Book Review: Brushstrokes of Memory, by Karen McMillan

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_brushstrokes_of_memory.jpgCombined with the perfect timing for Mother’s Day, the pretty and colourful cover, the by-line ‘a novel of love, lost memories & rediscovering dreams’, this really looks like a great piece of enjoyable reading, in rare and craved for moments of solitude, cat or dog curled up next to you, glass of wine, cup of tea, piece of cake! Bliss.

Karen McMillan is a North Shore, Auckland based writer. She has previously written, to popular acclaim, two novels themed around WWII in Poland and America – The Paris of the East and The Paris of the West. This novel is quite, quite different in every possible way from her two previous novels.

The writer has tapped into the now (getting a little worn) theme of ‘woman losing memory’, focusing on Rebecca, who loses the memory of ten years of her life, from her 32nd birthday to present day. She is now 42, when she wakes up in hospital, concussed from a fall down some stairs. She is still married to Daniel – a once successful NZ rock star-now music tutor, lives in Browns Bay on Auckland’s North Shore, and works in the city in some sort of graphic designer capacity.

In the ten year period that she can’t remember, many things happen to her and Daniel –illness, death, loss, good times and bad times. None of this of course is known to Rebecca when she wakes up, seeing her adorable and adoring husband by her bed and her best friend Julie. Life is peachy, other than a bit of a headache. Not so.

The novel, of course, then sets about revealing what has really gone on in those ten years, working towards a well managed climax, and subsequent resolution. Well crafted then, with plenty of tension, some curve balls, a mysterious stalker, the horrible boss, ageing parents, health issues, and at the core of the novel, the state of Daniel and Rebecca’s marriage.

So much of this novel is good, with a straightforward story, some very insightful writing on grief, the nature of memory, the brain recovering its memories, the complications of every day life and relationships, and especially the sections on Rebecca’s serious brush with breast cancer, which I understand are strongly based on the author’s own experience of breast cancer. I learnt a lot, not just about the physical experience of the disease but also the emotional experience. Very, very good.

But, for me, and I stress most strongly that this is my own personal reaction to this book, it is just average. There are a number of unfinished threads, and I just could not relate to Rebecca or Daniel. I couldn’t understand, and there is no explanation in the book, why such a talented and successful artist as Rebecca was ten years ago, is now working in some horrible unpleasant design firm doing reworks of work she has already done; we never find out how the accident happened even though decent sized chunks of Rebecca’s thoughts are taken up with this mystery; how serious is this head injury, how long had she been in hospital for, concussion can take months to recover from – she is back at work seemingly full time two weeks after she becomes conscious again with nothing but the odd headache.

I honestly thought Daniel was pathetic, a wimp of a man. He can’t bring himself to tell his wife of one terribly tragic event, or that they were on the verge of separating, because suddenly, what-ho, his newly conscious wife is a sex-goddess! What man in his right mind would want to lose that!

Best friend Julie is by far the best character. Forever berating Daniel for his inability to talk to his wife, she spends most of her time protecting Rebecca from herself, looking after Rebecca’s elderly mother in the rest home she works in, and generally trying to keep one step ahead of all those around her.

This is a very Auckland-city novel, depicting the city’s love affair with real estate – big modern homes and quaint Devonport villas, cafes, the hideousness of the transport infrastructure, the whole glossy magazine feel about the place, the people, the lives they lead. Even though I live in Auckland, I found all this quite cliched and cringing. We get this in the papers, on TV and media every single day, surely there are other aspects of the city that the author could also have found to illustrate her novel.

It reflects what I feel overall about this novel – that despite the serious and important themes, much of it lacks depth and insight, too glib, things are just brushed over instead of going just a little deeper. There will be people who love this, I appreciate that, and for an easy, lazy Sunday afternoon read, it will definitely fill the gap.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Brushstrokes of Memory
by Karen McMillan
Published by McKenzie Publishing
ISBN 9780473374358

Book Review: The Best of Adam Sharp, by Graeme Simsion

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_best_of_Adam_sharpThis book is really good chick lit – so good,  I would have assumed the book had a female author, had I not read the front cover.

The book starts with an email Adam Sharp receives from Angelina Brown, an Australian actress who was briefly the love of his life more than 20 years ago. He was a British IT contractor on an assignment in Melbourne and they met in a club where he occasionally played the piano and sang in exchange for a few beers. That night he was trying to impress a woman he was on a date with, but all thoughts of her were forgotten when Angelina walked up to his piano and asked if he knew a particular song.

Although Angelina was married to Richard, the pair had a short but intense fling before Adam had to leave to fulfil the next part of his contract. Despite their best intentions, life got in the way and they ended up going their separate ways. Adam had a long relationship with his partner Claire and never gave Angelina another thought – until he received an email from her, with just the word ‘hi’.

The pair start an online conversation that Adam keeps from Claire. She is stressed as it is, as she is in the process of selling her software company. If the sale goes ahead she will end up in the US, and Adam has made it clear he isn’t prepared to go with her. The emails lead to Angelina inviting Adam to join her and her second husband Charlie on holiday in France. Adam doesn’t know why she invited him, but he knows things aren’t going anywhere with Claire so he ends their relationship and heads to France.

As soon as they are reunited, it’s obvious there is still an attraction between them. But Angelina is married with three children… and Adam doesn’t know what he wants, other than to go back to the time they first met. I don’t want to give away anything by going into detail about what happens in France, but it will shock and surprise readers!

The ending had a few surprises in store as well, and just when you think you know what life has in store for Adam, Angelina, Charlie – and Claire – Simsion throws another curve ball into the mix.

It’s an easy and enjoyable read, made all the more interesting by the playlist of songs that accompanies it. I’d guess the author is about my age as I knew all but a few of the songs listed, and could summon the lyrics as I read the book.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Best of Adam Sharp
by Graeme Simsion
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355376

Book Review: Song of the Skylark, by Erica James

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_song_of_the_skylarkYou know you have been well and truly drawn into a story when you have a wee tear or two at the end of it, and such is the charm of Song of the Skylark. This is a lovely tale of two women; one coming to the end of her life story and the other at a turning point of hers. Initially we meet Lizzie, newly fired from her job where she has been having an affair with her boss – not one of her better life decisions, and one that has impacted on her family: “Poor Mum and Dad, it couldn’t be easy having her back with them again. Not only that, they were still a long way from understanding why she’d ended her four-year relationship with Simon in favour of a man they’d yet to meet – a married man to boot.”

While she is seeking new employment, she finds herself back at her parent’s house and is coerced into taking over her mother’s volunteer position at a local rest home. Reluctantly, Lizzie heads off and here she meets Mrs Clarissa Dallimore. As they begin chatting, Mrs Dallimore reveals a past that is more interesting than Lizzie first thought. As a radio station researcher, her interest in the older lady’s history is sparked, and so too is a friendship between the two. For Mrs Dallimore, talking to Lizzie allows her to revisit old friends and places. For Lizzie, the friendship and gentle counsel of the older woman leads her to a bit of soul searching. She finds herself comparing her life and personal outlook to that of the courageous Mrs Dallimore and determines to take a leaf out of the old lady’s book:

‘You might find this hard to believe,’ she said at length, ‘but before I came downstairs I was trying to sort out some of the clutter going on inside my head.’
‘Why would you think I’d find that hard to believe?’
Lizzie shrugged. ‘I know how people see me, Mum, that I’m a hopeless flibbertigibbet who can’t get anything right.’

The two heroines in Song of the Skylark and the cast of varied characters who feature alongside them, are personable and easy to relate to, the kind you would love to have a cuppa and a chat with. The story easily moves from WWII to modern times and both women’s stories engage you, leaving you wanting to see how they will win through and ensuring you are smiling along with their happy moments. Told alongside Lizzie’s story is a sub-plot involving her parents and, her twin brother and his aloof wife which, by the way, I would love to see developed into their own story (please, Ms James!).

A chick-lit story that is both historical and contemporary, it is perfect for either a beach holiday or a winter weekend. It might be a good idea to have some tissues handy.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Song of the Skylark
by Erica James
Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781409159568

Book Review: I’ll See You in Paris, by Michelle Gable

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ill_see_you_in_parisThe stories of three women are skilfully braided together in this tale of love and a family secret. We first meet Annie, a young recent graduate, newly engaged to her marine boyfriend. She is sure of her love for him but feels some reservation about their rush into marriage after only a few months. With her fiancé’s immediate deployment to war, Annie tags along with her mother Laurel to Banbury, England on a trip that leads to the unravelling of a family secret.

Laurel, a single mother and hard-working lawyer, is in England to finalise negotiations for the sale of a property she owns there. Just how she came to own it when she has no family is something of a mystery to Annie, as is the old, blue book she catches her mother clinging to on the night of their departure. A literature major, Annie is intrigued and is amazed to discover that the subject of the biography is one Duchess of Marlborough; a famous eccentric aristocrat who denied her title and grew increasingly mad, living out her days in the very village her mother’s property is in.

Over the course of a few days spent talking to a village local, Annie unwinds the behind the scenes background of the book. The more Annie talks to Gus, the more she is fascinated not only by the question of whether or not the crazed old lady Gladys Spencer was really the missing Duchess, but also the growing relationship between the writer and Gladys’s young American companion, the quiet and sweet Pru.

I’ll See You in Paris is cleverly interwoven via three perspectives, Annie’s time in Banbury talking to Gus and investigating, the events happening during the writing of the book and also through excerpts from the biography itself – set out as chapter introductions, they relate the life and personality of the Duchess herself.

Gable has written a wonderful tale and is skilled at showing us what her characters are like rather than telling us about them and this is particularly well done in the banter of the manuscript transcriptions:

“GD: I believe he passed. That’s the problem I often faced, seeing as how I was so much younger than everyone I consorted with.

WS: That’s not true. I meant the first part! Please! Calm down! No need to throw things, Mrs Spencer.”

Her characters are full and unique with personalities that fit together well and keep you entertained. Gladys/The Duchess is such a hoot, you can’t help but admire her madness and spirit. Even more so when you learn via the Author’s note that Gladys Spencer, aka the Duchess of Marlborough really existed and Gable has included many direct quotes and true stories of her famous escapades in life.

If you are looking for a whimsical read for a lazy weekend, I’ll See You in Paris is perfect. As all good chick-lit stories do, this one sees the characters change and grow as they reach their happy endings.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

I’ll See You in Paris
by Michelle Gable
Published by Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 9781250104793

Book Review: Strictly Between Us, by Jane Fallon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_strictly_between_useStrictly Between Us
is a tale of loyalty, betrayal, love, lust, good intentions and double-dealing. Tamsin is the star of the show, and the supporting cast are her long-time best friend, the best friend’s husband, and Tamsin’s personal assistant.

Fallon doesn’t waste any time setting up the action. Halfway down the first page we see … well, I can’t say what without spoiling a major plot point. It’s a fairly full-on way to start a book, and shows two of the main characters in a less than flattering light. Which is probably the point.

The pace remains fast throughout the 400+ pages, and zips back in time a little way to explain the first page scene, and the repercussions that reverberate throughout the rest of the story. The story is primarily told from Tamsin’s point of view in first person, which took me a little while to get used to. As the story progresses we also hear from Tamsin’s personal assistant Bea from time to time, also in first person, which presents another interpretation of events.

Fallon has been described by The Guardian as writing “Chick Lit with an edge”, which is about as apt a description as any. The writing style of Strictly Between Us and the worlds that the characters inhabit suggest a readership that is well informed, well-travelled, and connected to all that is currently fashionable. It is very ‘here and now’, with descriptions of hipsters, retro pub interior design and coffee preferences peppering the story. For me, Fallon’s edge is her pacing; the story moves along at a cracking pace, and I found myself spending more time reading than I intended to, to see what Tamsin was going to do next.

I don’t know if it’s because the blurb on the back cover gives away a huge clue or I’ve got better at reading between the lines after a summer spent in the company of authors Robert Galbraith and Gillian Flynn (both of whom keep the reader guessing for much longer), but I saw the major plot twist coming a mile off. This shouldn’t put potential readers off, as there’s a lot of the story dealing with the resolution of the crisis. The characters are reasonably complex; with the exception of Michelle who felt more like a sketch, the main protagonists are three dimensional and flawed. And while the story wraps up in a conventional sort of way, there is a last little plot twist that adds a bit of relish, and a touch of real life, to the story.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Strictly Between Us
by Jane Fallon
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9781405917711

Book Review: A Vintage Wedding, by Katie Fforde

cv_a_vintage_weddingAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Katie Fforde lives in the U K with her family. She has written a number of books including Recipe for Love, A French Affair and The Perfect Match.

I was very pleased to receive this book to review as I needed something a wee bit lighter after reading a number of thrillers. There are times in a girl’s life when a good romance is just the ticket. I found this a great book to blob out and forget the cares of the world with.

In a small village in the Cotswolds, Beth finishes skyping her sister Helena. Beth is renting a cottage, a holiday let that she was grateful to have. Helena has managed to rope in Beth to plan her wedding. Their very domineering mother Vivian’s idea of a wedding is something upmarket with hundreds of guests – something which Helena is keen to escape. Not having been long in the village, and after being talked into buying a raffle ticket at the local village shop, she meets Sarah, Lindy and Rachel. On discussing her problem regarding her sister’s wedding, the four girls discover they all have different skills that complement each other’s, so they decide to set up their own business, called ‘Vintage Weddings’.

Dresses, venue, food and affordable are a big ask, but they pull it off with lots of hiccups along the way, and of course romance for all four girls.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a light read and a great book to tuck away in a bag to take on holiday.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

A Vintage Wedding 
by Katie Fforde
Published by Century
ISBN 9781780890845

Chick Lit: Fiction’s dessert course?

Veteran book rep John Bentley never let his bookseller customers move to the Thames & Hudson list until they had bought from the lists of more basic publishers he represented. That done, he would announce “Here’s pudding!” and open the box of full-colour art and decor titles.

So it is with chick lit*, the pavlova of fiction. When your reading selection becomes meat, cv_chocolate_cake_for_breakfastgreens and potatoes, it is time to divert to the light and frothy. As it happens, New Zealand authors do pavlova rather well, and our top five have an international readership.

Danielle Hawkins’ Chocolate Cake for Breakfast has been a steady presence in Nielsen’s top ten NZ fiction list for several weeks now. She is counted as NZ-published, though the Arena imprint is a part of Allen and Unwin, and Chocolate Cake is also successful in the Australian market.

The Sarah-Kate Lynch effect
Wedding Bees, the most recent title by Sarah-Kate Lynch, is published by HarperCollins in NZ, HarperCollins 360 in the UK and by one of their other imprints, William Morrow, in America. Her agent in New York arranged the overseas rights sales for this and many of her prior chick lit books, with translations in the Dutch, Polish, Bulgarian, Swedish, Italian, Portuguese and Brazilian markets – and in Hebrew.
No chance of that for her next book, the personal, anecdotal nonfiction Screw You Dolores: A Wicked Approach to Happiness (and a guide to turning 50) released by Random House next month. It is written for a strictly Kiwi audience: “We get the jokes,” she told The Read. “It is about knowing when to do what someone tells you to do, and knowing when to tell them to stick it…”

Nicky Pellegrino weaves food with love
Nicky Pellegrino (right) is our other major chick-lit author published internationally. After her first book, Delicious, published here by Random House was picked up pp_nicky_pellegrinointernationally by Hachette’s Orion imprint, she was offered a worldwide contract with the imprint. One of her reasons for accepting that was the ease of being able to deal with just one publisher and one editor. In fact, over her five titles – most recently The Food of Love Cookery School – she has had only two editors. ”Both are strong and old-fashioned female editors who knew what they were doing. Every writer goes off on tangents and needs to be brought back to the story line!” Her titles have been translated in Polish, Dutch and Portuguese.

Our most recent break-out author
cv_the_sweet_second_life_of_darrell_kincaidCatherine Robertson has written three novels: The Sweet Life of Darrell Kincaid, The Not So Perfect Life of Mo Lawrence, and The Misplaced Affections of Charlotte Fforbes, all Kiwi best sellers. Her first two books were picked up by a major German publisher, but they refused Misplaced Affections.

It wasn’t sweet or simple enough, as Robertson explained on the Booknotes Unbound blog, for the publisher to easily market it as chick lit. “My stories have become too complex, and my humour too ironic,” she wrote. “Why would irony and humour be out of place in chick lit, I wondered? Why would either diminish a reader’s enjoyment of a book in this genre?” Seems the clash of literary cultures extends to cover this field: worthy apple strudel for Germans, melt in the mouth ‘pav’ for Kiwis!

Michelle Holman
And if Catherine is queen of the longest titles a chickpp_michelle_holman lit author has ever got away with, Michelle Holman’s are the opposite. Bonkers, Divine, Knotted and Barefoot are one book, one word, titles. Her most recent, the loquacious Hand Me Down, spent 20 weeks on the bestsellers list in 2011. “I write what I like to read,” says Holman, “Stylish, sexy, funny romances where women are sassy, men are flawed, and laughter and happy endings are guaranteed.”

Rights to her novels have sold in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal.
Fans have been waiting for a new novel, and Michelle is constantly asked when she’s going to write another book. Right now the pressure of home (she has a family) and work life means there is very little time left to write a new novel at the moment.

But how is it selling?
pp_Catherine_RaynesSo how is chick lit faring on the bookshop shelves? Paper Plus Group’s Catherine Raynes (left) says the popularity of chick lit peaked around three to four years ago, but it still performs consistently on the book market. Our top Kiwi authors in the genre have all been on the chains’ best seller lists.

“It is nice to see New Zealand publishing more mass market titles and to see them succeed pp_gail_liddingtoninternationally. Their style and covers don’t look like ‘a New Zealand novel’ in the convention we’ve come to expect, which is refreshing.”

Gail Woodward (left), book buyer at Paper Plus (formerly Dymocks) Newmarket, believes the chick lit offering on the market has become diversified, and that the trend is for the light and fluffy sex-and-shopping titles to be aimed at a younger age group, and the classic relationship based novels to be more complex and have more depth.

“Chick lit doesn’t ring true as a label for the genre now… a lot of it has moved up a stage. I prefer to call it women’s fiction.”

Gail muses that Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffanycv_breakfast_at_tiffanyss ‘was the original chick lit novel’ and that Marian Keyes, JoJo Moyes, and Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding are being surpassed by newer writers including our own international stars.

Always  ahead of the market, Gail’s book of the moment is American novel Fin & Lady, by Cathleen Schine. Only loosely chick lit, the story of a relationship between orphaned Fin and his older half sister Lady in fifties America is one she is enthusiastically hand-selling.

cv_fin_and_ladyBut already, Gail thinks she has detected the next big thing in novels for the female market. It is ‘faction’ with real characters populating fiction. Think The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld and Naomi Woods’ Mrs Hemingway.

By Jillian Ewart, Feature Writer for The Read

*Wikipedia definition: Chick lit is genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly. The genre became popular in the late 1990s, with chick lit titles topping bestseller lists and the creation of imprints devoted entirely to chick lit.

Although it sometimes includes romantic elements, chick lit is generally not considered a direct subcategory of the romance novel genre, because the heroine’s relationship with her family or friends is often just as important as her romantic relationships.