Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Italian Quarter by Domenica de Rosa

This book tells the story of the di Napoli family, the present story of Sophie and the historical background of her grandfather, Cesare.  Sophie is managing an ordinary life, she teaches English, looks after her cat and has an intermittent love life after her failed grand passion with Robertino in Rome.  All this changes when a journalist takes an interest in Cesare's war records and informs the family that he was a fascist and incited a riot whilst in prison.  Sophie realises that she doesn't truly know her grandfather or her family history and is keen to find out more.  She unravels a story of Naples and how her family moved to Clerkenwell and their drive to become successful.
This is Domenica de Rosa's first novel and I've already read her later books and enjoyed them.  There's many similarities in the warmth and affection shown towards her characters that I liked in this one.  Sophie's modern dilemmas were engaging and I preferred this to the rather large "lump" of wartime history that was thrown in.  Although interested I felt that it could have been woven through more carefully (which she has done far better in later novels).  Maybe my ignorance about Italian politics during WWII didn't help?!
For me the ending was a bit sudden and left to many open ends and although I did like many things about the book, overall I felt it needed tidying up a bit.  Three stars overall - but I do like this author.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Hester's Story by Adele Geras

Estelle Prevert escapes an unhappy childhood and becomes Hester Fielding, prima ballerina.  The story charts her career and the difficulties within her personal life through to her middle age when after retiring from performing she reinvents herself as the organiser of the Wychwood Ballet Festival where unexpected events force her to face her past.

Considering that one of my favourite books as a child was "Ballet Shoes", there were elements within this novel that I loved!  It was an indulgent holiday read and I devoured it in a day! Yes, it was predictable and full of stereotyped dancers, but the whole backstage, gossipy aspects made me feel twelve years old again!

Half-Truths and White Lies by Jane Davis

This book looks at the bonds between friends and family and the influence of people in our lives and also those that are missing.  It explores the idea of different truths and the lies people tell themselves as well as others.
Andrea Fellows relatively sheltered life is shattered when her mother and father are killed in a brutal road accident on their silver wedding anniversary. The apparently immediate demise into dementia of her maternal grandmother and the reactions of Aunty Faye and Uncle Pete, leave her questioning her own background.
The book shifts between the stories of Faye and Pete explaining the decisions they made, with Andrea's narration showing the unfolding story of her forgotten childhood.

This came as an Amazon recommendation ages ago and has been stuck on my TBR shelves.  After mulling over lots of historical fiction I fancied a change.
I enjoyed this one and found it a quick and light read.  It was fairly predictable, but not in a bad way. The characterisation was interesting but did leave me wanting more.  Andrea was convincing in terms of grief and the need to clarify her family situation but beyond that seemed a bit lacking.  I thought Faye had more potential and I didn't quite get Pete and his motivations.  Would he really have acted that way to save his friends marriage? Why did Faye help him? I didn't really buy into it being atonement for previous actions.  I thought the most interesting character was Tom (Laura's "dad") but he was also the most elusive.  As Tom dies in the first chapter, we never hear his voice and only see him through others eyes.  He's probably the character that goes through the most changes and I wanted to know more about him.  Laura (Andrea's "mum") suffered from the same problem and this was compounded by the adoration within Pete's narrative.  beyond being beautiful and the whole reason for the traumatic events, to me she was a completely self-centred and unsympathetic plot device.
Re-reading the above paragraph it sounds as if I hated the book, but I really didn't... if I'd gotten more from the characters I'd have rated it higher.  I thought the whole set up was interesting and thought provoking and I loved the nostalgic aspect of childhood in the seventies.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

This tells the story of Sally Naldrett, lady's maid to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon in the late nineteenth century. As a last resort to cure her mistress's consumption it is decided that Sally and Lady Duff Gordon will go to Egypt. Due to lack of money, the two women go alone. Egypt is a revelation to them both and although the move is initially shocking, the introduction of dragoman Omar allows them to settle and they "go native". They are less impressed with the ancient sites but enthusiastically embrace the Egyptian culture, its language and people; they encapsulate the move away from the restrictive expectations of the Frangi society but adopting traditional Egyptian dress.

Sally is loyal and proud to serve her mistress, but as time goes on and they settle in Luxor, they become further removed from their previous lives and the relationship changes. The household becomes more relaxed, Lady Duff Gordon becomes involves with local dignitaries and writes home about the unfair plight of the fellahin. Omar proves to be chameleon-like, with his quick ability to take on new roles within the household, including becoming Sally's first lover. On discovering their relationship, Lady Duff Gordon's retribution is terrible for Sally and made more painful by the continued support and affection she shows towards Omar. Sally struggles to cope with her rejection and seeks a new life whilst staying in her new adoptive land.

I hate to admit (being a total Egyptophile!) that I wasn't aware that this was based on real people and circumstances until I started reading the only excuse is that I'm an Ancient Egypt fanatic!! Pullinger does a beautiful job of evoking Egypt in the 1860s and I really wanted to love the book, however, I felt a bit let down by it, mainly because I didn't really get deep enough into the characters to understand their motives.
The first section was probably the most enjoyable. Sally is full of enthusiasm and loyalty; the novelty of a new start in Egypt is engaging and the descriptions interesting. However, Sally isn't a strong personality and her passivity means that she is always on the sidelines, and in the second half of the book, many events are described to her by other minor characters. Once she starts her affair with Omar, my interest drifted off...mainly as I couldn't understand why he behaved the way he did...was it love? Manipulation? He was so thinly drawn it was difficult to see what he wanted to achieve. Why was he so obsessed with maintaining his position with Lady Duff Gordon at the expense of his own family and Sally? Was he simply weak and overawed by his mistress or was there a master plan?
I also couldn't reconcile Lady Duff Gordon's treatment of Sally when she was her only link to her family in England and showed such empathy in other situations. It didn't gel and there was insufficient detail to make it work.
So, overall, it had interesting points and I loved sections of it, but fell a bit flat for me.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Encore Valentine by Adriana Trigiani

After her grandma's marriage and move to Italy,Valentine Roncalli becomes joint owner of Angelini's Shoes with her brother, Alfred.  Although not a partnership made in heaven, the determination to expand the business takes her to Buenos Aires to meet a long lost division of the family.  Gianluca, her Italian leather tanner and part time love interest is on and off the scene, but her friends and families marriages are under strain too and will this affect the choices she makes?
I've read most of Adriana Trigiani's books and loved most of them..."Lucia, Lucia" is a particular favourite! This one is the follow up from Very Valentine, which I read about 18 months ago and really liked.  The world of couture shoe making was interesting and the typically Trigiani over the top family was great entertainment.  Unfortunately, this one didn't quite hot the spot and I was a bit disappointed.
Firstly, I don't remember Valentine being such a wet whinge in the first book!  I found her increasingly irritating, mainly due to the fact that she has everything going for her (business, supportive family and friends and gorgeous Italian bloke panting for her!) and yet she dithers around feeling unsure or just moaning.  As a slightly more mature chick-lit heroine (35 years old) I wanted her to get a grip!  The shoe aspect of the book is less important in this novel, but the whole Buenos Aires section seemed a bit of a red herring and didn't really lead anywhere - unless there's a further book planned??!  Gianluca is gorgeous, but totally two-dimensional by being too perfect; okay, I know I like my flawed heroes and so maybe he's not my type (novelly speaking), but he's a paragon of patience as well as being far too well dressed and charming!  Quite honestly I wouldn't have blamed him for going off with Carlotta the Mink lady.  The two redeeming characters are June and Gabriel and even they fall into chick-lit stereotyping at times.
So to sum up - it's okay, inoffense and a light read but Trigiani has done soooo much better and am a bit "meh!" about this one.