Friday 24 May 2013

Lying Together by Gaynor Arnold

I was really impressed by Gaynor Arnold's debut novel; The Girl In The Blue Dress, it was one of my favourite reads of 2008 and was longlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

Lying Together is Arnold's collection of short stories, and published by Tindal Street Press in 2011.   I was very curious to discover if her short stories would compare with the brilliance of the full-length novel.

This is a collection of stories based on broken relationships, and broken people.  Gaynor Arnold has conjured up some wonderfully colourful characters in these stories, some set in the past, some in the present
with both male and female narrators.   She certainly has a great gift for capturing the reader's attention, and almost every story is engaging and entertaining.  Like most short story collections, some are better than others and I especially enjoyed the linked pair of stories; Mouth and Angel Child.  These two stories tell the story of Geraldine, from her perspective and that of her mother's.

Gaynor Arnold has proved that she can produce a cracking novel and I was delighted by this collection too.

More information about Gaynor Arnold and her books can be found on her website here

Tuesday 21 May 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls by Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclanfi's debut novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is published by Tinder Press on 6th June 2013 in hardback and ebook.
"North Carolina 1930: Thea Atwell is 'exiled' from her family home in Florida after a scandal that she has been held responsible for.  She is to start afresh at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls - an elite boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains where money, beauty and equestrian prowess count for everything.
Whilst Thea grapples with the events of the past that took her from her family home, she learns to negotiate the complex codes and social mores of a world that provides her with an education but also expects her to be married at twenty-one, in a world so rarified that it is almost immune to the devastating Depression sweeping the country.  Yet as she becomes closer to the Headmaster and his family, Thea's past returns to haunt her, is this her chance to learn from her mistakes or are some of us just programmed to put our desires above rational choices?  And if this is how life shaped us, how do we make the best of it?"
 There is something almost mystical and dreamlike about this book.  Told in the first person, Thea is something of an unreliable narrator.  Thea has spent her life cosseted by her family and its wealth, surrounded only by close family members, she has never had any contact with strangers before.
Thea believes that she will only spend the summer at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, and although she finds it very strange, suddenly thrust amongst a group of girls she has nothing in common with, she welcomes the chance to go riding every day.

This is a coming-of-age story with a difference.  Not only does Thea discover things about herself, she learns that beauty, wealth and the ability to ride better than others can affect how people judge her.  Thea longs for home and her family, especially her twin brother Sam, she finds it difficult to understand the dress codes, the behaviour of these pretty, almost alien Southern girls.  Thea is not always the most pleasant of characters, she often appears selfish and self-centred, but she is also determined and quite daring at times.

Anton DiSclafani writes descriptive prose with ease.  From the Southern countryside, to the Florida heat, all beautifully drawn and very alluring.   Her handling of adolescent girls' relationships is impressive, detailing the jealously, the closeness, the adulation with ease.

Anton DiSclafani
This is a slow-paced, character rich novel that should be savoured for it's sense of place and fine detail.

The author has drawn upon her own childhood when writing this novel, she grew up in Florida and visited
her family's cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the real Yonahlossee.

For more information about the author, please visit her webpage here.  Join the conversation on Twitter: #yonahlosee

My thanks go to Helena Towers at the Headline Press Officer who supplied my copy for review.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Me and Mr Jones by Lucy Diamond

Me And Mr Jones is Lucy Diamond's seventh novel and is published by Pan Macmillan, released on 6 June 2013.

The story revolves around the Jones family; the four Mr Jones and the women and children that share their lives.
Eddie Jones and his wife Lilian have lived in Mulberry House for over forty years, this is where they brought up their three sons; Hugh, David and Charlie.  Mulberry House is now a guest house and Lilian and Eddie have managed their business very well over the years.  Lilian has realised though that Eddie's health is not so good,  it is time for them to retire, but will any of their sons want to take over the business?

Be warned!  Once you start reading Me And Mr Jones you will won't want to put it down.  This is the perfect summer read, full of entertaining and vividly drawn characters who immediately begin to feel like members of your own family.     Hugh has been married to Alicia for around twenty years, they appear to be the model family; good jobs, nice house and three lovely children.  Alicia is approaching her fortieth birthday and is beginning to feel unsettled, she is tired of being the perfect wife, always cleaning and cooking, she want a little excitement in life.  Little does she know that good old Hugh has a little secret of his own.

David, the middle son has lost his job.  His wife Emma is desperate for a baby, everything seems to be crumbling around them.  Emma wants a baby, she is determined to get pregnant, and nothing will stand in her way.

Charlie, the youngest son, is a charmer.  Totally unreliable, but Lilian's favourite son. Everything that he touches fails, yet he is lovable and honest and loyal. When he meets Izzy, on the run from an abusive husband with two young daughters in tow, everyone assumes that this is going to be another of Charlie's failures.  They don't know Izzy though!

Lucy Diamond has written a novel that is a joy to read.  It's a pleasure to sit down with this book and totally lose yourself for a few hours.  Although funny, it also deals with some pretty serious issues, and she deals with them very well.    I found myself completely caught up with each of the characters and their lives.
We meet Lilian and scowl in frustration as she bitches at her daughters-in-law and undermines anyone who dares to speak back to her, then we get to know her a little better and find that underneath the bluster there is a loving wife who is worried sick.  She is worried sick about Eddie - a wonderful father character who I loved instantly.

Lucy Diamond
This is sparkly, summer reading at its very best.  Characters to love and a really engaging storyline.   I enjoyed every page, and really hope that Lucy Diamond will consider writing a sequel.  I'd love to know what happens to the Jones family in the future.

Lucy Diamond has a website here where you can find out more about her other book.  You can also find her on Twitter here.

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Me And Mr Jones when I attended the Pan Pacmillan Women's Fiction Party a few months ago.  I also found myself standing next to Lucy Diamond in the queue to get our name badges at the party, but was a little star struck and didn't say hello!  Silly me!

Friday 17 May 2013

Black Bread White Beer by Niven Govinden

Black Bread White Beer by Niven Govinden is something of a voyeuristic novel.  Spanning just twenty-four hours, the story follows Amal and Claud, a young married couple who are taking a trip into the country to visit Claud's parents.

Amal and Claud have been married for three years, they come from very different backgrounds, but share the same hopes and dreams.  Yesterday Claud miscarried their first child.   Today Amal is trying to come to terms with the alien-like stranger who sits alongside him in the car, who used to be his wife.

Narrated throughout by Amal, this is a short, yet stark look at modern-day marriage.  Not only do this couple have to deal with the horror of losing a baby; a baby that they'd only known about for twenty one days, they also have to deal with the clash of cultures that their marriage has brought about.  Claud's white middle-class parents try to deal with Amal's colour and Indian heritage as best they can, emphasising their terms of endearment so that nobody could ever accuse them of prejudice.

There is an underlying tension running through this story which keeps the reader on edge, almost fearful of what may happen.  Claud has decided that her parents should not know about the miscarriage and upon entering her childhood home has reverted back to a childlike state.  Doted on by her parents, allowed to dress up in her mother's cocktail gown, or bury sad memories in a Tupperware box in the garden - this is Claud's way of coping.  Amal, on the other hand is lost.  He feels left out, excluded and finds it incredibly difficult to accept the congratulations thrust upon him by the villagers.

Niven Govinden

Although narrated by Amal and heavily featuring Claud and her parents, it is Claud and Amal's marriage that takes centre stage in this novel.  Almost stripped bare by both of them in their desperate need to understand what went wrong, their relationship begins to teeter and fall, and one wonders if it will ever regain it's balance.

Although bleak, this is an excellent novel, with a flash of humour and a lot of humanity.  Niven Govinden's writing is engaging, descriptive and incredibly readable.

Black Bread White Beer was published by The Friday Project at the beginning of May.

My thanks go to The Friday Project for sending my copy for review.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Gracie by Marie Maxwell : Review and Q&A with the author

I've been a fan of Bernardine Kennedy's novels for many years, and am now most certainly a fan of her alter-ego Marie Maxwell.
Ruby was the first in a planned series of four novels and I enjoyed it immensely, it was published in the summer of 2012 and you can read my review of it here.

The second in the series; Gracie was published by Avon (HarperCollins) in mid April 2013 and I've been looking forward to catching up with the characters for a long time.   Although this book is part of the series, the author provides enough background information throughout the story which makes it a great stand alone story too.

Gracie is Ruby's best friend and although she featured heavily in the first novel, this is her story.  Gracie and Ruby are back home, living and working in the Southend hotel that Ruby recently inherited.  Gracie still has the scars on her heart from the hard times that she lived through when she was younger, but is excited and happy to accept a marriage proposal from long-term boyfriend Sean Donnelly.  Sean works hard and loves Gracie.  This is her chance to settle down and have a family, to love and be loved, probably for the first time in her life.
Gracie's big mistake is to keep secret from Sean the most important thing that has happened to her, the one thing that has shaped her life, and the thing that hurts her so much.  Despite this, the couple begin married life with big dreams and high hopes for the future, until Sean begins to show a side that Gracie does not like.

I loved Ruby; Marie Maxwell's first novel, but I adored Gracie.    As with Ruby, this is a compelling story that does not shy away from some really sensitive, yet very important issues.   It is clear that the author has drawn on her experiences and knowledge when writing this story as it is so real and believable.  The lead characters are, on the whole, strong women who have suffered hardships yet are still fun-loving and hopeful.

The period setting is wonderful, the descriptions of 1950s Southend are rich and evocative and the plot is fast-paced and packed with interesting and well-rounded characters - some you will love and others you will loathe and detest.

Both Ruby and Gracie have been a joy to read, I'm now eagerly awaiting the next in the series which I believe will feature Maggie and will be set in the 1960s.

It is an honour and a pleasure to welcome Marie Maxwell (aka Bernardine Kennedy) to Random Things - I asked her a few questions about books and writing.

      What are you reading at the moment?
Perfect People by Peter James (Kindle) and Dearest Rose by Rowan Coleman (paperback).  I like a cross-section of genres.... my bookshelves and Kindle reflect this, they will also reflect that I’m not too adventurous or literary. I want to read for entertainment so I’m in heaven with a good old Jackie Collins, James Patterson or similar. 
Do you read reviews of your novels?      Do you take them seriously?
Yes I do. Avidly! Sometimes I wish I could stop clicking but I can’t and I do take them seriously although if they’re particularly vicious (and there are always one or two) then I have to tell myself it doesn’t matter. But the majority are good and constructive and I do take notice of the feedback, I need it, writing can be very insular so knowing what readers expect is very important.

How long does it take to write a novel?
I write one a year but that year consists of research and plotting as well as the actual putting of the words onto the paper. And there’s usually that cross-over time when the previous book needs promoting and the new one is creeping towards deadline. A lot of juggling goes on constantly.

Do you have any writing rituals?
Only that I have to have the bits and pieces of everyday life in order before I can sit down and set to it, even if it’s only writing a list! Actually it often is just writing the list, that's enough to satisfy me... 

What was your favourite childhood book?
Probably Enid Blyton’s Island of Adventure. (and the rest of the series) Oh how I wanted to be part of that world. I was quite a solitary child and loved the idea of going off with other children and having adventures. 
Name one book that made you laugh?
I’m ashamed to say I don’t really read humorous books although I do sometimes laugh at biographies. Thinking about it I did laugh most at ‘Stone Me, the Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards’. He has a way with spontaneous words both good and bad!

Name one book that made you cry?
I read ‘Home for Christmas’ by Annie Groves (Penny Jordan) just after she had died. She was a friend and I sobbed through that one. A fabulous and most prolific author.

Which fictional character would you like to meet?
The mother in ‘We Need to talk about Kevin’. Just to find out what she was really like. I simply couldn’t fathom her out and I’m still not sure if I feel sorry for her or if I blame her. Now I've said it I think I may go back and read it again. Something I don’t often do.

Which book would you give to your best friend as a present?
One of mine? No, not really. Maybe ‘Gone Girl’ the current top seller. I read it when I was on holiday recently, I wasn’t sure about it but I had to finish it to find out the end. I’d love to know what others think of it. It seems to have appeared from nowhere and flown!  

Are you inspired by any particular author or book?
Jackie Collins and ‘Hollywood Wives’. I not only wanted to write like her, I wanted to be her! I was so envious of it all! Note I said envious, not jealous. It was very fleeting but i still admire her tremendously. 

What is your guilty pleasure read?
I don’t feel guilty about any books I read now. Someone laughed on the train a while ago, a stranger no less, when I was reading Jeffrey Archer and suggested I put a brown cover on it. But I like his books, always have. Another good storyteller IMO. I don’t care about his private life!

Who are your favourite authors?
At the moment I’d say Jodi Picoult and Kathy Reichs but it could all change next month. I’ve gone through so many phases over the years. The one’s who have stayed all through are Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper.

What book have you re-read?
I’m currently re-reading Tanamera by Barber which I still love (a novel set in Singapore in the forties) but I recently read Valley of the Dolls and now wish I hadn’t. I loved it so much at the time but sadly it hasn’t worn well.

What book have you given up on?
War and Peace? Not that I’ve tried it recently! I tried to read many many years ago because I thought I ought to so that was probably the wrong way to approach it.

Thank you so much, Bernardine, for answering my questions Good Luck with Gracie!

For more information about Bernardine, her books and Marie Maxwell, take a look at her website here

Monday 13 May 2013

The Favoured Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future by Fawzia Koofi with Nadine Ghouri

Fawzia Koofi is an Afghan politician, she is one of the first women politicians and her aim is to run for Presidency.  In The Favoured Daughter, Fawzia tells the story of her very difficult, dangerous journey through times of war, political unrest and incredible danger.  She is a woman who is brave, committed and loyal and her story is one that should inspire women all over the world.

Fawzia was her Father's nineteenth child, there were twenty-three in total.  Her mother was his second wife, one of seven and Fawzia was her last child.    When Fawzia was born she was abandoned by her mother, left out in the sun to die because she was not a boy.  That was the first time that she faced death and survived, many more times would follow throughout her life.   Despite their start in life, Fawzia and her Mother became inseparable and loved each other so much, her Mother couldn't read or write, yet instilled in her a great sense of justice and self-belief.

As the political climate in Afghanistan shifted, so did the plight of the women who lived there.  Fawzia's childhood is described with joy and full of love and family, but as the Taliban began to take over the country her life, and the lives of all Afghan women changed dramatically.  The country was at war and Fawzia saw loved ones murdered, was stopped from studying and lost her beloved Mother.    Despite this, she was determined that one day she would prove her Mother right and that she would enter politics, change life in Afghanistan and maybe, one day become President.

Fawzia tells her story in simple, yet incredibly emotive language.  The internal politics of Afghanistan are explained clearly.  The horrors of war, the discrimination, the tortures, the hate and also the love that makes this country what it is today and spurred Fawzia on are excellently portrayed, often harrowing but always vivid.   Fawzia is an inspirational woman, she is daughter, sister, wife and mother and takes each and every role so seriously, never giving up hope that one day, the country that she loves will return to peace.

A brave and inspiring lady, a beautifully written story.

The Favoured Daughter by Fawzia Koofi was published in hardback last year, the paperback version is released by Palgrave Macmillan on 14 May 2013.

My thanks to Katy from Palgrave who kindly sent my copy for review.

If you would like to find out more about Fawzia, and her support committee, there is a website here

Sunday 12 May 2013

Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C Morais

I was really excited to discover that Richard C Morais had written a new novel, I read his first book The Hundred Foot Journey a couple of years ago and totally fell in love with his writing style and characters - my review is here, on my blog.

His latest novel; Buddhaland Brooklyn was published at the end of April by Alma Books, and again I've been very very impressed by his wonderfully creative and captivating writing.

The story begins in the remote mountain regions of Japan and monk Seido Oda is reflecting on his childhood and how be came to enter the temple as a small child.   The reader is taken to a traditional family in a small village and introduced, one by one, to Oda's family.  His hardworking parents, the brothers he adores and his small sister.  Each character is brought to life by Morais, he draws each one perfectly - capturing each individual and giving them a real presence.

Oda himself is something of an introvert, yet he can also be set in his ways, often judgemental and very direct.  He sticks to what he believes in and expects others to do the same.   Oda is almost forty years old and expects to live out his days in the beautiful temple that he considers home, teaching the young acolytes how to produce beautiful art work and observing his faith.   It is massive shock to him when he is told that he is to travel to Brooklyn, New York to oversee the building of a temple in the area of Little Calabria.  Oda tries everything he can to get out of leaving, but eventually finds himself living amongst the American Believers and trying to understand the chaos of New York.

Coming from a peaceful, tranquil, beautiful area of Japan and finding himself in an apartment in noisy, loud, often dirty New York is a major shock to Oda.  Another shock is the behaviour of the American Believers and how they interpret the Buddhist teachings.

"Directly below the window was a weedy garden, and a line hung with children's clothes and huge billowing underpants that must have belonged to a very large woman.  A crow cawed at me from the telephone wires that ran from the house to a vine-crawled pole out back.  As I was studying this urban view, a butterfly briefly alighted on a monstrous-sized brassiere hanging from the clothesline, before fluttering off again. This was a good omen, it improved my mood."

Richard C Morais has created a wonderful character in Oda.  The despair and disbelief that he feels every day when in New York is almost palpable when reading.   The supporting cast of characters are larger than life, often a bit mad, sometimes very sad and excellently produced.

What I loved most about this book was the description of both Japan and New York.  The contrast is startling,  yet both places come to life.

Woven through this novel is a story of change, of learning about oneself, and of appreciating other people.  It tells the story of a man who is a good man, but a flawed man and how the challenges he meets in the strange land that is Brooklyn then go on to shape his future.

This is a sensitive story, with flashes of quick and clever humour and writing that is exceptional in places.  The descriptive prose is stunning, the characters are fabulous.

Morais's debut novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, is the international best-seller that has sold in 21 territories around the world and is in active film development. His first book, an unauthorized biography of Pierre Cardin, was published by Bantam Press in 1991 to critical acclaim. He currently lives in New York, where he is also the editor ofBarron's Penta, a quarterly magazine and website offering insights and advice to affluent families. An American born in Lisbon and raised in Zurich, Morais lived in London for 17 years, where he served as Forbes magazine's European Bureau Chief.

Follow author Richard C. Morais on twitter @richardcmorais and on his website

Thursday 9 May 2013

A Time of Myths by Chris Blamires

My email inbox seems to contain more and more author requests recently.  Authors have spotted my reviews, either on Amazon, Goodreads, or here on my blog and ask that I consider their books for review.  As much as I'd love to say yes to everyone, I just don't have the time to read and review them all as well as read the books that I've actually chosen myself.   I also don't read e-books, so that makes saying no a little easier at times.

When debut author Chris Blamires contacted me to tell me about his novel A Time Of Myths, I was intrigued by the synopsis, and also by his personal and friendly approach.    A Time of Myths is published by The Literature Orchard in paperback and was released at the end of April, it is also available for Kindle.

A Time of Myths is an incredibly brave and adventurous first novel; a dual-time and multiple location story featuring a group of young English travellers who originally meet at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.  The story is also set on a small Greek island, and it was the combination of Woodstock and Greece that sold the book to me.    The lead characters are all flawed, all with their individual emotional baggage and together they create a dynamic group that spark off each other.  Their relationships are confused, never easy and create a darkness that colours the whole story.
The tiny Greek island is depicted in such a different way to the traditional fictional view of Greece.   The inhabitants are not the jolly, all-smiling Greeks of legend, but morose, unwelcoming and quite frightening at times.

I'm not going to talk about the story line here, suffice to say that it is well structured and multi-layered with some dramatic scenes and a air of the psychological thriller about it.   The switches between 60s Woodstock and the present day are well handled, and the story is well paced and quite compelling.   I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the Woodstock Festival, the author reveals the murky side to the event and doesn't gloss over anything.  Most of us think of a sunny, happy-smiley Festival, full of love and joy, it was interesting to read another side to the legend.

I did feel, at times that there was a little too much going on, with some supporting characters who personally I felt were surplus to the story.   The journey to the Festival felt long and quite drawn out although I realise that the author wanted the reader to know the characters well before they arrived.

This is a genre-busting novel, and would appeal to a wide range of readers.  It's a coming-of-age story, there are thrills, a little bit of magic and mystical goings on and a dollop of history too.

Beautifully presented with a striking front cover illustration, this is a fine debut from new author Chris Blamires.  I enjoyed the story and the characters and look forward to reading more from the author.

My thanks to Chris Blamires for providing a copy for review, to find out more about A Time of Myths please visit the website here

Monday 6 May 2013

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Over the past couple of weeks I've had a bit of reading blip.  I've been making my way through some books that have been waiting around and nothing has really thrilled me.  I was beginning to worry that I'd lost my reading mojo.

Then I picked up The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, I admit that I didn't have huge expectations as historical fiction is not my favourite genre.  There has been a lot of hype around this novel in the US, with many comparisons to The Help.  Now, I enjoyed The Help when I read it, but it didn't blow me away by any means, and if I'm honest, I actually thought the film was better than the book.

The Kitchen House is Kathleen Grissom's first novel and was published here in the UK by Doubleday at Transworld on 14 March 2013.

Thank goodness - my reading mojo is back, and was saved by this novel!  I have been totally transfixed by this wonderful story and enjoyed every page of it.  Kathleen Grissom has produced a story that is moving and shocking, with characters that are so well created that the reader feels as though they are family.  This is not a pleasant story, at times it is harrowing and very cruel, but it is compelling and I found it very difficult to put it down.

Set in Virginia, and beginning in 1791, The Kitchen House tells the story of Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan.   Lavinia finds herself working in the kitchen of a wealthy plantation owner and soon becomes part of the family of black slaves who are owned by and work on the plantation.  As Lavinia grows up, she becomes more aware of her white skin, and how this makes her different to her adopted family.  The story is narrated alternatively by Lavinia and by Belle.  Belle has always been a mother figure to Lavinia, yet she is black, a slave, and owned fully by the Captain.

Kathleen Grissom has proved with this debut novel that she can write very well.  Her writing has a warmth and compassionate edge that even when dealing with some horrific incidents of violence and cruelty urges the reader to carry on reading.  The subject matter is shocking, the writing is brave, the story is important.

Kathleen Grissom

Over the past ten years, Kathleen Grissom and her husband have been restoring an old plantation tavern in Virginia.  While researching the plantation's past, Kathleen found an old map on which, not far from their home, was the notation, 'Negro Hill'.  Unable to determine the story of its origin, local historians suggested that it most likely represented a tragedy.  This became the inspiration behind The Kitchen House.

To find out more about Kathleen Grissom, visit her website here