Friday 27 May 2016

Reviewed: Last Dance in Havana by Rosanna Ley

TITLE: Last Dance in Havana
AUTHOR: Rosanna Ley


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Cuba, 1958. Elisa is only sixteen years old when she meets Duardo and she knows he's the love of her life from the moment they first dance the rumba together in downtown Havana. But Duardo is a rebel, determined to fight in Castro's army, and Elisa is forced to leave behind her homeland and rebuild her life in distant England. But how can she stop longing for the warmth of Havana, when the music of the rumba still calls to her?

England, 2012. Grace has a troubled relationship with her father, whom she blames for her beloved mother's untimely death. And this year more than ever she could do with a shoulderto cry on - Grace's career is in flux, she isn't sure she wants the baby her husband is so desperate to have and, worst of all, she's begun to develop feelings for their best friend Theo. Theo is a Cuban born magician but even he can't make Grace's problems disappear. Is the passion Grace feels for Theo enough to risk her family's happiness?

Intriguing from the start, Last Dance in Havana is a captivating novel from Rosanna Ley, with beautiful, evocative writing and an engaging blend of two timelines from Bristol, England in 2012 to Havana, Cuba in 1958. This novel was really exquisitely told and within the first few chapters, I was engrossed with the story and caring for the characters.

In Havana, 1958, we meet sixteen year old Elisa. When asked for a dance by Duardo, she is completely swept off her feet and they fall desperately in love with each other. But life has other ideas for the two of them and their romance is cut short. Elisa moves to England.

In Bristol, 2012, we meet Grace, who is an extremely conflicted character. Having a very uneasy relationship with her father, she’s also torn between two men – her husband, Robbie, who is eager for them to start a family, and their best friend Theo, who she feels like she’s falling in love with.

Last Dance in Havana is both tenderly and honestly written and the tone to the book was just perfect. Rosanna’s style of writing made this book easy to dip in and out but only a matter of minutes after putting the book down, I had to pick it up again because I was really heavily in anticipation of discovering the secrets the characters were keeping, the difficult choices they were going to make and the satisfying endings to their stories.

I liked both Elisa and Grace’s characters for different reasons. Elisa was caring and considerate and spent a lot of time putting other people first. I found her relationship with Philip fascinating and their companionship felt real in the way that not all partners are madly in love with each other. Yet it was love that really crafted Elisa as a character because deep down it felt like that was what she craved the most and that was what she was missing as she remembered Duardo so fondly.

Grace’s story was driven by her choices and as she was torn between two men, I have to admit I really didn’t know which way she was going to turn. Despite her getting caught up in feelings for someone other than her husband, I never disliked her character. She was only human, after all, and I felt for her and as the reader we’re really allowed, quite closely, to follow the conflicting emotions Grace has and I was on tenterhooks waiting to see how things would turn out for her character.

Although I loved following both Elisa and Grace, Philip’s story was also one that I really responded too. It’s very early on in the book where you are aware that he is relying on alcohol far too often but oh I really cared for his character. I felt desperately sad for him at times – sad that he couldn’t even begin to reconnect with his daughter and sad that alcohol felt like the only option for him to deal with life. Rosanna wrote this aspect to the story sensitively but realistically too and I was very much drawn in to Philip’s story as it blended seamlessly into both Elisa and Grace’s stories too.

One thing that I absolutely adored about this novel was how Rosanna set the scene, in particular in Havana which was described sublimely. The balmy sunny conditions, the mood of the dance, the bars and the music and ultimately the feelings – everything was crafted so beautifully and I could really get a feel for the story because I bought into Rosanna’s every word. The setting and the charming writing makes Last Dance in Havana an ideal read for the summer, with a tale of dance, addiction and forbidden love waiting to unfold in front of you. This is a book I will miss now it’s over, although I am looking forward to reading Rosanna’s previous novels, most of which are already sat on my bookshelf waiting for me.

Thursday 26 May 2016

Reviewed: Remember My Name by Abbey Clancy

TITLE: Remember My Name
AUTHOR: Abbey Clancy


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From the moment Liverpool teenager Jess stars in the school musical, she knows that she’s GOT to be a star. Fast forward a few years and the closest the now 22 year old Jessica has got to stardom is as a children’s entertainer – which is where she meets Jack , uncle to the spoiled 5 year old birthday princess who spots Jessica’s talent and offers her a job with a record label. But that means that she’ll have to leave her family and her home and move to London – where she quickly finds that the streets aren’t quite paved with gold. And as she spends her days making tea for bitchy PR girls and her night in a mouldy studio flat, Jessica wonders if leaving Liverpool for London has been a terrible mistake.

Attending an industry party – unfortunately only to serve canapes – Jessica’s fortunes suddenly change when Vogue, the singer due to perform at the event drops out. Before she knows it, Jessica volunteers to stand in and takes centre stage. After a dazzling performance, she is surrounded by people wondering who this amazing new talent is. What’s more, her star turn has been captured by the press and she has become an overnight sensation.

Plunged into the crazy world of glitz and glamour, Jessica’s life is transformed but as her star rises, she loses touch with her roots. Jessica’s teenage dreams of stardom may have come true, but at what cost?

Remember My Name is the debut novel from Abbey Clancy, ghostwritten by the brilliant Debbie Johnson and so, combined, the book provides the perfect blend of Scouse, humour and entertainment, with all the components of a fab beach read to lose yourself in this summer.

A fun read from page one onwards, Remember My Name tells the story of Jess, a down-to-earth Liverpool girl who has dreamt of being a star ever since she was a teenager. Jess felt very real and likeable and because of that, I was rooting from her right from the beginning and still throughout, even when you can tell she’s making choices which aren’t necessarily right for her. The book is told in a really conversational style which makes it feel accessible and more like you’re having a catch-up with a friend. Jess is really honest with the reader and we get to know her really well which feels more rewarding when you see her character develop throughout the story.

Though Jess dreams of being a star, so far she feels only destined to be singing songs from Frozen for the rest of her life and frankly she’s had enough of that the moment she was attacked by a pretty brutal snow-machine mid-song at the birthday party of a spoilt, evil little girl. But that’s the day she gets spotted by Jack, head of talent at Starmaker Records, and the process of Jess quickly uprooting her life from Liverpool to London soon follows as her dreams are about to become true – and here forms Jessika.

Books with characters who become singers or actresses often follow the same kind of path and I’m not saying Remember My Name was much different to that because you’re quickly aware of how things are likely to work out. But there was something about this book that gave the story a different edge to me, maybe because being able to connect with Jess so easily and being able to pick up on everything she is truly thinking made her appear less and less self-obsessed. When her new-found stardom led her to arguing with her family and losing contact with the people who once meant something to her, this instead led me as the reader to feel for her because it was easy to see how caught-up in this new life she was and how mostly she had the best intentions. As “celebrities” go, she was pretty harmless.

Remember My Name is entertaining from start to finish, almost as frenetic as the celebrity life of Jess but in a good way – with laughter, disaster, friendship, drama and a mix of romance all satisfyingly worked into the novel. I was pretty shattered myself trying to keep up with Jessika’s day-to-day life, mostly because I kept persuading myself one more chapter was a good idea (and rightly so). I really enjoyed the romance aspect to this book. Guessing where it was going to go didn’t affect that and though I do love reading romance novels it’s sometimes quite refreshing to read a book which isn’t dominated by the romance, like here, as there was much more going on in Jessika’s life than that.

Overall I found this book to be a really fun read and a really ideal escapist read for the summer. With amusing characters, both good and bad, there was always a new part of the story to follow without Jessika’s stardom becoming too repetitive a read. My favourite secondary character was Vogue, who was fresh and had her own interesting story. My only complaint is that I’d have loved to have seen more from her character because she contributed to some of my favourite parts of the book. Despite that, Remember My Name was built up to an ending sweeter than I could have imagined and it was, for me, the perfect way to end a really lovely book.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Guest Post: Jean Burnett on her Pride and Prejudice spin-offs

TITLE: The Bad Miss Bennet Abroad
AUTHOR: Jean Burnett


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Having controversially run off with George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, Lydia is confronted with his untimely demise on the battlefield at Waterloo. Merry widow Lydia Wickham, née Bennet, is therefore in want of a rich husband.

Failing to find one in Europe, she embarks on a voyage to Brazil accompanied by her trusty maid, Adelaide, to join the exiled Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro. She soon catches the eye of the heir, Dom Pedro.

Staying out of trouble doesn’t come naturally to Lydia as she is captured by pirates, then makes a second disastrous marriage, and even finds ways to ruin the Darcys’ tranquil existence all over again. Will she return from the tropics with a cache of jewels? Could she ever succeed in her quest for ‘an agreeable husband with an estate and two matching footmen’, or must her taste for adventure lead her astray yet again?

Guest Post: Jean Burnett on her Pride and Prejudice spin-offs

Perhaps you were forced to read Jane Austen at school, found her dull and preferred to look out of the window thinking about what you might have for tea. You might not have given her another thought since then, but you’ve probably seen the films and drooled over Colin Firth as Mr Darcy or admired the willowy Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma.

If you have no knowledge of Miss Austen’s works, if you are an Austen free zone – you may need to be broken in gently! You might start by watching the film and TV adaptions to get the general outline of the stories. Pride and Prejudice is the most popular Austen novel. There is a whole industry of spinoffs of Jane’s works and especially of P and P. If imitation is really the sincerest form of flattery then she might feel pleased if she returned and found them. Of course, she might be horrified and bewildered to find her characters turned into vampires, aliens and sea monsters, or taken out of context and put into one of the other JA novels.

In my own books I have taken the character of Lydia Bennet, the youngest sister in Pride and Prejudice and given her an afterlife, if I can describe it that way. The book stands alone with new plots and adventures, but familiarity with the original novel and how the characters were viewed by their creator would make any spinoff novel more enjoyable.

I have tried not to take too many liberties with the JA’s characters but purists will still find my ideas appalling, I’m sure, but this is fiction after all. There are no aliens, vampires or sea monsters but Lydia does go to the bad rather spectacularly. Jane herself hints at this in the original novel. After eloping with Mr Wickham when she was barely sixteen this was inevitable.

In my version Mr Wickham is killed off at Waterloo and Lydia becomes a merry widow in every sense. Her adventures take her around Europe in the first book (Who Needs Mr Darcy?) and further afield to Brazil and India in the second (The Bad Miss Bennet Abroad). The disapproval of her family remains constant, especially when she reappears regularly at Pemberley, the home of her very wealthy brother-in-law, Mr Darcy. Lydia’s schemes have a habit of ending badly which adds to the readers’ enjoyment – I hope.

I wouldn’t recommend an Austen virgin (so to speak) to start by reading Mansfield Park. This is the novel that most people have problems with; finding the heroine unappealing and wimpish. In Austen’s own time readers had the same problem, but the book repays re-reading. Start with Pride and Prejudice and proceed to Emma and Sense and Sensibility and on to Northanger Abbey, that witty spoof on the Gothic genre that was so fashionable in Jane’s time. All things Gothic have an enduring appeal, but Jane found some of the books available in her day very silly and what we would call OTT.

Jane did not have the opportunity to travel to distant lands, or even to get to France, due to the Napoleonic Wars, lack of money - and the fact that she was a woman. Her life revolved around a small group of English people and she analysed them and wrote about them with forensic detail on her “inch of ivory.”

Lydia has the chance to travel after 1815 and to see places Jane might only have dreamed of. I hope that readers will enjoy the fictional trip.

The Bad Miss Bennet Abroad by Jean Burnett is published on 23rd May by Canelo, price £3.99 in eBook.

Friday 20 May 2016

Reviewed: Summer at Rose Island by Holly Martin

TITLE: Summer at Rose Island
AUTHOR: Holly Martin
PUBLISHER: Bookouture


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Darcy Davenport is ready for a fresh start. Determined to leave a string of disastrous jobs and relationships behind her, she can’t wait to explore White Cliff Bay and meet the locals.

When Darcy swims in the crystal clear waters of the bay, she discovers the charming Rose Island Lighthouse. But it’s not just the beautiful building that she finds so intriguing…

Riley Eddison doesn’t want change. Desperate to escape the memories of his past, he lives a life of solitude in the lighthouse. Yet he can’t help but notice the gorgeous woman who swims out to his island one day.

Darcy is drawn to the mysterious and sexy Riley, but when it seems the town is trying to demolish his home, she soon finds herself having to pick sides.

She’s fallen in love with White Cliff Bay. But is that all Darcy’s fallen for?

Summer at Rose Island is the third book in Holly Martin’s White Cliff Bay series, the first summery one, and with each book I love the seaside town more and more. White Cliff Bay is a gorgeous setting with lovely characters, beautiful views, a fascinating history and featured in this book in particular, the precious Rose Island Lighthouse.

Sadly for its mysterious occupant Riley Eddison, the council don’t find the lighthouse quite as special as readers will do and plans are drawn to demolish it. With d-day fast approaching, the town’s residents are fundraising and working as hard as they can to save the lighthouse. I loved their fighting spirit and that small-town feeling, how they all come together in the face of adversity and they shared many lively conversations about how they could help which I enjoyed reading.

Darcy Davenport is the main character in Summer at Rose Island. As Holly’s protagonists usually are, she’s very likeable, passionate about something (other than Riley…) and a bubbly character. From the beginning, it was made easy to connect with Darcy and even though I can’t say she’s my favourite of Holly’s characters, I did like seeing her character slowly grow and develop as she begun to stand up for herself more.

Quickly endearing herself to other White Cliff Bay residents – including Libby and George (always like seeing recurring characters crop up!) – Darcy is drawn to one infuriating person in particular in Riley. Riley and Darcy get off on the wrong foot but the chemistry between them is always evident. Riley appears quite moody and he doesn’t speak to the other residents of White Cliff Bay and I was interested to know why. But until we did, and even though I liked him throughout, I found his grumpiness a bit tiresome rather than appealing.

If I’m honest, this isn’t my favourite Holly Martin book. Whilst I did enjoy it, especially as I got further and further into the story, I just didn’t connect with it as well as I would have liked. I found it to be quite a slowburner, and it wasn’t until we really get to know more about what drives Riley and Darcy that I found myself engrossed in their story. They were both heavily influenced by things which had happened to them before the book’s timeline started and I felt like I needed to know what that was before I could get into the book.

I didn’t laugh or swoon as much as I usually do with one of Holly’s books and it took a while for it to reach that unputdownable stage, but it did come with about 20% to go where I felt fully invested in the story and eager for Holly’s trademark happy ending to make its appearance. I loved all the events in this stage of the book and found that I’d really grown to connect with both Riley and Darcy and their romance felt real with true emotions and development throughout.

Summer at Rose Island is a very warm and cosy romance, with plenty of drama throughout the pages and a story easy enough to get caught up in. People who’ve already read previous books in the White Cliff Bay series (which are both gorgeous reads) will enjoy catching up with some memorable characters from those books and seeing where life has taken them. This book is also filled with some evocative descriptions of sea-life, from mermaids to sharks and everything in between which gave the story a different edge to your typical romance. It’s a book that will definitely put you in the mood for summer and have you booking that seaside holiday.

Guest Post: Alison Rattle on the representation of working class in Young Adult fiction

TITLE: V for Violet
AUTHOR: Alison Rattle
PUBLISHER: Hot Key Books


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Battersea, 1961.

London is just beginning to enter the swinging sixties. The world is changing - but not for sixteen-year-old Violet. She was born at the exact moment Winston Churchill announced Victory in Europe - an auspicious start, but now she's just stuck in her family's fish and chip shop dreaming of greatness. And it doesn't look like fame and fortune are going to come calling anytime soon.

Then she meets Beau. Beau's a Rocker - a motorcycle boy who arrives in an explosion of passion and rebellion. He blows up Violet's grey little life, and she can't believe her luck. But things don't go her way for long. Joseph, her long-lost brother, comes home. Then young girls start going missing, and turning up murdered. And then Violet's best friend disappears too. Suddenly life is horrifyingly much more interesting.

Violet can't believe its coincidence that Joseph turns up just as girls start getting murdered. He's weird, and she feels sure he's hiding something. He's got a secret, and Violet's got a dreadful feeling it might be the worst kind of secret of all ...

Guest Post: Alison Rattle on the representation of working class in Young Adult fiction

Tinned Fruit is not the Only Fruit

When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s there wasn’t really such a thing as YA fiction. I went straight from gobbling up Enid Blyton (The Famous Five, The Secret Seven), Alf Proysen (Mrs Pepperpot) and Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) straight into devouring The Hobbit, Watership Down and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There didn’t seem to be anything in between. Perhaps there were more suitable teen novels out there, but as we couldn’t afford to buy books I was limited to whatever my local library had to offer.

We were poor you see. We didn’t own a car. We didn’t go on holidays. We had no central heating (I regularly woke up to ice on the inside of my bedroom window). Our carpets were threadbare. We had tinned fruit for tea on Sundays and a jar of instant coffee was the height of luxury. My mum worked numerous jobs to keep us fed after my dad left us. She was far too proud to claim benefits. When she remarried a few years later it was to a coal miner. We were proper working class.

I was quite clever at school and absolutely loved reading. Anything I could get my hands on. My childhood books featured characters who all came from comfortable backgrounds or at least had rich relatives, access to islands to holiday on, always plenty of food to eat and the financial freedom to go off on fantastic adventures and solve all their problems. My first forays into adulthood fiction featured much the same privileged characters. Jackie Collins for instance (who I read for the sexy bits obviously) wrote about a world I could only dream about. Chateaus and diamonds, fast cars and fabulous clothes. I read crime novels, horrors, romances. I read Fay Weldon, Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Atwood. I read astounding, shocking, fabulous, wonderful, beautiful books but none of them featured any characters like me. Or like my mum.

Two books that really stand out in my memory from my teen reading years are Porky (by Deborah Moggach) and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (by Jeanette Winterson). They are among a handful of books that I’ve read and re-read over the years. Because they spoke to me. For the first time I could truly identify with the characters I was reading about. Heather (the protagonist in Porky) lived in a run-down bungalow near Heathrow airport with a backyard full of broken machinery and pigs. Jeanette (the protagonist in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit) was brought up on an ordinary street in a grim Northern town. I didn’t identify with their situations – Heather was struggling to cope with an incestuous relationship with her father and Jeanette was struggling with her God-fearing mother and her own emerging sexuality - I identified with the characters themselves. Ordinary working class girls trying to cope with life under extraordinary circumstances.

Diversity is the buzz-word of the moment and some wonderful strides have been made by writers reaching out and tackling important topics such as gender, race, sexuality and mental health. Which is all brilliant of course. But there are still not enough YA novels that feature ordinary working class characters. The ones who can’t afford mobile phones or to go on holidays with their mates. The ones who have to work after school to help with the family expenses. The ones who can’t afford to buy books and still rely on their local library.

In my latest book, V for Violet, the character of Violet is a nod to my working class roots. (Roots? I’m still working class through and through. Three jobs on the go to pay the bills and I still have tinned mandarin segments for tea on Sundays). Violet is ordinary. She looks ordinary. Her family is ordinary. She works in a fish and chip shop. She has no special talents apart from her love of reading. But she embraces her ordinary life and faces some extraordinary circumstances with strength and humour and daring. She’s the girl I wanted to be growing up. The girl I wanted to read about. The girl who doesn’t reject her working class roots in striving for something supposedly better, but who embraces them instead. Because if someone like Violet can survive what life throws at her, then anyone can.

V for Violet by Alison Rattle is out now, published by Hot Key Books

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Reviewed: The Evolution of Fear by Paul E. Hardisty

TITLE: The Evolution of Fear
AUTHOR: Paul E. Hardisty
PUBLISHER: Orenda Books

PUBLICATION DATE: March 31, 2016

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Claymore Straker is a fugitive with a price on his head. Wanted by the CIA for acts of terrorism he did not commit, his best friend has just been murdered and Rania, the woman he loves, has disappeared. Betrayed by those closest to him, he must flee the sanctuary of his safe house in Cornwall and track her down.

As his pursuers close in, Clay follows Rania to Istanbul and then to Cyprus, where he is drawn into a violent struggle between the Russian mafia, Greek Cypriot extremists, and Turkish developers cashing in on the tourism boom.

As the island of love descends into chaos, and the horrific truth is unveiled, Clay must call on every ounce of skill and endurance to save Rania and put an end to the unimaginable destruction being wrought in the name of profit.

Gripping, exhilarating and, above all, frighteningly realistic, The Evolution of Fear is a startling, eye-opening read that demands the question: How much is truth, and how much is fiction?

Last year I read The Abrupt Physics of Dying, book one in Paul E. Hardisty’s Claymore Straker series and it was absolutely brilliant so I could not wait for the next book to come. The Evolution of Fear has now arrived and it has completely blown The Abrupt Physics of Dying out of the water. Chillingly good, it’s an action-packed feast of a novel with gruesomely descriptive prose, roaring tension right from page one and a breath-taking, gripping plot from start to finish.

Clay is a wanted man, with events in his past catching up to him (see the incredible book one). Things are not about to get any easier for him and within the opening five or so chapters of the new book, he witnesses and is involved in some of the many brutalities ahead, his best friend has been murdered and his lover, Rania, has disappeared (hooray). Everybody seems to want Clay, or those close to him, dead. It’s a bit cruel but with every horrific thing that happens in Clay’s life, I find I love his character more and more. I think I’m a bit in love with him and I’m not too sure that’s right but I can’t say I care! Paul has crafted a wholly believable character and we follow Clay throughout the pages, feeling his every conflict of who to trust and who to turn to (if anyone) and you can closely admire his strength and bravery as the danger hits very close to home.

The course of the book takes place in various destinations from Cornwall, Istanbul and most prominently, Cyprus. Paul takes the reader along with him on the adventure but we’re not tourists to the enchanting locations, we are instead witnesses to gritty drama, killings and betrayals, trying to work out who the characters we love or love to hate can and can’t trust and what on earth the author is going to throw at us next. And though I can’t spoil the events of the book for you, I can say that each aspect to this book is brilliantly written, fully engrossing and so intelligently done.

Attention to detail is paid everywhere in this book. We get an intense portrayal of each location, and I could picture every scene vividly from the settings, to the characters, their actions, their emotions, their motives (if I could figure them out…). One of my favourite aspects of this book was the detail to the boats which I found strangely fascinating, as well as the use of different languages throughout so you could feel the culture of the person or area yet still follow the story completely well. In truth, picking a favourite aspect of the book is a ridiculous idea because I loved every moment.

The plot in The Evolution of Fear is heavily developed with action coming from all corners and betrayals, tension and exhilarating scenes gracing every page. It’s an all-consuming book - one of those that will still have you up, weary-eyed, come 3am but you won’t feel a single bit of regret. Each chapter is more fast-paced than the last and you don’t really get much of a chance to catch your breath because who has time to put a book down when that book is as exceptionally thrilling as this one is. It’s an understatement just to say that this book is fantastic – but it will be in my top ten of the year and I will be impatiently stropping until book three is finally in my hands.

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