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Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipcigar

Coming Up For Air follows three people’s stories across three time zones linked by the theme of water. It starts by creating a narrative behind the resuscitation mannequin used across the world. ’Resuscitation Annie’ is based on the death mask cast from a woman found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s. She was never identified. Leipciger creates a beautiful narrative of how this woman might have lived in the period before her death.

We are then moved to the mid 20th Century, and a toy maker who is haunted by loss linked to water. Then from the 1980s to the present day we follow the story of a young woman drowning in her own lungs due to cystic fibrosis. The themes of loss and water weave these three tales together and even the reading process echoes these themes, because the novel inspires reflection and thoughts of our own mortality. It’s a quiet and introspective reading experience. I found myself thinking a lot about my own loss, my husband died of pneumonia and primary progressive MS in 2007 and also drowned in his own lungs. However, my MS is progressing and I wondered about my own life to come and the ways in which I do follow in his footsteps. That sounds like a morbid reflection, but there is a comfort in the shared elements of these experiences one hundred years apart. It made me think of the Jungian collective consciousness and how much of what we know is shared knowledge.

Water is a metaphor for life. We need it to live. We are drawn towards it – think how many visits we make to the sea, riverside attractions and streams. We build cities around rivers and prioritise sea views when we book a special holiday. We find it exhilarating and welcoming in equal measure. I go into warm water in order to soothe pain, to feel weightless and be able to move easier. It’s amazing how something can give us life, but also have the potential to suffocate, submerge and wash us away. It is strange for me to think about that moment when I float gently in the water and feel cushioned and pain free, but then also think that fluid in my own body could kill me.

The characters in the novel illustrate this dichotomy between life being given and taken away. We each make sense of tragedy in our own ways. For one, water takes life away but also takes away the pain and despair she has felt at the loss of love. For another, a macabre invention is a way out of feeling unbearable grief. A girl fights against a terrible disease that’s literally filling her lungs. Every one of these characters is in a fight with life – trying to live as long as possible, to live with unbearable pain, to leave a life they can no longer bear. Our experiences are not isolated from one another, they are all connected. It made me think about the point at which we truly leave this life. Is it when the heart stops beating or is it when there was no one left in this world to remember us.

This novel made me resolve to talk about Jerzy more, even with my new stepdaughters and nephews who didn’t meet him. I tell them he was charming, cheeky and clever. That when you lose someone the love continues. I found this novel moving, reflective and strangely hopeful. Whatever we experience in life, someone else will have been through it. It made me think of E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End and the exhortation to ‘only connect’.

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The Dilemma by B.A.Paris

The Dilemma is one of those novels that’s so difficult to review, because I’m constantly trying to work out how much to reveal. If I reveal this thing will it ruin the whole book? If I reveal that, do I have to signal it with a spoiler alert? So, here goes.

The novel revolves around a couple, Livia and Adam, and the 24 hours of her 40th birthday. Livia and Adam married young when she was pregnant with their son. Her parents severe disapproval coloured all her choices on that occasion, even down to the yellow dress she wore. Livia has a lifetime of regret for not celebrating her marriage more. So, little by little, over the years she has squirrelled away money for a 40th birthday party that makes up for the wedding she missed. She wants her special day. The events of the novel all take place around the preparation for the party. Adam has a present to pick up and caterers to supervise. Their son Josh and his friend, Max, have to decorate the garden with lights and balloons. Livia is whisked away by her best friends Kirin and Jess to a spa day.

Of course, as always with these seemingly idyllic units of friends and family, there are secrets. Some of them are benign whereas others are huge omissions that could blow this whole family apart. Adam is keeping a secret from everyone. A few days before the party he has organised for their daughter Marnie to fly in as a birthday surprise. Marnie has been studying in Hong Kong and originally couldn’t make it. However, she has checked on non-direct flights and could travel via Cairo and Amsterdam. Adam hasn’t wanted to pay out for a direct flight because he doesn’t want to be accused of spoiling her. Josh is flying to America to take up an internship and Adam insisted he take the cheapest route. Adam wraps a really large box to hide Marnie till it’s time for Liv to open her presents. Now he’s just waiting for her to arrive.

Livia has no idea that Marnie is coming and at one point actively thinks she might be glad she’s not coming. The problem is that Livia knows something about Marnie that she hasn’t shared with Adam. Before leaving for Hong Kong, Marnie had a miscarriage. She didn’t want to share who the father was, but Liv has noticed a pattern. Josh’s friend Max was going to go out to Hong Kong and visit her, but Marnie called her Mum to ask for help in dissuading him. Since then, Liv has suspected Max and has struggled to act normally with him around. Then something happens and Liv’s whole world turns upside down. She daren’t tell Adam or Josh. This secret will blow their friendship circle wide open. If Adam finds out this secret has been kept from him, he will never forgive her.

By the start of the party, both of them are in a state of anxiety. However, Adam looks dreadful and is telling everyone he has a migraine. Family and friends keep taking him to one side but he’s sticking to his story. Josh thinks its because something went wrong with Livia’s gift. Liv keeps wondering if he has stumbled upon her secret. Yet it’s much worse than that. Earlier that day, Adam has received terrible news that will change them all forever. But he’s clinging to hope. He hopes he’s wrong. He hopes they will remember this celebration for the right reasons. He hopes, that when she finds out, Liv will find it in her heart forgive him.

This book had me on tenterhooks from the beginning. I read it in two bursts, not able to put it down until I’d found out who had done what to who. Each section of the novel is from a different viewpoint, but mainly Liv and Adam. They are a lovely couple and despite parental opposition they battled through the difficult early years and are now at a comfortable point in their relationship. They’ve had their children early and are now free to enjoy each other. Adam has grown up a lot since their early years where he would disappear if things get difficult. How will things change if either of their secrets get out? What will happen as the news ripples out to family and their very close knit circle of friends.

I felt closer to Adam’s character and his dilemma, than Liv’s. I felt confused by her character’s need for the big party for her 40th. I understood the disappointment of not having the wedding you want, but it seemed to take up so much of her headspace. It seems to be about giving herself the approval and value that was lacking from her parents. I would have thought that she would want a vow renewal and make the party about both of them, not just her. A couple of times she mentally notes that her cream party dress could be a wedding dress. I like the way they accept each other’s needs and dreams. He supports her wholeheartedly in the party she wants. She has remembered he always wanted to visit a bridge in France, and organises a trip as a thank you for the party.

Although the subject matter and time scale seem slight, the author has used the special occasion to examine the relationships between all involved. The party has been such a huge part of their lives it gives the author scope to examine the motivations, mistakes and intentions of even the smaller characters like their friends. It made me realise that in long term relationships we become so enmeshed that no one can leave without uprooting the whole group. The author is a master at creating tension between these characters and in the reader. I was reading an ebook so I did my usual trick of rushing madly towards the end. I then felt so disappointed when it did end, because it was far too soon.

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Saturdays at Noon by Rachel Marks

In Rachel Marks’s new novel, Jake and Emily meet at anger management class. Jake is there because of the frustration he feels trying to deal with his son Alfie. Jake wants to find a way of dealing with Alfie that works, because at the moment every day feels like a battle. He’s also aware that the stress is having a negative effect on his marriage to Jess. Emily probably looks, to most people, like the stereotypical anger management client. With her shaved head and big boots she’s able to give off an aura that clearly says ‘leave me alone’. She’s quiet, doesn’t share much and the main person in her life seems to be her Nan. Surprisingly, especially to Jake, Alfie is the bridge between them.

I found myself grabbed early on by the character of Alfie. I loved his inner monologues that help us understand his outer behaviour – often more than his parents. I had sympathy for their frustration in not having the insight we had into his thinking. His relationship with Emily works because she doesn’t expect anything of him. Jemma and Jake hold resentment about the child they expected to have and although they love Alfie he represents a lot of grief and pain. They are grieving the child they expected and longed for, because their first experiences of parenthood were very different from anyone else they knew. Their baby son was difficult from the beginning, crying all day and night and seemingly inconsolable. Since then he has found it hard to relate to other children, struggled with instructions and waiting for things to happen. He is very angry and frustrated but his parents can’t understand why.

Jemma has taken Alfie to several doctors but they’ve all dismissed his behaviour, leaving Jake and Jess facing the possibility that Alfie is just naughty and they are bad parents. When Jemma leaves I wasn’t surprised, but I was heartbroken for Alfie who simply has no idea why it is difficult to look after him. I thought the author was brilliant at building tension in the scenes where Jemma and Jake are struggling to cope. To them, Alfie seems to have outbursts of anger where he’s destructive and nothing they say or do seems to break through to him. These scenes are contrasted perfectly with Alfie’s inner world where everything he does is completely natural to him and not designed to cause stress. Where his parents see anger, there’s really distress and confusion. It’s like watching people speaking two completely different languages.

We don’t know why Emily is at anger management or why she has shaved her head, but it’s clear when she meets Alfie that the walls she’s built around herself might be about to come down. Jake has no idea why his son gets along with this spiky woman, who he can’t weigh up at all. Faced with needing to return to work, Jake takes a risk and asks Emily to be Alfie’s nanny. The two form a strong bond and Emily finds ways to make life easier such as using a timer for certain tasks and letting some of the smaller things go, such as his after school biscuit. It’s only by accident that Emily sees a programme about a lesser known autistic spectrum disorder called Pathological Demand Avoidance. People with PDA experience extreme anxiety around everyday demands and use strategies to avoid them. They may seem comfortable socially, but actually mask how they feel and often feel more comfortable in role play or pretence. However, when Emily suggests this to Jake he loses his temper. How can someone who has only known Alfie a few weeks understand what’s going on better than him? He feels like a bad parent, and Emily’s research brings back memories of Jess trying to find something ‘wrong’ with their son.

Despite their initial differences, Jake gets to know Emily and see beyond the exterior. He realises that she has been hurt badly at some point in life and that she’s using strategies like her image and drinking to manage everyday life and keep people at bay. He starts to see her as a friend. Emily is surprised by Jake too. She can see he gets it wrong at times, but that he’s really trying his best to be a good dad. I love the way their ideas about each other change and how their friendship helps them view themselves differently too. Emily allows herself to be vulnerable with Archie and then with Jake too. Will her newfound trust in Jake be rewarded or will he let her down like everyone else in in her life?

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author had experience with PDA in her own son. She has a great understanding of the condition and her ability to get inside the mind of this troubled and scared little boy and put it on the page shows real empathy and skill as a writer. I found myself hoping for the right outcome for him, more than the adults in the story. I did like that Emily starts to put her own life back together towards the end of the novel. It’s not Jake, or even Alfie that ‘rescues’ her. She allows herself to be vulnerable with the whole anger management group and starts to make plans for a new life. There’s a sense she’ll be okay even if they’re not part of that life. Any choice she makes to stay is made on a strong foundation, rather than out of weakness. This is a really great read that shows the power of vulnerability and sharing our weaknesses. The adults in this book are learning to understand each other, in much the same way as they need to learn Alfie’s social language. I fell in love with this complex and misunderstood little boy and his story helped me to understand autism and PDA a lot better. I also think there’s a broader message to take away from the novel. Emily understands Alfie better because she listens and works within his abilities. In a world where we’re quick to judge, both Alfie and Emily teach us to look a bit closer, approach without bias or making comparisons, and meet people where they are instead of where we think they should be.


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Rules of the Road by Ciara Geraghty

There is always a certain trepidation I feel when reading a book about someone with an illness I know very well. Twelve years ago, my much loved, cheeky, charming and romantic husband chose to refuse treatment for aspiration pneumonia and let nature take its course. He was 42 years old. The strong and athletic body that carried him up and down the rugby field had started to fragment and disintegrate. He’d had primary progressive multiple sclerosis for twenty years. More difficult than providing his care, was the fact that I have relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis. Was I watching my own fate play out in front of me? Aspiration pneumonia occurs when the swallowing reflex is affected by disease, causing choking and the aspiration of food, drink or even saliva into the lungs causing infection. So, being something of an MS expert, I wondered if this book would affect my emotions strongly or whether the portrayal of the disease would be sugar coated to make it palatable.

Geraghty either knows MS personally or has done her research very well. Our narrator is Terry, a mother of two in that middling age where time seems to be divided between caring for elderly parents and teenage children. She is also worried about her friend Iris, who hasn’t been in touch for a few days. Terry decides to go and look at her house, so grabs the spare key and plans to check in. Her task is complicated when her father’s nursing home calls to say they’re doing work on the building and residents need to move out for a few days. Terry collects her father, Eugene, who has Alzheimer’s, and they make their way to Iris’s house with Dad singing Frank Sinatra in the passenger seat. Inside the house Terry gets a huge surprise. The house is immaculate: bins are emptied, surfaces are spotless and clothes are missing. Then Terry finds an envelope addressed to her and starts reading.

Iris is a strong character, who always wants to live life to the full, despite the limitations of her disease. She uses crutches to get around, but still manages to lead an interesting life. This makes it all the more difficult to comprehend her letter. Iris is taking the ferry to Holyhead on the first leg of her one way journey to Zurich. Iris means to take her own life, while she is still able to make decisions and before life gets too hard. The mobility issues and fatigue are manageable, but Iris dreads the thought of choking and having seen it with my own eyes I can understand the fear she feels. It’s a very difficult decision to curtail life while you are still well and love living it. However, from personal experience, it is harder still to realise you’ve left it too late, that you can’t administer the drugs yourself and are now trapped inside a failing body. Terry is horrified and her immediate thought is to get to Iris and change her mind. So begins an unusual road trip for the two friends and Terry’s dad. Will Terry be able to persuade Iris to give up her plans or will she return to Ireland without her? More importantly, can she stand by while her friend follows through with her plans for ending her life?

I know this sounds like really tough reading, and despite the odd lump in the throat, I found it engaging and very funny in parts. Both of these diseases are heartbreaking for patients and their families. However they can throw up some really funny moments. I remember once feeding my husband tomato soup when he choked and sprayed the soup all over my head until tomato soup was dripping off my fringe. These are often the moments that we treasure and remember. In the same way, some of Eugene’s quirks and experiences are charmingly funny. The two women have a great friendship and it was great to see two interesting, intelligent, middle-aged women at the heart of the story. I loved the way this journey is just as vital for Terry as it is Iris. In a couple of terse phone calls from her husband we can see that Terry lives to keep home running like clockwork for him and their daughters. This may be the first time Terry has ever taken time for herself, to pursue something important to her and place her friendship first. She worries and feels guilt, but she does it anyway, This shows us how much Iris’s friendship means to her. It is also interesting to see that in caring for two people with debilitating conditions in less than ideal circumstances, Terry forgets her own anxieties. Iris’s determination to live whatever life she has left to the full, seems to rub off on Terry.

Iris is a force of nature. I felt a kinship with her, not just because we share an illness but because we have the same fears and concerns. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone. I am also phobic about choking, which is a P.T.S.D response to watching my husband struggle for breath constantly. For about a year after he died I would wake up suddenly in the night and panic that I hadn’t checked his airway. The other comment that rang true for me was Terry’s observation of how others see Iris and respond to her disability. Iris thinks that people only understand visible disability. This is something people with invisible or varying disabilities know only too well.

I was reading this alongside Anna McPartlin’s Rabbit Hayes sequel ‘Under the Big Blue Sky’ where Rabbit’s love Jonny Faye has MS too. It gave me a stark reminder to keep looking after myself and enjoy all the things I want to do, just in case things get worse. So I booked a trip to Venice. Me and my other half, in a canal room with a balcony for a whole week. It took a while to find my new love and I’d been alone for several years. I understand that isolation is damaging, when you top it off with a life limiting illness it’s even more so. I can see how Iris feels alone when she makes this choice. I think Geraghty writes this with experience and compassion. Terry believes she can make Iris fall in love with life again and luckily that is what my new partner has done for me. He’s popped the sparkle back into my eyes and reminded me of who I am.

Thank you to Random Things Through My Letterbox for the chance to host today’s blog tour. Please check out these other great bloggers.

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Reading ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

I was reminded today, in a discussion about our favourite Austen heroes, that I hadn’t added Persuasion to my round up of love stories for Valentines Day. How could I have forgotten the love story that speaks to anyone who has ever loved and lost? For me, this is the most relatable Austen love story, and becomes ever more so the older I get.

As we get older our preferences for heroes, heroines and books can change. My idea of a good love story has definitely altered. As a teenager I loved Wuthering Heights and Cathy and Heathcliff seemed like the ultimate lovers in literature. They were young, star-crossed and passionate. In fact, it was these memories of romance that made me pick the novel up again, several years later. I was horrified I ever thought this was love. What Cathy and Heathcliff have is obsessional and they are both abusive. Heathcliff also commits domestic violence and hangs the Linton’s dog! I remember once writing an essay arguing for Cathy’s character over Jane Eyre. I wouldn’t argue the same now. I thought that Jane was a really lame character for walking away from Rochester. Now I know how powerful that decision is for Jane. It gives her the power in the relationship and also means she keeps her principles.

However much I love Jane. It’s Austen’s quietest heroine, Anne Elliot, who really speaks to my soul. I mentioned Precious Bane in my Valentines blog and I guess there are some similarities with Anne. They are both quiet and unassuming. They both have low self-confidence and seem to keep in the background. Both have lost a parent, Prue has lost her father and Anne has lost her mother. They may seem meek, but both have a resolve in them that’s admirable. Anne is so thwarted in life, she possibly once had the sparkle of Emma or the outspokenness of Lizzie Bennett, now she keeps everything within. We glimpse her intelligence and kindness only because we can hear her inner monologue.

Outwardly, she is very easy to overlook and definitely not the obvious Austen heroine. She’s not young, beautiful or spirited. When we meet her she is established as a spinster and thought very unlikely to marry. She is something of a joke to her dreadful family and even someone to be pitied. For a father who cares more about money and how he appears to society, an unmarried daughter is a burden. Far better to farm her out to distant relatives and family friends to reduce costs. In truth she is kind, gentle and thoughtful. She is loyal to friends, even where they find themselves in reduced circumstances. She has so many loveable qualities but doesn’t see them as eligible.

Of course, what her family and friends don’t often acknowledge is that Anne had a chance to marry Wentworth, a man she loved and who loved her in return. She was schooled to refuse his proposal because he wasn’t eligible enough and Wentworth left to join the Navy. Now, in a twist of fate, his sister is brought into Anne’s sphere of acquaintances and by association the newly promoted Captain Wentworth. It’s in this new acquaintance that I most feel like Anne, as would any woman who has ever felt too old, too fat or too ordinary. It never crosses her mind that Wentworth might still have feelings for her. She’s too used to being overlooked and underestimated. At one point, she assumes his attachment to Louisa, a young and beautiful girl in their circle. Everything Wentworth does for Anne, she assumes to be in deference to her age and spinster status.

My favourite adaptation of Persuasion

Whether I’m reading the novel again or watching an adaptation on television I physically feel the tension building. Austen does this perfectly by creating a world where two characters should be together but are not. They revolve around one another, silenced by etiquette and decorum, but with a burning passion. This culminates in a scene at a pub, where both characters are surrounded by people, yet Wentworth’s passion finally finds voice in a letter he writes and leaves at the table for Anne. For me, this is the most romantic letter in fiction.

‘you pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you with a heart even more your own than when you broke it eight and a half years ago’.

The beauty of the scene is that Wentworth is revealing his inner soul, while maintaining a public face. Anne is so repressed, that it takes this open declaration to remind her of all those young, passionate and unbridled feelings she had eight years before. It breaks through to her and reminds her that, not only did she once had feelings, she acted upon them. It contrasts so sharply with the woman she has become, overriding her own needs in order to do her best for others. As readers we hope she will overcome the outer reserve and feel again. To meet Wentworth with all the love she too felt eight years before. However, it isn’t just about the romance, but about a woman acknowledging her own feelings, and knowing they are valid. She gives herself the permission to act upon them and seize a life of happiness, she missed out on before. I always imagine Anne living a life of adventure on the high seas as a Captain’s wife. A life that her family could only imagine.

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Above The Bay Of Angels by Rhys Bowen

Set during the reign of Queen Victoria, this is a novel based on an incredible chance meeting. Isabella Waverley pauses to help a woman on a London Street and it changes her whole life. She offers comfort as it becomes clear this woman is dying, In her last moments the woman passes Isabella a letter. It’s an offer of employment in the kitchens of Buckingham Palace and coincidentally Isabella is a novice chef. This letter is the difference between continuing life as a servant

and living her dreams. Isabella decides to become Helen Barton from Yorkshire and starts work in the Queen’s household, the Queen enjoys her culinary creations so much, Bella is chosen to accompany the Queen on a trip to Nice.

Just as she is enjoying this new life there is a threat of blackmail and even worse, after eating one of Bella’s dishes a member of Queen Victoria’s retinue becomes ill and dies. Now there will be an investigation into the death and Bella is terrified of being accused of poisoning. At worst, if found guilty she would be executed. At best the investigation might uncover who she really is and her new life would come crashing down.

Once I’d suspended disbelief about the coincidental set up at the beginning of the novel I did start to enjoy the story. I loved the geographical and historical detail, and I could see the book appealing to people who enjoy Downton Abbey or the series Victoria. It has the same charm and a great cast of characters within the palace, including a lustful prince and the very contrary Queen herself. I also enjoyed the historical detail around the food – the fashionable dishes, how they were prepared and Bella’s free reign to create with no concern about cost. She is allowed, even expected, to be extravagant, When the court moves to a luxury hotel in Nice, the author gives us a wonderful sense of the French Riviera and Bella’s joy at being able to experience it.

We learn that Bella wasn’t born into a lowly position. Her father was a gentleman, but lost his money and status to drink. The freedoms the palace staff can enjoy in Nice allow Bella to experience things she has never dared imagine, The mystery of the poisoned dinner guest continues throughout with the usual twists and turns but it isn’t really the main point of the novel for me, I didn’t know that Queen Victoria made summer trips to Nice and Bowen has taken this piece of history and brought it to life. Bella is a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her tenacity in overcoming the suspicion of the Male kitchen workers. They are not used to a woman in their ranks but through her knowledge and passion for food she becomes part of their family. This is a well researched piece of historical fiction that is pure escapism.

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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Haven’t They Grown by Sophie Hannah

I was so excited for this book to come out so when my signed copy dropped through the letterbox last week I started reading immediately. Sophie Hannah is one of my favourite authors, and her deeply awkward but brilliant detective Simon Waterhouse is one of my reading pleasures. She devises twists and turns that I rarely guess or expect and the premise for this latest novel was simply ingenious. I couldn’t imagine how she was going to resolve the central question. Thomas and Emily Braid were the children of Beth’s friend Flora, but they haven’t seen each other for twelve years. They should be 17 and 15 by now. So, when Beth is visiting near their current home and she decides to drive by, only to see an older Flora with her children looking exactly the same age. Why haven’t they grown? 

Understandably, Beth is stunned. She can’t believe what she is seeing. She hears Flora get them out of the car by name, they even seem to have the same clothes. She waits to see if the baby, Georgina, is with them but it’s just the three of them. She watches in disbelief as the electric gate closes and they’re obscured from view. Beth tells her family about what she has seen. She and husband Dom discuss the peculiarities of both Flora, and her husband Lewis Braid. Both remember Flora as the quieter of the two, and Lewis as the louder, more opinionated of the pair. Lewis is a joker too, but often at someone else’s expense. Beth remembers him always being the centre of any party and that awkward feeling when someone you’re with is being loud or offensive. Flora, by comparison was quiet, and her only intervention when her husband said something controversial was ‘Lew-is’. 

Beth and her husband Dom are massage therapists. They have two children Zannah and Ben. Dom is on board at first, just as curious as Beth about what she has seen. They do some googling and digging on Facebook, but find something very weird. The Braid family are living in Florida, with a teenage Thomas and Emily photographed several times. No sign of Flora or Georgia. The mystery starts to affect Beth’s life as she postpones clients and spends a second day searching for the young Braids. She realises that Lewis would have his children in a private school and starts to stake them out. In Huntingdon she almost walks straight into Flora, and her instinctive feeling that something is badly wrong seems justified when Flora runs in the other direction. 

Beth finds the car she saw the children in, finds it unlocked and climbs inside to wait. Flora will have to come back eventually, but things get even more strange when a totally different woman appears claiming that this is her car. She says she is Jeanette Cater, speaks with an accent and yet she wearing the very same clothes that Flora was wearing earlier. I must admit that this is where I started to wonder whether our narrator was as reliable as she seemed. I could see her husband’s point as the clients start to pile up and she can’t leave the mystery alone, even enlisting the help of her daughter who should be revising for GCSEs. It starts to become an obsession, but based on a sound premise – Flora and Beth used to be friends, she knows her voice and she knows, without doubt, that something was wrong from the way she heard Flora speaking on the phone. 

Underneath the twists and turns, this is a story about friendship. As Beth thinks about the Braid family and the time 12 years ago when they moved, she remembers tension between the married couple. In fact she recalls once that Lewis shouted at Flora for breastfeeding the new baby in company. She starts to realise that the birth of Georgina, or even when Flora becomes pregnant, their friendship started to change. Beth had lost a child before Flora’s pregnancy and remembers a terrible thing she did with a photograph of the family. Was it Beth’s loss and jealousy that ruined the friendship or was something separate going on between the couple? I was absolutely gripped by this point and had to keep reading. I was squinting at 3am using a book light with a dodgy battery. I think it gave me a migraine! ‘This book is so good it gave me a migraine’ is probably not the best selling point, but I mean it in the best way. Genius.

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The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy

This book is a real hidden gem. I love fashion, so the idea of a dress that calls down through the years – the midnight blue satin, made of many pieces but with such tiny stitches it appears as if one piece of fabric – really appealed to me. Added to this, my in-laws history of escaping the Warsaw ghetto – at 8 years old in one case, and being sent to Siberia in the other – means I am interested in the threads of family history at a time of turmoil. My late husband’s family has its own incredible story with repercussions that echo down the generation , so I understand that lives can be displaced and changed beyond recognition, with the results of that still being felt two generations later,

It is Harriet’s love for fashion and an old photograph that leads her to the door of a Paris fashion PR for a year long internship. She is loaned a room in the apartment above the office alongside another girl. Harriet knows this is the very apartment where her grandmother Clare lived in the 1940s. She has left behind a difficult situation!. Having finished university Harriet has been living with her father and stepmother, where she has never felt welcome. Her father sent Harriet to boarding school when he first lived with her stepmom, following her mums death. Her father seemed to find it difficult to cope with a grieving daughter and a burgeoning relationship. One of Harriet’s most treasured possessions is the photo she has of her grandmother Claire and her two best friends in Paris, Mirreile and Vivi. She also has a charm bracelet given by her grandmother and it’s charms show Harriet a story of who her grandmother was. When we are taken back into the past we learn more about these three women. All work in an atelier for the Paris fashion houses. We find out that Claire and Mirreille lived upstairs first, but are later joined by Vivi. All three are great seamstresses and are quick to become friends.

When the Germans arrive in Paris at first is it easy to carry on as normal. Yes, there are more German voices in the cafes and bars, more German vehicles in the streets, but people still order couture clothes. However, as the war really starts to bite things begin to change. The girls friendship survives Claire’s disastrous dalliance with a German officer, but afterwards she notices a difference in her friends. What mysterious work is Vivi doing in the atelier after hours? Who is the gentleman Mirreille is seen with and why is she often missing after curfew? The girls are about to be involved in the war in ways they didn’t imagined; ways that could mean paying the ultimate price.

Just like the stitches in a beautiful garments the threads of history are so beautifully intertwined with the fictional story of the girls. I read Alice Hoffman’s new novel in the last few weeks and it is also set in 1940s Paris so it was interesting to see the same historic events from a different viewpoint. I could see how much research the author had done and her skill in mentioning actual events without them feeling tacked on to the girls story was brilliant, I slowly came to care about each of the girls and although Vivi seems less accessible than the other two at first, it was interesting to see how central to Harriet’s history she becomes.

The detail is often harrowing to read and the idea that trauma can be passed through generations is one I’m familiar with because I’m a therapist and have read the same research as the author. She uses this beautifully in the novel, illustrating that the German’s horrendous acts of cruelty were on such a scale that it echoes down to the next generation. It is only when someone identifies the trauma in their family and gets professional help to let go of it’s effects, that someone can start to heal. I think I expected this book to be lighter and more focused on fashion from the blurb, but what I got was far superior: an incredible story of friendship and survival. I would definitely recommend it to friends.

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Tony’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

Once a week, throughout this year, I’ve decided to review a book that people may have missed. I can’t be the only one who has a list of books they want, just in case they come across a charity shop or second hand bookshop. So I thought, instead of always reviewing brand new books I would write about a charity shop find of my own here and there. Not everyone can afford brand new hardbacks and while I’m very lucky to get a certain number of review copies, it must be nice to see a book in paperback that’s not going to break the bank.

My first second hand review is a paperback copy of Adriana Trigiani’s Tony’s Wife. I find Trigiani’s books like having a duvet day. They’re always warm, comforting and full of vivid descriptions of Italian food, fashion and period detail. They never fail to make me smile. Her female characters are always resilient and passionate. Often they’re fighting to make their own way in the world and move away from traditional roles for Italian women. Chi Chi Donatelli is no different. We meet her in the 1930s, living on the Jersey Shore with her parents and two sisters. By day the girls work at the Jersey Miss factory, stitching blouses and dresses by piece work and forming those friendships within the factory’s women. Trigiani observes that traditionally, these are the women who give you a sash and have a whip round when you’re a bride to be, who help out with your child’s First Communion dress and support you in widowhood. However, Chi Chi wants more than this. She has an ambition. She wants to be paid to sing and write songs. Already blessed with talent, Chi Chi and her sisters are the Donatelli Sisters, but small town fame and singing at mass are not enough for her. Her father sees her talent and shares her dream. He builds a recording studio behind the house and ferries Chi Chi to gigs and slips DJs a few dollars to play her records.

Saverio Amondonada meets Chi Chi when she’s surrounded by family and he’s become Tony Arma, the singer touring the US with a big band. All the time he was working the line at the Ford factory in Detroit alongside his father, Saverio dreamed of becoming a singer. He wanted to use his voice for more than the Church choir. When he’s approached by an agent all his dreams start to come true. His mum is supportive, but his father is deeply insulted by his son’s need for more. The Ford line was enough for Leone. His family were so poor that his dreams had been different; the ability to work hard and support his wife and family was enough. In Leone’s eyes, Saverio’s need for fame belittles the hard work and sacrifices that brought him up. One Christmas Eve matters come to a head. Saverio’s hopes are dashed when Cheryl Dombroski announces her engagement to the choir before Midnight Mass. She was Saverio’s friend, but for a long time he has hoped for more, waiting for the right time to tell her. Clutching the gold chain he has bought her, Saverio opens his heart, but has his hopes dashed when Cheryl flashes her engagement ring. His heartbroken performance that night draws an agents attention and it comes at the right moment. Later, back at home, an argument with his father escalates and Leone tells him to leave if the family home is no longer enough for him. The worst insult comes when Saverio changes to his stage name and, according to Leone, turns his back on his family history.

Tony Arma and Chi Chi Donatelli spark off each other. Chi Chi’s fatber convinces them to record one of her songs, entitled ‘Mama’s Rolling Pin’. They then spend time trying to get the record played on the radio. Then tragedy strikes. Chi Chi’s father has a heart attack and dies. His sudden death is devastating for the whole family, but particularly for Chi Chi who has lost the person who believes in her, and her dreams of a singing career the most. She comes back down to earth in a bump when the sisters find how much money he owed. His belief that Chi Chi had the talent to hit the big time led him to remortgage the family home in order to build the studio and kit it out with the best recording equipment. The debt must be renegotiated by the sisters and the bank’s deal would leave them destitute. In order to keep the roof over her mother’s head Chi Chi gives all of her savings, renegotiates with the bank and auditions to be the girl singer with Tony’s band. However, his agent offers her a better role, composing songs and playing piano. Slowly, their record has been gaining momentum too and they are asked to perform the single wherever they go. Chi Chi sees that Tony’s lifestyle involves lots of women, who fall in love with him only to be heartbroken when he moves to the next one. The band gets through girl singers at an alarming rate. ChiChi resolves to be Tony’s friend, and nothing more. He trusts her and she soon becomes his confidante and provider of a good home cooked meal on the road. War is looming though and lives are going to change forever. What will war do to their careers and their friendship?

I found this book very charming and easy to read in big chunks. I loved Trigiani’s descriptions: the handmade Christmas decorations of the Saverio family, Chi Chi’s gowns and all the period fashion, the Italian recipes and wedding traditions. This is a novel about a lifelong friendship that somehow endures, despite disappointment, distance and broken promises. It is about family, both the ones we’re born into and those we create ourselves. How do we honour years of sacrifice and tradition without losing our own hopes and dreams? It’s about generation gaps and how we bridge them. It is about regrets and whether, over a lifetime, we regret more the things we have done or those opportunities we didn’t take. It’s about fidelity, both in a romantic sense but also to our faith, our culture and our family. As always, Trigiani’s lightness of touch means that these big themes never become laboured. There is so much fun to be had here, despite the pain. Chi Chi is an incredibly strong character, who isn’t just a creative artist but a great businesswoman. She grabs opportunities to purchase real estate in Manhattan, and makes her money work for her. She works hard and provides for her family. In this sense she is a very modern woman who doesn’t rely on a man to look after her. She’s an easy character to love and spend time with. I found Saverio more difficult to understand and veered between concern and anger at some of his behaviour. They approach life differently but together their banter, their talent and their friendship creates an engaging story that I savoured as long as I could while being simultaneously desperate to find out what happens next,

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Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

It seems very brave to even write a book about death, because the majority of people seem to be actively trying to avoid any mention of it. Death is the last taboo subject. Rachel tackles this in her writing with grace, compassion and dignity. The book is in three parts, with the first covering her personal life and the reasons that she moved her career from journalism to medicine. The move seemed inevitable, as she was following in the footsteps of her father. As she started specialising in an area of medicine, she surprised herself by becoming drawn to palliative care. The second section covers her thoughts on this branch of medicine – an area that, in my opinion, provides the best medical care, because it focuses on the lived experience of the patient. Clarke describes the usual outlook of the NHS as ‘life at all costs’. I think there is a sort of arrogance in this type of medicine, where some doctors seem to think they have the skills to outrun death. Clarke talks eloquently and empathetically about the fears patients have and how her job is to address and allay those fears as much as possible, to alleviate the pain and suffering. She also includes a very honest portrayal of some of those patients and the range of emotion they go through as they near the end – from denial and anger, through to a certain acceptance for some, All of her training and experience becomes even more important when her father is diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer and the book moves back to the personal.

Clarke understands the luminal space that the long term sick and terminally ill both occupy. That space of the in between. If we are always sick we have to find a way of living regardless, because all of our time can’t be taken up with illness and dying. We still have friends and family, obligations and bills to pay. We need to pass the time. To remember who we are, because we are not this illness; more than this death. As Clarke so succinctly puts it: ‘For the dying are living, like everyone else’. It’s true that I probably appreciate this book so much because I nursed my husband for two years before his death from pneumonia caused by Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. I also have MS so understand how it feels to have a condition that limits my life, rather than being terminal. No matter how much experience Clarke has, she does find that the picture changes when it is someone you love who is losing their life. It’s impossible to retain that clinical distance and any sense of control is taken away. It turns out that nothing can mitigate the pain of personal loss. Beautifully written, moving and breathtakingly honest.