Thursday, 27 October 2011

Book review: Interpreters

By Sue Eckstein
Published by Myriad Editions

Author of the acclaimed debut novel The Cloths of Heaven, Sue Eckstein has come back with her second work of fiction, Interpreters. A successful return, I should add.

On opening the book, we read the beginning of a (fictional) magazine article about non-traditional families. In it, Susanna and her uncle Max talk about their household and Susanna’s choice, when she was very young, to move from Africa, where she used to live with her mother, to England, where Max lived in a sort of commune.

It is in this indirect way that we are introduced to Julia Rosenthal, mother of Susanna and sister of Max. It is her that we follow as, on her way to an appointment with a notary, she drives to her childhood home and lets the memories flood back. Spotted by someone she used to know when she was little, she is invited into the house she used to live in. As the morning passes and each room is explored, we learn about her mother, her father and the life she had while growing up, with all its good times as well as the bad.

In her mind, Julia doesn’t only revisit her childhood. She also recalls her life as a young woman and as a young mother. A wronged mother, as she keeps being reminded by the existence of that unread magazine article about what she considers to be a betrayal.

The narrative is interspersed with scripts of what looks like conversations between a woman and her therapist. The woman, unnamed, talks about her difficult childhood in Nazi Germany. Moving with her mother from Amsterdam to Berlin to live with a father who despises her, in a country that rejects her, left deep scars. Who is this woman?

As both Julia’s recollections and the woman’s therapy sessions progress, the pieces of the puzzle come together and secrets are revealed in such a clever way that you just won’t want to stop reading until you reach the end of the book. This is a beautiful and moving story with credible characters that you will quickly warm to. So much so that, despite all the loose ends being perfectly wrapped up by the last page, I would love to read more about this family.

Thank you, once again, to Brighton-based Myriad Editions for bringing a wonderful novel to the public’s attention.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Books through my lens #6

Wandering around Amsterdam last winter, I came across this little bookshop: Leeshal Oost. At first, its cute candy-striped awning made it look like it might be an old-fashioned greengrocer's but upon closer inspection the mistake was rectified!

I believe that this bookshop, which can be found at Commelinstraat 53, 1093 Amsterdam, deals in used and rare books and magazines only. I might be wrong but I don't remember seeing brand new books. That said, I think that I was too fascinated by the shop itself to pay too much attention to books that, as far as I could see, were exclusively in Dutch. Look at the curved glass in the window - so beautiful!

The use of shopping trolleys to display the books was also very original. The more I think about all those sad, discarded trolleys polluting our fields and rivers, the more this seems to be the way forward!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Kimberly Menozzi and... The Little Things

I woke up last Monday determined to take a bike ride. The sky was clear and bright, a deep autumnal blue freshened by the chilly winds which have finally arrived after a prolonged delay. It wasn't too cold, but it was cool enough to reassure me I wouldn't suffer too badly. I could wear long sleeves to protect my skin from the sun and have a nice, leisurely ride along the path on the torrente which runs just outside of town.

This was something I'd longed to do all summer while I was visiting family in the US, something I've looked forward to since I returned to Italy in September, but put off thanks to the unseasonable, overbearing heat and humidity. Now was my chance.

I saw my husband off to work and then set about getting ready. I dressed in my workout gear (long-sleeved lycra workout top, hoodie, an old pair of jeans and some trainers) and went down to the garage where we keep the bikes.

Our garage is an entity unto itself – a hodgepodge of bicycles, hardware left over from my father-in-law's employment as a plumber and countless other bric-a-brac and tools. Somehow, the bicycles and spare bike parts serve as proof in the chaos that I'm in Italy. One bike is alongside the wall, a tiny little thing, meant for a child. Another one, a multi-speed, hangs from a rack on the wall. Still another ten-speed style stands on one side of the entryway – that's the bike my husband rides into town. His racing bike is in the back of the garage, in the space which should be our cantina, where food and wine and various household needs would normally be kept.

All of this is jam-packed into a space scarcely wide enough to fit a Fiat Cinquecento (the original model, not the redesigned one). There's just room enough down the middle of it for one to walk unhindered, and my bicycle, the blue Legnano city bike purchased for me immediately after I moved here for good, is stationed right by the door. Luckily for me, otherwise I might never get it out since only one of the double doors of the garage opens.

When I went to unlock the door, one of my neighbors caught my eye and waved to me, calling out "Salve!" in greeting. I returned the acknowledgement and smiled, then went back to unlocking the door. Five turns of the key in the lock and I was in, only to find to my dismay that my back tire was a tad low.

Now, I know how to put air in a tire. I'm not exactly a novice when it comes to that task. The problem I faced was using the tire pump owned by my husband's family. It's roughly twenty or thirty years old, made of steel and one of the foot-holds – the one I would use to hold it in place while I pumped the t-shaped handle – is broken off. Grrrr… Not to mention that the hose itself isn't attached to the base perfectly, so it's hard for the built-in gauge to be sure of how much pressure is in the tire.

I took a deep breath and set to work removing the cap of the tire's valve, attaching the pump to it and then finding a way to keep the apparatus in place while I got a little extra exercise pumping the air. (I managed to break a sweat in the oil-and-grease scented atmosphere in no time, all the while trying to resist breaking out a whispered Italian curse or two in the process.)

This pump is notorious for one more reason: it's loud. It's loud enough that I can hear its huff-huff-wheeze-jangle from our third-floor (fourth-floor in the US) apartment when my husband puts air in his bike's tires. It's a sound so distinct, I know when any member of the family is using it.

And thus, it was both loud and unique enough that, when I emerged from the shadows of my garage, I found my kind neighbor standing nearby, waiting for me. His bright, inquisitive eyes blinked at me from behind half-moon specs, their black frames disappearing into snow-white, perfectly-coiffed hair. This is a man who makes his plaid flannel shirts look downright stylish.

"È gonfiato?" he asked, "Is it inflated?"

I nodded. "Sì, sì; almeno, penso di sì," I said. "Yes, at least, I think so."

That's when he did the gentlemanly, neighborly thing: he checked it for himself, bending to take the tires between his thumb and forefinger to give them a good, solid pinch. He nodded with satisfaction as he stood up straight and gestured over his shoulder toward his garage.

"Ho un compressore se ne hai bisogno," he added as he did so. "I have a compressor if you need it."

"Grazie," I said, sincerely moved by the offer. With that, he brushed his fingers off on his work vest, smiled and went back to organizing his garage.

I set off.

I rode toward the school where I work, taking the longest route possible to my destination, a public park with a multi-use path along the currently dry torrente. The air was cool, the sun was warm and since it wasn't quite lunchtime, there were only a few people out and about. The English oaks pelted me with their acorns, oblong tubes of green and brown, minus their caps. The wind sighed through the treetops and some of the leaves drifted here and there, riding the breeze earthwards.

As I slipped in and out of sun and shadow, the gravelly path and the leaves crunching beneath my sturdy wheels, I found myself thinking of his gesture. It was such a small thing, really; an unsolicited offer of assistance to a neighbor, a man being a gentleman to a woman who might, or might not, be in need.

My thoughts turned to some of the other people in my building; the elderly bachelor downstairs who lives alone, who once shyly brought up a package which had been left for me by the mailboxes; the raucous family who seldom stop arguing, but whose middle son – a teenager, no less – never fails to hold the door for me, no matter how far away I am when he gets there; the people in the flat next door who greet my husband and me with a huge smile and always ask if we need the elevator if they're stepping out when they see us. And of course there's the kind, older gentleman who has now offered to inflate my bicycle tires with his compressor if I ever should need it. He's always greeted me with a smile and a wave, both of them sincere efforts of goodwill.

These are the gestures which make me feel at home here, which ease me into the routine of my Italian life. The little things matter, and this is the proof that those little things are universal.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

LGBT reading challenge - October reviews

Thanks again for joining the LGBT reading challenge 2011!

Below is a list of all the book reviews that have been submitted in October (via this link). Hopefully you will all find new and interesting titles to explore - I, for one, am sure to gather another few books to add to my TBR list!

Whether you already know the books that are being discussed or not, I strongly encourage you to leave comments below and on the other blogs. I want to hear your voices! Despite its name, the reading challenge is not simply a competition, more of an opportunity to share ideas and bond over our common interests!

Let's begin!

01. Juliet read and reviewed Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas.

02. Lucy read and reviewed Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult.

Don't forget, one October reviewer is in for a chance to win a copy of Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen, courtesy of Serpent's Tail!

Book review: A Writer's Britain

By Margaret Drabble
Published by Thames & Hudson

Having visited most of the Bloomsbury-related sites in Sussex, I have been left with a thirst for ‘literary tourism’ that the updated edition of Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain seems perfectly able to quench.

Focussing on different areas of interest - such as the description of sacred places, the Romantic movement and the portrayal of rural and industrial landscapes - Margaret Drabble sets out to investigate the relationship between writers and place and to understand how this has changed over the years.

Painters are not the only artists capable of depicting landscapes. As the plentiful quotations and excerpts remind us, writers are equally able to give a sense of place through evocative poems and detailed descriptions alike.

Functioning as a mere background at times, landscapes can also be as important as the main characters of a book. Think of Jane Austen’s Yorkshire moors, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Virginia Woolf’s London. And they are only a few of the places explored in A Writer’s Britain, many of which will be pleasantly unknown and ready to be discovered.

A celebration of Britain and literature, this volume is a wonderful source of knowledge and food for thought.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Book review: As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil

The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
By Rodney Bolt
Published by Atlantic Books

'As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil' was the phrase once used by Ethel Smyth to describe Mary Benson, née Mary Sidgewick. In his extremely well-researched and beautifully presented book, Rodney Bolt introduces us to this extraordinary woman.

Despite being a work of non-fiction, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil is so readable and engrossing that you almost forget that Mary is not a fictional heroine of a Victorian historical novel. Bolt has succeeded in portraying the wife, and then widow, of Edward Benson in a most exquisite way.

Complete with a detailed bibliography and enriched by photographs of the Benson family and their circle of friends, this chronicle of the upbringing, married years and widowhood of Mary Benson is extremely interesting. Not only do we learn about the life of a fascinating woman but – as we follow her from birth to death (1841-1918) – we also gain a valuable insight into Victorian and Edwardian England.

Edward Benson – whose last years were spent as Archbishop of Canterbury – and the couple’s five children – all writers – are often mentioned. In fact, there are sections of the book that are less about Mary and more about her family. But this is understandable as she was enormously influenced by her husband and her children and we wouldn’t have a complete picture of her if we ignored the most important people in her life.

These people also include many women who, over the years, formed emotional bonds with Mary and supported her through the difficulties of her marriage. Among them, Lucy Tait, who lived with Mrs Benson until her death, is especially recognised as playing a significant part in her life.

Enriched by quotations taken from Mary’s diaries and letters, as well as by excerpts of her children’s work that describe the Benson household in more or less direct ways, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil is a gem and will appeal to both biography-lovers and occasional non-fiction readers alike.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

In conversation with... Nina Bell

Hello Nina! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of your latest novel, The Empty Nesters. Can you tell us what it is about?

A: Three friends – Clover, Laura and Alice – have shared school runs, sleepovers and holidays for years, but now that their children are all off to uni, the friendship begins to crack apart. Alice wants what Clover and Laura have, while Laura faces two of her marriage’s major challenges. And Clover has to work out what’s important in her life – and then fight for it.

I can’t wait to read it! Where did you take the inspiration to write this novel? Are you perhaps an empty nester yourself?

A: Our twins left home – one for gap year, one for uni – in September 2008, and it’s taken this long to process how it turns your life upside down. It’s exciting – all that extra time and new opportunities. But sad too – even the dog obviously misses them.

The Empty Nesters was published on the 1st September. At the time of this interview, you haven’t yet embarked on your promotional tour, which will take you, among others, to Henley Literary Festival and Guildford Literary Festival. What is the aspect of touring that you enjoy the most?

A: I love the questions readers ask. It’s interesting, fun – and sometimes challenging – to hear what people think.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I sometimes feel I’m getting sucked in because writing can be quite a lonely profession, and suddenly there are lots of interesting and amusing people to chat to. But deadlines terrify me, so I can usually manage to focus on work too.

You were a journalist for women’s magazines and are currently writing a non-fiction book about interior design. Do you think that diversifying your writing is the secret to keep your fictional works fresh and exciting?

A: I do really enjoy writing different kinds of things, and I think it does help. For example, thinking about what sort of a house your characters live in is a good way of getting to know them. Women’s magazines are about what matters in women’s lives, and so are novels, so doing interviews for women’s magazines gave me practice in writing about different characters.

What is your one fundamental piece of advice for aspiring writers?

A: Keep writing. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and the more practice you get, the better you’ll be.

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: Just that reading novels is probably my favourite way of spending a couple of hours, so I do hope that books don’t disappear in favour of interactive this, that and the other. But I don’t think they will.

Thank you for your time!

A: Thank you, it’s been great to answer your questions.

And now, for a chance to win one copy of The Empty Nesters, click here and complete the form. The competition is open to UK readers only and will close on the 31st October at 1pm.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Book review: Happy Accidents

By Jane Lynch
Published by Fourth Estate

Being a bit of a Gleek, I couldn’t help but want to read Jane Lynch’s memoir. I started the book knowing her only as Sue Sylvester, the most evil cheerleading coach ever to walk the planet, and I ended it with a long list of films to watch and an even bigger respect for her.

Happy Accidents takes us from Jane’s childhood and her dreams of stardom all the way through to her successful present life as an actor. We learn about the hard times – her insecurity, her alcoholism, her feelings of isolation and not belonging – as well as the good times – her flourishing career, her acceptance of her sexuality, her marriage. It seems that she holds nothing back and comes across as absolutely honest, page after page.

Her memoir is moving and funny, sometimes both sad and amusing at the same time. And, as I said before, totally candid.

I recommend Happy Accidents to any Glee or Jane Lynch fan, to anyone interested in acting and films, to anyone who enjoys a well-written happy-ending true story… basically, to anyone.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Genni Gunn on writing Solitaria

First of all, thank you for inviting me to write a post for your readers. How wonderful that you’re all reading books with Italy in them. My novel, Solitaria, is set in Italy, and features both an Italian protagonist, Piera, and a Canadian one, David. It moves between the present (2002) and the past (1930s to 1950s). Here’s my try at a quick summary:

When Vito Santoro’s body is inadvertently unearthed by a demolition crew in Fregene, Italy, his siblings are thrown into turmoil, having been told by their sister Piera that Vito had fled to Argentina fifty years earlier after abandoning his wife and son. Now scattered over three continents, Vito’s siblings regroup in Italy to try to discover the truth. Piera locks herself in her room, refusing to speak to anyone but her Canadian nephew David. As the stories emerge, weaving past and present, so do versions and perspectives, memories and secrets.

I am Italian by birth, and arrived in Canada when I was eleven. Other than my immediate family – mother, sister, brother – everyone else in my family lives in Italy, so I have been going back and forth to visit them all. While there a few years ago, I became fascinated by an old aunt of mine who, despite much attention and care, felt she had been emotionally abandoned by everyone in the family, even though she had been generous throughout her life, and had looked after, and educated many of her siblings. Most importantly, like Piera in Solitaria, she kept evoking the word LOVE. “Everything I did, I did for love,” she’d say.

You know this person; there is one in most families: smart and wise and generous, she gives only what she can control, assumes she is the authority on everyone, and criticizes all who do not agree with her with a cruel sharp tongue that alienates those she professes to love so much.

Intrigued by these character ambiguities, I set about interviewing people in Italy, not only my relatives, but my aunt’s contemporaries, to better understand her motivations. And so began the five years I took to research and write Solitaria.

I read many books to research the times. Some of my favourites were novels and memoirs written by Italians during the Mussolini regime, because unlike history books with their 20/20 version of events, literature shows us what people were thinking during those events. A lovely example is Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), a lyrical memoir by Carlo Levi who was interned by the Fascists during the war in a remote mountain village in the province of Lucania. It is a seminal work about that era, and available in English for those of you interested. I highly recommend it.

Turning all this research into a story was the difficult part. I created a protagonist, Piera, who is a composite of many people I met. Then, I had to invent a story that would explore the issues I was interested in: the relationship between love and duty; the place of family within one’s life; the repercussions of war; the alternate memories people create of the same event.

I was also interested in using the Mussolini era backdrop as a means of illuminating some of what is going on in our lives today. By this, I mean that Fascism in Italy didn’t occur overnight. The loss of personal freedoms happened a bit at a time, in the name of restoring and keeping order, to a populous that was largely (at first) complacent. By the time people found themselves under a totalitarian regime, it was too late to do anything. Consider what has happened in North America since 9/11: we have been giving up our personal freedoms, a little bit at a time, in the name of national security for quite a while now, with little apparent alarm or outcry.

Solitaria is the result of these explorations, and as often happens with research, I experienced unexpected new perspectives, an example of which occurred to me the last time I was in Italy. My old aunt, who had always been a formidable woman, had had a stroke which rendered her docile. It was disconcerting to be sitting at her bedside, while she lay, silent, unless I spoke to her.

On my last night there, because I had an early train to catch, I slept in her living room, on a cot arranged by her housekeeper. I turned out the lights and lay in bed, eyes closed, thinking about how different this time was from all the others before, now that my aunt could not effectively communicate. After a while, I opened my eyes, and to my surprise, I saw an eerie oblong light shining in the corner of the room. At first, I thought it must be a reflection from the window, perhaps a mirage. I recalled how in childhood, I used to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling where I could see reflected the movements on the street below. So I looked at the window, but I could see no source for the light.

I closed my eyes, thinking it was my imagination, and I should not indulge it. But I also had an uneasy feeling. In this room my ancestors had lived and died; their faces stared out of portraits on the walls. I am not superstitious by nature, yet now I thought, who can say what is or isn’t? I waited a while, then opened my eyes. The oblong light was still there.

I thought, perhaps my aunt has died in the other room, and this is her spirit come to see me, to talk to me. I stared at it, trying to discern something, but it was indiscernible. Finally, I whispered, “Ma chi se tu?” “But who are you?” However, there was no response.

I closed my eyes again, on the verge of believing in ghosts and spirits, in this lonely old house, in southern Italy, where everything was possible. I got up, and slowly walked toward the light, hypnotised by the possibilities of all the unknown. Directly below that eerie glow, I bowed my head. My cell phone lay face-up on the floor, its screen on, projecting onto the ceiling.

I hope you will enter with me into the old and new worlds of Solitaria, and that you will experience southern Italy from a new perspective.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

"Italy in Books" - October reviews

Thanks again for joining the "Italy in Books” reading challenge 2011!

Below you can find a list of all the book reviews submitted in October (via this link). I am sure that everyone will find it useful to learn about new and interesting reading ideas - in fact, I suspect that as a result of this challenge my TBR list will expand dangerously!

Whether you know the books that are being discussed or have never heard of them, I strongly encourage you to leave comments below and on the blogs themselves. I want to hear your voices! Despite its name, the reading challenge is not a mere competition, rather an opportunity to share ideas and bond over common interests!

Let's begin!

01. Barbara read and reviewed The House in Amalfi by Elizabeth Adler.
02. Patricia read and reviewed Sicilian Odyssey by Francine Prose.

03. Pete read and reviewed A Season with Verona by Tim Parks.
04. Lindy read and reviewed Recipe for Life by Nicky Pellegrino.

05. Tina read and reviewed Cucina Povera by Pamela Shelton Johns.
06. Jeane read Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. Scroll down to read her review.
07. Lara read Rossovermiglio by Benedetta Cibrario. Scroll down to read her review.

Reviews by non bloggers

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. Read and reviewed by Jeane:
Sacred heart tells us about Serafina, a young girl who has been forced into the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara, Italy. The first night she spends in the convent she screams, has passed long ago the level of being angry to a feeling a lot more negative and stronger. Suora Zuana, who is in charge of the dispensary, has to sedate the girl during the night and will be the first person who builds a relationship with Serafina. A relationship which will always be difficult and complex, where the line between trust and betrayal is extremely thin and fragile. The pressure of the counter-reformation on the convent makes life since Serafina's arrival even more difficult for everybody. Under the surface the convent starts to be divided in two groups, those who want to have stricter rules as described by the new rules outside the convent and those who want to keep their freedom in the convent. The Abbess plays a big part in this but without having any wish for it, also Suora Zuana becomes highly involved because of her relationship with Serafina.
For me this was another book I enjoyed from Sarah Dunant and loved to read it in airports, during flights and finally in Italy, not in the same city as the convent was situated in the story but in the same region.

Rossovermiglio by Benedetta Cibrario. Read and reviewed by Lara:
The title of the first book written by Benedetta Cibrario, “Rossovermiglio”, is the name of a wine, the same produced by the protagonist, the countess Villaforesta.
The countess spends her life in a huge estate, called “La Bandita” in the area of “Chiantishire”, in Tuscany. She left forever, years and years ago, the upper-class Torino for the quieter Chiantishire, where enjoys a peaceful loneliness and a simple and “free” life, although isolated in the estate inherited by her brother. At the beginning, the countess’ choice appears radical. Probably it is because of a rejection towards her life, already planned by her family, that she decides to start a new life in the countryside. Her destiny would have been otherwise rather predictable: a combined wedding with a violent aristocrat, who has in common with her only the passion for horses, then the end of her disastrous marriage and an unexpected relationship with a fascinating and ambiguous man, Trott, who makes her discover the excitement of a non conventional life. Around the countess, historical events, go on.
Narration starts at the end of 20s; the political climate is characterized by the turmoil that, after few years, will lead to the II World War. However, nothing seems to break the quiet at La Bandita, except some echoes of a tragedy that takes place elsewhere. Also the referendum day of June 2nd, 1946, when women vote for the first time, is described in a calm and relaxed atmosphere.
The wide use of flash-backs and flash-forwards puts together several distinct moments of the protagonist’s life.
The novel starts when the countess is already in her 80s, still full of energy in running her business as wine producer; in some passages the countess is, as well, a 19 years old girl, who deeply loves horses but is still naïve about life; then she is a passionate woman who falls in love with Trott, the man who will often cross her pathway and who will suggest her become a wine entrepreneur at La Bandita.
The countess chooses peculiar names for her wines: the first one is “Lunediante”, a “nickname” often give to someone who is lazy, indolent, as she is, a “lunediante” of feelings.
On the other hand, there is the “Rossovermiglio”: it is the color of passion and revenge, the same feelings that in few, brave moments, have characterized the countess’ life, and that now constitutes her greatest success.
Overall I would suggest to read this book: the nice writing, the accurate descriptions and the interest towards the protagonist’s fortunes make it a pleasant reading.

And remember: this month, courtesy of Diane Saarinen, one of you will have the chance to win a copy of Solitaria by Genni Gunn.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Book review: Everything and Nothing

By Araminta Hall
Published by HarperPress

A family employs a live-in nanny to look after their two children and she turns out to be a bit of a psycho. Don’t you think that this plot might have been used just a little too often? I did. For this reason, I approached Everything and Nothing with caution.

The next thing I remember is a happy and satisfied smile on my lips as I finished the book not too long afterwards.

In Everything and Nothing, readers are thrown into the life of the Donaldsons at a difficult time. Ruth and Christian have two little children, a nanny who’s just left them and a career to think of. While they try (and don’t really succeed) to juggle family and work commitments, Aggie arrives. With impeccable references and full of enthusiasm, she moves in with the family and, little by little, she becomes indispensable to the smooth running of the household.

Smooth is, however, an adjective that can be only applied to what goes on on the surface. Deep down, the situation is more complicated than that. Ruth and Christian are both disappointed by their life. Ruth feels guilty that she’s not the perfect mother that she expected to be. Christian feels like Ruth has changed and that their life has turned out different to what they both imagined. Add the sudden appearance of Christian’s ex secretary and lover and you have all the ingredients for trouble.

It is not surprising that – amongst the kids’ tantrums and all the other obstacles that the couple keep finding in their way – they don’t realise that perfect Aggie is not so perfect. Readers will have known that there’s something wrong with her since the very first paragraph but it is only as you read that the little pieces of the puzzle come together.

So, yes, the plot is perhaps not the most original but the way that the characters grow before your eyes and the great insight into the workings of a modern family make this novel fresh and gripping.

Araminta Hall’s Everything and Nothing has been selected for Richard and Judy's autumn book club 2011 and it’s easy to see why.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Books through my lens #5

I do like a tidy bookshelf but I'm not impartial to the charm of a slightly messy composition, especially in the right context. This photo was taken this summer at Compton Verney, an art gallery housed in a Grade I listed mansion in Warwickshire. I loved the soft light coming in through the big windows! In the background you can see a current art installation by Marcia Farquhar entitled The Horse is a Noble Animal.

Many thanks to the friendly museum assistant who allowed me to take this photograph where it might not have been entirely permitted!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Book review: Edge

By Jeffery Deaver
Reviewed by

Jeffery Deaver is an international bestselling author of crime novels, having written over 25 books in the last 20 years. Yet somehow I'd never read any of his novels, let alone heard of him. After finishing Edge (2010), I wish I'd discovered him sooner. Edge is a crime novel, which, at first glance, looks kind of average and run of the mill. However, once I started reading I could not stop and it had me interested and intrigued throughout.

Edge tells the story of Corte, a protection officer whose job it is to protect a family targeted by a lifter named Henry Loving. The last time Corte came across the man, he ended up killing one of his mentors. Needless to say, Corte is very determined to catch Loving and not let him hurt anyone else every again. The members of the family he is protecting aren't making his job easier with all their personal drama, but in order to find out who hired Loving he does have to delve deep into their lives.

Luckily he has the most brilliant assistant who can find out just about anything about anyone. Corte is also very good at analysing situations and anticipate possible moves that Loving might make next. He keeps comparing this to playing board games, one of his hobbies. I thought this was going to be boring or tiring, but I actually found these analyses of the situation very interesting. Novels like these often give you an insight only into the (often twisted) psyches of the main characters, but not so much about the actual work involved in catching the bad guys. This was a refreshing change.

The storyline was also not predictable, which is always a plus. I had no idea who was behind it all until the very end. The book also had a nice twist at the end, which made me shout out in surprise. The novel is well written and fast paced and a joy to read. If you're looking for a good crime novel, this is it.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

LGBT challenge - Link for October reviews and prize draw

It’s October and the LGBT reading challenge 2011 continues!

This month, courtesy of Serpent's Tail, one of you will have the chance to win a copy of Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen.

To participate in the prize draw, all you have to do is:

• Read a book - fiction or non-fiction - whose author is LBGT, whose topic is LGBT and/or whose characters (even minor ones) are LGBT
• Share your review (or opinion, if it sounds less intimidating!) by clicking here

Easy, isn't it?

IMPORTANT! Please note that you need to have signed up for the challenge to be eligible for the prize draw. If you haven't signed up yet, you can do it here (full instructions here). If you can't remember whether you have or haven't signed up, you can check whether your name is listed here.

Happy reading!

"Italy in Books" - Link for October reviews and prize draw

It’s October and the “Italy in Books” reading challenge 2011 continues!

This month, courtesy of Diane Saarinen, one of you will have the chance to win a copy of Solitaria by Genni Gunn. If you live in the US or Canada, you'll receive a hardback copy. If you live anywhere else, you'll receive the book in Kindle format.
To participate in the prize draw, all you have to do is:

• Read a book set in Italy or about Italian culture & language
• Share your review (or opinion, if it sounds less intimidating!) by clicking here

Easy, isn't it?

IMPORTANT! Please note that you need to have signed up for the challenge to be eligible for the prize draw. If you haven't signed up yet, you can do it here (full instructions here). If you can't remember whether you have or haven't signed up, you can check whether your name is listed here.

Buona lettura!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

In conversation with... Elizabeth Buchan

Hello Elizabeth! First of all, thank you for agreeing on answering a few questions for the readers of my blog. I know for a fact that you will make many of them happy!

Your latest novel, Separate Beds, came out in 2010 and it will be followed next year by the publication of Daughters. Can you give us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: Thank you for asking. Here is sneak preview of the blurb on the back jacket.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all mothers want to see their daughters happily settled. But for Lara, mother to Maudie and stepmother to Jasmine and Eve, this is looking increasingly unlikely.

With an ex-husband occupied with his second marriage, and the surprising developments in her own love life to contend with, Lara has enough to worry about, especially with Eve’s upcoming wedding.

And when she begins to fear that Eve is marrying a man who will only make her unhappy, and Maudie reveals something that shocks the entire family, Lara faces a dilemma. Does she step in and risk the wrath of her daughters? Or does she stand by and watch them both make what she fears will be the biggest mistakes of their lives?

I wanted to write a novel about a mother and how a family might work today… and this one with separated parents is, perhaps, not so untypical. A wedding provides rich fodder for the novelist – the funny, sad and magical aspects of this milestone. Also a wedding is the moment when parents say ‘goodbye’ to their children … provoking the deepest and most mixed of emotions. I hope all these elements are in Daughters!

You were Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association between 1995 and 1997. Would you define yourself as a romance writer?

A: I don’t think of myself as any particular brand of writer at all. All I want to do is to write the novels in my head. In that way, I am entirely free and not bound in.

Do you think that the experience of working as both a blurb writer and as fiction editor has somehow shaped the way you write?

A: The two activities seem worlds apart but I do think writing blurbs was the best of nursery slopes for an infant writer. To do both well, it is important to have a central idea fuelling the writing. E.g. in Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman I stumbled on the aphorism ‘living well is the best revenge’. Once I had that tucked up in my head, the novel took shape. Equally, when writing a blurb I had to ‘know’ what the book was about. Perhaps the most profound technical lesson I learnt writing blurbs is: less is more, keep it clear, simple and direct … and to avoid adverbs like the plague.

One of your novels, Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman, has been made into a television film for CBS. Did you like it? Which of your other novels would you particularly like to see adapted for the television or the big screen?

A: I’ve always wanted Consider the Lily to make it to TV. In fact, it was film optioned but it did not come to anything. Perfect Love and Light of the Moon (which was about an SOE agent in the Second World War) were also optioned – which just goes to show how low the strike rate for a finished film or TV adaptation is. I am not fussy. If anyone wished to adapt any of the novels, I would be delighted. The CBS version of Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman was terrifically well done and made me laugh… the scriptwriter was much wittier than I am.

Many of your novels have been translated into other languages. Are you involved in the translation process in any way? Which non-English-speaking country have you had the most success in?

A: No, translation is a whole new world and I certainly would not have the expertise to pronounce on Polish or Serbo-Croat where the novels do well. I have also had some success in Germany and Italy which I am thrilled with.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: They do disrupt things but they have become a very important part of a writer’s life and it is difficult to ignore them. Anyway, I feel very strongly if readers make the effort to read my novels, I can certainly make the effort to connect with them.

What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: I am asked this a lot. I think it boils down to two words. DO IT. One can think, plot, plan, yearn, give excuses until the cows come home. Unless you put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, a novel will not get written. Pace yourself. If one page a day is all you can manage snatched between the demands of working and a family then set yourself the target of one page a day. (It will turn into two…) No theory or plan in the world matches the actual writing process. In doing so, you find out of what you are capable and experience the exhilaration of developing writing muscles. Good luck.

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: Just to say thank you for your interest. And also to reiterate how convinced I am that reading is one of the most important things in a civilized society. The more we think about books and interact with one another about them, the better. Please keep talking. Please keep reading. I wish everyone the joy and enchantment of a good book…

And, if anyone wants to ask me about any of my novels, please do…

Thank you for your time!

And now, for a chance to win one copy of Separate Beds, click here and complete the form. The competition is open worldwide and will close on 17th October at 1pm.

Monday, 3 October 2011

LGBT challenge - September winner

Only 2 book reviews this month... where have all the participants gone?!

Only 2 reviews but not to be missed! Follow this link and catch up with all the bookish goodness!

And if you’ve just come across the LGBT reading challenge 2011, you can find all the information you need by clicking here. Joining couldn’t be easier!

And now, the long-awaited moment of the prize draw!

The lucky reviewer who, courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton, will receive a copy of Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult is:

Lucy, who read and reviewed Flick by Geraldine Meade.

LGBT reading challenge - September reviews

Thanks again for joining the LGBT reading challenge 2011! If you haven't joined yet, don't worry: there is still time.

Below is a list of all the book reviews that have been submitted in September. Hopefully you will all find new and interesting titles to explore - I, for one, am sure to gather another few books to add to my TBR list!

Whether you already know the books that are being discussed or not, I strongly encourage you to leave comments below and on the other blogs. I want to hear your voices! Despite its name, the reading challenge is not simply a competition, more of an opportunity to share ideas and bond over our common interests!

Let's begin!

01. Lucy read and reviewed Flick by Geraldine Meade.
02. Juliet read and reviewed New Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan.

Don't forget, one September reviewer is in for a chance to win a copy of Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult, courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton!

"Italy in Books" - September winners

9 reviews this month!

Did you miss the reviews? Fear not, follow this link and catch up with all the bookish goodness! And if you’ve just come across the Italy in Books reading challenge 2011, you can find all the information you need by clicking here. Joining couldn’t be easier!

And now, the long-awaited moment of the prize draw!

The five lucky reviewers who, courtesy of Betsy Hoffman, will receive a copy of Dreaming of Sicily are:

1. Jeane, who read and reviewed Ask Me If I'm Happy by Kimberly Menozzi.
2. Gretchen, who read and reviewed Venice by Jan Morris.
3. Lindy, who read and reviewed The Summer House by Christobel Kent.
4. Pete, who read and reviewed Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi.
5. Lara, who read and reviewed Io ci sto by Marco Zarfati. Scroll down to read her review.