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Jenny Colgan – Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop

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Couldn’t miss this one this year.

Publisher: Little Brown (Hachette)
Pages: 389
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-55180-8
First Published: 7th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2018
Rating: 4/5

Rosie is looking forward to Christmas. Having moved from London to a small rural town (having broken up with her non-committal boyfriend and finding someone better), she’s ready to experience the season in her little house and community. But Stephen’s mother, the lady of the manor, is still frosty towards her, and, now adding to the stress, Rosie’s family want to visit from Australia. It’ll be a trial fitting her family into the house and ensuring her shop stays afloat with the prospect of snow on the way.

Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop is a cute story that, given its advent setting, makes a great book for the weeks prior to Christmas.

Colgan exploits all the stereotypes to good effect: snow; little town; big cold houses; a bustling community. She even throws in the idea of Australians experiencing snow. This she does well, using easy language that’s nevertheless not nonliterary, and getting the balance between conflict and good company just right. It’s all very cosy, down to the traditionalism of the big glass jars in the sweet shop and the joviality of most characters. Development happens but suffice to say that whilst the plot works and the characters are the main aspect, you don’t mind not being blown away by either. The plot devices bring people together and are well solved; one device works as it does precisely because it’s in a Christmas book.

There are but a couple of low points. Firstly, the arrival of Rosie’s family means the arrival of some difficult characters, smarmy people with smarmy children who it’s hard to reconcile with the rest of the novel. And secondly, there is the use of the derogatory term ‘mong’ (‘a person with Downs Syndrome’; Oxford Dictionaries defines it as ‘a person who is stupid or who has learning difficulties’). This word is used by Stephen when he’s recovering from an accident and is in hospital, high on pain reliever – what we’d now call ‘out of it’. This obviously brings in prejudice where it was not needed and does not gel with Stephen’s personality (otherwise incredibly emphatic).

Besides this, and in general, the book is a really good seasonal read, and exactly the kind of chick-lit you want at Christmas; it’s the second in a series but stands fully alone – you may want to read the first (either before or after would work equally well) but you certainly don’t have to.

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Marian Keyes – The Break

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The paperback version of this book was released yesterday.

I can’t get used to living without you by my side… God knows got to make it on my own.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 658
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-91875-6
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Amy has been married to Hugh for years. They have one daughter together, and they have Amy’s daughter from a previous marriage and a niece whose parents have never wanted her. Life isn’t perfect but they do okay and are fairly happy. But since Hugh’s father died, and then his best friend too, Hugh hasn’t been coping and one day he tells Amy that he needs to take a break from their marriage for six months, to go to South East Asia, live it up for a bit, and then return. It’s devastating news, but as her family remind her, it means Amy’s on a break too.

The Break is Keyes’ fifteenth full length novel and a whopper of a book. Standing at just over 650 pages (paperback, in shops as of yesterday) it is a fairly big reading commitment to make, but a heck of a good one.

Strictly speaking, the length of the book is too much – there is a lot of description that could easily have been edited out and parts of the story are drawn out too much – but the quality of the reading experience never waivers. It almost goes without saying after all this time, but Keyes’ is very good at taking a very ordinary situation and getting to the heart of the matter without it feeling so; whilst perhaps not as obviously funny as previous novels, the book sports that same light-hearted, easy reading, atmosphere as always, whilst digging deep into issues.

The first is of course the set up of the book. Devoting a great many pages to the consequences of not only Amy’s life during the break, but also spending a lot of time on the aftermath when Hugh returns, means that Keyes’ can spend a lot of time looking at the problems that outside of fiction we often want to sweep under the carpet for the sake of not looking to sentimental or depressive, bad company. This isn’t new, per se – Keyes’ This Charming Man, for example, dealt with even heavier issues very well several years ago – but the length of the book allows it to progress at a good pace; there will likely come a point where you wonder if the author ought not get to the ending already and whenever that occurs for you you’ll soon realise from the text the good reason. It’s a fair device that doesn’t often work – Keyes’ is a rare expert.

Whilst the main topic of the book is important but not, as said above, as heavy as others, there is an element of the plot that takes the story to a completely different level. Particularly in the context of the very recent Irish vote to repeal the eighth amendment, this book is incredibly timely; and in the context of its release in paperback yesterday, it’s worth picking up for the topic alone. Keyes’ explores the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a teenager living in Ireland. The author looks at the legalities surrounding the wish for an abortion, the way the medical aspects must be attended to, the threat of prison if pills are discovered when packages enter customs from abroad, and the need and subsequent hassle and trauma of travelling to England for an abortion. Keyes does not hold back – whilst she never refers to herself the views are there prominently – and she puts forth the reality of the situation for women very well. The author also looks at the problems surrounding the public voicing of a pro-choice opinion in Ireland.

The characters are pretty great; there’s quite a lot of diversity and the plot points that arise due to the diversity round the book off well. Characters are well written and presented and a lot of time is given to the family element, where a whole other range of diversities rears its head in the family dynamics.

With such a set-up as a break, the ending of the book was always going to divide opinion, no matter which way it went. This is surely a big part of why Keyes spends so long working towards the conclusion; no matter whether you agree with the way she concludes Amy’s tale, you can at least rest assured that Keyes has provided a fully-fledged reasoning for it that works for the character’s happiness. Following this ending is a short epilogue that moves the action forward several years so that the children’s lives – whilst not the main aspect, they are a constant part of the story – can also be concluded.

The Break is a fun way to spend a chunk of your reading time – it offers an easy read but with ample things to take away, and most importantly it keeps you thinking and considering whilst you’re reading; a very good thing.

I received this book for review.

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Mavis Cheek – Dog Days

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Separating for the kid.

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1990
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Pat is leaving Gordon, buying a new home, getting a dog for her daughter who has said if they must lose Daddy she wants a dog, and starting life afresh. She should have done it years ago – she should have never married him. Love isn’t on the cards; Pat has no intentions of another relationship, she’s just looking forward to being herself again.

Dog Days is at once a light and easy-going story, and an honest look at the breakdown of a marriage, a person’s resurfacing after divorce into the person they used to be. At times very blunt, Cheek’s book is one that delves into things that are difficult to talk about whilst nevertheless remaining breezy. The Times has said ‘Mavis Cheek seems to have cracked the conundrum of how to write decent novels with popular appeal’, and that’s a good way to sum it up.

Rachel gave me my pass through life. She was, anyway, the only reason I was in this situation.

Cheek is open about the problems that can come with having children – whilst it’s obvious to the reader and to Pat herself that Rachel’s birth did not exactly change Gordon (more that it allowed her to see who he was), it was in having Rachel that Pat felt bound to her then boyfriend and so an accidental pregnancy led to her life going quite a different way than planned. Gordon was not the one for Pat – he’s stingy, having plenty of money but never treating his wife nor his daughter, and only cares about himself. He turns on the charm when he wants to manipulate his daughter to get what he wants.

But equally, as much as Cheek is honest about the affect of children and the way a person should think beforehand as to whether they truly do want to be a parent, she is open about how much happiness they can bring. Rachel doesn’t cause Pat to be exuberant, it’s more a case that Rachel’s intelligence continues to baffle her mother, in a good way, and the girl, older than her years it seems to her mother, is a good companion. Whilst Pat would not have stayed with Gordon if it weren’t for Rachel, nevertheless Rachel is obviously a good factor in Pat’s life.

More than children, Cheek just speaks of relationships. When asked by her solicitor, Pat struggles to find a tidy reason for getting a divorce; this is where Cheek’s exploration of resentment and sadness comes in. Pat can’t sum up her reason in a sentence. She can’t say she was abused, or that Gordon cheated, and so begins a long, excellent, section wherein she narrates various episodes in her life that show why she wants to leave her husband. Cheek shows how it isn’t always cut and dried, and that listing reasons doesn’t always work.

Amongst this exploration is some humour. It’s the sort of easy joviality that keeps the pace steady and the pages turning on the occasions when what you’re reading about is quite bleak. A lot of it revolves around Pat’s distaste for dogs and her slow journey towards becoming a dog person:

Eventually, with considerable effort on my part, we selected the weakest and wettest of mongrels in the pound. Rachel wanted the racy little cross between a Jack Russell and a something (a very something), but it had far too many of Gordon’s traits for my liking. Small and wiry with bright snapping eyes; a prominent, urgent profile and – I could sense – totally selfish motives behind its cocky, winning ways. I had lived with one like that for too long in its human form to burden myself with another, albeit four-legged and linked to me in animal slavery. Whereas the wet-looking mongrel had not an ounce of spunk left in it.

Brian, the dog of the title, doesn’t really do much, he’s no Scooby Do or Lassie – the title is more about the time itself, those days. Brian’s the subtle presence, there for Rachel, there for Pat once she thaws a bit towards him, and a menace once or twice when Pat’s too sure he’s the right dull dog for her.

The main thing to bare in mind is Pat’s illogical misunderstanding which spans a good few chapters. There comes a point when Pat mistakes someone for being in a relationship and it gets a bit grating because it’s blatantly obvious that they aren’t and therefore comes across as a lengthening device. Once cleared up, Pat notes it should have occurred to her, but that doesn’t atone for the frustration.

This aside, Dog Days is a funny, half-escapist, half-brutal-with-good-reason read. It’s honest, it’s realistic, and yet its status as an easy page-turning book never wavers.

I received this book for review on behalf of the publisher.

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Helen Lederer – Losing It

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The romp that’s partly set in a swamp.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 457
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-26764-5
First Published: 12th February 2015
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Millie is in dire straits. She’s got debts to pay off (bailiffs waiting), her daughter is in Papua New Guinea researching periods, and her worries are causing her to add to the weight she already carries about her body. Desperate for money, she agrees to her boss’s proposal of a weight loss pill trial (good for their magazine) and begins a journey that will take her literally miles.

Losing It is Lederer’s highly comedic first novel. It’s all about the situation and the humour but there’s also pause for thought on the impossible demands people place on others.

Millie is desperate, and for this reader at least, the story runs quickly, not unlike Millie once she manages to get her personal trainer under control. Whether you will read it this way cannot be said, but it felt rather appropriate. A lot of the humour is silly – jokes about Papua New Guinea should not be taken seriously and there is the sense that such humour should be viewed in the context of Millie’s mind.

Millie is a very likeable character who is understandably finding it hard to cope with the demands. The daughter who wants her to fly around the globe right this moment because she needs her hair tongs; the editor holding her hostage to weight loss; the too helpful neighbour who wants to join her in the tantric workshop. In an intentionally bizarre world, Millie pulls through. The story may be over the top but Millie is a realistic character. She’s someone any reader will be able to relate to.

The weight loss isn’t easy. The impossible goals set by the zealous diet pill company and the constant lowering of payments mean that whilst Millie often goes to great lengths to loose, and does meet some goals, she understandably fails at times. Lederer shows well the way pressure can impede progress, the way one has to do things for the right reasons. In a book that’s all about the laughter, there is much to be found about empathy.

Losing It takes the weight loss industry, invisible gastric bands, soups no one should be eating, and has fun. It goes to the extreme in a way that allows you to read about a serious subject without feeling at a loss (pun unintended) and has a lot of appeal. Take it with a pinch of salt (more food than Millie’s allowed) and enjoy the journey (better your armchair than three aeroplanes and a dodgy car).

Set aside the carrot sticks and opt instead for this book. The diet pill company would be proud.

Keeping my promise to tell you what was in the bag I received at the party, I can say that the item was a box of ‘pleasure enhancer’ pills for women.

I received this book for review from the author and publisher.

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Lisa Jewell – Before I Met You

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Before the time.

Publisher: Century (Random House)
Pages: 456
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-846-05923-0
First Published: 19th July 2012
Date Reviewed: 16th September 2014
Rating: 3/5

Betty lived with and looked after her step-grandmother during her early twenties. Now its time to move on. Armed with a few clues from the awesome older woman, Betty takes on the task of tracking down the mysterious inheritor of most of Arlette’s wealth. Back in the 1920s, Arlette made a series of choices and it’s up to Betty to find out what it all means.

Before I Met You marks a step in a new direction for Jewell, ending her run of chick-lit titles and looking towards something more literary. Featuring a dual plot line and the addition of history, the novel is a fair step if not particularly successful.

Jewell seems to be aiming for a more literary style of writing. It is more literary, however it’s still similar to her chick-lit work and is thus likely to suit past readers rather than those looking for lovely language. But it does fill a gap in the market, making a case for dual plot line fiction that isn’t literary fiction.

Along with these changes are growing pains, so to speak. The editing could be better, there are research errors, and the book is far too long. The historical section being somewhat predictable means that the extra chapters (that one can assume are there to further the change in genre) are superfluous. There are also many occasions where, almost oddly, a little more ‘telling’ would’ve been excellent, as the narrative jumps, sometimes weeks into the future, wherein given the previous scenes an update would have been useful. Betty’s sudden interest in a pop star she doesn’t have any interest in signals a bit of a character hole, as do many of her other decisions.

What’s better is Arlette’s story, her journey. Although we read mostly about 21 year old Arlette, Jewell introduces the 90 year old well enough and for long enough that the jump in time here isn’t so ‘bad’. It may be that the young and old versions of the character don’t match but this makes senses and it means that instead of throwing the reader into the story of someone they will never meet except in hindsight, there is reason to read about Arlette. You even get a good idea of where it ends (this is different to the predictability, showing you how Arlette ends up later on rather than at the end of Betty’s search).

Good too is the historical information. A lot is fictional however it is akin to reality enough to be of interest. Jewell slots in a few references to the beginnings of racial tolerance and interracial relationship tolerance (though forgets sometimes other places where it would have cropped up), as well as discussions of the impact of war upon the youth at home, the way war changed perceptions and goals. The tolerance/intolerance especially is written well, being rather quiet as befits the particular situation but no less problematic. And of course Jewell deals with the difference between life on a small island and in a big capital city.

It’s safe to say that Betty’s story, away from her search, resides fully in chick-lit territory. She may not be quite the same as Jewell’s previous heroines, but she is definitely in the same boat, as are those around her. She smokes, she meets various men, she has her moments of wonder. Jewell may have taken a new road, but she wants her fans to follow her along it.

Before I Met You is a mix; a mix of genres, a mix of good and bad. The few too many plot threads, the development, and the random changes in character (Betty isn’t the only one who sees sudden personality changes) do mean it may take a while to get through the book. If you’re already a fan or looking for that non-literary dual plot line, you might want to give it a go, otherwise there’s nothing here that can’t be found to greater success elsewhere.

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