This was the first book that I received through the "read it swap it" site so was keen to read it. I had not read anything by EMily Barr before but really like the information that was available on the book and thought that it would be good.
The cover says "bored with you life - steal someone elses!" which sounded inviting.
Maggie - our heroine is a lap dancer living in Brighton following the breakdown of a long term relationship - she has to move away from Scotland where all of her friends are - and her family are in Norwich so she is very isolated there and fed up with her life. No boyfriend, no mates, no proper job.
Libby - a lawyer turned stay at home month to a five month old baby. Slightly frustrated at not being able to go back to work she is a typical Brighton yummy mummy - lunching with her friends and spending quality time with the baby.
David - her husband is a professional who decides to take a sabbatical and wants to go travelling - while the baby is young. He is a free spirit but a devoted father.
Emma - Maggie's sister. Pregnant with her first child and happily married to Jeremy.
Yasmin - Maggie's long lost best friend - who kindly stole Maggie's first love and promptly spends her whole life travelling.
Storyline - don't worry not going to give too much away. Maggie buys a baby monitor as a present for her sister and while trying it out accidently discovers that she can listen into Libby and David on their baby monitor as they live in the flat above her. Bored with her life she becomes obsessed with listening to them, and when she realises that they are planning to leave - she comes up with a plan to meet them and become their friend.
The book is told from the view point of Maggie and Libby. Chapters alternate between the two of them.
The style is light and chatty - and you really start to understand the characters as the story unfolds.
I thought that this book was going to be your average chick lit book. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised as actually it went a lot deeper than that - touching on some serious issues, such as relationships and the grieving process.
The story romps along, and while the tone is chatty you are drawn into the story and really want to know what will happen.
There are some really dark moments for a chick lit book too!
I didn't really like any of the characters - they all have their strengths and weaknesses - no one is perfect.
The book is set in Brighton, Norwich and Cuba - I would really have liked to learn more about Cuba - there is some narrative describing the place but little on the culture there. There are some interesting titbits about communism and the politics of the country!
A chicklit book with a twist - a good light read but one that I dont think that you will be wanting to put down. Definitely an easy read but one which will leave you a little bit sad. Would recommend for a holiday when you want a step up from a mind numbing romance.
I must admit that I usually turn my nose up at 'chick lit' but will occasionally take a certain guilty pleasure with a light and fluffy read if something catches my eye. This was one I spotted on holiday - having read the other books I'd brought and needing something for the return journey. I'd read one other Emily Barr book and enjoyed it so at just 1 euro this seemed like a safe bet!
We meet Maggie, lonely and depressed, working as a lap dancer after the end of a boring relationship and trying desperately to convince herself and everyone around her that her life is great. When she accidentaly discovers she can hear her neighbours through their baby monitor she becomes odsessed with following their lives and sees their decision to move to Cuba as a way to make a new start for herself too. The neighbours (Libby and David) are having their own problems and their sudden plan for a complete change of lifestyle seems to be the thing that is going to make or break their marriage.
So far I was enjoying the book, not great literature by any means but an interesting idea and the thought of moving away or travelling to find a new start is one that has held some appeal to me at times, I was fascinated to see how the characters lives would continue. But, of course, moving across the world doen't solve anything and there begin to be hints at something from Maggie's past that will have an effect on everyone.
A further complication comes from an old schoolfriend of Maggie's whose entry into the story causes tension and provided a constant link and reminder to Maggie of a life she obviously wants to forget. The reasons for this are slowly revealed throughout the story and as we learn about the past we begin to understand Maggie a little more. A slightly sinister twist brings the story to a climax and all the ends are wrapped up neatly, as might be expected from this type of novel. It's light reading but with some darker undertones, the characters are developed enough to be interesting but not really memorable and much of the story is predictable. There are a couple of surprises. Overall, it was nothing more or less than I expected it to be - a light holiday read.
If you like Emily Barr, you will love Cuban Heels !
Emily has made a name for herself by writing a range of novels based around travel. You would be forgiven for thinking that these are traditional "chick lit" novels as the covers are generally bright and breezy, however within the first chapter, you will see that things are not always as they seem !
Cuban Heels is the story of Maggie. Recently split from her steady relationship, she moves to Brighton where she knows nobody and tries to rebuild her life.
In Brighton, away from everyone that she knows, Maggie develops a strange infatuation with her neighbours - so much so that she eventually follows them to Cuba.
As odd as this sounds, Emily helps us get into the mind of her main character and we follow her journey and unusual behaviour when she meets up with the family that were her neighbours from Brighton in sunny Havana.
There is a dark twist in this book which I won't tell you as you will want to read it for yourself, but its absolutely rivetting and I ended up reading the entire book in a couple of sittings !
Within the first few pages I decided I was glad I had started reading it.
We start off with Maggie, who has recently split with her boyfriend of 6 years Mark; "It was only after we split up that I realised that in welding my life to his, I had lost myself entirely".
Maggie leaves her life in Glasgow that she had made with Mark and we join her in the aftermath of this; her living in Brighton, working as a stripper, and having not a friend in the world.
Maggie's younger sister Emma is pregnant. She lives in Norwhich and isn't a huge part of the book but does serve a great purpose to it. Maggie buys them a baby monitor as a present but first takes it out to test it works at home.
Maggie lives in a bottom flat and above her live David who works doing something to do with managment, Libby a former lawyer struggling to come to terms with being a stay at home mum and baby Charlie.
When Maggie plugs in the monitor it picks up everything from upstairs. She soons becomes hooked to listening into the familys life and she starts to form an obsession with mainly Libby. She is desperate for friends, and desperately wishes Libby could be that friend.
Soon Libby and David move to Cuba and Maggie promptly follows.
I would say the story is divided into three sections. Brighton, Cuba and then the twist.
The story is set up in Brighton. We meet all the essential characters and start to get to know them and feel for them. It's a good start to the book, and although it didn't have me hooked, it held my interest well enough to continue reading this every night.
By the time we get to Cuba we already know our main characters but we begin to understand why they are the way the are. We get to really know them a lot better here.
During this second section of the book I felt like it wasn't really going anywhere. I didn't dislike the book, but I didn't love it. It felt like it was ambling along, and not really about anything in particular. It was enjoyable but nothing seemed to really happen for quite a while.
Just as I was begining to wonder if there was actually a plot to this and if it would go anywhere came the twist.
Now I don't want to say anything about it, because it's what makes the book good. All I will say is you begin to realise that maybe you didn't know the characters as well as you suspected and that the last thing you are expecting in this book is for anything to happen, but something does!
I would say this definately falls into the chick lit category - sorry guys! Despite the fact that it does turn part thriller towards the end, its roots are firmly in chick lit. That's not to say it's some wishy washy romance novel. If you think that (like I thought before I'd read it) then you are way off the mark. It's a strangely deep book dealing with issues such as death, grieving, mental health, obsession etc.
I would say this is perfect for women aged 16 plus, although if you are a man don't feel like you can't read it. Just sneak a peak of your girlfriends when she's not looking! Or buy it under the pretence that it's a present for a wife/girlfriend/mother/sister. Don't worry I won't tell anyone!
The language style, whilst not as formal as the book I'm currently reading (Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunne), doesn't sound overly colloquial. It sounds friendly but not common. Really it sounds like most novels.
What sets it apart is it's written present tense, which isn't something I have come across often. It's a risky decision but it works well and didn't bother me in the slightest. I wasn't constantly thinking or noticing it was written present tense, it just seemed natural, the right way for it to be wrote. It also worked perfectly for creating the suspense in the latter part of the book where things really get going.
We see alternate chapters from Maggie and Libby which works perfectly. It lets us know what the other person is thinking, which works brilliantly and seems almost essential. If this was just told from one of their perspectives this would be an entirely different story and not nearly as brilliant a one. Nothing is lost by developing these two characters almost equally, and the jumping from one to the other is not jarring. It just works. The book does however feel like it belongs to Maggie.
This is perhaps because Maggie's chapters are written in the first person ("I said", "I thought" etc) and Libby's are written in the third person ("Libby said", "She thought" etc). The book fluctuates nicely between the two styles and executes them both perfectly. This only shows off Emily Barr's writing abilities to their full potetional.
Emily Barr has the ability to make you feel, vision and practically smell the scenes. When she is describing life in Cuba, although I have never been and the only photos I have seen are of the holiday destinations, I could see it all perfectly from the blazing heat, to the dusty streets to the local children playing baseball in the streets. It gives detail of Cuba, sufficient enough to be able to imagine everything perfectly, you almost feel like you are there in each scene, witnessing the events first hand. She can create visually stunning images with the use of words alone. I'm not normally interested in reading about places I've never gone and am unlikely to go to. She didn't bore me, as I had been concerned about when first picking up the book, with her descriptions of Cuba. They were essential in getting you there, into the time and place the characters were, but they were not too over the top to lose focus of the plot.
She developed background on each character well, so that by the time the action started happening I felt I really knew Maggie and Libby, along with the other characters too. It was that sense of knowing them, but always wanting to know that bit more. She had that balance right, and it held my interest.
If anything lets the book down, or at least could have been improved, towards the middle section of the book I felt like it was ambling along pleasantly but not really going anywhere. I wasn't expecting anything to really happen then for the rest of the book.
This however made it an almost overwhelming surprise to read the last section of the book. This more than redeemed it and felt almost like reading a completely different book, whilst it all clicked and made perfect sense with everything you'd read so far. It made perfect sense that the book should take this turn, but it was never expected. That only makes it better though.
I haven't read any of Emily Barr's other books so I can't compare with that. Compared with other 'chick lit' books I would say this is better as it crosses genres toward the thriller side near the end. It has a dark side to it that most chick lit books don't have and that set's it apart from the crowd. It's quite different from anything I've read before and for that reason alone it's worth a read.
I don't tend to re-read books, maybe sometime in the future I would be tempted to give this another read, as I did really enjoy it but for now I've got a huge world of books out there that I've yet to read so I will be moving on to pastures new! That's not to say this book isn't re-readable, I enjoyed it enough to warrant a re-read if I didn't have other books waiting to be read.
I think this book is quite a slow burner. It didn't have me immediately hooked, although it did hold my attention just enough. I was always happy to read a bit each night but was never desperate to find out what was happening next. All that changed in the last third of the book. Suddenly I couldn't bear to put it down, I read it whilst I was feeding the baby, I read it whilst it was adverts in programmes, I read bits while I was waiting for the computer to load up, I stayed up till silly o'clock in the morning trying to finish it. I was all of a sudden hooked and desperate to find out what happened next.
I would definately recommend that you read this book and trust me that it is worth it for the final third. That's not to say the first two thirds are not enjoyable, as they are. The book on a whole was a pleasure to read and it really wasn't what I was expecting.
I like my books set in places that I know, that I can imagine, that I can relate too. At the time of reading this I hadn't been out of the UK in years but it didn't matter. The descriptions were perfect, I could picture a side of Cuba I had never previously even given a second thought too. It didn't matter that it was in Cuba though, it didn't make it any less enjoyable that it wasn't in settings I could relate too. The story became gripping and it's definately different to what you would expect from this book and different from other books in this genre. It has a bit of thriller thrown into the mix, it works perfectly.
It is written by Emily Barr who was a travel journalist and obviously uses this skill to her advantage here. She has also written other books including "Backpack", "Baggage" and "Atlantic Shift".
The address for her website is http://authorpages.hoddersystems.com/EmilyBarr/tibet.htm
The book was first published in 2003 by Review, although my copy was a special edition published in 2005 exclusively for B Magazine.
ISBN 0 7553 2897 3
It's RRP is £7.99 for a paper back or £10.99 for a hardback. I'm sure you can find it cheaper though.
Please note a longer version of this review is also written on Ciao where I write under the same name.
'Bored with your life? Steal someone elses screams the cover. I picked up the back, read the back and in the shopping basket it went. I took it on holiday and once Id started it, I did not want this one to end!
So to the plot. The main character is Maggie and shes a lap dancer. We get the impression early on she hates doing this, she has low self esteem, shes as skinny as a rake, and most importantly, she lies to her parents about what she does for a living. They think she works for American Express. Maggie is a loner after her relationship has broken up and shes moved from Scotland to Brighton. She lives in a tiny litlte flat and has distanced herself from her family. Her days are spent compulsively writing letters to anyone who'll listen to her.
Her sister, meanwhile, is happily married and about to have a baby. Maggie decides she needs to buy the baby a gift and settles on a baby monitor. Once at home, she decides to test it out. To her amazement and delight, she has picked up the conversation in next doors flat. She cant help but listen as the couple bicker. So begins her own personal soap opera.
Shes never spoken to her neighbours but has seen them around. Libby is a first time mum and David, her husband, has got it into his head that he wants to go to Cuba to learn Spanish. Libby isnt keen, shes given up her career to look after baby Charlie and feels frumpy and worthless. Maggie is a willing eavesdropper, each day switching on the monitor to eagerly catch up on the gossip. It becomes part of her routine.
I am a spy. It is harmless. I like it.
So do we, Maggie! Maggie would give anything to have their life, their excitement. After all, what would she have to give up? Whod notice if she went along for the ride ?
Too much more revealing of the plot will make me spill the entire contents of the book, so I shall just say that Maggie decides to join the couple on their trip to Cuba, introducing herself as a new friend, and marvelling in the coincidence that they all come from Brighton!
* Characters *
The book is told by Maggie and Libby in alternate chapters, so we gain a perspective of both girls. However, Maggies chapters are written from her point of view, Libbys in the third person. David is a minor character and Yasmin, an old school friend of Maggies appears out of the blue in Cuba too.
It was really easy to feel sorry for Maggie but my feelings toward her changed throughout the book as I realised she was unbalanced and the reason behind it. At the beginning shes downtrodden, weak and a bit of a sad character but after shes set her mind on moving away and changing her life we see her become stronger and more resilient.
Throughout the book I questioned why? Why is she behaving like this, why is she intent on ruining this couples life when she doesnt even know them? And why did she become fixated on them in the first place?
Maggies a complex person she hates Yasmin because she stole her boyfriend when they were 18. Shes livid when Yasmin follows her to Cuba and starts to flirt around the people that Maggies befriended. Yasmin is everything Maggie is not, outgoing, blonde and tanned.
We feel that Maggie is relying too much on David and Libby to change her life and make things better. As Maggie starts her new life in the sun, the past returns to haunt her, and we slowly see her falling apart.
* What I liked *
We see how moving abroad changes the characters throughout the book. We watch the way she pushes herself into David and Libbys life, befriends them, feels betrayed by them, and exacts revenge on them.
The travel aspect appealed to me immensely. Having only ever seen Cuba on holiday programmes, its a place that greatly interests me. We see Maggie having heated discussions with the locals, how easily she picks up the language while David struggles and how Libby is more or less tied to the flat looking after the baby, until she decides to venture out and start exploring. Steamy nights are spent drinking beer in Havana bars, vegetable and fruit markets with beautiful girls in short skirts and high heels are all beautifully described, as well as having to side-step pot holes in the pavement filled with rancid water. When Barr goes into detail you can almost smell and feel the place.
We understand how Maggie has become spiteful and stand offish but we also see to a certain extent why. Shes hidden away something so awful from her past that its taken years to surface.
Told in the present tense, this is something I normally avoid in books but with Maggies sinister story, this works well. I found it similar to another book Ive read recently, Notes on a Scandal. The main character in that book was also darkly described. On the back cover Cuban Heels is also compared to the film Single White Female, which was another reason I picked it up. I felt this would not be an easy read whereby everything is tidied up comfortably at the end and everybody lives happily ever after. Was I right? Hey Im not tellin!
* Other info *
Barr has written three other books, Baggage. Backpack and Atlantic Shift. She has also written columns and travel pieces for the Observer and the Guardian.
RRP for Cuban Heels is 6.99 GBP but I bought it in April in Tesco for 3.84. My advice is to check Ebay and Amazon for cheaper copies as it's been around for a while now.
One star away for a tiny part of the book being a tad far fetched and something that was a little too predictable.
A delicious, off beat book that packs in a little something different. Highly recommended reading, especially for the summer!
Thanks for reading.