Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Art of Loving You by Amelia Henry

Oh my goodness this beautiful novel really did pull at my heartstrings. It was stunningly romantic and reduced me to a hormonal weeping mess. I just knew something was going to happen to this lovely couple, because everything was perfect in their world and they were embarking on a project to help others. Libby and Jack were bringing to life his dream by developing an arts centre/retreat for underprivileged children. They already had the keys to the property and were ready to go, when a phone call changed everything. Just as I’d fallen in love with this gorgeous couple, the author shatters their lives. I don’t want to ruin the plot for everyone, so I’m not going to talk about what happens, but I am going to talk about the characters.

Libby is our narrator and I really felt for her so much. Her world has been so rocked that she’s struggling to trust anything or anybody. She’s scared of everything, because now she knows that the worst things we imagine can happen. The author cleverly lets Libby drop little hints and ideas about what’s coming next, they work like cliff hangers, so that I kept jumping to the next chapter and reading a bit more. Just a head’s up – can end up half way through without realising!

I loved Sid, just loved him. He has just moved into a care facility, because he needs extra support, and gifted Libby and Jack his house. This is the only way they’re able to realise Jack’s dream of opening the arts centre. Sid is like a surrogate grandfather to the couple, and the way his relationship develops with Libby as the novel progresses was really touching. At a time when she feels hopeless and lost, he is so supportive, positive and uplifting. I wanted my own Sid for his wise advice alone. I would love to read a whole book about Sid’s past, because I want to know how he came about his philosophy on life.

Although the book has an obvious film inspiration, I kept thinking of the moment at the end of the Steve Martin film Parenthood. He’s panicking because he walked out on his job and his wife has just announced she’s pregnant with baby No 4. His grandma starts to talk about the fairground, and while other people like safer rides like the dodgems, she loved the rollercoaster. He doesn’t get it at first, but later at his children’s play when everything starts to go wrong, he realises that instead of panicking, he could just laugh and go with it. Sit back and enjoy the ride. It makes you realise that how you view life is always a choice.

I don’t know much about the author, but I’d hazard a guess that this is someone who’s life experience has informed these characters and their situation. Truth and real pain shines out from these pages. Readers can tell if a person’s writing comes from their heart, and this truly does. It seems easy to dismiss ‘romance’ as something silly and frivolous when it isn’t. Love, real love, changes our lives. We move house for love, we change lifestyle, we make lifelong commitments. If we think about the love we have, from partners, friends, family, it’s without doubt the most uplifting thing in our lives. When we lose someone we love it’s devastating and life altering. Yet, we still love. This inner hope and endless capacity to love, is the most important thing we can write about, because it’s the most important thing in our lives. I felt the writer understood this. The story teaches us not to waste time, to hold on tight to those we love and to love life even when it isn’t ‘all beer and skittles’.

Published 21st July 2021 by HQ

Meet The Author

Amelia Henley is a hopeless romantic who has a penchant for exploring the intricacies of relationships through writing heart-breaking, high-concept love stories. 

Amelia also writes psychological thrillers under her real name, Louise Jensen. As Louise Jensen she has sold over a million copies of her global number one bestsellers. Her stories have been translated into twenty-five languages and optioned for TV as well as featuring on the USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestsellers list. Louise’s books have been nominated for multiple awards.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it. The rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

I’m going a long way back in time for Throwback Thursday this week. I read this book in my early teens, but still hold it close to my heart. I’d read 101 Dalmations much earlier and hadn’t realised that the author had written anything other than children’s books. The truth is I’d been waiting my whole life for a heroine like Cassandra Mortmain. There are a lot of different influences to blame for turning me into the adolescent I was. Years trawling round stately homes had given me a yearning for a house I could hide in. We lived in a 1960’s bungalow with just enough rooms to live in, but I longed to hear lines like ‘ Hayley? No I haven’t seen her since breakfast. Could she be in the pink drawing room?’ Period dramas, particularly 1970s productions of D.H. Lawrence novels and L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between , both loved by my mum, had left me hankering after a wardrobe of full, floaty skirts and the sort of accessories that looked out of place. Like tramping down to the village shop wearing a feather boa, ten layers of petticoats, whilst dragging a grumpy spaniel. I would constantly imagine I was in a book or a film, walking the poor dog’s legs off while hoping to meet a man who looked like Mr. Rochester and lived in a Gothic mansion, minus the mad wife.

I also developed a fascination with Edith Holden thanks to the TV series of Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and I even wrote off for a pack about the series. We already had the book, so I bought a sketchbook and some watercolour pencils with my pocket money. My brother and I would go out early, him with his fishing gear, and me with my books and paints. There was an old track down to the woods with a drainage dyke running alongside. About halfway down there were two willow trees that had bent so far over the water it was possible to climb up and lay down along the trunk. My brother would fish from his tree, and in mine I would paint flowers and butterflies and read my book. It was the closest thing I had to room of my own. So, in finding Cassandra Mortmain I felt like I’d found exactly who I was supposed to be. I wasn’t meant to be Hayley Baxter, lives in a sixties bungalow, with a working class family and no money. I was meant to be the broken down castle, bohemian sort of poor. Where parents were trying to make money from art, roof leaks dripped into buckets instead of being fixed and they were invited to tea by the landed gentry or their new American millionaire estate owners.

I loved Cassandra Mortmain’s confidence. She was determined she was going to be a writer and nobody told her she couldn’t be, so she was always curled up in some unlikely place, writing in her journal. If I said I wanted to write novels, my close family were supportive – my mum had always wanted to write. Wider family and friends would say ‘well, as long as you do well at school and have something to fall back on.’ There were aunts and uncles who would have been bemused if I walked constantly around with a journal and pen. Writing was seen as something you had to do – you wrote a letter, or a postcard – but not something pleasurable that you devote time to. That came much later, when I had my own home and my own wardrobe of floaty skirts. When I first read her story I was much like Cassandra herself, there were parts of life that she was recording without really knowing their importance or meaning. Although she narrates her own story, as an older reader there were things I understood that Cassandra didn’t as yet. This is a story of growing up and leaving some of that innocence of youth behind.

I thought on first reading that her sister Rose was incredibly beautiful, but grumpy and not very nice to be around. However, reading her years later I could see that because Rose was older, she understood more about the realities of life. For her, the broken roof and the lack of income were not romantic, but a real problem that needed fixing. Their father’s only published book can’t keep them forever and his writer’s block makes him a very difficult man to live with. Rather comically the women lock him in his study, in the hope that inspiration will strike when he’s forced to stare at his typewriter. It’s very clear to Rose that they are in dire financial straits. This is where the book takes on some Austen-like romantic tropes, as the Cotton family come to visit the estate where they are the rightful heirs and the Mortmains are their tenants. Mrs Cotton brings her two sons, the eldest Simon being the rightful heir, and Neil, the younger son. Simon is ‘detestably bearded’ but the most eligible and able to rescue the Mortmains from their current circumstances. Cassandra’s father and stepmother Topaz are seen as delightfully eccentric by the Cottons and the whole family are invited for dinner. This is where the romantic problems begin, as Simon is besotted with the beautiful Rose, and as Cassandra develops a crush on Simon, she is in turn adored by the Mortmain’s servant and helper, Stephen. Stephen is incredible handsome, but the Mortmain girls are about to find out that the heart is an unruly organ and wants what it wants. Despite this, it isn’t long before Rose announces her engagement to Simon. This solves so many of the Mortmain’s problems – it’s as if one of the Bennett sisters actually accepted Mr Collins. As the preparations for the wedding gather pace, Rose and Cassandra spend more time with the Cotton brothers.

Simon finds that he gets on well with Cassandra. He is the more cerebral of the brothers and while Rose is beautiful, she is not blessed with brains. Yet, Cassandra is too young for romance, and a very touching friendship starts to develop. The younger brother, Neil, is more stereotypically American, loud, brash and very active. He and Rose are usually swimming or messing around in boats, with Neil often play fighting or indulging in horse play. Cassandra has never seen her sister so lively, actually forgetting to be lady like and being in the moment. Everyone is touched to see Rose so happy, and assume it is her approaching wedding. To an adult reader the attraction between these two beautiful people is obvious, but Cassandra is stunned to find out they have run away together. If we hark back to Austen, her sister has turned out to be more of a Lydia than a Jane. How can the Mortmain’s fortunes be improved by their daughter’s marriage to the second son?

This is a novel drenched in charm and nostalgia. Interestingly, it was written by Smith when she was living in America, and that may explain it’s rose-spectacled view of England. There is something slightly melancholy in that we’re watching a young girl lose the charming innocence that makes her narration a delight to read. She falls in love, but not with the person who adores her and sees the devastation that can be caused by betrayal and jealousy. We realise, as Cassandra grows up in front of us, the chaos of a household run by adults who have no money and no rules, the embarrassment of having a stepmother who will happily walk around in the nude and that moment when you find your own sister inexplicable, because you understand storybook romance, but not adult desire. Cassandra is mostly in love with life. One character describes her as ‘the insidious type–Jane Eyre with of touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” Her narration makes even minor characters jump off the page and straight into your heart. Finally, I loved how Cassandra leaves us with an open ending. We shouldn’t be surprised that some loose ends are left dangling, because she has told us how much she hates ‘a brick wall happy ending.’ I think it’s true to say that in me, she found a reader as romantic about life as she is. This is one of those books I’ll re-read again and again, so I’m on the look-out for a very special copy to put on my forever shelves.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark.

I’m wary of books written by people in the public eye. There are those who have clearly used a ghost writer. Others have no writing skill, just a big enough name to sell the book anyway. I worry for myself and all those other aspiring writers who won’t be able to get a book deal because the lists are full with celebrity memoirs and books set in Cornwall! However, there are some celebrity authors who get it right, often those who started out as reporters before becoming famous. Jeremy Vine’s debut novel was a pleasant surprise, and my stepdaughters loved David Walliams stories. I knew Dawn French could write well only a few pages into her memoir. I can now add Kirsty Wark to this list, since stumbling on her book second hand in Barter Books, Alnwick. I started to read it while still on holiday and loved it.

The author lets her characters tell the story. Firstly we are told Elizabeth’s story from her journal and we meet her at the beginning of the First World War, a time of big changes for her family. She is moving with her mum from the isolated family farm to the small fishing village of Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. The house they will live in is Holmlea, which has a beautiful sea view out to Holy Isle and the monastery. We are then immersed in Elizabeth’s life: their family friendship with the Duchess of Montrose; an incredible passion for gardening; all the relationships in her life. These relationships ebb and flow, but into her old age she has two men in her life. There is Niall the rather passionate gardener who works as an architect and Saul, a Buddhist monk from Holy Isle. When working in her front garden she notices a young woman, walking past with her baby in a pram. The young woman is Anna, and she is very taken with Holmlea and asks Elizabeth to contact her if she ever decides to sell it.

Our other narrator is Martha, the daughter of Anna Morrison, who is surprised to find her mother has been offered the legacy of a house on the Isle of Arran by a woman she’s never heard of before. Anna is now struggling with dementia, so much so that Martha is now her full time carer and deals with her finances. It is Martha who organises help for her mother and takes a trip up to Arran to see the house. So it is also up to Hannah to uncover Elizabeth’s reasons for leaving the house, but also discover more about her life and secrets. There was once a fiancé in Elizabeth’s life who moved out to Australia to start a sheep farm. Elizabeth was reluctant to go, feeling she needed to be there for her mother. She passes her time walking in the hills and during the war, helped in looking for lost and crashed airmen. Eventually, it is too late to follow her fiancé and at the end, Elizabeth has lived on Arran for 90 years. More recently she’s had friendships with a young man whose sister runs the local hotel and he has worked with her to create her beautiful garden. It is her friend Saul who encourages her to write her story down. He is a struggling Buddhist monk who is staying at Holy Island and meets Elizabeth when she volunteers in the gardens.

The books major strength is in description, creating a strong sense of place. This is a bleak but beautiful place, and she situates Arran and Holy Island as sustaining to the people who live there or come for solace. These islands feel like a cornerstone or anchor for the people who are born there and almost like medicine to those lonely or desperate people who seek them out. Gardens are featured heavily as a source of sustenance for the body and the soul and I truly understand that need to be in nature and feel your senses drink it in. I thought it was a wonderfully calm and quiet novel, but quiet doesn’t mean it’s without impact. I really loved Elizabeth’s story, it shows how quiet and seemingly unassuming people can have hidden depths. We often overlook the elderly, thinking they have lived their lives. I’ve worked in nursing homes and advocacy, and it’s surprising how many elderly people are cared for by people who don’t really know them and never try to. They talk to other carers as if the person they’re helping is deaf or not really there. I created a memory project where I found old photographs of residents and wrote down stories they told me about their lives. I then put up a display outside each bedroom, so that carers could see their residents as individuals with experience and stories to share. This book reminded me of that project and what a difference it made to the resident’s everyday lives.

Meet The Author

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who has presented a wide range of BBC programmes for more than twenty five years, from the ground-breaking LATE SHOW to the weekly arts and cultural review show THE REVIEW SHOW and the nightly current affairs show NEWSNIGHT.

Kirsty has won several major awards for her work, including BAFTA Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, Journalist of the Year and Best Television Presenter. Her debut novel, THE LEGACY OF ELIZABETH PRINGLE, was published in March 2014 by Two Roads and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, as well as nominated for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Her second novel, THE HOUSE BY THE LOCH, was inspired by her childhood memories and family, particularly her father. She is currently working on her third novel, set in Glasgow.

Born in Dumfries and educated in Ayr, Scotland, Kirsty now lives in Glasgow.

Posted in Netgalley

Two Women in Rome by Elizabeth Buchan.

Regular readers may remember how much I loved Elizabeth Buchan’s last novel The Museum of Broken Promises, in fact it was one of my top twenty of the year. So, I was very excited to be approved to read this via NetGalley. The story is split into two timelines and follows the lives of two British women who spend some time living in Rome. Lottie Archer arrives at the Eternal City as a new wife and with a new job as an archivist at the Archivo Espatriati. Her very first task is to archive the papers and journal of a woman called Nina Lawrence who worked as a gardener in Rome in the late 1970s. This was a difficult time for the country socially and politically, known as the ‘Years of Lead’ – a period which stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s and resulted in many incidents of far right and far left terrorism. Nina’s task was to redesign gardens that still lay devastated by WW2, something she was passionate about and very talented. Within her papers, is a large leather journal, rather worse for wear and full of drawings and pressed plants. However, Lottie also finds a painting of the Annunciation – the moment where the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel to tell her she will be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. Lottie thinks it may be medieval, due to the colours used and the iconography. This piques her interest and she is disturbed to learn that Nina was murdered in Rome, and that very few people attended her funeral in the Protestant cemetery. Interestingly though, one mourner was a Catholic priest, which strokes Lottie as very unusual. She wants to find out more about the painting, but she also finds herself sucked into the mystery of what happened to Nina, who murdered her and why did she seem so friendless in this beautiful city?

I found the novel a little slow at first. I didn’t click with Lottie straight away, the detail and discussion of medieval art was quite dense (or I was) and the complexity of the political situation wasn’t always easy to follow. I also thought the intricacies and machinations of the Catholic Church might be a little difficult to penetrate for those who don’t know much about Catholicism – luckily I am one, with convent teaching under my belt, so this was not so difficult for me. However, I did like that the author didn’t simplify these areas of the book because in a way they added to the mystery of a city that has an incredibly complicated history. I was drawn in most by the story of Nina, just like Lottie is. I could understand why her story would get under your skin as someone interested in the past and trying to make sense of it. There is a kinship between the two women, even though they can never meet. Lottie is unsure of her position in Rome for several reasons. Firstly, when she arrives to work at the archive, her new role hasn’t quite been vacated. She moves into the apartment that her husband Tom shared with his previous partner Clare, and all around her are memories that don’t belong to her (including an ugly lamp, that should be kept because it works perfectly well, according to their formidable housekeeper). All of this is compounded by an underlying sense of abandonment, formed because she was left by her birth mother. There’s something lost about Nina that she latches onto and the more she finds out, the more she wonders whether Nina was more than a gardener?

Nina is a rather fascinating woman, who shares Lottie’s sense of rootlessness and lack of ties. There is definitely a deeply woven reason for Nina’s death, involving politics, security services, the church and a rather unwise, but beautiful love affair that unfolds in her journal. It is this aspect of her character that really humanises her for me, she becomes a real, living and breathing person and it is then even more tragic when the end comes. One thing both narratives capture beautifully is the city itself. Just like the narrative structure of the book, we get a sense of Rome as place where the past is very closely layered under the present. I thought about the tunnels and cave structures that run under the city’s streets, some still populated with WW2 vehicles, as an embodiment of this feeling. The present is full of tourists, rushing around on their itineraries getting a sense of the past and present city, but not necessarily the world underneath their feet. The author evokes the sights and smells beautifully: describing the less followed paths, the street fountains carved with dolphins and maidens, the detail of the plants so precious to Nina, the smells and sight of the deli counters full of salami, olives and beautifully ripe tomatoes. I found myself craving a trip to Italy all the time while reading!

However, she also shows its impenetrability to outsiders who know nothing of Catholicism, Roman etiquette or it’s slightly corrupt ways of getting business done. This is captured most beautifully in Lottie’s burgeoning relationship with their housekeeper. I also enjoyed her friendship with the book binder, who she asks to authenticate the painting she finds without understanding his significance. The background on medieval painting is vital here, not just to understand the symbolism within the traditional aspects, but to identify those that are far more transgressive and intensely personal. This is a complicated mystery/thriller, mixed with a travelogue of Rome and an intense love story. It asks questions about where we belong and whether our final destinations have been reached by choice, accident or a deep sense of duty to our family, our religion and our country. By the end I realised I’d become so enthralled, I was very sad to leave Rome behind.

Thank you to Atlantic Books for my digital copy via NetGalley.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier.

The King’s General is not usually people’s first choice when they start to read Du Maurier’s novels. Most read her more famous novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Jamaica Inn. Yet this piece of historical fiction was my first Du Maurier novel and I first read it when I was a girl. To understand why you probably need to know something about my childhood. For the most part I’d been an active and lively tomboy, out climbing trees, riding ponies and gallivanting round the countryside with my younger brother. Then, when I was 11 years old I had an accident while somersaulting at school and ended up with two fractured vertebrae and a crushed disc in my spine. I was very lucky. The fractures were mid-thoracic and because they broke down and away from the spine my spinal cord was undamaged. I was centimetres away from becoming paraplegic. I missed the last few months of primary school, instead going up to the local grammar school in the autumn. The accident did cause long term problems though. A lack of proper rehabilitation meant the muscles around the break seized up affecting my ability to use my shoulder and arm. Even now, repetitive movements like typing or painting can seize up my whole right side. I have a chiropractor for regular acupuncture and manipulation to free up that side.

The Kings General was the first time I encountered an adult character with a disability. Of course before my accident I’d read Pollyanna, a rather saintly little girl who can’t walk after a fall and is still looking for things to be glad about. I’d also read the What Katy Did series where the spirited and tomboyish Katy has a fall from the yard swing and can’t walk. She spends a year as an ‘invalid’ and the experience quietens her and she learns to run a household from her bed, becoming a more tamed and acceptable version of femininity. The King’s General tells the story of Honor, a lively young woman who in 1653 decides to write her life story, based around the love she had for the charismatic soldier Richard Grenville. She then takes us back 30 years to when she was 10 years old and her brother Kit brings his bride Gartred back to the family home of Lanrest. Gartred is from the very important Grenville family and doesn’t make a great impression on the slightly more humble Harris family. She has a sharp tongue and Kit thought she flirted with other men, especially his brother Robin. For Honor their marriage is an eye opener and she learns a lesson about marriage:

“For the first time I realized, with something of a shock, that marriage was not the romantic fairy legend I had imagined it to be, but a great institution, a bargain between important families, with the tying-up of property.”

The marriage is short-lived as Kit dies from smallpox, and when Gartred leaves, Honor hopes to never see another Grenville again. Fate has something different in store as she encounters a dashing young soldier on her 18th birthday. She visits Plymouth Sound with her brother and sister to watch His Majesty’s Fleet sail into Plymouth Sound, followed by a banquet held by the Duke of Buckingham. Richard Grenville is quite sarcastic, even rude, and Honor has some barbed and witty exchanges with him. They immediately have a rapport and he actually shows his kinder side when Honor has to leave early. They meet in secret after this, often meeting in an apple tree at the bottom of the orchard where Honor likes to climb up and read. They’re clearly very compatible and start to fall in love with each other. Honor might just get the fairy tale after all as Richard decides to speak to her family and proposes marriage. However, their happiness comes to an abrupt end the day before their wedding when Honor has a terrible accident when they’re out hunting with falcons. Honor’s horse is spooked, becomes disoriented and falls into a ravine. Sadly, Honor’s injuries are serious as her legs and spine are shattered and she can no longer walk. Realising she will probably never walk or have children, she calls off the engagement and tells Richard to be happy with another woman. They don’t see each other until civil war breaks out and Honor must leave Lanrest where she was living alone to go to her sister’s house Menabilly. It is here where Honor will encounter Richard again. Will things have changed between them?

From this point in the story we start to get Du Maurier’s trademark mystery elements and as usual she is very adept at creating tension and suspicion. I really enjoyed the way that her two main characters are so linked to the land around them. Their emotions are often mirrored by the weather and landscape in a rather Brontë way. Her strength here though is in these characters, who love each other despite being able to see their flaws. Honor finds the older Richard bitter, proud and arrogant, but just as attractive as ever. However, he’s quite gentle and tender with Honor and there’s a scene where she even shows him her damaged legs. There’s a feel of Heathcliff about him in these war years, as he’s quite cruel. Honor observes that war seems to make beasts of men. I enjoyed this book because it showed me that an accident doesn’t have to stop you being you. Yes, experience changes us in some ways but her accident doesn’t stop Honor being adventurous or taking on a challenge. It also doesn’t mean she has to become quiet and ladylike. Most of all, Honor is still loved. Despite what happened Richard still loves her, and this was the first book that showed me life doesn’t stop because you have a disability.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Last year I read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s incredible novel Mexican Gothic and I absolutely loved it. So when I was offered the chance to read one of her earlier novels, being reissued in a beautiful hard back copy this week, I was really excited to tell you all about it as part of the blog blast.

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis: the haphazard manifestations of her powers have long made her the subject of gossip – malicious neighbours even call her the Witch of Oldhouse.

But Nina’s life is about to change, for there is a new arrival in town: Hector Auvray, the renowned entertainer, who has used his own telekinetic talent to perform for admiring audiences around the world. Nina is dazzled by Hector, for he sees her not as a witch, but ripe with magical potential. Under his tutelage, Nina’s talent blossoms – as does her love for the great man.

But great romances are for fairy-tales, and Hector is hiding a secret bitter truth from Nina – and himself – that threatens their courtship.

This book is different from either Mexican Gothic or Gods of Jade and Shadow. This is a romance, brim full of melodrama and heartache. Yet there are also those wonderful threads that seem to exist through her work: feminism, awakening sexual desire, an eye for women’s self-expression through clothing, and a sprinkle of the paranormal. I didn’t know where the book was set at first, because the city name Loisail and personal names have a French feel to them, but certain word usage such as fall for autumn made me think of North America. The manners and etiquette seem almost British regency in date (this could give Bridgeton a real run for its money on the small screen), but the far off place Iblevard sounds like South America. This is our world, just not as we know it.

I absolutely adored Nina from the start, because I’ve felt like the slightly awkward girl who doesn’t fit. Next to her cousin’s wife Valerie she seems a bit of an ugly duckling, but she’s chaperoning Nina through the Loisail season in hope of finding her a suitable husband. Valerie is the stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed, perfectly coiffed, graceful beauty and her marriage to Gaetens was a great match, because he was a steady, slightly older man with financially stability. His finances have kept her family afloat. Whereas Nina has none of the superficial qualities of Valerie. Her hair is raven black and there’s more of a handsomeness to her than prettiness. Worse still, she is awkward, often saying the wrong thing, but she’s physically clumsy too and there’s more to Nina’s clumsiness than meets the eye.

From a young age Nina has been able to move objects with the power of her mind. Sometimes it’s involuntary, such as when her emotions are roused in anger or sadness. Nina doesn’t know much about telekinesis, it has simply always been with her and back at the family home in the country she is known as the Witch of Oldhouse. Here in Loisail though, nobody knows about her strange ability and if she is dressed well, schooled in how to behave and tries her hardest to be ‘normal’ maybe she could make a good marriage. Nina is inexperienced and naive, but trusts Valerie implicitly. Her cousin Gaetens has always had her best interests at heart so she happily puts her future in Valerie’s hands, but there’s a bitterness and envy in Valerie that runs very deep. She knows that her husband dotes on his cousin and he wouldn’t force her to marry anyone she didn’t consent to, but she thinks that Nina is spoiled. Valerie had to make a decision, to marry a man she didn’t love to get better conditions for her family. She had to grow up, put thoughts of love and romance aside, and take the best decision rationally as if marriage is a business. If she had to do this, why shouldn’t Nina be expected to grow up and accept someone chosen for her?

Then Hector Auvray comes into the picture, gentlemanly, handsome and, because he’s a performer, just a whiff of scandal about him. He’s definitely not the sensible choice, but controlling her emotions has never been one of Nina’s strengths. I loved that the pair shared this talent, Hector as the mentor and Nina as the ingenue, just starting out. When he calls on Nina at home, they can easily spend hours talking about telekinesis and practicing control. Nina visits his show which is quite glitzy, and he has an incredible finale of dancing mirrors. For me, there wasn’t quite enough magic. It’s as if magic realism was something she was toying with, then in later novels she really had the confidence to go for those paranormal elements. I knew this was a reissue, but those who don’t could be disappointed there isn’t more made of Nina’s skills. It’s almost as if she learned to control it rather than celebrate it. I’d have loved the author to write sections where they perform together, because I know how incredible they would have been.

There was something very Jane Austen about this society, it’s manners and it’s dilemmas for women. I thought of the disappointment a lot of readers feel when Lizzie Bennett’s friend Charlotte Lucas accepts the proposal of the ludicrous vicar Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie has rejected him and by doing so, placed her family in financial uncertainty, but Charlotte is more pragmatic. She knows he’s ridiculous, but she also knows he has a living, the patronage of a fine Lady, and a large enough house to lose him in. This is the decision that Valerie has made, but is very angry about. Her anger is at her family, but is also directed inward. She doesn’t like to face the truth; that she was the one who made this choice.

“She wanted to cry and could not. She wanted to weep for that proud girl who had broken her own heart and tossed it to the dogs, and she wanted to weep for the woman who had been left behind with a gaping hole in her soul. But if she could do it again, she knew she’d still retrace her steps. She was not Antonina Beaulieu, who offered herself like a sacrificial lamb, who gave everything of herself to the world for the world to devour. She was Valérie Véries. She hated herself sometimes for it, but she was Valérie Véries, a Beautiful One, not some weakling nor a halfwit”.

I also got hints of The Great Gatsby, every time I saw a character allude to an elite group of ‘Beautiful Ones’ the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful’ kept floating through my head. I felt it in this passage when Hector talks of the love he had when he was younger, the girl he asked to wait for him. He thinks he’s still in love with this woman, but he’s really still in love with his idea of this girl and what they could have had.

“He was chained to her, to this brilliant ideal of a perfect love. Because he had always known that if he could have (her) in his arms again, all would be well. It would be as though the decade that separated them had never happened and they would return to the happy days of their youth when everything was possible. It was as if he could unwind the clock with her aid. And once this happened, there would be nothing but joy.”

The first part of the novel is quite slow and as Hector and Nina meet and form their friendship, but I enjoyed getting to know them. I felt as if I was watching them fall in love very slowly, but it’s as if only the reader knows it. Then comes a terrible betrayal, and Nina loses that innocence of youth, but grows so much as a person. She starts to have pride in who she is, because she has space to be herself. When she returns to Loisail the following season she is a different woman, confident enough to make her own choices. There’s a new found confidence and experience in her character as she steps out into city. She’s refusing to be the ugly duckling of this story and has blossomed, but from the inside. There’s a feminist soul in Nina and I loved seeing that awakening. She’s also more comfortable with her ‘talent’ even if it isn’t on display very much. Before long a very suitable young man starts to court her; it would be a great match, but not love. As Hector Auvray drifts back to the city again, and wishes to resume their friendship, what effect on Nina will he have? I enjoyed this novel because it’s unashamedly romantic, and magical. It’s a coming of age story, showing this young woman’s awakening conscience as well as her desire. Nina Beaulieu learns to live life on her own terms and makes her own choices, especially where her heart is concerned.

Meet the Author

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Untamed Shore, and many other books. She has also edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters).

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Lucia Lucia by Adriana Trigiani.

Lucia Sartori is the beautiful twenty-five-year-old daughter of a fine Italian immigrant family in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1950. Fuelled by the post-war boom, in which talented girls with ambition are encouraged to follow their dreams, Lucia becomes an apprentice for a made-to-wear clothing designer at a chic department store on Fifth Avenue. Though she is sought after as a potential wife by the best Italian families, Lucia stays her course and works hard, determined to have a career. She juggles the roles of dutiful daughter and ambitious working girl perfectly. When a handsome stranger comes to the story and catches her eye, it is love at first sight for both of them. In order to win Lucia’s hand, he must first win over her traditional family and make the proper offer of marriage. Their love affair takes an unexpected turn as secrets are revealed, Lucia’s family honour is tested, and her own reputation becomes the centre of a sizzling scandal. Set in a time of possibility and change for women in America, in a city that celebrates its energy with style and elegance, LUCIA, LUCIA is the story of a girl who risks everything for the belief that a woman could – and should – be able to have it all.

When I want something to read that isn’t challenging, but is heartwarming, funny and emotional I turn for an Adriana Trigiani novel. Her stories, often based within Italian American culture, have feisty heroines, epic love stories, and wondrous descriptions of either food, clothes and shoe making, decorating or the music business. Lucia, Lucia begins as we meet Kit Zanetti, a playwright waiting to be discovered, who meets her upstairs neighbour. Lucia Sartori offers Kit some tea, and this evolves into a museum or gallery visit as Lucia shows Kit just some of the treasures she has accumulated over her life. Astounded by some of Lucia’s possessions, Kit asks for her story. So Lucia begins to tell a story that starts in 1950s New York when she was the most beautiful girl in The Village. She and her four brothers are brought up in NYC within a close knit Italian community and she is engaged to a lovely Italian boy, Dante. She also has a career she loves as a seamstress in a big department store. Worried that her marriage would mean giving up the job she loves, she decides to end her relationship. She is fighting against the very role her society expects of her – to become a wife and mother, with all of her energy focused on the home.

Then, John Talbot arrives on the scene. John is a businessman who appears wealthy and could take Lucia away from the ‘little life’ she was promised by Dante. She imagines a more upscale lifestyle where she can continue her work designing and creating on Fifth Avenue, plus have all the trimmings of an affluent home life. I kept thinking that this was a pipe dream and everything was going to go wrong. I understood Lucia. It wasn’t just about having money, but having choices. She wants the cushioning afforded by John’s money to pursue her own dreams without it being such a struggle. Yet, John has drawbacks too. He isn’t Italian for a start, but also he’s secretive and quite tight lipped about where his money is from. I worried that Lucia was being conned and that choosing John would be a harder path than she expects.

In-between this love story, Lucia has a wonderfully described trip to Italy with her family. Here Lucia discovers art and culture, swaps incredible recipes with her sister-in-law and even has a job offer from her co-employer. This is where Lucia could make choices that give her true independence, but is she now too entwined with John? Will she find herself choosing between marriage and a career after all? She may have to face more serious revelations about this man than she ever expected. It’s clear to me that John is a bad choice very early on, but I’m older and have made poor choices in relationships when I was young. Lucia doesn’t have that hindsight or experience. It’s easy to think she could have stayed with Dante and still worked as a seamstress, but we forget that before the contraceptive pill, marriage automatically meant children. Once children came along it would have been very hard to pursue a career as a designer, she may have been able to take in sewing, but not pursue a career.

There’s so much to like about this book. I loved the portrayal of the Italian American community and Lucia’s relationships with her family. The author gives us just enough information up front, but we don’t find out how Lucia’s life moved on until the final section when she finishes relaying her story to Kit. It keeps the reader engaged, because we’re dying to know how things worked out for her. This is a bittersweet novel that reminds us we can’t have everything in life. Many choices, no matter how hopeful and happy they seem, can come with a sacrifice in the long term. The sort of romance we see in the movies, all hearts, flowers and candlelit baths, is rare in real long term relationships. Living together, especially within a family, can be anything but romantic. However, if we prefer the hearts and flowers, we can miss out on the closeness and support in those tougher times. Lucia gives us the benefit of her hindsight as she evaluates her life, perhaps hoping to pass on this wisdom.

Meet The Author

Beloved by millions of readers around the world for her “dazzling” novels (USA Today), Adriana Trigiani is “a master of palpable and visual detail” (Washington Post) and “a comedy writer with a heart of gold” (New York Times). She is the New York Times bestselling author of eighteen books in fiction and nonfiction, published in 38 languages around the world, making her one of the most sought after speakers in the world of books today. 

Adriana is also an award-winning film director and screenwriter, playwright, and television writer and producer. She wrote and directed the award-winning major motion picture Big Stone Gap, based on her debut novel, filmed entirely on location in her Virginia hometown. Big Stone Gap spent 11 weeks in theatres in the fall of 2015 and was the #2 top-grossing romantic comedy of the year. She wrote and directed the documentary film Queens of the Big Time, winner of the Audience Award at the Hamptons and Palm Springs International Film Festivals. Her screen adaptation of her bestselling novel Very Valentine premiered on Lifetime television in June 2019, launching their National Book Club. She directed the feature film Then Came You, starring Craig Ferguson and Kathie Lee Gifford, filmed on location in Scotland. Adriana co-founded The Origin Project, an in-school writing program which serves over 1,700 students in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. Adriana is at work on her next novel for Dutton at Penguin Random House for release in 2021, and a children’s picture book for Viking at Penguin Random House for release in 2021. She lives in New York City with her family. 

Follow Adriana on Facebook and Instagram @AdrianaTrigiani or visit her website: AdrianaTrigiani.com.
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Posted in Netgalley

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea.

The sky is clear, star-stamped and silvered by the waxing gibbous moon.

No planes have flown over the islands tonight; no bombs have fallen for over a year.

___________

Orkney, 1940.

Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick. Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom. But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem.

Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire.

A storm is coming . . .

In the tradition of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Metal Heart is a hauntingly rich Second World War love story about courage, freedom and the essence of what makes us human during the darkest of times.

This book is stunningly beautiful, so much so that I had to sit and think in the quiet when I’d finished it. It’s so rich in folklore, historical detail, the trauma of war and bereavement that I know I could pick it up to read again and still find something new. I immediately ordered a signed copy for my forever shelf, because it is so special. What did I love about it? The Scottish folklore, the incredible landscape, the community, the dignity of people facing the hardest times of their lives. Then amidst the chaos, violence and confinement, beauty emerges in the shape of a deep, immediate, connection and growing love between two people who can’t even speak the same language. The counterpart to this human story is the Italian Chapel, built out of the scraps of metal huts and concrete the prisoners are allowed. Yet from these humble materials a building of true beauty emerges, that still stands today. It made me emotional to think about the lovers, but also the patience and faith of these incredible men who needed a place to worship, a piece of home.

Dorothy and Constance live on Selkie Holm, a small island close to Orkney. They are isolated outcasts, strange simply because of their doubling, but also because they’re thought to have bad luck. There are myths about the island and the selkie women that might lure a man into the water. People go missing there and the old fishermen who gather in the tavern love to swap old stories about the strange shapes seen in the water. It’s said that if you live there you might go mad. Besides, the girls have had bad luck enough with the drowning of their parents as they tried to row to Kirkwall hospital in a storm. People mutter that it isn’t right for two young girls to live there alone. Surely they must need other people? Yet, that’s exactly what Con doesn’t need. They live in the bothy because of a traumatic event that happened in Kirkwall and now she’s frightened of people, particularly men. So when it’s announced at a town meeting that Italian prisoners will be housed on Selkie Holm, Con is terrified. Their protests fall on deaf ears, since the sinking of the Royal Elm, Churchill has decided barriers must be built to prevent invasion. The prisoners will build the barricades and soon there are huts and barbed wire and men with boots all in Con’s place of safety. Worst of all, Angus McLeod has been given a job as a guard on the island and the girls want to avoid him most of all.

This is a story about freedom for all three main characters. Of course Cesare is the one literally behind a wire fence, but Dot and Con’s bothy is a prison of their own making. Watching each of them try to inch towards freedom in their own ways is moving and upholds my belief as a therapist that everyone is capable of change and even in the most straitened circumstances we still have choices. Cesare finds freedom in the infirmary where he is cared for, in the Major’s office helping with correspondence, in the building of the beautiful chapel and the first time he sets eyes on Dorothy or Dorotea in Italian. His utter joy at finding something so precious amongst the dirt, the heavy labour, the biting wind and the regular beatings, is hopeful and bittersweet. Just like the unexpectedly beautiful chapel, treasures are often found in the dirt.

‘Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’

‘‘Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’Up on the hill, the chapel gleams in the sun. I imagine the light pouring in through the window. The pictures on the walls will gleam with life. And, on the ceiling above the altar, a white dove soars through a bright blue sky. How does something so beautiful come from such darkness? The tears are flowing freely now, as I turn back to the people watching me and I force myself to say, ‘Thank you.’

Dot finds her instant love for Cesare overwhelming, but she never questions or doubts her feelings or his. Con often reminds her what men are capable of, that she can’t trust someone she doesn’t know. Yet, for the first time, Dot places a boundary between herself and her sister, simply saying ‘I am not you’. This isn’t a criticism of her twin, but just an assertion that she is different, separate, and so is her life. She also makes a point of going to work in the infirmary, leaving Dot at the bothy. This is the first time where Con can see Dot moving into a life beyond her, their psychic or spiritual link can never be broken, but to wake up and live without her physical presence must be terrifying.

For Dot freedom means the ability to live a life separate from her sister’s, but also beyond the shadow of Angus McLeod. Dot’s trauma affected both girls and when she couldn’t go out, neither girl did. They have spent every day and night together since. This wasn’t Dot’s trauma, but she stopped living just the same. Now she dreams of sitting in the warmth of Italy, with Cesare and his family eating wonderful food. The image is a mile away from the dark, cold and stormy reality. Con sees the changes in Dot, and recognises she’s drifting away from her. Fiercely protective of her twin, it takes her a while to realise that in Cesare, Dot has found a man who is gentle and won’t hurt her. She knows she can’t hold her back, but it’s a huge wrench, like giving away part of herself when so much has been taken from her already. Watching Con’s realisations about her trauma and the potential for healing was one of the most moving parts of the novel.

The historical detail in the novel is incredible. Caroline Lea writes in her acknowledgments:

‘I wanted the love affair between my characters to be constrained by time and intensified by the precipitous and perilous nature of war, so I took many liberties with timings and action. This was a very conscious decision: I’m painfully aware of the difficulties in fictionalizing real historical events and people and selling them as ‘fact’, especially when this involves taking on the voices of ‘real’ people: I was very certain that I didn’t want to do that.’

This explains her decision to change certain things: some of the history and geography is changed; the construction of the barriers was started by Irish workers; the sinking of a ship by German u-boat features the Royal Elm, not the Royal Oak. Yet the chapel, situated on Lamb Holm, is still standing and can be visited. Even the metal heart truly exists, created by metal worker Giuseppe Palumbi for an Orcadian woman he fell in love with. He had to return home to his wife and family in Italy and left the heart behind. By doing this she has made sure that no one’s real life experiences are encroached upon. This is definitely a work of fiction, although the amount of research and love for her subject is clear to see. The descriptions of the islands are simply stunning and the relentless sea is mercurial; one moment soothing and the next a punishing, vengeful god. The inhabitants of the islands intrigued me too, in the way they slowly integrated with these prisoners of war. Even the two girls, shrouded in grief and superstition, are gently supported by this generous community. Now the chapel is part of this community’s history, with the metal heart at its centre. It shows us that light can shine into the darkest corners and choosing to love, despite the pain and grief, can be the bravest stand we can take.

‘All across Europe, bodies are falling from the sky or into the sea, or are being blown high into the air. Every explosion is a name. Every lost life is carved on someone else’s heart. Every death takes more than a single life. It takes memories and longing and hope. But not the love. The love remains’.

Published by Penguin, 29th April 2021.

Meet The Author

Caroline Lea grew up in Jersey and gained a First in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, where she now teaches on the Creative Writing degree. Her fiction and poetry have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Fish Short Story Competition and various flash fiction prizes. She currently lives in Warwick with her two young children and is writing her next novel. Her work often explores the pressure of small communities and fractured relationships, as well as the way our history shapes our beliefs and behaviour.

Posted in Netgalley

Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan.

I absolutely love Ruth Hogan’s novels, because they have interesting, quirky characters that I always want to know more about and stories that are ultimately uplifting. I was immediately fascinated by Imelda Burova, with her Russian-Romany background and her gorgeous borzoi Dasha. Imelda has inherited her mother’s fortune telling booth on the seafront in Brighton. Not that Shunty-Mae has gone anywhere. She comes to help when the booth is busy in the summer season and has a disconcerting habit of sitting behind the curtain at the back then interjecting the odd comment when least expected! Imelda is invited to read for people as part of the entertainment staff at the holiday park and this introduces her to a whole new group of people. There’s the three mermaid sisters, a contortionist, Jeanie who has the voice of an angel and the dark, handsome wall of death rider Cillian. Imelda feels an immediate spark with Cillian, but Jeannie’s femme fatale friend Vivien makes it clear that Cillian is off limits. Book ending this tale of 1970s Brighton is our other heroine Billie, who is in a vulnerable place having lost her university job, her marriage and her mum. She receives some life changing news from her Dad, that sends her on a trip to Brighton to meet a mysterious woman who holds two brown envelopes. These will give Billie some clues to a mystery that has spanned forty years, and a love story that has lasted through time.

I really felt for Billie, who has reached a point in life where everything is changing, but she’s willing to take on the challenges she faces. She finds her seventy year old benefactress inspiring and starts to be drawn into the world of Brighton. She meets a family named after precious stones who run the cafe next door to the fortune tellers booth. She has help getting a new project off the ground with a lovely man called Treasure. Then there’s a man she meets on the train who travels all the way to St Pancras once a week just to play the piano. Plus a man who seems to be just a passing eccentric, using his elastic bands to send colour messages to the CIA or MI5, but who witnesses a crucial event that answers so many questions. In the time she spends in Brighton, Billy starts to feel at home. What could fate have in store for her here and is she brave enough to follow the path?

The earlier sections, told by Madame Burova with a heavy dose of hindsight, are so evocative of the 1970s. There’s an incredible bohemian feel to the interiors, such as the decor of the booth, the stunning gypsy caravan that sits in the garden for occasional sleepovers, not to mention Madame Burova’s wardrobe. Lush fabrics and vintage clothes float my boat so I was in heaven here. The central love story is brief, but all encompassing. Cillian is the perfect hero – I was thinking Peaky Blinders as I was reading him so it was hilarious to find ‘Cillian Murphy’ left on a page in the NetGalley copy! It shows that Ruth Hogan and I are on the same page when it comes to passionate love interests. He and Imelda are clearly made for each other, so watching Vivien try to come between them is infuriating. Not that Cillian helps, his taciturn nature and avoidance of fuss can lead to misunderstandings. Imelda isn’t sure whether he’s playing the field, but his eyes are firmly trained on her all the time. I was transfixed by the love story and hoping against hope that Imelda wouldn’t have her heart broken.

This is such a charming and whimsical novel, with a a huge side helping of nostalgia for the time of the seaside holiday heyday. A time when people did take their families to a holiday park and take part in all the entertainments on offer. I love the way Brighton fits Billy perfectly, with her vintage style, bowler hat and the opportunity she gets to potentially bring that retro vibe to the seafront seems perfect. Will she take the chance? More importantly, will the quest that brought her to Brighton and to meet Madame Burova, come to a happy end? I was satisfied with the end, despite the heartache along the way and came away with a real feeling of joy. Along with the apple blossom coming in and birds nesting in the garden, this book has been like a little breath of spring.

Meet The Author

A car accident led to Ruth Hogan taking her wish to be a writer more seriously and the result was THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS – a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. Since then she has had two further novels published, THE WISDOM OF SALLY RED SHOES and QUEENIE MALONE’S PARADISE HOTEL and for her fourth, MADAME BUROVA, she learned to read Tarot cards and developed a hankering for a traditional vardo and pony.

‘I live in a chaotic Victorian house with an assortment of rescue dogs and my long-suffering husband. I am a magpie; always collecting treasures (or ‘junk’ depending on your point of view), a huge John Betjeman fan and I would very much like a full-size galloping horses carousel in my back garden. As a full-time author I am living the dream, and I’m so grateful to all my readers for making that possible. I love hearing from you, so please feel free to drop me a line on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.’ From Ruth’s author page on Amazon.com

Posted in Publisher Proof

Another Life by Jodie Chapman.

Published by Michael Joseph, 1st April 2021.

Nick and Anna work the same summer job at their local cinema. Anna is mysterious, beautiful and from a very different world to Nick.

She’s grown up preparing fot the end of days, in a tightly-controlled existence where Christmas, getting drunk and sex before marriage are all off limits.

So when Nick comes into her life, Anna falls passionately in love. Their shared world burns with poetry and music, cigarettes and conversation – hints of the people they hope to become.

But Anna, on the cusp of adulthood, is afraid to give up everything she’s ever believed in and everyone she’s ever loved. She walks away and Nick doesn’t stop her.

Years later, a tragedy draws Anna back into Nick’s life.

But rekindling their relationship leaves Anna and Nick facing a terrible choice between a love that’s endured decades, and the promises they’ve made to others along the way.

Wow! I expected a love story and received so much more from this wonderful read. Jodie Chapman has managed to capture all of life’s stages as we to and fro through the years with Anna and Nick. Told mainly by Nick, we begin on Christmas Eve in NYC 2018, then we tumble back through the years: to when he meets Anna; to his childhood years and everything beyond. Everything we come to learn about Nick’s personality, his closed off manner and inability to let anyone close, is made clear by one childhood event. So dreadful and emotional that it brought me up short. I had to close the book for a moment to process it and think about what such a loss could do to a young boy.

Nick and Anna first meet in their early twenties, while working at their local cinema. In the heat soaked days of summer 2003, their love burns with a similar intensity, as only young love can. They seem opposites. Nick is quiet and has a solidity to his character. Anna is more intense and emotion driven. These differences could balance each other out, but instead they mean the relationship never fully catches light. Anna’s fervency could come from her deeply religious upbringing. Her beliefs are strong and part of her, not just as a religion but as a culture, a way of being. If she’s to throw that life away she doesn’t just lose her church, she loses her friends, her family, her certainty in the way she sees the world. Only promises of Nick’s real feelings could persuade her to let go of these ties. Yet Nick isn’t built for such intensity of feeling. His calmness and solidity come from a place of not wanting to feel such extremes of emotion. He closes off just when Anna needs assurances. It is a short lived romance that never fully gets off the ground. Yet, this is not the last time they will meet, as they are thrown together again several times over a lifetime.

Love in all its forms is celebrated here, not just romantic love, but sibling love, family love, and love of a religion or way of life. Nick and his brother Sal have such a special relationship, condensed into that opening section, which is set in Manhattan. Nick pours a lifetime of shared love and memories into just a few pages and it grabs you, it pulls you into the story. In a way Sal is more like Anna, more fiery and quick to share his thoughts and feelings. Despite this difference in their characters the brothers are very close. We’re taken deeper into their lives together later in the novel, almost as if Nick has had to take the time to open up to the reader. These chapters are infused with nostalgia for the late eighties and early nineties – probably because I was a teenager back then, but also because they have the feel of faded home movies and I could almost here the sound of an old-fashioned projector running in the background. The author lulls us into a sepia toned dream and then shatters our emotions again as we revisit that terrible life changing event, but in greater detail. We see that this has affected both brothers, but in different ways. It also feels like one of those moments where everything clicks into place and our understanding of Nick’s behaviour and personality opens up completely.

I understood the young Anna well, because I was brought up within the confines of religion. My primary school years were spent partly in Catholic school and I made my first communion and confession, then inexplicably my Mum jumped to an evangelical church which became all encompassing. It was our Sundays, then weekly prayer meetings, house group, youth group and social events. In hindsight I was being indoctrinated and at times my parents actually scared me, because their behaviour was so out of character. If I liked a boy, my head would start whirling with how much my parents might disapprove, how they would act, the constant teaching of purity and dating exclusively within the faith and its rules. Often I found myself in the painful position of ‘just friends’ with someone I really liked, because I was too frightened to go out with them. I understood that Anna needed to hear more about how Nick felt. Did he love her? She couldn’t wait and let things play out because she didn’t have the freedom.

Personally, I realised that I needed to face whether or not I believed in this system of religion, independent from my parents. Not for a relationship, but for me. Then, although we didn’t always agree, I could make my own life choices based on my moral compass and not someone else’s. This is something Anna needed to learn too, whether she wanted that religious life or something different for herself in the future, because within some religions there is no compromise. I did appreciate the author’s autobiographical influence here, because I learned more about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their faith. It gave me a more nuanced picture than I had previously and helped me understand Anna’s choices. I also loved the touch of having Anna’s emails and poems throughout, because it is the only way we hear her voice unmediated by Nick.

The background of Nick’s parents marriage was a great addition to the novel, because it shows us how two very different people can be together. Eve is one of those people whose warmth can light up a room. She’s also keenly intelligent, not just intellectually but emotionally too. She can definitely read the men in her life. Her husband Paul is hard to like, because he’s more austere and can be unpredictable. It’s as if he’s resentful of something, and while it’s hard to understand what that might be at first, Nick does eventually discover why his father was so difficult. From the outside, people would shake their heads and wonder why this couple are together and how the relationship works. Marriage is a secret room, and only the two people inside it truly have the key to open its door. This book also feels like a key. A key to the inside of Nick and how he sees his life and relationships. A privileged and rare look into how he truly thinks and feels, but only for those who open it’s pages. I feel very lucky to be one of those few and I hope you will too.

Meet The Author

Born and raised in England, Jodie spent a decade as a photographer before returning to her first love of writing. She lives in Kent with her husband and three sons. Another Life is her first novel, coming April 2021.

Instagram: @jodiechapman
Twitter: @jodiechapman