Starstruck by Beth Miller – two women, a swap and the search for real life in a very funny novel

Starstruck by Beth Miller

A whole new life is on offer in this book, but perhaps the reality of celebrity in the twenty-first century is not always easy to live with for anyone unused to stardom. This is a very funny novel with sparky dialogue and humorous characters, as well as a sprinkle of the stardust which some people seem to be born with. It tells the story of Sally Marshall , who is reasonably happy with her life with Paul and her job as a tribute act for the global superstar Epiphanie. While it involves working in some fairly dodgy pubs and places, it means that she can be on stage and keep her dreams of being a performer alive. One day, out of the blue, Epiphanie in all her enhanced flesh turns up in the kitchen and makes Sally and Paul an offer that they cannot refuse; for two weeks Sally will become Epiphanie and perform at some eye wateringly huge concerts in America while Epiphanie pretends to be Sally pretending to be her.While it could be a straightforward and well rewarded swap, Sally has little idea of what is to come, as being a star is so much more than entertaining thousands of people. 

This is an immensely entertaining book which is based around a simple idea. If someone physically resembles a star, or can be made to do so, it must be easy to imitate them. In this case Sally proves to have a struggle on her hands, which half the chapters describe in her voice. The logistics of immense wealth and fame are difficult to cope with, what makes this harder is that no one must suspect that a swap has been made. They are very different people; Sally is naturally friendly and generous, Epiphanie has been isolated from “normal” life for decades and has developed very different expectations and demands when there are thousands if not millions of people fascinated by her every move. The characters are amazing; apart from the two main protagonists there is the hapless Paul who has certain problems sharing a small house with officially the sexiest woman in the world, the icy Charmaine and the memorable Indigo. When even neighbours, security men and others get involved, life gets complicated, and especially as a bodyguard develops an addiction to tea and the local Lidl. For anyone who has ever wondered about what it must be like to live the life of the immensely wealthy, even for a short time, this is a funny and very human book which I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.

Sally is soon whisked away to a new life in a plane where the entirety of the First Class area is bought up to give her privacy, especially as she discovers that it is a steep learning curve to become a star. She does refuse surgery to enhance her likeness to Epiphanie, but is told that the transformation of walking, talking, moving and generally behaving like the star is going to take many hours. Sally also generally enjoys her food, and is now forced to accept small portions of anything except carbohydrates, and can only beg for sweet treats. Meanwhile Paul is coping with entertainment venues that are confused by the real Epiphanie having far more star quality than Sally, and having to tell the world’s greatest star to tone it down and cover her most visible assets. 

This story works on many levels; a comedy of confusion and surprises of how the other half live, a complex comparison of how wealth and fame can limit a life, and a realisation of what is important in life. Sally’s descriptions of what it feels like to really find oneself in a dream of performing to thousands of people and finding a reality are wonderful as well as her frustrations and missing her real life. This is a really entertaining and uplifting book in so many ways, and is genuinely funny throughout.   

Falling in Florence by Joy Skye – a novel of finding Sublime Retreats in beautiful Florence

Falling in Florence by Joy Skye

Sofia Marino loves her large Italian family and their restaurant, but wants to get her own job. Her interview with Peter at Sublime Retreats has an interesting beginning, but she soon lands the job as his P.A. which means helping to track down select apartments in various cities. Adam is a young man who has been traumatized by the lost of his mother, and he is close to his retired police officer father. He always wants to be in control, so meeting his boss’ new P.A. is disturbing on several levels, not least because there seems to be a connection between them. Sofia’s family is complicated, but they broadly welcome her bid for independence. Unfortunately, Adam’s father Jack has a theory about the Marino family and an alleged involvement with a crime years before. When an accident means that Sofia must accompany Adam on a working trip to Florence, their relationship is tested in many ways despite the beauty of the city.

This is the second book which I have read which is loosely based on the idea of Sublime Retreats, but both novels are very much standalone. It is a lovely concept for novels, as describing apartments for the wealthy gives a good reason for describing some immense and impressive settings. The beauty of Florence is well described in this book, especially restaurants with balconies and terraces that afford good views of the scenery. The characters of Sophia and her family, featuring her rather bulky brothers and traditional parents are well drawn, especially when contrasted with the rather austere Adam and his father’s quiet relationship. The mix of character and setting is a good one in this novel, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

Sophia is described as a small young woman, with a prodigious appetite for food. Her family is very important to her, and her track record for romantic relationships has been limited by the understandable fear that no one would come up to her brothers’ standards. When she travels to Florence her genuine charm and her knowledge of the language and culture means that she copes so much better than Adam. He has high hopes for the trip, to make his mark within the business, but having denied himself enjoyable food and drink for so long he finds it difficult to allow himself to enjoy the amazing food and relax into the experience. Sofia’s spontaneity is difficult for him to cope with on many levels, and the trip seems to be out of his control as well as his feelings.

This is an entertaining and engaging book which enjoyed reading on many levels. It has a real sense of place even for those of us who are not so familiar with the city of Florence, and it luxuriates in the descriptions of the sights and landmarks. The descriptions of the food alone makes it a memorable read! The character of Sofia is lovely, as she encompasses some clumsiness with genuine charm and her ability to influence people at first meeting as well as family links. I recommend this book as a satisfying read for its characters, sense of place and genuine interest in how people react to opportunities.  

A Precious Daughter by Diane Allen – as the twentieth century begins, can Amy find her true home?

A Precious Daughter by Diane Allen

In 1896, Amy is fourteen years old. She lives in Dentdale on a small farm with her parents and grandparents. As peaceful and lovely as her life is, wandering the dales with her friend Joshua, it looks like she will soon be forced to discover a whole new life. Her father Ethan wants Amy and her mother Grace to go with him to the goldfields of the Klondike, to make their fortunes. Her grandparents are appalled – to leave the security of a home that Grace and Amy have always known to a whole new world with the unreliable ex navvy Ethan for a distant chance of making a fortune seems such a bad idea. Certainly the unbelievable challenges of a long voyage and the near impossible journey to overworked land proves to be an overwhelming experience for the little family; and not everyone will survive.

This is a fascinating and emotional read of a young woman’s progress through various places in search of what she really wants from life. Its themes include the sheer hard work expected of those prospecting for gold in the nearly unsurvivable world of harsh winters and slender living conditions. It also provides a many layered picture of Liverpool, a port city of poverty and hope, of daily challenges and memorable characters. Throughout this well researched and interesting book the story of Amy flows through, a self possessed young woman who wants to find her way in a world with many challenges. The historical setting is so well realised that the sights, sounds and even smells of the places seem to come alive. This is an author who has developed a real sense of place in her writing, and yet the central element is the characters, those who reappear and those who inhabit the pages for a short time. This is an entertaining and engaging book, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

As the book begins Amy is walking in the countryside with Josuha, bitter and apprehensive about her father’s plans. Joshua says that he will always be there, but they both know that her journey will not be easy. Amy’s grandfather George knows that Ethan is not making a sensible decision, and that even the comparatively easy job of being a station porter as he is supposed to be at the moment is often beyond him. The older man is furious that Ethan has claimed money from the local charitable funds, and sees it as further evidence of his underhand cunning. When the narrative goes on to describe how awful the journey for Grace, Amy and Ethan is, how dangerous and reckless, there is a sense of anger that Ethan is willing to risk the women’s lives for a dream. The harshness of the conditions of their destination is only slightly alleviated by Amy’s willingness to make the best of their situation, and the relative kindness of some strangers. When the worst happens there is real trauma for the young woman, but her resilience carries her through, so that when she is placed in an entirely different situation back in Britain, she must readjust again. Her ability to make the best of her circumstances is remarkable, especially as others around her are struggling. 

This is a big story of people’s lives at the end of the nineteenth century, as new opportunities and worlds open for some, while others struggle with their own set circumstances. The dialogue and characters are very well observed, while the author has a keen eye for the clothes and other objects that fill the settings of the story. This is a carefully written story which details some memorable characters and their pursuit of life and more. For those who enjoy female led dramas of the early twentieth century this will be a real treat, while everyone will find this a well written story. 

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Bourne Bookshop in Lincolnshire (Number Six)

Bourne Bookshop

While in Lincolnshire, we decided to visit Bourne in search of a bookshop. To my delight we found Bourne Bookshop. As you can see from the photos above it is a small shop, but well stocked with fiction, non fiction and children’s books. I called in and had the second door opened so it was a wide and completely flat access. Once in you can see that there is plenty of room to move around. There are plenty of just published hardback fiction books on display as well as paperbacks to look at and choose from. The place is bright and inviting, as well as having a friendly member of staff. I could have spent even more money in there than I did!

The card I was handed does not mention a website, but they invite enquiries on enquiries@bournebookshop.co.uk , or by phone 01778 392777.  The address is

19 North Street, Bourne, Lincolnshire PE10 9AE.

Facebook: bournebookshop

Instagram: bournebookshop

Twitter @bournebookshop

The business owner is Karen Smith. I am not sure of the opening hours – I believe they were generous (9 – 5.30) so I think you should have a good chance of getting in!

I am trying to track down more accessible bookshops in the UK for visiting – so if you know of one, or even work in one, please let me know! ( My definition of accessible is one that I can get into with my trusty powerchair Morgan – see above!)

I Have Something to Tell You by Susan Lewis – a contemporary novel of crime and fractured relationships

I Have Something to Tell You by Susan Lewis

Jessica has an idyllic if busy life. Senior partner in a firm of solicitors in Bristol, she specializes in criminal defence, and meets with some interesting people. Married to Tom, a successful barrister, her two children are nearly launched into their adult lives, with only a few wobbles, or possibly more. Known as Jay, she has supportive friends, and has surrounded herself with other lawyers, investigators and secretarial help. Then one day she is asked to take on a new client, one Edward Blake, who is accused of murdering his wife. There is something about this case, among so many others, that stands out. Maybe it is the question of something hidden, a betrayal that is at the heart of the closest of relationships. When her husband utters the words “I have something to tell you”, she begins to realise that she may not only have to defend her client, but also tackle a problem with the person she most trusts – or does she?

This is a gripping novel of law, love and secrets. Jay’s story is the focus of this fascinating legal procedural as the truth of a brutal murder gradually comes to light in the context of contemporary investigation by both the legal team charged with the defence of a wealthy client who maintains his innocence, and the police. The case is placed squarely in the midst of the context of the difficult relationship between Jay and Tom from Jay’s point of view, as she tries to second guess what will happen in a relationship which is already cracked. I found both elements of the novel really engaging, as Lewis skillfully increases the tension on several fronts. She also creates a good sense of place, in the contrast between interview rooms and country homes, the backgrounds of the wealthy in sharp contrast to the isolation of imprisonment. The greatest achievement of this book is undoubtedly the characters, as they range from Jay’s outward control and inward doubts to the quiet stoicism of Edward Blake with an underlying desperation, with the temperamental Tom to the friends who offer support. I found myself totally engaged with this well written novel, with surprises and twists to maintain interest. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

The book opens with Jay engaged in a normal working day of papers, files and calls when she is alerted to a call from Detective Inspector Ken Bright. She has a lot of respect for this particular police officer as a result of previous encounters. The basic facts are that Edward Blake is thirty – nine and arrested on suspicion of killing his wife at their home. He does fit anyone’s expectations as he is a property developer and architect with substantial resources and a seemingly ideal life. As Jay meets Blake she discovers that he is a quietly charismatic man with secrets that go beyond his current situation. She is also suddenly afflicted with memories of a situation that she is still trying to process, to forgive as forgetting is impossible.

This is an intense and powerful read that makes the most of impressive research into how criminal defence lawyers work which is seamlessly woven into the narrative. It is a clever book which introduces information and surprises in a well-timed way. The relationship between Jay and her husband is brilliantly described as well as the context of family and friends. The central mystery is unraveled in such a clever way in the setting of the book that it marks this book out as a memorable read. I recommend this book to all those who enjoy reading about contemporary crime in very realistic settings.

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore – Secrets and lies in the build up to war

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore 

Minnie Gray wants to do more than marry and have babies, as expected of her in 1928. This is a novel of a young woman who gets involved in situations she doesn’t understand, in order to please a mysterious spymaster. Written with a sense of tension in a time of political uncertainty, Minnie’s story was inspired by the real life Olga Gray who was recruited as an MI5 infiltration agent. Like her, Minnie is connected to MI5 by Maxwell, and it is that which keeps her going through the tedium and danger of working among Communist Party members. A quietly written novel of a young woman trying to make the most of her life, clinging on the edge of what she thinks is important, with an awareness  of the tedium of a young woman’s life, this is a compelling tale well told. It has little to do with the glamour and excitement of a more usual spy story, and in a neat twist has her rejecting a film version of espionage, describing instead the loneliness of a young woman who cannot reveal to anyone the true nature of her work. Full of the small details of life in  early 1930s London, this novel is eloquent in describing Minnie’s quiet, efficient life which has a continuous element of danger,as she knows of the possible outcome of discovery. “A beautiful spy” is the somewhat ironic refrain that follows Minnie throughout this well written novel, as she feels more of a grey background figure, discreet, useful, and quietly used to the excitement of an impossible challenge. I found this a fascinating read, a beautifully executed theme, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The novel opens with Minnie attending a Conservative garden party in her home town. Helping her widowed mother from habit rather than political conviction, she is overwhelmed with the dullness of her life, and the expectation that she will marry well and be content with her lot. Intrigued by a mysterious woman, the vague promise of a more interesting employment attracts her, but seems to disappear quickly. It is over three years later, in November 1931, that she is invited to meet a mysterious Captain King in London. Not that she has moved on much in the intervening period, and she is not convinced by his offer of part time ‘work’ infiltrating the Communist Party, as long as she can find herself somewhere to live and another part time job. She shows enterprise and efficiency by calmly finding herself work and a flat, and gradually becomes a trusted organiser of offices and systems for the devoted but disorganised members of a Party attracted by the ideals and systems of Russia. Not that she is persuaded by patriotism or dedication, rather the regular meeting with the elusive Max, who praises her progress and urges her to further efforts. Even though his own life seems troubled, and she is somewhat tempted by a conventional life with the unexciting Raymond, she continues to try to impress Max, despite a continuing cost.

This novel narrates from the point of view of a bewildered young woman who rapidly learns the absolute discretion required of her double life, and has to meet challenges with little support. Hore quietly describes a life of small incidents, little details and the sort of self effacing efficiency that makes Minnie an effective operative.It also conveys the sense of loneliness necessitated by her secrecy from her family and few friends of her true actions. This is a book which is carefully written, yet stylishly describes the probable true demands on the quiet but effective agents of a silent conflict, and I thoroughly recommend it as the story of a woman spy in the build up to the Second World War. 

London Clay by Tom Chivers – a collage of words on journeys through the Deep City

London Clay by Tom Chivers

“It feels like moving through a collage” says a friend to Tom Chivers as he moves through part of London. This is a suitable way of conveying what this unusual book is truly like. It is a collage of impressions, discoveries, facts and references to fiction. It is not a book of maps, but we now have apps for those. It is not a straightforward history of London or any part of it, but there are historical facts, markers that London has been a city for a very long time, and that people have helped to construct the layers that may well be now virtually invisible except to someone who is carefully looking, and even then it might on be an impression that survives – of bathwater remnants of an otherwise lost river. 

This is not a detailed examination of the lost rivers, tunnels or other remnants and layers of London past – there are other books which tackle those. What Chivers manages superbly is to give an essence of a place, whether a sewer or an area of more open land. His own memories of it, what he is told by a guide or other bystander, the legends of what lies behind the place name, or how it has changed. Social history, geography, geology and so much more have all contributed to this unique book, such is the level of research that Chivers has undertaken, yet it flows in a narrative that is attractively discursive. Any reader who wants to check on the facts can consult the twenty pages of notes at the end of the book, which contains citations for literary quotations, technical journals and even recordings of appropriate music. This is a fascinating read for the armchair traveller and anyone who is fortunate enough to be able to retrace Chivers’ steps around London. I was extremely pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book.

The personal element of this book also lends a friendliness to this book. Firstly in the people that Chivers encounters, some of who are professionally involved with an element of London, some who have just taken an interest over years. There is also a lot about his own life, family and background. A poet and writer who has used his expertise to organise and lead events around London, he studies maps in order to compile his own versions, and has managed to compose this book, a collage of words. He also reflects on the context of his writing, in a pandemic with attendant lockdowns and pressures on his and nearly every other family. So much is different; hearing a church bell he wonders which church is open during the strict days of lockdown, even the runners in the park stick to certain routes acceptable in a time of lockdown. There will be a time when we are all fed up of stories of what we did in lockdown, but I think at the moment people are still keen to know how others filled the weeks and months of isolation, and this book tells of how little traffic on the Thames has affected the banks and environment. 

This is a vivid and impressive book about London, that which is visible, and that which is hidden deep. At the beginning of the book Chivers says he is trying to compile his own map or guide, but acknowledges that it is a city that is constantly evolving, changing and developing, and that he can only gather so much evidence of this city, “This path. This earth. This broken sacred ground”.     

After the Rising and Before the Fall by Orna Ross – Two memorable novels of love, loss and more in twentieth century Ireland

After the Rising and Before the Fall by Orna Ross

These are two big books, with real depth and understanding of people’s motives and situations. It tackles over these two books a woman’s situation as she returns to a place dominated by both her own memories and a complex family history in the context of a fractured community. These books are undoubtedly an achievement of the highest order, and they form the first two parts of the “Irish Trilogy”. The writing is incredibly detailed, moving its focus from the present in 1995, and 1925. It is mainly from Jo Devereux’s point of view, especially it is often directly through her eyes, and so we have memories from her childhood in 1966. It is thus a challenging read which moves backwards and forwards time. It is an immersive read in so many ways. The landscape of shifting sands, the bleak weather and the buildings in which people exist are all vividly described, as are the small details of life. There are letters which set out important messages, reveal truths long hidden, hint at secrets long held. The dialogue is also vivid, revealing much of the personalities involved, the time in which the action takes place and more. This is a book of fine writing, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this mixture of historical and more contemporary stories.

Jo Devereux returns to Ireland from San Francisco too late to see her mother alive once more, not having spoken for some twenty years. She almost misses her mother’s funeral, and her arrival sparks off gossip. She left a complicated family situation behind, and now her return creates much speculation. Her meeting with Rory O’Donovan evokes many memories of her childhood and more complicated emotions  which may prove difficult in light of the surprises and secrets emerging while she has been away. Jo’s own experiences while she has been away have not all been positive – they have included a tragedy which she only refers to in passing at first, and other brief relationships which have had their effect on her life. Success in writing a syndicated column has meant that she has more than survived, but the cost is not always obvious. She has brought back a secret that will fundamentally affect her life, a secret which will only take full effect in the second book. 

There is an important surprise which is revealed after her mother’s death by an unexpected source; her inheritance from her mother. A trunkful of papers and diaries introduce vast swathes of family documents, and her mother had hoped that Jo’s skills at writing could be used to put together a family history. Instead of a sedate procession of family stories, the documents reveal years of division and hate that have poisoned relationships and left scars until the present day. With women and men who have fought and died as well as the trivia of more mundane events, the first book introduces many problems in Jo’s life; can love and purpose in the second novel begin to resolve some of the damage done over so many years? 

This is a book written with an excellent ear for the voices of the past and the present , the shocks and pain inflicted by people, the suffering of loss and the pleasures of love. The explanations and anecdotes are beautifully rendered with the power of vivid imagination rooted in popular tales and legends. The characters are equally vivid, revealed with a sure hand, including the strong minded grandmother and her companion Auntie Norah, the sister who is shocked by Jo’s actions. This is a memorable book which has a wide sweep of emotions and a powerful range of descriptions of events which exceed any straightforward storytelling, all enacted by characters outside easy definition.    

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Bookmark, Spalding (Number Five)

An excellent selection of books – but York and Durham are not local!

Bookshop Tour Five – Bookmark Spalding

In search of accessible bookshops, we have been known to travel quite a way, but thanks to our wayward satnav it seemed to take us a long time to get to Bookmark in Spalding, Lincolnshire. Happily, it was worth it – it is listed as “Reading Rooms, Coffee House and Shop” on its website, https://bookmarkspalding.co.uk/ . As you can see it is on a large corner spot in the town, and is obviously a meeting place for locals in search of lunch as well as books. It also sells gifts, and cards, having a large section for children’s items.

The books are well arranged and there is an excellent range of both fiction and nonfiction. The main thing, of course, is access. The ordinary door on the actual corner has a step, but there is another door with completely flat access and of a decent width that can be opened by a member of staff when you ring the bell. Once in, there is a large ramp to the lower part of the shop and café. There are two toilets, including an accessible one.  Altogether a very good shopping and eating experience which is completely accessible with friendly and helpful staff

Contact Us

Bookmark Spalding
18-20 The Crescent
Spalding
Lincolnshire
PE11 1AF

Opening Hours

Opening hours are as follows:

Monday to Saturday
9am to 5pm

Book Shop
T: 01775 769231

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees – female friendships in late Victorian London in desperate days

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees

London in all its beauty and challenging environments is the setting for this tremendous book of the power of female friendship. Ranging from a girl working in a difficult, dirty and dangerous job on the canals to a clever woman who knows her worth, this novel is set in 1895 as girls and women were beginning to challenge the status quo. Mabs has to work disguised as a boy to try to help her family who live in terrible poverty. Olive has every material advantage and does not want or need a husband, but has a fixed yearning for a child of her own. They discover that getting something that has long been dreamt of can be the start of problems rather than the end. A younger girl, Otty, is confused by her family’s refusal to explore the beauties of Hampstead, and even more bewildered by the blatant discrimination shown on the streets. As situations become desperate, what secrets lie behind closed doors and how can people really be helped?

This is a novel that tackles head on some of the issues which affected many people, especially women, in the final years of the nineteenth century. The fight for women’s rights was more than just about votes, and this novel personalises some of the pressures on girls and women in terms of independence and education and much more, as well as the realisation that for the poor, nothing has improved since “Dickens’ London”. It is powerfully written and skillfully creates real empathy for the mainly female characters who have to struggle to achieve their aims and maintain them. While it is realistic that no one is completely bad or completely good, this book goes further in terms of people needing to pause to consider what is going on, especially Mabs who has so much to offer, and is painfully aware of her limitations. Olive has personal wealth and choices, but she knows that still doesn’t guarantee her total happiness. This is a mature and fascinating book in which the research into life in the Victorian era never slows the story, and adds considerably to the atmosphere created by the weather as well as the settings. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book. 

The book begins by telling of a day in the life of Mabs, as she is disguised as a boy, wearing virtually every possible item of clothing she could find, and still bitterly cold as she works to help move huge blocks of ice on the canal side. It is dangerous work; at one point she has to be rescued as a huge block of ice slips towards her. The necessity to work is strong as she has younger siblings, her mother has died and her father is unable to maintain steady wages. When she is given a chance to improve her lot and that of her family she is keen to seize it, hardly daring to believe her good fortune, but soon discovers that working for the Finch family is not going to be easy, with a woman shut up in her bedroom at all times. Olive, meanwhile, has made a reasoned decision to adopt a child. She is aware that it may well ruin any possible chance of attracting a suitor, but her parents are supportive. Her choice of girls, however, proves to be more difficult than she expected, and she finds that some of her efforts to help are thwarted. Her resources and intentions are admirable, and she is a fixed point for much of the book, especially as she narrates her own views. That is especially effective when she encounters Otty, who also narrates her story. 

This is a detailed novel which achieves a great deal. It is a rattling good story with quite a complex plot which has many surprises. It is full of well drawn characters who each have many layers, even if their part in the story is relatively small. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys female led historical fiction which goes beyond romance.