The Break – Marian Keyes

It can be quite easy to be a bit ‘sniffy’ about certain genres of books (or films, foods, music, whatever) and to assume that your chosen favourite is the best. In fact one of my pet peeves is people who, when talking about a film, book or song which is in a genre they don’t enjoy, call that particular film, book or song terrible. Let’s be honest, with very few exceptions, these things are not terrible – they are just not to your taste. Personally, I don’t really enjoy spy thrillers or hard sci-fi space operas but I’m not going to tell you John Le Carré and Alastair Reynolds are awful. And yes, I have been known to correct friends and colleagues if they start to rubbish other people’s choices (especially if they have just made me listen to five Neil Young albums back to back – there’s an artist who is definitely not to my taste…). Annoyingly, the genres most often derided are those favoured by women and young people – I guess it is too easy to deride chick-lit and YA fiction and especially if you don’t actually read any. I’m not saying that all chick-lit and YA is wonderful but some of it is very good (even if you are a man or over 20). Some of the best I have read is by Marian Keyes…

breakThe Break is the story of a big, messy, complicated, Irish family (and yes, I also enjoy Mrs Brown’s Boys – bite me…) and in particular it is the story of Amy.  She is a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, PR professional, friend, and, at the end of the list, a wife. She has to find time to support friends who are newly single (again), to provide emergency care for her father when her Mum needs a rest from dealing with Alzheimer’s, to care for her fragile niece when her brother and his ex-wife seem to be harming rather than helping her and to try not to strangle her annoyingly independent older daughter – so it is no surprise that her relationship with Hugh, her husband, is low down on the list of things she has time for. Hugh, struggling to cope with the death of his father, shocks the whole family by declaring that he is leaving them – not forever, but for six months; not a break-up but a complete break.

Keyes is, as ever, great at telling a warm, funny family story.  Amy and her family are all well-rounded characters, yet all individuals and you become fond of them. I particularly liked the double act of Neeve, Amy’s older daughter from an ill-fated marriage in her youth, and Amy’s mum Lillian who take the beauty vlogging world by storm. She is also, as ever, unafraid to touch on more difficult subjects. Not the fact that Hugh deserts his family (and can’t rule out the fact that, as part of his ‘break’ he may meet and sleep with other women) but the fact that he does so because he is depressed and can’t see any other way to get his life back on track. You want to hate him – to wish all kinds of nasty things to happen to him (and his sexual organs) like Amy’s man-hating friends and sisters – but, in many ways you can’t. We get flashbacks to the earlier years of their relationship and we can see that this is a marriage which is really worth saving, a man who has given his all to his family. We also touch on the sorrows of living with Alzheimer’s, the falling away of friends (when you fail to react to adversity in the way they think you should) and the horrors of reproductive politics in Ireland. But, you know, chick-lit is just froth…

As always a reminder that Marian Keyes writes brilliant novels – full of laughter and tears – which deserve a wider audience. Remember people, good chick-lit is for anyone, not just for giggly girls…




Lost for Words – Stephanie Butland

The best books (and films, tv, songs, whatever) are often the ones you can connect with. The ones where you understand what the characters are going through because you’ve been there. I mean, maybe not quite in the same way – I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice but I don’t live in Regency England and I’ve never been proposed to by Mr Darcy: but I have experienced the cut and thrust of family life and none of us are immune to judging people based on first impressions. I do enjoy books which seem to be totally beyond my own world but, in the middle of the dystopias and post-apocalypses I love, the part of the story I really want to read is human experience – the reaction of people like me to situations totally unlike anything I’ve ever been through.

519GIZDH5EL._SY346_The main character in Lost for Words, Loveday Cardew, is nothing like me. She’s tattooed, uncomfortable in social situations, writes poetry and spent most of her childhood in care but she is very much like me because she is a bookseller. A real bookseller. Not just someone who works in a bookshop – she’s the real thing. It is a bit self-indulgent but I absolutely loved the parts of this book where the bookshop, its customers and Loveday’s feeling for books are described. I may even have done the odd little fist-pump and shouted out ‘yesssss!’ with a sense of total understanding. However, I would imagine that you don’t need to be a bookseller to sympathise with Loveday’s position.  She is trying her hardest to live a quiet life: she works in a second-hand bookshop in York (where I lived for 3 years in my student days), has a reasonably good relationship with her eccentric boss and tries to avoid much contact with almost everyone else. She feels she is not worth other people’s effort, unless they are looking for an obscure or hard to find book, and she certainly is not looking for love.

This was an unusual bit of chick-lit. Yes, it was about a young woman and her relationships but it was about quite a lot more. It looks at Loveday’s difficult past and her gradual acceptance of her future: she is a central character in a chick-lit novel that we could all find something in common with if we are honest – awkward, often grumpy and unreasonable. I really liked her. If you like something more than just romance in your chick-lit then maybe Loveday’s story is one for you.


The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters – Nadiya Hussain (& Ayisha Malik)

Let’s just start off by saying that I have a bit of prejudice going on here. Every time I hear the words ‘Nadiya Hussain’ I think of cake – and I blooming love cake… Yes, this is a novel written by the wonderful NadiyafromBakeOff* (ably assisted by Ayisha Malik) and I was thinking of cake and pies all the way through. It was not, however, a book about baking, cooking or food at all but about family. It looks at the life of one Muslim family, of Bangladeshi heritage, living in a very English village and ends up telling a story which just about anyone can relate to. Honestly – don’t think about religion or race here, this felt as universal as the lives of the Bennet or March sisters!

51xnhpytuvlWe meet the four sisters one by one as they take it in turns to narrate chapters of the story. Fatima, the eldest, lacks confidence and would feel safest hiding in her room eating squeezy cheese from the tube and not having to think about passing her driving test. Farah is happily married but longs for a child – she just oozes the need to nurture – unlike her twin, Bubblee. Bubblee lives in London and is trying to make her name as an artist: she wants a bigger life than the sleepy village of Wyvernage can offer and can’t understand how her twin can be happy there with a man who isn’t worthy of her. Mae, the youngest by 12 years, gets told to be quiet and keep out of the way – instead she records every key moment of her family’s life (complete with a sass-filled commentary). The family is completed by an absent brother, Jay, who still manages to have everything revolve around him and some rather charming parents. Dad, always ready to support his girls with a hug, a wise word or a bit of cash, and Mum, who worries about everything (where her son is, why he doesn’t call,  why Bubblee is so hard to find a husband for and whether her husband is looking at the nudist next door neighbours…).

As the title suggests secrets are revealed about each sister – with some relating to their brother and parents too – and as the family faces up to some of the bigger problems they find out lots about each other. Things, however, don’t really change until each of them is able to face up to their own problems, their own fears and their own secrets. I’m not going to say what any of these problems, fears or secrets are (spoilers, obvs…) but I will suggest that, in the end, some of them are (partly) solved by cake. Which was nice.

This is a lovely, light read. Perfect for those who prefer their fiction not to involve sex or violence. But, even though I am not averse to either of these things, I found the characters charming enough to hold my interest. In fact, by the end, I was quite pleased to see that there were still a few loose ends to tie up – I call sequel…


*That’s her full name. I’m almost sure…



How To Find Love in a Bookshop – Veronica Henry

The idea of using books as a therapeutic tool is not new. Bibliotherapy was first heard of in 1916 but I’m sure people have been turning to favourite stories, poems and songs for help in times of emotional stress for much longer than that. Whenever a customer asks me to recommend something I will tend to try to ask what they enjoy in a book (romance, adventure, terror, humour) in an effort to help match up reader and title – which is bibliotherapy of a very basic sort – and, of course, we are all aware of the calming effects of a colouring book. Because of this I have frequently been attracted by novels about booksellers and the way in which they interact with the lives of their customers – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend have all been favourites – and I think I always will be. And, of course, I find it quite hard to resist a story set in a world I feel I know so well.

love-in-a-bookshopVeronica Henry’s bookshop is based in the Cotswolds, in an idyllic little town filled with people living perfect lives. Or so it seems on the surface. Emilia returns to run Nightingale Books after the death of her beloved father but struggles financially. She has the option to sell the shop building to a local developer (who is obviously not a good man) but decides to battle on when she realises how much the shop means to the community. Along the way she finds out what her father himself meant to the people he met and what her own role is in the town. She learns a few lessons about how not to run a business and the value of listening to the best ideas of your employees. The love promised in the title is found in many forms – romantic love for people of various ages, parental affection, love for people, for places and for books. The story is just complicated enough without being too taxing and the ending satisfying. I must admit I already feel pretty much loved (by family, friends and Rob – who is contractually obliged) but it is always good to read a book which feels like a warm hug.


On the Other Side – Carrie Hope Fletcher

I’m going to confess, and its not something I’m particularly proud or ashamed of, but when I asked for an advanced reading copy of this book I was not really aware of the author. I mean I’d sold plenty of copies of her first book, which offers up advice to teenagers and young adults, but I’d never read any of it and I’ve never seen anything on her YouTube channel. I’m really, really not her target audience (too old, too cynical) and, try as I might, I can’t read everything. But the brief plot description – of a woman who dies at a ripe old age but finds she can’t move on to her own personal afterlife until she deals with secrets from her life which are weighing her down – was intruiging so I thought I’d give it a go.

11I’ll be honest, it took me a while to warm to the actual book. Even Bex told me she didn’t think it was my kind of thing but I persisted with it and I’m glad I did. I did care about Evie, the main character, and I was interested to know what secrets she had which were holding her back from moving on. The story which explains this was warm and I felt so sorry for Evie and the sacrifices she made for love. The world she moves to after she dies (and before she is able to pass on to her own version of heaven) is a rather magical version of a block of flats she lived in as a young woman and it was probably this part I liked best. Especially the kindly guide who helps Evie to understand her next steps.

My problem with the book as a whole is that I’m not sure of its timeline. I do like a novel to have a firm time setting – a reason why I enjoy historical fiction – and I didn’t get a sense of that here. Everything seemed to be set in the current day which is fine except it needs to cover Evie’s life from 27 to 82. I think this is the point where Fletcher’s youth shows – when you are very young it is so hard to realise that life could be very different in 50 years time. The writing wasn’t bad and I can see Fletcher maturing in time but at the moment I was continually struck by a feeling of youth. And also Evie’s family situation reminded me of the sitcom Miranda (but rather more tragic) which was always a favourite with my nieces (who are in their early 20s). In fact, I think I may have read my first novel which could be classed as ‘New Adult’…



Making ItUp As I Go Along – Marian Keyes

Like many people I’ve got a bit of the Irish in me. My Great Grandad Jack was from County Cork and the family legend always used to be that he came over in 1916 and changed his surname from Moriarty  to Collins. We’ve since worked out that this may not be strictly true but, in honour of my partly Irish heritage, I claim it is. It is my own personal bit of blarney and I’m sticking to it.

Talking of blarney allow me to introduce you, if you didn’t know her already, to Marian Keyes: one of the original chick-lit authors, an award winner and all-round lovely person. I’m going to confess that, despite selling loads of them, I’ve never read any of her novels but I think that will change pretty soon based on how much I have fallen in love with this woman after reading this collection of articles, blog posts and general chit-chat.making-it-up-as-i-go-along-cover I just hope she’ll forgive me for being so tardy in getting round to it – my excuse being that, working in a book shop I have access to all the books, and that is an awful lot of choice… Anyway, I’m going to say that I’m including her on my girl-crush list (along with Claudia Winkleman, Victoria Coren-Mitchell and Caitlin Moran) and hope that does the trick.

There are musings on all kinds of stuff in here – from the trivial (but important) nail varnish museum to the rather more poignant, like her father’s Alzheimers. She is able to discuss the minutiae of cruise-ship snack foods in great detail and yet skips quite delicately (yet honestly) over her problems with addiction and mental health. Her family and friends all sound wonderful – especially Himself, her adored husband, and her Mammy. In fact the only reason I can see not to love her is jealousy at the number of amazing holidays she goes on. Oh, and getting to meet Robert Plant.

This book is going to be a brilliant present to give so many women (for Mother’s Day, a birthday or just because you love them). If they enjoy issue-led chick-lit, Mrs Brown’s Boys, shoes, make-up or big, warm, messy families then this could be the answer to your gifting needs.



Dream a Little Dream of Me – Giovanna Fletcher

dream a little dreamDream a Little Dream is the latest by author/actress/wife of TomfromMcFly and it is a bit of froth. And I have decided that I quite like froth…

The plot is reminiscent of One Day – featuring a group of friends who met at Uni and are still part of a tight-knit group years later – and is largely built around Sarah. Her ex is part of the friendship group but, since they mean more to her than he does, she has to see him frequently. Him and the perfect girlfriend he left her for. And it seems her own brain is conspiring to help her forget him by filling her dreams with visions of the delectable Brett ( a bit player in the group’s student days but now no longer in touch). And who gets to meet their dream boyfriend in real life?

I liked this book because I could identify with Sarah – the weekly pub quizzes, the problems with frizzy hair and the close group of friends. Okay, I’ve not stayed in touch with my Uni mates in quite the same way and we were nowhere near as incestuous a group, but the dynamics of the friends makes perfect sense to me. I also enjoyed the parts that were different from my own experiences – Sarah’s career problems, her seemingly unsupportive mother – because they were convincingly written. I am considerably older than Sarah and her friends but I really felt I could see them growing up as the book progressed. Sarah in particular seems to have accepted that her job and her relationship with her mother are her responsibility – therefore both improve – and she ends up gaining enough self-confidence to accept that the real Brett (who shows up part way through the book) could be as much a part of her life as the dream version was.

So, froth. But froth with humour, good characters (who develop and grow) and just enough tension to keep the pages turning. Perfect summer reading…And considering that TomfromMcFly is one half of the team that brings us the marvellous ‘Dinosaur That Pooped…’ series theirs must be a fun-filled household!