Tag Archives: featured

Girls Who Read

18 Nov

I want a girl who reads

whose heart bleeds at the words of graham greene

or even heat magazine


NEW FICTION: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

5 Nov

I’m back! I’m blogging!! I know, I can hardly believe it myself. Sorry for the radio silence, I had a summer of weddings and hen dos and lovely holidays and actually went through a bit of a dry book phase. But I’m back in the game now and very keen to let you know about my last few reads. Thanks for sticking with me!

So first up this November, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. Ignorance confession time: before this book landed in my lap, I had never heard of American author Tan. Nor did I know that her bestseller The Joy Luck Club had been translated into 35 languages and whipped up into an Oliver Stone film. What I did know, however, was that I’m not typically a fan of sweeping historical fiction (I know, I’m a heathen) and that the blurb sounded exhausting (‘Violet’s need to understand her past’…’quest to uncover the truth’… ‘spanning fifty years’… GOD ALMIGHTY SOMEONE BRING ME A RED BULL I’M IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL).

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

So it was with a slightly begrudging heart that I turned page 1 of 589 and kicked off proceedings. Luckily, the well paced opening chapter threw me instantly into an intriguing world I knew nothing about. We’re catapulted into Shanghai in the early 20th century, as young Violet Minturn is growing up in one of the city’s finest and most famous courtesan houses. Her American mother Lulu (or Lucia or Lucretia, depending on who you are and where we are in the story) is a formidable Mistress of the House, brokering business deals between wealthy clients and encouraging them to strike up relationships with her Cloud Beauties, the striking and talented courtesans that live in-house.

But it’s a volatile time in China – the Emperor is kicked out and the city becomes a dangerous place for foreigners. Amidst the madness, Violet’s mum is plagued by her own secrets (the publicists weren’t lying about that ‘quest for truth’ stuff) and falls prey to some serious trickery. Suddenly Violet is alone in Shanghai and forced to become a virgin courtesan.

What comes next is, unsurprisingly, a heck of a lot of sex. There’s a whole chapter stuffed (ahem) with virgin courtesan tips, fabulously entitled “Etiquette For Beauties of the Boudoir”, as told to Violet by former Top Ten Beauty of Shanghai, Magic Gourd. There follows some advice for your grand deflowering (“gasp with pleasure, not fright”), a list of kinky client quirks (stay tuned for some cross-dressing Night Scholar scenarios) and top tips for “preparing the pudenda” (nuff said surely?). I was reading solo at Pret once and had to shift the book so my nosey neighbour didn’t think I was reading a porno. Possibly a slight exaggeration.

That said, there’s so much more to being a courtesan than using blustery days as a chance to flash your pants (an actual tip). Visitors couldn’t simply pay to have their way, there’s a whole etiquette of courting and gift-giving that should go on for months before any in-and-outing occurs. I found it fascinating how men would be prepared to woo in an almost traditional sense, despite still having their wives – yup, sometimes plural – back home.

Intimate Confessions of a Courtesan

Still from 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Courtesan,

Tan has said she ummed and ahhed a lot about how to best write her sex scenes (so many jokes, so little time). But sex aside, really the crux of the story is a big ol’ quest for identity and love. Violet struggles with her dual-nationality (we discover her Dad is Chinese) and the betrayal of her mother throughout the story, but it’s not until about we’re well over half-way through the novel that we start to hear Lulu’s side of the story. <SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT> A headstrong teenager who felt unloved by her parents, Lulu instigates an affair with an exotic Chinese friend of the family. She ends up pregnant with his child, and impulsively decides to follow him back to Shanghai. When she too finds herself abandoned, we realise just how many parallels lie between her story and Violet’s. Will they ever find each other? And will Violet ever be able to forgive her mother for an act of stupidity that changed the course of her daughter’s life? When Violet’s own daughter is taken away from her we get a strange feeling of deja vu that will echo through the remainder of the story.

Modern dress made popular by high-class courtesans in 1920s Shanghai. Image from OrchidRow.com, Source: Huatongoversea.com

Modern dress made popular by high-class courtesans in 1920s Shanghai. Image from OrchidRow.com, Source: Huatongoversea.com

I liked this book more than I thought I would. I did a fair bit of LOLing (Magic Gourd is classic) and cried a couple of times. There are some great colourful characters, plenty of adventure, and it provides a really interesting look at a time and world I knew nothing about. But something stops me shouting about it, and I’m not entirely sure I can put my figure on what that is. It may well be that I was comparing it to another book I had just read, which I LOVED and will tell you all about soon.

I guess I’d say that if epic tales are usually your thing / you like a good emotional read / you’re not a sexy-stuff prude, then this is well worth a read.

Have you read any Amy Tan? Do you think The Valley of Amazement sounds up your street? I’d love to hear from you. 

Genius or madness? Penguin Classics wallpaper

5 Mar

Perfect if you’ve always fancied a library of classics but have an aversion to anything 3D..


Book Wars: Five Star Billionaire Vs. Bend, Not Break

2 Mar

This week I reviewed two books about China for Stylist magazine’s Book Wars feature: Bend, Not Break, a memoir written by Ping Fu, and Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. Eastern promise or new world nightmare? Billionaire’s a good ‘un but Ping Fu’s true story of overcoming terrifying hardship to reach the dizzying heights of success got my thumbs up. Enjoy.

Click here to read the full reviews

Book Reviews: Five Star Billionaire vs Bend, Not Break

Book Reviews: Five Star Billionaire vs Bend, Not Break


Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Should you believe the hype?

24 Feb
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn Review

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn Review

I do love a good book marketing campaign, and anyone who has moved an inch in London over the last couple of months will have noticed the big, striking black and orange tube posters for Gone Girl. THRILLER OF THE YEAR! they scream. But is the hype justified?

Last year, I was asked to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for Stylist magazine’s Book Wars feature (where 2 new releases are pitched against each other in a word-mashing fight to the death). I’d heard it described it 2012’s ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ – but then just about every psychological thriller I’d received in the last year had been described in exactly the same way, so I was a wee bit unconvinced to say the last. I’m all up for a bit of Sophie Hannah-ish mind-messing, and I did really love Before I Go To Sleep, but I think it’s fair to say I didn’t have mega high hopes when I turned the first page of Gone Girl.

A few hundred pages later, I had ripped through the book and was screeching an incredulous ‘NO F*CKING WAY’ at the ending. Mostly in a good way. Yes, some of the scenarios are ridiculous, the motives slightly questionable and I think I hated just about every character at some stage. But the plot surprises are just brilliant. You think you’ve guessed them, your guesses are confirmed, and then WHOOSH – you’re walloped in the kisser and left seeing stars. My inner monologue was a bit like this:

Ohhh, I wonder if XYZ will happen??
XYZ is SO going to happen.
XYZ HAPPENED!! So obvious. Am mega genius who should write psycho thrillers.
Hang on a minute..

Seriously, this plot does more twisting and shaking than a 1960s Beatle.

So yes. Here’s the review I did for Stylist, comparing it to Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (which I reviewed for my blog here). And if this doesn’t convince you, check out these reviews by Savidge Reads and Annabel’s House of Books.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the only books released in 2012 were tales of whips, chains and meringue-dancing inner goddesses. But 2012 has also been a massive year for the psychological thriller, of which Gone Girl and Dare Me are undoubtedly two of the finest. The latter, a razor-sharp portrayal of the chilling intensity of adolescence, is brilliantly acidic, its cheerleader protagonists hair-pulling their way through the story like terrifying, turbocharged Mean Girls.

But for plot ingenuity, it’s Gone Girl that took the crown for me.

This is a story that starts out simply – a man reports his wife missing when he discovers their empty house with signs of a struggle. Nick is a good man in a terrible situation. But suddenly you’re not so sure – why the lies? Why the secret second phone? Suddenly Nick’s offhand statement, “I’m a big fan of the lie of omission,” starts echoing in your ears. Nick’s story is interspersed with entries from Amy’s diary that paint a very different picture of the man she married. Who do you trust?

I’m desperately trying not to give too much away here, as the effect of Gone Girl is heavily dependent on its capacity to surprise. Flynn relentlessly plays with her reader, dangling hints and hushing up truths through two narrators who become more and more unreliable as the corkscrew plot unravels.

But what lurks in the shadows of every page is that chilling question: how well do we really know the people we love? As the plot ricochets towards its seriously chilling climax – and yet another twist – Nick and Amy’s once perfect love story becomes a macabre tale of war, with a shocker of an ending that made me instantly want to force everyone I know to read it.

If, like me, you like your stories a little bitter and twisted, both Gone Girl and Dare Me should rocket up your reading list. But in terms of A-list appeal, Gone Girl has the edge. With fans including SJP, India Knight and Marian Keyes, the book has also attracted Hollywood; Reese Witherspoon’s production company has snapped up the film rights.

Read it now and prepare your smug ‘the book is so much better than the film’ lines in advance.

So what was your verdict? Overhyped nonsense or one of the best thrillers of 2012?

Presenting the Waterstone’s 11 2013 (aka Your 2013 Must-Reads)

14 Jan


I love debut novels. There’s something extra special about them, like some kind of delicious spark of newness and excitement jumps off every page. I don’t care if the author’s been self-publishing for decades, THIS IS THEIR DEBUT! They could be The Next Big Thing! And you’re holding their shiny little book of joy and wonderment in your hands! Etc.

So I was mega psyched to see that Waterstones have finally released their 11 top debut novels for 2013. The Waterstones Eleven, the bookseller’s list of must-read debut novels, has become a massive ‘One’s to Watch’ list and a pretty trusty way of guessing the literary stars of tomorrow.  Last year’s picks included The Snow Child and The Land of Decoration, both of which were amazing. In fact, I’d recommend most of the Waterstones Eleven books I’ve read, including The Lifeboat and When God Was a Rabbit. The list is varied, the stories gripping, and – importantly – they’re also really enjoyable to read. 

This year the authors include ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, 27-year-old PHD student Hannah Kent (jel much?), award-winning journo Sathnam Sanghera, and national chess champ Gavin Extence, whose quirky coming of age tale ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’ is currently being read by yours truly (stay tuned for a review in the next few weeks). Having lived in Havana I’m also really excited about the Carlos Acosta novel Pig’s Foot, which sounds like it might be a transgenerational bit of magical realism (I’m hoping for a touch of Marquez about it.. although I’ll have to wait until October for the release). 

Here’s the full list of titles for your perusal. Click here for a little intro into each book… Which ones will be on your must-read list?

Pig’s Foot by Carlos Acosta (Bloomsbury, 30th October)

Idiopathy by Sam Byers (Fourth Estate, 25th April)

Y by Marjorie Celona (Faber and Faber, 17th January)

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (Hodder & Stoughton, 31st January)

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador, 29th August)

The Fields by Kevin Maher (Little, Brown, 7th March)

The Son by Michel Rostain (Tinder Press, 23rd May)

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland, 27th June)

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera (William Heinemann, 26th September)

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Viking, 4th April)

Ballistics by D.W. Wilson (Bloomsbury, 1st August)


By the way, for the sticklers out there, Waterstones got rid of the apostrophe – shudder… 

A few of my favourite things: book gift ideas for Christmas

2 Dec

Christmas Book Gifts

December is upon us, which means a heightened risk of death-by-elbow in every shopping centre in the world. I have officially started Christmas shopping and without sounding too Scroogey about it, it is stressssssful (bah humbug). But thankfully, online shopping for books is ridiculously easy (um as is going to your local bookstore and supporting independent trade, aherm). Anyway, here a few of the booky presents I’m dishing out this year.

For my book club… The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

We’re doing a Secret Santa style pressie sesh this year, with each of us bringing along a book we’ve enjoyed over the last year. I thought this would make a great present for one of my fellow book clubbers – we loved the glamour of 1930s Rules of Civility and this taps into a similar vein.  A fictional recollection of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to first wife Hadley, it’s set in the absinthe-fuelled realms of Jazz Age Paris – a time where you couldn’t step out of your studio apartment without bumping into the Fitzgeralds or being dragged off for a gin with Ezra Pound. Don’t be fooled by the slightly naff cover – it’s brilliantly bohemian and totally heartbreaking.

For my Nan… The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

My mum recently lent my nan her copy of 50 Shades. Needless to say, this has disturbed me on so many levels that I’ve been desperate to give my nan other books – ANY books – that will distract her from veering into questionable erotic fiction. Step forward then The Snow Child. Set in the Alaskan wilderness and following a couple who discover a mysterious young girl in the forest, it ticks every box for essential winter reading – snowy scenes, a touch of magic, and a vivid world you can really lose yourself in. And not a hint of a whip in sight.

For my soon to be Sister-in-Law… Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

Vogue absolutely loved this one and it’s easy to see why. Told through 5 very different narrators and spanning from post WW2 to the late 60s, it’s a dark, sparkling tale of a glamorous East Coast family plagued by secrets. Think glamour, betrayal, murder…and a hell of a lot of gin and tonics along the way. Deliciously sun drenched bitterness that will have you captivated from the very first page – making it the coolest must-read of the year and a perfect present for my beeyootiful soon to be sis-in-law.

Are you giving any book gifts this year? Would love to hear your recommendations…