Tag Archives: review

The Little Cottage in Lantern Square

Hannah went from high flyer in the city to the business owner and has never looked back. In the cosy Cotswold village of Butterbury she runs Tied up with String, sending handmade gifts and care packages across the miles, as well as delivering them to people she thinks need them the most.

Phil: I’ve just had a revelation. Literally, as I searched for the bit of blurb above, I also found this:

The Little Cottage in Lantern Square is the collected Lantern Square novellas.

NOW it makes sense.

You see, while this is a pleasant, undemanding read, there were a couple of niggles.

The first is my usual financial concern. Houses on the green in a Cotswold village are going to be painfully expensive. They are not where you end up when looking for somewhere cheap to live because your entire income is based on sending luxury care packages out in the post. They are also not where you live when running a business that will need large quantities of products to go in said packages, not to mention the masses of wrapping and packing consumables. What you want is a barn, not the cottage dining room.

Mind you, Hannah, our lead character, did work in accountancy in “the city” for a while and therefore we assume she earned a mahoosive amount of money to fund this. We assume that anyway because we’re going to need to suspend belief. Am I the only person who thinks like this? I keep reading books where the numbers (to me) don’t add up.

“Stop being so nerdy” I hear you cry, “It’s fiction. Let it go.”

Fair enough, it was only a niggle. The bigger issue, but one explained when we realise this is a collection of novellas, is that there are cliff-hangers through the book that are almost immediately resolved at the start of the next chapter.

Often they take the form of us being told that HANNAH HAS A SECRET. Yes, we are told she has several, but not told what each is until later. One early SECRET is divulged to another character, and we aren’t in on the conversation. This is annoying, to me at least.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that I liked Hannah. She is, in chick-lit terms, a real person. She has a believable backstory, once we get to find out about it. She works too hard. She has doubts. She does nice, and believable things. Most of the time, when I read this sort of thing, I want to shout at our lead on occasion, but not this time.

OK, the supporting cast could be from an episode of Midsommer Murders, by which I mean they are a bit cartoony slotting neatly into various stereotypes, but that doesn’t matter. If you want gritty drama, then this isn’t the book for you. If this was TV it would be a warm Sunday evening drama. Perfect soothing reading.

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The Defamation of Strickland Banks

Album cover for The Defamation of Strickland Banks

Candice: I’ve not been driving around much these days. Usually, a long drive is my opportunity to sort through the thousands of songs I have on my iPod and pick something I haven’t listened to for a while, or something new. Or listen to that new album I have bought, all the way through.

We don’t consume music, books, TV or film in the same way that we used to. Everything’s short and sharp, a quick fix for instant gratification. I buy as many singles as I used to buy when I was a DJ back at University, or I just listen to new songs in Spotify. Occasionally an artist comes along and I think, I might want to listen to your whole album and I buy it on download. I don’t even do CD’s any more, which I used to always have to keep.

This dipping in and out means that the concept of an whole album seems alien to a lot of people, we only listen to the tracks we want to hear. But that doesn’t always mean you get the best stuff, just the dance track which will sell well in the charts.

What I have been doing on my shorter drives in the car is to put the iPod on shuffle, which means it can throw me a weird and wonderful collection of stuff including things I haven’t heard in years. Up popped the other day a song by Plan B, actually from the album Ill Manors, but it reminded me of his ‘concept’ album – The Defamation of Strickland Banks. The album is a story in itself, telling the tale of a man wrongly accused of raping a woman. The premise is clever as each song leads from the other as he goes from having a big night out, a one night stand, court and then jail. The subject matter is tough but the songs relate the feelings of the character as he goes through each stage of the journey and it certainly doesn’t glamourize prison and what happens ‘inside’.

I mentioned it to Phil the other day and he professed to have not heard of the album, and said it wouldn’t be his cup of tea. But Mr Parker I think you need to give it a try. Even if you don’t like the tunes, the lyrics are worth a listen. My personal favourite is ‘Stay too long’ – its got a thumping beat and a catchy hook, though I can’t play it in the car with my daughter as the language degenerates at the end!

To me songs can be just as interesting as books. They tell their own story and after often created as a cathartic experience for the writer. Phil and I write stories, but to a lot of artists their album is a story. In this case it’s a very clever one and I encourage to go back and visit this album even though it’s 10 years old if you fancy dipping into something new.

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The Giver of Stars

Alice Wright doesn’t love her new American husband.

Nor her domineering father-in-law or the judgmental townsfolk of Baileyville, Kentucky.

Stifled and misunderstood, she yearns for escape and finds it in defiant Margery O’Hare and the sisterhood bringing books to the isolated and vulnerable.

But when her father-in-law and the town turn against them, Alice fears the freedom, friendship and the new love she’s found will be lost . . .

Phil: So much, so chick-lit. Readers will know Jojo Moyes from her bestseller Me Before You. It was an enjoyable read, but could possibly have been described as an excellent idea, competently carried out.

The Giver of Stars is on the face of it, quite a pedestrian idea, but the execution is superb.

Set in 1937, the story centres on new British bride, Alice. She has married into an American family in an effort to escape the stifling life she sees ahead of her. The marriage is not happy for many reasons, but she finds escape joining a band of women operating a horseback library, bringing books to the remote townspeople in Kentucky.

The synopsis on the back of the book suggests something full of lurve, but that’s the least important storyline. What strikes the reader is this is a world very different from today.

Women were expected to know their place. Marriage meant becoming your husband’s possession and not answering him back. You didn’t take a job unless you were poor, and there was poverty on a scale we don’t really understand today.

Power was in the hands of a small number of people and they generally seemed to abuse it. As for being the “wrong” colour, then you could aspire to very little in life. We even see racism and hypocrisy making a dangerous cocktail.

Overall though, this is a book about strong women. Women who don’t sit back and let the world wash over them. That probably sells less well than the love story promoted by the publisher, but it’s an important part of the story. You might even call it “feminism by stealth”. For many people, it will open their eyes to how far womens rights have deservedly advanced, and how easy it would be to lose those gains.

When I started reading, it took me a few chapters to get into this book. By the end, I knew I was looking forward to handing it over to my book buddy. I think Candice is going to feel the same, I’m confident she’ll enjoy it, and it’s always a pleasure to hand over a book you know someone else will love.

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Hit the road with Rosie Lewis. And her big, pink, tea van.

Phil: Some light and fluffy reading from me. I love tea. I love campervans. More importantly, the cover design tells me nothing horrible is going to happen, and right now, that’s what I need from a book.

Things don’t start well for Rosie Lewis. A workaholic chef, the book opens with her husband running off with a younger woman. In the tight-knit world of posh London restaurants (the ones with menus, cutlery and a dress code, not the sort I frequent) is the last to know about this, and decides, in a moment of red-wine induced madness, to chuck it all in and hit the road with a mobile tea shop.

She joins the festival circuit, meets people, re-assesses her life, blends a lot of tea and finds a bloke. Some mildly bad things happen, but in the end, it’s all OK. As I say, this is just the sort of book I need right now.

It all sounds like a nice life and I’m sure there are plenty of people who will idly dream of chucking in the 9 to 5 grind to sell dreamcatchers and spiritual rocks. Then realise that it’s cold in the winter, some idea how to fix your van is a good idea and when it rains, you’ll be living in mud.

As I say, I enjoyed the read, but, a few aspects bothered me:

How did Rosie get so drunk she forgot she had bought a pink campervan the night before. OK, an ill-advised eBay purchase I can understand, but she negotiated with the seller over the price and delivery, then drunk enough to wipe her memory?

Campervans aren’t massive, even the big ones, yet as well as the sleeping area, toilet and shower, Rosie seems to have a pretty well-appointed kitchen in her van. And a deck out the back. Come on, I’ve been in a van that is home to a funfair owner and even that didn’t have its own deck.

When did the Internet lose its capital I? The nerd in me wants to point out that they were really referring to the World Wide Web most of the time, but we’ll let that go as I can hear Candice rolling her eyes.

Never mind, that’s really not the point. This is all about dreams and finding yourself by taking a sharp left in your life. I’ll just re-read the bits featuring cake and enjoy my own dreams.

 

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Meet me at Pebble Beach by Bella Osborne.

Meet Me at Pebble Beach

Candice: I was very lucky recently to be able to escape the confines of the UK and travel abroad. It was not without its dramas, up to 48 hours before flying we were going to Spain but then it was all change and we managed to book to go to Rhodes. I don’t think I slept properly for two nights wondering what we were going to go.

Now to some it might seem silly but I had got to the point I really needed a break from the monotony of getting up, logging on to my computer in the other bedroom and then logging off at the end of the day. The odd walk around the block, bike ride and now trip to the gym is not enough for me. And I’d got to the point I REALLY needed a proper break as I was getting arsey with people.

With travel and pool holidays comes book reading. Again with COVID my usual route of picking up some stuff from the local second-hand bookseller had gone out of the window. So I decided to buy some books from Amazon based on some names I knew and their advice. I also bought some paper and some digital as, for once, I wouldn’t be raiding the hotel library either.

I’ve got a selection of things to review from the break, some good, some not so good. I’m starting with ‘Meet me at Pebble Beach’ only because it really annoyed me.

The book itself is fine, it follows Regan; a girl who is all over the place in her life, hates her job, doesn’t have enough money, someone who really grates on me to start. A work colleague tricks her into thinking she has won the lottery and that starts the ball rolling on her eventually sorting out her life. She gives up her job, starts her own business and then finds herself along the way. The story trips along, though you can tell in places that it was written as a four-part series as there are a few extraneous storylines that would fill out a serial but are too much in a book.

The book is set in Brighton and, without giving too much away, it all sorts its self out in the end. But the thing that annoyed me – the title. At no point does she or anyone else say ‘meet me pebble beach’ , they go to the beach over the course of the story but it isn’t central to the book. I kept waiting for something to happen related to the beach, and it didn’t. I might not be a perfectionist but this really bugged me, especially as the cover featured beach huts which also don’t feature in the story. It was like the person who created the cover had not read the book, or the synopsis.

This distracted from the book as I was waiting for the scene at Pebble Beach to happen as I expected it to be central to the book. I didn’t and I felt deflated at the end. A lesson to us all – the book cover is as important as the content.

 

 

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The Authenticity Project

Phil: As we’ve mentioned in the past, I’m rubbish at taking holidays, but I felt I needed a break and decided that last Saturday would be a reading day. My plan involved doing nothing more than lounging around with my nose buried in a book.

But which book? The reading pile is tall and I didn’t want something that I’d have to slog through.

My choice: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley. Reader, I chose well.

Six strangers with one thing in common: their lives aren’t always what they make them out to be.
What would happen if they told the truth instead?

Julian Jessop is tired of hiding the deep loneliness he feels. So he begins The Authenticity Project – a small green notebook containing the truth about his life.

Leaving the notebook on a table in his friendly neighbourhood café, Julian never expects Monica, the owner, to track him down after finding it. Or that she’ll be inspired to write down her own story.

Little do they realize that such small acts of honesty hold the power to impact all those who discover the notebook and change their lives completely.

Artist Julian Jessop writes the truth about his life in a notebook and leaves it for others to find. They add their own “truths” as the book travels around them. Julian is desperately lonely, Monica wants marriage and children, even though she wonders if she should, and so on.

The premise is really interesting. What are we really like in the depths of our soul? How does this compare with the face we show to the rest of the world. I suspect that everyone hides some deeper secrets but wear a suit of armour. We’ve written our main character, Kate, like this and it’s not an original premise. How the idea is handled is what matters.

I liked all the characters, admittedly some more than others. Cleverly, there is someone most of us can identify with in the cast list. I’m very much Monica who abandoned her life as a city lawyer after a colleague faces up to the horror that all those extra hours at work are just a way of escaping life and does something terrible. As you read, you wonder what you would do, how should you change things in your own life?

OK, this is light fiction and so you need to suspend disbelief occasionally. The flimsy book seems to survive its travels well and finds just the right person in the right frame of mind no matter where it is left – but then the story would be a lot shorter if it had been chucked in the bin in the cafe. I don’t want a documentary, this is fiction, entertain me!

Aside from that, everything worked for me. I particularly liked Instagram star Alice, based very much on the author, whose very public perfect life is the result of a lot of effort, lies and clever photography. I’m fascinated by “influencers” and their apparently perfect lives. It’s summed up by Alice realising her kitchen might look like everyone’s dream, but it doesn’t feel like home. How often have I watched Grand Designs and wondered what those picture-perfect houses that cost a fortune are actually like to live in day-in-day-out?

Sadly, Alice’s is the only story not neatly tied up by the end. Everyone else reaches a pleasantly satisfactory conclusion. Exactly as a feel-good novel should do.

I consumed this in a couple of sessions – just what I needed. Now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.

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Hoots mon, the scones are unbearably light!

Phil: Although I’m not Scottish, my ancestry does permit me to wear the Lamont tartan, I’m partial to a bit of Lorne sausage and even a portion of fried haggis. I also consider the Tunnocks teacake one of the finest delicacies in the shops. The caramel wafers aren’t bad either.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones caught my eye in the book pile at work for a couple of reasons. I like scones, and it’s set in Scotland Street, Edinburgh.

I’ve been there, mainly because at one end of it was a railway yard and I spent much time helping out a friend who had built a model of it exhibits his efforts around the country. That it is written by Alexander McCall Smith was less appealing as I’ve never got into his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, no matter how good people tell me it is.

Anyway, this is an interesting book that defies many literary conventions.

For a start, there is a huge amount of text that doesn’t move the story forward. All that stuff we are told to edit out. Well, not here. The characters head off at tangents, spend a long time thinking of random things and generally using lots and lots of words. Far from light, it’s actually quite dense and took me a couple of attempts to get going with.

The other oddity is there isn’t really a plot. Things happen, but we never get the feeling that anything significant is happening, but this isn’t a bad thing.

What we have a literary soap opera. My understanding is that the 100 (yes one hundred!) chapters are from the Scotsman newspaper and published on a daily basis. The books are collections of these for those who want their tales of Edinburgh life in a single helping. So, there are lots of characters living independent, but sometimes interconnected lives.  Along the way, several points are made by the author – for example, one of the characters is a small child whose overbearing mother could come straight out of the Guardian cliche lineup with her strident feminist ideas.

It’s a book riven with tartan too. You don’t see the pretender to the Scottish throne pop up very often not Jacobite being used as a slur. Do people still care about that stuff? Even one of the art sub-plots centres on a portrait of Robbie Burns.

If you can get past the style, then I can understand why the residents of Scotland Street become as popular as those of Glebe Street, albeit, representing a very modern take on their home city that will be a revelation to many readers from south of the border. This book could have been set in London in many respects. That it isn’t is a credit to the author, and probably a credit to his previous success allowing him to say a firm “No” to any publisher suggesting that he’s picked the wrong capital.

I got into the story after a few chapters and once in, worked my way through pleasantly quickly. I didn’t dare leave it too long between reading sessions for fear of losing the plot, but as the chapters are short, and the focus moved between different plot threads, it’s an easy book to pick up and put down for short bursts of reading between other jobs.

Now if you don’t mind, I think there is one more teacake in the fridge…

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Relaxing reads for taxing times

Phil: Here’s a handy hint. Don’t publish a blog post about how you are starting to feel more comfortable with the current situation. It’s a prelude to your metal state heading downhill fast for several days. Just shut up and read some books. To help, here are the two most recent that I’ve finished in my regular post-lunch tea and reading sessions.

Warning: Contains Spoilers. Or at least spoilers if you’ve never read any chick-lit before and can’t spot the bleedin’ obvious plot lines.

The Hidden Cottage by Erica James

Mia Channing appears to have an enviable life: a beautiful home, a happy marriage, a job she enjoys and three grown-up children to whom she’s devoted. But appearances can be deceptive…

When the family gathers for her son’s thirtieth birthday, he brings with him his latest girlfriend, who, to their surprise, has a nine-year-old daughter. Then, before the birthday cake has even been cut, Mia’s youngest daughter Daisy has seized the opportunity to drop a bombshell. It’s an evening that marks a turning point in all their lives, when old resentments and regrets surface and the carefully ordered world Mia has created begins to unravel.

You’d think from the blurb that this is all about Mia, but the main character is Owen Fletcher who buys a cottage in Little Pelham. The cottage was part of his childhood when he lived for a while in the village. He’s one of those annoying people in novels with bucket loads of cash but no obvious way of earning it, but we let that pass because he’s not a dick. I did have a “what does he DO all day?” moment, but in the current situation, adults not actually doing much to fill the hours doesn’t seem so odd.

Anyway, this is quite involved with Mia’s three children and most importantly, overly controlling husband, all walking on eggshells with each other, finding their way in the world, loving and losing etc. The actual main romance isn’t prominent in the book. It’s there, but takes up very little of the story compared to the rest of the characters, and is all the better for it.

I’d say that this is the thinking readers chick-lit with some well worked parallel storylines, especially Mia’s marriage and Owen’s childhood. There are a few shocks along the way too. Maybe the supporting characters in the village are a bit cartoonish, but the background hangs together well enough not to be obtrusive.

I read this one in small chunks, but it’s one of those books I’d make little bits of time during the day to grab another chapter of.

A Summer Scandal by Kat French

When Violet moves to Swallow Beach, she inherits a small Victorian pier with an empty arcade perched on the end of it, and falls in love immediately. She wants nothing more than to rejuvenate it and make it grand again – but how?

When she meets hunky Calvin, inspiration strikes. What if she turned the arcade into an adult-themed arcade full of artisan shops?

Not everyone in the town is happy with the idea, but Violet loves her arcade and business begins to boom. But as tensions worsen and the heat between her and Calvin begins to grow, life at Swallow Beach becomes tricky. Is it worth staying to ride out the storm? And can Violet find her own happy ending before the swallows fly south for the winter?

Violet inherits a pier and apartment in the childhood town her mother refuses to return to. There are secrets from her grandmother who died in mysterious circumstances. And her neighbour is hunky Calvin Dearheart.

Reader, she shags him.

She also turns the pier into a series of workshops for those making things for the adult entertainment industry. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but a couple of them were “That’s really a thing?” moments. You don’t want to search for them on-line either on a work computer.

I wasn’t wild about this, the idea that you’d turn the centrepiece of a pier into a series of workspaces where the most public-friendly thing on offer would be a leather whip seemed odd. Artisan workshops would work, but I suspect that the Great British Public aren’t ready for X-rated goods while strolling along the seaside.

To be honest, the characters are all ridiculous, but it’s all played straight and so the book gets away with it. There are more historical parallels, outrageous coincidences and the ending is a bit weird, but overall, it’s everything the cover suggests. Light fun with a happy ending. Just like that that the pier’s customers are expecting.

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Middle England – These aren’t my people

A comedy for our times – The Guardian

Phil: I’m middle-class. I work in magazine publishing. The only manual labour I do involves making model trains. I have been down coal mines, but only at museums. Years ago, I could even follow the plot of The Archers.

It seems I’m not the right sort of middle class though.

Proper middle-class people earn mahoosive amounts of money doing jobs even more pointless than mine. They then spend their lives spending money without any visible means of financial support. Ideally, they will have made a killing in the London property market, sold up and bought a rather nice converted mill to live in somewhere less fashionable. They drink posh wine and eat the sort of nibbles that I’ve read about but would probably ignore in preference to sausage on a stick.

I really wanted to like Middle England. It’s set in the Midlands for a start. There are mentions of places I know like central Birmingham (the library is being built) and Solihull.

Sadly, the characters might occupy the same geography as me, but they live in another world.

Look, our book is set partly in central Solihull. All the characters have jobs. Jobs they do to earn money. We set it there because we didn’t want to set it in London and Solihull is a nice place. Nice enough for Kate anyway. She doesn’t want to jump into the pool that is London. Better be a big fish in a smaller pond than just another in the capital’s shoal. Besides, when she needs to go to the big city, there’s a perfectly good train service with at-seat coffee and WiFi, so she can have the best of both worlds.

Maybe the author lives in a rarified world of London journalists and politicians and so struggles to connect with the rest of us plebs. I’ve long been a fan of the idea that our capital needs to be hived off as a city-state, leaving the rest of us to do things our own way. It’s not that I don’t like London, far from it. It’s just that I know it’s very different from elsewhere, something the inhabitants don’t grasp much of the time.

Anyway, Middle England is supposed to be a satire on the newly formed coalition government (something we also satirise) but it’s not very subtle. A government adviser pops up every so often as a caricature who keeps changing his story without bothering about facts or the truth. I should be right in tune with all of this, yet I didn’t get it.

Talking of story – I couldn’t actually find a plot. There are lots of words, the pages seem slightly more densely printed than normal, but nothing actually happens. I didn’t get the feeling that we were on a journey anywhere. Mind you, I gave up 1/3rd of the way through. Even reading on a train, normally something that gets me into any book didn’t help. All I was left with were characters I didn’t care about.

A pertinent, entertaining study of a nation in crisis – Financial Times

Middle England is the novel about Brexit we need – Daily Telegraph

Insufferably smug – Phil Parker

 

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Evil word counting

Phil: Imagine a world very like the one we live in, but where women have no passports, money of their own, jobs – and are limited to speaking 100 words a day.

That’s how America looks in Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The word limit is enforced by a wristband every female is fitted with at three months of age. Each word spoken is counted and when you reach 101, you receive an electric shock. Keep talking and the shocks become stronger until you “learn your lesson”.

All of this is enforced because of a new brand of “Pure” Christianity that has taken hold. Spreading from the bible-belt, it’s now controlling the White House and everyone else.

As you read, it becomes obvious that people are adjusting to the new normal. Jean McClellan is the main character and we see through her eyes as her sons tell her that according to their lessons at school, a woman’s place is in the home. Chillingly, her daughter wins a prize for not speaking at all. Women haven’t just lost their place in society, they have literally lost their voice.

I found this a scary read. OK, it turns into a thriller towards the end, but the scene-setting is very, very effective.

What makes it especially uncomfortable is that you can see how this sort of thing could happen for real. Vice President of the USA, Mike Pence, won’t eat alone with a woman and has been applauded for this by the religious right. His boss isn’t exactly known for his consideration towards women either.

Don’t think women would all stand up and fight – the rise of the #tradwife movement is sending women back to the 1950s and while they might not be queueing up to wear an electric word-counter, they love the idea that women should stay at home doing what their husband tells them they are allowed to do.

Like all good sci-fi, Vox is a commentary on the present day. It holds up a slightly distorted mirror to our lives and the reflection acts as a warning to things that could happen if we don’t pay attention.

Mind you, I think the Nolan acts as a perfectly effective word counter when we meet, there is a look far more potent than any electric shock that says, “Shut up Phil, and do some work!”

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