Friday, 20 July 2018

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag

Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta's tiny dress store appears quite ordinary to passers-by, but the colourfully vibrant racks of beaded silks and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: with just a few stitches from Etta's needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman's deepest desires. Etta's granddaughter, Cora Sparks, has spent her life hidden away in the safety of the little shop and her university lab, ever since her parents' mysterious deaths many years ago.

Cora's studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her for years. Determined not to let Cora miss her chance at happiness, Etta sets in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora's life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

This has been a delightful read although was not the book I was expecting. As a needlewoman, I am always attracted to fiction that involves dressmaking and I was instantly drawn to the cover on this book as it suggested the light read I was looking for. On one hand, that was exactly what this book provided along with a little magical realism. However, there is a darker and more gripping thread (pardon the pun) running through this which elevated this to a higher level of storytelling and made the story much more involved.

The characters are well drawn and I enjoyed reading about Cora, Walt and Etta. All are enchanting personalities in their own way.

There is a lovely blend of mystery, romance and magical realism in this book and they come together to provide an entertaining novel. It defies being categorised into one particular genre although I think the marketing of the cover and the blurb has attempted to do so.

I am definitely keen to read more by this author and I think she will appeal to many readers. Have you read any of her books? I would love to hear your thoughts on which I should read next.

About the Author:

In her own words:

"I’ve worked as a reader for BBC Films & TV and as a script editor for a number of independent production companies. I still work as a freelance script editor/consultant. I self-published my novella, Men, Money and Chocolate. Nine months later I sold it to Hay House and today it’s been translated into 26 languages – so far. The sequel, Happier Than She's Ever Been, followed a year later.

The House at the End of Hope Street was published by Penguin in 2013. Random House published The Dress Shop of Dreams (Jan, 2015) and will publish The Witches of Cambridge (Feb, 2016). Allison & Busby have published all three novels in the UK. I’m currently working on my new novel, The Three Acts of Aubrey H. Gagné."

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht - #BookReview

"Look for your sister after each dive. Never forget. If you see her, you are safe."

Hana and her little sister, Emi, are part of an island community of haenyeo, women who make their living from diving deep into the sea off the southernmost tip of Korea.

One day Hana sees a Japanese soldier heading for where Emi is guarding the day's catch on the beach. Her mother has told her again and again never to be caught alone with one. Terrified for her sister, Hana swims as hard as she can for the shore.

So begins the story of two sisters suddenly and violently separated by war. Switching between Hana in 1943 and Emi as an old woman today, White Chrysanthemum takes us into a dark and devastating corner of history. But pulling us back into the light are two women whose love for one another is strong enough to triumph over the evils of war.

This is one of the best books I have ever read; praise which I do not give lightly. Rarely has a book simultaneously shocked, affected and impressed me as this one has. In fact, I borrowed this from the library and having read it I have pre-ordered a copy of the paperback from a book retailer, which is due to be released on the 30th of August, here in the UK, as I am certain that I will want to re-read this book.

I have read some excellent debut novels this year and I am confident in saying that this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. The writing is beautiful and tells the story of the little known history of Korea's women during the Japanese invasion of Korea during World War Two. Ms. Bract is to be applauded for bringing this to the attention of modern readers. I, for one, had no knowledge of this devastating aspect of twentieth-century history.

If ever fictional characters deserve to be fallen in love with, it is Hana and Emi. The author portrays her characters so fully that I really felt that I knew them and cried for the horrors that they were forced to endure. It is hard to leave this book behind.

The authors research has been thorough and she conveys this information with intelligence and understanding. By the time I had finished this book I was deeply affected and inspired by the bravery and strength of the women being portrayed and, therefore, their real life counterparts.

Bravo, to Ms. Bract for bringing this horrendous period of history to the fore and I strongly recommend this book to you all.

ISBN: 978 1784741440

Publisher: Chatto and Windus

About the Author:

Mary Lynn Bracht is an American author of Korean descent who now lives in London. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London.

She grew up in a large ex-pat community of women who came of age in post-war South Korea. In 2002 Bracht visited her mother's childhood village, and it was during this trip she first learned of the 'comfort women' captured and set up in brothels for the Japanese military.

White Chrysanthemum is her first novel.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Testament by Kim Sherwood - #BlogTour

A prize-winning literary timeslip novel about what happens after you survive. A young woman uncovers the truth about her family's past as Hungarian Jews who came to Britain in 1945.

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The letter was in the Blue Room - her grandfather's painting studio, where Eva spent the happier days of her childhood. After his death, she is the one responsible for his legacy - a legacy threatened by the letter she finds. It is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

They have found the testimony her grandfather gave after surviving the labour camps in Austria. And, since he was one of Britain's greatest twentieth century artists, they want to exhibit it. But Joseph Silk - leaving behind József Zyyad - remade himself long ago.

As Eva begins to uncover the truth, she understands the trauma, and the lies, that have haunted her family. She will unravel what happened to József and his brother, who came to England as refugees. One never spoke of his past - the other couldn't let it go.

Their story - and that of the woman they both loved - is in her hands. Revealing it would change her grandfather's hard-won identity. But it could also change the tide of history. This testament can lend words to wordless grief, and teach her how to live.

Kim Sherwood's extraordinary first novel is a powerful statement of intent. Beautifully written, moving and hopeful, it crosses the tidemark where the third generation meets the first, finding a new language to express love, loss and our place within history.

This is an extremely ambitious debut novel. Its scope is huge and I think the author has accomplished this through writing with skill, intelligence and compassion.

Bearing in mind the difficult subject matter, the language is beautiful and each word has meaning. Nothing is superfluous to the construction of this novel and at times I was so caught up in the lyricism of Ms. Sherwood's writing that I had to slow my reading down and re-read occasional sentences of this novel just to luxuriate in it.

There are many Holocaust novels on the shelves of bookshops but this one has a slightly different perspective to some of the others. It looks closely at self-identity and what can happen to the relationships of those who survived and also, the impact that has had on the future generations of survivors.

Evidently well researched the author has brought a myriad of facts to the novel and turned them into an amazingly accomplished and powerful first novel and I look forward to seeing what she will realize in her future writing.

ISBN: 978 1786488671

Publisher: Riverrun

About the Author:

Kim Sherwood was born in Camden, London in 1989. She studied on the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, going on to teach creative writing at UEA and the University of Sussex. Kim's stories and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including Mslexia, Lighthouse and Going Down Swinging. The manuscript of her debut novel, Testament, won the Bath Novel Award in 2016.

Kim began writing Testament in 2011 after her grandfather, the actor George Baker, passed away. In the same year, Kim's grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust Survivor for the first time. These events provided seeds for a story that grew as Kim undertook research into the events of the Holocaust in Hungary, and as extremism rose again across Europe.

Kim lives in Bath. She is s Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of the West of England. Testament is her first novel.

Friday, 13 July 2018

How to be a Heroine (Or, What I've Learned From Reading Too Much) by Samantha Ellis - Book Review

"A couple of summers ago, I was on the Yorkshire moors, arguing (over the wuthering) with my best friend about whether we'd rather be Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. I thought Cathy, Obviously Cathy."

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, free, passionate Cathy, but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob who betrays Heathcliff for Edgar and makes them all unhappy - while courageous Jane makes her own way.

And that's when Samantha realsied that all her life she'd been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane.

So she decided to look again at her heroines - the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live. Some of them stood up to the scrutiny (she will always love Lizzy Bennett); some of them decidedly did not (turns our Katy Carr from What Katy Did isn't a carefree rebel, she's a drip). There were revelations (the real heroine of Gone With the Wind? It's Melanie), joyous reunions (Anne of Green Gables), poignant memories (Sylvia Plath) and tearful goodbyes (Lucy Honeychurch). And then there was Jilly Cooper......

How To Be A Heroine is a funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives - and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.

This was such a fun book to read that I could not put it down. The author takes us on a romp through the heroines of books that she has read throughout her life, how she has internalised some of those behaviours and the effect that they have had on her life.

Her chapter headings are:

1.   The Little Mermaid
2.   Anne of Green Gables
3.   Lizzy Bennett
4.   Scarlett O'Hara
5.   Franny Glass
6.   Esther Greenwood
7.   Lucy Honeychurch
8.   The Dolls (from the Valley)
9.   Cathy Earnshaw
10. Flora Poste
11. Scheherazade

However, these are not essays solely on each of these characters. Throughout each chapter Ms. Ellis draws on many other fictional characters who have crossed her reading path and thus this book becomes a multi-coloured ramble through the flowers and thorns she has encountered in her reading.

This is also part-memoir and we learn much about the authors Iraqi-Jewish upbringing and culture and the expectations that were put on her as part of this community.

Although, written from a femininist perspective I felt that both women and men would appreciate the message that Ms Ellis is conveying in this book. In her final chapter she writes:

"No writer is writing me a better journey. No writer is guiding me through my misunderstandings and muddles and wrong turns to reach my happy ending. And then I realise I am the writer. I don't mean because I write. I mean because we all write our own lives."

I liked this conclusion to her book. This is a light read with an important message within. None of us have to settle for another person's plan for our lives. Life itself can give us the inner strength to be the person who we want to be.

In the postscript of this book the author provides her mother's recipe for masafan, an Iraqi-Jewish type of marzipan that she mentions in the book. I had a go at making this the other day and judging by how quickly my grandchildren packed them away they were a resounding success and I encourage you to give them a try. 

Within the covers of this book Ms Ellis has given us insight into books, reading, culture and a recipe for gorgeously sweet biscuits. A marvellous combination. 

ISBN: 978 0099575566

Publisher: Vintage

About the Author:

Samantha Ellis is a playwright and journalist. The daughter of Iraqi-Jewish refugees, she grew up thinking her family had travelled everywhere by magic carpet. From an early age she knew she didn't want their version of a happy ending - marriage to a nice Iraqi-Jewish boy- so she read books to find out what she did want. Her plays include Patching Havoc, Sugar and Snow and Cling to Me Like Ivy, and she is a founding member of women's theatre company Agent 160. She lives in London.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara - #BookReview

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome - but that will define his life forever.

In a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, Yanagihara has fashioned a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark and haunting examination of the tyranny of experience and memory.

Some people are put off reading long books. Personally, I quite like them as I see it as a book that I can really get my teeth into. That said, by the time I am drawing towards the denouement I am usually looking forward to getting on with something new. Which is why I was surprised that when I came to the end of this totally engrossing book I was sad that it had come to an end. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that I feel slightly bereft that this cast of characters are now out of my life.

Within the unassuming cover of this book lies a novel of exquisite intensity. Bearing in mind that I finished reading this a couple of weeks ago and that I have read a couple of other books since, the fact that I am still mulling this book over in my mind speaks volumes concerning what a fantastic novel it actually is.

Each of the characters are flawed but are written with such absolute honesty that they are very easy to engage with. Although this book is about the four college classmates it focuses on Jude, whose previous life is a mystery to his friends and everyone that he knows. His life is gradually explained to the reader and the author presents us with some extremely difficult themes. However, she deals with Jude with such sensitivity and compassion that, as readers, we are able to bear these revelations.

This is an intelligent character driven novel which looks at the true meaning of love and friendship. Written with tenderness, care and compassion, the author has ensured that this a book I will never forget reading.

As always, there are not any spoilers within this review. What I will say, is that I cannot decide whether I think that the conclusion of this book was the perfect one or whether I really hated it. Have you read this? What are your thoughts?

ISBN:  978 1447294832

Publisher: Picador

About the Author:

A Little Life is Hanya Yanagihara's second book and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015 and was a finalist for the National Book Award in the same year.

She is an American novelist, editor and travel writer. She grew up in Hawaii and now lives in New York.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Arlette's Story by Angela Barton - #Blog Tour and #Giveaway

I am very pleased to be taking part in the Blog Tour for this lovely book. There is also the change for your to win a beautiful notebook in today's giveaway which you can find at the bottom of the page.

* * *

One woman’s struggle to fight back against the enemy in order to protect the ones she loves.

When Arlette Blaise sees a German plane fly over the family farm in 1940, she’s comforted by the fact that the occupying forces are far away in the north of the country. Surely the war will not reach her family in the idyllic French countryside near to the small town of Oradour-sur-Glane? 

But then Saul Epstein, a young Jewish man driven from his home by the Nazis, arrives at the farm and Arlette begins to realise that her peaceful existence might be gone for good … 

The beautiful cover on this book hints that this book will be special from the very start and I was not disappointed.

Set in France during World War Two the author has created a wonderful set of characters who are believable and easy to engage with. Throughout, our sympathies lie with the people of France and the reader is with them every step of the way as their lives are impacted so horrendously by the invasion of the Nazis into their small, quiet, rural town.

There were times during my reading of this heart wrenching novel that the fear, hunger and desperation of the characters was palpable. The author has evoked the surroundings and lives of these families extremely well and has created a tense and anxious atmosphere in her telling of this story.

Ultimately, this is a book of love and hope; courage and survival; and the recognition that life will never be the same again. It is through Arlette's story that we see how a naive young girl can transform into a strong and courageous woman.

This is a well crafted and sensitive novel and demonstrates that this debut author is one to watch as I am certain that we can look forward to great things from the pen of Ms. Barton.

ISBN: 978 1912550036

Publisher: Ruby Fiction

About the Author:

Angela Barton was born in London and grew up in Nottingham. She is married with three grown up children. 
Passionate about writing both contemporary and historical fiction, Angela loves researching for her books and is an avid reader. 

Having signed publishing contracts for three of her completed novels with Ruby Fiction, Angela is excited to be working alongside such a friendly and supportive publishing team. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and Nottingham Writers’ Studio.

Having recently moved to France, Angela (alongside her husband, Paul) is now a lavender farmer, creating products from the oil that’s distilled. Angela says she’s looking forward to spending more time writing in the company of her two spaniels while sitting on her veranda overlooking the breath-taking countryside of Charente.

Giveaway – Win a beautiful notebook (UK Only)

*Terms and Conditions –UK entries welcome.  Please enter using the Rafflecopter box below.  The winner will be selected at random via Rafflecopter from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over.  Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will passed to the giveaway organiser and used only for fulfilment of the prize, after which time I will delete the data.  I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.I was gifted a #Netgalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.