Book review: The Truth And Lies of Ella Black

the truth and lies of ella black by emily barrElla Black is a good girl, to the point of boring. She studies hard, she keeps her head down and the craziest thing she’s ever done is dye her hair purple. But the reason she’s so good is that she has an alter-ego – the violent, destructive Bella. The first time Bella makes an appearance she does something so shocking I almost dropped the book and it’s clear why Ella needs to keep on the straight and narrow and keep Bella under control.

But then one day her parents collect her from school early and, without explaining why, fly her to Rio de Janeiro. There Ella learns the truth about herself – a truth which unleashes Bella in all her crazed glory and that means her safe, comfortable life has gone forever…

That’s the setup for The Truth And Lies of Ella Black, by Emily Barr – who specialises in weaving travel and exotic locations into gripping plots. This is her second novel for young adults (I also loved The One Memory Of Flora Banks last year) and I know fans are going to love it.

Teenage me loves Ella’s longing for adventure… adult me loves the dark suspense

Whenever I read a YA novel there are actually two people reading. There’s me – the not-so-young adult writer and book fanatic, and then there’s teenage me holed up in my pretentious looking bedroom waiting for the day when something will happen to change my life forever too.

teenage me sitting at my desk with lots of books in the background and my pet dog jack photobombing me

Teen me in my bookish bedroom being photobombed by my collie, Jack.

Most of the time the books I love now aren’t the same as the books I loved then. I never wanted to read about girls like me, going to school and worrying about friendships and boys – I had enough of that in my day to day life. I wanted fairytale romance and pure escapism. These days I like my stories grittier, my characters more flawed. But Ella Black appeals to both versions of me.

What Emily Barr does so well is create a sense of escapism – for teens desperate to explore the world her description of the beaches, streets and favelas of Rio is compelling and addictive – like Ella you want to find out what’s around the corner. Teenage me loves Ella and identifies with her longing for adventure – adult me loves the dark suspense over what Bella will do next and the slow creeping realisation of what her secret really is. All of me wants to book a ticket to Brazil, like, RIGHT NOW.

It’s a thriller, a coming of age novel with a splash of South American colour a slice of romance and added zombie parades. Teenagers of all ages will long to dive in.

The Truth And Lies of Ella Black by Emily Barr is out now

Book review: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober

Around three years ago, my former colleague and friend Catherine Gray told me that she was a recovering alcoholic. For about two seconds I couldn’t have been more surprised – and then our whole history suddenly fell into place and I went ohhhh…

It explained why, after working like mad to build a career she clearly loved, she started Cover image of the unexpected joy of being sober by Catherine Grayrolling in late and taking Mondays off sick. It explained all the mysterious bumps and bruises and injuries. It explained why the features team used the words “totally Cathed” as a euphemism for steaming drunk. And now I understood why, on our way out of a work Christmas party, I’d had to stop Cath jumping into a limo full of men on a stag.

It also showed me something else – how easy it is to ignore something that’s going on right under your nose, and how ill-equipped the modern working world is to deal with it. And if I’d known, what could I have done? “Nothing,” Cath told me – and of course she was right. When someone wants to drink it takes more than a concerned boss to stop them.

What eventually did stop Cath was her own decision and the sheer strength of mind to follow it through – after a lot of false starts and endless soul searching she found her own personal way to get sober and did it. I’m in awe of her for this achievement – but even more so because she’s shared it in a book: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober.

The adventures don’t stop after she quits – they just change

I’m not usually a big fan of sober-lit – so many rehab memoirs focus on fabulous drinking stories until we’re actually a bit disappointed when they quit. But this one is different: Yes, there’s a fair few celebrity snogs and drinking den adventures but she also shares the process she went through. The times she tried and failed, the things which worked for her, the things which didn’t. Like a good magazine journalist she pulls in statistics and facts to support her argument. And she does a great sales job on the sheer joy of sobriety that waits on the other side.

Because Cath’s argument is that life just gets better and better after you stop drinking. That it’s worth going to bed at 1am if you’re up in time for a hangover-free sunrise. The adventures don’t stop after she quits – they just change. She travels, she makes friends and discovers new things about herself. The sheer joy of her life shines through in her writing, in an honest and totally non-preachy way. It’s also entertaining – even when she’s describing her lowest ebb she does it with wit and humour and without any anger or frustration.

When someone you know writes a memoir, the first thing you do is check out any references to yourself*. The second thing you do is agonise over whether that ambiguous statement in chapter 42 was actually about you and whether, if that is the case, you should apologise. The third thing is to feel an odd sense of pride that a person you know has clawed into the depths of their own experience and created something wonderful and life affirming out of it. And, even though you’re not their mother, and nor did you actually help with the book in any way, you still feel curiously proud to know them.

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober is out now

Follow Cath on Twitter @cathgraywrites

*My wedding was in it! Luckily it’s the one she enjoys. She and her friend were pretty much the life and soul of the party.

Tales of a book reviewer

I’ve just finished a nine month stint reviewing books for Good Housekeeping. Their Huge bookshelf stuffed with booksBookshelf page is one of the most densely populated ones in monthly magazines – around 15 slots to fill each month and, because obviously not every book makes the cut, you have to dip into considerably more than that.

Some months it was a struggle – I was speed-reading into the night, getting to the end of yet another wannabe Gone Girl and groaning when I realised that the twist at the end was just too stupid. Finishing a review only to find the publication date had changed and I had five hours to find a replacement for the page. Or realising that a novel didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it.

But most of the time it was brilliant. Receiving a pile of review copies in the post never got old – although my postman may have aged prematurely. Attending book launches and chatting with fellow book buffs online made me feel part of a wonderful community.

The process of sorting through a week's #bookpost

The process of sorting through a week’s #bookpost

But the best thing about the job was being surprised. There are plenty of books I expected to love and did love, but nothing beats the feeling of picking something up without any particular expectations and then suddenly feeling a deep connection with it. Here are some which really took me aback:

 

 

In Shock by Dr Rana Awdish We’ve had medic-turned-patient memoirs before, like the amazing When Breath Becomes Air, but the urgency and pace of this really grabbed me. And she has such fascinating thoughts on the doctor-patient relationship and where communication goes wrong.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson – I generally avoid anything which feels a bit hypey. All those books about how great French women are, others urging me to get hygge or live lagom… But the author is so wise and charming. She’s aged “somewhere between the age of eighty and a hundred” and I fell in love with her warm, wry and understated tone.

When will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres?

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain – she’s a big best-seller but I had her down firmly in my head as “not my thing.” Silly me, when will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres? I had a really good time reading this one and the direction of the story surprised me.

And that’s the best thing about my time reviewing for GH – stretching my reading boundaries. When you have small children days and weeks pass without reading anything at all, but this forced me to read – without procrastinating or rejecting a book because I wasn’t in the mood for a particular genre. I tore through romantic fiction, speculative fiction, literary fiction, sagas, bestsellers, poetry, bonkbusters… anything. My brain has been jump-started, my writing has improved (honest!) and now my reviewing time is up (their wonderful books ed is back from maternity leave) I’m planning to keep going and going. Watch this space.

I did the splits in eight weeks… sort of…

I’ve never been much of a one for exercise, throughout my 20s and 30s the pattern remained the same – I’d join a gym or a class, go a few times then take six months off before moving onto the next thing. And I got away with it, because I was young, I was living in London and relatively active.

Even the Stiffest People Can Do The Splits by EikoThen I moved to Bournemouth, started working from home and had two babies. And what tenuous connections I had to fitness completely collapsed. Instead of racing through tube stations every day I was putting on my extra cosy slippers and going to my office downstairs three days a week. And as for that old cliché of “keeping fit by running around after the kids” – it just doesn’t seem to apply. A trip to the corner shop with my son involves stopping every 15 seconds to examine cracks in the pavement, stray dandelions and the visibility of the moon.

Which is why when I was sent details of Even The Stiffest People Can Do The Splits, by Japanese yoga guru Eiko I fired off an email to Good Housekeeping volunteering to do a feature. You can read about how I got on in the January 2018 issue (spoiler alert: I don’t look anything like Eiko’s picture) but here are a few extra things I learned…

Andreina Cordani trying to do the splits before training

My agonising “before” picture

1: You need a yoga mat. For a while I used the kids’ jigsaw puzzle play mat but it’s not something you can swan into a yoga class with. I bought myself the second-cheapest one as I thought the extra outlay would motivate me to keep going after the splits challenge ended.

2: Yoga classes are pretty egalitarian. Yes, there were some human pretzels in the classes I attended but there were also plenty of wobbly groaning people just like me and it was really welcoming. I got chatting to lots of lovely people in the changing room including Sabi Phagura, aka Fitlass whose blog is inspiring me to keep exercising.

3: Hot yoga is great. Honestly, I thought I’d hate it but it’s like yoga on steroids and afterwards I felt like I’d actually achieved something. Yes, the studio smells a bit iffy but it’s a small price to pay. In fact, I couldn’t have done it without Yoga Lounge in Bournemouth and their Fierce Grace classes. They taught me to stretch safely and to be realistic, but I also surprised myself with the stuff I could do.

I surprised myself with the stuff I could do

4: YouTube is great for yoga. I got completely addicted to this class from Yoga With Adriene, which focuses on deep hip stretches and finishes on an attempted splits. I can recite it word for word. Hi Benji!

5: I am not a domestic goddess. I spent a LOT of time lying on the floor during this challenge and was constantly distracted by the dust bunnies, junk mail and stray toys which had found their way under the bed or sofa.

andreina's splits article in good housekeeping

You can read about how I got on in Good Housekeeping’s January 2018 issue

6: Fitness is like writing a book. Reading about it, writing about it and tweeting about it carry no value whatsoever. The only way to get fit/write a book is to actually do it. Ever since my challenge I’ve tried to do yoga three times a week – even if it’s just my old faithful Deep Stretch with Adriene. It’s not perfect – I still have weeks when I realise I haven’t done enough – but it’s better than putting on my slippers, sitting downstairs and slowly stiffening up again.

Book review: And I Darken

It’s not easy being a girl in 15th Century Wallachia – ignored by your thuggish father, destined for a future in the shadow of your quite clearly inferior brother, possibly traded off in marriage as a favour to some mediocre local. But Lada Dracul doesn’t waste any time on self-pity. She’s too busy crushing her enemies (and sometimes her friends too) in her ruthless determination to bow to nobody in life.

This is the strange, violent, ambitious and quite possibly psychopathic central character of Kirsten White’s new series of historical novels. I started reading half-expecting vampires – mainly because of the title and Lada’s surname. But there’s no supernatural element here, although it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to find Lada drinking blood at some point.

Lada is a seething mass of rage, ambition and barely concealed violence

Because this is historical fiction with a twist. Lada Dracul really did exist, but she was a he better known as Vlad the Impaler. He of the heads-on-spikes, the inspiration behind the original Dracula story. Feminise a character like that and you get the ultimate kick-ass heroine. Not the strong-woman trope so beloved by Hollywood (you know the type – can throw a punch, but is actually pretty good-hearted, counsels restraint and steps aside to allow the male hero to shine.) No, Lada is a seething mass of rage, ambition and barely concealed violence and yet somehow manages to stay absorbing and (mostly) sympathetic.

The book tells the story of Lada and her brother Radu, raised by a power hungry nobleman then carelessly sent to Istanbul as political hostages. Radu immerses himself in the local culture and Islam while Lada fights to keep her identity while being drawn into the web of palace politics. There’s drama, intrigue and an unexpected love triangle, the book is tightly plotted and bursting with action as the pair and their friend Mehmed fight to survive in the cutthroat atmosphere of the court.

Lada Dracul, better known as Vlad the Impaler

Part of the reason the book works so well is the dual narration. Fascinating as she is, Lada’s savagery might be tough to take for 500 plus pages – but Radu’s more sensitive nature and his own sometimes heartbreaking story adds feeling and depth, as well as carrying the plot forward. He’s the one who is basically good hearted and counsels restraint.

However, action packed as the book is it sometimes feels like Lada is waiting, biding her time at court until she’s ready to unleash her own bloodthirsty reign across Europe. At times I was desperate for her to just up and leave. But on the plus side this probably means that book two (out next summer) will be even more action packed… I’m pre-ordering it as next year’s sunlounger read already.

And I Darken by Kiersten White is out now

AND I DARKEN cover

Book review: The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid

I got to a point over the summer when I had complete thriller fatigue. Heavily pregnant, unable to move and beset by life’s realities (Ohgodogodohgod how was I going to cope with TWO CHILDREN?) The last thing I wanted was a dark twisted domestic drama. I wanted total escapism. And that’s how I ended up reading Diabolic in the delivery suite.

It’s set in space, a fantastical future in which the stars have been colonised using great leaps forward in technology – but the ruling class has since turned away from innovation towards religion, locking themselves away from danger in ancient, luxurious space stations.

Nemesis is a diabolic, a sub human, genetically engineered and bonded to a little rich girl named Sidonia, designed to defend her with as much savagery as necessary.

Good sci-fi should be entertaining escapism but still say something about the world we live in

And she is pretty savage – one minor character gets dispatched without so much as a shrug. She is strong, sharp and completely unapologetic – killing is in her nature. As diabolics have been banned by the Emperor who rules over their part of space, she shouldn’t even be alive at all but she finds herself at the heart of imperial politics, a world even more casually vicious than she is.

As the blunt instrument that is Nemesis learns to fit into a far more subtle world, the character’s growth is convincing and enjoyable, and the author has great world-building skills – a must for any sci-fi writer. The book also benefits from being a standalone rather than the first of a trilogy – the plotting is tight, the action beautifully timed and there’s no padding – although it would have been nice to have more detail about the world outside the imperial upper-class bubble.

Diabolic packshot NAVYGood sci-fi should be entertaining escapism but still say something about the world we live in now, and the message here is a warning about equality, fundamentalism and not burying our heads in the sand and avoiding reality (which, ahem, was exactly what I was trying to do.) So while I was looking for a complete break from reality I actually ended up with food for thought, which is just as it should be.

And the baby? Just under 8lb of non-diabolical cuteness. A whole new plot to be written.

The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid is out now
Diabolic packshot white

Book review: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

I would defy anyone to get a copy of Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend through the post and not think: this has to be some kind of joke.

After all, the world of YA semi-mythical romantic fiction has been aching for a good parody for some time. What started with sexy vampires went onto encompass fairies, gods and strangely attractive trolls until pretty much any mythical beast you can think of started turning up at high schools across America, trying to blend in and falling for clumsy innocents along the way.

Add to that the sub genre of cross-species erotica which had a little moment last year – Taken by the T-Rex, Ravished by the Raptor, and the many, many works of Chuck Tingle – and you’ve got the recipe for a pretty funny send-up.

The problem with books like that is that the joke wears thin by page 35 and starts to feel like a waste of your valuable reading time. But something about the blurb on this one made me want to pick it up, and after the first few chapters I started wondering, where the hell is he going with this?

Because HPtB isn’t a joke book – author Alan Cumyn (his actual name) is perfectly serious.

Well, semi-serious.

Well, he keeps a straight face.

So the plot: Sheils Krane is a control freak, the student body president at her high school who has everything under control – the

Author Alan Cumyn is serious. Well, semi serious.

Principal, her grades and her obedient but not-very-exciting boyfriend Sheldon. Then Pyke, the world’s first Pterodactyl high school student lands on the school running track and suddenly everything changes.

This is HUGE, right? A freaking pterodactyl! Where does he come from? How is it that he has the torso of a human being? Why the hell does he need a high school education? And why does Shiels’ nose turn purple after dancing with him? Don’t think you’re going to get an answer to these questions, Cumyn doesn’t bother. You just have to go with it.

hptbAnd that is what Shiels learns she has to do too as her attraction to Pyke pulls apart everything she thinks she knows about herself and forces her to ask herself what she really wants out of life.

And that’s the thing about this story. Rampant dino aside, it reflects many of the pressures on teens today: that tightrope walk between staying focused on your future – grades, college – and letting go and enjoying the crazy, intense, hormone-raging high of being young.

What isn’t there – thankfully – is the appearance-obsession you see in so many High School YA books. Sheils takes up running (initially) to compete with her love rival but she doesn’t measure the circumference of her thighs or bemoan her freckles/untameble hair/tendency to blush. It actually doesn’t matter what Shiels looks like – although there are many lyrical descriptions of Pyke’s ripped (and mysteriously furry) abs. And the scene where Pyke is in bed and there may or may not be an extra lump sticking up under the blanket made me laugh out loud.

I found it tough going sometimes – some of the sentence construction made it a bit of a tricky read and the style is a bit repetitive. Still. I stuck with it out of sheer fascination – I just wanted to know where the hell he was going with this story, and the result was pretty intriguing.dino1

So, as an offbeat YA treat Cumyn pulls it off – after a fashion. I see this one being a cult hit – I don’t see a movie starring Vanessa Hudgens as Shiels, but frankly that’s a bit of a relief.

Are we seeing the spawning of a new hot-dino-romance genre? Maybe not, but there’s definitely room for this kind of weirdness on my bookshelf.

Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn is out now.

Book review: Beside Myself

Identical twins have been swapping places for centuries now, from the Man in the Iron Mask through to The Parent Trap, but the twins in Beside Myself don’t exactly swap – it’s more like one performs a hostile takeover on the other.

Helen and Ellie are identical, although Helen is the leader and silly, slow Ellie is the oppressed follower. The school, their friends and even their mother all have a slightly lower expectation of Ellie, just waiting for her to mess up. Then one day Helen suggests they swap places and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

Before she knows it, Helen is forced into the role of secondary twin – rejected and forced into the background while Ellie (or Hellie as her bitter twin comes to call her) gains confidence and grows. There follows a dark and gripping tale of addiction, mental illness and the strange bond between sisters who hate each other, but still share a link which neither of them can break.

How much of our identities is made up by the judgements and opinions of others?

Like many books being pitched as part of Thriller Season this year, it’s not really strictly speaking a thriller. There are no twists and turns or ghastly murders – but it is addictive reading with a few revelations along the way. And although the central idea seems a little silly (Surely someone would notice. Don’t twins have different moles and stuff?*) the idea that such a thing could happen, and the havoc it could wreak on someone’s life and sense of identity is nothing short of compelling. That’s what keeps you reading on.

cover of beside myself by ann morgan two stick figures drawn in condensationIt’s a great one for reading groups as it throws up so many questions. Would Helen have continued to be “perfect” if the swap hadn’t happened, or would the flaws in her personality have come out anyway? And how was it that Ellie could suddenly lose her clumsiness, her untidiness by taking on Helen’s mantle? In short: How much of our identities is made up by the judgements and opinions of others?

For anyone who ever had a sibling and saw small differences in their treatment, the question is irresistible, and the novel itself is eminently readable. So although the central premise is old as the hills and there are a few cracks in it besides, it’s still a fresh, entertaining take which is definitely worth reading.

*There is a partial explanation but it would involve spoilers so I’m keeping schtum.

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan is out now.

Other Thriller Season reviews include…

The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Book review: The Widow

If you’re wondering which book is going to be “This Year’s Girl On The Train,” stop stressing about it: it’s this one.

There’s a few reasons for this and some of them are commercial – the publisher, Transworld, won the book in a hotly contested auction and has thrown its full weight behind getting it into as many readers’ hands as possible. Industry bible The Bookseller has already dubbed it TYGOT – it’s well on its way to being a must read.

But the real reason is that, like Paula Hawkins’ novel, the book has the kind of premise that makes a reader’s mouth water in anticipation.

the book has the kind of premise that makes a reader’s mouth water in anticipation

Think about it:

A little girl named Bella vanishes and all the evidence points to a man named Glen Taylor, but due to an epic police cock-up the trial collapses and Glen walks free. Throughout the whole experience, despite his character being dragged through the mud, his wife Jean stands loyally by him.

Then four years after Bella’s disappearance Glen dies leaving Jean free to be herself, to tell the truth about her husband for the first time. What happened behind closed doors? Is Glen guilty and if so, why did Jean stand by him? And what will she do now?

the widow book coverCome on, it’s got you going “oooh” already, hasn’t it?

Told through the eyes of three different narrators – Bob Sparkes, the police inspector who messed up the trial; newspaper journalist Kate Waters who’s after the inside story and the widow herself, the story is slowly pieced together by the three characters, the pace gathered and you wonder what on earth Jean is going to reveal next…

It’s a fantastic idea for a story, and there are some sympathetic, well drawn characters. The glimpse into how newspapers operate – signing real-life stories onto a contract and hiding them away in a hotel – is accurate and realistically told without anti-press hysteria but also without hiding the more uncomfortable side of the business: the doorstepping, the news editors screaming for their headlines.

But as for the widow herself, as for Jean – I never felt I truly got under her skin. I couldn’t understand why she was so loyal to such a mediocre person as Glen or why she kept a lid on her own needs and desires for so long. She was strangely ageless to me (if the author specified her age at some point I apologise for missing it, but from the way she talked she could have been anything from 35 to 55.) This could be because Barton paints such an effective picture of her suffocating home life that you end up picturing Jean as a stifled 1950s housewife rather than a 21st Century woman.

One thing is for sure, though – this book is going to be huge. It hits on a raw public nerve and gives us a peek behind the headlines. TV rights have already been snapped up, and I can hear the water-cooler conversations brewing already. Definitely one to watch.

The Widow by Fiona Barton is out on 14th January.

More reviews and thriller season chat here.

the-widow2-crop

Book review: Viral

If there was an award for best first line of 2016, Viral would definitely be the winner – I won’t repeat it here but it’s certainly not one to show your Great Aunt Ermintrude. Although if Auntie E was to keep reading, she’d find an eye-opening tale about the modern world and the traps it sets for young people.

It’s about the hypocrisy surrounding young women and sex

Su and Leah are sisters and naturally their parents put them into pigeonholes – Su is the good one, studious, neat and considerate. Leah is the irresponsible, selfish one.

But when the girls both go on holiday to Magaluf, Su is the one who finds herself starring in a drunken sex video which goes viral and blows her entire life apart. Disgraced and ashamed, Su flees and tries to lose herself in Spain leaving the rest of the family to face the consequences at home in Scotland.

The makers of Broadchurch have acquired the TV rights to this one, and it’s being hotly tipped, so the book stands a good chance of going viral itself – and it is a compelling look at what happens when an ordinary person makes a drunken mistake that just happens to make it onto YouTube. It’s about the hypocrisy surrounding women and sex and about what holds families together when something like this happens.

viralIt’s a short book, tightly focused on the events of just a few days (with the occasional flashback) and the characters are real and loveable – especially Leah, the immature bully who finds more strength than she expected. However, don’t come to this expecting a crimey, thrillery read – the darkness just isn’t there. Fitzgerald has too much affection for her characters – and chances are you will too.

So it’s not Gone Girl. It’s a family drama, a coming-of-age tale and a wry look at the weirdness of our society. Enjoy it for that, and it definitely won’t disappoint.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald is out 2nd February

More reviews and thriller season chat here.