising. It’s the story of a mother-of-three whose army major husband has just returned home after a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

While her husband was away Alexa Riley did everything – looked after their three-year-old twins, coped with the boarding school misery of her teenage daughter, cooked, cleaned, mowed the lawn, serviced the boiler and got offered a prestigious teaching job. But far from being the blissful homecoming she expects, her husband Dan seems unable to adjust to family life again. As Alexa observes:  “He’s back, but he’s not back, not in any sense that’s any use to me or his family. And if one more person tells me just to give him time, or that I knew what I was taking on, or that I’m so lucky to have the security, I will just… kill them.”

Trollope has clearly researched army life meticulously. Indeed, as I mentioned last week, an army wife interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4's Woman’s Hour said she’s got every single detail right in the book.

I don’t know much about modern army life but my father was in the RAF when I was little and lots of Trollope’s observations resonated with me. The married quarters painted in magnolia, the formality of the officers’ mess, the constant moving house (between the ages of five and eleven I went to six schools) and the dilemma of how army wives can keep their own careers going when they’re never in one place for more than two years. Some women put up with it – as a brigadier’s wife says in the book “you just adapt your skills and career ambitions to the Army” – but a growing number of wives, Alexa among them, are starting to question the frequent upheavals.

With military wives (and the brilliant Military Wives choir) very much in the news these days, Joanna Trollope has cleverly captured the zeitgeist in her latest novel. A far more substantial and satisfying read than some of her most recent books, it gives a moving snapshot of what life as an army wife is really like. Warts and all.

The Soldier’s Wife by Joanna Trollope (Doubleday, £18.99)

Friday, 3 February 2012

Friday book review - Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

The first Joanna Trollope book I ever read was The Rector’s Wife. I was so captivated by her 90s tale of a vicar’s wife who shocks everyone by taking a job at a supermarket to make ends meet that I was desperate to read her earlier books. The instant I’d finished that one I rushed out to buy another, feverishly working my way through her backlist in the way I used to gobble up Enid Blyton stories as a child.

But in recent years I haven’t found her books quite so gripping. She’s as prolific as ever – Daughters-in-Law, her 16th Trollope novel, came out in paperback last month while her 17th, The Soldier’s Wife, is published in hardback this week. I’ve clearly got a bit of catching up to do because I’ve only just read Daughters-in-Law and while I found it enjoyable enough I wasn’t bowled over by it.

In theory Daughters-in-Law sounds exactly my cup of tea. It’s the story of Rachel, the mother of three grown-up sons. She’s devoted her life to bringing them up in an idyllic-sounding house near the Suffolk coast. But now the trio have their own lives to lead. The three sons, Edward, Ralph and Luke, have all married and two of them have children of their own. Suddenly Rachel isn’t at the heart of everything, as she once was, and she clearly doesn’t like it. As she tells her endlessly patient husband Anthony: “…nobody wants me to do something I’m good at any more.”

The trouble is that I didn’t care enough about any of these characters. Rachel isn’t exactly the mother-in-law from hell, but she’s blooming annoying, with a tendency to feel sorry for herself when things don’t go her way. Ralph, her middle son, doesn’t know whether he wants to be a city slicker or to drop out and live by the sea, and as for his hippyish wife Petra, well I didn't find her believable at all. I also had a problem with Trollope’s dialogue. It’s full of wise observations, articulately expressed, but everyone sounds exactly the same. If I closed my eyes and listened to it, I’d be hard-pressed to work out who was speaking.

But despite my reservations I’m still keen to read The Soldier’s Wife. It focuses on the lives of army families and sounds a far more substantial read. An army wife interviewed on Woman’s Hour this week glowingly said that Trollope had got every single detail right. Praise indeed.

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope (Black Swan, £7.99)

Friday, 27 January 2012

Friday book review - Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo

My husband’s the only person I know who didn’t cry at War Horse. Everyone else wept buckets - during the play, during Steven Spielberg’s lavish, Oscar-nominated movie or (in my case) both. Actually, I think the Times reviewer who reported on the New York film premiere got it just about right when he said: “If you don’t cry in War Horse, it’s because you have no tear ducts.”

But up until this week I didn’t realise that Michael Morpurgo wrote a sequel to War Horse back in 1997. It’s called Farm Boy and HarperCollins Children’s Books, who published a new edition ahead of the film release, kindly sent me a copy.

Farm Boy is set in the same Devon village as War Horse and continues the tale of heroic horse Joey ("strong as an ox, and gentle as a lamb") and Albert, his owner.

The story is narrated by Albert’s teenage great grandson, who lives in London but spends most of his holidays in the countryside with his beloved grandfather, Albert’s son. He loves hearing tales of how Joey was sold to the cavalry and sent to the warfront in France and how 14 year old Albert was so distraught he joined up to find him.

“Now there’s millions of men over there, millions of horses, too,” writes Morpurgo. “Needle in a haystack you might think, and you’d be right. It took him three years of looking, but he never gave up. Just staying alive was the difficult bit.”

Former children’s laureate Morpurgo movingly portrays the bond between grandson and grandfather, particularly as the old man reflects on the past and reveals a secret he’s kept to himself for years. He’s wonderful too at evoking rural life – hay in June, wheat in July and potatoes and cider apples in October. Add in Michael Foreman’s illustrations of the rolling Devon landscape and it’s an irresistible mix. Children who loved War Horse will enjoy finding out what happened to Joey when he returned from the war – and I reckon their parents will too.

Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo (HarperCollins, £5.99)

Friday, 20 January 2012

Friday book review - Embassytown by China Miéville

Science fiction isn’t a genre that usually appeals to me – but the wonderfully-named China Miéville is an exception.

If you haven’t come across him before, Miéville is rapidly making a name for himself as a brilliant fantasy storyteller. He’s won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award for best sci-fi novel of the year three times and his writing, described by some as “weird fiction,” has even been compared to that of Kafka and Orwell.

His ninth book, Embassytown, is out in paperback this month (January) and if you’re looking for a book that’s completely unique, give it a go. Complex and awash with radical ideas and linguistic wordplay, it’s a book that requires 100 per cent concentration, but once you get to grips with the setting and the characters, it’s compelling.

Embassytown is a “small and crowded” ghetto on Arieka, a planet on the edge of the universe. It’s part of a much larger city inhabited by a mysterious alien race known as the Hosts - bizarre creatures who look like a cross between winged insects and horses and have two mouths. They talk by using both at once and their language is so difficult to master that few humans can speak it.

The story is narrated by Avice Benner Cho, a feisty young woman who has recently returned to her childhood planet with her new husband, an outsider who’s fascinated by the Hosts’ language.

Apart from a few spats, the humans and Hosts have lived alongside each other for years, but everything changes when a new ambassador arrives in Embassytown. Conflict looms and with the humans vastly outnumbered, Avice realises the only hope is for her to speak directly to the Hosts. But how can she possibly do that? 

The beauty of Miéville’s books is that he combines pacy storytelling with ingenious plots and deft characterisation. Even here, when he’s writing about space, time and planets where humans aren’t the only intelligent life, he manages to explore age-old themes like power, language, friendship and love. It's a great and highly original read.

Embassytown by China Miéville (Pan, £7.99)

Friday, 13 January 2012

Friday book review - Blood Red Road by Moira Young

I’m a huge fan of the Costa Book Awards. They’ve helped me discover loads of fantastic books over the years and when the organisers asked me to be a judge for the 2011 first novel of the year prize I was so excited I could hardly speak. The five 2011 category winners (novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children’s book) were announced last week and I can’t wait to discover the overall winner at the award ceremony in London on January 24.

But in the meantime I was thrilled to see that the winner of the children’s category is Blood Red Road by Moira Young.

I read the book last year and was so stunned by it that I immediately chose it as one of my top reads for teenagers in a Christmas round-up I wrote for a newspaper. As I said at the time: “The writing in Blood Red Road is so assured that it’s astonishing to find that this is Moira Young’s first novel.”

The Costa children’s book judges were similarly impressed, remarking that “she kept us reading and left us hungry for more. A really special book.”

So if you’re looking for a gripping read for a teenager (or yourself in fact), this is an amazing story, with hints of Cormac McCarthy. Set in a strange future world, it’s the powerful tale of Saba, a headstrong 18-year-old girl who sets out across the barren landscape beyond her remote desert home to find her kidnapped twin brother.

The first of a trilogy, the epic adventure is told in Saba’s own (and very unique) voice and will appeal to girls and boys alike. Saba, who’s accompanied on her quest by a clever crow called Nero, is a tough cookie, but as she encounters violence, cruelty and death, she refuses to give up hope.

Young, a former actress and singer who was born in Canada and now lives in Bath, used to be PA to the editor of the Bath Chronicle. She’s now a full-time writer and is working on her second book (I can’t wait for the next instalment!) Not only that, the film rights for Blood Red Road have already been snapped up by Ridley Scott’s production company. I’m not surprised – it really would make a great movie.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Marion Lloyd Books, £7.99)

Friday, 6 January 2012

Friday book review - Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

A whole year has whizzed by since I reviewed the six books on the 2011 Romantic Novel of the Year shortlist. But I vividly remember reading The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes for the first time and predicting in a flash that it would win. Her heartrending tale of passion, adultery and lost love was “everything a romantic novel should be,” I wrote in my review, and sure enough a couple of weeks later it was declared the winner.

Jojo’s new book is out this week and she’s done it all over again. By the time I got to the last few pages of Me Before You, I had tears streaming down my face and very smudged mascara. Not a good look, especially if you’re sitting on the train.

While lots of writers stick to familiar territory in their novels, Jojo surprises her readers every time. In the past she’s written about everything from brides travelling to meet their husbands after the Second World War (The Ship of Brides) to a businessman planning a controversial development in a sleepy Australian town (Silver Bay).

Her latest is the story of Will Traynor, a hotshot city financier whose life is shattered in a road accident. Quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair, he can’t do anything for himself and doesn’t see any point in life. He’s miserable, sarcastic and quick to take his frustration out on everyone around him, especially when his mother hires the sunny-natured, crazily-dressed Louisa Clark as his new carer. But surprisingly, the pair gradually form an unlikely friendship – a friendship that changes both their lives.

In less skilful hands, this novel could have been downbeat and utterly unconvincing. Jojo herself admits that given the “controversial subject matter” she wasn’t sure she’d find a publisher (actually, she was wrong - publishers were so keen that a raft of different companies bid for it.)

But in fact it’s an uplifting, wonderful read – a believable love story that makes you laugh, cry and think about a person’s right to live or die.

Me Before You is going to be one of the most-talked about books of the next few months. It’s been chosen as one of Richard & Judy Spring 2012 Book Club reads and many are already predicting that it could be as big as David Nicholls’ One Day. I reckon they could be right.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Michael Joseph, £7.99)

Friday, 23 December 2011

Friday book review - Four last-minute book suggestions

With two days to go till Christmas Day I’m still rushing around buying food, looking for stuffing recipes and trying to remember where I hid half the presents. So if you're like me and need a few last-minute Christmas treats, I've come up with four great books that might just do the trick.

For thriller fans
Fans of legal thriller supremo John Grisham will love The Litigators (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99), a courtroom drama about three Chicago lawyers who team up to take on one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the US. The unlikely trio – a street cop turned lawyer, a hustler with a drink problem, four ex-wives and a penchant for chasing ambulances and a smart Harvard graduate who’s just quit his high-flying law firm – show Grisham at the height of his powers. A riveting and at times very comic read.

For romance readers
I reckon The Language of Flowers (Macmillan, £12.99) is one of the most charming and original books of the year. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s first novel tells the bitter-sweet story of Victoria Jones, who after years of being in foster care, strikes out on her own in San Francisco on her 18th birthday. Broke, friendless and homeless, her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings - honeysuckle is a sign of devotion, for instance, while snowdrops represent consolation and hope. But Victoria’s life changes when a florist offers her a job and she meets a mysterious flower vendor who could unlock the secrets of her troubled past.

For crime addicts
Equally absorbing is The House of Silk (Orion, £18.99) by Anthony Horowitz. I’ve long been a fan of Horowitz’s Alex Rider stories for younger readers, but this new Sherlock Holmes mystery shows he can write for any age group. Endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, it relates the events of a “missing” Sherlock Holmes case. As the iconic detective and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson investigate the death of a teenage street urchin, they’re determined to find out why the boy had a white ribbon tied round his wrist and the significance of the mysterious House of Silk. In his acknowledgements Horowitz says writing the book was a “joy” and hopes he’s done justice to Conan Doyle’s creation. He certainly has.

For aesthetes
With its striking black and white cover, black-edged pages and end papers covered in magicians’ hats, The Night Circus (Harvill Secker, £12.99) is one of the best-looking books of the year. US writer Erin Morgenstern’s novel is by no means flawless but her story of two young 19th century magicians forced to pit their skills against each other is enchanting nonetheless. The descriptions of the mysterious night circus, which opens at nightfall and closes at dawn, are so vivid that you can almost see the twirling acrobats and smell the popcorn, caramel and bonfire smoke.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Friday book review - The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Virtually every journalist I know dreams of emulating Robert Harris and writing a bestseller. But few stand a chance of being as successful as the former Observer political editor. To date he’s written eight novels, sold millions and seen his books translated into 37 languages.

Harris switched from journalism to novels with the publication of Fatherland in 1992 and has never looked back. The Ghost, seen as a thinly disguised attack on Tony Blair, was made into a film starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams and Harris later won both the French César and the European Film Awards for best adapted screenplay.

The great thing about Harris is that as well as being a talented, intelligent writer he’s also an outstanding storyteller. He makes writing look easy but his books are expertly plotted and based on months of solid research. He once said: “I’ve always wanted to earn my living by writing. The best thing is to go into my study in the morning and put words together” - and that’s exactly what he spends his life doing.

And he’s certainly on scintillating form in his latest novel, The Fear Index. This pacy tale follows one day in the life of Dr Alex Hoffman, a brilliant physicist who used to work at CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider).

In recent years Hoffman has developed revolutionary computer software that tracks human emotions, enabling the mega-successful hedge fund he’s launched with a partner to predict the financial markets and make billions. Then in the early hours of a May morning an intruder breaks into the Geneva home he shares with his wife and Hoffman’s ordered world starts to unravel.

This bang-up-to-date thriller is utterly compelling. If you’re looking for an extra Christmas present for someone, look no further.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £18.99).

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Friday book review - Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom

When my son was born 17 years ago, we lived in a remote, draughty farmhouse halfway up a Lancashire hillside. The house didn’t have any heating, just a temperamental wood-fuelled Rayburn that was hell to keep alight. We all joke that the reason my son is so tough is because he spent the first two years of his life there.

A long, bumpy track led to the house (which we rented from a charming, aristocratic landowner) and I vividly remember the day the community midwife drove up to check that my son was doing fine. In most areas midwives visit new mothers and their babies for the first ten days and in my experience, they are a brilliant source of help and advice.

Out of the car stepped Sheena Byrom, the community midwife for the Ribble Valley. Dressed in a navy-blue uniform, she was smiley, ultra-supportive and compassionate. She seemed like a friend from the instant I met her and we stayed in contact for years afterwards. Sadly we eventually lost touch – mainly, I reckon, because of the crazy number of times I've moved house.

Anyway, idly scrolling through Twitter this week, I suddenly spotted a mention of a new book called Catching Babies: The true story of a dedicated midwife. It was by, yes, Sheena Byrom. I was so thrilled that I dashed out and bought a copy straight away.

As I expected, Catching Babies is a cracking read about Sheena’s 35-year career as a midwife, from her close-knit Lancashire upbringing to her nursing training at Blackburn Royal Infirmary. The chapters I enjoyed the most were about Sheena’s decision to move from a hospital-based job to work as a community midwife. I loved her descriptions of driving “through the most fabulous scenery, rippling green hills and groups of ancient, majestic trees” to check on babies and their mums. Just reading it took me back 17 years in a flash.

Sheena’s story, which has its share of heartbreak, is a fascinating account of how midwifery has advanced over the years. If you’re interested in babies, children and a woman who's dedicated her career to helping women in childbirth, then you’ll definitely enjoy this. As Sheena herself says: “Midwives are in a really privileged position and I believe that if a woman’s birth is positive then they will go on to be positive mothers. It helps women to be better mums.”

Catching Babies by Sheena Byrom (Headline, £6.49)

Friday, 25 November 2011

Friday book review - The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Michael Morpurgo and Emma Chichester Clark

I’ve been a fan of artist Emma Chichester Clark for more years than I can remember. When we moved house this year (aaagh - I’m still recovering) I took stacks of children’s books to a local primary school but I couldn’t bear to part with my Chichester Clark collection. I bought some of them (below) before my daughter was born – I Never Saw a Purple Cow and Listen to This for starters – and the illustrations still look as vibrant and fresh as they did 20 years ago.

Chichester Clark, who was taught by Quentin Blake in her art student days, has written and illustrated scores of children’s books. In recent years she’s also worked with former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo and they make a formidable team. The duo’s latest collaboration is a retelling of Robert Browning’s classic poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and in the aftermath of this summer’s riots, it’s a parable for our times. As Morpurgo himself has said: “We are failing our young people, who feel they are living without hope, without jobs and a sense of a future.”

The story is seen through the eyes of a young boy who describes how the rich and greedy live like kings and queens in the town of Hamelin, while the sick and poor have to scavenge for scraps of food. Mountains of rubbish rot in the streets, rats run riot and the town council promises action but never keeps its word. But all hope isn’t lost. When a tall thin man in extraordinary clothes suddenly appears in the council chamber and pledges to get rid of the rats, it looks as though life will take a turn for the better. But is it too late for the people to change their ways for good?

Morpurgo and Chichester Clark have done a wonderful job of bringing the pied piper to life on the page. Master storyteller Morpurgo describes him as “so light and nimble on his feet that it seemed as if he was walking on air” while Chichester Clark’s illustrations show a dashing figure in a stylish chequered jacket, multi-patterned trousers, dashing red sombrero and fingerless gloves.

Children of all ages will enjoy this ultimately uplifting story, which is perfect for reading aloud. And take time along the way to appreciate Chichester Clark’s gorgeous (and intricately detailed) illustrations.

PS. Speaking of Michael Morpurgo, Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated movie of War Horse is due out in January. I can’t wait to see it...

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Michael Morpurgo and Emma Chichester Clark (Walker Books, £12.99)

Saturday, 19 November 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the John Lewis Christmas ad to Anya Hindmarch and the art of the apostrophe

Every Saturday the House With No Name blog features a round-up of the week’s highlights.

The picture above shows the gorgeous Christmas lights that hover like mysterious planets over St Christopher’s Place in the heart of London’s West End.

While I was in the vicinity I couldn’t resist popping into H&M to see the much talked-about new Versace collection. There wasn’t a lot left in the Regent Street branch but what a disappointment. There were shocking pink patent bags, silver belts and a scary pair of palm print leggings that even Elle Macpherson would be hard-pressed to look good in.

House With No Name on grammar: Anya Hindmarch and the art of the apostrophe
House With No Name on the week’s most uplifting story: The journalist and the Afghan teenager
House With No Name on the John Lewis ad: I cry at anything, but this leaves me cold
House With No Name Book Review: India Knight’s Comfort and Joy
House With No Name Children’s Books: My obsession with Enid Blyton's Malory Towers stories

PS: Nineteen days into the National Blog Posting Month challenge and I’m nearly two-thirds of the way through!
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