'If you’ve ever dreamt of a new life in the country, this highly entertaining and candid account of country living might make you think again… Fresh air, rolling fields, Cath Kidston tea towels and home-baked cake – isn’t that what Martha’s new life will be?
Apparently not. Having upped sticks and moved her young family from the gritty city to Paradise, she discovers things aren’t quite that easy. Collapsing kitchen ceilings; a plague of slugs; coffee mornings with Stepford mums and garden warfare with the neighbours are just a few of the trials. And with her husband away working in London, Martha just can’t stop thinking about the sexy builder who’s meant to be turning the house into her dream home…'
Daisy Waugh’s name has often cropped up when I’m shopping for books, but for some unknown reason, it’s taken me until now to actually buy one and read it.
The ‘Country Housewife’ of the title is Martha: a writer from London who decides that it’s time for her family to escape the city so that her children can breathe clean air and pick blackberries. She and her husband quickly find the perfect house in Paradise, sell their home in London, and settle into country living. However, Martha quickly learns that she doesn’t like the country very much: their new dog keeps trying to escape, she can’t make any friends, and their perfect house is actually falling apart. And worst of all, Martha finds her husband becoming ever more absent; always with an excuse to stay in London for work, rather than face the long commute home. Martha’s time is spent fantasising about her builder and missing her friends and husband, rather than enjoying her new life. Can Martha, and her marriage, survive her decision to move to Paradise?
Martha’s story is told through her diary entries and the newspaper columns she writes about her life in the country. The diary is very personal and obviously a great way to get the reader to really understand and connect with Martha. The newspaper column provided a very interesting contrast: it not only served to move the story forward, but also showed us how Martha would present her problems to an outsider. The column becomes more honest as Martha’s problems become bigger and she finds it harder to cope with them.
What really sets this book apart from others of its type is now witty Daisy Waugh’s writing style is; there were points when I was laughing out loud. I also enjoyed how flawed Martha is as a person, and how it’s these flaws that lead her into the mess that end up in. There were points when I became really infuriated with the main character and her decisions, but I guess that’s one of the things that meant that those pages kept on turning: I just had to know what she was going to do next. Whether or not you agree with Martha’s decisions and actions, they make a very good story.
I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t completely sure how it was going to end; this made a really nice change as a lot of what I have been reading recently has been quite predictable.
‘The Desperate Diary of a Country Housewife’ is a very easy read (I devoured it in a single sitting) and Waugh manages to keep the pace constant throughout: I was amazed at how the time flew when I was reading it. It’s very entertaining and funny, and I’ll definitely be trying some of Daisy Waugh’s other novels soon.
'Two sisters…two very different lives. Alison’s American dream is in tatters. Her highflying career is on the skids in the financial meltdown. Her Upper East Side apartment is now way beyond her means . But pride prevents her from telling her family back home just how bad things are. Olivia is fraught trying to juggle family, career, preparations for Christmas and organize a surprise party for their mother’s seventieth birthday. How she envies, and sometimes resents, her sister Alison and her life of excitement and affluence in New York.
Coming home is the last thing Alison wants to do, especially now that she’s met a rather attractive, sexy, down to earth neighbour who doesn’t believe in ‘non exclusive dating’ unlike her wealthy boyfriend, Jonathan. But family ties are strong. Alison and Olivia sort their differences, the party throws up a few surprises and Christmas brings changes for Alison that she could never have imagined before coming home.'
‘Coming Home For Christmas’ begins with recently jobless Alison leaving her fancy two bedroom apartment and moving into a more reasonably priced studio. She’s finding this and the loss of her extremely well-paid job hard enough to deal with, without having to fly back to her family home in Ireland for her mother’s seventieth birthday celebrations – where everyone will want to know all about her fancy New York life and her high powered career. About the only thing lifting her out of her slump is her sexy new neighbour, JJ.
Meanwhile in Ireland, Alison’s sister, Olivia, is resenting her role looking after everyone. Why should she be stuck caring for their aging parents and uncle whilst Alison swans around living her glamorous, worry-free life in New York? Running around after her own three children and working is more than enough. Add to this the pressure of organising a surprise party for her mother’s birthday and Olivia is close to boiling point.
When Alison arrives home the family element of the book really kicks in as she finds herself surrounded by love and enjoying the familiarities of a proper Christmas, something which she hasn’t experienced for a very long time. Maybe this is just the place that Alison needs to be whilst she works out what, and where, to go next in her life, and even rebuild her relationship with her sister.
The story was very sweet and had a warm, family feel to it, although I have to admit that the religious element of the novel came as quite as surprise to me; especially as it seemed to come out of nowhere in the middle of the book, but as it’s a book set around Christmas time I suppose it shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected. The Christmas theme led to some beautifully written scenes of the family preparing for the festive season, with the relationship between the grandparents and grandchildren depicted particularly well: the perfect combination of the children’s excitement, and the grandparents’ pride and happiness in sharing the family traditions.
Alison was probably my favourite character in the book: I loved reading about her life in America and I felt that her lethargy and sadness after losing her job was particularly well described. It’s probably because I’d enjoyed the New York section of the book so much that I felt that a little something was missing when Alison arrives in Ireland – possibly it was because JJ was no longer playing much of a role so the romance element was diminished. I really wanted their relationship to move forward and thoroughly enjoyed JJ’s character – and can more than understand why Alison likes him: he’s funny, manly, and, unlike her last boyfriend, isn’t bothered about how much money Alison makes.
I didn’t, however, feel as warmly towards the other male characters in the story: Alison and Olivia’s father, Liam, and Olivia’s husband, Michael. Liam is supposed to find it hard to tell his wife that he loves her and dislikes ‘mushy’ stuff, yet happily joins in with the baking – which didn’t really seem to fit his character. As for Michael, he’s barely in the book despite the fact that he’s so important to Olivia’s life and happiness.
I must be a very annoying reader for writers to try to cater for because I always have a very clear idea of how I want the ending of a book to go – and I can get quite irate if the characters don’t do what I want! This was very definitely the case with this book; I don’t want to give too much away, but the book is supposed to be about two sisters and I felt that one was very definitely left out at the end.
All in all, I did find this a pleasant read, and very suitable for the festive season, although it certainly isn’t the best, or the most memorable, book I’ve ever read and I did feel let down by the ending. I’d be interested in reading more of Scanlan’s work, particularly her longer novels (this was only about 250 pages long) in which, I imagine, the secondary characters would be written in greater depth.
‘Having grown up on the quiet island of Guernsey, Betty Dean can't wait to start her new life in London. On a mission to find Clara Pickle - the mysterious beneficiary in her grandmother's will - she arrives in grungy, 1990s Soho, ready for whatever life has to throw at her. Or so she thinks...In 1920s bohemian London, Arlette - Betty's grandmother - is starting her new life in a time of post-war change. Beautiful and charismatic, Arlette is soon drawn into the hedonistic world of the Bright Young People. But less than two years later, tragedy strikes and she flees back to Guernsey for the rest of her life. As Betty searches for Clara, she is taken on a journey through Arlette's extraordinary time in London, uncovering a tale of love, loss and heartbreak. Will the secrets of Arlette's past help Betty on her path to happiness?’
Betty has spent years putting her own dreams on hold whilst looking after her elderly grandmother, Arlette, in a big, old house on the island of Guernsley. When Arlette dies, leaving a mystery London-based benefactor some money in her will, Betty heads to Soho, determined to fulfil her grandmother’s wishes and more than ready for her life to truly begin. What Betty discovers will change everything she thought she knew about her grandmother, and possibly herself as well.
‘Before I Met You’ seamlessly flits between 1920s and 1990s London, and I loved reading about both periods, although the 1920s scenes did hold a particular fascination for me. Lisa must have had so much fun researching the music and clothes of the era! One brilliant addition to the tale was the use of genuine historical facts about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a group who toured the UK during 1919-1921. The information is very cleverly weaved into the story, which was not only extremely interesting, but resulted in the culmination of Arlette’s time in London being all the more poignant.
I adored both of the story’s heroines. Betty was so caring to Arlette and so brave going off to London all by herself, especially when she’d had so little experience of cities or even renting a flat as she’d been stuck on Guernsey for so long. She doesn’t let anything get her down for long, and meets some fascinating characters along the way. The choices she faces are tough, and I had almost as hard a time as she did trying to decide what she should do for the best.
As for Arlette, her London life starts off just as life for a 1920s girl about town should – she’s pretty, has fabulous clothes and plenty of friends to ‘gad about with’! When circumstances go against her it just seems so unfair because she really is the last person to deserve such bad luck! She has a wonderful dignity throughout, which I found very engaging and made me warm to her.
Lisa Jewell has proved again and again that she’s one of the finest writers of women’s fiction around, and with ‘Before I Met You’ she’s produced another very good read. She’s an author whose new novels I eagerly anticipate and she immediately goes to the top of my ‘to read’ pile. She’s going to have a hard time topping this with her next offering!
4 and a half stars
‘Meet Nellie Welche - companion to royalty and keeper of secrets ...Nellie Welche is the daughter of a high-ranking steward in the household of Prinnie, Prince of Wales. In 1788, at the age of twelve, she's proposed as a suitably humble companion to Princess Sophia, one of George III's enormous brood of children. Nellie and Sofy become friends for life. From the first rumblings of revolution in France to the exciting, modern times of gas light and steam trains, from poor mad George to safe and steady Victoria, Nellie is the sharp-penned narrator of a changing world and the unchanging, cloistered lives of Princess Sofy and her sisters. Nellie proves to be more a hawk-eyed witness than a Humble Companion, as her memoir lifts the lid on the House of Hanover's secrets and lies.’
Twelve year old Nellie Welche’s parents are thrilled when she becomes a ‘humble companion’ to Princess Sophia, one of the many children of George III. As she observes the goings on at court, Nellie’s life is changed and tried by her involvement with the Royals, several of whom she remains lifelong friends with. Like a breath of fresh air in the closeted lives of Sophia and her sisters, Nellie soon proves herself worthy of being trusted with even their darkest secrets.
The gentle pace of the novel kept me interested, but I’m afraid not completely enthralled. I thought having a non-Royal watching and commenting on the doings and misdemeanours of the Hanovers would work very well, but Nellie was just a little too much of an outsider to really make the situation work. She doesn’t actually spend that much time with the Royals, and goes lengthy periods with very little contact with them. She also only really mixes with the female members of the family, which is a shame, although clearly accurate for the time.. The list of Royal characters at the beginning of the book certainly came in handy - the Hanovers were a very large family and it helped to have a little reference guide to refer to.
Nellie was an engaging and likeable character and I genuinely wanted things to turn out well for her. She was by no means a door mat, but the time she lived in meant that she didn’t always have the freedom to make the right choices for herself. However, Nellie never loses her wonderful spirit and Laurie Graham’s signature wicked sense of humour was beautifully present in many of Nellie’s little comments.
Focusing on her protagonists, the author gives the reader a clear and unbiased view of the period. However, whilst ‘A Humble Companion’ was undoubtedly very beautifully written, I kept waiting for a ‘big event’, but nothing occurred that seemed to fit the bill. Obviously there was plenty of excitement during the era the novel covers, but Nellie was a little too removed from it for my liking, and tended to be told about any excitement after it had actually happened.
I’m becoming a big fan of historical fiction, and I enjoyed reading about the period, Nellie herself, and especially the poor princesses, whose lives were nothing like I’d have expected. Nellie made a delightful heroine, her observations were wry and often very funny, and I particularly liked her relationship with Sophia. By putting the spotlight on the women of the age, Laurie Graham has produced a very interesting work and, although it didn’t always work for me, having Nellie as a sort of Hanoverian observer, gave some interesting insight into some extraordinary figures of the age.
‘One night, when a strange red moon fills the sky, six school girls find themselves in an abandoned theme park, drawn there by a mysterious force. A student has just been found dead. Everyone suspects suicide. Everyone - except them. In that derelict fairground an ancient prophecy is revealed. They are The Chosen Ones, a group of witches, bound together by a power, one which could destroy them all. But they soon learn that despite their differences they need each other in order to master the forces that have been awakened within them. High school is now a matter of life and death. Because the killing has only just begun.’
After the sudden death, suspected suicide, of one of their fellow students, six school girls discover they are witches, chosen ones, each with particular and individual powers. Their lives, and those of all around them, depend on them being able to put aside their differences and somehow work together to defeat a very powerful and mysterious evil.
Translated into 21 languages, ‘The Circle’ is the first of a trilogy that has caused quite a stir, particularly in Nordic countries, and has received many fantastic reviews; but unfortunately, I must admit I wasn’t immediately enamoured, in fact it took me a little while to properly get into this book and to get all the characters clear in my head.
Having said this, I did find that the multiple points of view useds worked quite well once I’d properly established who was who, and ensured that the reader really gets inside the characters’ heads. In fact, I liked seeing how these girls, who were all very different to each other and never normally interacted, dealt with having to work together and rely upon one another completely: it’s definitely not always plain sailing. I was impressed that the author manages to make all the heroines individuals without completely resorting to stereotypes.
Despite the supernatural elements in the young adult tale, I liked how realistic the young stars’ lives and problems were. It’s certainly gritty in places, and there’s absolutely no sugar-coating: the book contains pretty gruesome murders, drugs and sex, and as such I would only recommend to older teenagers.
A couple of the highlights of this book for me were the delightful Swedish settiing and the very high quality of the translation. There were also a couple of nice little twists to the story, but I found that I waited, and waited and waited for the big climax, and was a little disappointed by what transpired.
This trilogy already has a massive following, which I’m sure will continue to grow. Whilst it wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea, I could definitely appreciate it for what it was and I’ll be reading the further parts of this series.
‘Ninepins is an isolated former tollhouse, standing high on a bank beside a waterway in the Cambridgeshire fens. There, since her divorce, Laura lives alone with her 12-year-old daughter, Beth. Below the bank stands the old pumphouse – a former fen drainage station – which is rented to a series of student lodgers. But this year’s lodger is different: Willow is seventeen, and in local authority care. Battling down her reservations, Laura takes her on.
Do Willow’s strangenesses and her mysterious and troubled past make her a threat to Laura and, especially, to Beth? What were the circumstances surrounding the act of arson which led to Willow being taken into care? Set against the brooding landscape of the fens, Ninepins explores the perils and rewards of bringing a stranger into your home. It traces a mother’s fears for her daughter as she struggles to decide whether Willow is vulnerable or dangerous – or perhaps a bit of both.’
The eponymous Ninepins is a house in the Cambridgeshire fens lived in by Laura and her daughter Beth. Looking for a new lodger, Laura agrees to allow 17-year-old care-leaver Willow to move in. However, Willow has something of a mysterious, and possibly criminal, past, making Laura reluctant to let her guard down completely and trust her with Beth. What isn’t clear is whether Willow is just a young woman in need of some support and a helping hand, or if she poses a real danger to those around her.
‘Ninepins’ is the first of Thornton’s novels to be published by Sandstone Press, and despite the very different cover design, the writer’s usual wonderful style is clear from the start. Thornton’s love of the Cambridge fens shines out from every page; her descriptions of the landscape around the house are beautiful, and created the most wonderful imagery in my mind.
Although dark in places, ‘Ninepins’ is essentially a gentle drama and much of the action takes place literally around the kitchen sink: caring for others, and in particular cooking for them, is central to Laura’s character. The story deals with three very different, but very engaging, heroines. They’re all at very different stages in their lives, but the author manages to capture the essence of each of them perfectly. She does an especially fine job of brilliantly portraying the anguish and confusion of being a twelve year old girl, naturally misunderstood by every adult she knows. Thornton encapsulates the trauma of being a child on the verge of teenagerdom so well, without ever resorting to teenage caricature.
The relationship between Laura and Beth was for me the very heart of the novel. The descriptions of Laura’s desperation and confusion as she tries to win back the little girl she once knew make slightly uncomfortable reading - it’s just so honest! At times Laura almost drove me to despair with now ridiculously nice and understanding she was; I wanted to shake some sense into her, either that or make everyone around her appreciate how lovely she was.
The ending felt like a little bit of a let down when I first read it, but I was happier upon contemplation; in a way I decided it felt more like a beginning for the characters: a new, and very hopeful, chapter in all their lives.
Rosy Thornton writes very fine fiction indeed and ‘Ninepins’ is sure to delight new readers as well as her current numerous faithful followers. Thornton’s characterisation is absolutely top notch and creates a tale that both captivated and enthralled. I heartily recommend.
4 and a half stars