Category Archives: Romance

The Peacock Emporium

The Peacock Emporiumby Jojo Moyes

Suzanne Peacock is a troubled young woman, never quite fitting in with family or friends. With her marriage on the rocks, she decides to embark on a new adventure, opening her own shop – the Peacock Emporium. But for someone who clearly finds the social niceties a challenge, making this new venture a success was never going to be easy. But she finds an unexpected friend and ally in young Jessie Carter. Jessie is the kind of girl that everyone loves and proves to be just when the shop, and Suzanne, needs.

Suzanne is not alone in seeking a new path. Telling his own story, the Argentinian midwife has come to England to escape the hardships and violence of home. Their lives become entangled and the emotional highs and lows are typical Jojo Moyes. Her books are driven by complicated characters. They may not exactly be heroes but certainly strong and driven women whose stories are as inspiring as they are entertaining. 

The Peacock Emporium is a delightful and very touching novel. The title may suggest something soft and fluffy, but it definitely isn’t. There is certainly plenty of colour, but there is darkness as well. Moyes never shoes away from difficult storylines and tackles social and emotional issues head-on with great flair and compassion. 

I have become quite a fan of Jojo Moyes and her wonderful characters. There is no formula to her books, no predictability, and it is that that attracts me to her work. 

A really good book.

The One Plus One

One Plus Oneby Jojo Moyes

Having previously read several Jojo Moyes books I was pretty sure what to expect – captivating characters, a great plot and quality writing. And that is exactly what I got. The plot itself is typical rom-com fodder, but the important thing is the way it is told. Jojo Moyes has the ability to make her characters come to life on the page. 

We all know how hard it can be to recover when life when knocks us down, and how difficult it can be to retain our optimism when you feel that universe is conspiring against us. But that eternal optimism despite everything life has thrown at her is what makes the leading lady, Jess Thomas, such an endearing character. Despite having to hold down two jobs to keep her and her two children fed and watered, she remains confident that things will get better. 

On the other hand, Ed Nichols has it all: the perfect job, a flat in London, a holiday home by the sea, his own company and, on the face of it, a bright future.

But all is not as it seems, and that is where the story begins. 

The One Plus One is a modern love story with just a hint of the Romeo and Juliet about it. But like all good books, there is a lot more going on underneath the surface. Jess’s optimism is tested to its limits by the circumstances of a life she no longer seems to have any control over. But it is that very “silver lining” approach that turns Ed’s life around. As he faces losing everything he has ever worked for, seeing at first hand Jess’s determination to do the best for her children is something of a revelation. He begins to realise that for one he has the opportunity to do some real good, to do something that will improve the life of someone else.

It doesn’t hurt that on their journey – physical and metaphorical – they find themselves growing ever closer.

For me, Jojo Moyes is one of those writers that can turn a seemingly simple tale into something quite deep and inspiring. Her characters are easily identifiable and I can’t help feeling some empathy towards them and their plights. Whilst tragedy is always at the heart of a good novel, particularly a love story like this one, humour is also a key element, and in The One Plus One Jojo Moyes gets the balance just right. It is witty, absorbing and a joy to read. 

 

 

 

Aimez-vouse Brahms…

Aimez-vouse Brahmsby Francoise Sagan

This is not a book I would normally have chosen to read; it came as part of  “coffee and book” package. I could have just passed it on but decided to give it a try instead. And I am glad I did.

Set in 1950s Paris the book follows a brief period in the life of Paule, a 34-year-old Parisian career woman. She is in a long-term relationship with Roger, but from the reader’s perspective, it is a very one-sided affair. While she waits for Roger to call, he lives the life of a single man. It is the kind of relationship that seems to be going nowhere and from which Paule seems to derive little comfort of affection. Surely Paule deserves much better than this?

She then meets Simon, the son of a business client who immediately besotted by Paule and embarks on a campaign to woo her away from Roger. At first, Paule is reluctant to be drawn into a relationship with Simon who is 14 years younger than her, but he is persistent and attraction of being with someone willing to devote time and energy on her is irresistible. The ensuring love triangle leaves Paule confused about what she really wants, The ending was a little surprising, but on reflection, inevitable. 

Although very short, Aimez-Vous Brahms is a captivating story. There is plenty of content in its 120 pages and the characters are engaging and believable. I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would. The story itself is still relevant today as it was in the 1950s when it was first published and it could be set almost anywhere. I found it to be a great little book with good characters and plot. 

 

Sense and Sensibility (The Austen Project #1)

by Joanna Trollope

Sense and SensibilityThis was the first book of the Austen Project which sees contemporary writers revisit Jane Austen’s timeless stories. And the one thing that the project proves, to me at least, is just how timeless Austen’s work really is. Obviously there have to be some changes to the plot and, in some cases, characterisations, but on the whole, the stories stand up well to being dragged into the twenty-first century.

Elinore and Marianne Dashwood’s story is one of Austen’s most endearing tales. thrown out of their childhood home the family find themselves dependent on the charity of relatives in Devon. Far from their friends and relatives, the Dashwoods are going to have to make some serious changes if they are to survive. But while Marianne wears her all-too-fragile heart on her sleeve, falling in love with the dashing Joh  Willoughby on first sight, her sister Elinor’s heart is much harder to find and even harder to win. 

Bringing the wonderful cast of characters up to date was particularly tricky in this book, so dependent on 19th-century manners and rules of inheritance, but Joanne Trollope pulls it off with real panache. The characters are still very true to Austen’s originals, and the tweaks and twists necessary to make the plot work in the modern age work well.

Whilst I don’t think any adaptation is ever going to match the wit and insight of the original, I have enjoyed each of the books in the series so far. I suppose that by getting such well-established authors as Joanne Trollope involved guarantees a high standard. 

A really good read.

 

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project #2)

Northanger Abbeyby Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey is the second in the series of books reimagining some of the works of Jane Austen. Of Austen’s books, Northanger Abbey is probably the least well known, but it has always held a certain fascination for me. Although it follows the traditional girl meets boy, they fall in love, are separate by circumstances before finally coming together for the obligatory happy ending, Northanger Abbey has a darker and more intriguing theme. And it is that element of the story that seems to have attracted McDermid to the Austen Project.

At first it might seem rather strange to have a respected crime writer tackling a piece of romantic fiction. But Northanger Abbey’s sinister undercurrent provides the perfect vehicle for McDermid’s style.

Bringing these books into the 21st century does require some imaginative thinking, but to me what is most intriguing is just how little needs to change. In this interpretation, only the location has changed, moving the bulk of the action from the original Bath to modern day Edinburgh, where the Fringe provides the necessary gatherings and public events. Consequently, Northanger Abbey is now in the Scottish Lowlands which seems rather more fitting than the original.

The story remains virtually unchanged, as do the characters, with just the occasional tweak to bring their stories up to date. Catheryn Morland is the same innocent young woman, sometimes struggling to tell the difference between reality and the plots of the books she reads and begins to invent her own theories about the family and events that inhabit Northanger Abbey.

As you would expect from a writer with McDermid’s reputation, Northanger Abbey is well written and full of pace and drama and not a little wit and tension. As a fan of Miss Austen’s work, I have approached each of these reimaginings with just a little trepidation. These books have become part of our literary heritage, but their language and settings are not to everyone’s taste.

What this series does is make Austen’s original stories more accessible to a wider audience. For me, the originals can never be improved on. The language, settings and manners of the time are as much a part of the book as the story itself. However, I very much enjoyed this retelling of one of my favourite Austen stories and would happy recommend it to fans and novices alike.

Reading this book has also reminded me of the works of one of our most respected modern authors. I will definitely make an effort to pick up a book or two in the near future. 

The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselvesby Isaac Asimov

As one of the true giants of Science Fiction, reading any of Asimov’s books for the first time brings with it a certain expectation and, for me, some trepidation.

I have read “classics” before and sometimes found them disappointing. So, as I slowly work my way through the Gollancz Masterworks series, of which this is part, I have learned to keep my expectations realistic as not all books are as good as the critics claim. In this case though I needn’t have worried.

First published in 1972, The Gods Themselves represents a change in style for one of Sci-Fi’s most prolific and best loved writers. Whilst scientific theories remain at the heart of the story, the focus of this book switches between the all-too-human preoccupations of politics and self-preservation and look at a very non-human life cycle. The book is in three parts, each focusing on a separate set of characters.

The first concerns the invention of the Electron Pump, an apparently free and inexhaustible supply of energy that revolutionises humanity. However, not everyone is convinced about the process which involves isotopes with a parallel universe. But is the negative voice driven by something other than science, or is more personal? With the Pump’s inventor seen by the bulk of humanity as some kind of savior, dissension cannot be tolerated and no one wants to consider that this new era for mankind has any kind of price tag attached.

Part two moves to the other side of the exchange. Here Asimov looks at life in a universe where the laws of physics are different from our own. It is this deference that lies behind the Electron Pump. The life forms here are very different from ourselves, but it seems that the desire to survive is just as strong, even if it threatens the very existence of our solar system.

The final part moves to the Moon and continues the seemingly impossible quest for the truth in the face of institutional resistance.
At every turn, self-presentation, greed and an almost ostrich-like denial of anything that throws doubt on the established position question the credibility of those who dare question the Pump and what it has done for humanity.

Isaac Asimov is a respected and much loved writer for a good reason – he is one of the twentieth century’s great visionaries and a damned good storyteller as well. He has avoided the kind of detail that could so easily date a book of this type and period. In fact, I only found one reference (to tape) that could be considered out of place now. It is a reflection of his skill that the book is as relevant today as it was in 1972.

Me Before You

Me Before Youby Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is not a romance, it is a lover story as intense and compelling as any I have read before. 

Lou Clark and Will Traynor are the unlikely couple at the centre of this tale. Will is a former high flyer from the City. He has travelled the world, enjoyed extreme sports and love more than his fair share of women. But following a tragic motorcycle accident, his life has changed dramatically and it is not a life he wants to continue living.

Lou Clark, on the other hand, has hardly every travelled beyond the confines of her home town, has a long-term boyfriend and has just lost her job at the local tea shop. 

When the two are brought together, it looks as if the clash of their very different personalities can only mean disaster. But no, whilst there is plenty of friction between the two characters, the sparks that fly ignite a flame that neither could have anticipated.

Whilst this may sound like a typical bit of romantic fiction, it is not. Jojo Moyes doesn’t write that kind of fiction. Through Will the reader is forced to face the question of assisted suicide. For him, the life he faces as a quadriplegic is an anathema, it is the very opposite of everything he wants for himself, and the prospect of a life of pain, sickness and dependence is too much. For Lou, life is precious and she will do anything she can to make Will change his mind. She has just six months to convince Will that he does have things to live for before he makes his one-way trip to Dignitas.

The subject is handled with real care and respect. I cannot tell from the writing which side of the argument she herself supports. I enjoyed the love story that runs through the book, but was also moved by the tragic tale of a man facing his own morality. 

Jojo Moyes has a relaxed but engaging style that pulls the reader in from the very first page and doesn’t let go until she has wrung all the emotion out of you. As I said at the beginning, this book is much more than romantic fiction. I was transfixed by the characters and their stories. The way that Lou’s relationships with her boyfriend and family develop as she begins to discover new depths in her own character as heartwarming. 

A really good book that will keep you hooked to the very end. 

Emma (The Austen Project #3)

Emmaby Alexander McCall Smith

Whilst there have already been several sequel’s to Jane Austen’s books, the very idea of this short series of modern retellings just sounds wrong. But, as a fan of Austen’s work, and with an ever open mind, I decided to give this one a try.

I wouldn’t say I was disappointed. The story itself is well told, as you would expect from a writer of McCall Smith’s calibre, but somehow, brining Emma Woodhouse kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century just didn’t quite work. Finding modern equivalents to the various dilemmas and manners of the early 19th century is an almost impossible task. And part of the charm of Austen’s works is the gentle and at sometimes innocent world in which they are set. The modern world is no place for the likes of Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates or even Emma herself. It is a story of manners, and this is lost in the retelling.

Rather interestingly, what we do get is much more of a back story for the main characters. Whilst Austen concentrates on mobbing her story forward. McCall Smith takes much more time to flesh out his characters. This is interesting and adds some originality to the story. But for me, the whole thing seems to lack the integrity of the original. There is no modern equivalent for many of the events or social interactions and expectations, so the whole thing has an air of unbelievability to it that I found disappointing.

All that said, there is a kind of timelessness about the character of Emma Woodhouse that does manage to come across. Her attempts to manipulate the love lives of those around her does have an element of truth to it.

All in all, an enjoyable bit of light reading. I very much doubt I will return to it later, something I do fairly regularly with the original, but I don’t feel I wasted the time it took to read it. A good summer read, but hardly challenging.

 

The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler's Wifeby Audrey Niffenegger

“Never judge a book by its film” is definitely a favourite literary one-liner that I have learned to live by. I can think of a few films that have lived up to the book, some have even enhanced plot with their visual interpretation. But this is one of those very rare occasions where I felt I enjoyed the movie more than the book! I saw the film adaptation several years ago and found it very moving and emotional. The book however, I found to be a little tedious. There are numerous passages that neither enhance then storytelling or move the plot in any way. The film had managed to distil the best elements of the story, removing all the padding. 

Despite its subject matter – a time traveller who jumps in and around his own timeline at random intervals – is not really science fiction. It is a rather quirky love story, with the main characters, Henry DeTamble and Claire Abshire, meeting a various times throughout their lives. When Claire first meets Henry, she is 6 and he is 36. For Henry, the first meeting is when 20 year-old Claire meets her 28 year-old future husband in a Library. She has already known him for most of her life – he has never seen her before!

For fans of the BBC’s Dr Who series, this plot will be all too familiar as that of the Doctor and his lover River Song. 

Their romance is complicated and their lives far from normal. With Henry disappearing at the most importune moments, reappearing stark naked and dazed, their relationship is at times hard to follow, but always intriguing. Henry has been time travelling since he was a young boy and has devised ways to survive these random naked incursions into his own past, or future. For Claire, she can only wait and worry, although knowing she has met a much older Henry does give her reassurances that she sometimes finds hard to accept.

It does take some concentration to keep up with the mixed up time lines, but the story as a whole is compelling and emotional. My only gripe is that she does go on a bit about things that don’t matter. In one chapter we get a ball-by-ball commentary on a pool game! We do not need to know the order of spots and stripes pocketed! And some of the time hops were neither particularly interesting or relevant to the overall plot. I found myself speed-reading whole pages just to get on with it. 

But all that said, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a touching and original modern love story. Sci-Fi fans looking for fancy gizmos and meaningful dialogue about Paradoxes will be very disappointed as it has none of the devices usually found in time travel stories to add oomph to the plot. But it does have two excellently imagined characters who you will find yourself hoping get the fairy tale ending they seem to deserve.

If you have never seen the film, please read the book first. 

The Girl You Left Behind

by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left BehindI was offered this book by my daughter who thought the subject might interest me. Although I was a little sceptical at first I very soon found myself drawn into the lives of two very similar women living a hundred years apart.
 
Sophie and Liv are linked by a painting called The Girl You Left Behind. It is a portrait of Sophie by her husband Eduard who is away fighting in the trenches of 1917 France. It is all that she has of Eduard as she struggles to protect her family during the German occupation of Northern France.
 
For both women, the painting is not just a link to the men they have lost, it has become a symbol of their relationships. Neither is willing to let go of either.
 
The book jumps between the two women’s stories, mixing first and third person help separate the two narratives.
Sophie’s story is particularly compelling and very tragic. Told from her perspective it gives a great insight into the frequently overlooked. Through Sophie we learn a lot the horrors of the trenches, but behind the lines people tried to continue their daily lives as best they could. Food and resources were scarce and Sophie must do all she can to protect what is left of her family.
 
Liv on the other hand is a widow who lives in contemporary London. The Girl You Left Behind hangs in her flat as a reminder of her late husband, a gift from their honeymoon.
 
Despite the differences in time and place, both women have to face great tragedy and loss. And for both of them, Sophie’s portrait has become a symbol of hope and love. And in both cases the introduction of a stranger into their lives forces them to make a difficult decision and tests their inner strength.
 
It is a gripping and emotional story. I found myself conflicted. On one hand I couldn’t put the book down and wanted desperately to get to the conclusion; on the other hand I didn’t want the story to end.
 
The way in which the two storylines are woven together is imaginative, keeping a thread that is easy to follow. I found both women to be strong characters and loved the way they are prepared to fight for the things that matter to them.
 
Sophie’s tale is the more intriguing of the two, mainly because it’s setting in a place and time I know little about. But it is Liv’s story that brings it all together. The ending is not what I expected but on reflection, is the only way it could have worked.
 
A really good read and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It kept me hooked from the very beginning.