Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

I'm part of the Transworld Book Group! This book was read and reviewed as part of the Transworld Book Challenge. A dual time book linking the stories from both 1947 and the 1850's.
Martin still struggles to come to terms with the horrors he saw during WWII and so jumps at the opportunity to record the events of the end of colonisation in India for posterity.  His wife Evie hopes the move will allow them to get their marriage back on track but although their young son thrives in their new world, she finds life as a new memsahib difficult.  A chance find of old letters and journals from the mid nineteenth century enthralls her and finally give her the strength to make some difficult decisions.
Felicity was born in India but sent back to England for her education where she becomes great friends with Adela.  With the British Raj at it's peak they are expected to find good marriages in India, but they have other ideas and go "jungli".  Living an unconventional life they create scandal but find their own joy.
I found the main strength of this book was the vivid descriptions of the India which were lovingly done and full of colour and vibrancy.  For me the story of Evie was less interesting and although she finally learns to be less judgemental, I didn't really understand her.
The Adela and Felicity aspect was really good (although I felt the Sarah Walters touch was an unnecessary bolt on) and I wanted more of this, the difficulties of Victorian women taking charge of their own destinies are facinating and I became a bit frustrated in leaving this to go back to 1947!

I read "The Book of Unholy Mischief" by the same author and enjoyed it, but I do feel this is a more "complete" book.  It sweeps you up into a different time and culture and is well worth a look!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas

I'm part of the Transworld Book Group! This book was read and reviewed as part of the Transworld Book Challenge.

I was sooo pleased to get this book, as am a huge fan of Louise and loved her previous two novels.  This one is a bit different and certainly darker, but even better than I expected.

Sarah takes some time out in Sicily with her understanding sister and brother-in-law to try and make sense of her life.  The infidelity of her partner after the devastating loss of her baby son has left Sarah feeling rootless.  During her holiday she meets the charismatic Alexander and his charming young son Jamie.  She discovers that Alexander's beautiful and talented wife, Genevieve has recently left him and her need to be loved and to nurture leads her to the make the snap decision to move from Manchester to live with Alex and Jamie in Somerset as their housekeeper.
However, the move from city to rural life has it difficulties, not least the questions raised by the locals about Genevieve's sudden disappearance.  Is Alexander all he appears and what isn't he telling her?

In her acknowledgements, Louise Douglas mentions the impact of several classics as inspiration for this novel and it shows; it's brilliantly written and has a modern slant on the Gothic theme. It's very reminiscent of Rebecca in terms of the theme of previous wife and the secrets around her, and how the character that we never meet in the book can completely dominate. 

It's very atmospheric with a brooding, claustrophobic tension that gradually builds.  I read the whole thing in a day and stayed up late reading (despite it being the night before the start of the new school year) as I couldn't leave it without reaching the conclusion.   It's really difficult to review this book as I don't want to give the ending away, but it's a fantastic read, I can't praise it enough!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The House by the Sea by Santa Montefiore

Ten year old Floriana, an Italian urchin, abandoned by her mother and left to care for her alcoholic father, falls in love with the gardens of the Villa La Magdalena and the owner's son, Dante.  Convinced it's her destiny to marry Dante and to live happily ever after in the beautiful villa, she ignores the difficulties of money, class and Dante's dangerous father.
Forty years later, Marina and her husband Grey run a luxury hotel on the coast of Devon, but face financial and familial difficulties. Marina is relying on finding a resident artist to boost their income, but this seems unlikely until the charismatic, Argentine Rafa Santoro appears.  He sweeps in and makes everything appear better, but is he all he appears?

I have a bit of strange relationship with Santa Montefiore's books...some are fabulous, I sobbed at the end of "Forget-me-not Sonata" and I loved "The French Gardener", but a couple of the others have been disappointing, i.e. "The Affair" and some other suspects.  I keep buying hoping each new one will live up to my expectations...and this one, nearly did!
The dual stories of Floriana in Tuscany, forty years ago and the present day tribulations of Marina in Devon eventually weave together.  Maybe I read too many books along similar lines or am just familiar with the recurring themes in Montefiore's books, but I knew straight away where it was going and how Rafa fitted in.  I thought far too many clues were dropped when he first arrives at the hotel and so I dropped a star for being predictable!  However, it is beautifully written, particularly the Italian setting and I did want to go along with the ride.
The Italian story was interesting and I got a bit frustrated when it was stopped by the modern day, whinging Clemetine. Floriana's combination of toughness and idealism was understandable and engaging;  I thought Dante a bit two-dimensional, but his weaknesses drives the plot.
Marina is mysterious and contradictory, which is necessary.  Her relationship with everyone in the hotel, including her husband seems to be too needy and she lacked the spark that she must have had when younger.  Rafa is almost a "fairy-godfather" character!   He's too good to be true, but not in a bad way, I still loved him...gorgeous, wise, genuine...he comes in and spreads his fairy dust on everything and everyone, even the self-centred and spoilt Clementine.  Now this was a bit of a problem for me!!  I truly disliked Clementine, all the way through, even when she tried to redeem herself!  I get that Rafa is such a complete and special person that he could see through the "pain and damage" she'd done to herself in maintaining her hatred for Marina, but I couldn't see any redeeming characteristics underneath.  Clementine is spoilt, spiteful and allowed to get away with it and for no good reason - she should have got over it and grown up years ago.  It may be simplistic but I like characters to "earn" their happy ending and Clementine (for me!) came nowhere near!!
There's a lot of supporting characters that I didn't feel were really necessary.  I wanted to know more about Rafa's childhood and how he developed his ability with people, simply having good parenting didn't explain it all.  The whole Raffles/ Baffles plot was a red herring and I thought other parts of the book could have been further developed if it had been dropped.
However, even with my minor grumbles, it's a really pleasant wallow that takes you to another place (good holiday book) and I did enjoy it, so although not one (only in my opinion) of her greatest, certainly worth looking at.