Sunday, 26 June 2016

Review: Last Dance in Havana by Rosanna Ley

This year I'm delighted to be a part of Quercus Books' summer reading scheme #QuercusSummer. The first book I was sent to read was the beautiful Last Dance in Havana by Rosanna Ley.

The cows certainly enjoyed it!

Cuba, 1958. Elisa is only sixteen years old when she meets Duardo and she knows he's the love of her life from the moment they first dance the rumba together in downtown Havana. But Duardo is a rebel, determined to fight in Castro's army, and Elisa is forced to leave behind her homeland and rebuild her life in distant England. But how can she stop longing for the warmth of Havana, when the music of the rumba still calls to her? 

England, 2012. Grace has a troubled relationship with her father, whom she blames for her beloved mother's untimely death. And this year more than ever she could do with a shoulderto cry on - Grace's career is in flux, she isn't sure she wants the baby her husband is so desperate to have and, worst of all, she's begun to develop feelings for their best friend Theo. Theo is a Cuban born magician but even he can't make Grace's problems disappear. Is the passion Grace feels for Theo enough to risk her family's happiness?

I've never read any books set in Cuba before, nor have I read anything by Rosanna Ley, so it was refreshing to read something different. The majority of the novel follows three women whose lives intertwine in unexpected ways: Grace, her Cuban born stepmother Elisa, and Rosalyn, mother to Elisa's first love Duardo. Sometimes novels with time jumps/multiple viewpoints don't work for me, but although this one had both I found it easy to follow the different strands of the narrative and piece everything together as the story swept me along.

The thing that really sold this novel to me was the settings. I've never been to Cuba (or Bristol for that matter), and yet I could picture the dust and heat vividly. The colours, the food, the friendly atmosphere, right down to the country's political history Rosanna has really done her research and it shows. I almost feel as if I have taken a holiday there myself!

There's one quote towards the end of the book that I think about sums it up: 'life was not a romantic novel; life always had a few surprises in store'. Life can change with one look, one dance, one turn of a card, and things will never be the same again.

*Thanks to Quercus Books for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a review! #QuercusSummer*

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Review: The Revelations of Carey Ravine by Debra Daley

London in the 1770s is bursting with opportunity. It's a city fuelled by new ideas and new money, where everything is for sale - including entrée into the ruling class.

Making their way in this buccaneering society are Carey Ravine, a spirited young woman of enigmatic background, and her husband, the charming, endlessly enterprising Oliver Nash. Carey and Nash share a historic connection to India and a desperate ambition to better themselves. But as Nash's plans draw them into a restless association of gamblers and secret societies, Carey begins to question what's really hidden behind the seedy glamour of their lives. Her unease grows with the appearance of a mysterious man whose appearance unearths a troubling secret from the past. Carey finds herself forced to investigate the truth behind the stranger's claims­­ - and to confront her own illusions about herself.


It's refreshing to read a novel in this historical fiction genre centred around a married couple, albeit an unconventional one. As Carey and Nash navigate the trials and tribulations of married life, and of London, you soon become aware that in this society money and influence are everything. Carey is a great narrator. She is moral yet determined, and from the little we learn about her tragic backstory she deserves a good life. It's easy to see how Carey fell for Nash. Handsome, charming, and a chancer he is also determined, but his morals aren't quite so clear cut. The novel's settings are very well described, from the hustle and bustle of London - and the surprisingly debauched parties - to the languid heat of India. I was soon drawn into Carey's story and interested to know how it would end. I would also have been interested to find out what became of Hayle and his associates back in London.

The story is very well written, but beware of some unusual vocabulary - even as an English graduate I needed a dictionary at times! Then again it is nice to be challenged occasionally. I'm definitely looking forward to reading more from Debra Daley!

**Thanks to Olivia Mead at Quercus for sending me copy of this book in exchange for a review!**

Review: Rebel Warrior by Regan Walker

When your destiny lies far from where you began …

Scotland 1072

The Norman Conqueror robbed Steinar of Talisand of his noble father and his lands, forcing him to flee to Scotland while still recovering from a devastating wound. At the royal court, Steinar becomes scribe to the unlettered King of Scots while secretly regaining his skill with a sword.

The first time Steinar glimpses the flame-haired maiden, Catrìona of the Vale of Leven, he is drawn to her spirited beauty. She does not fit among the ladies who serve the devout queen. Not pious, not obedient and not given to stitchery, the firebrand flies a falcon! Though Catrìona captures Steinar’s attention, he is only a scribe and she is promised to another.

Catrìona has come to Malcolm’s court wounded in spirit from the vicious attack on her home by Northmen who slayed her parents and her people. But that is not all she will suffer. The man she thought to wed will soon betray her.

When all is lost, what hope is there for love? Can a broken heart be mended? Can a damaged soul be healed?

A new Regan Walker novel is always a treat. Packed with just the right blend of action, adventure and romance it never takes long before I'm hooked and racing through the pages to find out what happens. I have loved her Medieval Warriors series so far, and happily Rebel Warrior is no exception.

Medieval romance has to be one of my favourite genres of fiction. The costumes, the language, the castles, the noble heroes - it's the ultimate escapism and a world that I love to immerse myself in. Catriona made for a feisty and very likeable female protagonist, and Steinar was just a big softie under his warrior exterior. There's palpable chemistry from the moment they first set eyes on each other, and their bond only grows stronger with all the obstacles thrown their way. I adored little Giric too; he was a wonderful addition to the story and I would love to read more about him as an adult one day!

One thing that I love about Regan's work is how each character, no matter how minor, has an important role in the story. For example, in the case of this story Queen Margaret has many ladies, and yet we are introduced toeach of them in turn. This makes the characters more realistic somehow and makes the reader interested to find out what happens to them all. This book isn't just about Catriona and Steinar, it's also about the life and loves of the other characters.

Regan's stories are always impeccably researched, and this comes across in her writing. From the vast and colourful royal banqueting hall to the barren and Northman ravaged countryside, it's all so well described that you can picture it vividly. I was particularly interested to read the Author's Notes at the end - although the story is grounded in fiction there are some surprising links with real history!

**Thanks to Regan Walker for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a review!**

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Same book, different cover.

Have you ever bought a book you've already read, just because it has a nice cover? Or, even worse, have you got multiple copies of the same book just because they have different covers? I'm guilty of both of these crimes and need reassurance that I'm not the only one!

This post was inspired by the paperback version of Anthony Horowitz's James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. I first read it last October when it came out in hardback (I reserved it at my local library to make sure I was one of the first to read it). I was pretty good, I enjoyed it, but promptly forgot about it. Until I spotted this beauty on my local supermarket shelf:

I picked it up and stared longingly at it before reluctantly putting it back. But I have a feeling it won't be long before it's on my bookshelf. 

You know the story inside will be exactly the same as the last time you read it, and that you probably won't even read it again for at least a couple of years, and yet you still want it. Because of the cover.

Similarly, but perhaps even more ridiculous, is that I own two copies of J.M Barrie's Peter Pan. I had the basic but still in perfect condition Wordsworth Classics edition that I studied at university, but during a temp job at a well known chain of UK bookshops I fell in love with the Puffin Chalk edition.

We only had one copy in stock, and I spent my shifts praying that no one would buy it. On my last day I caved and bought it for myself. I haven't even read it yet, but I do pick it up and look at it more often than I care to admit.

So time to 'fess up. Please tell me I'm not the only one so easily sold on beautiful covers! 

Monday, 6 June 2016

Review: The Storms of War / The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams

The de Witt family saga is a series of books by the acclaimed historian Kate Williams. Likened to Downton Abbey and Atonement the first two novels in the trilogy (the third is yet to come) follow the de Witt family, German of origin now living in England, detailing their experiences during the Great War, and its subsequent aftermath.

The Storms of War

In the idyllic early summer of 1914, life is good for the de Witt family. Rudolf and Verena are planning the wedding of their daughter, Emmeline, while their eldest son Arthur is studying in Paris and Tom is just back from his first term at Cambridge. Celia, the youngest of the de Witt children, is on the brink of adulthood, and secretly dreams of escaping her carefully mapped out future and exploring the world.

But the onslaught of war changes everything and soon the de Witts find themselves sidelined and in danger of losing everything they hold dear. As Celia struggles to make sense of the changing world around her, she lies about her age to join the war effort and finds herself embroiled in a complex plot that puts her and those she loves in danger.

With gripping detail and brilliant empathy, Kate Williams tells the story of Celia and her family as they are shunned by a society that previously embraced them, torn apart by sorrow, and buffeted and changed by the storms of war.  

The First World War is a period of history that I find fascinating, and The Storms of War serves to feed that fascination. It's incredibly detailed - from the horror of war to the decline of the aristocracy Kate Williams' experience as a historian shines through. However, in terms of characterisation I really didn't feel for any of the characters. The only one I felt any kind of empathy for was Michael and I wish we'd had a few more chapters from his perspective. The main protagonist is Celia, youngest of the De Witt family. Although the majority of the story is told from her perspective I couldn't help but find her a little selfish, and very naive for her age. I know she was only seventeen, but ambulance driving aside she could just as easily have been twelve. The relationship between her and Tom was an odd one - I initially got a sort of Dickon/Mary from the Secret Garden vibe from them - but of course war changes everything and by the end of the novel I was left wondering whether they would ever work things out. The Storms of War is a compelling narrative packed with historical detail - war was a storm to be weathered and no one emerges unscathed.

The Edge of the Fall

In the aftermath of the Great War, the de Witt family are struggling to piece together the shattered fragments of their lives.

Rudolf and his wife Verena, still reeling from the loss of their second son, don't know how to function in the post-war world. Stoneythorpe Hall has become an empty shell with no servants to ensure its upkeep.

Celia, the de Witt's youngest daughter, is still desperate to spread her wings and see more of the world. To escape Stoneythorpe and the painful secrets that lie there, she moves to London and embraces life and love in the Roaring Twenties
Eager to find out what happened to Celia and her family next, I dived straight into the sequel The Edge of the Fall. Again there is plenty of detail, and I learnt about things I never knew before despite my history degree (such as the creepy porcelain masks scarred veterans were made to wear). Like the latter episodes of Downton - which this series is continually likened to - war is over, the skirts are shorter and we're hurtling into the 1920s. Yet again though I cared little for Celia. She's so passive, spending her time worrying and complaining - just letting things happen to her. Her cousin Louisa isn't much better. The narrative I enjoyed the most was that from the perspective of the tormented Arthur, the one who eventually gives us the truth about what happened to Lousia. Characters aside the plot of this novel is really well thought out, packed with twists and surprises. I have to admit that I committed the most grievous of reading sins at one point - I was so worried about the fate of one particular character that i just had to read ahead! There were plenty of loose ends and unanswered questions at the end of this novel to leave me eagerly anticipating the next installment of the De Witt family saga. Don't leave me hanging too long Kate!