Another complex Vincenzi novel

‘The Decision’ – Penny Vincenzi

4-star-rating

decision

A love affair … between self-made property tycoon Matt Shaw and dazzling fashion editor Eliza Clark, spanning sixties London, the extravagance of Milan and the glamour of New York.

A marriage … that’s both passionate and difficult, as Matt and Eliza’s lives become irrevocably divided and entwined with others: charming advertising man Jeremy Northcott; flamboyant Italian fashion icon Mariella Crespi; Matt’s sister Scarlett, who has her own complicated love affairs. And then there’s Louise, Matt’s tough and sassy business partner, as successful as he is and fighting for her future.

A child … Emmie, adored, precocious and ultimately the victim of her parents’ doomed marriage, she holds them together and drives them apart.

The decision … which is agonising and desperate, and taken in the divorce courts – where truths will be told, secrets revealed and reputations shattered. And at the heart of it all lies the fate of a little girl.

Just like the first Vincenzi novel I read, this large tome (nearly 900 pages!) starts out with a character list. Not wanting to be daunted, I ploughed ahead anyway and found myself enjoying this novel that reminded me in many ways of A Question of Trust.

Once again, this is an example of “safe”, pretty light-hearted fiction. Following a very similar vein to her other novel, we focus on several characters over a span of about twenty years: 1950s-1970s. Very quickly you feel close to the characters, so that in the end, you feel like you are reading about family! This reflects the depth and focus of Vincenzi’s writing, whilst also allowing for again, such a long novel.

Eliza, one of the main protagonists, is involved in the fashion industry. The attention to detail shows a dedication to research on the topic and for me, this helped bring this decade alive for me, particularly as I have limited knowledge of London during the ‘Swinging 60s’. Indeed, it is an interesting portrayal of women’s role in the workplace at this time: a conflict between the traditional belief of stay at home mothers, versus a radical concept of career-driven women. The conflicts that Eliza, Scarlett and Louise encounter made me feel so frustrated but I cannot imagine how it felt to be living in such a time where patriarchy dominated! As such, I found these women to be generally admirable characters, especially Louise – having to persevere in a male-dominated industry. On the other hand, Matt’s traditional, narrow views are frustrating to a modern audience, making it easy for him to become the disliked character of the story.

The characters are generally very likeable and Vincenzi has a spectrum of personalities that should appeal to a wide audience. The opening of each chapter is cleverly ambiguous because you are not sure which character it is focusing on. I always assumed it followed straight on from the end of the previous chapter but this was not always the case. A clever way of writing and a way to keep such a long novel feeling fresh and appealing.

During moments of tension and excitement, the plot breaks become more frequent, thereby quickening the pace significantly. I even found myself sobbing during the second part of the novel, because it was so sad. So well-written, the story really got to me on an emotional level and, well, crying over a book is not something I do very often, so it’s definitely a credit to the writer.

Eliza, one of the main characters, faces many changing times over the course of the novel. The final part of the story, titled ‘The Divorce’ is a very dark time as the divorce case becomes very gritty. I found the final settlement quite unbelievable and disappointing and found that, after all that had preceded it, the author could have written something more believable and encouraging. That being said, whilst the final thirty-odd pages post-divorce settlement felt like Vincenzi was padding out the plot, it was a happy ending for all, albeit slightly forgettable.

A four star rating to reflect such a enjoyable story, despite some of its flaws. I had a few gripes with how Vincenzi developed the story (I could not get in to Mariella’s storyline and felt that Charles became “dumped” from the story unfairly), but on the whole, liked reading this. Reminding me of the genre that my lovely, amazing Nan used to read, I certainly will find another Vincenzi…. just maybe next time it will be a little shorter!

Book Bingo category completed: A book with more than 500 pages.

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Shocking eye-opener

‘Brutally Honest’ – Melanie Brown

4-star-rating

mel b

The tell-all memoir from the loudest, proudest Spice Girl and the truth behind the headlines.

As one-fifth of the iconic Spice Girls and judge on X Factor and America’s Got Talent, Melanie Brown, a.k.a Scary Spice, has been an international star since her twenties. Brutally Honest is an exposé of the struggles and acute pain that lay behind the glamour and success.

With deep personal insight, remarkable frankness and trademark Yorkshire humour, the book removes the mask of fame and reveals the true story behind the Spice Girls, as well as the horror of her most recent marriage and her 10 year struggle to be free.

Having grown up with the Spice Girls and now, being older, fully aware of her time in the spotlight and the media coverage, I was intrigued about this new autobiography. I had already read Mel B’s first book, Catch a Fire, and saw this available on my e-reader. I’m certainly glad I read this as the honesty of Mel B is remarkable, plus her the strength as an independent woman and mother.

One way that I would describe this autobiography is that it reads a bit like a jumbled therapy session. Mel B explains quite early on in the book that she has been diagnosed with ADHD and justifies her erratic and energetic behaviour. Yet, this has also been reflected in the way her story is narrated. Not in chronological order at all, I found Mel B continuously going off on another tangent before eventually returning, many, many pages later, back to her original story. I normally do not have a problem with this however, it is so erratic that I did find myself slightly confused about the timeline of events. Coupled with the fact that she does repeat certain ideas and explanations more than once, I felt that this ruined my understanding of the story. In my opinion, her story could have been executed far better if it had been chronological, like a traditional autobiography, thereby revealing the extent of her marriage traumas and the increasing tension in her life.

Based on this jumpy narrative, I did find it helpful to have read her first book. Mel B’s first book naturally covered more detail in her earlier life and career, (so if you are wanting the story of the Spice Girls, then Brutally Honest will not fulfil this,) which meant that as she overlaps again in this newer book, I remembered previous stories. This helped me overcome the erratic nature of her narrative and the massive jumping around that Mel B does.

This autobiography is certainly a message of female empowerment. You cannot help but feel proud of how Mel B has overcome so many troubles and how, through it all, she is there for her children. At times I felt the read was voyeuristic and her dark days married to Stephen did make me feel uncomfortable. Yet, this is merely a glimpse into what Mel B experienced and, from the beginning, she wants her readers to recognise the darkness of domestic violence and the corrosive nature it has on the woman and those around her.

A frank narrative with shocking reveals, there were many elements that I did not know about Mel B. Certainly her time with Eddie Murphy was an eye-opener but, her marriage to Stephen was ultimately the most emotional part of the story. It is one that runs throughout the autobiography and reflects the emotional impact it has had on Mel B. I was shocked with her revelations – she is definitely brutally honest – and I applaud her for facing up to her demons.

The autobiography finishes on hope. Hope for Mel B and her daughters, and also hope for women who have experienced similar relationships. I know that I will perceive Mel B in a totally different light from having read this autobiography and feel that some of her stories will continue to haunt me for many days after completing this read. It is a powerful narrative and a confession of sorts, perhaps something you would not expect from powerful Scary Spice, who has donned the walls of many whilst growing up.

Book Bingo category completed: A book of non-fiction.

Early American literature

‘The Scarlet Letter’ – Nathaniel Hawthorne

4-star-rating

svarlet

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dark novel, The Scarlet Letter, a single sinful act ruins the lives of three people. None more so than Hester Prynne, a young, beautiful, and dignified woman, who conceived a child out of wedlock and receives the public punishment of having to always wear a scarlet “A” on her clothing.

She refuses to reveal the father of her child, which could lighten her sentence. Her husband, the aptly-named Roger Chillingworth, who Hester thought had died in a shipwreck but was actually being held captive by Native Americans, arrives at the exact moment of her deepest public shaming and vows to get revenge. Her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, remains safely unidentified, but is wracked with guilt.

Though originally published in 1850, the story is set in seventeenth-century Massachusetts among Hawthorne’s Puritan ancestors. In The Scarlet Letter, he created a story that highlighted both their weaknesses and their strengths. His knowledge of their beliefs and his admiration for their way of life was balanced by his concerns about their rigid and oppressive rules.

We start by meeting our female protagonist, Hester, who is being publicly shamed for adultery. Forced to stand for three hours in public, Hester refuses to name the man she had relations with. The damning eyes of the village are upon her and Hawthorne depicts a woman of great strength and determination, especially as she not only has a three month old baby, but also the damning letter ‘A’ forever stitched to her clothes.

Whilst the father of Hester’s daughter, Pearl, is identified in the opening scene of the novel, we don’t learn of his name until later in the plot. This adds to the mystery surrounding Hester’s adultery. Contrasting this, the relationship she has with her husband is poor and you can’t help but feel sorry for her and the path she has chosen in life. Nonetheless, the triangle of relationships that Hawthorne creates between Hester, her lover and her husband becomes increasingly tense as the novel progresses. You wonder how this can be resolved, especially as throughout most of the story it is Hester’s husband who has the upper hand.

This forgotten classic deals with many themes from the early history of the United States, which I personally think makes this story more interesting, beyond its obvious fictional appeal. The passing reference to witches adds depth, alongside exploring the treatment of women during a Puritan era. Whilst Hester is socially ostracised, over time, she gradually gains status within the community; people become used to seeing her scarlet letter and reinterpret it for meanings suited to their own beliefs. Furthermore, Pearl also experiences this isolation. As a fiery child, she does not let this get to her and I must admit, I really liked her rebellious nature and strength of character.

To consider reading this novel, you need to be mentally prepared for the very lengthy sentences! It’s a good plot to follow but the execution is particularly challenging. For a taste of early American Literature, this is a good insight.

Book Bingo category completed: A forgotten classic.

Immersive

‘The Forgotten Hours’ – Katrin Schumann

5-star-rating

hours

In this evocative debut novel, Katrin Schumann weaves a riveting story of past and present—and how love can lead us astray.

At twenty-four, Katie Gregory feels like life is looking up: she’s snagged a great job in New York City and is falling for a captivating artist—and memories of her traumatic past are finally fading. Katie’s life fell apart almost a decade earlier, during an idyllic summer at her family’s cabin on Eagle Lake when her best friend accused her father of sexual assault. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, Katie insisted on his innocence, dodging reporters and clinging to memories of the man she adores.

Now he’s getting out. Yet when Katie returns to the shuttered lakeside cabin, details of that fateful night resurface: the chill of the lake, the heat of first love, the terrible sting of jealousy. And as old memories collide with new realities, they call into question everything she thinks she knows about family, friends, and, ultimately, herself. Now, Katie’s choices will be put to the test with life-altering consequences.

This is an immersive tale where the protagonist finds her family loyalties and trust are put to the test. At first I was reluctant to read this book based on the subject matter revealed in the blurb, but I am so glad that I did.

This novel draws you in from the beginning, with the Prologue establishing the setting for the fateful night where Katie’s life crumbles. Cleverly written in the present tense, this is a reflection of how Katie continues to relive these memories and cannot let go. This is because she firstly cannot believe what it did to her family and her relationship with her best friend, but also because, deep down, she is trying to understand the bigger truth about what happened. Such haunting memories continue throughout the novel until the climax at the closing so that we, as readers, are journeying on the same path of discovery as Katie.

I don’t normally pull quotes from novels in my reviews, but I think the following reflects the plot beautifully: “to move forward, she was going to have to keep going backwards”. As Katie returns to the lake to prepare for her father’s return, she uncovers more information about his trial. Katie is determined to learn the real truth about what happened between her father and her best friend, Lulu, and, once she begins reading the interrogation scripts from court, does she find that something is not quite right. Katie’s relationships are tested throughout the story and this mirrors her difficulty in coping with her father’s imprisonment, to the extent that it is significantly impacting her currently relationship with Zeb, her causal boyfriend.

Like Katie, readers also want to know the truth. It is easy to understand why Katie is so reluctant to uncover this because it tests everything she has believed in. Schumann carefully covers the issue of rape and it does not make you feel uncomfortable at all, instead allowing you to immersive yourself in the thrilling plot. With the prevalent #metoo campaign, you cannot help but sympathise with Lulu, particularly as more is revealed about her difficult childhood. You can only hope that some resolution is met between the two girls, and Schumann leaves readers until the epilogue to discover whether this actually happens.

Smoothly moving between the past and present, you feel the internal conflict that Katie experiences with her feelings towards her father. He is her hero, wrongfully accuses of something he could not have done. Therefore, her reluctance to find about more simply reflects her natural reluctance to question her father’s role in her life.

I could not put this novel down as the story progressed. At the same time, I didn’t want to read it too quickly because I was enjoying it so much! The revelations at the end and the plot development made me actually gasp out aloud, and I think this is a sign of a great read. A powerful journey to find the truth, I really enjoyed this immersive, thrilling read and felt the ending was as satisfying as it could have ever been. A brilliant read.

Book Bingo category completed: A book set on a different continent.

Sneak preview

‘I Owe You One’ – Sophie Kinsella

4-star-rating

i owe you

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Sophie Kinsella, an irresistible story of love and empowerment about a young woman with a complicated family, a handsome man who might be “the one,” and an IOU that changes everything

Fixie Farr has always lived by her father’s motto: “Family first.” But since her dad passed away, leaving his charming housewares store in the hands of his wife and children, Fixie spends all her time picking up the slack from her siblings instead of striking out on her own. The way Fixie sees it, if she doesn’t take care of her father’s legacy, who will? It’s simply not in her nature to say no to people.

So when a handsome stranger in a coffee shop asks her to watch his laptop for a moment, Fixie not only agrees—she ends up saving it from certain disaster. Turns out the computer’s owner is an investment manager. To thank Fixie for her quick thinking, Sebastian scribbles an IOU on a coffee sleeve and attaches his business card. But Fixie laughs it off—she’d never actually claim an IOU from a stranger. Would she?

Then Fixie’s childhood crush, Ryan, comes back into her life and his lack of a profession pushes all of Fixie’s buttons. She wants nothing for herself—but she’d love Seb to give Ryan a job. And Seb agrees, until the tables are turned once more and a new series of IOUs between Seb and Fixie—from small favors to life-changing moments—ensues. Soon Fixie, Ms. Fixit for everyone else, is torn between her family and the life she really wants. Does she have the courage to take a stand? Will she finally grab the life, and love, she really wants?

I was lucky enough to receive a sample of Sophie Kinsella’s forthcoming novel, I Owe You One, which is due to be released on Thursday 7th February 2019. Just reading the first three chapters, I was able to gain a true glimpse into the life of Fixie Farr.

True to Kinsella’s typical form, our female protagonist, Fixie Farr, has her typical hang ups and insecurities. Her siblings make her feel awkward and her crush has seemingly abandoned her for a life in America. Helping run the family business – a local “sell everything” shop – it seems like Fixie’s life is well and truly on a path of stability and safety. However, her encounter with a stranger in a coffee shop indicates to us that things are going to change for Fixie, for better or worse, as she has a favour she can claim back.

The foundations of the story are clearly laid in these opening chapters and it is clear where the story will progress next. However, this isn’t to discredit Kinsella and I think, if the novel continues in the same way, it will seem to be a pretty good read. Not really a laugh out loud novel, this seems to be a true chick flick story with threads of romance. I think it would always be difficult for Kinsella to match the comedy in the ‘Shopoholic’ series, but nonetheless this appears to be a safe, feel good read.

I Owe You One doesn’t seem to be a duff offering and I look forward to finishing it once it is released!

Book Bingo 2019 – The Results

Enjoying playing the game as much as I am? Maybe you can provide me with some suggestions for those categories that I haven’t yet completed. This post details all of my categories and the books I read, providing you with links to my reviews.

Happy reading!

A book with more than 500 :pages: The Decision – Penny Vincenzi

A forgotten classic: The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

A book that became a movie:

A book published this year:

A book with a number in the title:

A book written by someone under 30:

A book with non-human characters:

A funny book:

A book by a female author:

A book with a mystery:

A book with a one-word title:

A book of short stories: The Collected Short Stories – Jeffrey Archer

Free square:

A book set on a different continent: The Forgotten Hours – Katrin Schumann

A book of non-fiction: Brutally Honest – Melanie Brown

The first book by a favourite author:

A book you heard about online:

A best-selling book:

A book based on a true story:

A book at the bottom of your ‘To Be Read’ pile:

A book your friend loves:

A book that scares you:

A book that is more than 10 years old:

The second book in a series:

A book with a blue cover:

A tome of short stories

‘The Collected Short Stories’ – Jeffrey Archer

4-star-rating

Archer

International bestselling author Jeffrey Archer has enthralled readers with his riveting suspense. surprise denouements. and unforgettable story lines. Now Archers three acclaimed collections of short fiction are brought together in one irresistible volume … THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES.

A Quiver Full of Arrows takes readers on a journey of encounters that befall an assortment of kindly strangers. wary old friends. and long-lost loves. Sly reflections on human nature are at the centre of A Twist in the Tale in which blindly adventurous game-players compete for stakes higher than they dreamed. Expect the unexpected and you’ll still be surprised in Twelve Red Herrings. a dozen tales of betrayal. love. murder and revenge capped with a startling twist. Thirty-six stories in all. Each poised…

I am not one to usually read a collection of short stories but I thought I would give this a go. A lengthy tome, just short of 1000 pages, this is actually a collection of three short stories anthologies. Once I had completed this, I felt like I had my fill of short stories for this year at least!

What drew me to this collection was the overwhelming reputation that Jeffrey Archer holds as a writer. I have never read any of his books before and this introduction to his writing was a positive one. The flair that comes across in these short stories meant that at times, I truly forgot that this was what I was reading. The pace in these stories was adequate and one that meant the story itself was fully “extinguished” by its natural conclusion. Only rarely was I left wanting more from a story, but found that the next one satisfied this hunger.

One of the appealing elements of this anthology is that some of the stories are ambiguously autobiographical. The stories are well-written and often clever, with unexpected twists that I did not see coming. This really helped my enjoyment of this collection, although, I have to admit, after I while I did feel desperate for a developed, lengthy novel. Therefore, I think this anthology is ideal for someone who wants to “dip in and out” of their reading. In other words, either read this for an occasional read, or, to really enjoy it at its best, have this alongside another novel you are tackling.

Whilst I sometimes found it difficult to sustain my interest in this collection, naturally the stories cover a broad appeal for a range of tastes. Admittedly, those based on politics or sports had limited interest for me, whilst the relationships and life-focused stories were very good and gripping. There were fantastic thrillers and heart-stopping accounts that stayed with me, many stories after.

Unexpectedly, the final story allowed you to choose your own ending. Of course, I read all four of the options and Archer’s authorial note at the closing accepts that readers may wish to do this. I enjoyed having this choice and I thought it was a brilliant way to become an active reader, after passively receiving so many short stories. It also very much reminded me of the new ‘Black Mirror’ episode on Netflix, so it was uncanny how current this was!

A taste of what Jeffery Archer is like as a writer, I would definitely be open to reading more of his novels. Although this is a lengthy collection, I am glad I stepped out of my typical reading zone and gave this my attention. A great start to my reading year.

Book Bingo category completed: A book of short stories