A predictable formula

‘The Villa’ – Rosanna Ley

4-star-rating

The Villa - Rosanna Ley

The Villa – Rosanna Ley

When Tess Angel receives a solicitor’s letter inviting her to claim her inheritance – the dilapidated but beautiful Villa Sirena, perched on a clifftop in Sicily – she is stunned. Her only link to the island is through her mother, Flavia, who left Sicily following World War II and cut all contact with her family. Could this be Tess’s chance to find out why? 

Initially resistant to Tess going back to her roots, Flavia realises the secrets from her past are about to be revealed and decides to try to explain her actions. She compiles a book of her family’s traditional Sicilian recipes as a legacy to pass on to her daughter and tells her story which began in the summer of 1944 when she rescued an injured English pilot in the countryside near her home in Cetaria and helped nurse him back to health. 

Meanwhile, Tess’s teenage daughter Ginny has lost her sense of direction. She is stressed by college and by her blossoming sexuality and consumed by questions that she longs to ask her father – if only she knew where he was. 

Tess, a qualified diver, discovers the beauty of the underwater marine conservation area of Cetaria and falls in love with her inheritance. But there is a mystery attached to The Mermaid’s Villa concerning the missing Il Tesoro. What is this treasure and what does it have to do with her family? Tonino Amato and Giovanni Sciarra both seem to want to help her find out. She is drawn to Tonino, who creates dazzling mosaics from sea glass in the ancient baglio and tells her of the myths and legends of Sicily. But Giovanni warns her against him. Why are they sworn enemies and who can she trust? Tess must navigate a way through the prejudices of Sicilian history and the opposition of her family’s enemies in order to find out.

Reading ‘The Villa’ very much reminded me of ‘The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris’ and ‘Better Days Will Come’ in the sense we are following grand-mother, mother and daughter, with flashbacks at how Flavia, Tess’s grand-mother, left her past behind in Sicily. As such, I felt this was quite a “safe” plot to follow and was confident from the beginning that this would work. However, I think because it was so recognisable from other books I have read, I couldn’t rate it the five stars I would normally.

The three stories of Flavia, Tess and Ginny all focus on a certain coming-of-age and understanding the path they wish to take. All three women experience the feeling of being trapped by family members and a lack of freedom about what they truly want to do. It was this theme of parallel stories that I enjoyed and it was endearing to see Flavia and Tess relate to their daughter’s situation in relation to their own past.

Despite Tess being the main character, I found myself more interested in Ginny and Flavia’s stories, only really getting interested in Tess until about two thirds of the way into the novel. I think it was because I was so curious about what ‘the Ball’ was that Ginny kept referring to (which, by the way, frustratingly isn’t actually explained until right towards the end of the novel); and I was really keen to understand the outcome to Flavia’s love for the Englishman. On the other hand, I could almost predict where Tess’s story was going and the rivalry between the two Sicilian men, Tonino and Giovanni, was just a bit too stifling for my liking.

All that being said, I did enjoy this read and was satisfied by the resolution at the end. All three women find happiness in their lives and it was comforting to see that the relationship between Ginny, Tess and Flavia become even more solid. There are lots of references to Sicilian food from Flavia and it certainly makes your mouth water! It would have been great if perhaps Ley had included a few of these recipes at the finish of the story, just to make them that even more authentic, but then it would have been even more similar to Jenny Colgan‘s novel.

I would recommend this if you enjoy women’s fiction like Jenny Colgan and Pam Weaver. The satisfying ending is heart-warming and it was very easy to enjoy. I think there are stronger coming-of-age novels out there, but this is so inoffensive and sweet, that you really can’t give this one a miss.

Sympathy for the lonely prof

‘The Professor’s House’ – Willa Cather

2-star-rating-1

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The Professor’s House – Willa Cather

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved—his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War—Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

Set after the First World War, this American novel follows Professor St Peter (yes, that is his name) who is resisting moving from his old house to a new build. Preferring his dingy yet comfortable study in the old house, the Professor cannot see why anyone would want to give up this comfortable space. The novel follows the Professor and his family, along with the ghost of Tom Outland. He died in the war and and left his then fiancée, one of St Peter’s daughters, a hefty sum of money. This creates a wedge between his two daughters and the entire story is haunted by the genuine warmth that Tom brought to the family.

The story is divided into three sections and the middle part tells us more about Tom Outland. Whilst it was interesting to read about Tom’s love for the treasures he discovers while out West, I found this section the most tedious. I understood the principles that Cather was referring to, but found the surrounding sections about the Professor and his family more of an absorbing read. I only wish that Cather had elaborated more on Tom’s discovery that led to him being so wealthy, and feel that I might have understood his character a bit more as a consequence.

I felt sorry for St Peter and how tiresome he feels towards life. Whilst his wife and family are off gallivanting in Paris, he is left, quite content, at home. When readers rejoin the Professor after Tom’s story, he is suddenly very tired of life around him and I felt so sorry for him that the rest of his family were not nearby. It is clear he held Tom in his highest regards and think that if given the opportunity he would do anything to spend some more time with his close friend.

I enjoyed reading this but don’t think I would read it again. The middle section was not as enjoyable as the rest of the story but I did find it clever how Cather made the Professor and Tom appear quite wistful in their ideals.

Divided loyalties

‘Enemies of the Heart’ – Rebecca Dean

5-star-rating

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Enemies of the Heart – Rebecca Dean

Berlin 1909, cousins Zelda and Vicky are about to meet the Remer brothers – an evening that will change their lives forever…

Vicky Hudson is only seventeen when she marries Berthold and moves from her idyllic Yorkshire home to Berlin. Adjusting to her new life isn’t easy, not least when she discovers that the Remer family are producing weaponry for the German army. With war looming, Vicky flees with her children, leaving Berlin, and her husband, behind.

Striking dark-haired beauty Zelda Wallace is eager to meld into Berlin’s high society and sever all ties with her American identity. But beneath her exotic looks, Zelda holds a deeply hidden secret that if revealed, could threaten everything she holds dear…

To sum it up, “wow”. Once I got started in this novel and got to know the characters, I couldn’t put down Enemies of the Heart. Spanning two world wars, this follows how a German-English family is tested through loyalties towards their country versus their own personal beliefs.

The way that author seamlessly moves the narrative away from Vicky and Zelda to their children meant that the pace of the story continued and it really did not feel like a 600-page novel. However, I was never left wondering what was happening to the other characters in different locations. The lengthy chapters covered several areas at once over a small time period and it was fascinating to read how the family’s lives were changing as a result of the Second World War in particular.

The constant fear that a member of their extended family had been injured or killed in the war kept the tension throughout the story. The lack of communication that the characters had with one another had me desperate to find out whether the family would be reunited at all and I was always wanting them to know that their siblings/parents were doing ok. When these small reunions did happen, it was a relief shared by the characters and myself alike and proved a relaxing respite from the terrors of the war.

It was incredible to read how each member of this family’s life became so different to one another. Although so many of the siblings lived in Berlin, their experiences of war were different yet, equally terrifying. Indeed, it made me realise the hardships that Germans suffered and provided an alternative angle to the Second World War, one that I had not previously considered.

Most of this book was read with my heart in my mouth as I feared each character’s actions would expose them as challenging the Nazi regime. Dean has you loving the characters and caring for them: wanting each to return to their loved one safely and for them all to be reunited. It is this that made this such an enjoyable read and one that I couldn’t put down. The evolution of all of the characters and narrative was a clever way of telling the story and I found that by the end of the novel, I had a connection with all of them, even characters who I didn’t really like at the beginning of this story.

I cannot recommend this book enough and would definitely read this book again. It does not drown readers in historical fact and the character lives that you follow are all varied. There is never a dull moment and the way that everything links together at the end was very satisfying. I am really keen to read other books by this author and if they are anything like Enemies of the Heart, then I know I am in for a real treat.

The Stravagante adventures continue

‘City of Secrets’ – Mary Hoffman

4-star-rating

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City of Secrets – Mary Hoffman

When Matt turns seventeen, he is shocked by how drawn he is to an old leather-bound book — especially since he is dyslexic and has never liked to read. But the book turns out to be far more powerful than Matt could have imagined. It is his talisman, an object that allows him to stravagate through time and place to a country called Talia. There, Matt arrives at Padavia University, where he meets other Stravaganti — including Luciano, who is in great danger after killing the head of the powerful di Chimici family in a duel. Together, Matt, Luciano and Arianna, a Duchessa in disguise as a boy, must fight the di Chimici family before they make a terrifying breakthrough into our modern world…

Mary Hoffman returns with the next book in the Stravagante series and if you liked her previous books, then you will not be disappointed. Set in Padavia, we are introduced to a new Talian location but, unlike the previous books, there is less of a focus on there geography and more on people, action and politics.

In ‘City of Secrets’ we follow Matt,the new Stravagante. He, like his predecessors, faces some modern, personal challenges to overcome and it is these that lead him to securing his talisman. The same characters return once again and they reunite to help Matt when he is in danger. Surprisingly, however, the Stravagante secret circle broadens a fair bit, with Matt’s girlfriend and Lucien’s parents finding out about the Brotherhood. I was quite surprised that Hoffman chose to do this, particularly with the offer that Matt’s girlfriend could “visit” Talia and felt that this lessened the magic of stravagation. Indeed, Lucien even returns to Islington a couple of times and I thought this did kind of go against the warnings he received early on in the series.

That being said I really enjoyed the politics and treachery of ‘City of Secrets’ and could not predict how the plot would develop. The ending is a bit of a surprise and, if I am completely honest, a bit of an anti-climax to what had happened previously, but I enjoyed the happy ending that prevailed. This time Hoffman finishes with an Epilogue and tied up all the plot strands very neatly.

I am really keen to see how the next story in the series progresses. It is clear that the political tensions from the di Chimici family are becoming more threatening for the Stravagante and I look forward to seeing them triumph over such a dangerous power. Definitely read this if you enjoyed the other books in the series because Hoffman keeps it fresh and enjoyable to read.

A story narrated by Death

‘The Book Thief’ – Markus Zusak

3-star-rating

Image courtesy of amazon.co.uk

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

HERE IS A SMALL FACT – YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. 

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

SOME IMPORTANT INFORMATION – THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.

It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.

ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW – DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.

I found this an unusual story and difficult to get into. Narrated by Death, this tells the story of a young girl, Liesel, who is taken in by a family in Munich after being given up by her Mother, at the beginning of the second world war. Once I was used to the idea of Death narrating Liesel’s story, I was bemused by the narrative voice and his opinions towards events. Indeed, throughout the book there are often asides from Death, providing small facts, lists, word definitions etc, that Liesel’s story does not provide.

Zusak explores the idea of the empowerment of words. It is through learning to read that Liesel is empowered and seeks to understand the meaning of words through reading books. She is content with reading her small collection of books over and over again; getting something a little bit different out of the story and finding comfort in the familiar words. As her story progresses, Liesel understands more about how words can influence others and some of the descriptions – both from her and Death – are quite poetic and colourful.

Death’s presence indicates an ominous ending and throughout the story I was always wondering how Liesel and Death would meet. Indeed, I felt fearful for when this time would come, and when Death would meet her close friends and family. As the second world war develops and the bombs begin to fall over Germany, readers know that it is only a matter of time before Death visits the street where Liesel lives.

Whilst this is a lovely story to read, I found the interjections from Death disrupted the flow of the story. Agreed, it is a clever way of narratimg a story, but I was a little frustrated with Death’s narrative voice and wanted to simply learn more about Liesel. As such, I found my mind wandering at times because I could not get stuck in to the story. That being said, I am glad I have finally come to read this book and understand why it is so popular. Like a fable, ‘The Book Thief’ demonstrates to readers the power and influence that words can give you and the closing of the novel provided a satisfying and comforting ending to Liesel’s story.

Immerse yourself into a weirdly wonderful recovery love story‏

‘The Gargoyle’ – Andrew Davidson

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The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson

A young man is fighting for his life. Into his room walks a bewitching woman who believes she can save him. Their journey will have you believing in the impossible. The nameless and beautiful narrator of The Gargoyle is driving along a dark road when he is distracted by what seems to be a flight of arrows. He crashes into a ravine and wakes up in a burns ward, undergoing the tortures of the damned. His life is over – he is now a monster. But in fact it is only just beginning. One day, Marianne Engel, a wild and compelling sculptress of gargoyles, enters his life and tells him that they were once lovers in medieval Germany. In her telling, he was a badly burned mercenary and she was a nun and a scribe who nursed him back to health in the famed monastery of Engelthal. As she spins her tale, Scheherazade fashion, and relates equally mesmerising stories of deathless love in Japan, Greenland, Italy and England, he finds himself drawn back to life – and, finally, to love.

I don’t think I could sum it up any better. Trust me, the book just sucks you in from the beginning and before you know it,  an hour has passed, and you’re already well into the story. Whether it is because of the intriguing first person narrative or the structure of the chapters which are in relatively short sections, once you get started you find yourself wanting to read on more and more.

This writer has definitely done his research into German history, religion and burns victims and mental disorders. It comes across as such a convincing tale yet so fantastical at the same time that the different plots just draw you in. The writer cleverly shifts between present day and Marianne’s 14th century tale, interspersed with wonderful love stories that just remove you from the weirdness that the book has running through it.

I’ve mentioned the ‘weird’ of this novel a couple of times now, let me elaborate a bit further. For starters,  the narrator is quite graphic,  both about his personal life and his sufferings from the accident. The descriptions in the opening of the novel are just something else and it is this style that catches your breath throughout. Secondly, it is difficult not to forget that the narrator is, basically,  a drug addict. So as the story progresses, you are always wondering whether this tale is a product of his morphine-induced hallucinations (which,  incidentally,  are not played upon by the writer). Finally,  because the development of the plot is so unusual and removed,  you are left sincerely believing that Marianne’s tale is true.

I was gripped right from the beginning and it didn’t take me long to absorb the story. Yes, it is quite bizarre,  but I truly think this is a book where you have to force yourself to be lost in the narrative. Go with the flow and if, like me, you close the book with a sigh of satisfaction,  then you know that you have just read an intense,  unusual, yet thoroughly good story.

A tale of unwavering friendship

‘Land Girls’ – Angela Huth

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Land Girls – Angela Huth

With the country’s men at war, it falls to the land girls to pitch in and do their bit… Stella arrives at Hallows Farm in her Rayon stockings, having just waved goodbye to the love of life – naval officer Philip. Agatha has just graduated from Cambridge; life on the Farm is certainly going to offer her a different kind of education. Prue, a hairdresser from Manchester, is used to painting the town red, not manual labour. Joe dreams of leaving the family farm and becoming a fighter pilot. But with the arrival of these three beautiful young women, there’s enough to keep him busy on the farm for the time being… Work is hard and the effects of war start to take their toll on the three women. But as the bonds of friendship start to form and excitement builds as the RAF dance looms, maybe life in the countryside isn’t so bad after all?

‘The Land Girls’ is a heart-warming story that shows how friendship can endure over time and destruction. Following the lives of three land girls in the second World War, Angela Huth looks at what it must have been like for them in terms of love, life, work and friendship.

The three land girls have such contrasting personalities that readers will find one who they can relate to and I think the author has deliberately done this to allow readers to immerse themselves in the story. Whilst you cannot ignore the fact this is set during the war and based on the real land girls, Huth uses some comedy to make light of what was a very bleak period. And I think it is this, and the relationship that exists between all of the characters, that makes this story so heart warming.

Following Mr and Mrs Lawrence as they adapt to having land girls is interesting to observe as the writer initially presents them as quite cold and stand-offish. In contrast, their son Joe spends the novel rebelling against what is expected of him by society and his parents and the reader can’t help but support Joe in his conquests with the girls, even if they really shouldn’t! On the other hand the reader follows Ratty, the farm’s old hand, and the changes he undergoes through working with the land girls. Whilst there is some sense of liberty at the end of the story, the reader can’t help but feel sorry for him and what he has been through.

This is definitely one to read. Whilst you know that Huth has fictionalised the story of the land girls and given it a heart – warming edge, there are plenty of elements to the story that make you sit and think about what life was like during the second World War. This will give you the escapism desired from a novel, but with the added dimension of its historical context.