Saturday, 27 March 2010

Commune in the country

Rosie Thomas is a brilliant storyteller. Whether she’s writing about tricky teenagers or irascible grandparents, she has the knack of creating stories that resonate with her readers’ lives.

Now, in Lovers and Newcomers, she turns her attention to the trials and tribulations of turning 60.

A disparate group of friends - two couples, a glamorous widow and a gay man - have known each other since they were wild students in the Sixties. In those days they assumed they’d stay young and beautiful forever and joked that if they ever grew old they’d all move into a “fabulous, outrageous commune.”

Forty years on, they recklessly decide to give the commune idea a go. Desperate to stave off the unedifying prospect of old age, newly-widowed Miranda invites her friends to live in her rambling Norfolk mansion.

Penniless bohemians Selwyn and Polly work all hours to renovate a tumbledown barn adjacent to Miranda’s house, well-to-do lawyer Amos and his elegant wife Katherine draw up plans for a swanky house next door and set designer Colin, who’s mourning the death of his lover Stephen, flits between London, New York and the country.

The six throw themselves wholeheartedly into building new lives. The word “old” is banned (anyone who utters it has to pay a fine) and they laugh, dance, drink too much and behave badly – just like the good old days.

Except this time round, they discover that life is more complicated and they can’t simply put the clock back. Selwyn still carryies a torch for Miranda, Amos explodes with fury when an archaeological discovery threatens both his building work and his marriage and Polly worries how she’s going to make ends meet. As Katherine astutely observes: “It isn’t until you come to live in each other’s pockets like this that you start to see all the cracks.”

As always, Thomas weaves her characters’ stories together with such skill and warmth that you really care about them. She’s equally adept at conveying the hopes and fears of the younger generation too. At 25, Polly’s twin daughters look glossy and sophisticated - but they admit to feeling lost and abandoned when their parents sell the family home and move to the country.

The archaeological strand to the story isn’t as compelling as the emotional heart of the book, but once again Thomas has produced a sure-fire winner.

Lovers and Newcomers by Rosie Thomas. Published by HarperCollins, £12.99.

Emma's rating - ****

Friday, 19 March 2010

An eagle-eyed editor

The highlight of the week was the annual Romantic Novelists’ Association lunch. The RNA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and marked the occasion in style with a glamorous awards ceremony at London’s Royal Garden Hotel. Film critic Barry Norman presented the prizes (including lifetime achievement gongs to Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope.) “Ooh good,” he said when he opened the Romantic Film of the Year envelope and saw that An Education had won.

I was sitting next to Miranda Dickinson, whose heartwarming debut novel was one of the six books shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year award. Actually, the story behind her book, Fairytale of New York, is like a fairytale itself. Drama teacher turned copywriter Miranda submitted her unfinished manuscript to a website for unpublished writers – where eagle-eyed Avon editor Sammia Rafique spotted it and offered her a three-book deal. The book has sold more than 100,000 copies in four short months and Miranda, who was accompanied to the lunch by her proud mum and Sammia, still can’t believe her publishing dream has come true. A great read, it’s the story of Rosie Duncan, who seems to have the world at her fingertips. She has a thriving floristry business, fantastic friends and glitzy Manhattan lifestyle, yet behind her glossy facade lie years of heartbreak.

Another book I loved was Louise Bagshawe’s Passion. Bagshawe sounds a bit like Superwoman - as well as writing novels and looking after three children, she’s also a Tory parliamentary candidate. Her tale (half-thriller, half love-story) of shy Oxford academic Melissa Elmet, who is plunged into an international murder plot, is a glamorous, pacy blockbuster that reminds me of Jackie Collins.

But in the end Lucy Dillon’s Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts scooped the main prize. Lucy’s captivating book must be one of the few romantic novels to be set in a rescue kennels. It features sassy PR Rachel Fielding, whose aunt bequeaths her a dogs’ home, complete with an assortment of abandoned mutts. Rachel isn’t a “dog person” at all but as she battles to match the pets with new owners she learns important lessons about loyalty, second chances and unconditional love.

Lucy (pictured above), a glamorous redhead in sky-high heels, made a wonderfully gracious acceptance speech. Along the way she name-checked her two Basset hounds, Violet and Bonham, who were being looked after by friends back home in Herefordshire. So if you’re looking for a great read, try one of these. They prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that romantic fiction is blooming.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Beyond Blur

Alex James’s hilarious account of life behind the scenes of Nineties’ Britpop is one of my favourite non-fiction reads of recent years.

In Bit of a Blur the irrepressible James recounts how he was catapulted to fame and fortune as bass guitarist of the rock band Blur. One moment he was a university student living in a slug-infested squat in Camberwell. The next he was living the high life – hanging out at the Groucho Club, driving around in a cab festooned with spots painted by Damien Hirst and generally being, as he describes it, “the second drunkest member of the world’s drunkest band.”

Those days are long behind him now. He’s moved to the wilds of Oxfordshire, where he lives with his wife and children, makes cheese and waxes lyrical about the delights of the countryside. But in inimitable style he admits: “We bought the farm on our honeymoon and if we hadn’t been in the throes of romance, we’d never have done anything so ridiculous. But like many people, we don’t look back.”

The good news is that James has been busy writing a book about his escape to the country. Called All Cheeses Great and Small: A Not So Everyday Story of Country Folk, it chronicles how he went from the easiest job in the world (rock star) to the hardest (farmer). It’s due out later this year and promises to be a treat.