Monthly Archives: November 2022

#BookReview ‘The Postcard from Italy’ by @Angela_Petch #WW2

I’ve never been to Puglia in Italy, the south-eastern coast down to the heel, except in the pages of The Postcard from Italy by Angela Petch. Vividly she brings to life the coastline, the stone-built trulli houses, the caves. It is a magical setting. Stretching backwards from today to the closing months of the Second World War, this is an enthralling family story of love and separation. Recognising love when it’s there, but also understanding when it’s absent. Angela PetchIn 1945, Puglia, a young man awakes, injured, disorientated. He doesn’t know who he is or how he came to be in a trullo, a rural stone house, cared for by strangers. The teenage boy Anto explains how his grandfather Domenico saw him fall from a warplane. Called ‘Roberto’ by his rescuers, his memory stubbornly refuses to return. He can speak English and Italian but knows nothing about fishing or farming. As he helps them in their daily routines, gathering food, catching fish, tending vegetables, repairing the trullo, his nights are full of confusing dreams.
In present day Hastings, England, Susannah mourns the recent death of her father Frank and the descent of her grandmother, Elsie, into the clouds of dementia. Clearing Elsie’s house, Susannah finds a yellowing postcard of a beautiful farmhouse in Puglia and a message of love. Realising this is the same farmhouse in a painting by her father but unaware of family links with Italy, she can’t reconcile this message of love with her brittle, acidic grandmother who always preferred Susannah’s blonde-haired younger sister Sybil. So, while a friend looks after her antique bric-a-brac shop at home, Susannah takes a holiday in Puglia. Determined to find the house in her father’s painting, she learns to heal herself, to speak a little Italian and in so doing falls for two handsome men.
Petch uses conventional wartime story themes – amnesia, separation of loved ones, the vulnerability of loneliness and grief, and the fear of those who exploit war for gain – and adds the twists and turns of flirting and love. Petch has written four novels set in Tuscany, so Puglia is a new setting for her but her knowledge of Italy shines on every page. Susannah’s holiday is extended as she turns detective but the clues, when she finds them, bring more questions rather than answers.
Susannah is the spine of the story but my favourite character was Anto, so complex, so brave, so intriguing. This is a wonderful book to sink into, a perfect holiday or weekend read.

Here’s my review of THE TUSCAN SECRET, also by Angela Petch.

If you like this, try:-
Another You’ by Jane Cable
The War Child’ by Renita d’Silva
The Tuscan Contessa’ by Dinah Jefferies

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE POSTCARD FROM ITALY by @Angela_Petch #bookreview via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Duchess’ by @Wendy_Holden #historical

The Duchess by Wendy Holden turned out to be a surprising read. After all, we all know the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, don’t we? I started the book half-expecting not to finish it, unsure whether I could empathise with Wallis Simpson. But having read Wendy Holden’s first novel – Simply Divine, published in 1999 – and many since, I was curious about her subject matter. I finished it wanting to go back to the beginning again, reading it with fresh eyes. Wendy HoldenHolden, a former journalist, has done her research to portray the middle-aged American divorcee. Wallis arrives in London in 1928 with her second husband Ernest, determined to be a part of the party scene. Scrimping and saving, and with the quick mind and equally quick tongue of her mother, she learns to deal with the snubs, putdowns, cold shoulders and snobbishness, all the time backed by her steady husband. After a difficult childhood raised alone by her mother without much money, followed by an abusive first marriage, Wallis now reads the Court Circulars and newspaper stories about the parties of the Bright Young Things and longs to have fun. But she hadn’t bargained on the British class system. With her own sense of chic and by altering cheap dresses herself, Wallis catches the eye of Coco Chanel who offers some salutary advice.
The dual timeline, always from Wallis’s viewpoint, alternates between the Duke of Windsor’s funeral in 1972, and Wallis’s life in England from 1928-1936. After a lot of hustling, scrimping, spending money they don’t have, the Simpsons meet the Prince of Wales and are invited to his home at Fort Belvedere, Windsor, for the weekend. There we see the divisions between the prince’s public role and private political views. Holden juxtaposes the freedom and ‘what if’ American approach to life with the stuffy 1930s British ‘not possible’ view. This culminates finally in the Abdication. The final twist is intriguing.
The first few pages are a slow read and felt more like a historical record – there is a lot of emotional and historical baggage wrapped up in this story – but the story gets going once Wallis is in London. She struggles to be accepted, hosting cocktail ‘open evenings’ that no one attends, always being sparkling and entertaining despite Ernest’s misgivings. We see her vulnerabilities as the difficulties of her childhood, and her first marriage, are revealed. I finished the book with new-found respect for Ernest Simpson.
I read The Duchess in two days on holiday. Compulsive, wicked, sad and funny, I was left with a feeling of regret about the Windsors, and for Ernest, though with the obvious footnote that this is a fictional account not a biography. Even taken with a large pinch of salt, I came to empathise with Wallis; simultaneously head over heels in love but also exasperated, despairing, trapped, powerless, lonely and maligned.
Definitely food for thought. A compulsive fictional take on royal history

If you like this, try:-
The Glass House’ by Eve Chase
The Orphan’s Gift’ by Renita D’Silva
The Cottingley Secret’ by Hazel Gaynor

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE DUCHESS by @Wendy_Holden #bookreview via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Moonlight & the Pearler’s Daughter’ by @LizziePook

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, the debut historical mystery by Lizzie Pook, is a surprise, full of twists and turns with a determined female lead character who defies 19th century conventions to find the murderer of her father.
The gritty, sometimes disgusting descriptions of the pearler’s living conditions are vivid and not for the faint-hearted. Set in an 1896 at Bannin Bay, a poor Australian pearl fishing settlement on the edge of the coast, the settlers are surrounded by indigenous people and their lands. When her father’s pearling lugger, the White Starling, returns from a long sea trip without him, Eliza Brightwell is told her father Charles disappeared from his boat overnight and is assumed drowned. Her brother Thomas, under pressure to keep the family business out debt, departs immediately to the nearby town of Cossack to sell his catch to traders. Alone, Eliza refuses to accept her father is dead but when she asks questions, is advised to accept the inevitable.Lizzie PookThis is a raw town of crime, racism, jealousy, blackmail and abuse. A detailed examination of the available facts, and a mysterious note she finds in her father’s diary, lead Eliza to places she cannot go. Fettered by conventions of the time, Eliza soon realises she needs a male companion to enter the disreputable parts of town. An outsider herself she chooses another outsider, German itinerant worker Axel Kramer, to help her. He can gain admittance to places where she should not be seen or is barred from entering. Alternating with Eliza’s investigations are two other passages – the hunt for Aboriginal crewman Balarri who is automatically assumed guilty of murder, and passages from her father’s diary in which he writes nature observations and notes about his pearl shelling business.
The murder story takes place in 1896 but we also see flashbacks ten years earlier to 1886 when the Brightwell family – Eliza, her parents and brother, plus Uncle Willem and Aunt Martha – arrive in Bannin Bay from England, planning to become wealthy fishers of pearl shell. Pook places clues everywhere so don’t ignore these shorter sections.
I didn’t settle into this story until the second half. The first part establishes the setting – the village of Bannin Bay – with such gritty realism that the descriptions of the climate, mould, insects, smells and unpleasant people dominated everything else. There are also intricate descriptions of the industry of pearl fishing. This meant I was slow to connect with Eliza, other than that she is unconventional. But when she and Axel take a lugger to search the remote islands beyond Bannin Bay, to the Lucettes, Cockatoos, Rosellas and Nevermores, the story becomes more dynamic. Moving the action away from smelly Bannin adds air to story and removes conventions from Eliza and Axel. Knife, their young crewman, is also an intriguing character who is under-used.
This is a complex and ambitious story for a debut and Pook is an author worth watching. It’s a pity that at times the story felt weighed down by Australian history and the treatment of the indigenous population. The book is clearly founded on solid historical research but at times it felt that the pace of the story and the characterisation suffered in need of a lighter hand with research.

If you like this, try:-
Rush Oh!’ by Shirley Barrett
The Pearl Sister’ by Lucinda Riley
The Night Child’ by Anna Quinn

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
MOONLIGHT AND THE PEARLER’S DAUGHTER by @LizziePook #bookreview via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ by @ajpearcewrites #WW2 #romance

Sometimes I hear about a book when it is launched but somehow miss the tide. Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce was published in 2018 and two weeks later became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller. In 2019 it was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. The first few pages are fresh and engaging, light humour at a time when people when people were living day to day in the Blitz. My only doubt was that I would find the jolly tone too much if it continued for the whole novel. AJ Pearce

It is 1941 in London and Emmy Lake applies for a job as a war correspondent and  instead finds herself typing up letters for the problem page of a distinctly faded women’s magazine, Woman’s Friend. The premise is fascinating. The tone is full-on jolly which at times is irritating. The strength of the book for me lies in the second half.

Emmy lives with her friend Bunty on the top floor of Bunty’s grandmother’s house. Both girls have daytime war jobs and volunteer in the evenings. Emmy is frustrated by her boss Mrs Bird’s dismissive rules about letters from emotional young women and starts to reply directly to the women, hiding the letters and posting her replies in secret. When she doesn’t get found out, she becomes bolder, and prints one of her replies in the magazine. Dumped by telegram by her boyfriend, Emmy agrees to go out with Bunty and her boyfriend William and finds herself set up with a blind date. As Emmy’s love life takes a turn for the better, the girls’ friendship is tested as it has never been tested before. Inevitably, Emmy’s letter writing catches up with her in spectacular fashion and she is sent home.

The book is at its best when examining the relationship between Emmy and Bunty, the depth of their loyalty, and what happens when cracks begin to appear. This is a lightweight, cozy war romance which takes a serious tone towards the end. An easy weekend read.

Read how AJ Pearce researched London in World War Two for Dear Mrs Bird.

If you like this, try:-
Please Release Me’ by Rhoda Baxter
You’ll Never See Me Again’ by Lesley Pearse
One Step Too Far’ by Tina Seskis

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
#BookReview DEAR MRS BIRD by @ajpearcewrites #WW2 #romance via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Brat Farrar’ by Josephine Tey #mystery #thriller

What a revelation is Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, a thoughtful mystery of assumed identity I didn’t want to put down. It is the first Tey novel I have read and I now have that wonderful prospect ahead of me, anticipating seven more novels to enjoy. The book first came to my attention on social media – Twitter or Facebook I don’t recall – when a fellow writer, sadly I don’t remember who, said she re-reads this novel as the brilliant telling of a mistaken identity mystery. Josephine Tey

Brat Farrar, an English orphan, has returned to London after years travelling, most recently living in America working with horses. Horses are an important part of the story. Crossing the road, he is seen by Alec Loding, a fading actor who recognises Brat’s uncanny resemblance to Patrick Ashby, a thirteen year old boy who committed suicide years earlier. Patrick’s body was never found and Loding – who grew up nearby and knew the Ashby family well – sees the opportunity for Brat to appear at the Ashby family home and stud, Latchetts, as Patrick. In return for coaching, Loding will receive a regular payment for the rest of his life. Brat proves to be unexpectedly convincing during the training period and both men decide to go ahead with their scheme. The family and its lawyers are won over by Brat and the emotional return of Patrick. His younger twin brother Simon and heir to the Ashby inheritance is not convinced, however.

What follows is a cat and mouse game of who-has-guessed-what in which I grew to like Brat and dislike Simon, not what I expected. Tey creates complex characters with light and shade and, though the novel was first published in 1949, it is not dated. Brat tailors his own experiences to dovetail with what may have happened to Patrick if he had run away – no body was found, the inquest passed a verdict of suicide based on a note found after Patrick’s disappearance – and he finds himself loving the Ashbys and Latchetts.

An excellent read.

Oh and to the writer who inspired me to read Brat Farrar, a huge thank you!

If you like this, try:-
The Quarry’ by Iain Banks
Wolf Winter’ by Cecilia Ekback
The Snakes’ by Sadie Jones

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey #bookreview via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘An Unfamiliar Landscape’ by Amanda Huggins

An Unfamiliar Landscape, the new short story collection by Amanda Huggins, is made for dipping in and out of, comprising longer reads with satisfying snappy flash fiction. There is something in every story that made me think, ‘that’s so right,’ or ‘that happened to me,’ or ‘I know how that feels.’ That’s why everyone should read her work. Amanda HugginsThe landscape changes from story to story, from Huggins’ native Yorkshire via Paris and London to Spain and Japan. Each story offers a glimpse of a relationship, an insight into the emotions of love, hope, longing, loss, betrayal, regret and grief. She writes about everyone’s emotions, her stories seem familiar, so well-worn and lived-in they must be true.
‘Ten of Hearts’ is a short, hard-hitting story about magic, about vulnerability, gullibility and sleight of hand. Once bitten, it is difficult to move to a new relationship but often too easy. A previous version of this story was broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds in 2021.
In ‘Eating Unobserved,’ Marnie rents an apartment in Paris where she will work on her next book. Seduced by the beauty of the apartment and the simple delight of the food, she spends her time alone. Until one dark night she sees a light on in an apartment opposite, a man unpacks groceries and pours a glass of wine. For a few nights she watches him, and then grows bolder.
Sam and Isla are in the kitchen in ‘In the Time it Takes to Make a Risotto.’ He is chopping vegetables and she is reading headlines off her phone, reciting his horoscope, sharing crossword clues. As he cooks, her mind returns to the affair she had with his best friend, the lies she has told and secrets kept. As the risotto cooks, the atmosphere tightens with words unspoken.
In other stories, a teenage daughter challenges her father; a tourist visits a war grave on behalf of a friend; a young waiter delivers a room service tray to an older female guest.
Themes recur. Food, the eating and drinking of; the freeing sensation of being somewhere foreign, somewhere that is not home; the assumptions made on first meetings and the subsequent challenging of those perceptions; the making of repeat mistakes; and the time it takes to grieve, both for loved ones, and for chances lost or misused.

Click the title to read my reviews of other short stories, novellas and poetry by Amanda Huggins:-

If you like this, try:-
The Story’ by Victoria Hislop
Yuki Chan in Bronte Country’ by Mick Jackson
Big Sky’ by Kate Atkinson

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:-
AN UNFAMILIAR LANDSCAPE by @troutiemcfish #shortstories via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler #literary #family

Anne Tyler writes about everyday relationships with a sharp eye and a silken pen, choosing subjects which to people who have never read her may appear boring or worthless. Her books are never boring. French Braid, her 24th novel is, like all the others, about people, individuals and their families, ordinary people who become so familiar they could be real. Anne TylerWe first meet college students Serena and James, on the train returning to Baltimore from a Thanksgiving visit to James’s parents in Philadelphia. They’re in love and think they know each other well but this visit has highlighted differences in their experience of family and childhood and the expectations each has of how their own family will be in the future. Not all families are alike, they discover. After this shortish section, Tyler settles into the main story of Mercy and Robin – Serena’s grandparents – and their three children Alice, Lily and David through births, marriages and deaths from the 1950s to today.
The Garretts think themselves an awkward family, aware they’re not perfect – as Robin thinks when preparing for his and Mercy’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party, ‘Oh, the lengths this family would go to so as not to spoil the picture of how things were supposed to be!’ But in fact they’re being themselves, getting along together in the way that suits them, dealing with what life throws at them.
There’s a brief scene in the kitchen between sisters Alice and Lily as the family gathers at Easter to meet David’s new friend, Greta. They’re setting out food for lunch when their mis-communications and misunderstandings are laid bare. Hilarious lines – ‘Was bottled mayonnaise not a good thing?’ – are typical Tyler and made me smile. It’s a classic way of showing how two sisters can be so unalike but still rub along together. Tyler has such a deceptively simple way with words, summarising sprawling emotions so concisely that I want to write it down to enjoy again later.
Tyler examines how each family finds its own way through life. Not all siblings are best friends, not all spouses live in each other’s pockets. There is no right way or wrong way of being a family. Close-knit families may find looser-knit families cold or odd, but may in turn themselves seem claustrophobic and cliquey to outsiders. Neither is odd, simply different. Everyone muddles through the best they can. The trick to being part of a family, in Tyler’s world, is to adapt. Allow individuals to be themselves and accept annoying traits, awkward memories and uncomfortable truths along with the happy memories and shared laughter as part of a family’s mosaic.

Read my reviews of these other books by Anne Tyler:-

And read the first paragraphs of:-

If you like this, try:-
At Mrs Lippincote’s’ by Elizabeth Taylor
The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt
The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
#BookReview FRENCH BRAID by Anne Tyler via @SandraDanby