A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood (2018)

I was in a bookshop, looking for a very particular book, when I found a lovely distraction.

A beautiful cover caught my eye first, and when I picked the book up I learned that it held a period romance, a big house, a coming of age and echoes of certain books that I loved. And that it was set in Cornwall in the twenties; so of course I wasn’t going to put it down again, I was going to bring the book home.

Louise – Lou – lived in small Cornish village with her parents, her elder sister Alice, who was happily getting ready to marry her childhood sweetheart and several younger siblings. She were a happy, lively and loving family, and it was lovely to look into their home and their lives.

While she was delighted for her sister, and happy to share in all of the wedding preparations, Lou knew that she wanted something rather different. Because her great love was the written word; she was an avid reader and she had begun to write a novel of her own.

Literary pursuits weren’t always easy in a busy, noisy household, but Loufound sanctuary in the house and grounds of the Cardew family. They seemed to have abandoned their Cornish home, and so she told herself she was doing no real harm by eating their apples that fell from their trees, reading books from their library, and even lighting a small fire to warm her on cold days.

She was happily settled, with an enthralling novel and a small pile of apples, when brother and sister, Caitlin and Robert Cardew, returned to to spend the summer in their Cornish home. Louise panicked, but of course the evidence of her visits was undeniable. Luckily for her the siblings weren’t cross, they were amused, and pleased to find an bright and interesting young person, quite unlike anyone in their circle of friends.

They pulled Lou into their world, a world where she would drink champagne, wear elegant dresses, and attend their glamorous house parties. It was the kind world that she had read about, that she had conjured up when she wrote, but that she had never even dreamed that she would visit.  She loved it, but she quickly realised that the rules there were quite unlike the world she knew, and that she would have to learn quickly and think on her feet if she was to keep up with her new friends.

Lou’s coming of age is beautifully drawn. Her relationship with her sister, who wants nothing more that to live happily with her husband in her new home, is unsettled.  Her parents have the wisdom to understand that each of their children will grow to have different lives, and to give them the freedom to find their own paths. Lou loves seeing a new places and meeting new people, but she comes to understand that she must tread warily and consider carefully what is right and what is wrong.

Her story is very well told, by her in the first person. Her voice was lovely, the story flowed beautifully. It was simple, but it was profound, and the things that it had to say felt utterly right. The post-war generation is caught perfectly, the period detail was pitch perfect, and that made it so easy to be drawn onto Lou’s life.

I found it was so easy to identify with her, I loved seeing that story though her eyes, and everything that she felt, everything that she said, everything that she did rang true.

That makes the story quite simple, and some of the characters rather sketchy, because Lou has little experience of life to draw upon and has much to learn. And it makes me say that this a lovely book for a young reader and a simple, undemanding pleasure for an older reader.

The setting is Cornwall, but really it could have been any small seaside community some distance from London.

The obvious influences are ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘I Capture the Castle’ and I couldn’t help feeling that Lou and I would like the same books, and that if she had published a book I would love to read it.

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola (2018)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction, spun around historical fact, set in the 19th century.

When Audrey Hart reads an advertisement for a collector of folk tales on the Isle of Skye she can’t help feeling that it was meant for her.

She had a difficult relationship with her father and her step-mother; she was in an awkward situation at the orphanage where she had been volunteering. Her mother, who had a particular interest in folklore, had disappeared, had been presumed to have had an accident, while out walking on Skye many years earlier.

It was hardly surprising that Audrey felt the pull of the distant island that she had visited as a very small child.

She won the job, but when she arrived on the island and met her new employer, Miss Buchanan, she came to realise that her work would be rather more difficult than she had expected. The Highland Clearances had forced many crofters to leave Skye, and and the few who remained were adamant that they would not repeat the old stories to her

35276769That might have been because Audrey was an outsider from England; it might have been because they were obedient to the wishes of their minister, who was stern and strict and who preached fire and brimstone; but Audrey was sure that there were other, more sinister, reasons. The islanders seemed to be fearful of the consequences of having the tales that they could tell written down.

Then Audrey finds the body of a girl who had been missing washed up on the beach, when she learns that she is not the first girl who went missing on the island,  she begins to realise that something is very wrong on the isle of Skye and in all probability that was what made the islanders fearful.

Her instinct was to act and to ask questions, but she didn’t know who she could trust, she didn’t know where she was safe, and she began to wonder if her new job was turning into a terrible trap …

Audrey drew me into the story. I liked her, I empathised with her situation, and as the story progressed I came to share her hopes and fears and understand what she wanted to do and what she wanted to find out. I didn’t always agree – and there were times when I worried about her and feared for her – but I did understand.

I appreciated that she was bright, she was curious, but there was only so much that she could do; because she was a woman of her time.

There were mysteries in Audrey’s past, and as the story moved forward I would learn why she had been so anxious to leave her her father’s and stepmother’s home, why she things had gone wrong at the orphanage, and even what had happened to her mother, all those years ago.

The story was well constructed, the pace was well judged, and once Audrey had drawn me there was a great deal to hold me there. Her world lived and breathed. I could hear the sea as she did, I shivered in the damp misty weather alongside her, and I I knew exactly how she felt as she ventured into new houses and across harsh and unfamiliar countryside. I appreciated the understanding of the history of the island and the way of life of the islanders; the writing was lovely and the descriptive prose, the pictures that the author painted, were wonderful.

I was disappointed that the end was a little too dramatic; but it held my attention because very final revelation came at the end of the book,  it took me by surprise, and that the resolution of the story was satisfying.

I appreciated that this second novel sits well alongside its predecessor; and that it has exactly the right mix of things in common and things that make it different and distinctive. That said, I do think that the stronger colours of that first book suited Anna Mazzola rather better than the more muted tones of this one.

I found much to love though, and I am very interested to find out what the third novel will hold.

Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys (2018)

A few years after the end of the War, Eve Forrester is living a dull, monotonous life with with her husband Clifford.  Her mother engineered the marriage  after Eve  lost her fiance, Archie, in the war and tells her that she should be grateful, that she is lucky to have a husband and a home of her own. Eve  tries but she can’t quite manage it, because Clifford disregards her and is quite unresponsive to her efforts to be a good wife and to make a nice home for him.

One unexpected letter changes everything.

That letter comes from a solicitor in Cannes on the French Riviera and it tells Eve that Guy Lester has just died and he has left Eve a bequest that she must visit him to claim. Eve has no idea who Mr Lester was. Clifford is too busy to go, he doesn’t approve of married women travelling without their husbands; but as he likes the idea of a legacy,  and as all her expenses will be paid, he agrees that Eve may go.

And so begins the story of Eve’s journey and her time in the South of France – a lovely period piece, threaded with mystery and intrigue.

She makes friends on the train, but the Lester family are less than pleased to discover that a complete stranger has inherited a quarter share of Guy’s family home, the Villa La Perle; and they have no more idea why than she does. Clifford is also unhappy when he learns that his wife will need to stay at the villa to deal with all of the necessary formalities and legalities.

Soon Eve finds herself mixing not just with Lester’s suspicious family, but with film stars, writers and artists, and a whole host of others. It’s a world away from the one Eve has left behind and it helps her to blossom in the warmth of the sun and to find the confidence to think and act for herself.

It was all lovely to see.

Eve realises she must uncover the history that brought her to the South of France; and that is when accidents began to happen and she begins to wonder if somebody wants her out of the way …

I was captivated from the first page to the last.

I was very taken with a wonderfully diverse characters. Every one was vividly drawn, and as the story progressed I realised that everyone of them had depth and complexity . It has to be said that some of them were not very nice people, but there were enough that were – who cared and would be good friends to Eve – to bring warmth of the story.

I felt the warmth of the sun too, and Eve’s life in her new world is so well drawn that I might have been beside her, seeing the same places and the same people, asking the same questions. Some of the answers that she uncovered made my heart lift and some of them made my heart fall. Some of them I foresaw, and some of them came as complete surprises.

The period is beautifully evoked, and the consequences of war in both countries are drawn out. England is austere and rationing is still in force while the south of France is warm and colourful, but still haunted by the ghosts of the Nazi occupation. The author has clearly thought about this and about how to use it into her story, and she has used it very well.

The characterisation of Eve was lovely, and watching her grow from a downtrodden housewife to a woman ready to set her own course in life was one of my favourite things about this book. I also appreciated the stories of other women living with the consequences of war. There was one who was coming to terms with the loss of one of her sons, there was another who Eve could see was making the same mistake that she had – marrying the wrong man because another one might not come along ….

Rachel Rhys deployed her whole cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects, she caught her period and her settings beautifully, and she spun her slow-burning mystery story around all of that so cleverly.

There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and there were characters and storylines that I would have like to have had a little more or a little less time and attention.

Those are minor points though.

The resolution of the story was exactly right; everything that needed an explanation had one, and the book as a whole worked very well indeed.

Girl With Dove: A Life Built by Books by Sally Bayley (2018)

I was smitten as soon as I saw the title – especially the subtitle – but I would soon discover that this is a book about books and childhood quite unlike any other I have ever read.

There were times when I was enchanted, and there were times when I was bemused; and I have to say that this is a very eccentric memoir indeed.

‘Reading is a form of escape, and an avid reader is an escape artist. I began my escape the moment I started to read. Aged four, I already had sentences stored up; I knew some words and I could put them together in a line.’

I couldn’t help but love sentences like those, the lovely mixture of childishness and poetry in the prose, and the way that Sally Bayley completely opened up the worlds of beloved books, taught herself lessons from them, and drew their characters right into her world. She needed all of that to help  her through a chaotic childhood in an wildly unsettled household on the Sussex coast.

Three fictional characters — Jane Eyre, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and David Copperfield’s Peggotty in David Copperfield — became her touchstones; and they would inspire her to re-set the course of her life.

She put herself into care at the age of fourteen.

9780008226855.jpgThat might make you think of misery memoirs, but this book is nothing like that.

“What’s the difference between laughter and tears? They’re very close. I think it depends a lot on your character, whether you laugh or cry. Some people like moping about. Others wouldn’t be seen dead near a tear. Speak for yourself, but I’m a laughing sort of person.”

Sally Bayley launches straight into her story, and it felt like a stream of consciousness that was very nearly bursting its banks as it was so eager to show that stories and real life were inextricably intertwined.

The picture that emerges is of a bohemian household where people drift in and out. Her mother often took to her bed after her infant son disappeared from his cradle under the washing line and will always be unreliable; other relations – aunts and a grandmother – are a little more practical. Sometimes people are taken away in ambulances, and sometimes male strangers are found sleeping on the floor in the morning. One stranger is said to be her father, and he takes the family for a hotel meal; it was a treat but the children didn’t think that grapefruit for dinner a long way from the beach was a treat at all.

None of this is explained. Memories are scattered through the book, beautifully related, and you could just let them wash over you or you could try to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. You would never find all the pieces but you might find enough to form an idea of what the whole picture might look like ….

It was a little like reading Dorothy Richardson: creativity and confusion!

But it was the books that made the story sing. They offered reliable adults, younger kindred spirits, and so many other characters with stories that helped to explain the world and the people who passed through the household. The way that the worlds created by Christie, Dickens and Bronte merged with the world of one bookish child was sublime.

“Mr Dick’s brother places Mr Dick in a mental asylum. His family say this is necessary because of his madness. What they really mean is that Mr Dick is a peculiar sort of chap. Maze says that when you go all peculiar you are more than likely to find yourself flat out on the hallway floor without knowing how you got there. I think that Mr Dick was just too full of funny turns for this family to manage, After all, the hallway floor is a long way down.”

The child’s voice is perfectly realised, and it is so east to understand how and why she drew fictional characters into her life, and how the things they said and what she learned about their lives offered her away to navigate through her own life.

Of course it was Jane Eyre who made her realise what she had to do:

“Now, years later, I know for sure — it was Jane Eyre who led me away, Jane on her small brown wings. That winter I pushed aside the thick velvet curtain and I stepped onto the ledge. I ruffled up my brown wings; I flapped and flapped. Then I flew up into the sky towards the dark blue sea, where the Northern Ocean, in vast white whirls, coils around the naked melancholy isles; and the Atlantic surge pours in among the stormy Hebrides. I flew to the far off place where the spirit of Jane Eyre lived and breathes”

There were things in this book that I loved – the voice, the literary appropriations, the style – and there were things that I was rather less taken with – the stream of consciousness, the short chapters, the lack of clarity – and I imagine that it will divide opinions.

When I consider ‘Girl With Dove’ as a whole though, I have to say that I loved its spirit, I loved its energy, and most of all I loved that a child in an unstable world could be guided to her path through life by a love of words and language and by the reading of the right books.

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings (2018)

An author who can set a book in a place close to home that I know very well and at a time when I could have been there, when I could have brushed shoulders with one of her characters, and hold me through the whole story without ever doubting that her characters lived and breathed, that the events she writes about happened, is an author I am very glad to have met.

It takes more than authenticity to make a good book of course, and this book has much more than that. It has a wonderful understanding of character and relationships and it has an absorbing story where there is always something in the air; something like a great storm at sea moving closer and closer to the Cornish coast ….

In  July 1986 Tamsyn was a teenager, living with her mother, her brother and her ailing grandfather in the small town of  St Just in the far west of Cornwall. They were a close family but money was tight, jobs were few since the mine had closed, and they were still coming to terms with the absence of Tamsyn’s beloved father, a lifeboat man who was lost at sea during a rescue.

He had taken Tamsyn on walks along the coastal path, spotting birds, observing familiar landmarks, and admiring the beautiful art deco Cliff House. It was the second home of Davenport family, who lived in London and usually only visited for occasional weekends. Secure in that knowlege, Tamsyn and her father would even swim in the Cliff House’s pool.

Tamsyn continued to walk alone, and she observed the Cliff House more and more carefully. She is was entranced as she watched Mr and Mrs Davenport,  she was sure that their lives were quite perfect, and she wished that there was a way for her to step into their world.

When Edie Davenport, the daughter Tamsyn had never seen before and didn’t know existed, caught her swimming in the pool Tamsyn was horrified. But Edie was amused, and she was pleased to meet someone who might be a friend for the long summer holiday that her parents has decided to spend in Cornwall.

They were unlikely friends, but each girl was lonely and isolated and needed the other; and each girl had something that the other lacked. Tamsyn was drawn to the wealth and glamour of the Cliff House, but Edie’s life there was far from happy and she loved the natural warmth and welcome that she found in Tamsyn’s family home.

The drawing of that friendship is beautifully balanced, and I found that I could emphasise with each girl. Tamsyn is still grieving for her father and she is unhappy that her mother’s friendship with a local man might become a romance; while Edie is burdened by a family situation that she is unable to talk about.

I was particularly taken with Tamsyn’s mother; the portrayal of her as a mother, a young widow, a woman who knew that her children were growing up and that she still had a life ahead of her was pitch perfect.

Everything rings true.

The whole world of this book is beautifully evoked. I can’t quite place the Cliff House, but I can believe in two girls a few years younger than me, in everything that happened around them, in the whole story that played out just a few miles away from me.

I was completely drawn in, I cared and I wanted to know what would happen, and so I turned the pages quickly.

The only thing I didn’t  care for was the symbolism of the raven and the hints of what lay years in the future. It felt clumsy and it was a distraction from the story of what happened in the summer of 1986.

Tamsyn’s involvement with the Cliff House – and the presence of her brother Jago, who is burdened by his grief for his father and his inability to step up and be the man of the family in a time and place when there are no jobs and no prospects for young men – led to a chain of events that would have unimagined and unintended consequences for two families.

The story moved slowly and steadily, and I love the way that it twisted and turned.

It spoke profoundly the gulf between rich and poor, the impact on rural communities of economic decline, and the effects of bereavement, loss and grief.

It spoke of how different what we see on the surface and what lies beneath can be; and where the line between love and obsession, between reason and madness, might lie.

I loved it from the first page to the last.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (2018)

On a dark winter night, a book that promised to draw me back into the 19th century, into a story of family secrets and terrible crimes, called to me.

It began with a newspaper report.

‘This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type’

The Morning Herald, Tuesday 13 September 1831

And then it told me the story of Hester White.

Hester was a bright young woman who had very bad luck. Her childhood home had been a country parsonage, and she had been a much loved only child, but when her parents died, one after the other, she found herself alone in the world with no family to claim her. The elderly couple who had been the family’s servants took her in, hoping that the new parson would employ them and help the child. He did neither, and so they took her with them when they set out to look for work.

They struggled, they found themselves living hand to mouth in a London slum, and Hester learned some very hard lessons.

The writing was wonderful, I was very taken with Hester, and I was happy to follow her as the story unfolded.

It was maybe because she was worried about one of those missing persons that she didn’t look where she was going and was crushed by a gentleman’s carriage. She was badly injured, but she was lucky because that gentleman took her home in her carriage, he made sure that she had all of the care and attention that she needed, and then he made her  extraordinary proposal. He wanted her to stay, and to be educated by his sister; because he was a social reformer and he wanted to prove that slum dwellers could be educated, that they could better themselves …

Hester seized the chance of a new life, but things went terribly wrong, she received a warning and she had to flee. She found though that she couldn’t go back and that she couldn’t let go of the new life she had been promised.

I understood why she acted as she did, why she felt as she did, and I loved her voice as she told her story.

I was interested in the relationships I saw, and with the relationships that were growing, with people she knew in London, with the servants who looked after her at Brock House, and with the Brock family and the people around them. There was one person in particular, a relationship that was uncertain at first but became firmer and stronger.

I loved the way that the intrigue had developed. The Brock family relationships were strained and it was clear that there were dark secrets. Two of their servants were missing, as well as the missing Londoners, and it was by no means certain that Hester was safer there than she had been on the streets.

I wish that I could say that the playing out of the story was as good as the setting up, but I can’t.

It’s difficult to say why without saying too much, but there was a change of direction and it was too melodramatic and too far fetched for me, and the characters and relationships were compromised for the sake of the plot.

There were times when questions should have been asked, but they weren’t; because the plot was rushing forward to the finish.

It wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t right, and I couldn’t help thinking that the author was trying to do too much in one book and that there wasn’t the space to develop all of the different aspects of the story.

I loved her writing, I loved her ideas, but the book as a whole didn’t quite work.

The ending was infuriating. A door was very firmly closed, and then it was forced open again when it shouldn’t have been. I had thought the conclusion that I wanted couldn’t be, and just as I had accepted that I found that it had happened after all. It was right but it was wrong!

I can believe that a different kind of reader would love the whole of this book.

I can’t, but I found enough to admire in this book to be interested in seeing what its author does next.