Tuesday 28 February 2017

Me, You and Tiramisu by Charlotte Butterfield

Published by HarperImpulse on February 23, 2017

Why I Write Chick Lit
by Charlotte Butterfield

Twitter: @charliejayneb

Apparently ‘domestic noir’ is the genre everyone wants. Tales of family strife, murderous wives, stalker exes, revenge-seeking lovers, drama-filled husbands, that’s what people want to curl up with after a busy hectic day dealing with work, children and day to day life.

Um, I may be in the minority, but I’d rather lose myself in a plot that takes me away from the theatrics of real life and plants me firmly in an uplifting love story where happy endings are on the horizon. I want to smile, and maybe even giggle, and if I’m really lucky, I want to laugh one those snorting laughs where you risk losing bodily fluids. Whether it’s a chocolate shop in a French hamlet, or a fishing village on the Cornish coast, I want to escape to utopia for a while, to feel cosy and warm and happy. This isn’t weather-dependent either – cold winter nights were made for reading chick lit, and fast forward six months to when the sun is shining and a deckchair beckons, well, yes, a new chick lit novel is my perfect companion then too (if my husband’s reading this, obviously you are as well, just don’t talk to me while I’m reading.)

Before I wrote Me, You and Tiramisu I tried my hand at creating something darker. It was going well for a few hundred words, the scene was set, it was raining, the female lead was feeling sad, but then she made a joke and the sun came out, and I realised where my true passion lay. I’ve been a journalist and copywriter for fifteen years, often writing things that I had to sell a bit of my soul for (the blurbs on the back of bathroom bleach bottles was a real career low for me) and so to now wake up in the morning, turn on my computer and write the words that I want to write is such a joy. You can’t fail to feel cheerful and that everything is right with the world when your characters are playing thumb wars in the back of a London cab and making in-jokes. There really is no such thing as a bad day at work when you write romantic comedies for a living!

Monday 27 February 2017

The Little Teashop of Broken Hearts by Jennifer Joyce

Published by HQ Digital on February 8, 2017

In The Little Teashop of Broken Hearts, Jennifer Joyce serves up a tale of romance and friendship just as sweet and delicious as a cake baked by Maddie Lamington. I really love Jennifer’s books. None of them ever fail to put a smile on my face when reading them. With The Little Teashop of Broken Hearts, I was snatching any moment I could just to read a few more pages and grinning from ear to ear when doing so. It’s an uplifting read with romances brewing from every corner and I adored every single page.

Maddie, owner of Sweet Street Teashop in Manchester, is feeling a bit deflated at the lack of new customers her beloved shop is bringing in. She bakes scrummy cakes and puts all her heart and soul into the teashop, so she is disappointed and feels like she has wasted the inheritance she got from her late gran. As the book begins, Maddie is brainstorming with her close friend Nicky, and her work friends Victoria and Mags about ideas to bring in some custom. A while later, inspired by Maddie’s dad and regular customer Birdie, they settle on a speed-dating idea which consists of five men, five women, servings of cake at each table and fifteen minutes for each pair to get to know each other over one of Maddie’s sweet treats.

Instantly, I loved the friendships within Jennifer’s new book. Maddie, Nicky, Victoria and Mags were very individual characters, all memorable within their own rights. I really liked Maddie straight away. I felt like there were a few traits in her character I could relate to, not least her speaking before she thinks, sweet tooth and close bond with her dad, and this had me rooting for her straight away. Nicky was the character who made me laugh the most throughout the book. She’s a fun and flirty character who likes to get the ladies out at any opportunity, so to speak, and I was always wondering if she would meet her match. Victoria is the edgier character, in a band, but she was completely harmless as long as you remembered not to hug her. I liked Victoria and how she was always willing to drop everything to help out more at the teashop. Mags, other than Maddie, was my favourite female character. I loved how she had eyes for builder Owen and was so oblivious to how he felt about her. She was a caring character and extra fun when she’d had a drink or three.

The bonds and solidarity between the characters in this book made it a really enjoyable read for me. There was a lot of chemistry between the characters in this book through both friendships and romance and with a whole host of likeable characters, I found this to be an irresistible read and one impossible to dislike.

Of course there is a trend, as I’m sure any reader of chick-lit and romantic comedies will attest to, of books set around a cafĂ© or a teashop. Did that put me off? Not one bit. I actually haven’t read too many books set in that kind of location as those books in particular didn’t appeal to me. The Little Teashop of Broken Hearts hugely appealed to me. Jennifer’s books are always a real treat for me, she has quickly become one of my must-read romantic comedy authors and I really didn’t care that this was “another” teashop-set book. The speed-dating concept itself was original and intriguing and the romance was realistic and absolutely heart-warming, one of those perfectly feel-good stories that make you smile, fill you with optimism and have you desperate for cake. Provided you can resist any sweet treats (though resisting is not something I would recommend), The Little Teashop of Broken Hearts contains calorie-free goodness and an ending as satisfying as they come.

Sunday 26 February 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

Published by Penguin on March 2, 2017

The Witchfinder’s Sister was one of my most anticipated books of 2017 ever since I first read about it on social media. I loved the sound of this book but once I’d finished reading it, I realised that I loved The Witchfinder’s Sister even more than I had expected. This is a storming, authentic and suspenseful historical thriller with atmospheric prose and a truly frightening villain who stays on your mind from the moment you first meet him. What’s better (or worse, I’m not sure) is that the villain is real, not fictional, and this had me obsessing over the story even more than I thought possible. Beth Underdown has written a masterful debut novel which has really set the standards high as far as any expectations for future books go.

Set in Manningtree, Essex, in the 1600s, we meet Alice who is returning there following the death of her husband. There she is reunited with her half-brother Matthew, who is not the person she once knew. Gone is the younger brother she used to look after. In his place is a cruel man who fills the people he meets with absolute fear and dread. He has far more power and a hold on people than she remembers, and rumours are spread about a book in which he is collecting women’s names. Women are being accused of witchcraft, something of a deadly accusation. The inspiration the author takes from the true story of the Witchfinder General as well as the way she recalls the superstitions that come with the witchcraft theory is done in riveting fashion and because of this, I didn’t dare put this book down once.

I found getting to know Matthew through the eyes of Alice was an absolutely fascinating experience. Matthew is a menacing character whose actions made me shudder, whose motives and thought-processes were often scary and vividly described by Beth. The way Matthew’s character is constructed is, from my own experience reading this book, astounding and unforgettable. Never have I been more enthralled by a character, one that I couldn’t stand yet found utterly compelling. As the layers of his evil character are gradually peeled away, I found the insight into Matthew more and more fascinating and my anticipation as to how the story would end for him was raised with every page.

I loved the style The Witchfinder’s Sister is written in. The prose is encapsulating of the era the book is set in and the writing is richly atmospheric, at times described with a raw and gritty shock factor that had me mesmerised. This is genuinely a book I haven’t been able to get off my mind since finishing it. The pace is well controlled by Beth and easy to become absorbed in. The story progresses at a highly addictive pace, not rushed, nor too slow, but with a perfect control over the tension which was increased when the moment was right. Despite the focus on this story being on the complex character of Matthew, I believe there’s much more to this book than an exploration into the mind of a messed-up character. The storytelling is brilliant, very memorable, and does the true-life story of the Witchfinder General justice.

Saturday 25 February 2017

The English Agent by Clare Harvey

Published by Simon & Schuster on February 23, 2017

My Life in Books
by Clare Harvey

It may surprise you to know that even though I make my living from writing, I don’t live in a house lined with over-stuffed bookshelves. I’m a book lover, but not a book hoarder. It’s a legacy of seventeen years married to a soldier; the army posted us to a new home every two years or so, and I always de-cluttered each move. But each time we did get a posting order to wherever (Northern Ireland, Nepal or Nottingham) and I began to think about having a clear out, there were always some books I found I just could not part with. So I’ve just had a browse on my bookshelves and found the seven books that I think tell you something about my life.

1. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr:

Before I could read myself, this is the book that had me enthralled. I’m the youngest child, so I was still at home with my mum when my elder sisters went to school. We lived in Ilfracombe in Devon at the time. I would sit on Mum’s knee, at the kitchen table after lunch, and this is one of the books I can remember her reading to me. I can also remember that we had a somewhat wayward collie dog called Scamper who used to get jealous. By the end of the story Scamper was usually sitting on Mum’s knee and I was on the floor (Mum carried on with the story, regardless)! I read this to my own children when they were small, too.

2. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

When I’d just turned seven we moved from Devon to Mauritius, due to my dad’s job. I’d not long learned to read properly, but because we had no TV out there I read, lots, and soon became a total bookworm (as the photo shows!). I read all the Little House on the Prairie series of books, many times over, and fell in love Laura Ingalls Wilder as an author and as the heroine of the stories. Looking back, what’s interesting is that these books aren’t fiction, they are memoir: a blend of personal history and story telling. And the kind of writing I love to do most is where real-life events are melded with fiction. So perhaps my writing career really began with reading the Little House on the Prairie books all those years ago in Mauritius.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:

When I was 12 I was sent to a state boarding school (a comprehensive school that had a boarding ‘hostel’ attached) in Devon. My mum bought me this copy of Pride and Prejudice before I went, and I remember her saying she thought I was ‘old enough’ for Austen. I tried – but failed – to read it. I think the language was just a little too impenetrable for a 12-year-old and I didn’t get around to reading, and loving, this book until I was a few years older. Nevertheless, this copy of Pride & Prejudice stayed on my bedside locker in the dormitory throughout my first traumatic year at school, a constant reminder of my mum, and of home. And when I look inside the cover I can see the bookplate that I stuck there as a homesick pre-teen, with its picture of a unicorn and my curly over-practised signature in pencil. It’s so poignant because my own twin girls will be 12 this year, and are obsessed with unicorns, too. The thought of sending them away to school with nothing but a full tuck box and a copy of Pride & Prejudice makes me want to weep.

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

Looking at the date inside the cover of this I can see that I bought it as an 18th birthday present to myself. And if you’ve ever read any Sylvia Plath this tells you all you need to know about the angst-ridden teen I was at the time. It’s tempting to look back on my teens and twenties and yearn for those sun-kissed, cellulite-free days, but this book reminds me that what was slender and sunny on the outside, hid a dark and conflicting muddle underneath. In 1988, as well as devouring Sylvia Plath and writing some very bad poetry, I took four A ‘levels (English, Art, Pure Maths & Physics), failed miserably to get a place at Oxford University, and enrolled on a foundation course at Exeter College of Art and Design. There was quite a lot of navel gazing and scribbling in notebooks going on – I’m not sure I was any fun to be around, but I do still have a few friends from that era, so perhaps I wasn’t as much of a killjoy as I recall…

5. Summer with Monika by Roger McGough:

Boyfriends, eh? In my early twenties I fell totally and obsessively in love with someone, in the way that you do at that age. I was studying Law at the University of Leicester, but had come home for the summer holidays and met man when pulling pints in my local pub. Falling for him was like coming down with the flu. We bought this book in Waterstones in Exeter, and read it together. I thought our relationship was destined to be chapter four (‘our love will be an epic film, with dancing songs and laughter, the kind in which the lovers meet, and live happy ever after…’), but I should really have focussed more on the latter sections of McGough’s wonderful poem-story, such as chapter 39 (‘I wanted my pie in the sky, but you gave it me in the face’). Still, to paraphrase the wise and talented Joanna Trollope, you can’t be a writer until you’ve been knocked about a bit by life – otherwise you have nothing to write about – so even doomed relationships with manipulative men are never wasted, if you’re an author.

6. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde:

After graduating from university I lived with the pie-in-the-face boyfriend (see number 5) for a while. An old friend of his was on leave from the army one Christmas time, and had come to visit. On Christmas morning pie-in-the-face and I were going off to visit our respective families for Christmas Day (having spent Christmas Eve clubbing), but the army mate said he wasn’t going anywhere and intended to spend the day eating takeaway pizza and drinking beer in front of the telly. When I asked why he wasn’t going home to see his own family, he told me that his mother had died a couple of years previously and he couldn’t face spending Christmas Day with his father and new stepmother. Feeling sorry for him, I gave him a present of a wrapped copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray (originally meant for pie-in-the-face, even though I knew he wouldn’t appreciate it). Instead of watching telly all day, the army bloke read Oscar Wilde, and enthused about the book when I saw him again after Christmas. And you know what? Reader, I married him (six years later, mind). We have just celebrated 19 years of marriage – 19 years is bronze, apparently, and he’s just bought me this bronze-heart ring.

7. A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm

I couldn’t do this list without including this fascinating book. Romanian-born Vera Atkins was the agent handler for the Secret Operations Executive’s French section in WW2. A fierce, fabulous woman-of-a-certain-age, Vera had a secret past that presented a massive conflict of interest in her work with the SOE. Anyone who’s read this book will know how much I’m indebted to Sarah Helm’s portrayal of this real-life heroine, whose fictitious namesake plays such an important role in my new book, The English Agent.

I have loved this nostalgia-fuelled foray into the books of my life. Have any of them had an impact on yours? If not, which ones have? Do tell!

The English Agent is out now in hardback, paperback and e-book.

You can catch up with me here:

Twitter: @ClareHarveyauth
Facebook: ClareHarvey13
Web: http://clareharvey.net

Friday 24 February 2017

Dead Hope by Nicky Wells

Published on February 23, 2017

I have enjoyed reading several books written by Nicky Wells but all of them have been sweet romance novels, with an irresistible blend of romance and comedy and a hero to swoon over. Dead Hope brought something different to the table with a story that was more romantic suspense than anything else. It’s a difficult novel to categorise, with some romantic elements, some crime and mystery, some thrilling elements particularly in the build up to the finale… Personally I would call it romantic suspense with a mystery at its heart, but there is truly something for everyone to enjoy in Dead Hope.

I’ve always found Nicky has a recognisable tone to her writing. Most of the books that I have read from Nicky involve a quirky sense of humour, a rock-and-roll tinge to the story and really memorable characters. Despite the change in genre, Dead Hope is absolutely no different. The story had me gripped from the first chapter. I did find it was a bit of a slow-burner in progressing to the tense, edge-of-seat read I had been expecting but I was still hooked even before then in anticipation of what was to come.

At the beginning of the book we meet Cat, who has been caught with cocaine in her possession. She’s not sure what happened, but she’s even more confused by her ‘sentence’, which instead of the typical punishment sees her having to hold down a normal job and completing a long amount of community service, under a new identity. Holding down a job is enough of a challenge for Cat who has never worked before, instead living off the brand and funds of her rockstar parents. At the office she’s now working in, she meets Kay, office-worker by day and hacker by night. When they discover they might have something in common – something related to the death of Cat’s parents – things begin to heat up and the suspense is raised.

The beginning of the book goes along nicely as we see a connection form between Cat and Kay. I was drawn to Kay instantly and really enjoyed the way both his and Cat’s characters develop throughout the book. There was much more that what meets the eye with both Cat and Kay and as we learn about certain events that happened when they were younger, I grew to like and connect with them both a lot more. Early on, Cat is quite spoilt and Kay is pretty standoffish and I was interested to see what kind of impact the events later on in the book would have on them both.

It is the second part of the book where Nicky really had her hold of me and I was engrossed in what was a compelling and pacy mystery that was suspenseful despite the strong hints we have towards the answers throughout. There were a couple of reveals in Dead Hope which were a little difficult to believe but for pure entertainment value I quickly saw past them. The story became more gripping with every page and by the end I wasn’t sure I was ready to let Kay and Cat go. With Cat’s storied past and antics and Kay’s extreme hacking ability, I was convinced they were characters who had several more books left in them, but as the danger levels increase towards the end, there’s a real possibility that one or more of the characters won’t be coming out alive…

Thursday 23 February 2017

Just the Two of Us by Georgie Capron

Published by Aria on February 1, 2017

Just the Two of Us has a blurb that completely piqued my interest without giving too much away, which I really liked. I’m not too keen on blurbs which give away half the story, and so reading this book made for a refreshing change as I didn’t know too much of what to expect from it. It does make reviewing the book a bit more difficult as it’s hard to discuss it in any depth, but I can say what a thought-provoking and utterly captivating story I found Just the Two of Us to be.

At the beginning of the book we meet main character Lucy. Lucy is in her mid-thirties and single which is not a place she enjoys being. She has always dreamt of starting her own family and feels it will soon be too late for her dream to come true. Most of her friends are in relationships, some getting married, some having kids. Every scroll down her Facebook feed sees more people her age already happy and settled. Lucy wonders whether that will one day happen to her.

My feeling on Lucy changed throughout this book. Nearly every chapter I had a different opinion of her. She is desperate for a child. I felt for her at times because having a child was a thought that never left her mind and she was so concerned her time would run out. At the same time, though, I found the situation Lucy was in made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Often she seemed far more in love with the idea of marriage and kids than she did with any of her dates. I felt like sometimes she seemed prepared to settle down with somebody half decent if it meant she could start a family.

But then sometimes, I could totally relate to Lucy. Even in my early twenties my Facebook feed is full of people I know settling down, having families or getting engaged and married and I can understand the pressure some people feel when they're scrolling down their Facebook home page, like what they're doing at their point of life isn't right. Early on in the book I was willing Lucy to step away from Facebook and then I was thrilled for Lucy at that moment in the book where she realised she'd barely checked Facebook in ages, as I could definitely relate to the satisfying moment where there is life without comparing yourself to other people!

I found this book an easy one to get into and especially about two thirds through, I was absolutely hooked. I definitely enjoyed this part more, as I spent a lazy morning in bed with my Kindle in my hands, with no plans to stop until I had come to the end of the story, and I was really happy to see how it ended. I thought about the pace of this book quite a lot when I was reading it as things seemed to be unfolding really quickly. At times things felt too quick and at others things took longer to play out, at a more realistic pace, particularly when Lucy is considering the option of single parenthood. The book is set over a longer timeframe than it felt like when reading it though, and I felt there was depth added to the story throughout, just a bit quicker than I’m used to!

My favourite part of this book was the friendships Lucy had throughout. All of Lucy's friends, from best mates Tor and Claudia to her work colleagues added something to the story and to Lucy's life, always there for support and laughs and to share a few drinks with. I found this part to be really uplifting. Though Lucy's plans lead her down the route of becoming a single parent, it was heartwarming to see all the support she had from her friends and family.

Throughout the book, I often questioned Lucy’s choices but in a way this made me root for her more as in turn, I more enjoyed the moments where she seemed to be making the right choice for her, and not just living her life on a timeline with concern for leaving it too late to have a baby. I battled with my opinion on what Lucy was doing throughout, sometimes I agreed with her choices, sometimes I couldn't disagree more but I can say that the book left me with a smile on my face. Just the Two of Us is a heartfelt and moving tale of one woman who wants nothing more than to have a baby, but will they become part of a family of two, or a family of three?

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