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Belinda Jones is not an author I was familiar with before this novel. Living La Vica Loca was a book that appealed greatly to me on my last trip to the library. Firstly the cover is really visually appealing to me - totally girly with lots of pink and featuring a couple dancing in the streets. It looked fun, flirty and just what I needed. A bit of light reading.
The novel features two women who both work in theatre. Beth is a dancer who is struggling to hit the big time in London, whereas mousy Carmen is happy in her job as a costume designer, but is having a rough time romantically because of an abusive boyfriend, Lee. Beth has really struck bottom, agreeing to work in a strip club, when something occurs to snap her out of it and give her one last chance at fame.
Getting Beth to help her, she auditions for a reality TV show which takes novice dancers on a journey across the world to learn the Argentine Tango, the Paso Doble, and the Salsa. Completely disguising herself, and pretending she can't dance, Beth wins the part by relaying facts about Carmen's life. The two of them are swept off on a magical working holiday taking in Argentina, Spain and Cuba.
This book was pretty fantastic for me. I am a big fan of dance shows like Strictly Come Dancing, so I am familiar with the dances being described and some of the background to them, but I wasn't expecting the emotional journey for the characters within this novel. As well as being a fantastic way to give the background to these fantastic dances, the author skillfully weaves the emotions of the characters around their performances. More than a physical journey, both women are altered completely by their experiences as they learn the dance moves.
I loved the level of detail about each of the settings in this novel. I am a little familiar with the Argentinian and Spanish histories, and these were perfectly described to me again, and it was interesting for me to see what Cuba was like. More than a flitting description, you get a good feel for life in these countries, from poverty, to traditional song, to being able to visualise the festivals and events being described in the story. The author has obviously done a lot of research in these areas, and it transfers well in a fun way to the reader as you are experiencing it through the eyes of the two female characters who are seeing it for the first time as well.
I felt that the subsidiary characters such as the dance partners they were introduced to in each country were all full characters who felt very real and relevant to the story. Even chance encounters with people were described with depth without excessive words. The only time I felt confused about who all the minor characters were was when they hit Cuba and all of a sudden there were a lot of new names at one time and it didn't stick in my head well who was who.
My overall impression of this novel is that it is chick lit, but it is done incredibly well. It touches on some pretty deep issues about relationships and how people feel about their lifes without it being too long or preachy. I felt affectionate towards the lead female characters within the first few pages, and I almost felt like I was a backseat passenger and along with them for the ride. I found some sequences to be pretty hilarious to me when this small lithe dancer is trying to pretend to be a novice and physically change her appearance to fool the cameras. There are some amusing mishaps along the way that I won't try to describe as I feel they should be read to be appreciated.
I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest in hearing about other countries, relationships, or is fond of dance and all the sequins and dazzle that it entails. If you hate dance or chick lit, this won't be for you, but otherwise I think this would appeal to most when they start to read it.
At 362 pages, it was a fairly quick read for me over a few evenings before bed. I think I equally enjoyed the few pages at the end featuring an interview with Belinda Jones describing her motivations for writing this novel and how she researched it. It gave me extra insight into the story and rounded it off nicely.
This is an author I will deliberately look out for now after my enjoyment of this novel.
When it comes to books, chicklit is probably not my favourite genre. However, that said, I will admit that it does feature relatively frequently in my reading repertoire. The thing with chicklit, you see, is that, probably more than any other genre, when you get a good book written in this style it is very, very good, yet when you get a bad one, it is truly terrible!
Chicklit, on a bad day, is all too often stuffed with cliche, predictability, cardboard characters and based around an entirely guessable, done to death formula. However, every so often there comes along an author who takes takes the chicklit world by storm; who writes about likeable characters in interesting situations with real humour and depth. And one of these authors is Belinda Jones. Hence the reason I was all too keen to snap up this book, full of high hopes that it would live up to Belinda's usual standards...
WHO IS BELINDA JONES?
Belinda Jones is an author who I became aware of probably about six years ago when I received a copy of 'Divas Las Vegas' - her first novel - free with a magazine. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I obediently gave it a courtesy read. However, I was soon extremely glad I did. Having got a bit bored of the generic chicklit formula over the last couple of years, I was pleased to find a chicklit novel that I actually enjoyed and even found myself recomending to others. In fact, I actually ended up writing about the book for an essay for uni! But back to Belinda...
Belinda Jones, who published her debut novel in 2001, has currently written nine novels, all of which undoubtedly fall under the "chicklit" umberella. The themes that connect all of her novels are travel, romance and self discovery.
Belinda's novels have been desribed as a cross between travel guides and fiction, mainly because they all feature her protagonists travelling to foreign locations (California, Capri and Las Vegas to name but a few) in pursuit of fulfillment and romance. And because Belinda is never one to skimp on research, the detail in the novels is amazing, as Belinda describes in great detail real-life hotels, bars, beaches, and everything in between!
Aside from the travel though, Belinda's novels generally also revolve around the tale of an insecure, discontented protagonist who unwittingly embarks on a journey of self discovery and acceptance, often aided by - but never exclusively the result of - a heavy dose of romance. Well, where would chicklit be without romance and happy endings?
'LIVING LA VIDA LOCA' - THE PLOT
Carmen and Beth have been best friends for a long time; two twenty something girls united by their love of dance. Carmen, the curvy, insecure wallflower, is happier behind the scenes, content in her job as a costume designer yet trapped in an abusive relationship with a man she can't resist. Beautiful, guarded Beth, meanwhile, is a frustrated dancer with ambitions of "making it" which never quite work out.
When the girls hear about a reality show looking for dancers to spend three weeks traveling and learning the native dances of selected exotic locations (tango in Argentina, flamenco in Spain and the salsa in Cuba), they see it as the perfect opportunity to escape from their heartbreak and frustrations and take one last shot at their dreams.
However, the girls soon get more than they bargained for as they start to discover the real meanings of the dances and meet the all too alluring men they will be performing them with. As the goal posts change on their dreams, the girls start to realise what exactly will make them happy, but is obtaining their dreams easier said than done, and can the girls ever truly shake off their pasts?
WHAT I LIKED
One thing that I liked about this book was the same thing that appeals to me about many of Belinda Jones's books, and that is the main characters. The author is extremely talented when it comes to characterisation, creating protagonists that seem real, likeable and multi dimensional; like girls you could actually meet or be friends with.
The girls aren't perfect, they don't always make the right decisions and they don't have it all sorted, and I think that many female readers could identify with this. I also think that the relationship the author creates between Carmen and Beth is believable and likeable and creates a strong centre point for the novel.
My main point of praise for the novel, however, is that I think that it is commendable that the author has chosen to write a chicklit novel that deals with domestic violence and its impact on women. All to often, chicklit plotlines are all too light and fluffy and skirt around serious issues that affect women, but Belinda Jones has done a good job in putting domestic violence at the centre of her novel, dealing with it in a delicate yet outright way, yet without it making the novel too "heavy".
The book is (generally) well balanced between frivolity and significance, and it maintains its sense of fun while also getting across some very good points and words of wisdom about domestic violence, which are particularly poignant given that the author admits to having been in Carmen's situation herself.
Another nice thing about this novel is that the girls don't end up getting exactly what they want, but they do get fulfilment anyway. I think this is quite a nice message, and it is also quite refreshing for a chicklit novel for the protagonists not to end up "happily ever after", but to be content anyway! However, that said, I do think that the message would have been more impressive if it had been left to speak for itself through the plot. Instead, Belinda Jones does hammer her points home somewhat, with Carmen and Beth both repeatedly reflecting on the lessons they have learned, which actually lessens the realism a bit and makes it all a little more "chicklit"!
I suppose the main thing that will appeal to readers is that the book is light, fun and girly. Everything is obvious, the plot is not intricate, the characters are likeable, you don't have to concentrate too hard. It is light, airy, girly, predictable chicklit, and there is definitely a market for that kind of thing today.
WHAT I DISLIKED
I have to say at this point, however, that, all the above said, personally I was very disappointed in the novel. Having read many books by Belinda Jones, I have always been impressed by her chicklit. OK, at times her novels are a little formulaic, and at times the whole self-discovery bit can be a bit schmaltzy, but on the whole her characters are so likeable, her humour is so appealing, her descriptions of places are so engaging and the plotlines are so fun that all the rest is forgiven! However, with this one, aside from the characters, the rest really fell apart for me.
First of all, I felt that this book was not nearly as humorous as 'Divas Las Vegas'. In fact, at times it just felt a little too packed with messages, inspirational dialogue and meaningful points to hammer home that the humour seemed to have very much fell by the wayside. Of course, as I mentioned before, the plot is ultimately quite light hearted, but light hearted is not exactly the same as humour, and I missed that in this book.
Secondly, the descriptions in this book - of both places and people - is not as effective as in the author's other books, simply because I feel she tries to squeeze in too many of both. With the characters starting off in London, then jetting off to Argentina, squeezing in a trip to Spain, then ending up in Cuba, there are just too many places to describe properly, and the author's attempts to do so just mean that the book is far too saturated with description and far too light on action.
Also, with new characters being introduced in each place, it is difficult to get to know or care about many of the characters, meaning that the romances portrayed in the novel lack significance and are not as convincing or interesting as they could be. I really didn't care who ended up with who, mainly because all the men were like hollow shells, defined simply by their physical characteristics.
Thirdly, the plot in this novel was not nearly as engaging or fun as in the author's other novels as there is actually very little plot outside of the contrived and superficial relationships and the dancing, and there is very little tension or intrigue at all.
I thought that the plot was far too heavy on dance and, not really knowing or caring much about dance myself, I found the book a little boring at times. I know that you might think "why read a book about dance if you have no interest?" and you may have a good point, but I generally think that the theme of a book should not impede so much on a plot as to make that big a difference to its readership. For instance, I have read chicklit books about office workers and about a reporter following the Tour de France, yet I never felt the need to have any intricate knowledge of, or interest in, office work or cycling in order to read them!
I think that the theme should just be background, to set a scene or build in to the plot, yet with this novel the dancing theme is so all-encompassing, so forced on you the whole way through - with every comment, relationship and thought being brought back to it and dancing being used as a metaphor for just about everything - that I felt you really needed to have some love of dance (which sadly I don't have) to not drift off a bit while reading!
Aside from the dancing theme, however (if you can possibly put the dancing theme to one side with this novel!), I just felt that overall the plot was lacking in tension and excitement and had none of those, "what's going to happen??" moments that every book should have. I think, for a book like this to be exciting, there needs to be some tension - some potential threat to the character's happiness lurking in the future that the reader is dying to see resolved - but with this novel I felt that all the possible impediments to the characters' happiness were dealt with swiftly and promptly at the beginning of the book, and there was little to care about by the middle of the novel!
In fact, all the things that were left for you to "wonder" about (namely Carmen and Beth's relationships, including the one between Carmen and her ex) were so utterly predictable that I could call the outcome - of each relationship and the book itself! - a mile off, which really didn't leave me much reason to read on.
I basically thought that, especially compared to the author's other books, this novel was very formulaic and predictable, with the inclusion of "goodies", "baddies" and predictable outcomes for each, which just felt a bit easy and contrived.
I also felt that the book was a bit unrealistic in its attitude to dance as some kind of life changing experience. I am not saying that dance is not a wonderful activity for many people, and even that it helps people to feel good short term, but I have to say I doubt its ability to completely change people's characters, attitudes and lives to the extent demonstrated in this book. It all felt a bit too easy and unrealistic to me... although perhaps that is because I am not a dancer?
Fans of formulaic chicklit, and those with a passion for dancing!
You fancy a light hearted, easy going read, or are suffering from 'Strictly Come Dancing' withdrawal symptoms!
READ IF YOU LIKED...
'Strictly Come Dancing' (the TV show), or any of Belinda Jones's other books (although, in my opinion, this doesn't quite measure up to them).
IF IT WERE FOOD IT WOULD BE...
Love hearts. Fun, sweet and romantic, yet packed with too many messages and quite predictable.
IF IT WERE A COLOUR IT WOULD BE...
Brown - mixing too many bright "colours" together (characters and locations) has actually left it quite surprisingly dull!
MARKS OUT OF 10 FOR:
WRITING STYLE - 7
OVERALL BOOK - 3
Beth is an out-of-work dancer struggling to hit the big time and her friend Carmen has recently exited an abusive relationship. When Beth spies an advertisement looking for amateur dancers to take part in a reality television show, she hits on a plan to use Carmen's backstory and appearance to help her cause. Cue an exciting trip taking in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Seville (Spain) and Havana (Cuba) 'learning' the tango, flamenco and salsa respectively. Can Beth pull it off without giving away her real identity?
I loved both Beth and Carmen. They were both likeable and down-to-earth characters and I took to them straight away. Their strong friendship was endearing throughout the book and some of the scrapes they get into along the way are quite amusing. It's not all light-hearted as you can probably guess from Carmen's background. While this is something that she's obviously trying to escape from, her past issues are referred to a lot, especially as Beth is using them as her backstory on the show. This doesn't make the book too uncomfortable to read though and just served to make me like Carmen even more as I felt sorry for her and was rooting for her to come out the other side and not still be tied down by her demons.
Although Beth is the one who applies for the television show, it's actually Carmen who is the first-person narrator and Beth's dancing experiences are relayed through her. At first, I wasn't sure if this would work but Carmen was an engaging character and the many close conversations that they have give a great insight into her character. Granted, it's not as intimate as a first-person narrative would be but that doesn't detract from anything. Further into the book, the reasons for this choice of narrative make more sense but I'll say no more on that score as it would be a plot spoiler.
I enjoy watching Strictly Come Dancing but I'm not someone who knows much at all about dance styles or dancing full stop really. That's not a problem here as Belinda Jones mixes bona-fide dance terms with easily digestible explanations about what they actually entail. With Carmen being the narrator and her not being a dance expert either, it means that even those without dance knowledge can easily understand what's going on. I was really impressed with this element of the book and for me, it really added to the book. I was similarly impressed with the level of detail about the places involved. I felt like I was actually on the journey with the girls and experiencing these places for myself - that's how vivid some of the imagery was. When I finished the last page and saw an interview with the author at the back of the book in which she discussed her research into the dances, I understood how she was able to do that as she explains that she actually visited the countries in question and learnt the dances herself. That's dedication!
The writing style is of the chick-lit style and is as light as you'd expect from a book of that style. It's extremely easy to get into too and I was sucked into the plot from the very first page, which doesn't always happen for me. It's loosely split into several sections, notably in the countries that are visited as part of the reality show but there are lots of chapters to break things up and keep the pace moving. All in all, this was a great read and one that I would thoroughly recommend. I ordered the book from Amazon off the back of a review on this very site and I'm extremely glad that I took the plunge as I loved it.
I have recently read and reviewed Out of The Blue by Belinda Jones which I enjoyed and so when I saw she had released a new book, Living la Vida Loca, which was calling me from the shelves with its pink, glitzy snazzy cover how could I walk away!
Best friends Carmen and Beth are both involved in dance theatre although their jobs are completly different. Carmen works backstage with the costume designs whilst Beth is on the stage dancing her heart out.
Things become hard for Beth when she can no longer find work for dance as companies are looking for something new and fresh. It is when trailing through the job section the girls come across an advertisement for a new TV show offering a trip to Argentina to dance the Tango, Flamenco dancing in Spain and salsa in Cuba.
The problem for Beth is that the show requires a novice but this is not going to get in her way!
Carmen gets the opportunity to go along with Beth on the TV journey only things go wrong and end up putting Carmen in a different course on the show!
This is one of a few books where I actually warmed to the main characters. We meet Carmen who has just come out of a terrible relationship but she still feels tied to the guy. Through the whole book you are behind her hoping that she will be able to let go completely and find a man she deserves who will treat her right.
Beth who is the other main character is best friends with Carmen and her love and passion for dance is shown all the way through the book. She deserves to have her big break. She cares so much for her friend Carmen even giving up a excellent job opportunity to help protect her.
I didn't find any parts of this book predictable.
The way in which Belinda describes each of the countries in such beautiful detail makes you feels as if you are with them on the journey in these beautiful countries.
I found the light hearted humour throughout the book was an enjoyable plus and helped to keep you interested in the story line throughout the book.
I also liked the idea at the end of the book where there is a short interview with Belinda about different aspects of the book. I have not read a book by another author which has this in.
I would recommend this to anyone who has enjoyed previous Belinda Jones books and also for anyone looking to try a fresh new author and especially if you enjoy light hearted reading.
Carmen and Beth are best friends who are sick of the way their life has been lately. Carmen has only just broken free from a bad relationship and Beth is realising that her dream of becoming a famous dancer is ebbing away slowly. Salvation comes for the pair in the form of a reality TV show that will allow them to travel the world learning how to dance: the tango in Argentina, the Paso Doble in Spain and the Salsa in Cuba. Soon the girls are tango-ing in Buenos Aires, learning to dance with matadors in Seville and salsa-ing in Havana and having a ball of a time. They're still missing one vital ingredient: love. But are the girls ready to set their hearts free again?
I'm a huge fan of Belinda Jones's work and have read most of her books (The California Club & Cafe Tropicana were both fabulous) and I loved her last release Out Of The Blue, too so I was hugely disappointed to learn Belinda wasn't having a book released in 2009. I perked up when it was announced that Belinda had joined a new publishers and that there would definitely be a book out in 2010 called Living La Vida Loca. Imagine my delight when I received an early copy from the publishers to read. I decided to leave it a couple of months as (when I read it) it wasn't out until June but it kept shouting at me to read it so I eventually gave in.
The one thing I can guarantee with a book by Belinda Jones is the exotic locations in which she sets her books. California, Las Vegas, Italy, Greece all feature in previous books and in Living La Vida Loca we have Argentina, Cuba and Spain. The main reason Belinda is so good at making us love the countries her books are set in is because she's so passionate about travel herself and that really comes off the pages as you read about all of these magical destinations. Usually her books only feature one country so to pull off three stunning countries is quite something and I really enjoyed travelling around Spain and South America with Beth and Carmen.
The book begins by introducing us to Beth and Carmen, both aged 8, as they get ready to watch Come Dancing, a show they both adore but for different reasons. Beth wants to be a dancer but Carmen prefers the costumes the dancers wear. Twenty years later it transpires that Beth and Carmen are now best friends (they met during Dirty Dancing: The Musical) and while Carmen is a costume designer, Beth is finding hard to come by dancing work. All of Beth's prayers seem to be answered when she and Carmen come across an ad looking for people wanting to learn how to dance the tango, the paso doble and the salsa all in their countries of origin (Argentina, Spain & Cuba respectively) and be filmed for a reality show to boot. Beth jumps at the chance but is quite downhearted when she learns that it's only for non-dancers but it doesn't deter her for long and soon she and Carmen are making her a body suit to bulk her up and make her seem as if she really is a non-dancer.
Beth then goes to the audition and manages to fool the reality TV people into thinking she's some sort of clutz and they agree she can star in the show - and bring Carmen along. Soon the girls are whisked off to Buenos Aires to learn the tango before sweeping into Seville to learn the Paso Doble and finally, to Havana to learn the salsa. It's not all plain sailing though as Carmen is harbouring a broken heart and Beth is harbouring the fact she's, you know, actually a dancer. Things inevitably come to a head just before they leave Argentina for Spain but will Beth and Carmen actaully make it to Seville to learn the paso doble?
Inevitably, I had huge (and I mean huge) expectations for Living La Vida Loca so I was pleased that the book seemed to grab me early on. I loved learning how Carmen and Beth had met and I loved the banter between the two of them. The scene where they bulk Beth up in a bid to fool the reality show producers was hilarious in fact. Then of course came the fantastic locations as the girls managed to hoodwink the producers and soon we were in Buenos Aires, Seville and Havana. I absolutely loved learning about all three dances. I'm not very dance-y but even I found the explanations of the dances easy to follow (not that I would attempt them myself, obviously). The history of each dance is so rich and Belinda Jones kept it easy to digest as we learned about each dance.
As well as managing to bring to life so many exotic locations, I also found the characters incredibly interesting. Carmen, our narrator, is, just to put it plainly, lovely. There is seriously no other description to aptly describe Carmen. She's warm and funny and I really liked her. She has some skeletons in her closet, namely her ex Lee who, from what we read, really wasn't pleasant. She managed to fight back though and for that I loved her. I also really loved Beth, Carmen's best friend. It was so sad to see her so down at the beginning of the book as she was pushed out of the dancing community in favour of younger dancers and I just couldn't help but laugh when she came up with the hare-brained scheme to disguise herself as a novice dancer. She pulled it off, I must say! Beth and Carmen were really the main characters in the book but the reality show crew were also ever-present and they were an OK bunch.
Belinda Jones's writing is as good as ever (although I got irritated with the amount of time Beth or Carmen 'hoot'ed and 'toot'ed) and I really did enjoy the book. I suppose the reason I'm not jumping off the walls is because of my expectations of the book. I expected a lot and it's inevitable that I was going to feel disappointed (it's not the first book this year I'm over-hyping and it won't be the last!). I fear I over-hyped the book so much that no amount of fab locations or fab writing was going to make it worth just how much I had hyped it up in my imagination. It's mildly unfortunate for me as I so wanted this to be one of my favourite reads of this year. I did love it, but just not as much as her previous efforts. I also found the ending relatively luke-warm. It was all kind of abrupt and I think it needed a few more chapters. Yes, it all seemed to come full circle but I wasn't totally satisfied; I wanted romance!
Overall Living La Vida Loca is another great read from Belinda Jones. She's certainly one of my favourite travel writers as she easily manages to make countries like Argentina and Cuba sound so exotic. In fact reading about Cuba makes me want to go there right now and see if it's like it was described in the book! I was slightly disappointed but I still expect the book to be a huge hit as really, no one quite does what Belinda Jones does: giving us a fun read with great destinations to escape to. I'll certainly be buying myself a finished copy! Oh - and for all you Ricky Martin fans, look out for a nod to him in the book!