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

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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

The Claudine Novels – Colette (1900-1903)- Female Fiction from a male point of view

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And just to prove that the world has thankfully moved on let us consider the case of French writer Colette (1873-1954). Her husband locked her in her room until she completed “Claudine At School” (1900) whereupon he published it under his own name (as he did the follow-up) and basked in its success! With the unsurprising failure of this doomed marriage Colette reclaimed her work and followed up with other French classics including “Gigi” and “Cheri”. She was an author I knew very little about until I read these four novels, published separately in the early years of the twentieth century. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting with the Claudine Novels, because of the publication date I thought something straight-laced and moral with just perhaps a little smidgeon of French sauciness but they are surprisingly racy.

It’s fair to say that in “Claudine At School” not a great deal happens but it is written with such enthusiasm that it is totally winning. Claudine is a great feisty character who sparkles throughout. She is a dominant, prepossessing figure in her last year at school. She develops a crush on a new female teacher and arranges extra lessons but the Headmistress falls for the same teacher and their relationship is central to the novel. It may be more implied than explicitly stated in this book (so as not to frighten the horses, maybe) but such implicity is thrown out of the window in the later books. Claudine becomes prey for the lecherous school inspector and the eldest girls prepare for final examinations. The title might conjure up images of Enid Blyton but that’s about as far as that connection goes. It’s written with great relish throughout and a scandalous ending at a ball finishes this off nicely. This would certainly have raised eyebrows when it was first published over here. Antonia White’s translation is sublime.

The standard is maintained for the second of the books published the following year “Claudette in Paris” (1901) was also originally attributed to the husband. In her preface to this edition of the Collected novels Colette says, “The success of the Claudine books was for the period, very great. It inspired fashions, plays and beauty products.” Moving Claudine to Paris may have explained this marketing boost. Is this an early example of using a novel to sell non-book products? It begins with a move to the Capital with her father where our heroine becomes seriously ill with fever. It is a very backward-looking opening and you do need to be familiar with the characters of the first novel for it to mean very much. Once recovered, however, she takes Paris on board, visits her aunt and befriends her second cousin, Marcel, a gay character in love with a boy his father got expelled from school following a discovery of a love letter. She meets up again with the waif-like Luce from the first novel- then a downtrodden sister of the headmistress’ lover now an older man’s mistress and Claudine herself falls in love with Marcel’s father, her cousin Renaud. One of my main concerns in the first section of this book was that it had lost the joie-de-vivre which made its predecessor so enthralling but it does get it back in spades, although I do not think it is quite as good as “Claudine At School”. I loved the new characters, the memories of the old and Claudine’s zest for life.

It is in the third book “Claudine Married” (1902) where there is a greater drop in quality. Maybe times in France changed over these couple of years as what was ambiguous and subtle in the first books now becomes more explicit and clearly stated and Claudine definitely loses her spark. She falls for a female acquaintance of her husband, Renaud and begins an affair. The lover, Rezi, does not have the fully-fledged roundness of the characters introduced in the first two books and it seems as if Colette has tired of Marcel, who is all rather washed up in this and almost of Claudine herself. There’s a decidedly dodgy section where Claudine and her honeymooning husband revisit the old school and both are disturbingly predatory towards the boarders, almost egged on by the Headmistress!

The slip in standard continues with the last of the four “Claudine And Annie” (1903). The narration switches to Annie, an acquaintance of Claudine. When Annie’s childhood sweetheart husband goes off to South America she holidays with his sister and her husband and Claudine and Renaud visit the same place. There’s a moment of potential passion between the now-reformed Claudine and Annie and the latter begins to realise her doting husband is not quite what she thought he was. I very much missed Claudine as the narrator and although she is still a significant character, she is on the periphery with the overly-sensitive, migraine suffering Annie a disappointing substitute. This is an early example of a fictional series where there is a significant dip in quality but the first two are certainly worth reading and Colette has proved to be a fascinating new find as an author.

 

Claudine At School – fourstars

Claudine In Paris – fourstars

Claudine Married –threestars

Claudine And Annie – twostars

 

The novels are available separately but I read the Penguin Edition of “The Claudine Novels” translated by Antonia White which was first published in 1987.

 

Early One Morning – Virginia Baily (Little Brown/Virago 2015)

baily“This child will break my heart, she thinks.”

Early one morning in Rome in October 1943 the occupying Germans are rounding up Jewish families from the ghetto. Chiara Ravello witnesses this and a fleeting moment of contact with a mother results in her instantly becoming the guardian of seven year old Daniele. This is the premise behind Virginia Baily’s second novel. Her first “Africa Junction” won the 2012 McKitterick Prize which is for a debut by an author aged 40+ (I didn’t know about this prize- so there is some hope for me still!). Here is a writer with a pedigree and a powerful idea for a novel.

There are two main time frames and Baily does give away quite a lot early on. The wartime story is set alongside a narrative strand set in 1973 where Daniele has been missing for ten years and an English teenager makes a discovery which brings her over to Italy and to Chiara. For me, the most potent part of the novel is the relationship between the woman plunged into caring for a child in danger and the small boy plunged into a situation he can barely understand. An escape into the hills where Chiara’s grandmother lives provides beautiful writing and a fascinating set of relationships. Chiara is also caring for her older sister, brain-damaged through severe epilepsy and the connections between the characters here really comes alive. The tension of harbouring the Jewish boy is palpable.

For me the more modern strand is not as captivating. Chiara is too accommodating, the teenager Maria too demanding and the ends are tied up too neatly. It lacks the impact of the war thread and from that we know too much about the characters to be surprised by outcomes. This is a good, solid summer read where the pervasive heat of Rome might make up for our unpredictable weather.

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“Early One Morning” is published in July 2015 by Little, Brown/ Virago.  Thanks to Netgalley for providing this copy for review

 

I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith (1949) – Chick- Lit from a male point of view review

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Once again, not explicitly chick-lit but for any fans of that genre this book is an absolute treat. It has simmered along for the last few years as a bit of a word of mouth classic. It is a book which readers recommend to the next generation, mothers recommend it to daughters. (I would like to think that fathers recommend it to sons!) It captivates whole families. It is time to recognise this book for what it is – one of the finest novels of the Twentieth Century.

I have only discovered it in recent years. Of course I knew who Dodie Smith was, writer of my much-loved copy of “101 Dalmatians”. I would spend hours looking at the classic pink cover of the Puffin edition, retelling the story from the film to myself over and over and yearning to be old enough to be able to tackle the book.    Once I deemed myself able to cope with the “difficult words” found a whole new level of enjoyment from what I got from Disney. img007

I didn’t know that Smith had a writing life beyond children’s books really until 2003 when the BBC produced a much publicised Big Read Top 100 books.  This was a list voted for by the public and there at number 82 was this book that I had never heard of. I had to seek it out and it was a revelation. It thoroughly deserved its Top 100 status. Since then, its reputation has continued to grow steadily. Also in 2003 a film version was released. It was very enjoyable but didn’t push the book into the British Classic status that I thought might be forthcoming from a film release.

The word for this book is “captivating”, especially the first half of the novel which is just a sheer joy. It is the tale of the Mortmain family, down on its uppers, making ends meet living in a castle which they can’t afford to upkeep. Father has been seduced by the romanticism of life in a castle without considering the practicalities and the family are paying the price. It is all seen through the eyes of seventeen year old Cassandra, one of the most delightful characters in fiction. There are some excellent set pieces (Cassandra being caught in the bath by American visitors and a trip to London to collect their dead aunt’s clothes are sections that stay with me). It’s heart-warming, funny and poignant and just so enjoyable.

I will admit that it is perhaps a novel of two halves and the standard, for me, drops in the second half once sister Rose has moved to London and Cassandra is left to her own devices, as there are less characters for the sheer exuberance of youth to bounce off. I cannot imagine that Dodie Smith ever wrote to this standard again, although I recently purchased one of her other books so (in time) I will get round to finding out but if you like any of the authors who write anything from chick-lit to female-oriented literary fiction, to Jane Austen, to male writers who focus on the dynamics between characters such as Armistead Maupin or Patrick Gale then this book should be on your reading list this summer.    fivestars

I Capture The Castle is published by Virago. It is a book which has had many front covers over the years in many editions. I very much like the cover I’ve chosen at the top of the page (different from the copy I read) but I’ll just sneak in one other version which may be best forgotten…………..

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Baileys Women’s Prize Winner – How To Be Both – Ali Smith (2014)

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Yesterday we had the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Huge congratulations to Ali Smith for her “How To Be Both”. Ali was presented with the £30,000 prize at the ceremony at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It was perhaps not that big a surprise (although it was for Ali) as the book has already won the Costa Novel Award, the Goldsmith Prize and was on the shortlist for the Folio and Man Booker.

When I blogged about the longlist back in March I said I was hopeful that I would get round to reading a number of the books – unfortunately, I have only managed to read one (why haven’t I got round to reading “The Paying Guests” yet? I love Sarah Waters!) but that one was none other than ……… “How To Be Both”. I have been sitting on my review because, confession time, it didn’t blow me away like I was expecting it to. I’m feeling a bit like the bad fairy at the christening, but being swept along by the excitement of the announcement I thought I’d blog my review today.

Firstly, I’m not saying it didn’t deserve to win (especially as I haven’t read the others) nor that I didn’t enjoy because I did and I found it very thought-provoking about what we expect from the books we read.   “How To Be Both” has a clever narrative structure. The book is printed in two different formats. There are two narrative strands one set in the fifteenth century and one modern day. Half of the books published start with the modern section, half with the fifteenth century. The copies of the books look the same so it is random which format you will get. My copy began with the fifteenth century and moved into the modern day section. I’m not sure how much my enjoyment of the book was dictated by this. I suppose to find out I would have to seek out the other version to see if it makes a difference to the reading experience, but I suspect it wouldn’t.

My problem with it (and this is the first Ali Smith I have read so I am not familiar with her style) is that it felt too much like a technical exercise and that held me back from really getting into the book. This distance started right from the cover, which made me feel a little uneasy. I had heard about the book, but not seen it, yet walked by it a number of times, not recognising that this “Georgy Girl” type cover was on the book everyone was raving about. I confess to almost finding it a little embarrassing purchasing it, but once reading it I discovered that the cover photo is significant. On the front cover is a picture of 60’s French pop chanteuses Sylvie Vartan and Francoise Hardy, on the back a detail from a fresco by Renaissance artist Francesco Del Cossa. It feels like someone has asked Smith to write a book around these two disparate photos in a kind of creative writing exercise and attempt to tie these pictures into one plot and this she has done admirably, but for me the mechanics of the book were made a little too clear.

Del Cossa, in for me, the first section of the book is reimagined by the author as a woman passing as a man embarking work on the fresco. Towards the middle we get glimpses of Del Cossa in purgatory observing a modern teenage girl who becomes the focus of the second section (or vice versa). George is mourning the death of her mother who had taken her to Italy especially to see the fresco paintings which she had fallen in love with. A new friend gives George the photo of the French singers because one of them resembles George and the friend has romantic designs. The girls themselves begin to explore the life of the painter, initially for a school project but then because George’s mother had loved them.

This is a tale of Art and Creation; the influence of art upon our lives and of female longing. At times I did find it a challenging read and at other times I couldn’t help but detect what I sensed to be style over substance and it was that which stopped me having a consistent emotional attachment to this book.   For me, that emotional response is the most important thing as a reader and when it’s not there I get a bit disappointed. And I know it’s a personal thing, which is what makes reading so wonderful. On this occasion I didn’t get it from this book –that is not to say I wouldn’t get it on a re-read at some other point in my life or from one of Ali’s other novels. If I’d discussed this with a reading group I probably would have got a lot more out of it but it was just me reading with a cat on my lap. Ali Smith is in illustrious company. After reading this I had my first ever experience of Virginia Woolf in “To The Lighthouse” (1927) and I felt exactly the same (actually a lot more so). I was beginning to think something had happened to me as a reader and that I’d never get that total immersion back………………….. (Reading this back I can appreciate why the Baileys Prize insists on an all-female judging panel!) threestars

How To Be Both is published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK

New Beginnings- Fern Britton (2011) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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From TV presenter with odd rabbit puppet Gus Honeybun on TSW (essential viewing for a time when I was at college in Devon back in the early 80’s) to host of “The Big Allotment Challenge” in 2015 on BBC2, Fern Britton has had some television career! Not on our screens as much as when she was a daily fixture on “This Morning” she has found time to branch out into writing and this was the first fruits of her labour (I’m going to stop this now in case the allotment puns keep coming!) She has kept herself on familiar territory as the main character has to juggle a television career with the demands of her family.

When her husband dies suddenly TV journalist Christie Lynch finds herself having to give up her spot on the television consumer programme and after a period of time, with money running out she needs to return to television, firstly on a daytime female talk show, the Loose Women-ish “Tart Talk” (fab title Fern) where she meets a formidable agent Julia Keen who signs her up. Julia is a great character, a high profile no-nonsense woman who has been tainted by scandal and Christie soon realises that having her as her agent does have disadvantages. Christie also has to deal with child-care, a teenage daughter not over the death of her father, a younger son who has found his father substitute in an ideal romantic proposition for Christie. She herself becomes increasingly paranoid by the trappings of fame and the realisation that her agent might not be totally on her side.

This is a well-paced, very readable book which remains likeable throughout. Fern has blended fiction with her experiences of life in front of a TV camera and dealing with fame, the press, a career and family. She has done a good job. It all feels plausible, there’s just the right amount of gloss and it never becomes over-sensational.

With a book a year since this debut Fern has joined the roster of good quality writers of this type of fiction.

“New Beginnings” was published in the UK in 2011 by Harper  Collinsthreestars.