Book Review: Bournville by Jonathan Coe

When I read the blurb for this new Jonathan Coe book – I was very excited to request a copy from NetGalley. Here it is – to see if it entices you too:

“In Bournville, a placid suburb of Birmingham, sits a famous chocolate factory. For eleven-year-old Mary and her family in 1945, it’s the centre of the world. The reason their streets smell faintly of chocolate, the place where most of their friends and neighbours have worked for decades. Mary will go on to live through the Coronation and the World Cup final, royal weddings and royal funerals, Brexit and Covid-19. She’ll have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Parts of the chocolate factory will be transformed into a theme park, as modern life and the city crowd in on their peaceful enclave.
As we travel through seventy-five years of social change, from James Bond to Princess Diana, and from wartime nostalgia to the World Wide Web, one pressing question starts to emerge: will these changing times bring Mary’s family – and their country – closer together, or leave them more adrift and divided than ever before?
Bournville is a rich and poignant new novel from the bestselling, Costa award-winning author of Middle England. It is the story of a woman, of a nation’s love affair with chocolate, of Britain itself.”

I have lived within a few miles of Bournville all of my life and equally my parents and grandparents have also lived nearby – so it felt very ‘close to home’ literally as well as figuratively. The generations of the family in this story are about 1/2 a generation out from mine – but still incredibly relevant.

The book starts in Vienna in March 2020 – just as the world is about to go mad as Covid 19 hits. It then goes back in time to VE day in 1945 as Mary Lamb is a small child celebrating the end of the war with her family.

The book then uses huge events that are happening as key chapters in the book – it reminded me a bit of a historic blog post I did about remembering where you were when specific key events in the world happened. Also, the fact that lots of these events involve the Royal Family made it even more poignant given the fact that the Queen recently died.

This is a swooping family drama – and I’ve read some reviews complaining that nothing really happens – but it is the story of a family life – and thankfully my own family life doesn’t involve many murders or mysteries either!

For me the local backdrop was lovely – not only was Bournville unsurprisingly a key geographical location – I got even more excited as characters moved initially to the Lickey Hills – and then Barnt Green, which is the next village to us! Just like in the book – when we first moved to the village we found that lots of people worked at either The Austin (subsequently The Rover) or Cadburys – both of which loom large during the book.

I have to say that I had realised that Cadbury’s chocolate didn’t taste the same overseas – but I wasn’t fully up to speed with the politics of chocolate – particularly across Europe – so was educated on that by the book.

The book circles back to during the pandemic – and it is incredibly moving (even more so when I realised that some of it was based upon real life experiences of the author and his family during the covid 19 situation).

The book has some ‘Easter Eggs’ in it from the authors other novels – and a couple of names were familiar – but it’s a long time since I watched ‘The Rotters Club’ on TV back in 2005.

Now I probably would have bought this book for lots of my relatives – especially my Great Aunt who lives in Bournville – however there is quite an explicit sex scene, and it just feels really out of sorts with the rest of the book – and I’d be uncomfortable knowing she was reading it!

Overall, as a proud Brummie – and South Brummie at that – I really enjoyed the book and all of the local history entwined with British history of the last 75 years. It also makes you realise that what we’ve all been through with the pandemic will soon be history taught to kids in schools.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my ARC.

Book Review: How To Live When You Could Be Dead by Deborah James

I pre ordered this book when Deborah James was talking about it in the Spring. Like many people, I had been so impressed with how she had dealt with her bowel cancer diagnosis and used it to raise awareness of the disease initially on social media as Bowelbabe – but then on mainstream media too. I wanted to show Deborah, in some small way, my support – so pre ordered the book, wore the Rebellious Hope T-shirt – and ‘bought her a drink’ on her JustGiving fundraising site.

This is what Deborah (or Dame Deborah James as she became) wrote for the blurb of her book:

I was alive when I should have been dead. In another movie, I missed the sliding door and departed this wondrous life long ago. Like so many others, I had to learn to live not knowing if I have a tomorrow, because, statistically, I didn’t. At the age of 35, I was blindsided by incurable bowel cancer – I was given less than an 8 per cent chance of surviving five years. Five years later, my only option was to live in the now and to value one day at a time.
How do you turn your mind from a negative spiral into realistic and rebellious hope? How do you stop focusing on the why and realise that ‘why not me’ is just as valid a question?
When Deborah James was diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer at just 35, she learned a powerful lesson: the way we respond to any given situation empowers or destroys us. And with the right skills and approach, we can all face huge challenges and find strength and hope in the darkest of places.
How to Live When You Could Be Dead will show you how. It will awaken you to question your life as if you didn’t have a tomorrow and live it in the way you want to today. By harnessing the power of positivity and valuing each day as though it could be your last, you’ll find out, as Deborah did, that it is possible to live with joy and purpose, no matter what.”

The book starts with a Foreword written by Gaby Roslin, who had become a friend of Deborah’s in recent years – and this was really moving. As was the subsequent author’s note where Deborah admits she probably won’t be around to see the book being published, which she sadly wasn’t. So I’d cried before the book had started properly – and continued to during the book at times. However it most definitely is not a doom and gloom book – it’s about grabbing life and enjoying the time you have.

I think like most ‘self help’ books, it’s not rocket science and doesn’t contain any advice that would come as a huge shock – but it’s good to take time out of hectic lives to actually think about that – and think about small steps you can take to make your life happier and more fulfilled every day.

Chapters include topics such as hope (rebellious of course!), living for today, having something to aim for, the healing power of laughter – and lots more. All are covered in Deborah’s matter of fact but also fun way – with personal stories interwoven with professional research and advice and relevant quotes.

There’s a great resources list at the end of the book too (Deborah was an educator by trade – and that is evident).

I really enjoyed the book from start to finish – and I defy ANYONE not to cry when reading the final chapter entitled ‘final word’. I am sure the book will be cherished by Deborah’s family – especially her children Hugo and Eloise – as they grow up. And I really hope Eloise will have the Dame Deborah James roses in her wedding bouquet some day.

Book Review: Darling by India Knight

A razor-sharp, laugh-out-loud novel that re-imagines the cast of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.
Marooned in a sprawling farmhouse in Norfolk, teenage Linda Radlett feels herself destined for greater things. She longs for love, but how will she ever find it? She can’t even get a signal on her mobile phone. Linda’s strict, former rock star father terrifies any potential suitors away, while her bohemian mother, wafting around in silver jewellery, answers Linda’s urgent questions about love with upsettingly vivid allusions to animal husbandry.
Eventually Linda does find her way out from the bosom of her deeply eccentric extended family, and she escapes to London. She knows she doesn’t want to marry ‘a man who looks like a pudding’, as her good and dull sister Louisa has done, and marries the flashy, handsome son of a UKIP peer instead. 
But this is only the beginning of Linda’s pursuit of love, a journey that will be wilder, more surprising and more complicated than she could ever have imagined.”

OK – so I need to hold my hands up first and say I’ve never read ‘The Pursuit of Love’ by Nancy Mitford – so whilst this is a retelling – it was a brand new story / set of characters for me – but as a fan of India Knight’s writing I requested an ARC from NetGalley.

The book is narrated by Frances, a cousin of the Radlett siblings, who has been sent to live with her Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew by her flaky mother. Matthew is a retired rockstar, Sadie is his earth mother wife – and they home school their children – and Franny.

The characters are all brilliantly written – with Uncle Matthew my favourite, with some amazing one liners – and lists of things he hates. I’ve just re read one of the lists now – and have laughed out loud as I type (in a coffee shop in Worcester whilst waiting to collect my kids from private school, and ironically one of the things on this list is ‘overconfident public schoolgirls with loud voices’) Another favourite is ‘wellness, (why should I take advice from posh girls with eating disorders?’ But I will stop listing them now, as you really need to read them in their wonderfully written rant mode to fully appreciate them!!

The book starts with the kids growing up in rural Norfolk – with the occasional trip to Cromer for the children’s excitement. Their homeschooling means they know incredibly random things – but not your standard three Rs. They also have their own codes, words, abbreviations – which as a mother of 4, and with our own family ‘things’, I totally understand.

The book then follows all of the family – but primarily Linda on her pursuit of love, taking in London and Paris as well as Norfolk. Each of the locations is written about and described really well and you feel like you’re there.

There is an eclectic supporting cast who are excellently described – Davey and his gut health being very informative!

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book – it was clever, witty, funny and an escapist read. I just can’t comment on how it is as a retelling!

It’s out later in October 2022. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my ARC.

Book Review: The Cruise by Catherine Cooper

I have thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Cooper’s previous two books and so was excited to be sent an advance review copy of her new book – still at C in the alphabet, this time The Cruise! Here’s the blurb:

A glamorous ship
During a New Year’s Eve party on a large, luxurious cruise ship in the Caribbean, the ship’s dancer, Lola, goes missing.
Everyone on board has something to hide
Two weeks later, the ship is out of service, laid up far from land with no more than a skeleton crew on board. And then more people start disappearing…
No one is safe
Why are the crew being harmed? Who is responsible? And who will be next?”

The book starts off on a luxury cruise ship in the Caribbean – so far so swanky. Then it flips to a remote Scottish location – and I have to admit I must have read it after wine / when really tired – as when I opened my Kindle the next day to continue reading I was completely confused as to where the cruise ship was and what had happened – and wondered if I’d opened a totally different book! After a bit of ‘rewinding’ (not sure what the technical term is?!) I worked out what had happened. At first read these two storylines appear completely unrelated – but you know from previous Catherine Cooper books that it’s not going to stay that way! Having been caught completely off guard with her previous books’ twists and turns I was much more alert this time (well, when sober / awake enough, clearly!).

On the cruise ship, one of the dancers, Lola has gone missing – and her dance partner Antonio is distraught. A guest thought she saw someone fall overboard during the New Year’s Eve celebrations – and it’s assumed that Lola has taken her own life. But then other crew members start dying…

The cruise ship setting is described really well and you got a real feel for the boat – however as it’s basically moored up for maintenance work, the setting of the Caribbean isn’t really explored at all.

The geographical location of Laura and her father in Scotland is the other initial setting – and again, you get a real feel for the oppressive and reclusive setting he enforces they live in.

The storylines eventually intertwine – but I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers!

I loved the fact that the book tied up all of the loose ends – even if some seemed a *little* far fetched – but that often happens in ‘whodunnits’ I guess.

The book has an incredibly similar vibe to Catherine Cooper’s previous novels – but why mess with a format that has worked so well. And even though I was on my toes looking for clues throughout – and did pick up on some – I most definitely didn’t guess the whole storyline. Enough to be smug – but without being bored – perfect!

The Cruise is out later this month on Kindle, and early next month as a hardback.

A big thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for my ARC.