Thursday, 30 January 2014

Review: The Champion by Elizabeth Chadwick

Elizabeth Chadwick has long been one of my favourite authors. Lords of the White Castle is the first book of hers that I read many years ago, and I have been hooked on her work ever since!

From the moment that I read the blurb for The Champion I was hooked:

"Fleeing a scandalous chapter of clerical corruption at an English monastery, young Alexander de Montroi arrives in Normandy in the spring of 1103, desperate to become one of the great knights who live by their jousting swords. For those who show exceptional talent, there are fortunes and hearts to be won, and Alexander proves himself adept at both."

If a novel was written specifically for me, this would be it; knights, jousting and courtly love combine to make a plot that is perfectly suited to my tastes. I think my love for A Knight's Tale and Robin Hood has made me more than a little biased towards this era of history.

First things first I have to say that I adore the cover! I bought a few of Chadwick's books at the same time and they all have covers like these; I love how the entire focus is on the gorgeous dress. What makes Chadwick's work so wonderful is her evocative descriptions. From the mud soaked tourney fields to the intricate braiding on a lady's dress- no detail is left out, and yet you never feel overwhelmed with information; on the contrary you can picture the scene as if you were looking at a picture.

I have read a few reviews that critique Chadwick's depiction of female characters as passive and uninspiring, and although I don't entirely agree it has to be said that it is always her male characters that I grow attached to. In this case, I found myself falling for Alexander as he underwent his transformation from a penniless ex-monk into a successful knight, and although I had no problems with Monday, I did question some of her decisions.

The darker side of this novel lies in the corruption and depravity of the monastery that Alexander ran away from, a place that comes back to haunt him. There is also, of course, a knight who has strayed to the dark side- but this is no darkly handsome and brooding Count Adhemar; this one is irredeemable.

The balance of action and romance make Chadwick's novels more than your standard historical romance (which I have absolutely no problem with). She doesn't shy away from describing exactly what goes on during combat and death, and even sex and childbirth. What you get is a complete picture of an episode of medieval life, albeit a fictional one, interspersed with real historical figures to bring it further to life. Many of Chadwick's works feature Prince John and Richard the Lionheart, two of my favourite historical characters - another reason perhaps why I am so biased towards her work. The Summer Queen, the first in a trilogy of novels about the life of their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine also by Chadwick, is also nearing the top of my to-read pile.

Lords of the White Castle has long been the benchmark for Chadwick's work in my opinion, and as much as I love all of her books none of them have ever quite surpassed it. The Champion, however, comes pretty close! The story may be a little predictable in places but I have no issue with that; I'm always satisfied with a good old fashioned happy ending.

5/5 stars - Perfect escapism for a cold winter's night, The Champion is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any historical fiction enthusiast, and it's chivalric ideals of knightliness and enduring love will appeal to even the most cynical romantic.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

January Library Haul #2

Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge - Lindy Woodhead

In 1909, the first and largest department store built from scratch in London's West End opened in a burst of glorious publicity. The mastermind behind the facade was American retail genius Harry Gordon Selfridge: maverick businessman, risk-taker, dandy and one of the greatest showmen the retail world has ever known.
His talent was to create the seduction of shopping, and as his success and fame grew, so did his glittering lifestyle: mansions, yachts, gambling, racehorses - and mistresses. From the glamour of Edwardian England, through the turmoil of the Great War and the heady excesses of the 1920's and beyond, Selfridges Department Store was 'a theatre with the curtain going up at 9 o'clock each morning'. Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge reveals the captivating story of the rise and fall of the man who revoloutionised the way we shop.

House of the Hanged - Mark Mills

France, 1935: At the poor man's end of the Riviera sits Le Rayol, a haven for artists, expatriates and refugees. Here, a world away from the rumblings of a continent heading towards war, Tom Nash has rebuilt his life after a turbulent career in the Secret Intelligence Service. 
His past though, is less willing to leave him behind. When a midnight intruder tries to kill him, Tom knows it is just a matter of time before another assassination attempt is made. 
Gathered at Le Rayol for the summer months are all that he holds dear, including his beloved goddaughter Lucy. Reluctantly, Tom comes to believe that one of them must have betrayed him. If he is to live, Tom must draw his enemy out, but at what cost to himself and to the people he loves...?

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Angel of the Opera - Sam Siciliano

Paris, 1890. Sherlock Holmes is summoned across the English Channel to the famous Opera House. Once there, he is challenged to discover the true motivations and secrets of the notorious phantom, who rules its depths with passion and defiance.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Tesco Book Haul

Attention all UK book bloggers: Tesco have a mega book sale on at the moment, with books starting from 25p! Surprisingly enough, there are actually some decent titles to be had, I picked up these two for £1 altogether.

Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

"Charles Ryder, a lonely student at Oxford, is captivated by the outrageous and decadent Sebastian Flyte. Invited to Brideshead, Sebastian's magnificent family home, Charles welcomes the attentions of its eccentric, artistic inhabitants the Marchmains, becoming infatuated with them and the life of privilege they inhabit- in particular, with Sebastian's remote sister, Julia. 

But, as duty and desire, faith and happiness come into conflict, and the Marchmains struggle to find their place in a changing world, Charles eventually comes to recognise his spiritual and social distance from them."

The King's Mistress - Gillian Bagwell

"As a nobleman's daughter, Jane Lane longs for a life outside the privileged walls of her family home. Her quiet world is shattered when Royalists arrive one night, pleading for help.

They have been hiding the King, but Cromwell's forces are close behind them, baying for Charles II's blood- and anyone who helps him.

Putting herself in mortal danger, Jane must help the King escape by disguising him as her manservant. With the shadow of the gallows following their every step, Jane finds herself falling for the gallant young Charles. But will she surrender to a passion that could change her life - and the course of history?"

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Film Review: Saving Mr Banks

I don't normally write film reviews, but I adored this film so much that I felt the need to write about it, and to tell you all to go and see it!

Mary Poppins will forever be one of my favourite films; my sister's and my party trick is an impressive recital of Jolly Holiday, animal voices and all! I'm ashamed to admit that I have never had chance to read the original stories, although rest assured that I intend to rectify that very soon. As Tom Hanks' Walt Disney is keen to emphasise Mary Poppins is a character that belongs to everyone, and to tamper with her is a brave decision, one that definitely paid off!

The two strands of the plot of Saving Mr Banks -the battle of wills between Travers and Disney and Travers' childhood in Australia - complement each other perfectly, and the parallels between Travers' upbringing and the plot of Mary Poppins are difficult to ignore; it is no wonder that she was so protective of her work.

As for Emma Thompson, I could go on forever about how amazing she is. I was lucky enough to attend a talk given by her at Cheltenham Literature Festival last October about her new Peter Rabbit books (which are wonderful by the way). She was brilliant, and I was so in awe of her that I couldn't muster up the courage to go to the book signing afterwards to meet her- after all they say never to meet your idols. I am seriously regretting it! Her portrayal of P. L Travers was nothing short of spot on, and I hope that the Oscar Committee give her the recognition that she deserves. (If her Golden Globe shenanigans are anything to go by then the Academy Awards will definitely benefit from her presence!)

Colin Farrell surprised  me; from all of the promo that I had seen before the film I wasn't expecting to be as moved by his performance as I was. Indeed the whole film was a lot more emotional than I was expecting, and I was very close to tears at one point. The casting was perfect, from Paul Giamatti as Travers' lovable driver to Ruth Wilson as her mother - an actress whom I have admired since her days playing Jane Eyre alongside Toby Stephens' brooding Mr Rochester.

Just as P.L Travers had to trust Walt Disney with her beloved Mary Poppins books, I had to trust Disney with my beloved Mary Poppins film. I knew that it would be safe in their hands, especially when you factor Thompson and Hanks into the equation! Yet I couldn't help but worry that the truth would somehow tarnish the unequivocal joy surrounding the film (the very thing that Travers hated), especially as other reviewers have said that they will never watch it in the same way again. I realise now though that this is a positive thing; knowing the background to Mary Poppins, to the character, and to Travers herself has given it an added depth and significance, and left me with a new found respect for Mr Banks and the legacy that he represents.

5/5 stars - Not just for Poppins fans (although who isn't!?), this film is worth watching for Emma Thompson's performance alone; and just like in the original film, you will be left with the undeniable urge to 'go fly a kite.'

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Review: My Animals and Other Family by Clare Balding

I absolutely loved this book, and anyone who loves animals will immediately identify with Clare and her childhood adventures. 

Structuring the novel in such an innovative way- with each chapter devoted to a beloved horse or dog and her life at the time of their existence- makes a refreshing change from the traditional celebrity autobiography. Clare herself is a very talented writer; I loved little Clare as much as my favourite fictional characters, in fact she would make the perfect stubborn and hay-strewn heroine in a children's novel! Be warned that the book is an emotional rollercoaster, I was literally laughing one minute and crying the next, and it is clear from Clare's adorable descriptions of her animals just how much she loved them. 

I have been lucky enough to have been surrounded by many wonderful animals in my life thus far, and this book made me reflect and remember them. It is a book worth taking your time over; I often find it difficult to get through autobiographies as quickly as fiction and this was no exception, although each chapter is an adventure in itself. I would perhaps liked to have read more about grown up Clare, but she has left plenty of scope for a sequel.

5/5 stars: A heartwarming read about a little girl and her beloved animals, and how they shaped her into the inspirational woman that she is today.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Review: Solo: A James Bond Novel by William Boyd

It is no secret that I am a huge Bond-geek, so it was a given that I pounced on this book the moment that I saw it on the library shelf. Admittedly, despite my love for all things Bond, it has been a while since I've read any Ian Fleming to compare Boyd's style to (the last Bond book I read was Sebastian Faulk's Devil May Care and I can't remember much about that either).

Blurb: "A seasoned veteran of the service, 007 is sent to single-handedly stop a civil war in the small West African nation of Zanzarim. Aided by a beautiful accomplice and hindered by the local militia, he undergoes a scarring experience which compels him to ignore M's orders in pursuit of his own brand of justice." 

The storyline is about as far from the glamourous world of casino's and villains that we have come to associate with the British icon as you can get, and war stories really aren't my kind of thing. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go, for Bond's sake. In his Author's Note, Boyd states that he has taken notice of Bond's 'obituary' published in You Only Live Twice, and thus has set the novel in line with the Fleming canon, ignoring the modern setting of the films and Jeffrey Deaver's Carte Blanche. Putting Bond back where he belongs, in the case of this novel 1969, brings him back to life again; he is a 'veteran' in a rapidly changing world. The opening dream/flashback section at the beginning of the story to Bond's youth in the army caught my attention and provided an interesting insight into Bond's character, but the story only really gets going once Bond is on his revenge mission; just like in the films, there's a lot of not much going on for a few hundred pages until it all comes to a head, and I raced through the final chapters to see how it all ended.

With regard to the 'Bond Girls', I wish that Bryce had a bigger part in the story; she seemed like a genuine love interest and her scenes with Bond were among the most engaging parts of the book. The same cannot be said for Blessing who I had very little empathy for.

Jakobus Breed could easily be ranked alongside the best of the Bond villains with his facial disfigurement and penchant for gruesome trademark deaths, yet I couldn't help but feel cheated out of a final showdown between him and Bond, and whilst I appreciate the tension created by his disappearance I would have liked to find out whether or not he survived.

I read this book for Bond alone, and without him the plot holds much less appeal for me; I'm currently reading another of Boyd's works Waiting for Sunrise which I definitely prefer (watch this space for the review).

4/5 stars:  An interesting addition to the Bond franchise which is by no means badly written, but fans of the more gritty Daniel Craig films may appreciate the plot more than I did. Bond is back, literally with a vengeance.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

January Library Haul

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

 "In Depression-era America, everyone's running away from something. Some people join the circus to escape. Jacob Jankowski hitches a ride on a freight train and in that instant his life changes. By morning, he's landed a job with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By nightfall he's in love."

 Park Lane - Frances Osborne

"London, 1914. War looms, suffragettes are on the march and two young women at 35 Park Lane dream of breaking free. Below stairs, housemaid Grace Campbell is struggling. Her family believe she is a secretary, and when asked to send home more money than she earns, Grace gets into trouble.
Meanwhile Miss Beatrice, daughter of the house, is fatigued with the social season. The call of Miss Pankhurst's captivating world of militant suffragettes means Bea is soon playing a dangerous game that will throw her in the path of a man her mother wouldn't let through the front door.
Then war comes and it is not just their secrets-now on a collision course- that will change their lives for  good."

The Great Lover - Jill Dawson

"In the summer of 1909, seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly is the new maid at the Orchard Tea Gardens in Cambridgeshire when Rupert Brooke moves in as a lodger. Famed for his looks and flouting of convention, the young poet captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact. Even Nell, despite her good sense, begins to fall for him. What is his secret?"

A Hollywood Ending - Robyn Sisman

"American starlet Paige Carson is off to London to try her hand at Shakespeare, and prove that she deserves more than bimbo roles and Hollywood hunks who can't see beyond their own reflections. But stage acting is not quite what she expected. Neither is her landlord, Ed Hawkshead, a highfalutin documentary-maker who seems far from the charming, floppy-haired Brit of her daydreams."

The Summer Queen - Elizabeth Chadwick

"Young, golden-haired and blue-eyed Eleanor has everything to look forward to as the heiress to wealthy Aquitaine. But when her beloved father dies suddenly in the summer of 1137, her childhood is over. Forced to marry the young prince Louis of France, she barely adjusts before another death catapults them to being crowned King and Queen of France. Leaving everything behind, Eleanor must face the complex and vivacious French court. She is only thirteen.
Barely out of childhood, and forced to deal with great scandals, fraught relationships and forbidden love at every turn, Eleanor finally sees what her future could hold if she can just seize the moment."

Monday, 6 January 2014

Review: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz has been a favourite author of mine from the Alex Rider days of my childhood, so when I found out that he had written a Sherlock Holmes novel I knew that I had to read it. 

I therefore came to the novel with high expectations, but I was not disappointed! Horowitz captures the essence of Conan Doyle and remains true to the Sherlock Holmes canon, yet still manages to put his own personal twist on it. The dual stranded plot is very cleverly thought out, and whilst you soon get an idea of where the story is going, it would take a mind as great as Holmes' to figure it out before the big reveal. 

The Guide to Writing Sherlock Holmes essay included at the end of the novel is a nice touch and makes for very interesting reading. A must-read for any fans of the great detective.

5/5 stars: I couldn't put this book down! I just hope that Horowitz can be persuaded to write more Sherlock Holmes books in the future!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Review: One Day by David Nicholls

After years of listening to all the hype about this novel, when I came across a copy in my local library I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.

 The basis of this novel is an intriguing one; what happens if you revisit two characters on the same day every year, beginning on the eve of their graduation. This plot device is a clever concept as it shows how much, or indeed how little, life can change in the space of a year. Twenty years are covered in the narrative, and the characters' lives are condensed into what are essentially a series of snapshots leaving readers to fill in the gaps as to what else has happened that year. 
The narrative voice shifts between the first person perspective of both Emma and Dexter. This encourages the reader to become involved in their lives, to will Dexter to stop being an idiot and for Emma to get her act together. 
You should be warned by the unconventional structure that this is in no way a typical romance, and the ending took me very much by surprise! 

I had high expectations of this novel given it's rave reviews, and filling the inside cover with tweets praising the book only served to build it up even more. However I was left feeling a little disappointed; it was not what I was expecting at all, and the whole thing felt kind of flat. I had no empathy for either of the characters and I'm still cross about the ending.

3/5 stars: All in all the novel is a great concept, but it is a little too drawn out and the characters are difficult to warm to.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Review: War and Piste by Alex Thomas

Bridget Jones' Diary meets Chalet Girl is the easiest way to describe War and Piste, but that synopsis really doesn't do the story justice!

Blurb: 'When Poppy Connors swaps a life of suits and cappuccinos for a job as a ski rep, she soon finds that resort life on the side of an Austrian alp is more than she bargained for. Adapting to her new diet of Jagermeister, adrenaline and europop, Poppy throws herself into this strange new world - a world in which 200 foot cliffs, midnight shootings and the intrigues of the megalomaniac resort manager soon start to feel normal.'

The idyllic backdrop of the Austrian Alps instantly draws you into the novel, and, despite the fact that it does not shy away from the less glamorous side of chalet hosting, it manages to make the lifestyle seem incredibly appealing. Alex Thomas knows her stuff about skiing and it shows; her descriptions are a little technical at times but it only serves to demonstrate her expertise and make the story seem all the more authentic. The diary form works well with the plot and the characters are all well defined; I defy anyone not to be in love with Jon by the end, he's an absolute sweetheart! I raced through this book in a matter of days and didn't want it to end. As others have said, I would love to read a sequel telling us what happened to the characters once the season ended! 

5/5 stars: I absolutely adored this book, and genuinely had withdrawal symptoms from it for a few days after finishing.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Review: What She Didn't Know by I. Ronik

I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for a review.

The blurb gives the impression that this is your standard adult romance- which is by no means a bad thing- but in reality this story is as far from 'standard' as it gets. In short, Cassie's sister meets a guy, Cassie insists on meeting him and gets introduced to his cousin, who just happens to be Seth: her gorgeous boss. All pretty normal so far, but then events take a paranormal twist that I didn't see coming. The word 'parody' is the key to this short story, and it's a word that I missed when I skimmed through the blurb before requesting a copy!

To be perfectly honest, as soon as things started to get weird I was immediately put off; supernatural stories just aren't my thing. However, given that the story is so short I thought that I might as well see it through to the end.

The constant change in narrative voice grated on me; one minute it's first-person from Cassie's perspective, the next it's third-person from Seth's. This left me feeling both disorientated and disconnected from the story.

2/5 stars: the genre-although a parody-just doesn't appeal to me, and the shifts in the narrative ruined the flow of the story. That said, the characters are written well and I would be interested to read more stories from this author.