Secrets of a Highland Warrior by Nicole Locke – a moving and successful historical romance novel

Two Scottish clans, the Lochmore and McCrieff, have been in a state of conflict for generations.  Fighting over land, motivated by old feuds and grudges, regular skirmishes and fights, this novel gives a touching and dynamic instalment of the ongoing story. As Rory Lochmore prepares to fight a battle for land that his clan has a valid claim on, he knows that far more than brief bravery is called for on this day. Meanwhile Ailsa is a young woman with some influence in the Clan McCrieff, as the eldest daughter of the acting ruler, as she minsters to the sick Chief Hamish, as the clan’s healer. Intelligent, blunt and perceptive, she is fully aware of the stories of bad feeling between the clans, and has a deeply personal reason for hating those from Clan Lochmore. As a friend is endangered and family duty tested, Ailsa and Rory establish a link that may solve problems, or may create new ones in a dangerous setting with implications for many people.  Ailsa finds herself dangerously attracted to a man who symbolises the enemy; will she be able to resist a man who is seeking to establish himself in so many ways? 

 

This is a sophisticated historical novel in a setting of medieval life which rejoices in the tiny details. A delicious combination of romance, historical insight and frank descriptions of relationships in a timeless way, this is a totally engaging and involving tale of people so far away in time, but who are forced to respond in ways which are totally understandable today. With a rich mixture of relationships, family revelations and always a hint of danger, this is a novel of love in a time of change and redefined conflict. A sophisticated tale of love, betrayal and long standing secrets, this is historical romantic fiction with so much to offer. 

 

I found this a tremendous read which I enjoyed on so many levels, incidentally learning much of the strength of clan loyalties. It does not hold back on the details of physical relationships, and yet maintains an admirable balance in terms of the novel as a whole. I enjoyed the description of the strength of friendship between Rory and Paiden, and its effects on the story as a whole. The conflict which dominates Ailsha’s thoughts and emotions is carefully examined, and yet the momentum and pace of the book is tremendous. The atmosphere of the building is well described, and the little touches of realism well explored. Touching and involving, the novel works as a fine account of love and lives in a dynamic way. I am not familiar with the series of novels it represents, so I can state that it works brilliantly as a standalone book. I would love to find out more of this series in time. Nicole has had a tremendous success with this book, and is obviously an experienced writer within this genre.

 

I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel, and recommend it as an excellent read for fans of historical romance and historical fiction generally.   

Love Unscripted by Owen Nicholls – love, life and film jokes

Nick has fallen in love with Ellie, but nothing is straightforward. Nick is a projectionist in a small cinema, Ellie is a photographer with prospects. This is a lovely comedy with more than a hint of pathos. There are situations which can bear so many interpretations, and the overthinking Nick usually works through them all. As films and references to them come and go throughout, this is shown to be a complex and sophisticated romantic comedy. This is not only the story of a couple who have their own highs and lows but also two families with backstories and stresses, challenges and choices. This book looks at love in the twenty first century, where life is unexpected and the rules undefined. Nicholls has written a book with some brilliant characters which are well developed and in most cases funny, touching and painfully realistic. Nick is a man whose interior dialogue reveals much of his panic with daily life, as he tries to do his best. Whether it is getting stuck in a window, quoting films or making genuine attempts to help his friends and family, Nick is always realising all the things that can go wrong. This is a most enjoyable book written with a keen ear for dialogue and everyday situations. Running jokes and consistent characters make this book a really engaging experience, which I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

 

The book opens with a Prologue which shows that Nick has always lacked confidence with the opposite sex, and has long been obsessed with films.  His job at a small cinema is more than a money earner; he has a good friend as a boss who will humour his obsessions with naming the projectors and try to help him come to terms with the fact that Ellie has moved out. We return to an American election party. It is 5th November 2008, when it seems that the incredible might actually happen; Obama may actually win. The party is an odd one, and the most amazing thing happens as Nick meets Ellie. Not that it is a hugely romantic moment, but he soon realises that she is immensely attractive with her distinctive flat, her sympathetic sense of humour, and her devastating playlists for every occasion. Despite the political arguments raging around them they realise that this is something special, as sections recalling that night throughout the novel reoccur. Nick is as always a little self destructive as he is so determined that this is the perfect evening that he tries to walk away, convinced that the best thing to do is preserve this night in his memory, of the perfect woman with who he could have spent his life. Fortunately he was roundly disabused of that view, and the whole relationship begins. 

 

It is so difficult to convey just how gently funny this book is, with conversations that have the ring of truth, film references that are not always comprehensible, an unusual story of a love story that is grounded in the mundane truth of missed planes, cringe worthy situations, and a sister who deserves a novel of her own. Families, films and funny conversations, this novel is a real hit, a five star experience, and I recommend it as a grown up comedy for today.  

The Lost Daughter by Sylvia Broady – A woman’s story of loss and love in the 1930s with wartime challenges

 

A young woman is running away in the night. In her desperation she runs into the road, and is hit by a vehicle. This is how it begins, a novel which begins in Hull, Yorkshire, 1930. Alice is a young woman whose life experience has been difficult, with a mother left widowed shortly after the First World War, and it is only after this challenging beginning and a great loss that Alice finds a new start. This is a novel of triumph over adversity, but only in a gradual and sometimes painful steps. At the heart of this book is the central question of the lost daughter, but there is also the story of a woman of her time, who works so hard and shows such flair for her tasks that the reader is left silently cheering. The 1930s were a difficult time for many people, and it is only through determination and genuine effort that Alice can get and keep a job, and begin to make something of her life. With a marriage blighted by a critical and sometimes violent husband, her basic belief in the goodness of people is what will carry her through. Well researched and deeply felt, this book has an essential truth running through it, that deep love will win out over separation, distance and fears for the future. The final third of the book is an exceptionally interesting account of work undertaken by a small group of women who were called the “Flying Nightingales”, whose bravery and commitment were so vital. This is a story packed with incident, with takes years within its stride, but also introduces some fascinating characters. I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this outstanding book. 

 

Alice has grown up in an overcrowded household, by a mother who tried to do her best, even if that involves a great act of betrayal at the beginning of the book. Alice’s early attempt to escape led her into a dangerous marriage which had only one good outcome, her daughter Daisy. Separated from her, Alice must decide whether to sink or find a way to survive, with only the hope of being reunited with Daisy to sustain her. A firm friendship with a nurse, Evelyn, gives her the inspiration into investing in her own education while struggling to help young women whose terrible life experiences show her that she has been relatively fortunate. A fateful meeting at a class opens up new possibilities, but how can she find true love when the shadow of her violent husband remains. In a testament to the survival of the human spirit Alice must make the best of her opportunities in a world where war means separation and some loss of hope. 

 

This book is very well researched in the large and small details which give colour and weight to  the story of people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. As the descriptions of how the bare minimum of clothes can be stretched for various occasions, how meals reflect the challenges of wartime shortages, how loved ones are left changed forever by war, Broady skilful enhances the basic strength of her main character. This is an intense and powerful book of one woman’s fight to survive despite overwhelming odds, and I recommend it to all those who enjoy an historical saga of female survival.      

A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction at its best

 

Constance of York, Lady Dispenser, is many things.  In 1399 even the best connected, wealthiest woman in the country has limits to her power. Her husband, a man of pride and ambition, owns her lands. Her father is a Royal duke, but not as influential as her elder brother Edward, whose survival instincts and huge ambitions may  prove destructive to those around him. The timing of the novel is at one of the pivot points of history; the weak and vacillating Richard II is trying and failing to maintain his hold on the kingdom. Constance’s feelings for Richard mean that she is experiencing more sorrow and fear for him than she will admit, as he has revived her family’s power, and made her husband a great power in the land. As Henry seizes the throne, and establishes his rule, can she negotiate his revenge against her family, the plots and plans which may well threaten her safety, and discover true love for the first time? This is a novel where ambition, betrayal and revenge dominate a woman’s life, and she must make choices that could affect not only her survival, but the fate of an entire country. As always, this author proves her skill in combining the personal and public, the real woman against forces that could well destroy her and those she comes to love. O’Brien shows her mastery of the historical novel, as she uses extensive research to write the telling detail of clothes, food and jewelry that makes the settings seem so real, while maintaining an overview of the historical events which surround the characters. The characters are finely drawn, as Constance and her immediate family are brilliantly recreated in all their inconsistencies and emotions. This tenth novel from Anne O’Brien is a fittingly brilliant portrait of a woman torn by so many forces and her own feelings to create an enthralling and unexpectedly involving historical read, transformed by an unusual romance.  I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 

 

The novel begins with Constance, her husband Thomas, her brothers Edward and Dickon all pressurising a nervous Friar to reveal the future through the use of dice. They want to know if King Richard’s campaign in Ireland will bring glory and further gain for the family they represent. This is not an idle speculation as the enormous fortunes which Constance and her family represent are intertwined with this annointed king. Thomas’ family has a troubled history of forfeiture of their lands within recent memory; it is only because of Richard’s affection for him that he has recovered his status. As Henry comes to power nothing seems fixed, as previous favourites stand to lose everything. The questions of what, if anything they can do emerge. Exactly what will happen to Constance and those around her in a brutal time is the theme of this moving and fascinating novel, as she must make far reaching decisions for herself and those closest to her.  

 

This is a great historical novel and thoroughly deserves to be a success. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially with a central female character.

The Secret Teacher – an anonymous but authentic look at school life through the early years of a career

Image result for the secret teacher book

This is an anonymous book. A teacher in an unnamed school tells it like it really was, hence the fact that there are no real identifying details. With an impressive combination of humour, pathos and reality, this is a book offering genuine insights into life in a school. The characters in the classroom are challenging and entirely realistic, representing all types of school student in depth, not just the clever and the difficult, a good cross section of the characters a teacher would encounter. The teacher starts with dreams and aspirations for transforming lives, or at least delivering brilliant lessons which excited and challenged everyone. As might be expected, for more than one class that does not transpire. Such is the nature of the book that the challenges do not only just come from the students; sometimes other teachers, including the senior management team, make life difficult. The language used by the students can sometimes be a little fruity, sometimes just bewildering, and in recognition of this there is even a glossary of words and phrases included in the book.  Many familiar situations arise; using the wrong marker on the interactive white board, asking questions that no one will admit to knowing the sensible answer, students reacting noisy when they spot a teacher outside school. Most teachers know the way strange ideas are past down from on high, as when every class must include reference to “British Values”. The technological challenges are there, when the staff computer refuses to work properly, when detailed lesson plans disappear, when a classroom of computer using students will not cooperate. Parents want the best for their children, or just want a peaceful life. Some students are ambitious, some students just switch off, especially if home circumstances conspire against them.

As a teacher myself, I really enjoyed this less than respectful, sometimes painfully funny view from the classroom.

 

The book begins with the teacher starting his career as a Newly Qualified Teacher in a mixed school which includes some older staff, full of the quirks and habits of the long established. Our hero does not go in without ideas; post it notes for plenary activities, experience of a challenging placement, an awareness of what other NQTs really meant by their confident chat. As the book progresses his confidence ebbs and flows as an inspiring lesson is followed by one where no one listens, where the behaviour enforcement team is permanently present. Observation lessons are recalled in perfect, horrendous detail, but the solidarity of the staff in times of crisis is real. The social life of teachers is explored, as alcohol is taken but no grudges taken. New time tables, new school years and new classes present new challenges but also fresh rewards. A highlight of the book is a school trip to Oxford, where assumptions are made about a certain group of students, which are thoroughly overturned among the dreaming spires. The humour of a situation involving favourite students out in the world is brilliantly written. Well written, well paced and always interesting, I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in what really goes on in classrooms. 

 

As students work their way through the school and other teachers leave or move on, conflicts and opportunities come and go. This is a painfully funny, completely authentic memoir of teaching in the twenty first century with all its challenges and rewards. The teacher begins by thinking that this is the best career in the world, and while there are some difficult moments, he discovers that it is really rewarding, always challenging, and rarely boring.    

 

I happened to buy and read this book when on a trip to Oxford, and I found it entertaining when the weather meant that I did not really feel like wandering around seeing the sights. It has been some time since I taught in a classroom, but I recognised the situations described with powerful humour. It is so truthful, as the writer comes to realise that he cannot succeed with every student, but must try just the same. A genuinely entertaining book, I really appreciated it  in so many ways.  

Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets – Six Tudor Queens by Alison Weir on Shiny New Books!

Image result for anna of kleve Alison weir

In case you missed it yesterday, I have had a review on Shiny New Books!

Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets, is the fourth novel in the series of Six Tudor Queens by Alison Weir. Although a fictional account of the life of Henry VIII’s arguably most elusive wife, it is as always impeccably researched.My full review is at http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/anna-of-kleve-queen-of-secrets-by-alison-weir/  – It is a fantastic book!

The School Run by Helen Whitaker – Two mums. Two daughters. One School place

 

Lily and Imogen are two women who have ambitions for their children. Their ambitions for themselves are simple; survive the pressures of their relationships, survive the daily round of being a parent, and retain their sanity. The main ambition for their daughters is simple; to secure a place in the nursery which is a feeder for the primary school which will line them up nicely for a grammar school place in time. The problem is that such places are strictly limited to those with an address in the tiny catchment area, and to guarantee a place, attend the local church. Having a high profile in the school social organisations would also help. Going to church has been made a little easier by the attractiveness of the new vicar, but will his mysterious past mean problem or answers? Will Imogen and Lily’s old friendship mean that they can survive together or will the pressure of the elusive school place keep them apart? Will Yasmine and the other Organic mums with their conniving superiority mean that  anyone else will get a look in? Just what will it take to ensure that the Outstanding school will offer a coveted place to either Winnie or Enid? This sometimes funny, always fascinating book will introduce you to characters that have problems and triumphs that are familiar to everyone in the twenty first century. I was so glad to have the opportunity to read and review this engaging book.

 

The book opens with Lily trying to get her small daughter to pose for the photo on facebook that will get some ‘likes’. The coloured wall is high demand by other mothers who are keen to instagram their child’s first day in nursery. Enid is not co operating with her mother’s need to drop off her child and shoot off to work, she is high from her breakfast of sugary cereal which would be banned by Yasmine, the arbiter of what is good for small children at every turn. Lily is surprised to be approached by her old friend Imogen who has daughter Winnie in tow. She too has researched schools in London and reached the conclusion that the pre school attached to St. Peter and Paul’s is the best option. She is desperate to get a house in the catchment area, and as the book progresses she tries many options. Lily meanwhile is concerned that her challenging job where she must fight to keep her role means she cannot get back in time for Enid, especially as her partner Joe does not pull his weight. Nothing will be as straightforward as it seems, as the women  progress through school nativity plays crisis, school parties, and houses of dreams and nightmares.

 

The reality of contemporary life is to be found in this book, from parents with obsessions to awkward children. It is really funny, sometimes touching, and always truthful. I found the account of Lily’s job fascinating, and so truthful concerning the way she must maintain her commitment despite all the other pressures she is facing. This is an enjoyable book which deals with complex situations in a light and fresh way. As an older mother I recognise some of the pressures, and found it a brilliant read. I recommend it as a satisfying novel for everyone who has felt the pressures of daily life, especially with young children.   

 

After an exciting week working on a holiday club for older people last week, which was quite tiring, this week is dominated by the need to get my dissertation finished. It is probably not a good thing when a laptop seizes up from overuse….   

The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child – Contemporary life with a fantastic twist

 

Arlo Knott has a talent that defies definition, and therefore understanding. Though painfully normal in every other way, with ambitions, an unfulfilled love, a troublesome sibling and a disappointing dad, Arlo’s secret comes to dominate and shape his life. A family tragedy triggers the realisation, in the most dramatic way possible, that Arlo can, with a small effort, reset time. That he can return to a point before an action, an incident, and do things differently, or ensure that things turn out less badly. This proves to be something he cannot or will not reveal, partly because it sounds so unlikely, defying explanation, and partly he wants to benefit from his unusual talent. His progress through school, university and life is affected by his talent, but he cannot use it as a blunt instrument. He reflects on the effect it has on others, on himself. He carries a burden of guilt, which does not lessen with his experiences. Rather, as he comes to depend on his ability, he becomes concerned on what he is really doing, the effect it has on other people. The complex web that he has to live by has an effect on his world view and his values, but he tries so hard to do his best, avoid trouble, appalled at what he could potentially do, what he may have done. When he experiments with his ability, he realises its limitations but pushes the boundaries. I was fascinated and pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this book. 

 

The book begins with an account of Arlo’s childhood, on a significant day. Distracted for a moment, he fails to secure a ladder and so unwittingly starts a chain of events that will change both his life and that of his family. It is only when he seeks to deal with the effects of this incident that he discovers that he can undo the most significant of acts, simply by will. An accidental discovery, he begins to explore how he can use it to survive in school, finance his university career and influence people. A significant lashing out at fate which he reverses leads to a meeting which will transform not only his life but another unique person. He discovers that while he may be able to reverse things in his life, even flout the laws of safety and common sense, his relationships with those he loves are made even more difficult. His ambitions to do good are not straightforward, and complications always set in. Self doubt may be common among people, but his self doubt has an extra dimension, an extra level of complexity and guilt. 

 

This book carefully straddles fantasy and contemporary life, where common situations and tensions in relationships are added to by a unique element. Convoluted yet sensitively written, this is a book for our time in its range despite focusing on one man’s memories. It raises questions not only about a strange concept, but also about human motivation more generally. This is a special and powerful book of love, sadness and the determination to do good for whatever motive. Arlo is a distinctive character, but his inner monologue is a true reflection of the way that  we all think at times. Doubting what we do, why we do it and the effect of our behaviour on those around us is a contemporary concern for many if not most people. This sensitive and honest novel deserves to find a wide audience, and I recommend its distinctive voice and honesty.  

Do Not Feed the Bear by Rachel Elliott – A curious mix of family life, individuals and freerunning

This is a book of people with their own agendas. People who have experienced a moment when everything changed; either years before or during the book itself. Sydney is perhaps the point around which others exist, a person who cannot keep still, who discovers things. The other people are her immediate family, dominated by her mother Ila who is full of ideas, plans, wisdom. Howard, her father, has spent years trying to come to terms with life. Her brother Jason, her partner Ruth, are all affected by a woman who can leap from buildings and onto roofs, freerunning, reveling in freedom. Then another family, another group of people are featured, as Maria, Belle, Jon and Dexter are also affected by her appearance. Discoveries, acceptance and realisations all make an appearance in this curious book with its multiple viewpoints, as most characters get a chance to express their deeply held feelings. Even a dog  explains how emotions and different activities all have their own distinctive scent. Just as real life is interconnected, this life affirming and ultimately hopeful book is not tidy, not well ordered, but moves through lives as thought does, going away from the centre then returning. Surprising, authentic and powerful, this book defies categorisation, but draws the reader in, enthralled by the thoughts and actions of this seemingly odd juxtaposition of people. I really appreciated its blend of humour, self depreciation and inclusion of tragedy, as the vivid nature of family life and relationships are revealed. Perhaps summed up by Ruth, who ruefully considers Sydney’s obsession with freerunning “Normality: it’s in the eye of the beholder, obviously. One person’s normality is another person’s strange.”, this book is a carefully controlled story with many views, and all of them carefully worked out and developed. I found it an unexpectedly cheerful and fascinating novel, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

 

The book begins with a shopping trip, as Sydney and her mother go present hunting, Ila characteristically thoughtful, Sydney bouncing along in a shop. A startling discovery brings forth a touching piece from an unusual viewpoint. As Ruth considers the adult Sydney, she wonders what it is that spur her on to greater efforts in Parkour. Then there are the memories of family life, holidays of family rituals, television and games. This is a world of comfort, of happiness. The adult Sydney becomes a source of interest to Maria, infuriating her husband as Stuart the enormous dog did at his adoption. Belle, meanwhile,  is almost abnormal in her normality, her lack of ambition in any element of life, her varied tendencies to generosity alongside illegal acquisitions. One of my favourite characters is Dexter, surprising in his revelations even if annoying in the short term. 

 

Elliott’s writing style describes the clothes that each character wears, as they give clues not only to personality but also what is going on for every person. Similarly, she gives the pictures of the beach, swimming pools and rooms so successfully that they are easy to visualise and become rooted in. The Plot is perhaps the least important thing in this book; rather the pains and pleasures of life, the small things of families, the experiences described are the real focus, the real power of the writing. Not that this is a formless and aimless book in any sense; it has twists and turns which add to the format and deepen the reading experience. An enjoyable and unusual book, it is difficult to quantify but always enjoyable, and I recommend it as a really good read. 

 

 

Zippy and Me by Ronnie Le Drew – the tales of a puppeteer and the true story of a television show

Zippy and Me by Ronnie Le Drew

 

Anyone who has watched children’s television in the latter part of the twentieth century onwards may well have seen Ronnie Le Drew, or rather his skills as a puppeteer. After a career in puppet theatres, television and even films, this is a man who through sheer determination has made a living from what he terms being a “dolly – waggler” or an operator of puppets. From a childhood obsession when he would perform without an audience, through the determination to get paid work, he managed to build a career out of operating puppets of many kinds. Yet like many jobs in the creative arts, nothing was ever certain or long term; even a job which led to a strong fan base for a children’s television programme like Rainbow was not forever. Despite setbacks like the cancelling of the show and revivals that struggled, the character of Zippy has become a sort of icon, an ironic favourite of students as well as those who remember the original experience of watching the somewhat arrogant “Unique”. The other side of this fascinating book is the human story of a man who has seen life from the underside, stars of stage and screen close up, and who has lived in families of all sorts. Through years of association with vivid characters whose manual dexterity, vocal talents and acting ability brought them together yet also tore them apart, this book has taken the memories of a gentle man and made them into a fascinating account of an unusual yet fulfilling career. I became very involved in a well written story of a life which has never been ordinary, and was glad to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

 

Ronnie Le Drew did not come from a show business back ground, or indeed a wealthy one which may have permitted a youthful hobby to become an uncertain career. He grew up in a small flat, and his parents’ marriage was unstable, with revelations that took decades to emerge. Through sheer determination and persistence he obtained work of sorts at the Little Angel, which gave him the experience and training as well as the beginning of the technical knowledge which would stand him in good stead for the changing fashions and demand for puppetry. He also made friends who would be important to him for many years to come. Coincidences and good fortune meant that he found work in theatres, television and even with the famous Muppet movies, though there were challenges when projects didn’t come off, and there were opportunities that did not materialise. I was particularly interested in the references to the great Sooty, who was an obsession of my own children, so discovering Le Drew’s connection was of enormous interest. 

 

When reading celebrity autobiographies, they can become an exercise in name dropping and boasting of great success. This book rather admits to the sadness of lost friends, the challenge of getting and maintaining work, and the reality of times when simply going to London to find work felt like too much. Le Drew tells the touching stories of his family, his wife and children. It also tells the story of his other families, those who supported him and gave him the chance of new tasks, new opportunities. This is a gentle and often funny book, with a few saucy moments when off camera. An enjoyable book, it succeeds in telling a very realistic story of a life well lived.