Friday, December 19, 2014

Book review: I Will Marry George Clooney (... By Christmas) by Tracy Bloom

My edition: paperback, published on 9 October 2014 by Arrow, 375 pages.

Description: There comes a time in every woman's life when the only answer is to marry George Clooney. For Michelle, that time is now.

Slogging her guts out in a chicken factory whilst single-handedly bringing up a teenager who hates her is far from the life that 36-year-old Michelle had planned.

But marrying the most eligible man on the planet by Christmas could change all that, couldn't it?

Sometimes your only option is to dream the impossible - because you never know where it might take you.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book review: The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel

My edition: Paperback, to be published on 12 February 2015 by Penguin, 406 pages.

Description: Edinburgh, 1888. A violinist is murdered in his home. The dead virtuoso's maid swears she heard three musicians playing in the night. But with only one body in the locked practice room - and no way in or out - the case makes no sense.

Fearing a national panic over another Ripper, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Frey to investigate under the cover of a fake department specializing in the occult. However, Frey's new boss, Detective 'Nine-Nails' McGray, actually believes in such supernatural nonsense.

McGray's tragic past has driven him to superstition, but even Frey must admit that this case seems beyond reason. And once someone loses all reason, who knows what they will lose next...


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book review: The Day We Disappeared by Lucy Robinson

My edition: paperback (proof), to be published on 9 April 2015 by Penguin, 434 pages.

Annie has a secret. But if she's not going to tell, we won't either. It's a heart-breaking secret she wishes she didn't have - yet Annie isn't broken, not quite yet. Especially now there's someone out there who seems determined to fix her.

Kate has run away. But she's not going to tell us why - that would defeat the point of running, wouldn't it? It's proving difficult to reinvent herself, however, with one person always on her mind.

Scratch beneath the surface and nobody is really who they seem. Even Annie and Kate, two old friends, aren't entirely sure who they are any more. Perhaps you can work it out, before their pasts catch up with them for good...


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Theatre review: Sikes & Nancy (Dickens With a Difference #2)

After the mediocre experience of Miss Havisham's Expectations (the first in the double bill of Dickens plays I saw back-to-back at the Trafalgar Studios last week) my own expectations had been considerably lowered, so I was pleasantly surprised when James Swanton took the stage and with an expressive performance transformed the evening into something truly memorable.

Rather than focusing on the boy who asked for some more gruel, Swanton's one-man play explored the sinister side of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist as he in quick succession took on a slew of famous faces from the classic tale; from the play's titular leads to the villainous Fagin and several smaller roles, each playing a pivotal part in the abusive relationship between prostitute Nancy and the murderous Sikes - and its explosive ending.

The quick succession between Swanton's remarkable transformation from one character to the other was incredible to watch and hugely captivating. And with his energetic portrayal, Swanton barely seemed to take a breather for the entirety of his one-act play, I at times forgot that I was watching just one man on that stage, and not a much larger cast.

(c) Photo by Edward Quekett

The lighting design by Matt Leventhall was highly effective as well, as he shrouded the most ominous parts of the play in near darkness, playing to the suggestive nature of Swanton's performance. Combined with the simple staging and lack of props, it ensured that the audience's attention was focused solely on Swanton's extraordinarily captivating presence on stage.

Dickens' sinister story of Sikes and Nancy is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a festive outing, but Swanton's mesmerising performance makes for an incredible theatrical experience, one which you can not to miss this December. 

Sikes & Nancy is playing at the Trafalgar Studios in London until 3 January 2015. Buy tickets here.

Also running at the same theatre as part of double bill Dickens With a Difference is Miss Havisham's Expectations. Read my 2-star review here.

Theatre review: Miss Havisham's Expectations (Dickens With a Difference #1)

Growing up outside of the UK I've always been a lover of the stereotypical Dickens London at Christmas time in all its forms, from the source material in book form to the endless amount of cinematic and theatrical adaptations. And so I was excited when an invite arrived in my digital inbox to Dickens With a Difference at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End, promising to give me my Dickens fix with two one-act plays based on some of the author's most famous novels; Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

The first of the two plays in this double bill was Miss Havisham's Expectations, focusing on the well-known but often side-lined character of Miss Havisham from, you guessed it, Great Expectations. The play had a fascinating start as Linda Marlowe (most recently seen in the West End in the Donmar's critically acclaimed Coriolanus), who played both Miss Havisham and narrated the play, analysed the women in Charles Dickens' life and compared this to how he portrayed female characters within his novels.

(c) Photo by Steve Ullathorne

As a self-proclaimed Dickens geek, I found this an interesting introduction to the evening. However, as we kept flicking back and forth between Dickens analysis and the actual story of Miss Havisham, it unfortunately became a tiring and sometimes even confusing method of telling the story.

This feeling of bewilderment was heightened by seemingly random inclusions of magic tricks and even a performance of the can-can. I suppose it did add to the characterisation of Miss Havisham, she is perceived a being absolutely bonkers after all, but it didn't seem to add anything to the play itself - and that should be the most important consideration.

While Miss Havisham's Expectations started off promising, through its 60-minute duration it digressed until the point where it forgot what it was trying to tell or achieve. The at times over-dramatic performance and the misjudged breaking of the fourth wall didn't help matters. It was okay in providing a unique insight into a famous Dickens character, but unless you're a really keen Great Expectations fan, it probably won't hold your interest for the entire hour.

Miss Havisham's Expectations is playing at the Trafalgar Studios in London until 3 January 2015. Buy tickets here.

Also running at the same theatre as part of double bill Dickens With a Difference is the mesmerising Sikes and Nancy. Read my 4-star review here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Theatre review: This is Not a Christmas Play

As a lover of the festive season my one-track mind decided to focus on the word 'Christmas' in the play's title and ignore the 'not' preceding it, after all this was a production put on during the season of joy and the poster too emanates the festivity of December.

Luckily for me, while perhaps it wasn't the focus of the play, there were plenty of Yuletide references scattered throughout, from the use of religious names to the iconic 'Merry Christmas you filthy animals' phrase from Home Alone - a movie which in some ways could have inspired the story of This is Not a Christmas Play. After all, the comedy in both stems from a home robbery gone wrong and the underlying message is that of acceptance and love between family members, or friends in the case of the latter.

(c) Photo by Sofi Berenger

At the start of the play Tim (Jordan Kouame) is lounging on the sofa, too lazy even to open the door when the bell rings and his passive attitude continues for the duration of the 60-minute long performance - interrupted only by forces beyond his control. When house mate David (Matthew Leigh) comes home he is rightfully so annoyed by his friend's lethargic presence in the living room, but with the promise of his ex-girlfriend coming over for dinner - and a possible reconciliation down the line - rather than wasting all his time on Tim, David focuses on creating the perfect romantic dinner.

As both friends are distracted, they make an easy target for a duo of thieves, Mary (Alice Coles) and Clive (James Unsworth), who manage to gain access to the home in a variety of disguises. Clive's ludicrous characters were a particular humorous highlight, especially his big-mustached pizza delivery man and the very final of his outfits, a tiny pair of bright red hot pants; Merry Christmas indeed.

From the moment Mary and Clive make an appearance on stage and it becomes clear what their true intentions are, the play rapidly moves from one crazy scene to another, involving memorable moments such as a sword fight with a potato peeler. It sounds very silly, which it certainly is, but it's also genuinely funny and made the play an unexpected joy to watch as it was impossible to guess what would happen next.  

(c) Photo by Sofi Berenger

Unfortunately my enjoyment of the evening was hampered considerably by the woefully misjudged location; the Top Secret Comedy Club. The 'theatre' was separated from the bar area by a flimsy curtain only, meaning that throughout the performance the audience could hear patrons loudly talking, employees doing the dishes and even some people playing ping pong. It was a severe distraction, going beyond the normal nuisances of rustling sweets packets and phone screen glares, and both the play and the actors on stage deserved a lot better.

Nonetheless, This is Not a Christmas Play managed to bring a smile to my face on more than one occasion. It wasn't the farce it tried to be at times, but the actors were excellent; there were plenty laugh-out-loud moments; and the heart-to-heart between friends David and Tim provided a sweet ending to the not very Christmassy but still seasonably heartwarming tale.

This is Not a Christmas Play is playing at the Top Secret Comedy Club in London until 4 January 2015. Buy tickets here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Beauty review: Phytonutri Qi Energising MM Face Peel by Mel Millis

As soon as I laid eyes upon the gorgeous packaging of Mel Millins' Phytonutri Qi Energising MM Face Peel, I fell head over heels in love with the stunning, not to mention clever, design. The paper bag the product came in was infused with British wild seeds, which not only presented it in a beautiful and luxurious way, but is also very environmentally friendly as it can be torn up and planted - recycling at its very best.

This was the first time I applied a face peel at home and I was surprised by how different it was to using a face mask, which I am much more familiar with. I found the application a little more difficult - though I did get better with practise - as the product was very sticky, almost like a glue, and would not spread out easily or evenly. However, once it stuck it did stay firmly in place.

After letting the peel work its magic, I took it off with the gentle organic muslin cloth provided (top tip: do this in the shower as it can get messy). My face instantly felt incredibly clean, smooth and even, which was a very pleasant sensation and for that reason alone I have already used the product several times.

My skin did start to feel a little tight ten to fifteen minutes after I'd taken off the peel, so I used a rich moisturiser to nourish my face and make sure it would be properly hydrated and keep the smooth sensation for longer.

Even though I hadn't used a face peel at home before, after using this one I am definitely sold. Mel Millis also gets a big thumbs up for its stunning and sustainable packaging, which really adds to the appeal of the brand.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book review: The Stall of Second Chances by Dana Bate

My edition: Paperback, published on 20 November 2014 by Constable & Robinson, 406 pages.

Description: Sydney Strauss is obsessed with food. Not just with eating it - though she loves that too - but with writing about it as an aspiring cookery reporter. But food journalism jobs are more coveted than cupcakes, and so Sydney is stuck working for one of TV's biggest egomaniacs - until she's left scrambling for shifts at the local farmers' market.

Selling muffins at the Wild Yeast Bakery is hardly going to make her the next Nigella. But soon Sydney is writing the market's weekly newsletter, and her quirky stories gain attention from a prominent food columnist. After years of being left on the shelf, she's even dating again. And then Sydney gets a shot at the story, one that could either make her career or burn it to a cinder - along with her relationship and her reputation.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book review: Now That I've Found You by Ciara Geraghty

My edition: Paperback, to be published on 22 January 2015 by Hachette, 399 pages.

Description: Forty-two-year-old Vinnie knows lots of things. He knows new books and school shoes are expensive. He knows his teenage daughter keeps getting into trouble and he knows his seven-year-old has wet the bed every night for over a year.

What Vinnie doesn't know is whether his wife is coming back, or if he will ever get better at single fatherhood.

Ellen knows that what happened in the accident was all her fault. She knows she's too scared to get behind the wheel of a car ever again and she knows that some scars are harder to hide than others.

What Ellen doesn't know is how to move on. And she doesn't know anything about Vinnie, the taxi driver who drives her to physiotherapy every week.

And neither of them knows they're going to change the other's life forever.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Theatre review: Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Stephen Sondheim Assassins is a tricky musical to put on in British theatres as it's a very American story about US presidents and those who assassinated them, or tried so at least. Most Brits will be familiar with the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald and many will probably also know the story about Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, but that's where for most the historical knowledge on assassinations will end.

So for fringe theatre the Menier Chocolate Factory to make this particular show their big Christmas production this year was a risky move. But thanks to a visionary revival by director Jamie Lloyd and a stellar cast, which includes the likes of comedienne Catherine Tate, Broadway's Aaron Tveit and West End's Simon Lipkin, this musical hits the bull's-eye - something which many of the would-be assassins in the show weren't able to.

(c) Andy Nyman

Entering the small theatre space in the Menier Chocolate Factory, was like walking into the colourful and crazy world of a carnival, but with a sinister and unsettling touch to it. This feeling was amplified when the grotesque Proprietor (Simon Lipkin) made an appearance. Covered in white, red and blue streaks of paint he emanated a creepy clown, setting a threatening mood as he showed the audience the assassins and the presidents they targeted.

The individual stories could have easily been disconnected from one another, but they were held firmly together by the intimate staging - the majority of the cast is present on the small stage even when they're not the focus of attention - and the Balladeer (Jamie Parker), who narrated several of the assassination attempts through beautiful, folky songs, before tying everything together in a clever twist towards the end.

(c) Andy Nyman

Director Jamie Lloyd has been on a winning West End streak with Urinetown, The Commitments and Trafalgar Transformed at the Trafalgar Studios, and Assassins is another hit he can add to his ever-growing resume of successes. Not the first time I've seen the Sondheim show, this production is highly imaginative and elevated the story from a depressing fare to a thought-provoking and darkly funny musical.

The cast unanimously excel, with a hugely hilarious performance by Catherine Tate as the spaced-out Sarah Morgan; Aaron Tveit showing true Broadway charisma as John Wilkes Booth; Stewart Clarke's understated turn as Giuseppe Zangara showing he has come a long way from his West End debut just two years ago; Jamie Parker's surprisingly gentle portrayal of both his characters; and the sinister, ever show-stealing Simon Lipkin.

(c) Andy Nyman

With an imaginative direction and staging, and an all-around phenomenal cast, the likes of which are rarely seen treading the boards of a fringe stage together, this production is a sure-fire hit.

Assassins is playing at The Menier Chocolate Factory in London until 7 March 2015, you can buy tickets here.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Penguin Annual Women's Fiction Evening

Last week I received a super last-minute (the day before) invite to Penguin's Annual Women's Fiction Evening and even if I'd been busy the night of the event (which thankfully I wasn't) I would've changed my plans, because the email included a huge list of fabulous authors I admire. To get the chance to not only enter the glorious Penguin offices on the Strand (working there has been my dream for many, many years) but also get the opportunity to mingle with so many talented ladies sounded like the perfect way to spend an evening - and it definitely was.

After being invited to the Penguin Blogger Night earlier this year and Penguin's Annual Fiction Showcase just a few weeks ago by my blogging friend Laura, I was thrilled when I could finally return the favour and invite her as my +1 to the Women's Fiction Evening, especially because we both love this genre of books so much.

So often high expectations can lead to disappointment, but the evening was even more brilliant than we could've possibly imagined. We got to admire piles and piles of beautiful books that are being published next year (I admit, I may have stroked a cover - or two), chat to lots of Penguins (who were lovely, even if I am a tad bit envious of their jobs), enjoy endless refills of Prosecco and scrumptious canapes (I especially loved the mini pigs in blankets and the salmon blinis), meet fellow bloggers (hi Bronagh and Rea!) and of course mingle with a whole host of awe-inspiring authors.

Just some of the books on display

We got the chance to talk to the likes of Jojo Moyes (I was totally starstruck when I asked her to sign my copy of The Girl You Left Behind, my absolute favourite of hers, and while we chatted about her work on the Me Before You screenplay), the always lovely Lucy Robinson (who definitely won for the most eye-catching proof of the night as the popping neon pink could be spotted - and coveted - from across the room), Giovanna Fletcher (who made the effort to be there, even though she was ill, bless her), Louise Candlish (who was so sweet and even remembered me from Twitter!), the gorgeous Sinéad Moriarty, Kate Riordan (who wore the most gorgeous, sparkly shoes), Dinah Jefferies, Jane Shemilt and Eve Chase. Told you it was an amazing line-up of people, and we didn't even chat to all the authors there!

My one regret (as always) is that I didn't take any pictures with the authors (as I found it a bit awkward to ask) or of anything else really but the mountains of books. Ah well, there's always a next time (if I'm lucky enough to be invited again!).

We all got beautiful bright orange Penguin goody bags as we left (which had cards from all the releases there, chocolate, tea, a Penguin cookie and a novel) and were allowed to grab whichever books we liked from the tables. I felt like a kid in a sweet shop and came away with:

My glorious, glorious spoils from the night (most of these are signed too!)

Thanks so much to Cat from Penguin for the invite! You've made two book lovers very, very happy :)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Cover reveal: Conditional Love by Cathy Bramley

I absolutely adored romantic comedy novel Conditional Love when Cathy Bramley self-published her debut last year (read my review) and I was thrilled for her when she landed a publishing deal with the wonderful people at Transworld.

After releasing the adorable Ivy Lane in four digital parts throughout this year (the full paperback will be out in February 2015), Transworld is now re-releasing Conditional Love in ebook (today, 5 December 2014) and paperback (2015) with a brand-spankin' new cover:

The cover isn't the only thing new in the Transworld-edition of Conditional Love.

Author Cathy Bramley said: "It is essentially the same story, with the same characters and the same happy ending. So what is different about it?

"Well, I feel like my writing has developed since I first wrote it almost two years ago and so when Transworld very kindly gave me the opportunity to re-write it, working closely as usual with my editor, Harriet Bourton, I jumped at the chance.

"I took on board her editorial comments, sharpened up the narrative, tweaked some of the characters and generally I’ve given the book a more punchy, fast-moving feel."

Personally, I am very excited about this new version of Conditional Love and will be picking up a paperback when it comes out next year. If you cannot wait that long, you can purchase the ebook on Amazon right now!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book review: The Christmas Party by Carole Matthews

My edition: Paperback, published on 23 October 2014 by Sphere, 448 pages.

Description: Louise Young is a devoted single mother whose only priority is providing for her daughter, Mia. Louise has a good job in a huge international corporation and she's grateful for it. The only problem is her boss who can't keep his hands to himself, but Louise can handle him. What she really doesn't have time for is romance - until she meets the company's rising star, Josh Wallace.

Louise usually says no to evenings out but she's decided to let her hair down tonight. It's the office Christmas party, she has a pretty dress to wear and she's looking forward to some champagne and fun. She's completely unaware that others around her are too busy playing dangerous games to enjoy the party - until she's pulled into those games herself . . .


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Interview with author Fiona Harper

Fiona Harper is no stranger to sparkling seasonal novels. After Kiss Me Under the Mistletoe (2012) and Make My Wish Come True (2013), this year's festive read is the enticingly titled The Little Shop of Hopes and Dreams, which centres on Nicole and her Hopes & Dreams proposal agency.

It sounds like another romantic winner to me and I can't wait to curl up on a wintery Sunday afternoon with a copy of the book and a cup of hot cocoa. To celebrate the release, I caught up with Fiona to talk about all things festive - from writing seasonal stories in April to her own perfect Christmas day (this interview was originally published on Woman's World).

This is not your first seasonal novel, what attracts you to writing about this time of the year?

"Christmas is an intriguing time of year to write about. Lots of people get caught up in the fantasy of Christmas – fairy lights and snow, lovely food and glittery presents – and yet, because we all have these expectations of how perfect it should be, we set ourselves up for emotional turmoil when things don’t go as planned. There’s plenty of mileage in that for a writer and great opportunities for stories that tug at the heart strings."

How do you transport yourself to wintery days when you’re planning and plotting your novels months before the first flake of snow has even hit the ground?

"It’s a bit strange, I grant you. Sometimes I’m writing about frosty Christmases when everyone is wearing T-shirts and shorts! However, I spend so much time thinking about my story world, I forget it’s not real. One year I saw a lady with her shopping trolley piled high at the supermarket and I thought to myself, ‘She’s stocking up for Christmas!’ And then I remembered it was actually April, and it was only Christmas inside my head!"

What does your ideal Christmas look like?

"A morning at home, opening Christmas stockings on our bed with my two daughters. They’re teenagers now, so it can get a little crowded! Then we go downstairs, make tea and have Christmas breakfast muffins, and then we set to work opening the presents under the tree. After that would be a nice Christmas lunch with family.

"If I’m cooking, I have to make the following or it doesn’t feel like a proper Christmas lunch: pork and chestnut stuffing, bread sauce and proper gravy made using the turkey giblets. I’m also pretty partial to apricots wrapped in bacon to go along with the little sausages. Ooh, and parsnip gratin! (Can you tell I love my food?)"

What is the worst gift you’ve ever been given for the holidays? And the best?

"Do you know, I honestly can’t remember a really bad one! I’m sure I’ve had some, but obviously I don’t hold grudges about them.

"The best gift is the fruit my husband puts in my stocking. Not expensive, I know, but it’s always a surprise, because years ago he got fed up putting satsumas in my stocking and started branching out. I’ve had all sorts of different fruit over the years including guava, passion fruit, kiwis, dragon fruit…

"One year I had a whole pineapple sticking out the top of my stocking, another a yard of Jaffa cakes. (They just about count as fruit, don’t they? I certainly told myself that as I scoffed my way through them!) Last year I had individually gift-wrapped strawberries and one held a strawberry-shaped charm for my charm bracelet."

What festively themed novels from other women’s fiction authors could you recommend to our readers?

"I love Sarah Morgan’s books and her Snow Crystal trilogy is reaching its conclusion this holiday season with Maybe This Christmas. I also really enjoy Carole Matthews and Scarlet Bailey for a bit of festive fun."

The Little Shop of Hopes and Dreams is published by Mills and Boon and you can buy your copy from Waterstones, Amazon or your own preferred retailer.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Penguin's Annual Fiction Showcase

I haven't been to a lot of book events lately because I've been so incredibly busy at work, but all of a sudden I had two events scheduled about a week apart!

After the book launch for The Propephecy of Bees by R.S. Pateman, last week I was Laura's plus +1 to Penguin's Annual Fiction Showcase, which was held at new Foyles (I told you, I'd never stop calling that) on Charing Cross Road. As it is literally around the corner from my office, this was perfect for me even with my busy schedule.

I attended the Penguin Blogger Night earlier this year (also courtesy of Laura's invite), and the set up for this one was very similar. There were six very different books highlighted, which either have just been published or are to be released in the upcoming year, and the authors of said novels were present for a chat and, later on in the evening, a reading.

While all the readings I caught were wonderful little tasters for the books, I have to say that I particularly loved the bit we heard of Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void, which was not only hilarious but also educational (who knew that without Ian Fleming, The Lord of the Rings would just be a bunch of Hobbits and Elves reciting poems to one another? ;)).

As I hadn't read a single one of the books yet (most of the proofs had only just come out) I did not only get the opportunity to hear about all of these exciting new titles, but I also got to pick up the ones that sounded the most appealing to me personally. So while I already have several huge to-read piles that are dangerously close to toppling over, I ended up taking home yet another bag full of exciting new reads:

In all it was a fab evening, many thanks to Penguin for organising it and to and Laura for inviting me along!