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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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Laura Rae Amos – Exactly Where They’d Fall

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You may know where things are headed, and you may be right, but do you know all of it?

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 233
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-615-69607-2
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 24th October 2012
Rating: 4.5/5

Jodie hates… everything, which is a rather difficult position to be in when you’re looking to replace your old, perfect, house mate. But Piper’s getting married soon so she can’t stay, and Drew and Amelia have their own homes anyway, as well as each other. Jodie’s the last one left single in their group, but she’s okay with that, really. And it’s good that Drew and Amelia finally made the leap from friends to lovers, even if Amelia has a trust issue owing to a history of bad relationships.

In this, her debut, Amos has written a book that is completely character-driven; thus to explain more than the bare basics of the story would be to ruin it; the plot itself is rather simple and in the hands of another would likely not have worked. The reason Exactly Where They’d Fall is such a success is due to Amos’s skill in creating characters that are not just memorable and sometimes funny, but fully realised, described, and unapologetically true to life.

Jodie hated the idea of a first date. She hated it to death. Especially a first date with a stranger who she already knew she wasn’t going to like.

What is particularly interesting about the character development is that the main characters appear at first to be as different as chalk and cheese, but as the book continues Amos shows how similar everyone is inside and how hard it can be to categorise others when they are, at base level, going through the same things you are yourself. In regards to personalities, Jodie, for example, is rather strong in her hating and dislike, yet as you read on you realise it’s not just part of the humour (for it becomes such) but also expresses to the reader just how difficult Jodie can be to get on with – and in a way that doesn’t make the character an anti-heroine but rather someone you can relate to. Jodie is annoying, but not nearly enough to turn you away.

There is a lot of angst in the book, though not overbearing. It’s there, it’s realistic, and it’s the everyday occurrences that so many people have to suffer through, and it therefore works very well. It may be nothing new to the reader, or it might shed some light over issues you may not have understood of others; it is dealt with in a proficient manner that goes deep enough for you to sympathise whilst not getting bogged down for too long.

Lastly with respect to the characters, the careers Amos has chosen are not your bog standard chick-lit careers; there are no florists, party-planners, or dinky shop owners here. Jodie delivers babies and Amelia is an accountant. Drew and Piper are more artistic, but they have regular jobs as well, and Amelia has her yoga classes that are presented, again, in a different way than you might find elsewhere. The careers are woven into the story smoothly and become, to some extent, part of the plot.

With the overall number of characters (indeed the secondary characters are described almost as well as the main ones) there are a few romance threads. And whilst relationships form the basis of the story, the romance never takes over, hearts and flowers remaining at a good distance. The sex scenes are tasteful, the innuendo funny, and there is a great deal of emphasis on what happens outside the bedroom.

It can be hard to remember whose parents are whose, because each set comes with their own story and baggage; but the reader may find it worth their while to keep track of everything due to how the parents provide an active context for why the main characters feel the way the do about life and their choices.

The writing is for the most part very good. There are some repetitions – descriptions, thoughts – that didn’t need to be there, and there are also a few unnecessary pieces of description, such as “pacing on his feet”. These elements are noticeable, but not enough to detract from the story or reading experience.

Try being the last one left on the planet who wasn’t engaged, when she didn’t even want to be engaged, but she also didn’t want to be not engaged in a sea of engaged people.

Exactly Where They’d Fall is an often-comedic book, somewhat in the style of Marian Keyes but baring a very individual atmosphere that illustrates just how much passion and work Amos put into it. Her flare continues throughout the novel, and her fondness for her characters shines to good effect. The Charles Dickens quote at the beginning sums up the story well and the ending is quick without leaving any threads loose. Which is more than can be said for Piper’s dresses, which are still being made.

Exactly Where They’d Fall introduces to us a writer who is full of potential, but who has not left all of that potential to their next book. And in a world where everyone looks for maturity in the second offering, that is a very good thing.

I received this book for review from the author.

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Freya North – Chances

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Two chances to love again. One opportunity.

Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 375
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-00-732666-2
First Published: 31st March 2011
Date Reviewed: 23rd June 2011
Rating: 3/5

Vita left Tim after he cheated on her a third time; she’d finally had enough. Oliver was happily married until his wife was killed in a car accident. When Vita’s tree starts causing her problems, Oliver’s business is the place to call. The tree is going to have to stay, says Oliver, and he doesn’t realise that he will be staying too.

Chances is a nice book, but it lacks in the elements required to ensure for reader motivation. This lack is something that has existed in North’s other books, but never to this extent. It’s rather strange. The characters are very well developed, even if Vita is pretty silly, and the reader can really enter their lives but there’s just this absence of any sort of adrenalin on the part of the author.

Unfortunately, the set up doesn’t help because combined with the way in which North writes it all seems very mundane – and it shouldn’t; we’re dealing with awful circumstances here. And although North tells us how much Oliver misses his wife, the way the story pans out in the book makes it seem as though he’s made a decision rather quickly.

Things are interesting when Vita meets her first potential man after her break-up, but of course this interest is thwarted because the man isn’t the hero and thus he’s not going to stick around by default. Talking of which, look out for sex scenes.

Where Love Rules was hard-hitting, and Secrets was boring but had a point, Chances is simply a nonentity. It fits the Chick-Lit genre perfectly, but the subject has not been handled well. It would also be nice if Oliver didn’t always call Vita, who is 11 years younger than him, “missy”, because it really doesn’t sound good. And there is a great deal of cringe-worthy content such as melodrama – the sort you’d expect from an Austen novel due to difference in time periods – and events that are just not believable. Finally there are a lot of spelling and grammar errors, which is bad for a book where one character is obsessed with correct English, and even worse when the corrected English is sometimes not correct at all.

The characters are well developed, the location is beautiful, and the dialogue often humorous – but this novel is only okay. There is really nothing to be taken away from it and that’s a pity because there is a very real subject matter at hand. North has done better, and although I wouldn’t say, “don’t read it” there are, sadly, a vast number of other books out there that are more worth your time. To put it simply, when you close it you’ll be wondering where the book was.

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Sarah Haynes – Things He Never Knew

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If you live with a lie in your life, that day of truth will surely come.

Publisher: Olympia Publishers
Pages: 275
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-97089-2
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 11th May 2011
Rating: 4.5/5

Steph’s life is picture perfect; a beautiful house, a loving husband, gorgeous twin girls, and enough money for good food and fashionable clothing. But the image is deceiving, for behind it lurks a woman who isn’t quite satisfied with being a housewife – although she realises how nice a position she is in – and something else. What her husband doesn’t know is that their twins aren’t his, the product of a one-night stand with their mutual best friend, Ed. Steph never knew how to tell Theo, and couldn’t tell Ed, and now ten years have gone by. But it won’t end there.

Things He Never Knew is the debut novel of Haynes and categorising it is difficult. On the one hand you have a sort of chick-lit book, an easy read that I found provoked in me similar feelings of comfort I get when reading an Adele Parks or Lisa Jewell, but the subject matter and the handling of it move it away from the genre to provide more of a harder look into a tough situation.

At the beginning there is a great amount of dialogue in this story where a lot of times description might have been better than discussion but as the story progresses this slowly disappears and Haynes comes into her own.

The story is well thought out, whenever you think that you might have found a gap in a character’s reasoning it takes only a few more lines, at best a few paragraphs, for that gap to be filled. Indeed there are a few places where the reader may consider that Haynes has taken the easy route to create more drama, particularly near the end – but in actual fact these elements are used in order to develop the characters further and explore the domestic aspects and relationships. And it all works rather well.

The narrative flows finely and if you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained while providing you with something to think about, as well as being impossible to put down, Things He Never Knew is the ideal candidate. Haynes’s references are often firmly based in British life but due to the relative wealth of the characters there are a lot of international references too. This makes the book simple to relate to.

Naturally the character that springs to mind as most developed is Steph, who has to re-evaluate everything she’s done and then try to piece together a life that is appropriate – but Theo’s development is of great importance. One only needs to be aware of the basic plot to know that everything will hang on him, and his progression as a person may surprise you. Haynes is neither harsh nor does she treat the characters with kid gloves; she feels for all of them and looks at the issues from an objective viewpoint. She writes in the way of a historian evaluating all the evidence before coming to a conclusion. And the conclusion may be hers but you never get the sense that she is preaching an opinion, her choices are for the characters she’s created. Julia’s participation in the story takes the narrative down a different road than you might have been expecting.

Of course one could not write about this book without looking directly at the subject at hand. In an era when people are openly bringing up children who aren’t their own, adoption aside, you have to question motives and look at the arguments with a clear contemporary mindset. But you also need to think back to the past because the book places both personal history (which has links to social history) right alongside present day culture and finds a resolution between them.

Whether or not you agree with the choices Steph makes or the way in which the issues are resolved is something for you to decide, because obviously it is not the only possible conclusion, and a good effort is made to look at the issues from a range of angles. The close and careful look into each person’s mindset allows you to understand why these choices are made.

Is this a book for chick-lit lovers or readers of fiction overall? This reader would say it fits both categories near enough equally and that there is something for everyone inside its cover. And if the third category concerns recommendation then yes, I most certainly recommend it.

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David Nicholls – One Day

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We may know the answer well, but when it comes to actually acting on it why do we generally jump ship?

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 433
ISBN: 978-0-340-89698-3
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 19th November 2010
Rating: 3/5

Dexter and Emma were acquainted during university, and Emma fell for Dexter pretty much instantly; but it isn’t until their graduation that they finally hook up. This doesn’t equate to happy ever after however, due to silly reasoning and steadfast views. There’s definitely something there though, and it seems there always will be, no matter what happens along the way.

I have to admit disappointment, and a lot of that has to do with the rave reviews I’ve read (I’ve not found a negative one yet) and all the quotations on the cover of the book from well-known authors. Why the disappointment? For one, I’m afraid that the book is far too similar to Cecelia Ahern’s Where Rainbows End, which I read a few years ago. While Ahern’s book isn’t exactly stellar, it is dramatic, bold, contains enough angst, and ends in the way you’d expect – whereas One Day isn’t as engrossing and the idea of only including a single day of each year becomes off-putting when you realise you don’t know half as much about the characters as you should do. There is also the fact that Nicholls has to fill you in on all the days you’ve missed in-between, and because he’s used the same date every year there are a lot of events referred to that you can’t help but think would’ve made for a better book, had they been included.

The characters are alright, but as previously discussed you don’t get enough time to know them. This is a shame because it’s akin to knowing that the person you just struck up a conversation with would be a fantastic friend for you – if only protocol didn’t dictate that now you must go your separate ways because the party has ended and that at this stage in your acquaintance asking for phone numbers would be too forward.

The climax comes several chapters before the end, leaving you wondering why – and then you find out as a second climax rears its head. This second climax is unfortunately very cliché. It isn’t predictable but upon reading it I just wanted to groan.

One thing Nicholls does do well is raise a few laughs, and there are some great extracts, humorous and not so, which I’m adding here so that you don’t wonder why I’ve given this book better-than-half marks when it seems like I’m giving it zero:

…this would be the third girlfriend, lover, whatever, that she had met in the last nine months, Dexter presenting them up to her like a dog with a fat pigeon in his mouth.

“It’s like everyone has a central dilemma in their life, and mine was can you be in a committed, mature, loving adult relationship and still get invited to threesomes?”
“And what’s the answer, Dex?” she asked, solemnly.
“The answer is no, you can’t. Once you’ve worked that out, it all gets a bit simpler.”
“It’s true; an orgy won’t keep you warm at night.”
“An orgy won’t care for you when you’re old.”

It takes until the very, very end before Nicholls finally divulges what happened at the start of the friendship, the day after the one he talked about, but this is cut short and, to use the dog and pigeon metaphor afforded by Nicholls himself, as soon as you think he’s presenting you his finds and you reach towards them, he snatches his head away and runs off with the pigeon. Some details you will never know.

And it’s a great pity really, because similarities with Ahern aside this could have been a very good book.

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