Posted in Netgalley

Summer Fever by Kate Riordan

This is a real sizzler of a novel! Hot in every sense of the world, set in picturesque Italy with a sense of growing menace all the way through. I read this one in the garden, with a Pimms in hand and with every chapter became more convinced of the old saying; the grass is never greener on the other side. Laura and Nick have been through a lot. Back in London they were struggling with infertility and Laura hadn’t felt like herself for a long time, the fertility drugs pumping her full of hormones and the grief of miscarriage left her feeling broken. When she discovers a betrayal, after Nick accidentally leaves his phone at home, she’s angry and resentful too. In his eagerness to make it up to her, Nick suggests they do what Laura has always wanted, move to Italy and create a holiday hideaway for couples. They discovered Luna Rossa on a visit to Italy several months ago, after which Laura suffered a third miscarriage. It is in the Marche region, a largely unknown area of Italy next to Tuscany, but less expensive. Luna Rossa is wonderfully isolated and just dilapidated enough to still be charming. It includes a pool, a small derelict cottage and beautiful grounds that fall away steeply gifting the house with incredible views across the countryside. Only a few months later they are preparing to welcome their first couple for a three week stay. It seems idyllic, but they’re taking a risk in welcoming complete strangers into their home. Laura has stalked her guest Madison on social media and she seems very outgoing and glamorous. Laura and Nick could be underestimating how disruptive it can be to have strangers living in your home, especially these strangers…

I felt the author set out Nick and Laura’s back story and state of mind very well. Nick is contrite and desperate to make it up to Laura for his indiscretion, but he’s sacrificed a lot to follow her dream and might have been desperate to make it happen at all costs. Laura is still resentful of Nick’s mistake and the trauma of infertility has left her a little lost, unsure of who she is anymore. With hormones still not back to normal and the sadness of losing a child she’s very fragile and could easily be manipulated. I got a sense that she wanted to recapture herself, the person she was before their fertility journey began. It’s as if she wants to take off her experiences like taking off a costume and simple be who she was before. It takes time to process trauma and assimilate the experience into your sense of self, something she’s barely started. There’s a reckless feel to her actions, almost a need to self destruct. I thought the author’s description of the miscarriage experience was brilliant, I’ve been there and recognised Laura’s confusion at some of the euphemism’s used by medical staff to avoid emotive language; using ‘products of conception’ rather than baby and ‘come away’ rather than loss. It rang so true and I had empathy for her. As we start seeing flashbacks of her life at university and her relationship with the man she loved, I found her curiously passive. This annoyed me, although I did realise later on that it might be a coping mechanism. She seems to slip away in her mind and so any trauma or difficult experience only happens to her bodily rather than emotionally, hopefully leaving her able to cope. Sadly it just leaves her divorced from her emotional self, like an observer rather than someone truly living that moment and feeling it. Shutting emotions out never works and her destructive behaviour is the bodily experience of those repressed emotions.

Once their guests arrive, Madison and husband Bastian, the tone is set for their stay. Gregarious and sociable Madison seems to suck Laura and Nick into her orbit and they’re soon acting like friends visiting rather than paying guests. This is inexperience on the couple’s part and ordinarily they might learn from it, but there’s an air of menace in the way Madison ‘plays’ with Laura. She dresses Laura up, is overtly sexual and likes to play mind games with her husband. Is it for herself, or Bastian’s pleasure that she does this? At a neighbour’s pool one afternoon Madison comes on to Laura with Bastian watching. He’s clearly enjoying himself, but is it just the titillation or is he enjoying Laura’s discomfort and confusion too? In these moments of challenge Laura is again curiously passive, going along with the moment rather than causing a fuss. There’s also a feeling of unease around the builders who turn up to see Nick, their disdain of Laura very evident in the way they dismiss her objections as if she knows nothing about her own house. Is this simply a chauvinistic attitude or is something more sinister going on? The tension is often at fever pitch, accentuated by the physical temperature and constant need to cool off. The author then adds sections of unbearable tension, such as the slightly ‘Don’t Look Now’ masquerade feel of the town’s medieval festival. The heat is unbearable and Laura is never sure who is behind the costume and has the uneasy feeling that they could have stepped back in time; the permanence of the ancient buildings seeming to mock her for feeling untethered and temporary. The author also drip feeds a little bit of stress into everyday life, such as Madison’s wardrobe making Laura feel she has to make an effort too. Nick notices she’s now wearing make- up every day and styling her hair whereas she wouldn’t normally bother. These changes show that Laura isn’t comfortable in her own skin, this pair have some sort of hold or influence but what is it? We are taken back in time to her university days for the answers and then the shock revelations surrounding the guests start to unfold. With secrets being kept about Luna Rossa too, the conclusion is explosive to say the least. This will make you wish you were in Italy, but not with these people.

Meet The Author

Kate Riordan is a writer and journalist. She is an avid reader of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie, both of whom have influenced her writing. She lives in the Cotswolds, where she writes full-time. The Heatwave is her fourth novel

Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Armin.

This is such an apt novel for the time of year, but I’ve found myself thinking about it recently for two other reasons. Of course spring is on it’s way, but this year is something of a personal renaissance. I’ve been shielding since the second lockdown, because I have multiple sclerosis and it means I have a few issues with swallowing and breathing. This was a personal choice, but thank goodness I did, because I did receive a government letter four weeks ago telling me I should have been shielding. A brilliant bit of irony. So now I can have friends come and join me for a dog walk or sit in my garden for a cuppa together. I can’t explain how joyful this makes me feel. I will feel connected to the world again – well, as much as I ever want to be. I can also have my hair coloured silver blonde with lilac dip-dye! Hairdressers here I come.

The other reason is that four weeks ago I moved to my new home. It’s an 18th Century cottage in a really happy village, and I feel like the real me is re-emerging. We’d been living in the city, on a relatively new estate and I had no idea how much of an effect this as having on my mental health. I was sitting on my reading couch at the weekend with the sun coming in, next door have an apple tree and the branches hang over the fence, so I can smell the blossom when I have the window open. On Sunday afternoon we had a pot of tea and our Easter cake outside in the garden, where an enormous jasmine hangs heavily on the wall wafting a heady scent over the whole garden. I started planning what I’d like in the garden across the seasons and that always feels like a corner has been turned. It’s as if we went into hibernation in winter 2019 and we’re only just coming out and that feeling reminded me of the characters in this novel.

The premise of the book is that a discreet advertisement appears in The Times, addressed ‘To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine’. On offer is a small medieval castle for rent, above a bay on the Italian Riviera. Four very different women – the dishevelled and downtrodden Mrs Wilkins, the sad, sweet-faced Mrs Arbuthnot, the formidable widow Mrs Fisher and the ravishing socialite Lady Caroline Dester – are drawn to the shores of the Mediterranean that April. As each, in turn, blossoms in the warmth of the Italian spring and finds their spirits stirring, quite unexpected changes occur. These characters drive the novel, as it is their responses to each other and to Italy that take centre stage. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are the first to respond, both ladies living resignedly, but quietly, in unhappy marriages. They are joined by Lady Caroline, a younger, beautiful woman who has found that her looks can be more of a burden than a blessing. Finally, there’s Mrs Fisher. A formidable woman who has a very strong will, which she tries to impose on the other women. The author is so perceptive when it comes to human foibles and how personalities rub against each other when living side by side. Tiny little acts of pettiness and selfishness can take on huge importance in these situations. However, what the author also shows is that one person’s character failing can have a transformative effect on someone else. One woman’s need to be in charge, inspires assertiveness in a quieter, more timid member of the party. The early chapters are a comedy of errors and miscommunication as the women try and often fail to understand each other.

The author deliberately creates an opening that feels like being under a rain cloud. The weather is miserable and cold, each woman feels unhappy or have lost themselves in some way. Then as they’re thrown together for this month in the castle we wonder if they’ll ever get along and if Italy will work its magic on them. The second half of the book feels like entering spring, the sun is shining and the surroundings start to work on each woman, even Mrs Fisher. The characters and the surroundings come into bloom. There are vivid descriptions of the castle and its gardens so the reader can really visualise the setting. It feels like a literary painting. Slowly, each woman begins their transformation. In the case of the married ladies, they invite their husbands to join them in Italy. Could this special place transform their marriages, relight a spark or remind them of the deeper love they once shared?

The movie version of the novel.

The novel is charming and light, without falling into whimsy or sentimentality, showing extraordinary skill in the writer. Despite barely having a plot, the book can be read as a satire on class and society post WW1. It could be read as a travel novel or just a study in how a different culture, characters and nature can soften and change us for the better. There isn’t a single character here who isn’t changed by the magic of Italy, and that’s the final reason I love this book. I was meant to get married last spring and go to Venice for my honeymoon. I picked the perfect hotel room with a double aspect and a balcony over one of the smaller canals. It would have been my third trip to Venice, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. The first time I visited we arrived at night and took a water taxi in the dark across the lagoon. We arrived at a small jetty and it was so quiet, just the sound of water lapping against the buildings. The lamplight was reflected in the ripples on the surface, as well as tiny lanterns as we stepped up into a small garden. We walked through a courtyard with pots, pergolas with hanging plants and the tiny points of light hanging within. It was such a surprise because gardens are rare in Venice, but there it was. I did feel changed by my visit. I felt amazed that such a beautiful place actually existed and that I could go there whenever I wanted. It improved my confidence, my creativity and taught me to go a bit slower. If I never go abroad again in my life, I’ll be happy because I went to Venice. This book captures some of that transformative feeling; its a witty and delightful depiction of what it is like to rediscover joy.

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) was an Australian-born British novelist who was married to a Prussian aristocrat. Her most famous works include Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Enchanted April

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Chalet by Catherine Cooper

Published: 12th November 2020

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0008400229

I have always felt that skiing was for a very different breed of people to me – people with money, balance and the ability to look stylish while dressed like the Michelin man. This book has confirmed my suspicions as well as leaving me addicted to the twists and turns of a dark thriller set in motion when two brothers go on a ski break in the 1990s. Adam and brother Will visit La Madiere in France with their girlfriends Nell and Louisa. Louisa and Will met at university, and she’s delighted to be asked to go on holiday but skiing isn’t something she’s done before. Will and Andy’s parents are middle class and the boys were on skis as soon as they could walk. They also have the sort of money that allows for quick ski breaks while at university whereas Louisa doesn’t. When Will says he will pay for it as her Christmas gift she starts to look forward to lazy mornings in fur covered beds, hot chocolate, plenty of sex and beautiful, romantic snowy views. What she gets is a more like a wooden dormitory with stodgy food and the boys bouncing out of bed at 7am in order to ski. Yet something terrible will happen on this holiday, that reverberates through the next twenty years.

The narrative zips back and forth between the 90s and the present day when a different group are on holiday in La Madiere. We meet Hugo, the slightly awkward owner of a travel company who has brought his wife Ria and friends to try out a luxury ski lodge, before adding them to his portfolio. In this narrative I was suspicious of everyone. Hugo’s wife Ria is more attractive than he is and knows it. She’s targeted him and accepted his marriage proposal on the basis that it’s better than living in poverty. She can think of worse men to be with and the lifestyle is exactly what she wants. We know that they’ve agreed to have children, but does she really want a family and what was she running from when they met? Their friends Simon and his wife have a small baby, but this first time Mum seems to be struggling and even disappears one morning. Hanging around are the staff from Powder Puff: Cameron the boss; Matt the lusty ski instructor and Millie the chalet girl with great cooking skills who caters to their every whim. There are simmering tensions between each couple, and possible diversions from both the skiing and their partners. I found myself unable to resist these chapters when I went back to them because I kept waiting for things to implode.

Finally, there is the interspersed narrative of a lonely little girl. She has been left alone by her Mum and is getting her own breakfast and holding tightly to her teddy for comfort. It’s clear that her mother isn’t coping, but this little girl’s distress is hard to read. I found myself wondering about what might have brought her mother so low. Even more addictive was trying to work out which character this little girl might be in the future. I jumped from one character to another and only fixed on one towards the end when a particularly big clue was dropped. I can honestly say I didn’t see every twist coming and I didn’t make every link from past to present. The author really did keep me guessing. The catalyst that brings past and future together is a huge storm, which closes the ski lifts and keeps everyone in their lodge, ratcheting up the tension. When the weather clears, a body is found. Disturbed by a fall of snow from a ledge, the body appears to be a man and has been buried under the snow for many years. This could possibly be the body of one of two brothers, missing since they were lost in a storm back in the 1990s. Past now meets up with the present as his brother is jetted in to identify the body. Who is going to recognise who? Finally, what of the ski guides employed to look after these brothers when they decided to ski off piste? Were they fired and if not, where are they now?

Cooper really does keep the tension throughout this complex narrative; handling several time frames and various narrative voices with ease. The luxury setting is lush, full of delicious descriptions of food, and lashings of alcohol that loosens tongues and possibly morals. The men are largely rich, arrogant and stupid. The woman more quietly manipulative, such as using a seemingly subservient position to assert power. There’s a lot of passive aggression here. I felt most for Louisa in the past narrative, she’s unsure, feels inferior in terms of money, status and looks. I also felt for Hugo who is a quiet man, ruled by his personal assistant Olivia and terribly awkward with customers. He has no idea that his wife engineered their meeting, or that she’s still taking her pill while he thinks they’re trying for a baby. He’s thoroughly decent and this book is about what happens when decent people come up against the unscrupulous and immoral, but in a thoroughly glamorous setting. Great, escapist reading.

Meet The Author

I am a freelance journalist living in the South of France with my husband and two teenage children. We moved from London in 2009 so that the children could grow up bilingual and we could all ski more, and to enjoy a more relaxed pace of life. I learned to ski on a school trip when I was 14 and have loved it ever since. I’m an avid thriller reader and have been since I discovered Agatha Christie as a child.

The Chalet is my first published full-length novel, though I have also written several (unpublished) thrillers for teens and a (what used to be called) chick lit novel set in TV production. Other than skiing and reading I love travel, rollercoaster, and I spend far too much time on social media. Some of my other favourite things include Alan Partridge, sparkly flip flops and salt and vinegar crisps.

You can follow me on Twitter @catherinecooper, Instagram @catherinecooperjournalist or Facebook @catherinecooperauthor