Friday, 1 February 2013

Friday Book Review - The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes


Reviewing a book by an author you’ve met in real life can be tricky. But actually, when the author is as talented as Jojo Moyes it’s not difficult at all.

Over the past year Jojo has become one of our most successful novelists. Me Before You, her tear-jerking story of a hotshot city financier who becomes wheelchair-bound after an accident, was one of the top five paperbacks of 2012 and has sold more than 500,000 copies in the UK so far. Her ninth novel, it’s now a New York Times bestseller and this week MGM acquired the film rights. Me Before You is an amazing book and if you haven’t yet read it, go and download it NOW.

As I wrote in my House With No Name review last year Jojo is one of those writers who surprises her readers with every novel. While lots of novelists play it safe and stick to familiar themes and subjects, she always chooses something different. To date she’s written about everything from brides crossing the world 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).

And her latest, The Girl You Left Behind, is different again. It’s the story of two women, unrelated and separated by 100 years, who are united in their determination to fight tooth and nail for what they love most. One is French artist’s wife Sophie Lefèvre, who is forced to make a terrible decision in the hope of being reunited with her beloved husband during the First World War. The other is young widow Liv Halston, who a century later finds that her future is inextricably linked with Sophie’s past.

There’s no doubt that Me Before You is a hard act to follow but Jojo has managed it with style and panache. The Girl You Left Behind isn’t quite as spellbinding as its predecessor but it’s still utterly compelling and the two stories are skillfully entwined and meticulously researched. At first I found Sophie’s story – her courage, pragmatism and determination to keep her family safe against all odds – far more gripping than Liv’s. But as the novel progressed Liv and the ex-NYPD cop she falls for completely won me over. I can’t wait to see what Jojo writes next.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Penguin, £7.99)

PS. Jojo Moyes is speaking at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival on Sunday April 21.  You can book tickets here.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Movie review - Hyde Park on Hudson


Hyde Park on Hudson was one of the movies on my must-see list when I whizzed up to London for a film preview day hosted by ShowFilmFirst.

Why? Firstly because it stars the brilliant Bill Murray as legendary US president Franklin D Roosevelt and secondly because the director is Roger Mitchell, of Notting Hill fame.

Most of the action focuses on the real-life visit by George VI and his wife Elizabeth to Hyde Park (Roosevelt’s summer residence on the banks of the Hudson River) in June 1939. With the storm clouds gathering over Europe and Britain preparing for war, the king was keen to ask for the president’s support.

The royals, however, are like fish out of water as they observe the comings and goings of the presidential household. Olivia Colman gives an impressive performance as Elizabeth, determined at all costs to keep a sense of decorum, worried that her husband is being laughed at and horrified that they will be expected to eat hot dogs during a picnic in the woods. Samuel West has the tough task of following in Colin Firth’s footsteps as George VI but manages it with aplomb (although every time he appeared on screen I couldn’t help thinking he looked exactly like Chancellor George Osborne).

The emotional heart of the film is Roosevelt’s relationship with his shy distant cousin Daisy, played by Laura Linney. Daisy is summoned to Hyde Park to keep Roosevelt company – and she quickly obliges. The pair begin a passionate affair, unperturbed by the numerous other women in the president’s complicated life – his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), his domineering mother (Elizabeth Wilson) and his assistant Missy (Elizabeth Marvel).

Hyde Park on Hudson is beautiful to look at and Bill Murray gives a fine performance as the charismatic, wheelchair-bound Roosevelt. But to my mind The Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want to Set the World on Firepart of the soundtrack, just about sums up this movie. What could have been a powerful film turns into one that is merely enjoyable - no more than that.

Hyde Park on Hudson (certificate 12A) is released in the UK on Friday February 1.



Tuesday, 29 January 2013

My favourite glossy magazine


Glossy magazines have always been a big part of my life. My mum started her career as a feature writer for Woman’s Mirror, a weekly magazine in the Sixties, and I can vividly remember the day she met me from primary school brandishing a tall retro coffee pot in her hand. She’d bought it with the proceeds of her first magazine commission and she was SO proud. So was I for that matter.

In the intervening years I’ve subscribed to scores of different magazines – from Vogue to Country Living – and even worked for a few myself. I love that exciting moment when they thump on to the doormat, usually a couple of days before you can buy them at the shops.

But in recent months I’ve cut the magazines I read down to two. I’m not sure why but I found that I was flicking through most of them and barely reading any articles. They all seemed a bit samey and dull.

There are two subscriptions I’ve hung on to though – for two magazines I reckon are head and shoulders above the rest. One is Grazia, the weekly magazine I’ve blogged about before, and the other is the utterly brilliant Red.

So what’s so great about Red? Well, for starters, it looks like a work of art. The photography is stunning and if I was a student I’d be half tempted to tear the fashion pages out and stick them on my walls. But more importantly, it’s full of stuff I actually want to read. Take the March issue. It’s got an At Home piece with novelist Maggie O’Farrell (I’m counting the days till her latest novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, is published on February 28), an interview with Noel Gallagher and a Q&A with the wonderful Tracey Thorn. The Everything But the Girl singer has just written a book about her life called Bedsit Disco Queen – my favourite book title of the year so far.

But as I flicked through the current issue’s 274 pages I was sad to see that the March issue is editor-in-chief Sam Baker’s last one. She’s leaving to write her next novel and have a go at being her own boss – which shows that she follows her own advice because Red is all about inspiring its readers and exhorting them to try new things.

So, from a loyal Oxford reader, all I can say is goodbye and good luck to Sam Baker. And thank you for all the amazing issues of Red you’ve published over the last six years.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The best boulangerie


The woman at the front of the queue was in full and belligerent flow. I don’t know who she was talking to on her mobile but she was certainly giving them what-for, effing and blinding away and yelling that she f…... wasn’t going to be treated like that.

The weary-looking shop assistant (at a chemist's in a nearby town) had clearly seen it all before. She didn’t turn a hair, just waited for the woman to finish ranting, raised her eyebrows ever-so slightly and then slapped her change into her hand. The loud-mouthed customer grabbed her shopping and stomped out without saying a word to the assistant. No thank you. No nothing.

I haven’t blogged about France for ages but it suddenly struck me how different shopping on the other side of the Channel is. At my favourite boulangerie the lovely proprietor is so charming that her devoted regulars don’t mind how long they wait to be served. Her freshly-baked baguettes and tartes aux framboises are so delicious that the lunchtime queue snakes out of the shop and down the pavement - but no one bats an eyelid, let alone complains about the wait.

When we get to the counter she always greets us personally, compliments my children on their French and smiles as we fumble for the right number of euros. She packs everything into exquisitely-wrapped paper parcels, tells us a bit about her time working as a hotel receptionist in London and wouldn’t dream of letting us leave without a cheery “au revoir, bonne journée.”

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Am I the only driver without a satnav?


I seem to be one of the few people who doesn’t have a satnav in their car. I still rely on an ancient AA atlas that cost £1.99 in a garage years ago. The Oxford page has got a massive rip through it, but apart from that the map is still doing sterling service and I rarely get lost.

But now it appears that I’m one of a dying breed. A survey by budget NetVoucherCodes has found that the UK’s map-reading skills are fading fast. Sixty-nine per cent of women and 59 per cent of men say they’d be lost without a satnav, while four out of five 18 to 30 year olds couldn’t manage without one.

I’m mystified by the popularity of satnavs. For a start I don’t want to be bossed about by an annoying voice when I’m driving - and quite apart from that, satnavs aren’t all that they are cracked up to be. Lorries are always getting stuck in tight lanes, while car drivers have ended up on railway lines, cliff edges and in Richmond, North Yorkshire, rather than Richmond upon Thames. And look at what happened to Sabine Moreau, a 67-year-old Belgian woman who set off on a trip to Brussels earlier this month to pick up a friend from the station. The journey should have been 38 miles but thanks to her satnav she took a wrong turn and ended up 900 miles away in Zagreb, Croatia. Stick to a map next time, Sabine, and you’ll be fine.

PS. Don’t worry, these two tube trains haven’t gone AWOL after relying too heavily on their satnavs. I passed them in Shoreditch the other day and couldn’t resist taking a picture. They are actually recycled Jubilee Line trains (there are four altogether) and they’ve cleverly been converted into offices and studios high above Great Eastern Street.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Friday book review - The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles


Thousands of writers dream of hitting the big time with their first novel. And that’s exactly what Beth Reekles has done. The surprise is that Beth is a 17-year-old schoolgirl studying for her A levels and hoping to read physics at university.

She began writing at the age of 15, sitting upstairs in her bedroom at the family home in Newport, Wales and uploading a chapter of her work at a time. She quickly got the thumbs-up from her readers. Her very first chapter received a million hits and pretty soon she was being deluged with emails urging her to upload the next instalments faster.

Beth then began writing on Wattpad, the free online novel-sharing platform for amateur writers, and the compliments flooded in. Her first novel, The Kissing Booth, rapidly became the most-viewed, most-commented-on teen fiction title on Wattpad, with 19 million reads and 40,000 comments to date. It won the Wattpad Award for Teen Fiction and last October was snapped up by Random House.

Beth has now signed a three-book deal with Random House and the publisher has already released The Kissing Booth as an ebook (it will be published in book form this summer). The ebook reveals that Beth, whose real name is Reeks, is “an undeniable bookworm and an avid drinker of tea,” while her acknowledgements include “a big thank you” to her GCSE English teacher, Mr Maugham.

So after all that, what is the book actually like? Well, it’s aimed at the YA market, so I’m clearly not the target reader. But the answer is that it’s sweet, romantic and well-written. Not only that, it will appeal to older readers too.

Set in America, it’s the story of Rochelle (also known as Elle or Shelly), a pretty 16-year-old who’s never had a boy friend and has never been kissed. She and her male best friend Lee hit on the idea of organising a kissing booth at their school’s spring carnival, where she ends up kissing Lee’s bad boy older brother Noah, tries to keep her feelings for Noah secret from Lee and finds her whole world turned upside down.

Not surprisingly, Beth’s teenage characters sound real and authentic. They talk like teenagers and act like teenagers – which is more than you can say about some of the teen novels written by older novelists. The book’s gone down a storm with readers in America and the Far East, as well as the UK, and there’s no doubt about it, Beth Reekles is an author to watch.

The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles (RHCP Digital, £2.84)

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Les Misérables - rapturous applause from the audience


I’ve been longing to see the movie of Les Misérables since last spring, when I unexpectedly stumbled on to the film set during a visit to Greenwich. With filming due to take place the following day, I couldn’t quite work out how the giant stone elephant and extraordinary pile of old wood, furniture and rubbish the crew had built next to the Old Royal Naval College would look in the movie.

Well now I know – because the film is out in the UK and I foolishly went to see it with my husband at the weekend. I say foolishly because a) I can’t think of a single film we’ve both liked (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Lincoln) and b) he hates musicals.  But he sweetly went along with my Les Mis plan – and apart from the moment when he whispered a bit too loudly “Oh God, he’s not going to snuff it, is he?” didn’t complain too much. 

So what was our verdict? You won’t be surprised to hear that my husband loathed it. As for me, I thought parts of it were stunning, but at 157 minutes it is way too long and I’m sorry, but the Old Royal Naval College does not look like 19th century Paris.

The best bits of the film, I reckoned, were Anne Hathaway's touching I Dreamed a Dream, the comic pairing of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the evil innkeeper and his wife (their performances veer slightly towards panto, but are very funny), Samantha Barks as Eponine (she gives a wonderful performance of On My Own) and child actor Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche (who steals every scene he appears in).

The Tom Hooper-directed film has won three Golden Globes - and been nominated for nine BAFTAs and eight Oscars, including Best Picture Award, Best Actor (Hugh Jackman) and Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway). Some critics have given it ecstatic, five-star reviews, although others have been less enamoured. But on Saturday night in Oxford the audience (apart from my husband) clapped wildly at the end.  I’ve never seen that happen at the cinema before.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Natalie Haynes and Alexandra Shulman appear on With Great Pleasure


With Great Pleasure is one of the best programmes on BBC Radio 4.

If you haven’t discovered it, do give it a try. The series asks well-known names to pick prose and poetry they love - so it’s a fantastic way to discover new writers and hear old favourites.

This week I got the chance to attend a recording of two forthcoming programmes at the BBC’s Broadcasting House. The shows featured two ultra-inspiring women – the first, comedian and writer Natalie Haynes and the second, Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman.

The programmes will both be broadcast in February so I don’t want to give too much of the game away but Natalie Haynes’s selection included two rare and exquisite readings by one of our most distinguished writers. Like the rest of the audience, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when he walked on to the stage.

Then it was time for the second recording. I was fascinated to hear Alexandra Shulman’s choices – not only because she is a brilliant editor but because she is exactly the same generation as me. And sure enough, listening to her choices (beautifully read by Tracy Wiles and Stella Gonet) sent a shiver down my spine. Her favourites included Noel Streatfeild’s classic White Boots, Dorothy Parker’s The Telephone Call, Rosamund Lehman’s Invitation to the Waltz and even Mediterranean Cookery by Elizabeth David. Shulman recalled how the book took her straight back to her North London childhood, in the days when her mother (the distinguished journalist Drusilla Beyfus) would rush in from work and start cooking supper from scratch in their tiny kitchen.

As the child of two journalists, Shulman said that when she was growing up journalism seemed like very hard work for little remuneration. But she loved reading journalists’ writing and the journalist she most admired was Joan Didion, whose Play It As It Lays was another of her (universally excellent) choices.

Shulman, dressed in a stylish bottle green velvet dress, was surprisingly modest and self-effacing as she talked about the titles she’d selected. Being asked to do the programme was, she said, “an incredible treat and privilege.” Actually, being part of the audience was a treat and privilege too.

PS. Alexandra Shulman’s debut novel about three friends who graduate in the 1980s is out in paperback this week. Can We Still Be Friends (Fig Tree, £5.99)

Friday, 11 January 2013

Friday Book Review - Crusher by Niall Leonard


Like most novelists, Niall Leonard pays tribute to a whole host of people in his acknowledgements.

But there’s one name that stands out from the crowd. “And above all to my beloved wife Erika,” writes Leonard, “for her boundless love, loyalty, humour, encouragement and inspiration.”

Yes, the Erika in question is EL James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey has sold well over 6 million copies in the UK and has become the country’s bestselling book ever.

Leonard is unlikely to match his wife’s sales any time soon but Crusher, his debut novel, is a gritty, fast-paced thriller for teenagers that gripped me from start to finish.

Funnily enough, it was James herself who encouraged her TV screenwriter husband (his credits include Wire in the Blood and Silent Witness) to write the book in the first place. He decided to take part in the 2011 NaNoWriMo (the annual novel writing challenge) and Crusher was the result.

The novel tells the story of teenager Finn Maguire, who returns home from his dead-end café job one day to find that his stepdad has been bludgeoned to death.

Finn has no idea who might have had a grudge against the impoverished, out-of-work actor. He is even more stunned when it turns out that the police see him as the prime suspect for the murder. As one cop tells him: "Ninety per cent of the time the person who reports finding a dead body is the murderer... You might as well have written a confession in your stepfather's blood."

Determined to prove his innocence and find out who hated his stepdad enough to murder him, Finn resolves to track the killer down. But his quest takes him into the scary heart of the London underworld and exposes dark family secrets from the past.

I’m clearly not the target audience for Crusher but Leonard, unlike many YA writers, is a brilliant at getting inside the head of a troubled teenager. Boys of 14 and up will enjoy it, but I reckon girls and adult readers will too.

Crusher by Niall Leonard (Doubleday, £12.99)

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What Susie Orbach told Daisy Lowe


I'm a big fan of GraziaThe magazine’s target reader is probably a chic 20-something fashionista with legs up to her armpits so I must be one of Grazia’s oldest and least stylish fans - but what the hell, I love its eclectic mix of fashion, showbiz, news and culture.

And this week’s edition is a corker. As well as discussing whether girls should be taught to put careers before motherhood and offering the latest lowdown on Brangelina, it also features a great interview by journalist Shane Watson with the model Daisy Lowe. The daughter of designer Pearl Lowe and musician Gavin Rossdale, Daisy is only 24 but sounds sweet, unspoilt and impressively level-headed. She likes spending time with her mum, walking her dog, eating sweets and is usually in bed by midnight.

But apart from all that, the reason I enjoyed the piece so much was an anecdote Daisy told about Fat is a Feminist Issue author Susie Orbach.

Orbach's daughter was one of Daisy’s best friends at school and Daisy remembers Orbach telling them: “You must eat. Do not listen to the pressures of society, you are beautiful girls and you will grow into beautiful women. You have nothing to worry about.”  

What brilliant advice. I reckon Orbach’s words should be pinned up on the board of every secondary school in the land…

Friday, 4 January 2013

Hard Copy is published as an ebook


The world was a different place when my first novel, Hard Copy, was published back in 1998. The internet was in its infancy, my laptop was the size of a sewing machine and when I sent an email I had to follow dial-up instructions running to two sides of A4 paper. Even then I rarely succeeded.

I began writing the book when I enrolled on Manchester University’s MA in novel writing. The course was the first to focus on novels rather than creative writing (as UEA did) and along with future luminaries like Sophie Hannah and Sam Bain I was one of the very first intake.

Once I’d completed my degree I turned the 50,000 words I’d written into a full-length novel. I made photographer Anna Armitage the lead character and changed the name of my cynical hack (who I’m secretly rather fond of) from Sam Rutter to Sam Turner.

Hard Copy was published in hardback and paperback and did reasonably well at the time, but there’s never been an ebook version. Until now, that is. The novel has been given a stylish new cover and published this week by Piatkus Entice.

So what is it about? Well, it’s the story of Anna, a 20-something who’s determined to reach the top as a Fleet Street photographer. But when she teams up with former high-flying reporter Sam Turner they miss the big story and a rival newspaper gets the scoop instead. They’re determined to save their careers though and together they battle against megalomaniac proprietors and ruthless news editors to prove themselves once more.

The Daily Mirror called it “fast and furious,” while the Belfast Telegraph declared that “if you enjoy pace, dialogue and a glimpse of life behind the headlines, you’ll love this.” I just hope new readers agree.

Hard Copy by Emma Lee-Potter (Piatkus, £3.99)

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

When to take the Christmas tree down


It’s my first post of 2013 and time to look forward. Actually I threw caution to the wind this morning and was rash enough to tell my local radio station (live on air!) that my twin ambitions for the year are to complete my new novel and to learn to speak fluent French.

But before I could get started on either, there was the thorny question of when to take down the Christmas tree. And even more pertinently, what the hell to do with it after that. I don’t get as fed up with the Christmas tree as my mum used to. She always put hers up early and by Boxing Day was bored of it. By dawn on December 26 she’d dismantled the whole thing, baubles, stars, fairy and all, and stuffed it outside.

This Christmas, our tree lasted till New Year’s Day, when it looked such a sorry sight that it simply had to go.

Stumped for ideas about where to take it I scanned the council website. The recycling page came up trumps, listing a plethora of collection points across the city. They are open for the first two weeks of January and best of all, the trees get recycled into woodchip to use in Oxford’s parks.

My husband nobly said he’d take the tree to our nearest site on foot and set off in the chilly afternoon air. But for some reason he was gone an awfully long time.

“Was there a problem?” I asked when he finally arrived back.

He grinned. “No,” he said. “But I went twice.”

“Er, why?”

“Because we never got round to taking last year’s Christmas tree. So I walked back and dragged that along too.”

He got some very strange looks as he hauled the tree, completely brown and with a few dead sticks attached, through the streets of Oxford. A man selling copies of The Big Issue did a double take when he saw it. “Is that this year’s tree?” he asked. “You should go and get your money back.” 

PS. My picture shows a flooded Port Meadow on Christmas Day.
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