A Blog A Day: The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – Review

A.J. Fikry owns a failing bookshop. His wife has just died, in tragic circumstances. His rare and valuable first edition has been stolen. His life is a wreck.

Amelia is a book rep, with a big heart, and a lonely life.

Maya is the baby left on A.J.’s bookshop floor with a note.

What happens in the bookshop that changes the lives of these seemingly normal but extraordinary characters?

This is the story of how unexpected love can rescue you and bring you back to real life, in a world that you won’t want to leave, with characters that you will come to love.

What I Thought:
The UK title of this book is The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry but in the US, it’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I think I prefer our title, but I can see where confusion might arise, with people thinking perhaps it was a book by A. J. Fikry, rather than a novel by Gabrielle Zevin.

At its very heart, this book is one for the book lovers. Each chapter has a short note from A. J. discussing one of his favourite books or short stories, and when we discover the reason for this, it’s heartbreaking. A. J.’s bookshop is the perfect secluded retreat for any lover of books and bookish things, but at first A. J. himself is one of those snobbish booksellers, looking down on genre fiction and thinking that literary fiction is the only quality reading.

There are definite reasons why A. J. is the way he is when we first meet him – grumpy, isolated, snobbish – but all that changes as Maya comes into his life, and we watch her grow, teaching A. J. a thing or two along the way.

Although the emphasis is on books and the bookshop, this story has a very human relationship at its heart, and shows the warmer side of living in a small community – from the petty annoyances of it, to the realisation that there is always someone there to support you, whether you know it or not.

This is definitely a book for those who love books, and the narrative is full of recommendations – there should be a further reading list in the back!

The Complete Works of A. J. Fikry is published by Little, Brown. You can find out more about Gabrielle Zevin on her website.

Note: I was sent a copy of this book to review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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A Blog A Day: The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby – Review

On 22 November 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy accompanied her husband to Dallas, Texas, wearing a pink suit that was one of his favourites. But as Jackie was greeted by ecstatic crowds that sunny morning, nobody could have dreamt just how iconic the suit would soon become.

In The Pink Suit, Nicole Mary Kelby has written a novel imagining the life of the garment that became emblematic of the moment the American Dream turned to ashes. Kate is an Irish seamstress working in the back room at Chez Ninon, an exclusive Manhattan atelier entrusted with creating much of Jackie’s wardrobe. Kate and the First Lady share roots in rural Ireland, and although their lives could not be more different, Kate honours their connection by using the muslin toiles for each piece she sews for Mrs Kennedy to fashion an identical garment – in a different fabric – for her own niece.

Then comes the terrible day that pictures of Kate’s handiwork, splashed with the president’s blood, are beamed all over the world.The Pink Suit is a fascinating novel about politics, fashion, history and the people who have a hand in it – from the backrooms of a Manhattan dressmaker’s to the Blue Room at the White House.

What I Thought:
The Pink Suit is an interesting book as it comes at a universally known historical event from a unique angle. The JFK assassination has been examined in intimate detail, so to find this way of tying it into the mundane and everyday is quite a feat.

Similarly to the assassination, hundreds upon hundreds of lines have been written about Jackie Kennedy, but this book never explicitly mentions her by name, calling her only ‘The Wife’ and instead draws parallels between her and the seamstress who sews the now-famous pink suit, based on a Chanel original.

Kate is an Irish immigrant, who has come to America to make her fortune, doing so in the back room of Chez Ninon, but we meet her at a crossroads in her life – should she continue on and chase her American Dream, or should she return to Ireland and settle for life there?

This is where the assassination works as a mirror of Kate’s life, as the glitz and glamour of the JFK presidency comes abruptly and violently to an end, almost marking an end to the post-war optimism of the 1960s, so Kate’s own love affair with America is slowly waning.

The novel works well on several levels; historically, it is rich and full of period detail, and it is also full to the brim with a passion for taking material and creating something beautiful out of it. The fictional characters never seem out of place in 1960s New York – except perhaps Kate herself, who is intentionally forward thinking.

Although things began to fizzle a bit towards the end, overall The Pink Suit was a compelling read, particularly for a history buff such as myself!

The Pink Suit is published by Little Brown.

Note: I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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A Blog A Day – Wimborne Literary Festival, #WiLF2017

It hardly seems like a year ago that I posted about attending some of the events at #WiLF2016, but a year it has been and it’s now time to take a lovely look at some of the exciting stuff happening at #WiLF2017.

The programme has just been published, but Gullivers Bookshop (the organisers) has been releasing little snippets here and there for a little while.

There really is a huge amount to choose from, with varied activities and talks starting with a crime fiction discussion with Robert Daws on 13th May, and closing on 21st May with a musical and poetical theme, thanks to Pete Atkin and Ian Shircore.

In between, you can take part in a Writers’ Workshop with Jane Corry, author of My Husband’s Wife, and explore Badbury Rings with Mary-Ann Ochota. If your interests take a more historical trend, Dan Cruikshank will be discussing A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings, or you can discover the real story behind the African Queen with Kevin Patience. There are also some great events for kids, run by Martin Brown and Kristina Stephenson.

This year, I have chosen to attend two events (we might take part in the kids events too), firstly a talk by the incomparable Tony Robinson, where he will be talking about his autobiography, No Cunning Plan. I am hugely excited by this, remembering him as not only Baldrick, but as The Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and her Merrie Men. Tony Robinson is also well worth a follow on Twitter, as he is a funny and intelligent Tweeter!

Secondly, I’ll be attending a ‘Meet the Author’ event with Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days and, new novel, Swimming Lessons, which is set in Dorset.

Alongside this fantastic programme, my friend – the lovely Kirsty (Books, Occupation…Magic!) and I have been promising each other that we will visit the Chained Library in Wimborne Minster for at least the last two years – this will be the year we actually go and see it!!

For more information on #WiLF2017, please take a look at the Facebook page. Tickets are now available for all events from either Gullivers or Westbourne Bookshop, and you can also pick up the full programme.

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A Blog A Day: Trouble Makes a Comeback by Stephanie Tromly

“How do you like life in the fast lane?” Digby said. “Is it everything you thought it would be?”

Good question.

Achieving high school “normal” wasn’t as hard as Zoe Webster expected, but she’s beginning to think Hollywood oversold how much fun it all is. Isn’t dating a jock supposed to be one long Instagram dream? Shouldn’t she enjoy gossiping 24/7 with her two BFFs? And isn’t this, the last year before the finish line that is Princeton, meant to be one of her best? If “normal” is the high school goal, why can’t Zoe get Philip Digby—decidedly abnormal, completely chaotic, possibly unbalanced, undoubtedly rude, and somehow…entirely magnetic—out of her mind?

However normal Zoe’s life finally is, it’s about to get blown up (metaphorically. This time. She hopes, anyway.) when Digby shows up on her doorstep. Again. Needing her help to find his kidnapped sister. Still. Full of over-the-top schemes and ready to send Zoe’s life into a higher gear. Again.

It’s time for Zoe Webster to choose between staying in the normal lane, or taking a major detour with Digby (and finally figuring out what that stolen kiss actually meant to him).

Guess which she chooses?

What I Thought:
After reading the fantastic Trouble is a Friend of Mine in 2015, I was excited to read the sequel, Trouble Makes a Comeback.

I didn’t review TIAFOM at the time, but I can’t adequately describe how fantastic it was – a real breath of fresh air with engaging and funny characters, but also a solid mystery plot throughout. And the ending, that kiss… Could Stephanie Tromly do it again with book two??

Yes!

I am hugely relieved to say that Zoe and Digby are back together, and getting into more scrapes and they are just as loveable a pairing as they were before. Digby is a fantastically written character – bluff, brash and unflappable on the surface, but really just as vulnerable as any teenager, perhaps more so because of his quest to find his abducted sister. That also is a great aspect of this book, in that it is readable on its own, but introduces more information to help Digby in his search and – hopefully – points the way to a book three!

It really is a shame that this book is such compulsive reading as I finished it in no time at all – perhaps I’ll just have to go back and read both again…

Trouble Makes a Comeback was published in November by Hot Key Books. You can connect with Stephanie Tromly on Twitter or read more about her on the Penguin Random House website.

Note: I received a copy of this book via Netgalley for review purposes – all opinions are, as always, my own.

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A Blog A Day – #Wave1000Faces and My 2017 Reading Challenge

At the beginning of the year I saw quite a few posts pop up with people saying that they would be putting a pound aside for each book they read in 2017 and I thought that was a good idea – I usually read 90-100 books per year, so why not save £100 to blow on books at the start of 2018?

Shortly after my making that decision, my local radio station, Wave 105, began recruiting for their annual 1000 Faces campaign, so I rethought my plans. If you’ve not heard heard of 1000 Faces, the premise is simply that instead of getting a few people to raise a lot of money, why not get loads of people to raise a little? The station then recruits 1000 people who will each pledge to raise £100 over the course of the year so at the end, £100,000 can be used by the charity Cash for Kids on projects that benefit disadvantaged and disabled children in our local area.

I duly signed up and am now Face Number 322 – do have a look at my fundraising page if you’d like to see how I’m getting on, or if you’d like to donate.

There are many reasons why Cash for Kids is a great charity to support, but the main reason I decided to support 1000 Faces, and that I also support the Christmas toy appeal, is that although the charity is national, funds raised in this area stay in this area. Ultimately there are so many charities, big and small, that are deserving of support, it’s really difficult to choose just one, or just a handful, so every charity choice is going to be down to your individual circumstances I guess…

So, how am I getting on? So far, I’ve read 19 books in 2017, and been topped up by my mum (Thanks Mum!) so that’s £29 in the pot for 1000 faces, and well on track for £100 by the end of the year.

As I said, you can keep up to date with my progress on my dedicated 1000 Faces page, and I’ll let you know how I got on at the end of the year.

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A Blog A Day: The Monster’s Wife by Kate Horsley – Review

To a tiny island in the Scottish Orkneys, peopled by a devout community of twenty, comes Victor Frankenstein, driven there by a Devil’s bargain: to make a wife for the Creature who is stalking him across Europe.

In this darkly-wrought answer to Frankenstein, we hear the untold tale of the monster’s wife through the perspective of the doctor’s housemaid. Oona works below stairs with her best friend May, washing the doctor’s linens and keeping the fires lit at the Big House. An orphan whose only legacy is the illness that killed her mother, Oona knows she is doomed. But she is also thirsty for knowledge, determined to know life fully before it slips away.

As tensions heighten between Victor and the islanders, Oona becomes the doctor’s trusted accomplice, aiding in secret experiments and seeing horrors she sometimes wishes to forget. When May disappears, Oona must face up to growing suspicions about the enigmatic employer to whom she has grown close – but the truth is darker than anything she could imagine.

What I Thought:
I’ve long been a fan of books such as The Monster’s Wife, those that take a celebrated work and further the story, either by retelling from the perspective of another character, or provide a sequel of sorts (Pride & Prejudice sequels in particular), so I was eager to pick up this one by Kate Horsley.

Having read Frankenstein, I was already a little familiar with what had gone before this book, but to be honest, there is enough reference to the original to be able to read this on its own (but I would always recommend reading Frankenstein).

From the first few pages though, this book is uncomfortable – you know that Victor Frankenstein has made a monster, and now he’s aiming to make another, but this time a female. When local girls May and Oona become involved in Victor’s life, it’s difficult to read about them knowing what will likely happen to them.

Oona is a fantastic character. A broad-thinking and determined woman in a community that does not welcome those qualities is bound to stand out, but with the intimation that her mother had a similar character, Oona is the definite misfit. Not content with settling down with a local boy and not seeing any more of the world sees her begin working with Victor, feeding her love of learning but she must face up to what his experiments entail, and her ultimate fate is gripping.

It’s difficult to follow such a classic work, with new characters, and keep the spirit of the original, but Kate Horsley does this well in The Monster’s Wife. The detailed but gloomy descriptions of the Orkney landscape, and the battering by a relentless sea add a restless feeling to the book, which mirrors Oona’s own restless spirit, and give a real sense of claustrophobia. Some of the horrors of Victor’s mansion are described vividly and without holding anything back.

This book is a worthy successor to the original book, and gives a brilliant new dimension to Mary Shelley’s earlier work.

To find out more about Kate Horsley, you can check out her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter.

Note: I was sent this book by the publisher, Barbican Press, for review purposes, but all opinions are, as ever, my own.

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A Blog A Day: How Much the Heart Can Hold – Review

‘Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.’
Zelda Fitzgerald

Love is not a singular concept.

In this collection, seven award-winning authors explore seven concepts of love: from Philautia, self-love, to Agape, love for humanity; and from Storge, a natural affection for family, to Mania, a frenzied, obsessive love.

Seven authors; seven short stories; seven flashes of love.

What I Thought:
The emphasis in a lot of fiction concerning ‘love’ as a concept, focuses on romantic love as the be-all-and-end-all, How Much the Heart Can Hold, a small yet beautiful volume, reminds us that love comes in many forms and the sad fact that, for some, romantic love can fade.

This short story collection, featuring the work of Nikesh Shukla and Carys Bray (among others) is an ambitious undertaking from Sceptre, but each story has been carefully commissioned, and put together to create a powerful collection. From forbidden love, to enduring love, to love amongst the family, this wider exploration of the concept of love is a great starting point from which to explore further – whether that be the concept of love, or to seek out more work from a particular author.

As with all short story collections, there are some that will speak to you, and others that don’t have the same impact. The ones that I felt most for were the stories by Nikesh Shukla and Carys Bray (hence why I mention them above!). On very different themes, but both featuring family relationships, I very much enjoyed the writing style and felt they were perfectly suited to the short story form.

Alongside the release of the hardback, Sceptre ran a (now concluded) short story competition, with the winner featured in the paperback release of the collection, so it’s definitely worth holding out for the paperback release for that extra content! Well done Sceptre for championing new writing…

How Much the Heart Can Hold will be available in paperback in August 2017 from Sceptre.

Note: I was sent a copy of the book for review, but all opinions are, as ever, my own.

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A Blog A Day: A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart – Review

Alex loves his family, and yet he struggles to connect with his eight-year-old autistic son, Sam. The strain has pushed his marriage to the breaking point. So Alex moves in with his merrily irresponsible best friend on the world’s most uncomfortable blow-up bed.

As Alex navigates single life, long-buried family secrets, and part-time fatherhood, his son begins playing Minecraft. Sam’s imagination blossoms and the game opens up a whole new world for father and son to share. Together, they discover that sometimes life must fall apart before you can build a better one.

Inspired by the author’s own relationship with his autistic son, A Boy Made of Blocks is a tear-jerking, funny, and, most, of all true-to-life novel about the power of difference and one very special little boy.

What I Thought:
Being the type of mother who, at times feels like the worst parent in the world, it’s so easy to identify with Alex in A Boy Made of Blocks. Children seem to be able to make even the most competent adult feel like a total failure in the blink of an eye, so I’ve no idea how that must be amplified when the child and parent are navigating their way around the effects of autism.

Keith Stuart is really very clever in the book, in making Alex quite unlikeable in the beginning. He’s a seemingly shallow man who is unprepared for having to care for an autistic child, selfish in wanting more of his wife’s attention and actually a bit of a shit for walking out with zero appreciation for how his fears are magnified tenfold in his wife, Jody. This is what makes it so much more rewarding when Alex begins to slowly understand his son, Sam, and build a relationship with him. You can see that Alex had to leave to be able to see his own family from the outside – but that doesn’t make walking out any less of a shitty thing to do!

Alongside this initial act, and the serious tone of the book relating to Alex, the book is also littered with humour. Sam’s honest reactions to his world and the people in it are written so well – I can only assume from Keith Stuart’s own experience of having an autistic child – and are sometimes so much what we as adults would wish to say, but would never dare!

The experience of this family is heartbreaking and, eventually, hugely rewarding and I felt like I gained a real insight into a family that includes an autistic child. I felt that sometimes there is such stigma surrounding a diagnosis of autism, that it is refreshing to read a story that emphasises the many wonderful things and experiences these special children can have.

A Boy Made of Blocks was published by Sphere in paperback in January. To find out more about the book, you can check out the dedicated website. You can also connect with Keith Stuart on Twitter.

Note: I was sent a copy of the book for review but all opinions are, as ever, my own.

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A Blog A Day: Dream Magic by Joshua Khan – Blog Tour

In a world ruled by six ancient Houses of Magic, a girl and a boy begin an epic and dangerous journey of discovery . . . Lileth Shadow, princess of darkness, is struggling with her growing powers. Castle Gloom is filling with ghosts, zombies roam the country and people throughout Gehenna are disappearing. Then Lily is attacked in her own castle by a mysterious sorcerer known as Dreamweaver and his army of jewel-spiders whose bites send victims to sleep. Thorn, and his giant bat Hades, must save Lily from the realm of sleep and help her overcome the evil Dreamweaver in order for her to reclaim her kingdom.

What I Thought:
Having read and enjoyed the first book in this series, Shadow Magic, I was pleased to pick up with Lily and Thorn’s adventures again. Lots of things have changed for Lily and Thorn but in Dream Magic, they again face treachery, mystery and unmask a ruthless villian.

The Shadow Magic series has all the hallmarks of a gripping and entertaining adventure series which will appeal to boys and girls – even the reluctant ones! There is magic, fierce creatures and everything moves at a fast pace – there is no chance of this series ever being called boring!

One of the reasons I liked the book is the emphasis on ‘women must not do magic’ as a law in Gehenna, but Lily is capable of strong magic, and is able to save the day by using it. I hope that this promotes the idea that girls are capable of anything, and it’s definitely worth getting this strong, feminist message out to girls at a young age. I hope that this continues in book 3 of the series.

Dream Magic is book 2 in the Shadow Magic series, and is published by Scholastic on 6th April. Find out more about Joshua Khan, and Shadow Magic on Joshua’s website.

The blog tour is ongoing, so please remember to check out some of the other fab sites using the #DreamMagic hashtag on Twitter.

Note: I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher for review purposes. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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A Blog A Day: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti – Review

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter Loo to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past – a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. Both a coming of age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the price we pay to protect the people we love most.

What I Thought:
‘Epic’ is a word that is bandied about far too much these days – but I have no hesitation in calling The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley an epic novel. It manages to combine the best elements of literary fiction with a compelling mystery, while sending our main character the length and breadth of the United States.

I have no idea why, but on first reading about the novel, I got the impression that it was historical fiction and a western (funny the things you incorrectly pick up) but while this assumption was completely wrong, Samuel Hawley does have something of the outlaw about him, and the themes of protecting loved ones at all costs, and the lone wolf brought to heel by the love of a good woman are reminiscent of the western genre – it really does have that feel to it at times.

While the book is about Samuel Hawley, and how he came by those scars, we see the present day sections of the book from Loo’s point of view. Living with a mysterious father is all she has ever known, but it’s heartbreaking to read her slow discovery that not all people live that way, and see her slowly come to distrust the man who has only her best interests at heart – the eventual ending is a touching and fitting conclusion to a gripping novel.

I try not to make my posts full of images, but I was sent a review copy of Samuel Hawley, which is a really lovely looking book, but I can’t end this post without letting you see the cover art below – just gorgeous!

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is published by Tinder Press on 6th April. To find out more about the book, you can visit Hannah Tinti’s website. You can also connect with her on Twitter.

See? Gorgeous!

Note: I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes – all opinions are, as ever, my own.

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