A Book Review Blog

Category: Chick-lit

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend

There were two main reasons why I picked up The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. Firstly, the title is really eye-catching, and it implied an equally interesting premise. Secondly, I remember reading the first of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series and enjoying it. So I thought that this would be a safe enough book to peruse.

When Eva Beaver’s twins leave for university, she gets into bed after having to still pick up after her children and husband, even when they aren’t there. Not intending to stay there for more than a few hours, she finds herself unable to bring herself to move out of her surprisingly comfortable bed. Now her husband, children and matriarchs on both sides of the family must figure out what to do with her, while Eva herself contents herself with thought and the unexpected sympathy of Alexander, the white van man.
The quotes on the front cover lie. Honestly, I think that this premise could have gone quite well. It’s the old adage, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” If this had been well-written, it could have been a touching lesson about valuing people for their contributions to the lives of those around them, and not by salary or intelligence. There could have been some comeuppance for the adulterous husband or the protagonist coming out of the experience with a new sense of what she wants in life and the drive to get it. What we instead get is the story of a woman who stays in bed for a year for no real reason other than she can, and in the process proving to be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to keeping her dysfunctional family together. I don’t see what is funny about that. I don’t see what’s funny about a middle-aged man who can’t properly look after himself and doesn’t have anywhere near enough emotional intelligence to maintain not one, but two affairs whilst still a little in love with his wife. I don’t see what’s funny about two autistic teenagers who have to deal with university life in general, a psychotic compulsive-liar for a room-mate, and the extremely public fallout of their mother’s choice to hermit herself away. And I certainly don’t see what’s funny about a woman who is so determined to stay in bed that she pushes away the entire world, to the point where her doctors find no other option but to section her. Honestly, anyone who actually laughs because of this book must come from another planet, and I say that knowing that my sense of humour can be both utterly black at times and utterly bizarre at others. This is not a funny novel. End of story.
The other main thing that bothers me is that it just ends. I was hoping for an ending that would tie everything together and make the whole story make sense, but what I got instead was a year of Eva’s life, no more and no less. What does it matter that the husband has given up completely and gone off to live with one of his mistresses, we never find out which. Why would we want to know what happened to the twins after they were apparently arrested? What possible reason would we have for wondering how they’re going to stop that whole sectioning business from happening, because that shit doesn’t just go away because hey you stopped doing the weird thing now. The ending is the mess that just tops off what was already a bit of a car crash anyway.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a complete embarrassment of a novel. Irritating characters with weak motivations do pretty much nothing but complain over the course of a year, and the ending adds to the pointlessness of the whole reading endeavour by wrapping up precisely nothing that had come up over the course of the narrative. It’s a completely unfunny waste of time. Don’t bother. 1/5

Next review: Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

I picked up Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe for two reasons. First, it looked adorable and easy to read. Second, it included recipes for cake. What possible reason could I have for turning down cake (apart from diet, but I’d rather not be reminded of that)? Besides, it was a cheap charity shop purchase, there wasn’t much for me to lose.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe follows Issy Randall, an admin clerk at an estate agents who is just sort of bumbling through her life. That all changes when she loses both her job and her boyfriend in one fell swoop. After a few weeks of moping around, she finds herself looking around a shop for rent more or less on a whim, and decides to set up a bakery/cafe. She soon finds that this venture may be a lot more complicated than she ever thought that it could be.
I was expecting this to be harmless and fluffy, and I got exactly what I expected. There’s some romance and some angsty moments that come with it. There’s the whole plucky lady underdog story which is nice, especially with some of the detail provided about actually running a business. The characters are pretty vivid, if a little on the simple side. Really, this is kind of a difficult book for me to review, because it is pretty much exactly as I thought it would be and I honestly don’t know how to expand on that. Usually my thought process will compare and contrast my expectations with the actual results, picking out things that stood out to me, good or bad, as a result. Here, Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe not only matched the blurb better than I’ve ever seen in a blurb before, but it fit the sort of cute and charmingly vintage but spunky feel that chick lit books seem to be best known for. It’s that everywoman thing that many of them aim for, the woman who isn’t stick thin and hates it in themselves while loving it in all of their equally curvy or chubby friends, the woman dissatisfied with her life but too nice to make a fuss until everything piles up too much. Someone relatable, or at least someone intended to be relatable. It’s the sort of thing that, if I turned my brain to it and really focused on it, I could find incredibly artificial and weird, and I think part of me objectively knows that there are particular elements that will always find their way into chick lit because they’re deemed relatable and will therefore sell. But honestly, when I pick up chick lit, it’s because I’m drained from whatever I was reading before. So really, if you’re looking for something cute and non-threatening, then you can certainly do a lot worse than this.

This is the sort of book that you will immediately know whether it will appeal to you or not. If you like cute things and romance, then this will work for you. If you’re looking for something to relax with, then this isn’t taxing in the slightest. If you want something with more depth, you might want to look elsewhere. The recipes also seem pretty solid, if the one that I’ve tried is anything to go by (although it is ugly as sin). 3/5

Next review: The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

Signing off,

Born in Fire by Nora Roberts

I think I needed a break from books almost guaranteed to hurt me (in a good way). So part of me is relieved that the next installment of the Gentleman Bastard series isn’t due to come out until next year, at least giving me some time to recover. In the meantime, I returned to my actual reading list and settled on reading another of the books that I picked up on a whim from a charity shop. Born in Fire sounded like just the sort of romantic mush that would allow me to relax a little.

Born in Fire follows Maggie Concannon, a glass blower living out in County Clare. She is making a modest living by selling her work when she catches the eye of Rogan Sweeney, the owner of several art galleries who is interested in promoting home-grown Irish artists. While the idea of needing an agent to sell her work needles at Maggie, she is more tempted by the potential for enough money to set up a home for her mother and, in the process, freeing her younger sister from their parent’s anger and bitterness. But what starts as a business arrangement soon becomes more personal as Rogan and Maggie’s personalities clash in a big way.
This is a curious book to review. In many ways, I would consider it well written and containing some surprising depth. In other ways, it jabs at me with little things that just don’t mesh right. So instead of discussing pros and cons as has been my wont more recently, I’ll pick elements and take them apart.
Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is the setting, if only because of what I feared it could well have ended up. When I read the first couple of chapters, I got a horrible sinking feeling that this would end up being a horribly quaint, sanitised version of Ireland, very much the American view of what Ireland is. I am aware that parts of Ireland are very quaint and romantic, but there is always a part of me that sort of braces itself when I see depictions that brush away the darker aspects of the country. Maybe it’s having grown up in Britain, but it always strikes me as intensely naive and at times intentionally ignorant when a whole bloody history is conveniently forgotten in favour of some harmless national stereotypes. But, thankfully, the actual setting is a lot more nuanced than I had feared. Indeed, central to Maggie’s character arc is her relationship with her mother, which is unavoidably marked by Ireland’s issues in regards to pregnancy outside of wedlock, given its large Catholic population. While it has moments where the depiction is squarely in the quaint, I can’t find it in me to begrudge the author these moments, as the tone is overall pretty balanced and it isn’t really meant to be a terribly grim and gritty book.
The other thing I’d like to focus on is the characters and their relationships. Most obvious to look at would be the romance between Rogan and Maggie, seeing as it is one of the book’s selling points. It’s okay, but really nothing that stands out amongst many other romantic novels. A part of the reason that I’m so lukewarm to it might be that there isn’t really any tension around them getting together. Their main issue is instead commitment and exclusivity, which could have been really interesting. That is if it weren’t juxtaposed with the far more absorbing family drama. Following the death of Maggie’s father, she and her sister Brianna have to deal with taking care of their mother, a bitter and twisted hag of a woman who makes no secret of the fact that she believes her late husband and children to be the causes of all of her unhappiness. Maggie in particular is loathed for being the child conceived out of wedlock, and the deep personal issues that this and her parents’ obviously deeply unhappy marriage cause is really well developed. Additionally, I do have a bit of an issue with the ending of their romance.
I found that Maggie’s complete turnaround from swearing off marriage entirely to accepting Rogan’s marriage proposal a little weird. While I am a firm supporter of marriage (being currently engaged, it would be a tad strange not to be), I am also well aware that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I have known people for whom it has turned out very badly, and for whom it is an archaic formality that they would rather forego. For Maggie, it made complete sense for her to believe that she was not suited for marriage considering the example that she grew up knowing. As a result, I find it more than a little in bad taste for Rogan to listen to her reasons for not wanting to get married and then continue to emotionally manipulate her into accepting his proposal anyway. It might not make the picture-perfect romance story ending, but a big part of me would have preferred if she stood her ground and tried to make the relationship work without marriage as an end goal.

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag. If you’re looking for a romance primarily, I’d look elsewhere as it’s average at best. If you’re more interested in a complex family drama, then this is a pretty good place to look. Also, if you’re looking for a depiction of Ireland that isn’t the Americanised vision of shamrocks and leprechauns, then this is a nice tone that has hints of the country’s darker side without it sliding hopelessly into a story about the troubles. 3.5/5

Next review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

Signing off,

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

This book was something of an oddity for me to pick up. I knew that I had read The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets before, I knew that I had finished it in a matter of days and I knew that I had enjoyed it. Could I remember a bloody thing about it? Not on your life. And that really puzzled me. I know that I tend to have a better memory of things after I’ve written about them, but even so, to forget so completely what the book was like was a feat of some magnitude matched only by my patchy recollection of my dad reading The Hobbit to me when I was very young. I picked this up mainly to find out what on earth my memory was playing at.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets follows Penelope Wallace, a young woman in the mid-1950s, as she tries to navigate her life with some semblance of decorum and just a little bit of daring. At home, she must contend with her pop-music obsessed younger brother and her incredibly beautiful and petulant widow of a mother on top of increasing debts that threaten to evict them from their ancestral home. But things start to change after she meets and, on a whim, decides to share a taxi with the chaotic Charlotte. She is in turn introduced to Charlotte’s flamboyant aunt and her cousin Harry, who enlists Penelope’s help in trying to win back the American woman he was previously wooing.
I think there are two main reasons why this book failed to stand out in my head. First, it’s very much a slice of life sort of book. I have nothing against this style of narrative, but I personally find them a bit difficult to keep straight in my head. With the majority of plots, there’s a clear progression of events and tangents tend to be few and far between, so it’s easy to keep them neat and segmented in my mind. Slice of life narratives tend to lack these a little, so the story becomes fuzzier and vaguer in my head as time goes on; I’ll remember little bits, especially as I approached them in the narrative, but the whole picture is patchy at best. It also makes plot summary paragraphs really difficult to write, so thanks for that.
The second reason that The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was almost entirely forgotten was because it was, for lack of a better word, safe. There wasn’t really anything that stood out as daring or exciting or really felt like it would have consequences. Instead it seemed to take place in a magical rose-tinted version of the 1950s, where youth and beauty is all you need to get ahead in life, where all the people that Penelope meets are utterly fabulous in some manner, and where all our aristocratic main leads aren’t quite impoverished enough for surprisingly regular trips to Harrods to be out of the question. It has no real bite to it, but I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing. I have used the term “popcorn book” before, and this is a prime example of that. It’s not a book that you have to try particularly hard to read and can be perhaps inconsequential. It is a vital part of being a reader though, because it can get immensely tiring to always be reading intense, challenging books. And this one? As inconsequential as they come, but fun and charming enough that it doesn’t matter at all when you’re reading it.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a gentle, charming book that will work perfectly for you if you’re looking for a quick read to switch your brain off for. There’s no real bite or staying power with it, but it’s a nice experience while it lasts. If you’re a fan of romance or the aesthetics of the 1950s, then you’re likely to enjoy this, if not remember it afterwards. 3.5/5

Next review: Velocity by Dean Koontz

Signing off,

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

I should really have no excuse for this one. With this kind of title and the obvious tween-style title, I really have no business reading I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You. I mainly picked it up because I thought it might be so bad it’s hilarious. Having finished it, my feelings are considerably more mixed.

I’d Tell You I Love You follows Cammie “The Chameleon” Morgan in her sophomore year of private school as she falls in love for the first time. This is complicated somewhat by the fact that Cammie attends a school specifically training the all-female student body to become spies for government organisations like the CIA and NSA, and her new crush can’t ever learn this.
As a plot, this is both far too simple and unnecessarily complicated. It is simple because the events of the novel focus almost entirely on Cammie’s exploration of her new feelings, with side plots like her tempestuous relationship with a new teacher and the father of one of her best friends going AWOL get so little attention that they lend little to no texture; additionally, there are some obstacles presented that turn out to be such let-downs that they might as well have not been there. It’s unnecessarily complicated because there are a lot of moral implications that espionage entails that such a simple plot can’t hope to fully encompass. For example, Cammie knows right from the beginning that the students from the Gallagher Academy are viewed with palpable contempt from the local town, Roseville. As such, when she starts pursuing her love interest, she lies and tells him that she’s home-schooled for religious reasons. This is the least of the deceptions that she creates in order to win over her chosen boy, including fabricating her own birthday and family history. I find this very uncomfortable, as the foundation of any good relationship is trust; admittedly, while the narrative does attempt to address this and other issues, it takes her far too long to realise that this might be seriously underhanded and unfair towards a boy who is essentially loving a pack of lies. I will give the author props for at least addressing this though, as the ending tends strongly towards the bittersweet part of the spectrum. The only thing that bothered me about the spying bit was the Covert Operations stuff about looking out for your team. While I can understand the concept of minimising risk and the potential for information leaks, it seems to assume that the teams they’ll be working in will be friendship groups, with the inherent desire to keep them safe. To me that seems a flawed perspective: in espionage, they aren’t going to put you in friendship groups, because, ultimately, your friendship is less important to your employer than the stuff you are supposed to be stealing or sabotaging; if anything, the emphasis on keeping your team safe is taken to such an extreme that it starts to become a liability.
My other main issue is the characterisation. I know what Cammie is like, because she narrates the story. I can’t say the same about anyone else really. Cammie’s best friends are stated to be Bex and Liz, but I couldn’t tell you much about them other than Bex is the gregarious friend while Liz is the geeky friend. There’s really very little to them otherwise. It means that when you get to the inevitable, “choose between a boy and friends” quandary, it wouldn’t have made a difference to me whatever one she chose: both sides had personalities akin to cardboard.

I wanted to like this, but I don’t think that the writing and construction really lived up to the interesting prospects created by the basic plot. Props to Ally Carter for trying, but average at best. 2.5/5

Next review: Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Signing off,

Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Wow, I’ve neglected this blog for a while now, haven’t I? February has been a weird month for me, and the weirdness will probably continue until I get my dissertations in and my schedule evens out a bit. As it is, my schedule has meant that my reading of Windfall was rather sporadic, shall we say. In any case, I’ve finally got it done and I get to revisit my poor neglected blog.

Windfall is actually pretty complex plot-wise. The plot is triggered when Cassia, the wife of a village doctor, finds out that she has inherited half a million pounds from her godmother. Up until this point, Cassia hasn’t really enjoyed her life, feeling that her duty to her husband and children has been preventing her from following the medical career that has prepared herself for for most of her life; now with the money, she finds that she can ease herself back into the workplace, a move that fills her husband, Edward, with resentment. The money also brings her back into close contact with her godmother’s family and friends, several of whom also become centrally involved in the very convoluted plot. All of this is also reflected in the historical setting, which details the short reign of King Edward VIII and his controversial relationship with divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.
This book is essentially a soap opera set in interwar Britain. The amount of plot threads and melodrama that packed into over 600 pages is quite extraordinary, now that I think about it. I only realised just how much like a soap opera it was when I was talking to my fiancĂ© about it: failed/failing marriages everywhere you look, dark secrets, disastrous misunderstandings and much more. To be honest, I generally find soap operas to be laughable at best, so I was surprised at how I was still somehow invested in what was some of the most over-the-top plotting that I’ve seen in a long time. That I was invested at all considering how lukewarm I felt about it at the start is something of an achievement too; in the beginning, the reader is focused pretty much entirely on Cassia and her marriage to Edward, and they are by far the weakest characters of the entire book. With Cassia, she managed to be both a Mary Sue (a character idealised by the author regardless of actual merit or character) and completely uninteresting: usually Mary Sues are hilarious because of their over-the-top characterisation and poor construction; in Cassia’s case she was just boring, but somehow treated by other characters as if she were this extraordinary force of personality. Combine that with a background in which EVERY SINGLE ADULT involved in her childhood was feminist to one degree or another; I’m sorry, I know that she was meant to appeal to a modern audience, but I cannot believe that in the day and age that it was set in that she would have had so many people telling her “Hell yeah, you can be a doctor if you work hard enough!” You just about get that as it is today, let alone in the 1910s. As for Edward, never have I seen such an insufferable, bitter and insecure little man in fiction as him; I read about him and pretty much instantly pegged him as a “Nice Guy”, so when Cassia starts feeling guilty about their failing marriage my first thought was “Ditch him. Now.” I assume that I was meant to think, “Oh no, poor Cassia, she doesn’t want to hurt him, but he’s just not right for her.” I couldn’t, simply because it was so obvious that he was forcing her to stay in the role of home-maker, a role that she does not naturally lean towards or enjoy particularly, because he was scared that she might go into medicine and potentially *gasp* be better at it at it than him. It was pathetic and really unattractive to read about.
On the other hand, the side characters are actually pretty interesting. My favourite was probably Cecily, a high-class woman married to Cassia’s godmother’s brother, Benedict; her attempts to make her marriage work when it’s clear that her husband’s straying interest is making it fall apart is truly heartbreaking, but at the same time it is easy to see where she is only contributing to its failure despite her intentions. Another character who was very interesting was Edwina, who decides to start working as a means to delay an inevitable confession to the husband that she sometimes gets along with but has never truly loved; she was more spiky and abrasive, with a very self-centred world view, but was nonetheless fascinating to watch if not terribly sympathetic at times. These two are by no means the only wonderful characters in this book: hell, you could include almost the entire cast in this category, which only makes it all the more frustrating that the author chose Cassia as her main lead.

Overall, Windfall was entertaining, but very flawed. I would recommend this to people who don’t mind reading something that reads like a soap opera but are still in for the long haul. I might read it again someday, but I can’t imagine it would be with any real urgency. 3.5/5

Next review: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Signing off,

Marshmallows For Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Marshmallows For Breakfast is not the kind of book that I usually pick up. To be honest, I can’t actually remember buying this for any better reasons than it was cheap and I liked the title. After Gillespie and I though, I think I needed a simpler read, something that would leave me in a clearer state of mind; a comfort read if you will. In that capacity, Dorothy Koomson has certainly delivered.

Marshmallows For Breakfast follows Kendra Tamale as she moves to England after living abroad in Australia. Her hopes at finding a simpler life than the one she had in Australia are quickly dashed when she finds herself helping her landlord’s two young children, Summer and Jaxon, as they struggle to deal with their parents’ inevitable separation. While the children and their father manage to worm their way into her affections, Kendra is keeping a huge, incredibly painful secret from them.
In regards to the plot, I liked it, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was kind of, well, amateurish. The main thing that I can think of is that it feels like the novel tried to tackle too many “big” issues; quite frankly, I think that the pressures of looking after someone else’s children and the fallout that comes from divorce are subjects that can easily take up a whole novel by itself. The fact that there are at least three other big issues that get discussed as part of the narrative makes it feel a bit like Dorothy Koomson wrote this more as a way to get her views out to the public. While she does manage to mostly make the inclusion of these issues fit, it does feel a little preachy; the closest character that you could consider a villain is undoubtedly evil and completely unrepentant for what he has done, which just feels weird considering the comparatively balanced and sympathetic way that almost every other character is portrayed in, despite their failings and issues. One thing that I will give Dorothy Koomson credit for is that she doesn’t feel the need to force a romance into the already full narrative.
The characters are well-written and sympathetic, especially Summer and Jaxon; I was actually rather surprised to find myself liking the two kids, despite the frequent moments in which they act up like every small child you are ever likely to meet. Apart from the children though, there weren’t really any characters that really stood out as such. Well written, but not great.

Overall, this is a comfortable read. It’s not something that I would recommend to someone looking for a book that will challenge them or broaden their horizons. This is well-suited for when you’ve reached a point where you’re just emotionally or mentally tired. 3/5

Next review: Richard III by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

To be honest, I’m not sure what made me pick this book up. Obviously I remembered the huge hype that there was when the film adaptation came out, so I was in two minds about The Time Traveler’s Wife when I picked it up second hand. On the one hand, often there’s something prompting the hype meaning that it’s probably pretty good, but on the other hand hype is very bad for raising impossibly high expectations, thus causing disappointment when the book doesn’t live up to the hype. But, considering that it’s been years since the hype died down, I decided that this would be a safe time to take a look. 

So, you probably know what the novel’s about, but this is my turn to talk, so I’ll tell you anyway. This is the love story between Clare and Henry. Of course, it isn’t that simple, it never is in fiction. The main complication in this relationship is that Henry has a genetic condition that means that he will, often in times of stress, travel back or forwards in time. This is actually quite well implemented, especially when the two first start dating; Henry has never met her before, whereas Clare is well aware of who he is because she has seen several of his future selves throughout her childhood. The time travel itself brings up a lot of questions about the nature of fate and whether the future is already determined or whether we can use free will to affect the past or the future. It can get kind of depressing, but the sheer amount of optimism in Henry and Clare’s relationship negates that for the most part. Regarding that, I have to praise the book for its focus on a long-term couple and for making the relationship so…human. What I mean by that last point is that it feels utterly true to life, with flawed characters leading out lives with decisions that aren’t necessarily the right ones and having to get one with the consequences. It’s a refreshing change from insta-romances and affairs that progress without a hitch (or ones which are plagued with nothing but misery). 
The characters are similarly human. There’s Henry, who is a bookish girl’s dream (probably on purpose) as he’s intelligent and cultured, but at the same time prone to depression, losing his temper and alcoholism. Clare is patient and creative, but gets more and more prone to irritation as the number and length of Henry’s absences increase throughout their married life. There are other characters who appear at various times in their lives, such as Gomez, a liberal lawyer with an unrequited crush on Clare; Ben, an AIDS sufferer friend of Henry’s and Ingrid, an angry ex-girlfriend. 
To be honest, I’m not sure what else to say, considering that this is quite widely known. The only other thing that I can think of to say is that if you haven’t read this yet and want to, I would recommend keeping tissues nearby when you get towards the end; it’s the closest I’ve gotten to bawling in a long while. 
In this case, the hype was well-founded. This is a well-written, genuinely touching love story and I would happily recommend it. 4.5/5 
Next review: The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman 
Signing off, 

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