It Was You – Jo Platt

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9/10. Cute cover!

“Alice Waites has been happily single for almost two years. When her close friends in The Short Book Group gently question her current distinct lack of interest in men, she accepts that maybe it is time to deal with the past and open herself up to new possibilities. However, things soon unravel for Alice as she uncovers the secret heartache and hopes of those around her. And her most surprising discovery is the life-changing truth which she has kept hidden, even from herself…”

It Was You is a witty, warm, character-driven novel – a fun distraction, if slightly predictable (and a bit too heavy on the commas).

Platt brings us a cast of amusing, memorable characters. Centre stage is Alice, along with Miriam, a friend from university, her bubbly and forthcoming work friend Sophie, the sweet and sincere Abs and Connie (who I have to say we get to know the least). Notably absent is Lydia, who we meet at the beginning of the story – another university friend who sadly passed away years previously.

Others join the fray – Lydia’s widowed husband Jon, Connie’s husband Greg, Miriam’s husband Craig, her sister, Romy, and David, who Sophie and Alice work for. Single Alice, still somewhat recovering from an acrimonious split from Eddie years previously, contends good-naturedly with her friend’s matchmaking attempts. Abs’ friend Hugh turns out to not be a match made in heaven for her, but when Alice meets Greg’s friend Stephen, it seems like she may have hit gold…

Uncertainties linger, however, as Alice tries to deal with various things bubbling under the surface: her widowed father has a new girlfriend, Jon appears to have moved on with a new woman, and Eddie reappears on the scene with some unpleasant news… Will Stephen turn out to be The One or will an unexpected contender for Alice’s emotions prove more suitable?

It Was You is an enjoyable, sweet novel, driven along by a cast of relatable and witty characters. 

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A Day at the Office – Matt Dunn

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9/10. Great cover – just not very Valentine’s themed!

This novel would perhaps have been better suited to the title of A Valentine’s Day at the Office, given that it revolves around one February 14th at a dot-com company. 10 of the company’s employees are looking for love – in various guises. 

The novel is character driven, featuring a cast of excellently-drawn office workers – even the women are authentically portrayed, which can be hard for male authors to achieve (and vice versa). Sophie, having broken up with Darren and moved to London from Eastbourne, worries that she’ll never find love again. Nathan, who got dumped three years ago to the day, whilst down on one knee with a ring in his hand, still hasn’t got over Ellie. Callum, a nervous singleton who is forever trying to make himself as appealing to the opposite sex as possible, has got a first date tonight – but he has no idea what his companion looks like. Judith and Mark shared a drunken kiss at the office party but haven’t discussed it since. The former has a somewhat unusual lovelife scenario, whereas the latter hasn’t managed to get the night out of his head since…

This Valentine’s Day, the entire cast embark on their own romantic journeys to find who they hope will be The One. Though the story follows fairly familiar rom-com-lit patterns, Dunn occasionally throws in a curveball or two to keep readers guessing. An entertaining read no matter your relationship status!

Film review – Me Before You (Jojo Moyes, Thea Sharrock)

In conjunction with my review of After You – call it a Moyes-a-thon – I’m publishing my first ever film review, of books that have been turned into films, of Me Before You, directed by Thea Sharrock. I loved the book and I was hopeful that with the much-loved Emilia Clarke, Matthew Lewis and Sam Claflin, it would be a film to remember. I made sure I packed plenty of tissues, however – I won’t forget finishing the book on a train and trying to avoid utter humiliation by stifling my sobs (sadly I failed).

Filmed mostly in Pembroke, the film stays true to the book’s English roots (I can’t stand it when they move films to different countries – usually America), and Emilia’s range of bright-coloured, quirky outfits certainly ring true with the paper version of Lou, as does her on- (and off-) screen sunny personality and cheery disposition.

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The scenes between Will and Louise are filmed in a spacious annex to a huge, beautiful mansion – the physical distance between carer and patient echoes the emotional disconnect between the two. The gaping space between them hammers Lou’s discomfort home, contrasted to the small, suffocating nature of her family house. She’s often clock watching on her own, as Will makes his preference to be alone abundantly clear, before going home to her big, noisy family.

The film follows the book truly, though my one MAJOR disagreement was the casting of Patrick. Though Matthew Lewis’ toned physique makes him perfect for Lou’s marathon-loving, ill-suited boyfriend, Patrick is not a likeable character – whereas the loveable Neville-Longbottom-stereotyped Matthew Lewis is. I just couldn’t hate him – despite his attitudes in the film; dismissive towards Lou’s feelings, jealous of Will, overbearing and protective when he senses that their relationship has transgressed from carer and patient into something new. I had cast him in my head as Nathan, who I’m still convinced he would have been perfect as (I would have even forgiven the lack of Australian accent).

I, along with a hundred other people, enjoyed watching as Will’s isolating depression and Lou’s nervous eggshell-treading develops into a relationship of sorts; fragile and tense at first, then comfortable and easy as Will starts to let Lou in and Lou stops being scared of him. The iconic wedding dance scene is beautifully filmed, down to the gorgeous dress and spray of flowers in Lou’s hair – though by this point the contrast between Will’s former life and his current one is painfully ingrained into our consciousness, more so than with the book – as I, like a lot of people who read the book, simply couldn’t grasp the depth of it from the mere words on the page.

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As the film moves to Majorca, where Will and Lou’s relationship finally takes off, we’re hopeful, despite knowing the ending, as the pair enjoy cocktails by the poolside, glorious sunshine and even gorgeous thunderstorms. But here again the film aligns with the book when Will admits to Lou that he’s still intent on ending his life.

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Heartbroken, Lou hands in her notice and seeks comfort home – until she’s called to his side for one last time for him to say his last goodbye. Ignoring the Traynors at first and struggling to cope with the tense atmosphere in the household, Lou finally goes against her mother’s wishes and leaves to be by his side, in the nick of time. The closing scene between the two lovers is poignant and emotional, leaving no dry eyes in the cinema with its simplicity, beauty and Will’s last words to Lou.

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The film had a few bits missing – the absence of Will’s sister Georgia and Steven Traynor’s affair (although it’s implied) and no reveal of Lou’s traumatic experience when she was younger – though this didn’t really harm it; there simply wasn’t enough time to include it all. There were also, for me, a few mis-casts – I’ve already mentioned Matthew Lewis, but I also felt that Camilla and Steven were cast slightly too old to be Will’s parents.

Despite that, Me Before You was well-worth watching, faithful to the book and hitting its contentious message home. Will’s right to choose – the underlying message of the film for me, despite how other people have chosen to interpret it – is keenly, uncomfortably highlighted as we see his constant health struggles with day-to-day life, the huge amount of difficulties added to each simple task, and his clear unwillingness to accept his new circumstances, illustrated admirably by Sam Claflin’s excellent acting.

Whatever your feelings on the book and film, the story raises essential questions about disabilities and our perceptions of them, given its lack of coverage in mainstream entertainment. What we only tend to see in newspaper articles and in online forums is brought to screen for everyone to consider, no matter their abilities. A must-see for sure.

After You – Jojo Moyes

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8/10. A bit bare for my liking, but gives a nice throwback to Me Before You.

“Lou Clark has lots of questions. Like how it is she’s ended up working in an airport bar, spending every shift watching other people jet off to new places. Or why the flat she’s owned for a year still doesn’t feel like home. Whether her close-knit family can forgive her for what she did eighteen months ago. And will she ever get over the love of her life. What Lou does know for certain is that something has to change. Then, one night, it does. But does the stranger on her doorstep hold the answers Lou is searching for – or just more questions? Close the door and life continues: simple, ordered, safe. Open it and she risks everything. But Lou once made a promise to live. And if she’s going to keep it, she has to invite them in…”

The bar for the follow-up to Me Before You was always going to be high: Jojo Moyes’ first novel about Lou Clark, the small-town, everyday girl who falls in love with the disabled man she’s caring for, before she has to say goodbye to him, broke hearts all over the world (including mine). So I snaffled up a copy of After You as soon as it hit the shelves and started reading it as soon as it was delivered.

It’s safe to say that After You took a different turn to what I was expecting. The novel opens up on Lou, living in London and working in an Irish pub at an airport, and thoroughly disobeying Will’s last instructions before he passed away:

“Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well. Just live.

Despite taking time off to travel after Will’s death, Lou is now firmly stuck in a life far from the one he hoped for her – made up of long, punishing shifts, bereavement support group sessions, horrible uniforms and scratchy wigs, isolation, alcohol – and absolutely no bright-coloured clothes. Contemplating her life one night looking out over London from the rooftop of the flat she used Will’s money to buy, Lou sees a glimpse of a face and, shocked and startled, she falls off the roof and onto a balcony below, seriously injuring herself. Forced to move back home to recuperate, she’s quickly stifled by the life she used to feel so comfortable in – and her old town, which is now full of far too many painful memories.  Everyone – including Patrick and his new fiance – seems to be moving on, except for her. Until a knock at her door changes her life irrevocably – for the person waiting for her on the other side is oddly familiar and yet entirely strange. With one knock, the Traynor family is back in Lou’s life – a side of the family Lou has never met, or been aware of. Accepting this stranger into her flat opens up a whole new world: every aspect of Lou’s life is questioned, thrown into turmoil and turned completely upside down. But along with the chaos comes the possibility of new love – until that’s threatened to be taken away from her, too.

Just how much more can Lou Clark bear to lose – and stand to gain?

After You was never going to be an easy book to write for Jojo Moyes, and it certainly wasn’t easy to read. Lou’s pain and struggle jumps off the page, making for a bittersweet and truly heart-wrenching read. Opportunity mingles with loss, new love with old ghosts, heartbreak with healing. It’s a rare novelist that can evoke genuine emotions for a fictional character, and I think I speak for a lot of other people when I say that Lou Clark made her way into my heart from the first few pages of Me Before You – and stayed there during After You. This beautifully-written novel gives us much-needed closure whilst granting Lou much-needed new pastures. An utterly absorbing, heart-warming and poignant read – don’t even think about not reading it.

The Two of Us – Andy Jones

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10/10. Perfect for the genre, nice symbolism, not to twee. Right on the money.

“Falling in love is the easy part. What matters most is what happens next… Fisher and Ivy have been an item for a whole nineteen days. And they just know they are meant to be together. The fact that they know little else about each other is a minor detail. Over the course of twelve months, in which their lives will change forever, Fisher and Ivy discover that falling in love is one thing, but staying there is an entirely different story. The Two of Us is a charming, honest and heart-breaking novel about life, love, and the importance of taking neither one for granted.”

The Two of Us is a charming and bittersweet tale of a whirlwind romance between Fisher and Ivy, a couple who meet and quickly fall head over heels for each other. Though there are some differences between the two – Ivy is older than Fisher, and has a lot of facial and bodily scarring due falling through a glass table at a young age – on the surface they’re perfect for each other. Fisher works for an advertising company; Ivy does make-up for television and film actors.

Interestingly for a romance novel, The Two of Us is written from the male point of view (not surprising, given that the author is male) and far from giving it a jarring style, it works extremely well here. Heart-on-his-sleeve Fisher adores Ivy – it shines through the pages – and the relationship moves forward with speed. A ‘happy accident’ sees the pair move in together and start planning their future – and family – together. Nothing puts besotted Fisher off; not when Ivy can be a bit cold and distant, not when her older brother moves in and massively cramps their style, and not when a girl that Fisher’s working on an independent film with comes on to him. Not even when it turns out that the baby Ivy is carrying is actually twins – which will cramp their small flat, and modest budget, even further.

But their relationship is not without their troubles, and as Ivy grows in size Fisher finds himself dealing with new territory and picking his battles carefully (plus spending a fortune at his new local artisan butcher). Most of the book is taken up by documenting Ivy’s pregnancy; as his love for Fisher’s babies grows, so does his love for Ivy, though trying to deal with so many new aspects of their relationship at once – Ivy being pregnant, having just moved in together, having been together less than a year, Ivy being older – is trying at times. But their ultimate test will come when mother nature twists the knife cruelly in their happy little family situation and everything that they’ve built threatens to crumble…

The Two of Us is a genuinely lovely novel. Some sad elements aside – including the gradual worsening of Fisher’s best friend’s Huntington Disease – the happiness and love that the protagonist Fisher feels for Ivy seeps through the novel. It’s by no means perfect – the major plot twist is orchestrated in a slightly anti-climatic manner and there are times, if I was Fisher, that I genuinely would have wanted to throttle Ivy – but it’s a poignant and ultimately uplifting novel of an everyday, not-without-their-flaws couple finding love, making the best of difficult situations and, eventually, finding happiness together. A traditional storyline for the genre, but happiness is often underrated (and nonexistent in a lot of the ‘unreliable narrator’ novels dominating the market today). A tale as old as time it may be, but it’s a tale that I genuinely enjoyed reading, and felt emotionally invested in.

The Dish – Stella Newman

24485926I’m a big Stella Newman fan. Pear Shaped is one of my favourite novels of all time and Leftovers is up there too. I’m a big fan for a number of reasons: Stella’s witty dialogue, her excellent characterisation (I will always root for a character who would prefer pasta to a salad) and her plotlines, to count but a few. But one of the things Stella truly excels at is giving her readers a fantastic insight into an industry or career that they wouldn’t generally otherwise have. Take her latest read – The Dish, which focuses on the life of Laura Parker, anonymous food critic and divorcee who’s been lying low in love since breaking up with her husband, Dave. Fans of Pear Shaped will remember her as Sophie’s best friend/side kick, and the feisty Miss Klein makes a number of welcome visits in this novel.

But this love story is all about Laura, and her blossoming relationship with Adam Bayley, the head chef at pretentious new restaurant LuxEris. Laura eats at the restaurant before they meet and hates everything – from the ridiculous menu and the high prices to the lurid, tacky décor. She writes a damning review for her publication – The Dish – but she starts to change her mind once she meets and starts dating Adam. He’s a brilliant chef and a master of flavours – surely he couldn’t have been cooking that night? Laura decides to go back and do a re-review, and sure enough the food, this time around, is exquisite. So she decides to change her review – before her first one gets out there and damages Adam’s reputation, and his position at the restaurant. But a snide colleague sabotages her, and suddenly everything starts to fall away – Laura’s beloved boss falls ill, she’s plagued by guilt over the death of her mother, and when Adam finds out who the face of The Dish is, he’s furious with Laura for keeping it a secret. But it’s not as big as the secret he’s keeping…

The Dish is classic Stella at her best: cracking wit, sparkling ripostes and, as always, a protagonist you always want to win. My only complaint is that she doesn’t write fast enough – more books please, Stella!

NB: For fans of Pear Shaped, why not try my version of Sophie Klein’s compost cookies?

If I Could Turn Back Time – Nicola Doherty

9781472209955“What if you found The One, then lost him again? Or not so much lost him as became the neurotic, needy girlfriend from hell. The girl who tried to make him choose between her and his job, and got seriously paranoid about his relationship with his best female friend… Zoë knows she doesn’t deserve another chance with David. But if there’s the tiniest possibility of making things right, she’ll snatch it. Even if it means breaking the laws of physics to do so…”

How many relationships have you had that have ended badly? How desperately do you wish you could go back in time and undo the little mistakes you made – the mistakes you’re sure all added up to an unhappy end?

Zoë is still trying to get over the painful break-up from the man who she was sure was the love of her life – David. Two days before Christmas, unhappy at work and at home, she makes a fruitless wish – “I wish I could have David back.” But she could never have foreseen that the next morning she would wake up back in his bedroom…

Somehow, Zoë has gone back six months in time, when she was still with David. She has no idea how it happened – but she quickly realises that this is her chance to turn her life around. She can replace her unpleasant housemate, who she’s not yet met, with David’s lovely friend Max; she can use her knowledge of the future to get ahead at work; and, more importantly, she has another chance to be with David. Blissfully happy with her second chance, Zoë loves being back in David’s arms – and all she has to do is button her lip about his frustratingly close relationship with his best friend Jenny, the straw that broke the relationship’s back.

But as she neatly sidesteps the pitfalls, Zoë starts to realise something is amiss, and things soon start to unravel. The new job, which her knowledge of the near future had helped her to secure, depends on knowing what’s going to happen months in advance – but past Christmas, Zoë has no idea. She’s fallen out with her best friend Rachel by warning her about the impending end of her relationship (which Zoë has already witnessed) and Jenny’s closeness with David is still bothering her. What’s more, he doesn’t seem to know her as well as she thought – and not half as well as her new housemate Max does…

It I Could Turn Back Time is a gentle, enjoyable chick-lit romp by burgeoning author Nicola Doherty. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did her debut novel – The Out Of Office Girl – but it was an entertaining, heartwarming read that delivered what it promised.

Many thanks to Headline for the review copy.

Beautiful Day – Kate Anthony

beautiful-day-081907556“Today is the day that things are going to change for Rachel Bidewell. She will walk through the doors of Clifton Avenue Care Home and start a new life. Rachel is returning to work. And as she discovers, juggling a new job, three children and an ex-husband can feel like drowning. Someone needs to throw her a lifeline… Philip doesn’t seem like an obvious lifesaver. He has just lost the one person who ever cared for him and, even as an adult, he doesn’t know how to live in the real world. But might Philip and Rachel each have something the other needs? This is a story of unexpected friendship; of the messy, muddy territory of those broken by life – and what it takes to fix them. It reminds us that the very darkest of days can be funny, heart-warming and even beautiful.”

Rachel Bidewell needs a win. After splitting up with the father of her three children – Jess, Luke and Alec – she’s just landed a new job at a residential care home. When she’s given her first charge, Philip, she’s confident that things are going to start looking up. Philip has lived a sheltered life which, combined with his mental disabilities, makes him a challenge for any care worker – let alone newbie Rachel – but she’s determined to make progress with him and give him the support he needs after his mother’s death.

However, it’s not as easy as she predicts – the care home is overseen by manager Denise, a brusque woman who clearly doesn’t have the residents’ best interests at heart and who seems determined to sabotage Rachel’s progress with Philip. At the same time, Rachel is struggling with her children, very much reeling from her divorce from husband Dom. Most affected is Alec, a serious, thoughtful boy. After he runs away during a school trip, it seems best for him to go and live with his father for the time being – something Rachel struggles to adjust to.

At the same time, work is getting worse as Denise demands that Philip is given to a new carer due to Rachel’s inexperience, which results in him coming to harm – the last thing Rachel wants to happen. But things start looking up for Rachel and Rob when find proof that Denise has been stealing from the company. Realising their ploy, Denise is determined to bury the truth and cling on to her job, but will Rob and Rachel manage to get the proof they need to ensure that she never threatens the residents’ safety again? And will they give in to the sparks starting to fly between them, or is Rachel too scared to acknowledge them..?

In this lovely heartwarming novel, Kate Anthony gives a rarely seen insight into the lives of those that need caring – and the importance of a strong, nurturing relationship between them and their carer.

Many thanks to Penguin for the review copy.

The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes

18186807“One single mum… One chaotic family… One handsome stranger… One unexpected love story. The One Plus One is a captivating and unconventional romance from Jojo Moyes about two lost souls meeting in the most unlikely circumstances.”

Life isn’t easy for the Thomases. Jess is a single mum of two – her biological daughter Tanzie, and her stepson Nicky – who works every hour God sends to pay the bills. With no sign of forthcoming child support from her ex Marty, she can barely make ends meet. But life isn’t easy for her children, either; Tanzie is a talented maths genius who longs to go to a specialist school that Jess has no hopes of affording. Nicky is a make-up-wearing misfit who is being relentlessly bullied by the local thugs; their latest spat put him in hospital.

Jess’ hopes are raised when she’s told about a maths competition that Tanzie has a chance of winning – and the prize money can fund the entrance to her dream school. But the competition is all the way in Scotland, and they have no hope of affording train fees. Jess decides to take a risk and drive her ex Marty’s old car – uninsured and untaxed – but things hit rock bottom when she’s caught by the police. The car is immediately impounded, she’s warned she’ll be fined, and now they have no way of making the journey.

Enter Ed Nicholls… Ed’s an ambitious financial hotshot who’s in somewhat of a pickle himself. Offering the girl he’s been hooking up with an insider tip to innocently help her earn some money has completely backfired. The girl informed her brother, who made money off of the transaction, and Ed’s now being threatened with indictment for his insider trading.

When Ed sees Jess and the kids at the side of the road, the police taking their car away, he offers to help by driving them all the next day. And so the four – and the kids’ smelly dog, Norman – embark on a journey that will change their lives forever. Ed is running from his family, who he doesn’t want to disappoint, and Jess is trying to hold everything together for their kids. But she’s hiding a secret from Ed – a secret that is about to destroy their slowly-developing relationship…

The One Plus One is a heartwarming story that initially starts with so much despair and pessimism that I couldn’t wait for the fates to turn for this lovely, down-to-earth mismatched group. It’s a slightly tamer novel than Moyes’ previous offerings – Me Before You and The Girl You Left Behind both had me in absolute tears – but it’s a lovely, bittersweet tale with a real, feel-good ending.

Many thanks to Penguin for the review copy.

What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty

what_alice_forgot_liane_moriarty“Alice is twenty-nine. She adores sleep, chocolate, and her ramshackle new house. She’s newly engaged to the wonderful Nick and is pregnant with her first baby. There’s just one problem. All of that was ten years ago… Alice has slipped in a step-aerobics class, hit her head and lost a decade. Now she’s a grown-up, bossy mother of three in the middle of a nasty divorce and her beloved sister Elisabeth isn’t speaking to her. This is her life but not as she knows it. Clearly Alice has made some terrible mistakes. Just how much can happen in a decade?”

Alice Mary Love is having a normal, everyday workout at the gym – when she falls and bangs her head. In a second, 10 years of her memory is wiped out. The last thing Alice remembers is being pregnant, expecting her first child – affectionally dubbed ‘the Sultana’ by her and her husband, Nick. But when she wakes up, Alice finds herself in a completely new life – she has three beautiful children she doesn’t remember, her mother has remarried – her husband’s father – and her sister seems oddly distant. None of these facts are as disconcerting as the fact that Alice’s beloved Nick seems to despise her.

Post-accident Alice cannot understand her new life; her former slovenly self seems to have turned into a super-fit, glamorous style maven who’s constantly running around, holding charity bakes and hosting PTA meetings. She doesn’t realise how her life has ended up this way – and, more scarily, she has no recollection her of her three children. Olivia, Tom and Madison are all wonderful but have very different, strong personalities – and Alice doesn’t remember their favourite meals, how to deal with them, or even what they’re like.

Added to the mix is the appearance of Alice’s new ‘boyfriend’ – Dominick. Her and Nick have apparently been discussing the subtleties of divorce and custody settlements, but old-new Alice halts proceedings. How could her and Nick ever split up? How can’t they fix what’s wrong? She vows there and then to fix her marriage – but things aren’t as simple as that.

As Alice struggles to adopt her new life, memories start coming – connected to scents and places – and she starts to piece her life back together. Her breakdown of her marriage, the death of her best friend Gina – who Alice didn’t even know before the accident – and the children; recollection starts to filter through, and a charity event to bake the biggest lemon meringue pie sees her experience total recall. When all of her memories come back and she remembers everything her and Nick have been through, will it be too late to save their marriage?

What Alice Forgot is a gripping novel that keeps the reader guessing until the very last page. I like Liane Moriarty’s writing style – I particularly enjoyed The Husband’s Secret – and love this new book. A simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming tale, I know I’m going to re-read this many times over years to come.

Many thanks to Penguin for the review copy.