Thursday, 31 December 2015

Book Review - "The Christmas Cafe" by Amanda Prowse.

I received a copy of this title, from, in return for an honest review...

Most book reviewers receive their Christmas themed books at the end of the summer, and have them read and reviewed by September or October.  I have to admit that I cannot do this.  I can't read a Christmas novel while wearing a bikini, or when there is no fire in the grate.  I need dark evenings, cozy jumpers and a variety of Christmas decorations around me.  Hence, this is only my forth Christmas read this season,  However, it's a cracker (see what I did there)!

When Bea is widowed in her early fifties, she is feeling lost and lonely.  Her son has his own family and has moved on.  her cafe, in Sydney, Australia, is her world and yet she still feels something is missing.  Her memories come back to her and she dreams of her younger days with a heavy heart.  When she is invitedd to join an online club for cafe owners worldwide, she learns how to use her laptop properly and finds some virtual friends.  Her granddaughter, Flora comes for a visit and soon the girls are planning a visit to the other side of the world, where snow replaces sand and Christmas decorations don't look out of place.  Scotland bites them with its chill, but embraces them with its charm.  When they arrive at the Christmas Cafe, they step into a unknown scenario which may just change their lives forever...

This is my first time reading Amanda Prowse, yet I have many more of her titles on my bookshelves.  The cover was calling to me, in all its twinkling glory and the fact that the author is compared to JoJo Moyes and Freya North could only be a good thing, right?  The first few pages were tear-jerkers.  Bea's husband is dying and her relationship with her son is taut.  Having a child at a young age, as a single mum, can be a blessing in the early years as you have the energy and fitness levels to keep up with them, but it can also have its downsides.  Bea feels like her son resents her, yet can't figure out why.  \her daughter-in-law is standoffish and she rarely sees her granddaughter.  She even has to invite herself over for Christmas dinner each year.  Something's not right.  When Flora gets in trouble at school, a trip to her grandmother's house seems the logical way of allowing some cooling time between herself and her parents.  Here is where Flora and Bea get to really know each other and even learn a lot about themselves in the process.  Edinburgh is described with tenderness, from the tartan carpets of the Balmoral Hotel, to the historical castle and King Arthur's Seat right down to the narrow side streets of the city, steeped in atmosphere.  This is a huge culture shock for the two girls, who are used to flip flops, and year-long sunshine.  However, the biggest shock is yet to come.  The Christmas Cafe's owner, has a surprise and Bea never saw it coming...

This was my favourite Christmas read for a long time.  Having it based on two continents adds a little something extra and the emotional scenes had my heart giving a little flutter (corny, but true).  Bea is a great character, although I would be surprised that someone in their early 50s wouldn't know how to send an email or even know how to use a smart phone.  50s is the new 30s, don't you know!  One of my favourite scenes is where the two girls are descending the aircraft steps, after landing in Edinburgh.  While Bea has experienced Europes colder climate before, Flora is flabbergasted, as only an Australian could be :)

"..this was the kind of cold that shrank your goosepimpled skin against your limbs and chilled your bones until they felt brittle.  The kind of cold that hurt your ears and made you want to crawl beneath a big fat duvet and not emerge until the summer showed its face."

Even though Christmas is approaching its end,  there are still many dark nights to be had, sitting by the fire and losing yourself in a good book.  You could do a lot worse than this festive novel.  Charming, with great character, it blends grief with hope and shows how sometimes life does only begin in the later parts of our lives.  I'm off to root out Amanda Prowse's other novels...

Perfect for fans of Emma Hannigan and Cecelia Ahern.

The Christmas Cafe is available in paperback and ebook format.  You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postagehere.  The ebook can be ordered via amazon link below:

Friday, 18 December 2015

Book Review - "The Winter Wedding" by Abby Clements.

I received a copy of this title, from the publisher, in return for an honest review...

Hazel's twin sister, Lila, is getting married and asks Lila to be her wedding planner.  Hazel was always the tomboy while her sister was into sparkles and ballet, but Hazel has a talent for picking just the right venue, food and extras.  Lila's wedding is perfect and Hazel finds herself in demand.  With a new flatmate and new career option, all is well in Hazel's world.  There is one thing missing though.  Her best friend, Sam.  They grew up together and were like two peas in a pod, until last Christmas, when Hazel tried to kiss him.  Since then, contact has been lost and she misses his presence.  Watching all her clients, loved-up and ready to embark on their married lives, she feels a bit lonely.  Is is case of always the wedding planner, never the bride?  

Abby Clements has written a novel full of festiveness.  Hazel is a sweetheart, who would do anything for anyone and makes the perfect wedding planner.  Calm, concise and enthusiastic, without being brash or bossy.  Her love of food wafts of the pages and similarly, the Christmas season is brought to life as the book approaches its end.  The couples planning their wedding couldn't be more different yet Hazel deals with them all in a general way.  There's no need for drama or meltdowns when Hazel is around.  She misses her twin sister when she moves out to get married but new flatmate, Amber, more than makes up it.  She is a whiz in the kitchen and is always there to brighten up Hazel's day.  The only thing is, she has started dating Sam...

This is a wonderful, easy read.  You can tell the author adores all things Christmassy and all the reader needs to do is sit back, relax and picture the cakes, the dresses and the atmosphere.  No invitation required.  An ideal read for over the holidays.

The Winter Wedding is published by Simon and Schuster and is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage, here or via amazon link below:

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Book Review - "After Anna" by Alex Lake.

I received a copy of this via in return for an honest review. 

 When five year old Anna is snatched from the school gates, the whole country watches the story unfold.  Mother, Julia is first in the spotlight.  A successful lawyer, the public dissect her life and begin their harsh judgments online.  Newspapers hop on the bandwagon and use the family's story to increase sales.  Father, Brian escapes most of the bitterness and instead retreats within himself.  Through all this, Anna seems to be forgotten.  The story of her mother’s failings as a parent seem to be what people thrive on.  When Anna is found, her disappearance becomes an afterthought but Julia's nightmare continues.

Alex Lake has written a story that has echoes of Madeline McCann's disappearance.  A missing child is bad enough, but add in some 'parental neglect' and you have some serious newspaper columns and bitter social media campaigns.  Throughout the novel the reader hears the mother’s side of the story and while one can only imagine what it is like to suffer the fear and desperation of such a situation, Julia is not a likable mother.  She is selfish, completely self-centred and does not seem to have an empathetic bone in her body.  Her treatment of her husband is downright nasty and some of her snide and hurtful comments throughout the book had me wince with distaste.  She is cruel and spiteful to anyone she considers below her and she seems to be lacking a vital part of anyones make up.  Niceness.  The plot is not too surprising as the blurb on the cover explains that Anna is found, and the police involvement in the case is very weak.  This is an ok thriller that could have been a completely different book, had it been edited differently.  More suspense and tension could have been added by not revealing Anna’s return on the cover.  The imbalance between Julia and Brian was too extreme.  He was an annoying weakling with no spine, she was the hard-faced bitch.  Maybe a bit more realism could have lent some credibility to the characters.  Poor Anna barely gets a look-in and the ‘investigation’ into her disappearance could have been played out.  The book gains some momentum about forty pages from the end, but I found this too little, too late.  The narrative surrounding social media activity during, and after, Anna’s disappearance was cleverly written.  Twitter is a wild and wonderful source of ‘brave’ yet anonymous opinion and can be full of time-wasting trolls with no conscience.  You can almost picture the heart-pounding, gut-wrenching moments where Julia would scroll through the cruel hashtags and see what people were saying about her.  Did The McCanns do the same? Do they still? 

  Although this has already reached bestseller lists, and no doubt will remain there for a while longer, I was underwhelmed.  Alex Lake is a pseudonym and while there are many suggesting it may be a female writer, I am unsure.  There is a little lacking on the ‘mothering’ front, which may suggest a male writer.  But, obviously, there’s a 50% chance I’m wrong.  This is an easy read, ideal for dipping into on a train journey and not losing any sleep over.  Maybe the next one will have more suspense from the start.  A name to watch out for…

After Anna is published by Harper and is available in paperback and ebook format.  You can order your copy, here.  The ebook can be ordered via amazon link below:

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Book Review - "The Secrets of Grindlewood: The Queen's Quest" by Jackie Burke. Review from Mia, aged 12.

We received a copy of this title, from the author, for review purposes...

Review by Mia, aged 12.

This book is the third installment in the Grindlewood series by Jackie Burke.  The children and the animals have defeated the vile warlock, Wofeus.  Life is running smoothly for the residents, until they are summoned by the Forest Queen, Lyra.  She was turned into a tree by the Worfagons many years back.  She wants the children's help to free her from the curse.  But Queen Lyra is not as sweet as she used to be.  She grows fond of Jamie's dog Timer, so she says she'll keep him if Jamie, Jemima, Luke and Abigail don't succeed in freeing her.  The kids are each given an object to help them on her quest.  The cure they have to find is split into four different parts; the Book of Potions and Spells, the Book of Light, the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Darkness.  When these four Books are joined, they will form W.A.B.O.M. the Wandeleis Ancient Book of magic.  But each Book is guarded by Gaurdians who get harder to battle every time.  Great difficulties lie ahead  of the children whn it is discovered that thre has been betrayal from somebody very close to the Queen.  Will the children find the betrayer and uncover the W.A.B.O.M. in time?

This book was an amazing read, filled with intrigue, magic and brilliant battle scenes.  I especially loved the fact it's a fantasy book.  I love fantasy books! Like the other installments in the series, I didn't want to put it down.  Th pages were laden with mystery, secrets and feats of awesome bravery.

I recommend this book for ages 9+.

The Secrets of Grindlewood: The Queen's Quest is available in paperback and can be ordered, with Free Worldwide Postage, here.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Booktrail Advent Feature - My Favourite Irish Book

When Susan, from TheBookTrail, asked me to write a feature on my favourite Irish book, I was both honoured and overwhelmed.  Just how can I choose ONE title, from the ever-expanding list of amazing Irish fiction reads?  I seem discover new talent on a weekly basis and while I have a firm favourite author list, when asked to pick just one book it has been known to cause the onset of a rash!  Making it even more difficult was the unlimited genre area.  I adore Irish literature, devour crime fiction and have read some stunning short story collections.  Irish historical fiction is in a class of its own, with our national identity being the narrative for many a wonderful tale.  Quite simply, this was a momentous task, and one I struggled with.  In the end, I kept coming back to the same name: Sebastian Barry.  One of our finest writers of current times, I then had to whittle down his amazing titles to just one.  Combining my love of literature and historical fiction, I chose this gem.  If you have not read this novel, I would highly recommend you pick up a copy over the Christmas period and discover the powerful prose, strong storyline and evocative essence of Private Willie Dunne, a soldier in WWI.  Enjoy. It was not an easy choice!

" A Long Long Way" by Sebastian Barry

Being a fan of Sebastian Barry, I was delighted to see that this novel was a reading assignment as part of Irish Literature in my English course in college.  I had yet to read it, so it was actually an assignment I was really looking forward to.

This novel tells the tale of young volunteer Private Willie Dunne, of The Royal Dublin Fusiliers in World War I.  Like most young Irishmen of the time, Willie joins the British Army after hearing James Connolly recommend that to do so could only benefit Ireland's cause.  Young, naive and impressionable,  he sees this as a way of impressing his widowed father, himself a high ranking member of the Dublin Metropolitan  Police.  Willie was a slight boy and never reached the minimum height of 6 Foot required to join the Police Force and saw his recruitment into His Majesty's Army as a very close second.  A teenager, he had a rose-tinted idea of what army life would be like, off fighting The German's abroad and it is with great excitement he, and other Irish volunteers, board the boat to fight for Britain.

1st Battalion of Dublin Royal Fusiliers 1915

He leaves behind his father, three sisters and his sweetheart, Gretta.  The pride he feels as he sets off is juxtaposed by the knowledge that he won't see his loved ones for a long time.  The new recruits are waved off from the monuments of Sackville Street and they march with pride.  It is 1915 and while there are ripples of Nationalism throughout the streets of Dublin, most of these young soldiers genuinely believe they are off to do a great deed for Ireland and its future.  

Recruitment poster from WW1, used in Ireland

The novel introduces the reader to the life of a new recruit, thrown in the deep end of a bitter, dirty and atrocious war.  A war that we are all aware of, but not from the perspective of a young Irish man, barely old enough to be considered an adult, yet fighting for a country other than his own.  The horror he witnesses from his very first day in the trenches,  is not sugar coated and is realistic, graphic and intense.  His thoughts wander from shock, to terror, to a childlike longing for his family and lover.  

GPO, Dublin 1916

Willie is granted leave and docks in Dublin full of hope and eagerness.  It is now 1916, and unbeknownst to Willie, things have changed in Ireland.  As he heads back to re-join his brigade, he notices something amiss. There is tension in the air and before long, the company are ordered to disembark, back onto the streets of Dublin.  They hear gunshots and believe they are being attacked by Germans.  When they are told of of a Republican rising, they are genuinely shocked and cannot understand how Irishmen could be fighting fellow Irishmen.  Willie witnesses the shooting of a young IRA man and watches the man die.  This is a confusing time, as these rebels seem no different to Willie.  When he returns to billet, later that day, he is still covered in the mans blood and none the wiser as to what is really happening at home. 

he noticed that his uniform was badly stained with blood.  It was the blood of that young man dying. Willie scrubbed his face at the basin provided and he tried a few scrubs at the cloth.  There were instructions in his soldier's small-book for the cleaning of khaki.  Yellow soap and a little ammonia in a solution of water was advised.  But he had no yellow soap and he had no ammonia.  He tried again in the morning but in the main he carried the  young man's blood to Belgium on his uniform."

Flanders, Belgium 1916

The novel continues with the protagonists view of life at war.  There are no glamorous scenes of beautiful scenery, red sunsets or love stories.  Just a glimpse at the realism of war, death, fear and loyalty.  These young men are loyal to their fellow soldiers, not caring whether they are being loyal to Ireland or the Britain.  They were volunteers, but did they understand what they were volunteering for?  One young recruit tells Willie that he joined up after a young lady gave him a white feather and suggested he should join the great fight, rather than being a coward.  He was so moved by this girl's beauty, that he agreed, and would not go back on his word.  Others joined so they could provide an income for their families at home.  It is unclear how many of these young men realised what they were getting themselves into, and it this novel also looks at how they were once seen as heroes by their fellow Irishmen, but this opinion changed rapidly after the Easter Rising in 1916.  The next time Willie returned on leave, he was not seen as a gallant young Irish man, but as a traitor to his country.

All throughout the novel, the reader becomes a firsthand witness to Willie's battles.  His battles on the Fields of Belgium, his battles of his conscience and his battles to survive as an Irishman in a British war.  

I cannot recommend this novel enough.  My respect for Sebastian Barry's talents and skills as a writer was already immense, but I think this novel may stay with me forever.  The prose is hypnotic, the characters ( loosely based on real characters - see links below for details )  perfectly constructed and the narrative strong and true.  There is a raw elegance in this book.  It is emotional, regardless of the readers nationality, showing the protagonist as a genuine, innocent young man who just wanted to be part of the bigger picture.  Simply stunning.

Unmarked Graves, Flanders, WWI

The character of Willie Dunne may well have been based on the famous ballad about Willie McBride, from "The Green Fields of France". Watch the video here .

The Character Jessie Kirwan may have been based on WWI poet Francis Ledgwidge, who was profoundly affected by the news that he had backed the wrong horse and joined the British Army rather than staying and fighting for the Irish Republic.  Read about him here.

A Long Long Way is published by Faber and Faber and is available in paperback, with Free Worldwide Postage, here. The ebook can be ordered via amazon link below:

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Book Review - Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. Pub 11 Feb 2016.

I received an ARC of this title, from the publishers, for review purposes...

The Perfect Couple.  We all know one, right?  The beautiful, adoring wife.  The handsome and successful husband.  A home straight from the pages of a magazine.  A life we are supposed to aspire to.  But, sometimes there is just something not quite right with the picture.  An uneasy feeling perhaps?  A random stray thought entering our minds?  What is it really like behind their closed doors?  Is it all rosy in the garden or are there shades of grey mixed in with all the light beaming down from their happiness?

Jack and Grace are one such perfect couple.  He, a prominent lawyer, is a voice for victims of domestic abuse and an enigmatic, charismatic addition to any party.  She, a stay at home wife, is the epitome of elegance, always immaculately turned out, standing proudly at her husbands side.  Although they have no children they plan on becoming full-time guardians of Grace's sister, Millie, who lives in a care facility.  The family will be complete and their perfect life can only get better. Or can it?  One new member of their social circle has noticed that she can never seem to get Grace alone and she senses a tense undercurrent in the air.  Grace may appear to have it all, but something just doesn't seem right.  The doors to their beautiful home are firmly shut and their lives shrouded in abstract glory.  How long before someone cracks through the facade?

This a debut to die for.  Although not published until Spring 2016, it is well worth pre-ordering and devouring on publication day.  B.A. Paris uses clever techniques and skillful writing to bring us into the pastel-perfect world of Grace and Jack.  One where white, well pressed clothing can be practical, houses are to be admired rather than lived in and appearances are not always what they seem..  The tension builds up from the very first chapter, when we see Grace stuffing forbidden chocolates into her mouth while defiantly looking at her husband.  They are holding a dinner party for friends and the atmosphere is slightly off-kilter, although mostly unobserved by their guests.  Jack is obviously not what he seems and as the reader turns the pages, it is with great unease.  What will we discover?  Is Grace a victim of circumstance or has Jack just chosen the wrong kind of wife?  How can anyone maintain such a perfect lifestyle without cracking up?  Why are only some of the rooms in their house available to view?  The questions keep building and the pages almost turn themselves.  I intended to read this book at my leisure as the publication date was in the distant future, but this grabbed me from page one and I devoured every thrilling paragraph.  This is a psychological thriller that would make every train journey, bus trip or lunchtime coffee break go at breakneck speed.  Just be careful you don't miss your stop, or forget to get back to work.  A highly addictive, top class debut from a chilling new voice in fiction.  This novel will have you examining those so-called perfect couples you know, and wondering what really does go on behind closed doors...

Highly Recommended. 

Behind Closed Doors will be published in paperback and ebook format by Harlequin Mira on 11 Feb 2016.  You can pre-order your copy from amazon link below:

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