Sandie Shaw And The Millionth Marvell Cooker – Wendy Robertson (2008) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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This was British author Wendy Robertson’s 21st novel.  Prior to this she was best known for Victorian family sagas, this was a nod to more recent times and you can tell derives from some personal experience.  Set in a factory in the fictional ex-mining Northern town of Grafton in the summer of 1965 members of the management team decide to put into place a publicity stunt involving the presentation of a free cooker for the millionth Marvell customer and getting former Ford, Dagenham factory girl turned pop sensation Sandie Shaw to make that presentation.

This is the life of those on the shop floor and upstairs in the offices in the days leading up to Sandie’s arrival.  Parts are narrated by central character Cassandra, a girl who has managed to make her escape and leave the town but who has come back for summer holidays from college.  Her mother has got her a job on the lines at the factory where she and most of the rest of the town works.  Cassandra goes from bloody-fingered raw recruit determined not to hold up the flow of the production line to becoming accepted as one of the team and finding romance as well.  The book manages to be quite strongly character-led which I like.  If a book like this was published in 2017 I think there would be a demand now for a more explicitly humorous stance which would put it in line with the more commercial chick-lit.  Nine years ago you could get away with a book like this which straddles the lines between romance and saga with some humour.  I think the characters would be expected to produce more laugh-out-loud moments in their everyday goings about.  Friendships are strong as is the all-encompassing nature of factory life which dominates both working and social lives. 

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I did really feel the anticipation of the impending pop star visit.  The factory cannot afford Sandie Shaw to sing but hope she will turn up minus shoes and the whole place needs to be cleaned thoroughly to ensure she does not snag a toenail on the red carpet.  There’s laughter, tears, infideleties, pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted and the book reads really quite well.

Wendy Robertson turned to writing full-time in 1989 after publishing her first four novels.  Since “Sandie Shaw…” she has published another eight novels, her latest bing “The Bad Child” from 2016.  “Sandie Shaw…” is according to GoodReads her best known book and would be a good place to start with this author.

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Sandie Shaw And The Millionth Marvell Cooker was first published by Headline in 2008.  It is still available as a Kindle e-book and although the physical book is out of print can easily and cheaply be found on Amazon.  I read a library hardback edition where a previous reader had been upset by the word “blond” to refer to female hair and went through with a ball-point adding the extra “e” every time it appeared.

The Brazilian – Rosie Millard (Legend Press 2017) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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In a Victoria Wood tribute I watched recently I saw for the umpteenth time “The Shoe Shop Sketch” and I laughed at every single line, as always, feeling almost overwhelmed by laughter at the end.  Such a clever writer.  It got me wondering what would have happened if Victoria had followed the lead of chums Celia Imrie and Julie Walters and written a novel.  Would she have gone for comedy and would it even have worked?  Would it have been possible to sustain her brand of humour (which I find very funny) over the entire length of a novel.  To do this is notoriously difficult……

 

Legend Press invited me to read Rosie Millard’s second comic novel “The Brazilian”.  Rosie is a journalist and as BBC Arts correspondent has been on the TV herself a fair few times so eases herself into that group of women novelists that includes Dawn French,  Fern Britton, Celia Imrie,  Meera Syal and Helen Lederer who we feel we know something about already due to a public persona and “celebrity status”.  So long as they are written by the person named on the cover (not Katie Price then), I’m really quite interested in reading them.  In fact, it was a celebrity moment, a television appearance on the fairly ghastly sounding “Celebrity Five Go To Lanzarotte” in which Rosie took part which provided the inspiration for this novel.

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Rosie Millard

Rosie has cleverly incorporated the characters from her first novel about North London neighbours in “The Square” (2015) into a holiday setting, rather in the way that comedy classic “Are You Being Served?” did when it was expanded into a movie, but here with much better results.  I read and reviewed “The Square” and enjoyed it as a North London comedy of (bad) manners which evolved from the location so I initially felt that uprooting some of these upmarket existences felt like a bit of a risk.  I said of the first novel; “Most of the women are ghastly and the men not worthy of any of the female lustful attentions” but that certainly doesn’t diminish its comic potential and by opening it all out into a relaxed holiday setting the women can become more ghastly and the men less worthy.  Over the years much situation comedy has indeed focused on ghastly women and inept men.

The location for all this is Ibiza.  A couple of The Square residents have been chosen to take part in a daytime reality show “Ibiza (Or Bust)”; there’s a holiday for Jayne, Patrick and their son where a babysitter is needed and with boyfriends and wives making their way over to the island it takes about eight characters out of “The Square”.  I’m sorry that recently rich lottery winner Tracey has only a bit part to play here.  Central character this time round is Jayne who during her family holiday becomes more monstrous, self-centred and devious than in the previous novel.

The title refers to both a character from the Reality Show and a certain waxing Jayne has in preparation for her holiday.  The TV show aspect gives it more structure and ensures it builds towards a climax rather than lose momentum (which I feel “The Square” was a little guilty of).  There’s some new characters to spice things up.  I must admit I like my humour a little warmer than what is on display here but the prickly comic situations are enjoyable enough although I didn’t laugh out loud.

The cover compares Rosie Millard to Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen and Arnold Bennett but that’s more fitting of the socially mannered “The Square”.  If we’re looking for a classic comic comparison I’d be more likely to go with E F Benson and his monstrous characters Mapp and Lucia who gave him enough comic potential and staying power to last six novels.  I think there’s still potential for the author to go further with these characters.  Taking them back to “The Square” with their Ibiza experience behind them could pay dividends.  All in all, although I preferred the set-up of the first novel I think that “The Brazilian” is better structured, the humour is more sustained and therefore a more satisfying sequel.

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The Brazilian is published on 14th June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

The Brazilian Blog Tour here tomorrow!

I have been asked by the lovely folk at Legend Press if I would take part in my very first blog tour.  This is to celebrate the publication of the new book by Rosie Millard.  I read Rosie’s debut “The Square” and this is the follow-up.  I will be posting my review tomorrow but just to whet your appetite here are the blog tour dates for Rosie’s latest, in case you’d like to trawl the blogosphere to see what we thought of the book.

I’ll be back tomorrow…………………………

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Being Elizabeth Bennet – Emma Campbell Webster (2007) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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Sometimes a book idea seems so odd you just have to go with it.  I spotted this volume lurking, not totally appropriately, on the Historical shelves of my local library.  Needing a historical book for a square on my Book Bingo Card I pulled it out and discovered it was a “Create Your Own Jane Austen adventure”.  Having had a soft spot in the 8o’s for those Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone “Fighting Fantasy” books and others of the choose your own adventure ilk, I thought I’d give it a go.

The plot follows, with some digressions of incidents from other novels, “Pride and Prejudice”.  (Unsurprising, given the title).  You  are given 200 Intelligence and Confidence points, 50 Fortune points and no Accomplishments nor Connections and sent off in a non-consecutive way to skip backwards and forwards through the book with the aim of snaring Mr Darcy.  A stickler for rules, I played just as Webster intended and had very soon slipped into a negative fortune (why does that not surprise me?)  I had a limited number of accomplishments and a lot of personal failings (rather like your average Jane Austen character then). Readers’ paths will deviate in the book through some random choices (“Will you go left or right?”) and by answers to quiz questions but these choices are not as frequent as I was expecting, suggesting that the structure is not as complex as some of those old “Fighting Fantasy” titles.  You will not need any dice but there is a lot of adding and subtracting points over which the reader has no control or influence.

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What would Elizabeth Bennet do?

I stuck with it by thinking “What would Elizabeth Bennet do?” and this fair-enough strategy worked up to a point and I felt I was working through the book successfully and that Mr Darcy would fall for my charms! I’d got to Stage 3 and admittedly the novelty was wearing off, somewhat, and I was getting a little, dare I say it, bored with the lack of variety in the game play.  Introducing sub-plots taken from incidents in the other novels or Jane Austen’s life are sent to trip the reader up  and in Stage 3 I rather randomly ground to a halt after an evening at Hartfield Hall.when my carriage crushed poor old Mr Elton, from “Emma” to death

I felt somewhat cheated as I thought I had been playing an exemplary game and carried on reading the book only to face death myself in Stage 4, before managing to get Mr Darcy up the aisle in Stage 5.

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Goal reached!

It is an interesting concept (perhaps one that has been superceded in strangeness by linking Jane Austen with zombies) but it is overlong and it would probably be more likely to be sit on an Austen fan’s shelf rather than devoured in full.  It’s quite a fun bit of nonsense and kept me occupied for a day or so.  Its tongue is firmly in cheek which will endear it to some and irritate others.  It might be more of a book bought as a gimmicky gift for a Jane Austen fan than one chosen by the fan herself.

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Being Elizabeth Bennet was published by Atlantic in 2007

A Seaside Affair- Fern Britton (2014)- A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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This is the second novel by TV favourite Fern Britton I have read.  Her debut “New Beginnings” I considered to be well paced, very readable and likeable throughout.  I’ve skipped to her fourth novel where I can see development as a writer and a confident settling into a niche of producing writing with a high likeability factor.  This time, the plot is more complex, it moves away from her “television” comfort zone and she is working well with a larger cast of characters.

This is the tale of The Pavilions theatre in the fictional seaside town of Trevay, which after years of dwindling audiencs faces being sold off to a coffee chain.  Readers of Fern’s 2012 “Hidden Treasures” would be familiar with the setting and a number of the characters as the vicar’s wife Penny from neighbouring Pendruggan and their friends Piran and Helen were the focal point of that novel.  For me, they are the least successful aspect of “A Seaside Affair”.  They chug along in a minor plot strand as part of the committee to save the theatre.  I did not have a history with them as characters and it seemed to me that they became very much side-lined by mid way through – I had almost forgotten about them.

This novel is dominated by the performers who come on board to save the theatre.  Brooke is chosen to front the coffee company campaign and falls in love with the memories contained within the building and has to change sides.  Ollie is a local actor made good having an on/off relationship with Red, an X Factor winner who has managed to become a huge pop star and there is also Jess, an actress in the shadow of her Hollywood bound husband.  It is these three characters who make “A Seaside Affair”.  Under the direction of Jonathan, an old flame of Penny’s, and with the draw of the theatre’s original impresario known as Colonel Stick (a lovely character who I think Fern has under-drawn somewhat) a show is produced to reverse the theatre’s fortunes.

It’s a tale of local politics, friendship and of pooling together as a community and it all works rather well.  I do feel, however, that it is overlong and that Fern does not need to explore every potential plot permutation.  Tightening things up by losing 100 pages or so would have resulted in something really rather good.  As it is, I can see definite progress from Fern as a writer from “New Beginnings” (and I had also enjoyed that- probably more than some of the Amazon reviewers I stumbled across).  I would certainly read more by her.

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A Seaside Affair was published by Harper in 2014

The Summer Before The War – Helen Simonson (Bloomsbury 2016)- A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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From the author of “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” comes this tale set just before the outbreak of World War I and during the first few months of the conflict.  Located mostly in Rye in East Sussex the inescapable comparisons are going to be E F Benson’s “Mapp & Lucia” novels and there is, at times, more than a hint of this as well as a good dollop of PG Wodehouse- style writing.  There’s also a loose nod to one of Rye’s most famous inhabitants, Henry James, with man of letters Mr Tillingham, an American literary giant who is living amongst them.  (Another nod to Benson as Tilling is his name for Rye in his novels).

Beatrice Nash arrives in town in the early summer to prepare for work as the Latin teacher at the Grammar school.  She finds out that her appointment was made only through the intervention of the women on the Board of Governors, as a man would have been preferred.  One of these women, Agatha Kent, takes her under her wing and Beatrice is introduced to Agatha’s two nephews, surgeon-in-training Hugh and poet-in-waiting Daniel.  There’s a good feel of small-town life as the storm clouds of war amass: plots to keep Beatrice in her post, social gatherings and fetes and when Belgian refugees arrive in the town the townsfolk’s “charitable” notions once again remind this reader of EF Benson.  The prospect of war, however, gives a darker edge, as there’s training and enlisting going on around the social gatherings and unsurprisingly, when war does break out and we move with some of the characters to the battleground the tone shifts.

There is a mix throughout between the heightened comedy of manners which evokes Mapp & Lucia and Wodehouse and more realistic writing which can at times seem as if Simonson is struggling to find her voice for the piece, but this also does have the effect of making it unpredictable and very enjoyable.  I think I was expecting something more nostalgic  and gentler from the title but by leading the characters into combat this cannot be so.  Even the good people of Rye have to drop social conventions and petty squabbles at time of war and I think this comes across well.  I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m sure it will gain many fans.

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The Summer Before The War is published by Bloomsbury on  24th March 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance copy.

As Good As Dead – Elizabeth Evans (Bloomsbury 2015) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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This has a solid premise.  An old friend turns up after twenty years on the doorstep of a woman who had in the interim period both pined for a rekindling of their friendship yet also experienced great guilt.

Twenty years before Iowa Writer’s Workshop student Charlotte had slept with room-mate Esme’s boyfriend – a one night stand whilst Charlotte’s partner, Will, was in Italy.  Who knew what about that night and whether there would be any ramifications when Esme resurfaces suggested a novel of revenge and a simmering resentment which seemed to have potential.

Unfortunately for me, this novel didn’t hit home.  Firstly, there was too much back story and the amount of detail given didn’t drive on Charlotte’s present day dilemma.  Over the twenty years that had elapsed Charlotte hadn’t told Will, now her husband, and they were now living a life of writing and dry academia that never felt convincing but I suspect existed only to give the tale a more literary feel.  Their occupation was obviously important but no real feel for what they were doing in their everyday life comes across.  Will is such a dry husk of a man that it didn’t seem to matter whether he knew of his wife’s lapse of judgement.  I also could not believe in the circumstances which led to the one night stand so obnoxious is the object of Charlotte’s (brief) attention.

It works best as a tale of a battle between two women in a relationship which veers between love and hate- a poison alliance of jealousy and one-upmanship, but I’m not sure if this aspect is intended to be the author’s central theme.  The fascinating potential of reviving that relationship twenty years on is largely underdeveloped.  There is an odd sequence where Charlotte finds a short story she wrote a the time with thinly-veiled characters which is reproduced more or less in its entirety with no clear reason for this other than to underline the writer’s feelings about the relationship at the time (which we can deduce from the lengthy back story anyway).

A book with unrealised potential is  disappointing and perhaps whilst reading it I placed too much significance on Esme turning up on the doorstep after a long absence.  It’s not a disaster by any means but with clearer intentions, more now rather than then and a fleshing out of the present day Charlotte and Will it could have been much more successful.

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As Good As Dead is published in the UK on November 19th 2015 by Bloomsbury.  Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing this advance copy for review

Dream A Little Dream – Giovanna Fletcher (Penguin 2015) – A Female Fiction from a Male Point Of View Review

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Although I have not read anything by Giovanna Fletcher before (this is her third novel) I was with her from her biographical note, before the book starts, informing us that she “spent most of her childhood talking to herself or reading books.” I’ve already identified with her before I’ve read the first page.

I know I’m writing this from a male point of view and Giovanna’s target market is likely to be a) of different sex b) younger than me, but I think this book is a huge success and I cannot remember when I have enjoyed a “chick-lit” novel more.  (For me it slips ahead of Kathleen Tessaro’s “Elegance” and Allie Spencer’s “Summer Nights”, both books I use as mental yardsticks when assessing this type of fiction.

Here are the reasons I like this book so much:

  • It’s written with such a deft touch. It has good pace throughout and is consistently involving.
  • The main character is totally believable and highly likeable. Sarah is a PA in a television production company.  She is frustrated at work, has a close group of outside work friends and is unable to move on from a failed relationship because her ex (and his new partner) are in the same friendship group and when it all fell apart they were unable to divide these friends up.  This is a plausible predicament and it is presented realistically.  The friends are likeable and supportive.
  • The centre of this group’s social life is a pub quiz.
  • Sarah dreams. Celebrities infiltrate her dreams (as they do mine).  I started to list the celebrities I dreamt about but for some reason there were disturbingly regular appearances of Sharon Osbourne so I stopped.  Amongst Sarah’s dreams there’s Bruno Tonioli in a pair of tiny Speedos who morphs into a giant lizard!  Giovannas’ real-life husband Tom from McBusted even makes a cheeky appearance….I like that!  Also in Sarah’s dreams there’s the recurring figure of someone she knew fleetingly years ago who comes to dominate her nightime reveries.
  • This leading male character, Brett Last, is likeable and plausible, eats jam his nan has made for him and would be the perfect partner for Sarah.
  • The book is funny and the humour is warm. I have to really like someone to find them funny (this rules out quite a number of professional comedians for me).   I like Giovanna and her creations, therefore I find this book funny.
  • It feels modern and accessible, it doesn’t stray too far from the pre-requisites of this type of fiction but it’s all done in a way which feels refreshing.

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I’m interested in finding out if Giovanna has really come into form with this third confident, assured novel or if the first two, “Billy and Me” and “You’re The One That I Want” are just as good.  Obviously, I’ll need to read them to find out.  If they are then this author is certainly amongst the best writing this type of fiction.  For sheer enjoyment  I will give this book five stars.

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Dream A Little Dream is published by Penguin books in the UK.  Many thanks to Netgalley and Penguin for providing a copy for me to review.

 

 

 

The Square – Rosie Millard (Legend Press 2015) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

heartimagessquareWhen railings around the park in a salubrious Square in North London are deemed to need replacing with “forged Historic Finials”, some of the residents decide to have an alfresco talent show as a fundraiser. This is the starting point for Rosie Millard’s debut comic novel. Millard is a renowned journalist and broadcaster and has been receiving considerable media attention for this book.  Picture below shows Radio Times interview.millardThe houses are identical and the residents strive to be as well heeled as their neighbours but recession is creeping into their lives in various ways. For example, one of the families headed by Tracey obtained their house by a Lottery win and have adopted the social markers of private education, au pairs and piano lessons. Their win is being eroded and Tracey is in need of a financial makeover. Behind the identical windows there are affairs to be hidden, supper parties to be endured and some talent to be found for the forthcoming fundraiser.

Millard pokes fun into the social set she inhabits and I hope her neighbours get the jokes. All in all it’s a well paced romp with a good build-up but she doesn’t quite pull out all the comedic stops for the talent show as I was expecting and from this point on I felt a loss of momentum. Most of the women are ghastly and the men not worthy of any of the female lustful intentions. I’m not too sure where the market for this book lies but I found it an enjoyable experience and anyone wanting to experience a North London comedy of (bad) manners should certainly consider this.

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I read a proof copy of this book which was published by Legend Press on 1st August.

This review also appears on the nudge books site in their Book Diva Section.  Here you can find a couple of  my other reviews which have not yet appeared on reviewsrevues.com

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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And here we have the original blueprint for many a chick lit novel. Girl meets man, girl doesn’t like man, girl is not sure if man likes her, man makes his attentions known and is rebuffed, girl decides she does like man after all and has to wait for the catalyst which brings girl and man together. Along the way, family and friends both help and hinder the eventual outcome. Sounds simple, yet when carried out with the subtlety, wit and craftsmanship of Jane Austen the whole thing reaches another level.

I re-read this to see if it was my favourite Austen novel. It isn’t. That is still “Emma” (I think although I may have to re-read this soon to confirm this). There the vivacity and machinations of the main character raise it up to a slightly higher plain. I am also a great fan of the “Gothic” influenced “Northanger Abbey”, her first novel (but only published posthumously) one of the greatest expositions on the power of books (especially on an impressionable mind). I recently had another go at “Mansfield Park”, which I felt like I virtually knew off by heart when I was at college, where I read it of necessity and found it all rather solid and indigestible. I did think age and experience would mellow my opinion but it still lacks the sparkle of her best. I think it’s because of Fanny Price, probably literature’s most passive character and the less than captivating love interest, Edward. “Persuasion” and “Sense And Sensibility” were read too long ago for me to carry out any comparison but I think they might not challenge the big three of which “Pride & Prejudice” is one.

It’s hard not to recall the BBC series when reading this and picturing Colin Firth as Darcy (I know quite a few of my readers would like to now picture Colin Firth) and Alison Steadman superb as the silly Mrs Bennet but I did feel that the Darcy in the novel does not have quite the presence that later visual interpretations have given him. (Controversial point) but Mrs Bennet is just as silly, daughter Elizabeth just as likeable and the sense of propriety just as important.

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This novel probably has the greatest range of memorable characters, the pompous Mr Collins, who first makes a play for Elizabeth; her too laid-back father; the scheming Miss Bingley; the other sisters, especially the too ready to grow up youngest, Lydia and the pretty ghastly Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unlike the best of Dickens or the Brontes, I do not find myself hanging onto every word of the novel and my concentration does have the tendency to dip in and out, but when it’s good it is very good indeed. From Lydia’s disappearance onwards it does become more consistently engaging.  For me this is a book I am very happy to have sitting on my shelves, until the next time I decide to give it another go, but it just misses out on being an all-time favourite.

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