Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book review: A Fête to Remember by Julia Stagg


My edition: Paperback, published on 3 July 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton, 369 pages.

Description: It's summertime in the French Pyrenees and the mountain commune of Fogas is en fête. But Christian Dupuy has no time for the frivolity of les vacances. For a start, he's just been struck by the arrows of l'amour and doesn't have a clue how to approach the woman who's stolen his heart.

Then there is the not-so-small matter of local politics. With moves afoot to wipe his community from the map, Christian has to enter the fray once more to save the place that he cherishes.

In the midst of a sweltering heatwave and with the residents of Fogas at each other's throats over their future, the lovesick and embattled deputy mayor must decide if all really is fair in love and war.

Rating:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Top picks from Hot Key Books' 2015 releases


After going to Hot Key Books' fantastic blogger brunch and having the opportunity to hear about the wide range of exciting books they're publishing this year, I decided to create a blog post with my top picks from their 2015 catalogue.

Because there are many brilliantly sounding titles coming out from this unique YA publisher that I want everyone to know about ahead of publication, so we can all count down the days to release and run to the shops (or the Hot Key Books website, I've hyperlinked all titles to their page on hotkeybooks.com where possible for convenience) on the day of release!



Fish Out of Water by Natalie Whipple (5 February) – I already reviewed this novel back in February and up until today it's still my fav YA book I've read this year. It's the perfect treat for fans of the sweet romance novels from Jennifer E. Smith, with the added quirkiness of Rainbow Rowell and the emotional punch of John Green – so basically a triple whammy of all that is brilliant in YA fiction right now.

Liberty's Fire by Lydia Syson (7 May) – At the book brunch the author described her novel as "Les Mis 40 years on", which is enough said, really. There's action, music, protests and romance all against the backdrop of the civil revolution in Paris.

How To Be Bad by E. Lockhart, Lauren Myracle and Sarah Mlynowski (4 June) – E. Lockhart is one of HKB's most exciting authors and I absolutely adored The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks when I reviewed it last year. How To Be Bad is written with two other authors, they each take on the perspective of one of the three leads, and is a road trip story which sounds perfect for summer.



Only We Know by Simon Packham (4 June) – Admittedly it's the mock-up cover that first caught my attention for this one on the hand-outs we received, but the story sounds really interesting too as it focuses on a girl who tries to reinvent herself at a new school but suddenly starts to receive mysterious packages hinting at a big secret from her past coming back to haunt her.

Birdy by Jess Vallance (2 July) – An unlikely friendship that sounds too good to be true? I'm intrigued!

Lorali by Laura Dockrill (2 July) – This books sounds bonkers, but my god Laura's reading was absolutely hilarious! Filled with teenage drama, celebrating 'the odd one out', mermaids, fit pirates and trampy sirens, this is one not to miss.



Paperweight by Meg Haston (2 July) – While the HKB team didn't want to call it an 'issues book', it does get straight to the point. Stevie is packed off to a mental health clinic against her will, but what she finds along the way might surprise her. It's sounds gritty and a bit John Green, definitely a YA read to watch out for.

The Good Girls by Sara Shepard (2 July) – I am completely hooked on Sara Shephard's mystery novels (I continue reading the Pretty Little Liars series even though they've long run their course) and The Perfectionists is the latest series. I loved the first book and can't wait to dig into the sequel!

The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (27 August) – A highly imaginative concept set in contemporary Nazi England, this novel delves into the beliefs and actions of children within a Nazi regime. It sounds like a thought-provoking read that will sprout many discussions about the perception of right and wrong.



All of the Above by James Dawson (3 September) – I am a big fan of James, having reviewed Cruel Summer, Say Her Name and Under My Skin in the past. But while those were all teen horror type novels, All of the Above is a completely fresh concept for the author. A coming-of-age novel without any supernatural elements, but instead with a touch of poetry woven throughout. The extract he read sounded truly amazing and I can't wait to hear more about it.

Cloud 9 by Alex Campbell (3 September) – A futuristic, political conspiracy thriller with a blogger at the heart of the action. It sounds amazing and the cover is incredibly eye-catching and stunning too.

Anything That Isn't This by Chris Priestley (1 October) – If I had to pick just one book of all the 2015 Hot Key Books titles listed here that I am most excited for then it's this one. 1984 with a YA twist, yes please!

That is a LOT of amazing new books from Hot Key Books this year! Which one(s) are you most excited for?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hot Key Books and Piccadilly Press blogger brunch



It has been an ace few weeks for book blogging events and I was thrilled when I received an invite from my favourite young adult publisher, Hot Key Books, for a blogger brunch at which they would present their upcoming 2015 titles and give bloggers to opportunity to mingle with the team and meet some of their amazing authors.


I met up with Laura at nearby Farringdon station and had a map with the route to the HKB offices ready on my phone yet I still managed to get us lost, oops. Thankfully we'd arrived into London early and still made it to the event in plenty of time. Before the presentation there was time to mingle with the lovely HKB team, fellow bloggers and author James Dawson (who had to shoot off early on in the afternoon) all while enjoying tasty breakfast food such as pastries and fruit. Yum! At 12 we made our way into the boardroom, admiring the gorgeous titles on display before sitting down for the presentations.


First up was James (who is not tiny by the way, but was sitting down!) who was full of love for bloggers, commenting on a recent series of Tweets by another author not quite so appreciative of the online book blogging community. James responded by saying that a collective is always going to be louder than an individual and authors should not bite the hand that feeds them. And to the bloggers he said: "Don't let people tell you that what you do isn't useful". Thanks, James!

He also spoke about his exciting new book, coming out later this year, which is completely different from his teen horror titles because, he said, "I wouldn't want to write the same book 17 times". All Of The Above is a coming-of-age novel without any supernatural elements, but instead with a touch of poetry woven throughout. The extract he read was truly amazing and I can't wait to hear more about it.


After James left, the HKB team took turns talking about all the exciting new books coming out this year (more about my favourites in a separate blog post tomorrow) before, one by one, some of their other authors took the stage to talk about their upcoming books.

First was Lydia Syson (pictured above) who described her novel, Liberty's Fire, as "Les Mis 40 years on". She could've stopped right there as I'm pretty sure she sold it to the room with those five words! She did add that the novel is also filled with action, music, protests and romance, all against the backdrop of the civil revolution in Paris.


Jess Vallance's novel Birdy focuses on an unlikely friendship that sounds too good to be true. It came across as a dark and very intriguing novel and the cover is absolutely amazing!


Hayley Long has two books coming out this year: Sophie Someone, for which she invented her own language, and non-fiction title Being a Girl. The latter sounded so funny! She talked about "the crimson wave collection" (what period stuff in the shops should be called) and what teens really thought of other girls "why are girls such bitches?" The HKB team pitched in that even as adults they learned a lot from the book!


Julie Mayhew was so lovely and her book, The Big Lie, sounds truly inspired. Set in contemporary Nazi England it delves into the beliefs and actions of children within a Nazi regime. It sounds like a thought-provoking read that will sprout many discussions about the perception of right and wrong.


Admittedly a book about mermaids didn't really sound like my kind of thing, but author Laura Dockrill absolutely sold Lorali to me with her fantastic presentation! She spoke about fit pirates and trampy sirens, and the extract she read from the book about a teenager wanting to turn into a mermaid and the steps she believed she had to take to achieve this was laugh-out-loud funny. She had the whole room of bloggers in stitches with that!


After the presentation it was time to mingle with the authors, get our books signed and have more tasty food (I had chocolate cake, raspberries and Prosecco. Best. Brunch. Ever!). It was such a brilliant afternoon and I loved chatting to the authors, HKB team and bloggers. They probably would've had to kick me out had I not already made another appointment I had to rush to!


As we left we also got AMAZING Hot Key Books tote bags filled with book proofs in addition to the ones I already picked up from the displays in the boardroom. I'm supposed to be rationing my new books as I have to move house soon and this means I have even more books to pack, but there were so many tempting titles that I ended up lugging ten new books on the train home. Worth it!

Thanks so much to team Hot Key Books for the invite and for organising such a fab event! I'll also be publishing my Top picks from Hot Key Books' 2015 releases blog post tomorrow.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Theatre review: A Level Playing Field at Jermyn Street Theatre



©Photo Chris Coulson

I had the pleasure of watching Jonathan Lewis' excellent Our Boys in the West End last year and so was keen to check out the latest play by his hand. A Level Playing Field is part of his Education, Education, Education trilogy, which provides an insight into the educational system. Where the first play is told from the students' perspective, the other two will shine a light on schooling through the eyes of the parents and teachers. It's a fascinating concept and if either of the other plays are half as provocative as A Level Playing Field, we'll be in for a treat.

When the audience first meets the cast of characters within A Level Playing Field, the students are entering the isolation room between tests; they have one final exam to go before freedom awaits them. Geared up for the last round of revisions, distraction presents itself in the form of Nicholas Cage, as one of the students has 'Caged' the room, and the unexpected lack of adult supervision. Taking A-levels is a stressful period in a teenager's life at the best of times, but with the added pressure in private schools to get those coveted A-stars and continue on a path that has been carefully planned their entire lives it isn't surprising that for some of these young people it becomes too much in that isolation room – especially when they start to ponder, what is it all for anyway?

A Level Playing Field dissects this question within the educational system and exposes the flaws through its highly intellectual young characters. Yet for all the issues it tackles and the tension that carefully builds throughout, which comes to an explosive finish in the second half, there were just as many genuinely funny moments that added a touch of lightheartedness. This ensured that the play never became tedious nor did the clear passion for the message preach what we, as a collective, should be thinking about the state of education in today's society. Instead it was a highly compelling piece of theatre that not only entertains but also manages to make its audience think.

While the writing was snappy and the story sizzles with anticipation, the most exciting part of this play was its predominantly teenage cast and their lack of a professional acting background. The characters on stage felt unbelievably authentic, something that would've been hard to emulate by people just acting the parts. Instead they're portrayed by young adults who have undoubtedly gone through that stressful part in their lives only recently themselves and their affinity for the drama and the pressure on an impressionable young mind truly showed.

A Level Playing Field may have an initial focus on the flaws within the educational system, most interestingly the story was a staging of the complex teenage mind; highly dramatic, self-centred and over the top at times, yet amid the noise and confusion of growing up there's a fascinating and powerful message – and it is one that is worth listening to. 




A Level Playing Field is running at Jermyn Street Theatre until 9 May 2015. Buy tickets here.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Beauty review: Botanicals Foot Softening Balm



Earlier this year I trialled Botanicals' lavender and tea tree calming body lotion, which was a product I thoroughly enjoyed using, so when I was offered the opportunity to try another one from the 100% natural and organic Botanicals range I was very keen to do so.

Just like with the body lotion, a punch of scent was the first thing that hit me when I opened the tub of foot balm. And while I'm normally not a huge fan of the strong fragrance of mint – it reminds me too much of toothpaste – the combination with tea tree balanced out the mint, creating a wonderful bouquet of fragrances scenting the air, and my feet, with the smell of relaxation.

The balm aims to soften dry and hard skin, which is a-plenty on the average foot, and it definitely does that. It's very concentrated, so a tiny pea-sized sample of the foot balm was enough to massage the surface of one foot, which means the entire tub of 50g (which retails for £15.95) will last for yonks, especially as you don't have to use this daily, but can keep the balm as a special treat for your feet when they need a boost.

Fair word of warning, the product is quite oily when used and it leaves a greasy filter for about fifteen minutes after application. This means it's not ideal to use when rushing in the morning and your feet will be enclosed by socks and shoes, too slippery, so make sure you add it to your evening regime instead. I personally loved using it after a hot shower, or long soak in the bath as it was the perfect soothing treat for my tired feet before going to bed.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book review: Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey


My edition: Paperback (proof), to be published on 23 April 2015 by Simon & Schuster, 549 pages.

Description: 1943, in the ruins of Blitzed London…

Stella Thorne and Dan Rosinski meet by chance and fall in love by accident. Theirs is a reluctant, unstoppable affair in which all the odds are stacked against them: she is newly married, and he is an American bomber pilot whose chance of survival is just one in five.

… He promised to love her forever

Seventy years later Dan makes one final attempt to find the girl he has never forgotten, and sends a letter to the house where they shared a brief yet perfect happiness. But Stella has gone, and the letter is opened by Jess, a young girl hiding from problems of her own. And as Jess reads Dan's words, she is captivated by the story of a love affair that burned so bright and dimmed too soon. Can she help Dan find Stella before it is too late?

Now forever is finally running out.

Rating:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lunch at The Fritton Arms in Norfolk



After our wonderful visit to Somerleyton Hall and Gardens, we made the short journey to one of two country pubs on the same estate; The Fritton Arms. We had chosen the location for its vicinity to Fritton Lake and the park and it proved to be an excellent choice as we had a terrific lunch and wander along the lake after.


The Fritton Arms may be classed as a pub, it is nothing like a greasy spoon in the city. It is far more upmarket and seasonally orientated, and the diverse menu reflects this. Not only that, but a lot of the food cooked on the premises is from the Somerleyton estate itself, including a large portion of their meat offerings; the epitome of locally sourced. And the quality of their food was instantly obvious as we were given some delicious fresh bread filled to the brim with seeds and nuts while we were pouring over the menu.


While the regular menu already looked incredibly appetising, it was the specials board that really caught our attention and we both ended up ordering our mains from it. I mean, just look at the amazing variety of scrumptious dishes listed below, how could you not order from that? It was tough for us to narrow down our choices to just one each, I can tell you that.


Before our main courses arrived though, my friend ordered a starter as we had worked up an appetite exploring Somerleyton Hall and Gardens. She went for the Asparagus Soup With Poached Egg and I just loved the colour of the dish when it arrived to our table. The beautiful bright green of the asparagus really popped and made the soup look healthy and delicious.

My friend found her starter flavoursome and well-seasoned, though she did point out that the consistency could've been somewhat thicker. Also, while the poached egg looked interesting, it actually didn't add much flavour to the dish as a whole.


For the main she choice the Estate Rabbit; Bacon Wrapped Loin, Haked Confit Leg, Pearl Barley, Rich Tomato Salsa And Wild Garlic. The presentation of this dish was absolutely stunning and you could see there had been a lot of thought and effort put into this. And the fact that the rabbit was from the Somerleyton estate itself made this dish very special indeed.

My friend thought the rabbit was cooked to perfection and the way the dish was put together was delicious. Though it was quite meat-heavy and could've done with some vegetables and/or potatoes to complete the meal.


My main also came from the specials board and was the Pan Roast Guina Fowl Surpreme, Herb Mash, Asparagus, Roasted Carrots and Madeira Jus (I'd requested the black pudding to be left off). Once again the presentation was fantastic; the combination of colours and the ring of rich gravy around the plate made this dish a real stunner and one I instantly wanted to dig into when it arrived to the table.

Flavourwise it was absolutely faultless. I love guinea fowl and I've had a variety of qualities in the past, but I do believe this is the best one I have tasted yet – it was that good. The vegetables were cooked to al dente perfection and the asparagus in particular tasted so fresh, unbelievable. The jus was beautifully flavoursome and so was the herb mash, which truly complimented the guinea fowl without overpowering the bird's gentle flavour. It was an incredible dish and one worth the journey (all the way from London!) on its own.


As I had enjoyed my main so thoroughly I didn't think I'd have space for a dessert, but my friend was tempted by the sound of the Sticky Toffee Pudding With Fudge Sauce And Vanilla Ice Cream. I admit it's not normally my thing, but when the below arrived to our table and she was offered an extra jug of the gooey fudge sauce I did somewhat regret my choice.

Lucky for me my friend didn't actually enjoy her dessert very much as she found the texture of the pudding more bready rather than spongy (she did love the sauce and ice cream though), so I ended up devouring most of the final course. I'm not even sorry, the fudge sauce in particular was scrumptious and I pretty much ate it straight from the jug (and when I said 'pretty much' I mean that I actually did).


With a rustic, homely atmosphere and a seasonal, locally sourced menu, The Fritton Arms was the perfect place for a leisurely Sunday afternoon lunch after exploring the nearby Somerleyton Hall and Gardens.



The Fritton Arms. Address: Church Lane, Fritton, Norfolk, NR31 9HA. Phone: 01493 484008. Email: info@frittonarms.co.uk.


Many thanks to the Somerleyton team and the Visit Suffolk press office for arranging our visit in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Somerleyton Hall and Gardens in Suffolk



On a beautiful leafy estate on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk, lays the serene Somerleyton Hall and Gardens. I love exploring the UK and the impressive stately homes and historical buildings it has on offer on a Bank Holiday weekend and while I have been to many stunning and interesting heritage places in recent years, none was quite so splendid as our trip to Somerleyton over Easter.

As soon as we drove up to Somerleyton Hall and we noticed many cheeky pheasants running along the car, we knew we were in for a wonderful day of exploration and feeling close to nature. And for once the British weather co-operated as well, as it was a crisp and sunny day so it was a genuine pleasure to stroll through the beautiful gardens and take in the abundance of stunning blossoms, which added a pop of colour and the delicate smell of spring to our visit.

Other highlights included a tour of the very impressive stately home, which was narrated so wonderfully by Barbara and Christine; exploring the maze and getting completely lost; and having the opportunity to participate in the annual Easter Egg Hunt. We may have been two adults visiting the estate, but as we had forgotten to bring chocolates with us to celebrate Easter we were excited when even without children in tow were given a map for the fun hunt and claim our tasty prizes afterwards.

As a picture is worth more than a thousand words, here is a visual snapshot of the beauty hiding within Somerleyton Gardens (photography wasn't allowed within the hall), which will undoubtedly make you want to visit the gorgeous estate during your own next free weekend – and you definitely should.

















Somerleyton Hall and Gardens. Address: Lovingland, Suffolk, NR32 5QQ. Phone: 0871 2224244. Email: info@somerleyton.co.uk.

Many thanks to the Visit Suffolk press office and the Somerleyton team for arranging our visit in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Launch party for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance by Kirsty Greenwood



Back in February I said that Pan Macmillan Women’s Fiction Evening was the bookish event of the year, but after last week I have to say that the launch party for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance by the fabulous Kirsty Greenwood takes the literary crown for being the actual best.

As soon as the invite landed in my digital mailbox, a squee of delight may have escaped from me as not only did this mean I would have the chance to celebrate this laugh-out-loud romantic comedy novel with its amazing author, but Kirsty was holding her launch party as the in bookish circles very well known Drink, Shop and Do near King’s Cross in London, which was such a treat.


I think we’re in the right place…

With a host of fun events ranging from monthly ‘Speakeasy’ bookish reads to building-structures-out-of-toast competitions, this venue had been on my radar for a while and I was excited to finally get the opportunity to visit. And while it was a great place, I admit that as soon as I arrived I got distracted by hugging Kirsty and congratulating her on her pub day, followed by getting pulled into the most amazing gathering of authors, publishing people and fellow book lovers (shout out to the lovely book bloggers and reviewers I met on the night!), and I completely forgot to actually scout the rest of the venue, oops.

A particular highlight, besides, you know, basking in Kirsty’s amazingness, was finally meeting the super funny Lisa Dickenson, whose novels You Had Me At Merlot and The Twelve Dates of Christmas had me in actual stitches. She made good on her Twitter promise/threat that she would hug and smooch me and she was just so sweet. She also wore the most amazing heels (this is how I was told I could spot her) and she was as funny in real life as you’d imagine from reading her hilarious novels. Another author I really admire and had the chance to meet and have an actual conversation with (we even went on a cake run together!) was the super lovely Ali McNamara of Step Back in Time and From Notting Hill With Four Weddings... Actually -fame. So much awesomeness in one room, you guys.


Scrumptious cakes at the party with beautiful vintage plates

I also got to meet some fellow members of team Novelicious I hadn’t met in person before, which was utterly amazing. I fawned over Helen’s amazing photos of cake and chickens on Instagram and had such a great time chatting to the wonderful Cress as well, who from the end of this month will be a published author! Her books look absolutely amazing, so be sure to check them out here. I also got to meet Jennifer and see the gorgeous Cesca again, as Kirsty said in her lovely speech (in which I got a mention too, how cool is that?!): “Team Novelicious forever!”


Books, books, so many books!

Speaking of speeches, Kirsty’s editor Caroline Hogg gave a wonderfully moving one and it was brilliant to have the chance to hear it “IRL” and see that there was barely a dry eye left in the house after. Caroline mentioned how Kirsty is such a brilliant and creative person and she has made a real difference in the women’s fiction industry, not only with her own novels but also with Novelicious, and she is basically bookish magic. True that.


Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaake!