Tag Archives: book review

#BookReview ‘The Last Hours in Paris’ by Ruth Druart #WW2

The Last Hours in Paris by Ruth Druart is a different kind of Second World War romance. At times it is a tough read, the hatred is visceral and uncompromising. It feels real. Ruth DruartThis is the story of three people in the last days of occupied Paris and the years following when repercussions continued and the war, though never spoken of, remained tangled in the roots of daily life. Those who fought the Germans, those who stayed behind and lived under German dictatorship. In peacetime everyone must live alongside each other again. The different memories, experiences, losses, are difficult to assimilate.
In Paris 1944 Élise Chevalier a bank clerk by day, secretly helps to smuggle Jewish children from the city. ‘Paris was no longer Paris. It was an occupied city, and even the buildings seemed to be holding their breath, waiting.’ No longer her familiar city, Paris is sinister, threatening, frightening. One day in her favourite bookshop Élise is threatened by two French policemen and is defended by another customer, a German soldier. And so begins the story of Élise and Sébastian Kleinhaus and the terrifying, impossible time in which they live.
In 1963 in rural Brittany, eighteen-year old Joséphine Chevalier uncovers a story about her mother that she could never have imagined. She fears it is impossible to truly know someone. ‘From now on, she’ll always be wondering what part of themselves people are hiding.’
A slow burn to start, Druart takes her time, allowing us to feel connected to the characters as she gradually raises the emotional temperature. The peripheral characters are well drawn, particularly Élise’s younger sister Isabelle, bookshop owner Monsieur le Bolzec and Breton farmer Soizic. Each brings their own experience, judgement and dignity to what is an impossible, unbearable situation for everyone. The definition of family and home, love, protection and separation. ‘Maybe home wasn’t a place at all, but the people you wanted to be with.’
Whatever you may think of what happened in Paris at this time, Druart tells this sensitive story of young people, inexperienced, naive and hopeful, living in a time of such violence and betrayal, of secrets, survival, moralising and vengeance. After surviving the hardships, violence and deprivations of war, how can they adapt to find a new life of possibilities. How can they forgive the secrets and betrayals and move on.
A strongly emotional interpretation of life in occupied Paris that is hardly an obvious setting for a story about love. But this is a love more than romance. It is a love of family, responsibility, truth, sacrifice, forgiveness, of letting go of past hurts and wrongs and looking to the future.
Highly recommended.

Click the title to read my review of WHILE PARIS SLEPT, another World War Two story by Ruth Druart.

If you like this, try:-
Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst
The Book of Lies’ by Mark Horlock
After the Bombing’ by Clare Morrall

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#BookReview ‘Ladder of Years’ by Anne Tyler #literary #family

Ladder of Years is another fine character-led drama by Anne Tyler, one of my favourite authors. It is the story of Delia Grinstead who, in a moment of dissatisfaction with her life and relationships, goes for a walk on the beach and keeps on walking. Finding a niche in a small town, with hardly any money and possessions, Delia starts again. And when her family catch up with her and ask her why she left, she cannot find a way to explain.

It is twenty-eight years since Ladder of Years was first published. It was chosen by Time magazine as one of the ten best books of 1995. Tyler had already been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1986 with The Accidental Tourist and won it in 1989 for Breathing Lessons. All her novels stand the test of time and can be read as if the action takes place today, so accurately is her finger on the portrayal of human emotion.

Adrift from her husband and three almost-adult children in Baltimore and not understanding why, Delia finally tips over the edge while on holiday. She finds herself in Bay Borough, the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. She finds a job and a room to rent, buys a couple of secondhand work dresses and a nifty gadget to heat water in a cup so she can make an early morning cup of tea. Delia knows she should let her family know she is safe but is disinclined to do so, feeling she has been taken for granted. Inevitably, one of her sisters arrives on the doorstep. What follows is the story of a woman free for the first time, having married as a teenager and worked all that time as her doctor husband’s receptionist. Free from the expectations of others, she makes a circle of friends on her own terms.

This is a novel about middle-aged stasis and escape, about admitting the truth of one’s own life, choices and possibilities, and that there are no easy answers. Tyler’s characters are always so well-drawn and believable and her observations so wise and true, sometimes uncomfortably so. Here’s an example; ‘Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.’ Of course, Delia encounters other parent/child combinations in Bay Borough which challenge this theory.

Tyler’s novels deceive; seemingly about small domesticities and passage-of-life-events, they are really about the big, difficult questions we all face as we pass through different phases of life.


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

And read the first paragraphs of:-

If you like this, try:-
Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout
Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift
The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve

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#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

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BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-48P 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

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#BookReview ‘Shrines of Gaiety’ by Kate Atkinson #literary 

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson is a sparkling portrayal of London in the 1920s, a heady mixture of madly-themed nightclubs, teenage runaways and the Bright Young Things. It is 1926 and the generation most damaged by the War to End All Wars is dancing to forget. But 1920s London is not as glittering it seems. Though the nightclubs sparkle by night, they are dank and dowdy in daylight. London has a dark, dangerous underbelly. Kate AtkinsonWhen veteran gangland boss Ma Coker is released from Holloway prison, a train of events is set in place. Her six children jostle for her attention, approval and power. The police at Bow Street station are either in her pay or are trying to convict her. Meanwhile, others are plotting the takeover of her rich kingdom – the five nightclubs the Amethyst, the Sphinx, the Crystal Cup, the Pixie and the Foxhole. Each is carefully targetted at specific clientele, each is managed by one of her five eldest children. The Amethyst is the jewel in the crown but Nellie, post-prison, is acting oddly and has taken to sitting alone in the immaculate, unoccupied, pink-decorated flat above the Cup. Is she losing it?
Two young women arrive in the closed world of the Coker family and will change things forever. Fourteen-year-old Freda Murgatroyd has run away from York with her bovine friend Florence, desperate to dance on the stage in London. Gwendolen Kelling, a former librarian and also from York, follows them to London with the aim of returning them to their families. Though Gwendolen’s tweed skirt and plain cardigan may suggest timidity, she is not what she seems.
What a wonderful read this is, this hybrid part-historical, part-literary, part-mystery novel. Atkinson juggles a huge cast and given this it takes a while to settle into the story, but as the pages turn the parties become more hysterical and people begin to die. There are three main viewpoints – Nellie Coker, Gwendolen and Freda – supplemented by Inspector John Frobisher and Nellie’s three eldest children Edith, Niven and Ramsay. But always Atkinson reminds us of the dark side. The Bright Young Things dazzle at the beginning of the evening in beautiful extravagant costumes, but their syringes and drugs become visible at twilight. Meanwhile, Nellie seems to be losing her iron grip on the clubs. When Gwendolen is recruited by Frobisher to visit the Amethyst undercover one night, with a policeman as her dance partner, things spin out of control. There is no sign of Flora or Florence, Gwendolen’s dance partner disappears, a fight breaks out and her beautiful dress from Liberty is covered in blood. The identity of her saviour is unexpected.
The story has been described as Dickensian and I can see why. Atkinson never wastes a sentence and, with a sure hand, she directs this complicated plot full of richly-drawn characters, criminal gangs, two-faced policemen and blotto partygoers. The historical detail stretches from the richest to the poorest, plus there’s a touch of romance and plenty of wry and witty anecdotes to make you chuckle. Some of the minor characters are classics to delight in, particularly Vanda and Duncan aka The Knits.

Click the title to read my reviews of these other books by Kate Atkinson:-
BIG SKY [Jackson Brodie #5]

If you like this, try:-
‘Fatal Inheritance’ by Rachel Rhys
Freya’ by Anthony Quinn
The Light Years’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard [Cazalet Chronicles #1]

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#BookReview ‘One Moonlit Night’ by @Rachelhore #WW2

Life can turn on a sixpence and that’s what happens to Maddie and her two small daughters in the Blitz. One Moonlit Night by Rachel Hore doesn’t start with a glimpse of the main character’s ordinary life before the change happens. It starts with a shock… a family made homeless by a bomb. Rachel HoreAlone in the midst of chaos, her husband Philip has been missing for ten months since the British army’s retreat from Dunkirk, Maddie takes Sarah and Alice to Knyghton in Norfolk to stay with Philip’s elderly Aunt Gussie. Maddie is caught in limbo, unable to grieve for Philip, unable to make decisions, not accepting his probable death, while living in an isolated country house – where Philip spent his childhood – which is the focus of long-held rumour and superstition in the nearby village.
Trying to make a living as a book illustrator, Maddie is seldom without a pencil and paper. But when she draws the face of an unfamiliar young girl, enigmatic, mysterious, she doesn’t know where her inspiration came from. Instinctively she keeps her drawing secret, not wanting to upset the fragile atmosphere at Knyghton. A secret is being kept, by Aunt Gussie, Philip’s cousin Lyle who runs the Knyghton farm, by family retainers, the Fleggs, and Maddie is sure it surrounds this mysterious young woman.
Bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue both set in 1977, Hore tells the stories of Maddie and Philip during World War Two with a flashback to their meeting in 1934. Many of the book’s themes are established in this pre-war section. Wild animals, painted by Maddie, but shot by Philip; children raised while parents are absent; the sharing of some secrets and the keeping of others. It is a complex, emotional story as Maddie, who flees to Knyghton seeking sanctuary instead finds unexplained silences, whispers and rumours she fears are aimed at Philip. Meanwhile Philip, having survived a massacre of British troops by the German army, attempts to find a way home. Philip’s sections are tense, forlorn and at times hopeless, a vivid portrayal of soldiers fleeing through Occupied and Vichy France.
This is a slow-burning story which rewards the reader’s perseverance as tension in the final third picks up and Maddie finally finds some answers. It’s a book which rewards further reading as layers of information, missed on first reading, become significant.

Click the title to read my reviews of two other books by Rachel Hore:-

If you like this, try:-
‘The Book of Lies’ by Mary Horlock
The Tuscan Secret’ by Angela Petch
The Skylark’s Secret’ by Fiona Valpy

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ONE MOONLIT NIGHT by @Rachelhore #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5PJ via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Companion Piece’ by Ali Smith #SeasonalQuartet

Companion Piece by Ali Smith is about truth, the telling of stories, real stories, fake stories, fairy stories, perceived truth and real truth, and how language and data can be used and abused. Smith tackles some of the biggest issues facing society today, not so much providing answers but making us ask questions about life and the modern concept of ‘truth.’ A ‘companion’ novella to Smith’s lockdown-themed Seasonal Quartet, Companion Piece sings from the beginning. Ali SmithTwining together present and past stories, two motifs run throughout. ‘Curfew,’ the idea of restriction of physical movement, on access and egress, the feeling of being constrained and the invasion of our space. And ‘curlew’, the freedom of nature, the bird’s odd-shaped bill, a reminder that there is room in nature for things that don’t quite fit the norm, the ever presence of wildlife whatever happens in the human world, the familiar pattern of a bird’s day, of nature’s life cycle and therefore also of ours.
Artist Sandy is struggling during lockdown to distance-visit her sick father who is in hospital. She must stay isolated and free of the virus so she doesn’t prejudice his health and is accompanied only by Shep, her father’s dog. Into this closed world comes Martina, an acquaintance from university many decades since, who telephones with an odd tale concerning an incident at border control when she recently returned to the UK with the Boothby lock (a medieval artefact for which Martina is responsible). Held in an immigration detention room, she hears (or imagine she hears) a mysterious message – ‘Curlew or curfew.’ Martina wants Sandy’s advice to decipher the message, as Sandy is good at words. Sandy, who barely remembers Martina, tries to help while simultaneously trying to end the call. There are flashbacks to their university days, to Sandy’s childhood.
Then Sandy’s peaceful isolation is shattered by the arrival on her doorstep of Martina’s twin daughters, Lea and Eden, whose speech is littered with text-speak abbreviations. They dismiss Sandy’s concerns about covid distancing and accuse her of upsetting their mother who is acting strangely and is changing information about historical artefacts in the digital database at work.
The second story (whether it is told by Sandy is unclear, like many things in this book) set in another pandemic, this time the Black Death. An unnamed young girl, a blacksmith’s apprentice, is lying in a ditch after being attacked by men. There she meets a curlew chick, an ungainly beautiful bird she begins to care for. As people around her die of plague, she remembers the stories told to her by the blacksmith Ann Shaklock and these help her to survive.
Any novel by such an experimental writer as Smith needs to be read with a loosening of expectations, acceptance of the abandonment of normal commercial fiction norms. Passages are beautifully written but incomprehensible, others are simple and sweet, some made me laugh out loud. Punctuation, speech marks, forget about them all and sink into the story of Sandy the artist who paints words layered on top of words.
Don’t expect answers at the end. As Sandy says, ‘A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.’ It is a plea for us all to ask more questions, to not simply believe what we are told but to analyse and strip back stories in order to separate fact from fiction, fake news from truth.

Click the title to read my reviews of other books by Ali Smith:-
AUTUMN #1SeasonalQuartet
WINTER #2SeasonalQuartet
SPRING #3SeasonalQuartet
SUMMER #4SeasonalQuartet

If you like this, try:-
‘In the Midst of Winter’ by Isabel Allende
‘Blow Your House Down’ by Pat Barker
New Boy’ by Tracy Chevalier

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COMPANION PIECE by Ali Smith #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5PB via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ by George & Weedon Grossmith

An escape from the modern world, The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith may have been published in the 1890s but it still made me chuckle out loud. Especially the parent-child irritations and misunderstandings. First published in Punch magazine, it is written by the brothers with illustrations by Weedon. The Diary of a Nobody

Mr Charles Pooter is a clerk at a prestigious London bank where he has been overlooked for promotion. Just like Bridget Jones, he decides to write a diary of his life. What follows is a record of the ordinary life of an ordinary man who aspires to be more than he is. Pooter’s frequent attempts to be recognised as higher-class lead to embarrassments and misunderstandings, his jokes awful though he thinks they are hilarious. Pooter’s daily meanderings through life, his need to keep on good terms with his boss, his confusion at his son’s modern language and interests, are all familiar today. His pomposity and sometimes stupid things he does – the incident with the black enamel paint come to mind – are identifiable today. Particularly funny are the discrepancies between Pooter and his son Lupin, who doesn’t know what he wants to do, struggles to hold down a regular job and brings home his fiancé, a rather unsuitable young woman. Pooter’s wife Carrie remains serene through it all, patient with his absurdities, smoothing ruffled feathers. My favourite scene is the séance.

This is an easy, funny read, the diary format making it easy to read a day or a week at a time. And I’ve heard good things about the audio book version, read by Arthur Lowe. If you are looking for something refreshing that will take you away from the 21st century and make you smile, try this.

I love the illustration on the cover of the current Vintage edition, above. The references to dress coats, bow ties, gloves, hats and canes will make sense once you read the story. My own fragile secondhand copy is an old Penguin Modern Classics edition [below] featuring some of Weedon’s illustrations.

The Diary of a NobodyIf you like this, try:-
Highland Fling’ by Nancy Mitford
How to Stop Time’ by Matt Haig
‘What Ho! The Best of Wodehouse’ by PG Wodehouse

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#BookReview ‘The Butcher Bird’ by @SD_Sykes #historical

When a baby is found dead in a spiky blackthorn bush, Oswald de Lacy, the youthful and reluctant Lord Somershill, must counter the myth and suspicion repeated by locals who blame a huge violent bird. Second in the Oswald de Lacy series by SD Sykes, The Butcher Bird starts fast and doesn’t stop.SD Sykes

Kent 1351. It is a year since England was decimated by the plague. At Somershill Manor in Kent, as around the country, workers are demanding higher pay. Oswald, unable to pay them more because he can’t break the decree of the king, fears the crops will likely fail and the estate’s income will fall further. Houses on his estate are abandoned, crops unsown. Still struggling to behave as he feels a Lord of the Manor must, Oswald’s only way to challenge the untruths circulating about the baby’s fate means he must find the real murderer. Some witnesses have left, some mistake imagination for fact, while others lie.
Unswerving in his dismissal of the supernatural, Oswald believes the child must have been killed by a person. He has to summon his courage and challenge superstition, greed, lies, evil and must grow up quickly. With a hypochondriac and manipulative mother and Clemence, his pregnant, challenging widowed sister who often veers into dislike, Oswald is nineteen and inexperienced. Though hardly ever alone, he has no-one in his corner. The fact that he is a teenager bearing so much responsibility, and power over others, is what makes this series different.
Oswald follows the trail to London where he shows both bravery and naivety. There are touches of humour that made me chuckle, particularly the changed behaviour of his mother’s lapdog, Hector. A meeting there which seems a side story from the main murder proves to be a turning point in Oswald’s journey, in more ways than one.
This is an original medieval series with a wonderful mix of spiky characters and clever plot ideas. Definitely not a substitute CJ Sansom, this series stands on its own merits. But don’t jump

Here’s my review of the first in the series, PLAGUE LAND.

If you like this, try:-
The Last Hours’ by Minette Walters
Wakenhyrst’ by Michelle Paver
The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

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THE BUTCHER BIRD by @SD_Sykes #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5ty via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Black Dress’ by Deborah Moggach #contemporary

If you like unpredictable storylines with twist after twist try The Black Dress, the latest by Deborah Moggach. Like her last, The Carer, it is much darker and less humorous than the publisher’s blurb suggests. It is difficult to pin down to a genre owing to the numerous twists, it is part-crime, part-family drama, part-romance, part-humorous though I’d didn’t find it to be a laugh-out-loud story. Deborah MoggachPru is 69 when her husband walks out; shedding his wife and his possessions, he goes to a silent retreat in Rutland. Pru’s friend Azra says she should’ve fought to get him back. But as Pru remembers the last few years with Greg she starts to question the veracity of her memories and wonders what he’d really been thinking. Feeling alone, son Max lives in Canada and daughter Lucy in Iceland, Pru stays on in the family home in Muswell Hill, surrounded by smug couples leading exactly the sort of life she used to enjoy. Only Pam who lives opposite, nastily nicknamed Pritt-Stick-Pam by Pru and Greg as they mock what they see as Pam’s neediness, sees Pru is struggling and tries to help. As Greg moves to their cottage in Dorset and they agree a clean break, Pru spends more time with Azra, depending on her confident ballsy outlook on life. And then Pru gets the biggest shock [so far] of her life.
The black dress of the title introduces the next phase of the story. When Pru sees the dress, so not her, in the window of a charity shop she buys it and starts attending the funerals of strangers. What follows is a string of assignations until one day she meets Calvin in the dentist’s waiting room. Pru falls in love. To avoid plot spoilers I will simply say that nothing is what it seems in this story.
The Black Dress is about loneliness and friendship, exploitation and manipulation, the danger of not appreciating what you have and how lack of self-awareness and self-honesty will catch up with you in the end. Some of the plot twists made me gasp and want to read on, others seemed misplaced and unrealistic – because, although this is fiction, we still need it to be rooted in the real world. One word of warning in case, like me, you read fiction to escape the real world, part of the story takes place during Covid-19 lockdown.

Read my review of these other novels by Deborah Moggach:-

If you like this, try:-
How to Belong’ by Sarah Franklin
The Hoarder’ by Jess Kidd
Mobile Library’ by David Whitehouse

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THE BLACK DRESS by Deborah Moggach #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5pX via @SandraDanby