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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE CURIOUS HEART OF AILSA RAE by Stephanie Butland (@StMartinsPress) A coming of age story with a big heart

Hi all:

I bring you a book that although deceptively gentle, deals in pretty serious topics. Oh, and I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the blog tour, so I can also share a sample at the end:

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland
The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

Description:

For fans of Josie Silver’s One Day in December, The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae is a wholly original, charismatic, and uplifting novel that no reader will soon forget.

Ailsa Rae is learning how to live. She’s only a few months past the heart transplant that—just in time—saved her life. Now, finally, she can be a normal twenty-eight-year-old. She can climb a mountain. Dance. Wait in line all day for tickets to Wimbledon.

But first, she has to put one foot in front of the other. So far, things are as bloody complicated as ever. Her relationship with her mother is at a breaking point and she wants to find her father. Then there’s Lennox, whom Ailsa loved and lost. Will she ever find love again?

Her new heart is a bold heart. She just needs to learn to listen to it. From the hospital to her childhood home, on social media and IRL, Ailsa will embark on a journey about what it means to be, and feel, alive. How do we learn to be brave, to accept defeat, to dare to dream?

From Stephanie Butland, author of The Lost for Words BookshopThe Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae will warm you from the inside out.

Author Stephanie Butland
Stephanie Butland
Author
Book launch, reading & signing at Nomad Books in Fulham Road, London, Great Britain
18th April 2018
Stephanie Butland launches her latest book
The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae at a reading and book signing event in London.
Photograph by Elliott Franks

Author Bio:

STEPHANIE BUTLAND lives with her family near the sea in the North East of England. She writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden, and when she’s not writing, she trains people to think more creatively. For fun, she reads, knits, sews, bakes, and spins. She is an occasional performance poet and the author of The Lost for Words Bookshop. 

Book-buy link: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250242174

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B075VVQ6ZP/

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B075VVQ6ZP/

https://www.amazon.es/gp/product/B075VVQ6ZP/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is the first book I’ve read by the author and can’t compare it to her previous work, although I’ve noticed reviewers show plenty of love for The Lost for Words Bookshop, and I’m keen to check it out.

The plot of this book is easy to summarise, and the description is quite detailed. Ailsa was born with a congenital heart condition (Hypoplastic left heart syndrome) and has been ill (to a greater or lesser degree) all her life.  Now, when there isn’t much time left, she gets a new heart. The novel follows her journey to learn how to live her new life, which in her case is also akin to a coming of age story. Although she is 28, due to her circumstances she has lived a very sheltered life, always protected by her mother, her aunt, and her friends, and now she has to face lots of challenges.

The author chooses an interesting way of telling the story. The bulk of the story is narrated in the third-person, although exclusively from Ailsa’s point of view, and alternates between the “now” of the story, and what was going on in Ailsa’s life a year ago. Some readers complained about the jumps in the timeline. I did not find them too confusing (the timeframe was clearly stated, and it was easy to tell from the content as well), and those chapters did add some perspective on Ailsa’s situation. Because we meet her just before her operation, this device works as a way of letting us know what her life was like before, and also helps us understand some of the difficulties she faces now. I wasn’t sure all of the chapters set in the past added new information or were particularly significant, but they didn’t slow down the pace of the story either.

Apart from the third person narrative, we can also “hear” Ailsa’s narrative in the first-person thanks to her blog. She has a blog where she had been writing about her illness and the difficulties of being on a transplant waiting list, and we get access to some of her posts.  The book also includes her e-mails and text exchanges with some of the other characters. These provide us with a different perspective on the events, even with the caveat that blogposts are written to be published and are not spontaneous pouring of one’s heart (well, most of the time), and we get to hear from other characters as well. This is the third book I’ve read recently featuring a blogger as one of the main characters, so there seems to be a trend. The most curious part of it, in this case, is that Ailsa seems to be otherwise pretty disconnected from some aspects of everyday life (she does not know Seb, the young actor she meets, although he is well-known, and seems oblivious to much of what is shown on UK television, for example). One of the particular characteristics of her blog, though, is that she asks her readers to participate in polls that inform her decisions and the way she lives her life. Although in some cases the decisions are pretty neutral (choosing a name for her new heart, for example), others are more fundamental, and there’s much discussion about that throughout the book.

As for the characters… I liked Ailsa, although I agree with some comments that say she seems much younger than she is. I have mentioned above that the book, at least for me, reads like a coming-of-age-story, and although she’s gone to university and had a boyfriend (and there’s a story of loss and grief there as well), there’s much of normal life that she has not experienced and that explains why there is much growing up she still needs to do. She is childlike at time, stubborn, selfish, she lacks self-confidence, and struggles between her wish to grow up (she insists on sticking to the plan of living independently) and her reluctance to take responsibility for her own life (she is so used to living day to day and not making long-term plans that she uses her blog and the polls as a way to avoid ultimate responsibility). I loved her mother, Hailey, who can be overbearing and overprotective, but she is strong and determined, cares deeply for her daughter and has sacrificed much for her (even if she finds it difficult to let go now),  and I felt their relationship was the strongest point of the novel. I was not so convinced by Seb, her love interest, and their on-off relationship, although it adds another dimension to Ailsa’s experience, seemed too unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, he is handsome, a successful TV actor, and he is interested in her from the beginning, and yes… it reads like a very young and idealised romantic fantasy, so it might work in that sense, but as a character… What I liked about his part of the story was the acting background and the references to the Edinburgh Fringe. We only know Lennox through Ailsa’s memories and some of the chapters set in the past, and he is the other side of the coin, the one for whom luck ran out too soon. This highlights the randomness of events and it makes more poignant the plight of so many people waiting for transplants. The efforts to keep his memory alive and make it count ring true.

The book is set in Edinburgh and I enjoyed the setting (although I’m only a casual visitor) and the references to the weather and the location. There are some local words and expressions used throughout the novel; although I cannot judge how accurate they are (the author is not Scottish although has done her research). I particularly enjoyed the Tango lessons and the setting of those above a pub.

The writing flows well and although in some ways the book is a light and gentle read (the romance is behind closed doors, and despite the talk of illness and hospitals, the descriptions of symptoms and procedures are not explicit or gore), it deals in serious subjects, like chronic illness, transplants (and it debates the matter of how to increase organ donations by changing it to an opt-out policy and removing the right of relatives to overrule the desires of a loved one), parental abandonment, grief, mother-daughter relationships, side effects of medication, popularity and media coverage of famous people, fat-shaming… Although some of these topics are treated in more depth than others, I felt the novel dealt very well with the illness side of things, and it opened up an important debate on organ donations. As I said, I also enjoyed the mother-daughter relationship and the fact that Ailsa becomes her own woman and grows up. I do love the ending as well.

This is a novel with a likeable main character who has had to live with the knowledge that she might not grow to be an adult, waiting for a miracle (unfortunately the miracle requires somebody else’s death), which deals sensitively in some very important topics and is set in wonderful Edinburgh. I loved Ailsa’s mother and although some aspects of the novel work better than others, in my opinion, the quality of the writing and the strength of the story make it well-worth reading. And yes, it is a heart-warming story (forgive the pun)! I’ll definitely be checking out more of the author’s books.

Here comes the book sample:

www.myblueblueheart.blogspot.co.uk 

6 October, 2017

Hard to Bear 

It’s 3 a.m. here in cardio-thoracic.

All I can do for now is doze, and think, and doze again. My heart is getting weaker, my body bluer. People I haven’t seen for a while are starting to drop in. (Good to see you, Emily, Jacob, Christa. I’m looking forward to the Martinis.) We all pretend we’re not getting ready to say goodbye. It seems easiest. But my mother cries when she thinks I’m sleeping, so maybe here, now, is time to admit that I might really be on the way out.

I should be grateful. A baby born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome a few years before I was would have died within days. I’ve had twenty-eight years and I’ve managed to do quite a lot of living in them. (Also, I’ve had WAY more operations than you everyday folk. I totally win on that.) OK, so I still live at home and I’ve never had a job and I’m blue around the edges because there’s never quite enough oxygen in my system. But –

Actually, but nothing. If you’re here tonight for the usual BlueHeart cheerfulness-in-the-teeth-of-disaster, you need to find another blogger.

My heart is failing. I imagine I can feel it floundering in my chest. Sometimes it’s as though I’m holding my breath, waiting to see if another beat will come. I’ve been in hospital for four months, almost non-stop, because it’s no longer tenable for me to be at home. I’m on a drip pumping electrolytes into my blood and I’ve an oxygen tube taped to my face. I’m constantly cared for by people who are trying to keep me well enough to receive a transplanted heart if one shows up. I monitor every flicker and echo of pain or tiredness in my body and try to work out if it means that things are getting worse. And yes, I’m alive, and yes, I could still be saved, but tonight it’s a struggle to  think  that  being  saved  is  possible. Or even likely. And I’m not sure I have the energy to keep waiting.

And I should be angrier, but there’s no room for anger (remember, my heart is a chamber smaller than yours) because, tonight, I’m scared.

It’s only a question of time until I get too weak to survive a transplant, and then it’s a waste of a heart to give it to me. Someone a bit fitter, and who would get more use from it, will bump me from the top of the list and I’m into the Palliative Care Zone. (It’s not actually called that. And it’s a good, kind, caring place, but it’s not where I want to be. Maybe when I’m ninety-eight. To be honest, tonight, I’d take forty-eight. Anything but twenty-eight.)

I hope I feel more optimistic when the sun comes up. If it does. It’s Edinburgh. It’s October. The odds are about the same as me getting a new heart.

My mother doesn’t worry about odds. She says, ‘We only need the one heart. Just the one.’ She says it in a way that makes me think that when she leaves the ward she’s away to carve one out of some poor stranger’s

 

body herself. And anyway, odds feel strange, because even if my survival chances are, say, 20 per cent, whatever happens to me will happen 100 per cent. As in, I could be 100 per cent dead this time next week.

Night night, BlueHeart xxx

 

P.S. I would really, really like for one of you to get yourself a couple of goldfish, or kittens, or puppies, or even horses, and call them Cardio and Thoracic. My preference would be for puppies. Because I love the thought that, if I don’t make it to Christmas, somewhere there will be someone walking in the winter countryside, let- ting their enthusiastic wee spaniels off the lead,  and then howling ‘Cardio! Thoracic!’ as they disappear over the brow of a hill intent on catching some poor terrified sheep. That’s what I call a legacy.

From The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling! Oh, and if you haven’t, give some thought to organ donation.

 

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog There She Goes by Lynne Shelby (@LynneB1) A light-hearted read recommended to lovers of rom-com, theatre, and London.

Hi all, I bring you a fun and light read, thanks once more to Rosie Amber, the heart of Rosie’s Book Review Team.

There She Goes by Lynne Shelby

There She Goes by Lynne Shelby

‘A delightful romantic read set amidst the drama, hopes and dreams of aspiring stage stars – a must for theatre lovers!’ – Grace Lowrie, author of Before We Fall

When aspiring actress Julie Farrell meets actor Zac Diaz, she is instantly attracted to him, but he shows no interest in her. Julie, who has yet to land her first professional acting role, can’t help wishing that her life was more like a musical, and that she could meet a handsome man who d sweep her into his arms and tap-dance her along the street…

After early success on the stage, Zac has spent the last three years in Hollywood, but has failed to forge a film career. Now back in London, he is determined to re-establish himself as a theatre actor. Focused solely on his work, he has no time for distractions, and certainly no intention of getting entangled in a committed relationship…

Auditioning for a new West End show, Julie and Zac act out a love scene, but will they ever share more than a stage kiss?

https://www.amazon.com/There-She-Goes-share-Theatreland-ebook/dp/B07PDZMMT2/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/There-She-Goes-share-Theatreland-ebook/dp/B07PDZMMT2/

https://www.amazon.es/There-She-Goes-share-Theatreland-ebook/dp/B07PDZMMT2/

Author Lynne Shelby

About the author:

Lynne Shelby writes contemporary women’s fiction/romance. Her debut novel, ‘French Kissing’ won the Accent Press and Woman magazine Writing Competition. She has done a variety of jobs from stable girl to child actor’s chaperone to legal administrator, but now writes full time. When not writing or reading, Lynne can usually be found at the theatre or exploring a foreign city – Paris, New York, Rome, Copenhagen, Seattle, Reykjavik – writer’s notebook, camera and sketchbook in hand. She lives in London with her husband, and has three adult children who live nearby.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lynne-Shelby/e/B010MG2OSW/

My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team,(authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

In case you’re in a hurry (I know my reviews can go on a bit), I thought I’d give you a quick summary of my opinion. I had plenty of fun reading this novel. Although it does not break any new ground and there are no huge surprises, the characters are likeable, and if you love theatre (musical theatre in particular), you’re curious about what happens behind the curtains, enjoy romantic comedies not heavy on sex or drama, and fancy a visit to the London theatrical district, you’ll enjoy this novel.

This is the second in Shelby’s Theatreland series, but it can be read independently (although I guess from the teaser at the end of this novel that you might recognise some of the characters in the other novel in the series if you read it as well). I’d never read any of the author’s novels before, although I know her romantic comedies are popular and having read this one, I can see why.

The novel tells the story of Julie, a struggling actress, who’s only been out of acting school for one year, and whose life is split between the day (rather late-evening/night) job (handing leaflets for a London night club), and trying to land an acting job. She tells her story in the first person, and she is young, dynamic, attractive and talented, although she is not aware of how truly good she is. She shares a shabby apartment with her friend and fellow aspiring actress, Alexa, who is always ready for a good time, and although happy to have casual relationships, has her exacting standards when it comes to finding “the” man of her life. Julie is far more romantic, and she meets the man all readers will guess is the male romantic lead, Zac, very early on in the book. There is a certain deal of “will they/won’t they” going on at first, but let me reassure you that it doesn’t take long for things to go in the right direction, at least for a while. There are chapters also told from Zac’s perspective, although far fewer, narrated in the third person, and this allows us to gain some insight into his true thoughts and feelings, while at the same time keeping some information hidden. Zac is, of course, gorgeous, extremely talented, and has some acting credits to his name already, but he has been away for a while and needs to find his way back into the London stage, and there are hints of darkness and secrecy about him and his relationship with Julie.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, there are no major surprises when it comes to the romance side of things. The course of true love, etc., etc., is true here as well, and that is the case for several relationships that appear in the book (not only Julie and Zac’s, but also Alexa and her partners, particularly Tim, and there is also the story of Charlie, a friend of Alexa’s from acting school, and his long-term girlfriend Suzanne), but they don’t drag on to the point where one loses interest, and there is no excess of drama. There is sex, but the scenes are pretty mild and not very explicit. I’m not a fan of erotica and tend to avoid it as much as I can, and I was not bothered at all by the scenes in this book. If I had to rate the degree of heat, on a scale of 4, this would be, at most, a 2. I wouldn’t say this is a PG book, but a lot of the action takes place behind closed doors. And, of course, there is the obligatory HEA. And it is pretty satisfactory all round.

The characters are not complex and don’t deal with any major issues, although they are not cardboard cut-outs either. What brings them to life and makes them distinctive are the relationships they have with each other (particularly their friendships, which feel real), and also their love of acting and theatre. Julie and Alexa’s relationship, in particular, is one of the things I most enjoyed in the novel, and their shared apartment felt like home by the end of the novel. There are some nasty characters (egotistical and self-centred rather than truly evil), but there are no extremes of behaviour or true evil, and most of the characters are quick-witted, caring, and have a sense of fun.

I am a fan of theatre, and of musical theatre in particular (although I also love straight plays), and I enjoyed the talk about agents, acting schools, auditions, rehearsals, dance classes, and the imagination the author displays when she comes up with the plots and names of musicals (some sound like adaptations from well-known books), plays, and also theatres, and she shows a great knowledge of the topic, and love for its history (there are some homages fans of the genre are likely to pick up). As we follow Julie and her friends, through the process of auditions and the dreadful wait for “the call” we share in the excitement, and the joy and/or disappointment. It is a fascinating world, which Shelby manages to immerse readers in, managing to keep it light. (If you’d like a lighter version of A Chorus Line, you might have found it in this book). I am Spanish, and appreciated the fact that Zac Díaz, the hero, is of Spanish heritage and uses Spanish expressions often, and Joe García, the main name in musical theatre according to the novel is also Spanish. And I had great fun imagining what La Pasionaria, The Musical, would be like.

The writing style is fluid, it flows well, it is light and airy, full of amusing references and fun moments, and although we might feel sure we know where things are heading, we can’t help but keep turning the pages. There is a secret, something that makes us wonder about the hero of the novel and his true character, and there is a reveal at the end. I guessed what it was, but I must admit that I had several theories I kept swapping and changing throughout most of the book, and the author is good at hinting and misdirecting us, keeping us guessing.

I recommend this novel to anybody looking for a romantic comedy, especially to lovers of theatre (musical theatre in particular) and of London. Although there are no major surprises, the author manages to combine engaging characters, a fascinating background (there’s no business like show business, indeed), in a wonderful setting (London’s West End). I know where to go for my next theatrical romance!

Thanks to Rosie and her great time, thanks to the author, and thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, comment, share, click, review, and always keep smiling!

 

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview DAYS OF WONDER by Keith Stuart (@keefstuart) (@LittleBrownUK) #Daysofwonder A love-at-first-read book. A must read if you love theatre, stories, magic, and feel-good novels.

Hi all:

I read the first novel by this author some time ago and I was very pleased when I was invited to read the next one. I’m publishing the review on the day of its publication, so don’t delay and get it now!

Review of Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart
Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart

From the 200,000-copy bestselling author of A Boy Make Of Blocks

Days of Wonder by KEITH STUART

Published in hardback by Sphere on 7th June, £12.99

#DaysOfWonderBook

 A lead fiction title for Sphere (Little, Brown Book Group)

 Keith Stuart’s debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, and a major bestseller. A reader favourite, it has over 1,000 5-star Amazon reviews.

 Magical, heartbreaking, beautiful – Days of Wonder is a tale about growing up, the beauty of a father and daughter bond, and finding magic in everyday life. Reminding us that stories have the power to save lives, Days of Wonder is the most moving novel of the year.

 Ruth Hogan and Joanna Cannon have provided beautiful endorsements for the book

In the beautiful, funny and moving second novel by the author of A Boy Made of Blocks, a father and his daughter discover that stories can save lives.

Tom, single father to Hannah, is the manager of a tiny local theatre. On the same day each year, he and its colourful cast of part-time actors have staged a fantastical production just for his little girl, a moment of magic to make her childhood unforgettable.

But there is another reason behind these annual shows: the very first production followed Hannah’s diagnosis with a heart condition that both of them know will end her life early. And now, with Hannah a funny, tough girl of fifteen on the brink of adulthood, that time is coming.

With the theatre under threat of closure, Hannah and Tom have more than one fight on their hands to stop the stories ending. But maybe, just maybe, one final day of magic might just save them both.

‘Utterly enchanting . . . a truly beautiful story’

Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things

‘So powerful, yet incredibly gentle and poignant. Utterly and completely beautiful’

Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Keith Stuart is an author and journalist. His heartwarming debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller, and was inspired by Keith’s real-life relationship with his autistic son. Keith has written for publications including Empire and Edge, and is the former games editor of the Guardian. He lives with his wife and two sons in Frome, Somerset.

Keith Stuart on Days of Wonder

Days of Wonder is a story about love, life and magic, but I hope it deals with all three of these things in unusual ways. After finishing A Boy Made of Blocks, I knew I wanted to write another novel about families in crisis, but this time with a very different set of characters – and a very different crisis. As a Manchester City supporter, I was greatly affected by the death of midfield player Marc-Vivien Foé from a rare form of cardiomyopathy. He was 28. Later, I noticed other news reports about the same heart condition, which often struck young people seemingly out of nowhere. I wondered how you would live your life as a teenager with such a serious condition. What would it take to get you through?

The obvious answer is a lot of love and support and belief and passion. As an ex-drama student who loved my time directing and acting in plays, I thought that a small local theatre would be an interesting, supportive place for my protagonist Hannah to grow up in. I loaded her life with quirky, eccentric characters and I brought in fairy tales and comic books to accentuate the value of stories and myths in our lives. I just wanted to write this big, warm, funny book about something potentially tragic. I think in a lot of ways this comes from my own experience of grief. When my dad died of cancer in 2003, my mum, my sisters and me sat around and told each other stories about his life; we swapped memories and it was almost like we created a narrative of his life – that’s how we coped. Memories are the stories we tell about our lives, and I think we all – in a lot of ways – live through stories. It’s love, laughter and imagination that gets you through. This is what Days of Wonder is about.

Praise for A Boy Made of Blocks

‘The publishing sensation of the year: a compelling, uplifting and heart-rending debut novel’ Mail on Sunday

‘A great plot, [with] a rare sense of honesty and insight’ Guardian

‘Stuart writes from heartfelt personal experience – and you cannot fail to be won over by this unsentimental but, warm, humorous and touching story about fatherhood and family’ Sunday Mirror

‘A wonderful, warm, insightful novel about family, friendship and love that tugs at your heart’ Daily Mail

‘One of those wonderful books that make you laugh and cry at the same time’ Good Housekeeping

‘Even the hardest of hearts will be warmed by this poignant tale’ Event magazine

‘A wonderful, funny and touching story of a modern family’ Woman & Home

‘This is a heart-warming and wise story about love, parenting and the long-ranging effects of trauma. I shed a few tears but was left with a warm glow’ Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love

‘Searingly honest and poignant without being in any way cheesy, this gentle exploration into the tricky relationship between a father and son is tremendously moving’ ‘A truly beautiful story’ Heat magazine

‘Funny, expertly plotted and written with enormous heart. Readers who enjoyed The Rosie Project will love A Boy Made of BlocksGraeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project

Days of Wonder: The most magical and moving book of the year by Keith Stuart If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book.

 

The incredible new novel from the author of 200,000-copy bestseller A Boy Made of Blocks, ‘the publishing sensation of the year’ (Mail on Sunday)

‘So powerful, yet incredibly gentle and poignant. Utterly and completely beautiful’
Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie

Magical, heartbreaking, beautiful – Days of Wonder reminds us that stories have the power to save lives.

 

A tale about growing up, the beauty of a special bond between father and daughter, and finding magic in everyday life, Days of Wonder is the most moving novel you’ll read all year.

Utterly enchanting . . . a truly beautiful story’
Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things

‘A story of life, love and hope – the perfect antidote to today’s world. Phenomenal.’
Clare Mackintosh, author of I Let You Go and Let Me Lie

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Days-Wonder-most-magical-moving-ebook/dp/B06VVH559Z/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Days-Wonder-most-magical-moving-ebook/dp/B06VVH559Z/

Author Keith Stuart

About the author:

KEITH STUART is games editor at the Guardian. He started out as writer and features editor on the highly influential magazine Edge before going freelance in 2000 to cover games culture for publications such as The Official PlayStation Magazine, PC Gamer and T3, as well as investigating digital and interactive art for Frieze. He also writes about music, film and media for the Guardian and is a regular on the Tech Weekly podcast. He is married with two sons.

He lives in Somerset.

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s first novel A Boy Made of Blocks ( you can check my review here), a truly extraordinary book, a couple of years ago, and loved it. I could not resist when I was offered the opportunity to read the author’s second novel. And, again, it was love at first read.

Days of Wonder has some similarities to A Boy. It does center on the relationship between a father and his child (in this case, Hannah), and how their relationship is shaped by a specific condition affecting the child (Asperger’s in the first novel, a chronic cardiac illness that cannot be cured and will only get worse in this novel). All the characters are beautifully portrayed, not only the protagonists but, in this case, also an array of secondary characters that become an ersatz family unit.

Tom, the father, runs a small theatre and has close links to the amateur theatrical group. His wife, Elizabeth, left the family when their daughter was three and leads the life of a high-flier, with no real contact with her family. Hannah has grown-up in the theatre, surrounded by the players and by stories, both on stage and out.

The book, narrated in the first person by both Tom and Hanna (mostly in alternating chapters, although towards the end there are some that follow the same character’s point of view, due to the logic of the story). Hannah’s narration in the present is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries addressed to Willow, (the theatre is called The Willow Tree). She is a strong girl, who loves her father, the theatre and the players, her friends, and who has a can-do attitude, despite her serious illness, or perhaps because of it. She knows how valuable each moment is, and lives it to the fullest (within her limitations). She is worried about her father and how much he has focused his life on her and decides that he must find a woman and live a fuller life. She loves comics, fairy-tales, is funny (having a sense of humour does help in such a situation, without a doubt), witty, and wise beyond her years, whilst being a credible teenager who worries about boys and can sometimes have questionable judgement. I challenge anybody not to fall in love with Hannah, her enthusiasm, and her zest for life.

Tom is a father who tries his hardest in a very difficult situation, and who sometimes finds himself in above his head, unable to function or to decide, frozen by the enormity of the situation. He is one of the good guys, he’d do anything to help anybody, and some of his philosophical reflections are fairly accurate, although, like most of us, he’s better at reading others than at understanding himself. His date disasters provide some comic relief but he is somebody we’d all love to count as a friend. Or, indeed, a father.

One of my favourite characters is Margaret, an older woman who has become a substitute grandmother for Hannah, and who is absolutely fabulous, with her anecdotes, her straight speaking, her X-ray vision (she knows everything that goes on even before the people involved realise what is going on sometimes), and she is a bit like the fairy-godmother of the fairy tales Hannah loves so much. As for the rest, Callum, Hannah’s boyfriend, is a very touching character, with many problems (the depiction of his depression is accurate and another one of the strong points of a book full of them), and the rest of the theatre crew, although they appear to be recognisable types at first sight (the very busy mother who wants some space for herself, the very capable woman whose husband is abusive, a retired man whose relationship with his wife seems to be falling apart, a gay man who can’t confess his attraction for another member of the group…), later come across as genuine people, truly invested in the project, and happy to put everything on the line for the theatre.

The novel is set in the UK and it has many references that will delight the anglophiles and lovers of all-things-British, from language quirks to references to plays, movies, TV series and festivals. (Oh, and to local politics as well), but I’m sure that the lack of familiarity with them will not hinder the readers’ enjoyment. Although there are also quite a number of references to theatre plays and comics (and I don’t know much about comics, I confess), they never overwhelm the narration and are well integrated into the story, adding to its depth.

The book deals in serious subjects (family break-ups, abuse, chronic physical and mental illnesses [affecting young people, in particular], aging and death, growing-up, single-parent families) and whilst it makes important points about them, which many readers will relate to, they are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel, and it never feels preachy or as if it was beating you over the head with a particular opinion or take on the topic.

Reading the author’s comment above, I can vouch for his success. This is indeed a book about love, life, and magic. It is a declaration of love to the world of theatre and to the power of stories. The novel is beautifully written, flows well, and the readers end up becoming members of their troupe, living their adventures, laughing sometimes and crying (oh, yes, get the tissues ready) at other times. Overall, despite its sad moments, this is a hopeful feel-good book, heart-warming and one that will make readers feel at peace with themselves and the world. It has a great ending and although I wondered at first if the epilogue was necessary, on reflection, it is the cherry on top of the trifle. Perfect.

The book is endlessly quotable and I’ve highlighted a tonne of stuff, but I couldn’t leave you without sharing something.

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

I don’t mean pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing people in half (and then putting them back together: otherwise it’s not magic, it’s technically murder). I just mean the idea that incredible things are possible, and that they can be conjured into existence through will, effort and love.

As I’m writing this review on Star Wars Day, I could not resist this quote, again from Hannah:

I feel as though it’s closing in around me, like the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, except I have no robots to rescue me although I do have an annoying beeping box next to the bed doing a twenty-four-hours-a-day impression of R2-D2.

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

It’s as though the spirit of Margaret is working through me, like a cross between Maggie Smith and Yoda.

And a particularly inspiring one:

Margaret told me that you must measure life in moments —because unlike hours or days or weeks or years, moments last forever. I want more of them. I am determined. I will steal as many as I can.

A beautiful book, a roller-coaster of emotions, and an ode to the power of stories, to their magic, and to family love, whichever way we choose to define family. I urge you to read it. You’ll feel better for it. And I look forward to reading more books by its author, who has become one of my favourites.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and to keep smiling! 

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#Bookreview LIFE ON THE VICTORIAN STAGE: THEATRICAL GOSSIP by Nell Darby (@nelldarby) A great resource for writers of historical fiction, historians, and people who love social history and the Victorian period #History #Victorianera

Hi all:

Today I bring another non-fiction book, and one of those that I think will be of particular interest to writers and historians (well, and to all of us who like gossip and enjoy the theatre). Here it is:

Life on the Victorian Stage: Theatrical Gossip by Nell Darby
Life on the Victorian Stage: Theatrical Gossip by Nell Darby

Life on the Victorian Stage: Theatrical Gossip by Nell Darby.

The expansion of the press in Victorian Britain meant more pages to be filled, and more stories to be found. Life on the Victorian Stage: Theatrical Gossip looks at how the everyday lives of Victorian performers and managers were used for such a purpose, with the British newspapers covering the good, the bad and the ugly side of life on the stage during the nineteenth century. Viewed through the prism of Victorian newspapers, and in particular, through their gossip columns, this book looks at the perils facing actors from financial disasters or insecurity to stalking, from libel cases to criminal trials and offers an alternative view of the Victorian theatrical profession.

This thoroughly researched and entertaining study looks at how the Victorian press covered the theatrical profession and, in particular, how it covered the misfortunes actors faced. It shows how the development of gossip columns and papers specializing in theater coverage enabled fans to gain an insight into their favorite performers’ lives that broke down the public-private divide of the stage and helped to create a very modern celebrity culture.

The book looks at how technological developments enabled the press to expose the behavior of actors overseas, such as when actor Fred Solomon’s’ bigamy in America was revealed. It looks at the pressures facing actors, which could lead to suicide, and the impact of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act on what the newspapers covered, with theatrical divorce cases coming to form a significant part of their coverage in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Other major events, from theater disasters to the murder of actor William Terriss, are explored within the context of press reportage and its impact. The lives of those in the theatrical profession are put into their wider social context to explore how they lived, and how they were perceived by press and public in Victorian Britain.

https://www.amazon.com/Life-Victorian-Stage-Theatrical-Gossip-ebook/dp/B074P6BRCN/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Life-Victorian-Stage-Theatrical-Gossip-ebook/dp/B074P6BRCN/

Author Nell Darby
Author Nell Darby

About the author:

In her blog, she tells us:

I am a criminal historian and freelance writer. I have a PhD in the history of crime, and also write the Criminal Historian blog.

I currently work as the editor of Your Family History magazine – you can read a bit more about my role here – and also have a monthly history column in the Stratford Heraldnewspaper. I have written for many other publications, including The GuardianOxford TimesWho Do You Think You Are?Real CrimeAll About HistoryDiscover Your Ancestors, and Runner’s World. During my PhD, I was also employed as a fact-checker for BBC History magazine, and its website, History Extra.

I have appeared on BBC Radio Oxford and BBC Radio Gloucestershire, talking about criminal history, have been interviewed by BBC Derby about Victorian mugshots, and have also been interviewed for the Who Do You Think You Are? podcast. I also review books for magazines and academic journals, including  The London JournalJournal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Archives & Records.

I am the author of two books on the history of crime – Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in the Cotswolds (Pen & Sword, 2009), and Olde Cotswold Punishments (The History Press, 2011). My latest book, Life On The Victorian Stage, was published by Pen & Sword in August 2017.

I have just completed a four year term as a member of The National Archives‘ User Advisory Group, which I’ve written about here. I am also a member of both the Royal Historical Society and the Society for Theatre Research.

 

My review:

Thanks to Alex from Pen & Sword for providing me with a review paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

If you have been following my reviews for some time, you will be aware that I have read a number of the historical books published by Pen & Sword. I tend to be more interested in social history and how historical changes affected the lives of those who don’t always figure in the big History treatises. Being a lover of plays and a kin theatregoer, I was very curious about this book. Yes, theatre gossip was intriguing, but getting a sense of what life on the Victorian stage must have been like was my main interest. Although sometimes we discover that life has changed dramatically in a reasonably short period of times, some things do not seem to change much. And human curiosity and the love of gossip are among those things. If Victorians had no access to social media, there were plenty of newspapers and periodicals to keep them entertained, and actors were as much a subject of interest then as they are now.

The author does not follow a narrative or chooses a few big cases in this book, but rather illustrates the sheer amount of theatrical news that occupied the Victorian press of the time, not only in London but also in the provinces. As communications improved, newspapers even started featuring stories about actors in America (either natives or British authors touring there) and although sometimes the features lacked in detail (in some cases a suicide or a death would not feature the name of those involved) they were always after items that would attract the public’s attention. Darby divides the book into three parts: Part 1 deals with the business side of things (including such matters as licenses, libel, bankruptcy, breach of contract…), Part 2 looks at criminal lives (from blackmail and assault to prostitution and murder), and Part 3 delves into the personal lives of the actors (what we would probably consider gossip proper, although not all of it is gossip. The chapter on death and disaster deals with serious matter and also makes us look at security measures and disasters in theatres, bigamy seems to have been much more common than it is today, and personally I was fascinated by the chapter on breaches of promise, as I had not realise that there were laws that offered more protection to women in those circumstances than I would have expected).  Each chapter shares both, examples of standard cases of what would usually find its way into the newspapers (brief pieces with hardly any detail) and it dedicates more space to others that were better known, but no single case gets all the limelight. In many ways, this book is like a sampler, where people interested in the subject can learn more and be pointed in the right direction to research further.

The author’s style of writing is direct, and mostly allows the sources to do the talking. She provides sufficient background (on legal matters, the nature of performances, technical issues…) for readers to appreciate the items she discusses, and also some reflections on her own take on the materials. She notes how some periodicals, like The Era, were in a double-bind of sorts, as they tried hard to defend the profession of acting on the stage (that had a pretty bad reputation, especially in the case of women), insisting that actors were honourable and true professionals, whilst at the same time featured “sensational” news to attract readers. Although these days respectability is not a concept many people are worried about, it is true that the press has a hard time trying to reconcile the ideal of protectors of the truth, whilst fighting to keep the attention of the public by any means necessary. Is it possible to keep the moral high ground whilst publishing gossip and innuendo?

Although this is not, perhaps, a book for the general reading public, as I read I kept thinking about how useful this book would be to writers of historical fiction interested in the period (and not only for those considering using a theatrical background in their story but also for those thinking about the press of the time and even society at large) and to historians. Darby provides end notes full of details, both of the sources of her research and also of further information available. Although she mostly uses newspapers, she digs on the archives to confirm details such as names (as many actors and actresses used stage names and some of those were fairly popular) and discovers that Mark Twain wasn’t the only one whose death had been grossly exaggerated (deaths, marriages… were often misreported). The paperback also contains pictures that allow us to put faces to some of the names and help transport us to the era.

In sum, this is a book that will greatly assist writers, historians, and people passionate about the Victorian era and the history of the stage in the UK. It is a good starting point for those who want a general view of the topic and/or are looking for inspiration for their next story or research project. And if you just want to confirm that people’s love for gossip about the stars has not changed over the years, this is your book. (Oh, and I’m pretty intrigued about the writer too. I think she is somebody writers of historical crime novels might want to follow closely).

Thanks to Pen & Sword and to the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

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#Bookreview FOOLS AND MORTALS: A NOVEL by Bernard Cornwell (@BernardCornwell) (@HarperCollinsUK) A book for lovers of theatre, and Elizabethan historical fiction #amreading

Hi all:
Once more I’m catching up on a very popular author that for unknown reasons I had not read until now. And as I seem to be reading a lot of historical fiction at the moment, it was about time too.
As a theatre lover, I really enjoyed this book.

Fools and Mortals: A Novel by Bernard Cornwell
Fools and Mortals: A Novel by Bernard Cornwell

Fools and Mortals: A Novel by Bernard Cornwell

New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure with this enthralling, action-packed standalone novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother.

Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .

In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

Showcasing the superb storytelling skill that has won Bernard Cornwell international renown, Fools and Mortals is a richly portrayed tour de force that brings to life a vivid world of intricate stagecraft, fierce competition, and consuming ambition.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Fools-Mortals-Novel-Bernard-Cornwell/dp/0062250876/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fools-Mortals-Bernard-Cornwell-ebook/dp/B06XGHX1NW/

Editorial Reviews

‘Cornwell not only succeeds in creating an engaging story, but also in celebrating the difficulties and delights, at any time in history, of putting on a show.’ THE SUNDAY TIMES

‘Cornwell leads us effortlessly through palaces and playhouses with the skill of a master storyteller who loves this period of history.’ DAILY EXPRESS

‘With all the vivid history that is his trademark, Bernard Cornwell transports the readers to the playhouses, backstreets and palaces of Shakespeare’s London with added depth and compassion, and a likeable hero.’ Philippa Gregory

‘Story and characters crackle off the page as do the stink and violence of Elizabethan London. The author of the Sharpe and Last Kingdom bestsellers has pulled off a surprise for his readers ― and a terrific one at that.’ Elizabeth Buchan, DAILY MAIL

The Times Saturday Review Book of the Month

‘Cornwell is an enthusiastic amateur dramatist. His portrayal of the actors’ rivalries and superstitions is sharp and often funny. His combination of wit, adventure and deft characterisation is a triumphant departure from his usual territory.’ THE TIMES

Praise for Bernard Cornwell:

‘Like Game of Thrones, but real’ OBSERVER

‘Blood, divided loyalties and thundering battles’ THE TIMES

‘Strong narrative, vigourous action and striking characterisation, Cornwell remains king of the territory he has staked out as his own’ SUNDAY TIMES

‘A violent, absorbing historical saga, deeply researched and thoroughly imagined’ WASHINGTON POST

‘The best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present. Cornwell really makes history come alive’ George R.R. Martin

‘Cornwell draws a fascinating picture of England as it might have been before anything like England existed’ THE TIMES

‘He’s called a master storyteller. Really he’s cleverer than that’ TELEGRAPH

‘A reminder of just how good a writer he is’ SUNDAY TIMES

‘Nobody in the world does this better than Cornwell’ Lee Child

Author Bernard Cornwell
Author Bernard Cornwell

About the author:

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944 – a ‘warbaby’ – whose father was a Canadian airman and mother in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted by a family in Essex who belonged to a religious sect called the Peculiar People (and they were), but escaped to London University and, after a stint as a teacher, he joined BBC Television where he worked for the next 10 years. He began as a researcher on the Nationwide programme and ended as Head of Current Affairs Television for the BBC in Northern Ireland. It was while working in Belfast that he met Judy, a visiting American, and fell in love. Judy was unable to move to Britain for family reasons so Bernard went to the States where he was refused a Green Card. He decided to earn a living by writing, a job that did not need a permit from the US government – and for some years he had been wanting to write the adventures of a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars – and so the Sharpe series was born. Bernard and Judy married in 1980, are still married, still live in the States and he is still writing Sharpe.

https://www.amazon.com/Bernard-Cornwell/e/B000APAB68/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I had not read any of Bernard Cornwell’s novels before (I believe I have another one on my list and I’ll definitely check it out after this one) so I won’t be able to provide any comparison with the rest of his work. When I read some of the reviews, I noticed that some readers felt this novel was less dynamic than the rest and lacked in action. I cannot comment, although it is true that the novel is set in Elizabethan London and its events take place over a few months, rather than it being a long and sprawling narrative, ambitious in scope and detail. If anything, it is a pretty modest undertaking, as it follows the rehearsal and staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The author’s note at the end clarifies much of the historical background, explaining what is based on fact and what on fancy, and also the liberties he has taken with the materials.

The story is told, in the first-person, by Richard Shakespeare, William’s younger (and prettier, as everybody reminds him) brother, who is also an actor (mostly playing women’s parts) and plays in his brother’s company, but he’s not a regular player in it. I am no expert on Shakespeare (although I know his plays, some better than others, and have read a bit about him) but checked and now know that although he had a brother called Richard, it seems he never left Strafford, whilst a younger brother called Edmund went to London to join his brother and was an actor. The Richard of the novel is no match for his brother and they do not like each other too well. Throughout the book, we learn about Richard, whose current adventures are peppered with memories of the past and his circumstances. His character lives hand-to-mouth, is always in debt, and illustrates how difficult life was at the time for youngsters without money and/or a family fortune. Although he does not dwell on the abuse he has suffered, modern readers will quickly realise that some things don’t change and children have always been preyed upon. He is a likeable enough character, and although he does some bad things (he was taught how to be a thief by a character who would have been perfectly at home in a Dickensian novel and is fairly skilled at it), there are things he will not do, and he is loyal to his brother, although sometimes William does not seem to deserve it. There are other interesting characters in the book (I particularly liked Sylvia, Richard’s love interest, and the priest who lives in the same house as Richard), but none are drawn in much psychological detail.

What the book does very well, in my opinion, is portray the London of the time, the political and religious intrigues (the Puritans trying to close the playhouses, the religious persecution and how an accusation could be used to implement vendettas and acquire power, the social mores of the times, the workings of taverns and inns, the river Thames as a thoroughfare, the law in and out of the walls of the city…), and particularly, the workings of a theatre company of the time. The different types of audiences and theatres, how they had to accommodate their performances to the setting and follow the indications of their patrons, the process of rehearsal, and details such as the building of a playhouse and its distribution, the staging of a play, the costumes they wore, their makeup, wigs… The book also uses fragments of Shakespeare’s plays and others of the period (and some invented too), and brings to life real actors of the era, creating a realistic feeling of what life on stage (and behind it) must have been like at the time. If you are wondering about William Shakespeare… Well, he is there, and we get to see him in action and also from his brother’s point of view. He appears as an author, an actor, a manager, and a man, but if any readers come to this book expecting new insights into Shakespeare, I’m afraid that is not what the novel is about.

There is a fair amount of telling (it is difficult to avoid in historical fiction), and plenty of historically appropriate words and expressions, although the language is easy to follow. There is also plenty of showing, and we get to share in the cold, the stink, the fear, and the pain the main character suffers. We also get to live the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is glorious. In the second half of the book, things come to a head, and there are a few fights (fist fights, sword fighting, and even a pistol is discharged), romance, intrigue (although we are pretty convinced of how everything will end), and nice touches that Shakespeare lovers will appreciate (yes, there’s even a bear).

A solid historical novel, well-written, that flows well, placing us right in the middle of the late Elizabethan era, and making us exceptional witnesses of the birth of modern theatre. A must-read for lovers of theatre, especially classical theatre, Shakespeare, and historical fiction of the Elizabethan period. I will be sure to read more of Cornwell’s books in the future.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and REVIEW!

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