Review – If You Could Go Anywhere

It’s mildly ridiculous that I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year and have yet to review any Paige Toon books. I had always been aware of her writing but never got around to reading any of her books until I met her at a signing last year, and since reading ‘Five Years from Now’ have become hooked and got through her entire back catalogue with rapid speed. I think a lot of readers are put off her books because, if you line them all up together, they do look like a stereotypical, mushy ‘chick-lit’ series which is one dimensional and lacks any real substance. I don’t know why so many people hate on ‘chick lit’ (I wrote a specific rant about this previously) – if a book is good it’s good, I don’t think genre particularly matters and, why is it so ridiculous that someone might want to read books which make them all warm and fuzzy inside? Rom-com films largely follow the same formula as ‘chick-lit’ and they aren’t frowned upon in the slightest. I’ll never understand literary snobs, but I digress as always.

“Angie has always wanted to travel, but at twenty-seven she has barely stepped outside the small mining town where she was born. Instead, she discovers the world through stories told to her by passing travellers, dreaming that one day she’ll see it all for herself.

When her grandmother passes away, leaving Angie with no remaining family, she is ready to start her own adventures. Then she finds a letter revealing the address of the father she never knew, and realises instantly where her journey must begin: Italy.”

The thing which really makes Paige Toon’s books stand out from others in this genre is that there is always a massive amount of significance given to the location in which the characters’ stories unfold. With every story of hers I have read, I’ve always felt completely immersed in the characters’ worlds and she always takes her readers on a journey through these places, essentially like Google maps; and ‘If You Could Go Anywhere’ is no exception. I was completely transported to the streets of Rome and it was like I was stood behind Angie the whole time, taking in what she was discovering. The locations in the book, as with all of Paige Toon’s work, act as benchmarks through which the characters’ stories progress, rather than through linear dates or significant life events, which allows the story to run much deeper and properly submerges the reader in the characters’ thoughts and feelings, rather than being focused around pacing and where the story is ‘going’.

I think this is what always keeps Paige Toon’s work so original, although the plots are always great and the character development is amazing, new and different locations allow for great characters to blossom within different cultures and keep their stories fresh. Again, I have absolutely no issues with ‘chick-lit’, I think it’s as valuable a genre as any other and if a formula works then why change it? But, the magic formula of a girl meeting a boy who helps her get over some past issues and she discovers who she really is along the way, can start to feel a little bit tired when you read as much as I do. It’s no reflection on the genre or skills of the author, but when you read a lot it does start to feel a bit tedious reading about yet another single twenty-something with a HR job in London who is struggling with the loss of a parent or sibling and trying to progress her career.

On the topic of the ‘magic formula’ of chic-lit and classic ‘girl meets boy’ novels, of which there is nothing inherently wrong, ‘If You Could Go Anywhere’ completely turned this on its head. Without revealing too many spoilers, on completion of this book I would definitely say that it’s actually a story of the girl saving the boy – Angie is definitely the strong pair of arms shielding him from his inner demons, which is really refreshing and very 2019 – feminism, yay! It would have been very easy for Paige Toon to take shy, sheltered Angie on a journey across Italy with a daring, carefree, ‘tumbleweed blowing in the wind’ Jack Dawson type who shows her how to really live, and that would have been a perfectly lovely plot, but Paige never does a plot by halves. Angie is a very tempting character to place in the role of a damsel in distress and I think if the author had fallen into this trap, the overall plot and character development wouldn’t have had half the impact – Angie becomes so headstrong and independent by the end of the story that it is really inspiring, and not only does she become her own hero but she becomes someone else’s too, which is an absolute 180 turn from the Angie at the beginning – though as with all Paige Toon books, I’m too busy enjoying the amazing setting to notice how much the character has developed through subtle changes until it hits you in the face during the climactic finale.

So, if you have been living under a rock and are not familiar with Paige Toon, or if you’ve been reluctant to try her work because it looks too ‘chick-lit’, I would absolutely suggest picking up literally any of her novels as a starting point because you will inevitably end up reading them all. Hopefully ‘If You Could Go Anywhere’ is followed by yet more additions to the long list of Paige Toon’s totally inspiring and feel-good reads. Besides, surely she can’t retire until she’s written about at least every country? Certainly doable if you ask me…

Review – I Heart Hawaii

I don’t watch ‘Game of Thrones’, but I have social media and speak to other members of the human race, so I am very aware that a good ending to a franchise is important and how people do get a little bit upset if an ending isn’t seen to do the story justice. I binge read all of the other ‘I Heart’ books last year, and although I do like Lindsey Kelk’s writing generally, I did find myself getting a bit bored by the time I got to I Heart Forever, and was wondering whether another book would be overkill. The characters were getting to a point of needing their happy endings tying up so they could walk off into the sunset, and Angela’s chaotic lifestyle of jetting around the globe spending silly amounts of money with her OTT friend and generally ignoring her adult responsibilities was, although very fun to read, getting a bit unrealistic. This sounds like a scathing review, but I would like it noted on record that I do generally enjoy this series, and was hooked on the first two to three installments, but some ‘I Heart’ books were better than others, which is always going to be the case in any series. Season five of friends is extremely forgettable, but doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to watch.

I Heart Hawaii is probably my favourite book of the series in terms of overall enjoyment. I’d tie it with I Heart New York (the first installment) for content and storyline, but I Heart Hawaii has the advantage of containing characters which the reader has already come to know and love, which makes the ending that bit more special. I felt that in this one we saw a different side to most of the characters too, which made it feel really fresh and that is hard to achieve after so many installments. Jenny has grated on me as a character since book one, I know she’s important for driving Angela’s character development and is integral for the overall plot, but I’ve always found her to be selfish, ego-centric and totally dominating towards Angela – she is just generally someone I wouldn’t personally like to be friends with. However, without revealing spoilers, in I Heart Hawaii Jenny’s vulnerable side comes out, which made me appreciate her character so much more and was maneuvered very eloquently by Lindsey Kelk, because vulnerability and Jenny Lopez don’t naturally go together, but it felt very genuine and believable, without taking away from her overall characteristics.

I Heart Hawaii showed the biggest change in Angela too, she started off as a kind of poor woman’s Carrie Bradshaw but a version who actually values her friends and doesn’t have appalling taste in male partners, with the genuine balls to take leaps and pursue her dreams which is what captivated the readers, though she went off track a bit and became a sort of celebrity hanger-on in the middle of the series, so it was nice for her to come back down to earth and become a real ‘grown-up’. Seeing Angela’s genuine insecurity too was refreshing, because she seemed to quickly become really confident with her new life in New York without issue or self-doubt, which for someone with anxiety, I found a bit hard to comprehend, but seeing her trying to navigate motherhood and a new career while feeling like she isn’t getting it right most of the time is something that resonates so strongly with everyone. It felt a bit like after the readers had gone on all the wild ‘I Heart’ adventures with Angela and her famous friends, we came back to Earth in the final book to touch base with our friends and our first love, New York City.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who is yet to read this book, or who hasn’t made it this far into the series, but I can say with confidence that everyone gets their storybook ending, some of which I would never have seen coming in book one but as the characters developed over their journeys I definitely feel they’ve been rounded off properly. And it was really nice to have a book which took place mainly in New York; while it has been fun exploring new cities with Angela, it was New York which captured her and all of our hearts so it felt only right for her story to come full circle in the place we all ‘heart’.


Review – Belle of the Back Streets

This week I found myself with three days off work (bliss) so, what did I do in that time? Get ahead with wedding planning? Finally redecorate the living room? Work out? Well, I sent one email to a photographer and repainted one wall of the living room, which in itself made me get a sweat on so *technically* I did do all three, but obviously not before binge reading a great new book.

Belle of the Back Streets is Glenda Young’s debut novel which only just came out I believe last week, but don’t cite me as a reliable source there. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Glenda Young or read any of her work until I saw some buzz about this novel on Twitter, buzz which came from Nancy Revell and anyone who has read my previous post will know that I pretty much live and breathe for her Shipyard Girls saga. Slight exaggeration, but it is really good, so obviously this was an endorsement I felt I could trust.

So, I went into Belle of the Back Streets with admittedly very high expectations, and I was certainly not disappointed. The story takes place in Sunderland in 1919, an era which doesn’t get a lot of coverage I think (usually it’s one of the World Wars or the Tudors when it comes to historical fiction), so my interest was piqued immediately, along with the fact that Meg ends up working as a rag and bone man (or girl, I suppose) – something which I knew very little about, but is basically the 20th Century version of Houghton’s scrap men.

But, of course, none of us are reading fiction books for a history lesson. Even if you come for the historical learning curve, Glenda Young makes sure you stay for the character development and overall suspense. I was almost late for an appointment during the baby stealing fiasco, and I pride myself on working out plot twists really easily but I will hold my hands up and admit that after the ‘bad woman’ was foreshadowed, I was blown away when it became apparent who that was going to be. As I’ve said before of my beloved Shipyard Girls, Meg has been added to the list of book characters that I wish I was friends with. She is so fiercely independent and driven but at the same time kind, loving and a bit vulnerable that I had to stop myself from fist pumping every time she triumphed.

And what is a women’s fiction novel without a dreamy man to fantasize over? Sorry Feminism, I am still very much in your club and firmly believe that Meg took care of her own damn self – triumphing at the end because of her own pure resilience and determination – but Adam is an absolute hunk. I loved Adam from the first time he’s introduced to us, despite the presence of the smelly netty during this otherwise very romantic meet cute, and had my fingers crossed through every page turn that Meg would come to her senses and just bloody well kiss him. Don’t get me wrong however, this isn’t some ridiculous Wuthering Heights damsel in distress being saved by the man rubbish – Adam is only rewarded with hubby status once Meg has won all her personal battles and it is made abundantly clear that she does. not. need. him. As annoyed as I was that she rejected his first marriage proposal, once I finished the book I realised what Glenda Young was doing – Meg does not need to be rescued and that is why she is a fantastic protagonist that you root for from page one. Historical fiction with fierce feminist undertones that make me want to yell YESSSS QUEEN from Ryhope cliffs is the only kind of historical fiction worth reading, in my humble opinion.

In case it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, I absolutely loved Belle of the Back Streets and will certainly be pre-ordering Glenda Young’s next masterpiece. Every plot point is tied up and concluded perfectly, the characters have so much depth that you get completely sucked into their individual worlds and it is an emotional rollercoaster which takes you through fear, anger, anticipation, laughter, pure joy and everything in between. Plus, there are animals in there too and what’s not to love about canine and equine side kicks? There was a brief moment where I really thought she had sent Stella to the knacker’s yard though, and if you had let that happen Ms Young, well there’s a small chance I would have been outside your house with a pitchfork. Kidding. A little bit. Hashtag ‘Justice For Stella’.

I definitely didn’t cry at the end though, I just had a bit of Dorito crumb in my eye…

Do I Heart Lindsey Kelk?

I have had the first three I Heart books on my shelf for god knows how long. I read The Single Girl’s To Do List about six years ago and loved it, but just never got round to reading any more of Lindsey Kelk’s work. After seeing her at a signing a couple of months ago, I was reminded of how much I’d enjoyed that book, so I started on the I Heart series and finished them all in a fairly quick succession. So, I’m going to do my best to de-tangle them in my head (much like after a particularly vigorous spin cycle on the washing machine) to give my verdict on each, and on the series overall.

I Heart New York is the first instalment in the series, where we meet Angela as a broken hearted mess who spontaneously gets on a plane to JFK with a carry on case and the clothes on her back. This one felt very much like a rom com, with spontaneity that completely defied logic – how did she get on a plane to New York with no visa? How did she really afford all that expensive make up and designer clothes? Why was she not at all bothered about getting her share of the house she bought with Mark? Surely that could’ve solved her financial problems, but logic seems to have no place in Angela’s mind. However, like a good rom-com, I found myself overlooking the technicalities and just enjoying the overall story – and who wants to read a book that’s too much like real life anyway? If I wanted to read about credit card debt and career disasters I would start a diary of my own life.

Next comes I Heart Hollywood which, to be brutally honest, doesn’t need to be in the series. I really don’t like to be negative about books because I know someone spent a long time pouring their heart into it and it feels petty and unnecessary to ruin that, but this one was a bit forgettable if I’m totally honest. I Heart New York could very easily have been a standalone book, so the sequel was always going to be difficult to get just right, but I really didn’t get the whole idea of James Jacobs. He was being a complete twat to Angela the entire time, and as much as I’m sure it wasn’t meant like this, the issue of his sexuality and him covering it up with all these ‘beards’ came across as a bit stereotypical and erring on the edge of homophobic. It was all intended as part of an intriguing plot twist, which it was, but for me James’ controlling manager wanting to cover everything up and the George Michael-ing in the toilets did come across as a little bit cliché – as if gay men automatically have to be massive sluts. Again, Lindsey Kelk is a lovely person who I’m sure did not intend for that to be implied, but my interpretation of this book is that it was a bit plotless and slightly insensitive.

I Heart Paris is where it started to really feel like a series to me, as regular characters were starting to become more familiar and given deeper back stories so I became quite invested by this point and was actively wanting to finish the whole series and find out what journeys the characters embarked on. There was very little of Jenny in this book which is possibly why I enjoyed it so much, but it probably had more to do with Angela and Alex’s relationship starting to get quite serious and I became quite invested in that. It was important at this stage to start seeing Alex as an entity in himself and not as Angela’s boyfriend, otherwise the series probably couldn’t last as long, so it was a good palette cleanser learning about his back story and getting to know his personality and more about his life outside of being with Angela.

I Heart Vegas would probably be ranked just above I Heart Hollywood for being a bit of a filler book. Parts of it felt a bit irrelevant, for example all of Angela’s partying with James Jacobs and Jenny’s model friends really made me start to dislike her and it seemed to me like she stopped caring about her career or her relationship with Alex as much, and wanted to have a little ‘woe is me’ pity party. However, as I will elaborate on later, it is good to have a flawed main character that you start to root for to do better. If I was Angela’s friend, I would certainly have been sitting her down with a cup of tea at this stage and talking to her about her poor decisions. Alex certainly puts up with a lot from her overall, but especially so in this one. Having said that though, the proposal at the end is unbelievably cute and one hundred percent hashtag goals.

I heart London is definitely in the runnings for my favourite in the I Heart series. The main thought I’d had until this point about Angela was that I didn’t quite understand how she could just drop everything and move abroad and abandon her friends and family with no real explanation as to why. I had assumed from the first book when Angela’s mum stayed in her room after Louboutin-gate that they had a close relationship, and I never really understood her relationship with Louisa and her never telling Angela about Mark and his mistress. It was necessary at this point in the series to delve into who Angela was before she came to New York, and definitely put all her thoughts and feelings into proper context for me as a reader. Similarly, seeing Jenny so vulnerable throughout this book (and her being put in her place by Louisa which was a personal highlight), definitely made me appreciate her character much more than I had I previous instalments. Yes, I still don’t like her overall as a person, but after I Heart London I started to understand why she has certain flaws and how she can come across as quite harsh and controlling but that this is more of a front to protect herself.

I Heart Christmas was a little bit disappointing. As a self-professed Christmas enthusiast I was really excited for this one, but it didn’t feel as Christmassy as I’d hoped it would. I thought it was more just that the story happened to take place at Christmas, like Die Hard, and not a Christmas book in itself, so that was a bit of false advertising if you ask me. This story was, although enjoyable overall, a bit of a filler book. It was great seeing Angela’s magazine taking off and her becoming a career woman, and tackling the issue of whether women can have a career and a family which is relevant for so many women still, Angela’s treatment of Alex over the issue of having children was horribly selfish and really put me off her for a while. I don’t think it’s right at all to call a woman selfish for wanting a career instead of a family, and I think all women should be able to have full control over that decision, but I do think she maybe should’ve cleared that up with Alex before rushing into marrying him, and she seemed generally incapable of having an adult conversation about it so I got a bit bored of her constant pouting. Also, she really needs to stop taking advice from Jenny because she’s even worse.

I Heart Forever is the latest, and as far as I’m aware not the final, instalment of the series and is tied with I Heart London for my favourite one. This one seemed to have a great balance between career drama, friendship drama and relationship drama so I didn’t feel like any of the plots were being dragged out further than they needed to be, which has been the case with some of the earlier books. Once again, we find Jenny being a selfish bitch, this time about getting engaged, but Angela does seem to grow a backbone at this point and challenges her a bit which I did enjoy. Seeing Angela trying to deal with various crises without Alex was an interesting change of pace as well, as I hadn’t seen Angela single since about chapter three of I Heart New York, so it definitely helped the reader appreciate her as the leading lady. I’m really liking Angela’s parents playing more of a role in the story now as well, as a nice reminder of where she came from and why she does and thinks certain things.

On balance, although this is generally a more negative review than I like to write and I feel really guilty about this, I did generally enjoy the series as a whole. I wouldn’t recommend reading them as standalones, apart from possibly the first one, because I don’t think the characters can be seen to their full potential in any of the books without the context of all the others. I am looking forward to the next part of the series and to see how Angela tackles motherhood, hopefully she matures a bit more but probably won’t if Jenny is still kicking about at this point.  I do think this series would make a very successful couple of films if the filler plots were cut out – if done correctly I think Angela Clark has the potential to be the millennials’ answer to Bridget Jones. Even though I rolled my eyes when Jenny went back to Craig for the umpteenth time, and tutted at Angela for being such a brat when she’s wedding planning at home in I Heart London, I understood why those two characters would behave like that within those situations. Too many authors create characters that are overly perfect and immediately get you on their side, so you can never really look at them objectively and unpick them. Until recently, it was a massive taboo to point out what a massive selfish bitch Carrie Bradshaw is, because we were all expected to want to be her and were too busy ogling over her sex life and wardrobe to step back and realise that she wasn’t living this perfect fantasy life; so it has to be said here that Lindsey Kelk does do character depth extremely well and even though you don’t always like them, you still enjoy reading about them. Overall, I’d give this series a 3/5; worth a read but I wouldn’t personally put myself out to make time to read it.

Why it’s Not Cool to Be a Book Snob

To say I’m an avid reader is very much an understatement. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on since I was three years old – eat your heart out, Matilda – and I recently started a job in a building which has a library inside so my love affair with literature has been ignited like petrol on a bonfire; I’ve read four books this week and somehow still have an unread pile by my bed.

I was at a book signing last weekend which featured Paige Toon, Lindsey Kelk and Giovanna Fletcher (all authors which I love and admire), and although I completely fangirled and revealed way too much about my personal life to Giovanna (sorry Gi, still hoping we can collaborate some day), the take-home message for me was Lindsey’s argument about ‘chick lit’. Earlier in the day, Lindsey Kelk had been on a bit of a Twitter rant about ‘chick lit’ and how books written by female authors are generally seen as inferior and not taken as seriously as those of male authors, especially the ‘classics’. Obviously I’m paraphrasing a lot here, and Lindsey I am very sorry if I’m messing this up, but I have to say I completely agreed with her and the stigma attached to ‘chick lit’ totally baffles me. I read everything, and I mean everything, and I do not understand why or how a book could be seen as more worthwhile if the author is canon and it has therefore become a classic, especially if it was written by a man.

‘Chick lit’ is such an ambiguous term in itself anyway, I always took it to mean books written to appeal to women, usually featuring a romance, but does that then mean that Wuthering Heights is chick lit? What about Romeo and Juliet? Both of which, incidentally, I have read, and despite being regarded as great works of literature, I personally thought they were both absolutely bloody terrible. If you ask me, I don’t think Wuthering Heights would get published today, Cathy and Heathcliff’s ‘romance’ is about as warm as Elsa’s ice palace in Frozen, but because it’s a classic it has to be inherently better than, say, Me Before You? If all that makes a novel ‘classic’ and a must-have on the ‘serious’ reader’s CV is that the author is dead, then is it beyond the realms of possibility that Me Before You is going to be in the GCSE Literature anthology in fifty years?

And if we’re following this definition of ‘chick lit’ as exclusively including romances which appeal to women, where does this put Romeo and Juliet? Teenagers killing themselves because they can’t be together? I think I read that one somewhere else, oh yes, hello Twilight saga! Nancy and Bill in Oliver Twist? Hello Christian Grey! I am mortified to have had to make reference to such an appalling attempt at erotic fiction, but you get the idea.

If you ask me (despite the fact that nobody actually is), people who are snobby about ‘chick lit’ are not actually very passionate readers. A true book lover will give anything a try and, sorry to be so cliche, will not judge a book by its cover or the position it holds on the shelf. Just because the title is written in pink and it has a picture of a woman outside a seaside cafe does not in itself make this book any less worthy than whatever is next to it on the bestseller list. What makes a great book are relatable characters that you can’t help but become really invested in and an engaging story that transports you into someone else’s world, and I’ve personally found great examples of such things right across the spectrum of Waterstones’ shop floor.

In summary, I think we all need to get over ourselves and just read whatever we find interesting and enjoyable. Last week I cried real and proper tears over a Paige Toon book, a reaction which neither Dickens or any Bronte sister has managed to get out of me. Life’s short, read what you want. And if you *really* want to seem clever and well read, just watch the BBC adaptations – they’re usually basically the same as the book.


P.S. I’m so sorry to Dickens and the Bronte sisters, I still love you all I’m just making a point. Except you, Emily, because Wuthering Heights really was appalling.

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Just me fangirling so hard to have met these three!