Tag Archives: Book review

Lady in Waiting – a review

The stiff upper lip is as much a part of the British stereotype as our tendency to drink tea and talk about the weather. With the 87-year-old Lady Glenconner’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude, her hit memoir is not such a bad book pick during a pandemic.

Her father was an earl – higher than a baron but lower than a duke. The Coke (pronounced Cook in a quirk typical of the British aristocracy) family have bowed and scraped to royalty for centuries.

Growing up near Sandringham, she was playmates with Princess Margaret, whom she would later serve as lady-in-waiting for thirty years. She recalls a childhood of stately homes, parents away on long voyages, WWII, wicked governesses, boarding school.

Things take a gaudier turn with her formal entrée to the marriage market, where she nabbed the very rich socialite Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, and was crowned ‘Debutante of the Year’ by society bible Tatler. Her father was a bit sniffy about the match – believing the Tennants to be miles below the Cokes.

Described by Princess Margaret as ‘a fairly decadent fellow’, Tennant was the life and soul. His party tricks included wearing paper underwear, then reaching down his trousers and ripping them off and eating them. Meanwhile, his tantrums earned him a lifetime ban from British Airways.

But Tennant – who died aged 83 in 2010 – is best remembered for buying and transforming the barren island of Mustique into a celebrity paradise. Photos show the couple at spectacular parties, surrounded by the biggest stars of the day.

Despite his rages and affairs, they made a good team, Glenconner writes, probably through gritted teeth. Yup, never a dull moment. Besides, one doesn’t dwell, even when one’s husband leaves his millions to a manservant.

Halfway through, we arrive at her three-decade stint as lady-in-waiting for Princess Margaret, whom Glenconner (understandably) wishes to defend from peasant biographers.

Being by Margaret’s side offered an escape from both her psycho husband, and tragedy; Glenconner has endured the deaths of two adult sons, while a third, Christopher, was left brain-damaged in a motorbike accident.

Princess Margaret was a supportive, compassionate friend, and most unfussy. She’d come to stay at the Tennant’s Scottish family estate with a kettle to brew her own tea in the morning. (She couldn’t actually operate a kettle, but it’s the thought that counts.)

She always forgave Margaret’s ‘royal moments’. Behind the monarch, after all, she was at the top of Britain’s rigid class system. As for her rep for rudeness – her icy put-downs to commoners were usually well-deserved. Woe betide anyone who didn’t know their place.

Glenconner has worn many different hats – debutante, travelling saleswoman, maid of honour at the coronation of Elizabeth II – and been brought to life on Netflix’s The Crown. After a life well-lived by the Queen’s mantra: ‘Never complain, never explain’, her memoir is an interesting contribution to social and royal history. Her first crime novel – entitled Murder on Mustique – is out later this year. 

The Aftermath: Book vs film review

It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.

The screenplay puts us in the picture: more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. Among the scores who died in the firestorm, was the wife of non-Nazi architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).

Top British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) requisitions Lubert’s palatial home, but being a decent fellow, doesn’t send its owner packing. Joining the mansion share – it could be a reality show – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightley), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.

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If she’s a bit chilly with Lubert and his resentful daughter Freda, things are quite tepid in the Morgan marriage too, with Rachael angry her husband would rather save Germany than confront their loss.

The obvious love triangle relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he resembles Skarsgård that it isn’t terrifying.

(Personally, I find Clarke a far more attractive option.)

Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a payload on the book, with the final romantic twist axed, and Lewis’s political role reduced to nothing.

The cast try to do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and things are picturesque enough to want to Google “houses on the river Elbe”.

🍔🍔 1/2

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

20190323_104422-02.jpegWe first meet Rachael Morgan, muttering to herself on a train, as she travels to Germany with her 11-year-old son Edmund. The death of her older boy Michael has caused her to ‘think with a limp’.

Now her war-weary husband wants her to sleep with the enemy – staying in the home of widowed German architect Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter Freda.

Rachael’s pretty, but provincial – not a fashion plate. She mixes with the class-conscious army wives, all ‘uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds.’

Freda notices how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. But Herr Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he talks about his professional ambitions, art, and grief. In this zero hour, they both want a better world, where people talk about their feelings.

It’s a slow burn between two people brought together by loss – compared to the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough.

Clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade, yet when he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.

With their parents busy, Freda and Edmund roam. Joining fellow Hamburgers clearing rubble, Freda meets a Nazi youth interested in Chez Lubert’s occupants, while Edmund befriends a feral gang – including the enterprising Ozi – who are in thrall to a sinister older boy.

The Aftermath has a compelling premise. Its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense lead to a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.

🍔🍔🍔1/2

Tell Me a Secret by Jane Fallon – book review

Jane Fallon describes her work as chick noir. I’ve never read any of the non-noir variety, but this is my third Fallon, and I looked forward to another fab read with a happily-ever-after.

I don’t expect a psychological thriller exploring the dark side of human relationships and our own worst fears,  but a self-effacing heroine turning the tables on a cheating fella with the help of a bubbly best friend. There’s revenge, but it doesn’t involve death, cannibalism and crime.

Well, maybe a little bit of crime, but only ever for a good cause, and nobody gets really hurt.

In Tell Me a Secret, Holly is a fortysomething professional, and this time it’s a job, not a man, that she ends up fighting dirty over. She works as script editor for a TV show. She’s just won a promotion, when her office pal Roz starts running a campaign to make her look bad in front of the boss.

Roz is an unholy terror, and Holly a bit of a meek and gullible sidekick, sharing in her gossiping and Mean Girl-ing. It’s a mystery how she got the promotion in the first place, and you despair for her when her idea of retaliation is to hide Roz’s scripts.

There are cliffhangers, dramatic twists, and over-the-top antics, but also suspense and a real edge: How are you supposed to react when you’re targeted by a workplace bully? The Rozs of the world excel at playing the victim, and funnily I’ve always found authority figures tend to fall for it!

But this is escapist revenge chick lit. Before becoming a bestselling author with the likes of My Sweet Revenge, Fallon was a TV producer on shows including Eastenders and This Life, so it’s a backstage world she knows well.

With its supporting cast of badly-behaved z-listers and raging egos, I can imagine Tell Me a Secret on the small screen as a bright comedy-drama .

It was a fun read for a difficult time.

🍷🍷🍷🍷

catherine steadman something in the water movie

Something in the Water, future movie, Reese Witherspoon

While scuba diving on your dream honeymoon, you discover something sinister. Do you a) report it to the authorities b) speed away and pretend it didn’t happen, or c) get in way over your head?

Sadly some people – like film school grad Erin and her jobless banker husband Mark – don’t make good choices.

Catherine Steadman’s debut isn’t exactly a hidden gem. In the UK I couldn’t avoid the hype, and across the pond it was a New York Times Bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. (Steadman is an accomplished actress herself, with Downton Abbey among her credits.)

With Witherspoon’s new production company Hello Sunshine set to make the Something in the Water movie, normally I would have been all over this like a shark in a feeding frenzy, but it was described as a ‘beach read’, which put me off.

Luckily, I took the plunge when Jonetta @Blue Mood Cafe recommended it!

After a much-admired opening chapter, we head backwards as our narrator Erin plans an exclusive London wedding and a honeymoon on Bora Bora, with sumptuous descriptions of super-first class travel and deluxe wedding menus.

Their showy lifestyle is funded by Mark’s job in investment banking, while Erin has a creative background and is working on a documentary about prisoners on the verge of release.

Her greatest catch is gangland legend Eddie Bishop, who knows a scary amount about Erin. But she has bigger problems; before the honeymoon, Mark lost his job in spectacular, escorted-from-the-building-by-security fashion.

Then they find something in the water that could literally change their fortunes forever – if they’re smart. Ahem.

The narrative is shadowed by the fear and mistrust caused by the financial crash, and the subtleties of the class system. When Erin visits the home of another one of her prisoners, she is paranoid about sounding condescending or bourgeois.

Yet while Mark – used to babysitting wealthy clients – flies First Class like it’s no big deal, Erin is a fish out of water. She quickly learns that having real money isn’t all about buying nice things, so much as it’s about avoiding the rules.

The sickly way Mark talks to Erin – like she needs constant soothing and reassurance – grates, but then she really ramps up the stupid, making rookie criminal mistakes (not that I’m an expert!) and being really, really slow on the uptake, so maybe he was right.

I know some readers expected more confrontation or climax, but the story is less about who the bad guys are and what they want, and more about what greed and dishonesty do to normal people, and how much we ever truly know each other, even that stunning Millennial couple with the perfect life.

“Careful what you wish for…”

🌴🌴🌴🌴

girl dressed as princess margaret

Ma’am Darling – Picasso wanted to marry Princess Margaret!

The Shoebill is a prehistoric-looking bird that exists in the marshes of East Africa. Scientists know that these intensely private creatures rarely raise more than one chick; a second is insurance in case the older one doesn’t make it.

A similar philosophy underlies the dynamic of the royal heir and the spare. While the lionized firstborn is groomed to rule, being second-born can be trickier; modern spares must accept indifference and resentment from the press and public, especially as cute toddlers pile up in the palace nursery.

This was the fate of HRH Princess Margaret Rose, younger sister to Elizabeth II. The Crown renewed interest in the glam yet troubled royal, whose star had faded long before Diana arrived to swipe her tiara. Luckily for Princess Margaret’s new admirers, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling was published last year to gushing reviews.

Subtitled “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret“, he takes a magpie approach. He includes letters, palace statements, interviews, snippets from memoirs penned by creepy footmen, plus anecdotes from VIPs who, er, encountered the queen’s sister.

Having only Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Margaret as a spoiled, party-loving Millennial to go on, I didn’t know just how frosty and demeaning she could be.

The princess loved to party, but nobody could break protocol by leaving before her. She was drawn to celebrities, and the feeling was mutual – she was a princess, after all. Girls copied her clothes, while Picasso was among the many men who wanted to marry her.

But celebs and diarists also swapped horror stories. Of all the jaw-dropping anecdotes, it’s hard to top the time she turned to a disabled guest at a party and asked: “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?”

Or when she was opening an old folks’ home and was presented with a specially cooked chicken dish. “That looks like sick.”

While her sister was meeting ambassadors and presidents, birth order discrimination pushed Margaret to the background. She was destined for a lifetime – as Brown puts it – of opening “scout huts and pumping stations.”

Ma’am Darling becomes repetitive with examples of bad behaviour, but Brown throws in some counter-factual flourishes too, such as Queen Margaret delivering a DGAF Christmas speech.

There’s been speculation that Princess Margaret’s life was ruined by the Townsend saga – when she supposedly couldn’t marry her beloved Group Captain without losing her royal status and income. Brown doesn’t seem to buy the fairy tale, and is skeptical of the 16 years older Group Captain.

Princess Margaret eventually married Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer to the rich and famous. The Snowdons, as they became known, lived a bohemian life, but the marriage was unhappy, with Brown accusing Snowdon of ‘gaslighting’ – that terrifying common tactic of abusers and bullies everywhere.

A whimsical book, I didn’t find Ma’am Darling as hysterically funny as some critics. I got exhausted by all the ‘famous’ names from the mid-century arts world and high society. But Brown looks at Princess Margaret from many angles, you pity her and dislike her at the same time.  

👑👑👑 1/2

 

13 reasons why book differences

Netflix 13 Reasons Why – book vs show

Recently, I read “You Think It, I’ll Say It.” It’s a new book of short fiction by Curtis Sittenfeld, an author whose work often features adult women still seething at the injustices of high school.

It made me want to watch Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, the show based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel. A high school student, Hannah Baker, leaves a suicide note in the form of audio cassettes, accusing thirteen (mostly) classmates of bullying her. The tapes are passed around this baker’s dozen, under threat of exposure by a third party.

As nice kid Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) listens to the tapes, trying to figure out his place in the story, Hannah’s tale unspools in flashbacks. Played by Katherine Langford, she’s prettier, sweeter than an uptight, petty Sittenfeld heroine.

Each tape focuses on one individual, with a whole episode devoted to that character and what Hannah says they did wrong. We also see everything that was going wrong in the accused kids’ lives – which, we discover, was a lot…

‘Cos we move from mean girls and school cliques, to sexual harassment, multiple rapes, victim blaming, abusive parents, fatal car crashes, gun incidents, drug addiction, self-harm and more. It seems like a lot of problems for a dozen or so under-18s, even if the cast do look more like 25.

Netflix even nightmared up a second season/sequel to Asher’s book where Clay – now straight-up cray – develops a saviour complex, running an amateur rehab clinic under his parents’ noses, while Hannah’s absentee parents sue the school whose teachers lazily ignored a brutal culture of bullying and rape.

Supposedly a ‘realistic’ portrayal of teen life, they’re all feverishly conforming to that TV contrivance of ‘protecting’ their parents from reality, of being a ‘good kid’. Oh Netflix! We’re a few weeks into the UK summer vacation, and all I’ve heard are teenagers complaining about boredom and being unable to find any clean underwear!

That’s the immature demographic Netflix are targeting – even winning, by being edgy and smugly socially important. Even if the bullying or social pressures hit home for many young female viewers, the show is so implausible, bleak and slow-moving I can’t appreciate its appeal.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (2007)

After ditching the show before the end of Season 2, I was curious about the novel, so I checked the YA section in my local bookshop. “We’re not allowed to shelve that in YA!” cried 51syyO7qB5L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgthe sales assistant, nearly fainting, although he agreed it’s marketed at young people.

It was sold out, anyway.

Asher’s book is both gentler and sadder than the series. Instead of cramming in every social issue, it’s tightly focused on the mind of one suicidal girl, and Clay’s rising horror as he listens to the tapes over a single night.

At times their voices merge confusingly into one, while the premise still feels a touch far-fetched; I think if you have a dozen kids involved, somebody would have confided to a parent.

The school isn’t radioactive, but bullying goes on everywhere, with ongoing exposure a potential factor in suicidal behaviour. The book nails how hurtful gossip and rumours can be, and how one or two malevolent individuals, or pack leaders, can dominate a school or group.

Hannah clearly felt victimized, but as he listens, Clay contradicts her – not because she’s a liar, but because of her mental state. He listens, powerless, as tape Hannah goes down a reckless, self-destructive path. (“You knew it was the worst choice possible….You wanted your world to collapse around you. You wanted everything to get as dark as possible.”)

He remembers Hannah withdrawing, but he didn’t speak to her in case other kids teased him. Then all the chances were gone.

It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age. I think readers are being encouraged to be kinder, to be less daunted by toxic peer groups. Maybe then schools and colleges could be easier for the Hannah Bakers of the world.

The number for the Samaritans in the UK is 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Further international suicide helplines can be found at http://www.befrienders.org.

girl with princess diarist book

The Princess Diarist – opus to Harrison Ford

Carrie Fisher once gave a cow tongue wrapped in a Tiffany box to a film producer who allegedly attacked her friend. My first thought was “poor cow”, and my second was “yep, that sounds like Fisher.”

It’s a tale that surfaced in October 2017, as #MeToo was going viral. Fisher was already gone, dying from sleep apnea and “other factors” in 2016 while promoting her memoir about life as teenage space royalty and the affair known as Carrison.

Having previously written about her addiction and Bipolar disorder, this memoir is based around the journals – which are really an opus to Harrison Ford – that Fisher kept while filming the original Star Wars (“the only girl in an all-boys fantasy“). She rediscovered them while renovating her Hollywood Hills home.

She starts pre-Leia, ambivalent about following her mother, Singin’ in the Rain’s Debbie Reynolds, into showbusiness. Reflecting this, the shy and retiring Carrie:

  • dropped out of school to be a chorus girl in one of her mother’s Broadway shows
  • visited the set of Shampoo! when she knew there might be a role in it for her
  • auditioned for and attended the Central School of Speech and Drama
  • left drama school after landing her first big professional gig – Star Wars!

She admits she might have been kidding herself. For all the hardships actresses face, their daughters seem drawn to the limelight (including Fisher’s child Billie Lourd).

Carrie herself was born during Reynolds’ marriage to 50’s singer Eddie Fisher, who left his family for Liz Taylor – which, in Carrie’s words was “one of the great midcentury tabloid feeding frenzies.”

Although Fisher writes with her trademark wit, she was traumatized by her mother’s love life and her father’s abandonment, and undermined by self-loathing.

After successfully auditioning for George Lucas, she was ordered to lose ten pounds – then worried she’d be fired when she didn’t. She quips that although just 110 pounds, she “carried about half of them in my face”.

Insecurity makes girls easy prey. At a party the crew plan a “joke” abduction – before Harrison Ford intervenes. Soon they’re having “sleepovers” at her flat, with Fisher falling obsessively in love with the married Ford. Some rescue.

A selection of diary entries and poems from her journals take up the book’s mid-section. They’re not her best work, but are disturbing in their intensity. Fisher poured her heart out on paper because she couldn’t talk to Harrison – who to be fair, doesn’t have a rep for easygoing chattiness.

Fisher explains that she presented a false appearance, a “kind of ironic, amused, disenchanted creature.”

She must have just seemed like a hip, rising young actress from a famous family, living in a fancy London flat. With the Harrison affair, she was good at “hiding in plain sight, mocking the suggestion that there was anything going on” – a bluffing technique she says she’d use throughout her life.

Well-matched onscreen and hooking up off of it, Fisher still thought Ford was out of her league, destined for greater stardom. Was she bitter? “…not so you’d notice“.

Of course she could never have foreseen the phenomenon Star Wars would become, or her own enduring fame. It rankled to the end that, aged just 19, she had signed away all merchandising rights relating to her image for the “little space movie”.

In the final third of the book, Fisher laments “celebrity lap dances” AKA signing photos for money at fan conventions AKA “has-been roundups”. She discerns a lack of empathy among some of the fans – something Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best might recognize.

But Carrie still had compassion for the “sweet and mystifying” fans who’d wait in line for hours, including the poor kid named Leia Carrie and the man who thanks Fisher for his childhood and walks off. She knows he didn’t mean his whole childhood, “just the good bits. The parts he escaped to”.

It must have felt like listening to the prayers of the galaxy.

Carrie Fisher is often remembered as a tough rebel leader. Online tributes call her a feminist icon and a “bad ass” role model, skimming over her profound problems – essentially confusing her with a fictional character! In this surprisingly raw book, Fisher’s wit and wisdom fail to disguise her lifelong pain, revealing a side to a woman who was deeply damaged, but charming to the last. 

***

book adaptation pile

Page to screen book haul! Ophelia, Annihilation, Oasis, The Lost Wife

Earlier this year I read Lion, the true story of a little boy who survives the streets of Kolkata before being adopted by an Australian family. Years later, he tracks down his mother in rural India using Google Earth.

It became a hit movie, which inspired me to get cracking with more novels destined to reach our screens!

Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, finished filming in July after shooting in the Czech Republic, with Daisy Ridley in the title role. 

Lisa Klein’s re-imagining of Hamlet from his love interest’s point of view has forever banished thoughts of Ophelia as a tragic waif. When the story opens she’s a motherless girl moving with her ambitious father Polonius and callow brother Laertes to the court of Danish King Hamlet.

Yet under Queen Gertrude’s capricious care, Ophelia grows into an intelligent woman. She becomes an expert in botany and herbology, learning to cure the ailments of people at court. To escape the tragedy engulfing her country, she uses those skills to feign madness and death.

I was a bit doubtful when I read that the characters talk with ‘contemporary language’, but it’s a far cry from “Yo Hamlet, your mother’s a total MILF.” (Gertrude will be played by Naomi Watts.)

There is a vivid sense of time and place – Klein is a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. It’s an atmospheric YA novel with an impressive heroine, useful for young readers wanting to gain a better understanding of Shakespeare.

The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman: Production status unknown!

Daisy Ridley is having a busy time! In The Lost Wife, she is slated to play Lenka, a young art student living with her well-heeled Jewish family in pre-WWII Prague. She falls in love with a friend’s older brother, Josef, who is following his father’s footsteps into medicine.

While Josef escapes with his family for the USA, Lenka’s own family are sent to the ghetto Terezin, where art became a way to resist the Nazi regime. She joins the underground painters’ movement, who managed to smuggle their work to the outside world. 

Author Richman studied art history, and she’s written a very, glamorous, beautiful novel which is perfect for fans of this genre of Holocaust chick lit. 

There seems to be few updates about the potential movie, but I hope they change it so that the ending….is at the end.

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer, is soon to be released on Netflix in the UK.

Four women are sent by a secret government agency to investigate Area X, a stretch of quarantined coast in the USA. 

The Biologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor and the Anthropologist (we’re given no names) uncover a terrifying force writing on the walls of an subterranean tower: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…”

As if I had breathed in the spores from the cover, the genre-defying Annihilation is immersive and sinister.

It does take the Biologist’s field journal as source material, and while she’s content spending hours observing lifeforms in tidal pools, I’m not! The novel also flashes back to her life with her husband, who volunteered for an earlier, doomed, expedition.

I hope the movie doesn’t end up like Alien Covenant,  with scientists behaving stupidly while trudging through the wilderness. Luckily, it’s directed by Alex Garland, who proved he knows a thing or two about creepy tension with Ex Machina!

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber, which is now an Amazon pilot, renamed Oasis.

From a woman of science to a man of faith – King of the North Richard Madden has gone interstellar, playing a chaplain in budget sci-fi Oasis, which also stars Haley Joel Osment.

The pilot takes as very loose inspiration Michel (Under the Skin) Faber’s melancholy novel The Book of Strange New Things (published in 2014). Chaplain Peter Leigh leaves his beloved wife to work for a shadowy multinational, ministering to the native inhabitants of a distant colonized planet named Oasis.

Peter’s new congregation were introduced to the Bible by his (missing) predecessor. They’ve taken to it enthusiastically, calling themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, etc. Their ‘faces’ resemble “a placenta with two foetuses…nestled knee to knee.”

To speak their language, Peter would “need to rip off his own head and gargle through the stump.” (Any linguists want a challenge?!)

A monumental, genre-defying novel about grief, it seems very unlikely that the pilot will go to series. 

My Sweet Revenge by Jane Fallon – book review

In the summer, my cat makes me sit outside where I can’t get any WiFi. Apparently she is too scared to stay in the garden by herself, and just feels safer when I’m there.

I suppose I could spend my enforced no-WiFi time doing Yoga and meditating on how I became so devoted to such a demanding creature, but it’s actually a great chance to catch up on some reading.

My Sweet Revenge was written under the furry supervision of author Jane Fallon’s diva moggy Ollie (she’s a girl) Fallon-Gervais, so it’s only right it should be read while under the paw too.

Ollie has her own Twitter account (37,000 followers) and my familiarity with her social media antics clued me in that I would love Jane’s world. Not that Jane writes Ollie’s Tweets, of course.

So I really have to thank Olls – because this isn’t the kind of book I’d grab off the shelf. I know it’s not necessarily a popular term, but ‘chick lit’ isn’t generally for me. (Fair play to all such writers out there –  I would never have the talent to write it.)

As expected, Jane Fallon’s work has too much drama and deceit to be fluffy or girly. It’s chick lit written by an evil feline genius.

The heroine, Paula, works in a bakery (hence that mouthwatering jacket cover) and her idea of getting back at her (apparently) cheating husband isn’t just to fling a cream pie in his lying face.

(See? That would be the plot of my own romantic revenge novel.)

Paula and her husband Robert met at drama school; his acting career took off, hers didn’t. Robert’s not exactly Benedict Cumberbatch famous, more like second-billed lead on a soap (or ‘long-running drama’) famous, and beloved by the nation’s grannies. The couple’s teenage daughter Georgia is the only celeb sprog on the planet to not be an aspiring actress/photographer/model, and has her heart set on medical school instead.

Their life is shattered when Paula makes a discovery leading her to believe that Robert is having an affair with a gorgeous co-star named Saskia, who is married to a producer on their show Farmer Giles (!). Paula doesn’t confront her husband, deciding instead to execute a scheme for retribution that will make him fall back in love with her, while scuppering any chance he has of happiness with Saskia.

It’s playful, addictive, and about as likely as a sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, calorie-free pastry ever tasting good. Paula is a great main character – likeable and with enough gusto to keep the reader engaged. I honestly could not see the twists coming. The book has been an absolute joy and a great vacation read.

Verdict: I haven’t enjoyed a story set in an bakery so much since Pushing Daisies.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – script review

Passionate fans aren’t happy with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new play that (we’re promised) concludes the story of The Boy Who Lived.

The script is a collaboration between J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne, and Cursed Child’s director John Tiffany, with the magic being brought to life at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. The script’s release was timed to coincide with the play’s opening, and naturally it has become a publishing sensation.

Unfortunately, some Muggles didn’t realize that Cursed Child is not a new novel, or a novelization of the play, but a play. Oops.

The action is set 19 years after Harry and pals defeated Lord Voldemort. It revolves around Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy’s quest to go back in time to save Cedric Diggory. Why? Because the teenage Albus doesn’t get along with dad Harry, that’s why.

This immediately throws up problems, because time travel in Rowling’s universe has previously been a closed casual loop that can’t affect future events.

It’s surprising that Harry and Albus don’t see eye to eye – in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows Harry seemed very attuned to his son. Other students harassing the boy because of his famous dad is pretty believable, but again, I’m left wondering: does Hogwarts have any anti-bullying policies at all?!

Albus has been sorted into Slytherin with Scorpius, who has his own troubles. It is rumoured that his dad, Draco is firing squibs, so his frail mother Astoria time-traveled to get knocked up by Lord Voldemort instead.

Harry doesn’t approve of the the boys’ friendship, which feels slightly unHarry, and more Ron – who is of course married to Hermione, now Minister for Magic.

Albus and Scorpius get their hands on a time turner. Thanks to some encouragement from Cedric Diggory’s cousin Delphi Diggory, the pair go back to the Triwizard Tournament to stop Cedric from getting killed by Voldemort.

They succeed, only to discover that changing events means the future they return to is altered. Albus is now in Gryffindor and Hermione is a bitter, unmarried Hogwarts teacher.

The boys go back again to put things right, but only make things worse. They usher in a future where Voldy won and Umbridge is headteacher at Hogwarts. Harry Potter is dead, thus no Albus. Scorpius is in this mess all on his own.

This is the second act of the play, which sees the return of Snape, still teaching potions and still undercover. He is joined by Ron and Hermione, who are hiding as fugitives. Thanks to their help, Scorpius is able to put things right and go home.

This is where the play’s biggest twist occurs: Delphi is Voldemort’s daughter with Bellatrix Lestrange. She wanted the boys to change history so that she wouldn’t have to be an orphan. Only now does she realize that entrusting her plan to two confused adolescents wasn’t the best idea.

A lot of fans balk at the thought of Voldemort and Bellatrix having a relationship, but seriously – Voldemort got rid of his nose, not his….er, other appendages. As for Bellatrix’s husband, I guess he would have had to be OK with it really, unless he wanted to die in a duel with his evil overlord.

I’m not completely against a Voldebaby, but it feels awkwardly conceived. And just maybe that child didn’t need to go bad. Poor Delphi feels shortchanged. Like her father she grew up orphaned, unloved – and is irredeemable.

As if poor Harry hasn’t suffered enough, the play has him and the gang (plus Draco) save the day again, forcing Harry to relive his parents’ deaths. Meanwhile, the memory of noble Cedric is corrupted – could humiliation really make him angry enough at the Wizarding World that he would become a Death Eater?

Cursed Child is as funny as Rowling’s novels, but a script-book is no compensation for the magic glow of a new novel. At least in its current form, it can easily be ignored by fans who don’t consider the storyline canon. Seeing Harry, Ron and Hermione portrayed by a trio of real actors is worth the hassle and the cost of a ticket.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – a review

When asked to define history, as a graduating class are in this Man Booker Prize winner, most would say it is the events of the past and the study of days gone by.

In Julian Barnes’ novella, the flaws and misuses of memory riddle the reflection of unreliable everyman narrator Tony Webster.

Tony recalls the last of his school days, when his little clique was joined by Adrian Finn – more serious-minded than his new friends and ambivalent about his inclusion. They move on to university and to their adult lives, with the usual promises of staying in touch.

Years later, a letter from a solicitor and a mysterious last will and testament link to the past. Now retired, divorced, a father-of-one and still unremarkable, Tony tries to re-examine his past relationships and his connection to a youthful tragedy.

Stricken with remorse, he reconnects with a woman he edited out of his own history – the prickly and perplexing Veronica. This leads Tony, and readers, down a bewildering path.

The Sense of an Ending offers an observation of middle class mediocrity and insecurity, as Tony shifts his position on his own recollections.

He becomes a one-man revisionist school of thought as other viewpoints come to light, and old evidence – including an excoriating letter penned by the young Tony – is re-evaluated, evoking regret, responsibility, and the elusiveness of memory.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld – a review

Sisterland is a tale about identical twin sisters with hidden gifts. Growing up in St Louis with a hostile, depressed mother and an ineffectual father, Violet and Kate have eerie dreams and premonitions that they call their “senses”.

The sisters take divergent paths through adulthood: Kate – the novel’s narrator – has taken the conventional route in life, living with her husband and their children in the suburbs, whereas Violet is a proud, rebellious misfit, earning a crust as a psychic and medium.

After a minor earthquake strikes, Violet has a premonition of a catastrophic follow-up. When she announces the date in a television interview, she becomes an overnight media sensation. The ensuing international attention rocks Kate’s domestic life and the siblings’ already tense relationship.

The chapters alternate between the present day fallout and the twins’ troubled back story. It covers a lot of familiar territory for Sittenfeld – such as awkward adolescence and self-identity.

Kate’s abilities are an innate part of her, and are presented as matter-of-fact. These extrasensory flashes are a blessing for the reader, as they help break up Kate’s mundane adult life and judgmental inner voice. As someone who enjoyed the extreme introspection of Sittenfeld’s other, rather similar heroines, Kate is irritatingly priggish.

Violet is lazy, stubborn, and delights in provoking her straight-laced twin, whilst Courtney – a work colleague and friend of Kate’s geologist husband – subtly ratchets up the sarcasm and cutting remarks.

Even if some of Kate’s choices feel unbelievable, Sittenfeld’s characters and the intricacies of female relationships are again depicted with an alarming – almost spooky – perceptiveness.

The ways in which earthquakes – romantic, emotional and physical – play out for the characters make for an absorbing conclusion.