‘Before the Blog’ Reviews | Pictures at an Exhibition (Camilla Macpherson) | The Underside of Joy (Sere Prince Halverson) | Hothouse Flower (Lucinda Riley) | Black Heart Blue (Louisa Reid) | The Good Father (Diane Chamberlain) | Stranded (Emily Barr) | Before I Met You (Lisa Jewell)

A few more of my favourite reads, reviewed and previously published elsewhere

Pictures at an Exhibition – Camilla Macpherson

Published by Arrow, April 2012

(Originally reviewed June 2012)

London, 1942

With bombs raining down on London, the National Gallery’s most treasured paintings have been hidden away. The authorities have decided that only one masterpiece will be displayed each month. And each month, Daisy Milton writes to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her about the paintings, her life – and the man she loves.

London, present day

A terrible tragedy has left Claire’s marriage to Rob in tatters and there seems little hope of reconciliation. Then she finds Daisy’s letters, written to Rob’s grandmother, and gradually, picture by picture, month by month, Daisy’s world in the 1940s becomes more real to Claire than her own. Slowly, too, she begins to notice intriguing parallels between both their lives.

But Daisy is from another time, and unless Claire can find a way to make sense of the past, she risks losing everything that she cares about in the present.

I hadn’t heard of this author before I selected this from Vine but I’m very pleased with my choice. I enjoyed this book immensely. I won’t repeat the plot as this has been done in detail by previous reviewers. I do particularly enjoy stories with a dual time frame and this book very cleverly wove Claire’s present day life with Daisy’s war time one. I did prefer the character of Daisy to Claire and in truth would have been quite happy if more of the book had been solely about Daisy and her life. I found Claire to be in the main, an unsympathetic character, wallowing in misery and being rude and ungracious to those around her. She vents her misery on her husband Rob and, in my opinion, holds him unfairly responsible for the tragedy they suffered, although by the end, I did find myself warming to her a little. Their marriage is virtually at breaking point when Claire starts to read the letters sent to Rob as part of his grandmother’s estate (his grandmother was Elizabeth, the recipient of Daisy’s letters).

I loved reading Daisy’s letters to Elizabeth, although as a previous reviewer has commented, I would have liked to have seen some of Elizabeth’s responses to these letters. We learn very little about Elizabeth and she remains a shadowy figure throughout the book. Daisy’s description of life during the war years was captivating and her lively character really shone through the pages, although as the war drags on and hardships increase, you can see her character changing and maturing. I don’t have a suitable phone to look at the pictures via an app but enjoyed looking them up on the internet to compare my view of the portrait to Daisy’s description.

I don’t know how Claire managed to restrain herself to opening just one letter a month – I would have opened them all at once – I was so intrigued by Daisy’s musings. Claire becomes obsessed with the letters and with Daisy’s life and the latter part of the story details her attempts to find out more about her. The parallels, or co-incidences, however you regard them, between the two women’s lives made the story even more interesting and Daisy’s love story definitely bought a lump to the throat.

This was an excellent debut and a book that I couldn’t put down. I would certainly be keen to read more by this author.

The Underside of Joy – Seré Prince Halverson

Published by Harper, May 2012

(Originally reviewed June 2012)

Losing a husband is virtually unbearable. Losing your children to the birth mother who abandoned them, whilst you are still grieving, is one heartbreak too far. It must not be allowed to happen …

Ella counts as her blessings her wonderful husband, two animated kids and an extended family who regard her as one of their own. Yet when her soulmate Joe tragically drowns, her life is turned upside down without warning, and she finds that the luck, which she had thought would last forever, has run out. When Joe’s beautiful ex-wife, who deserted their children three years earlier, arrives at the funeral, Ella fears the worst. And she may well be right to.

Ella discovers she must struggle with her own grief, while battling to remain with the children and the life which she loves. Questioning her own role as a mother, and trying to do what is right, all she is sure of is that she needs her family to make it through each day. Yet when pushed to the limits of love, Ella must decide whether she is, after all, the best mother for her children.

I fully engaged with this book within the first few pages. Ella was an extremely likeable character, if almost a little too perfect at times. She has a wonderful life in Elbow with Joe, and his two young children Annie and Zach. Tragedy strikes when Joe, her soulmate, dies in an accident and the ready made family that she has grown to love so much over the previous three years is under threat when Paige, the children’s mother decides she wants them back. She has to deal with the discovery that Joe hasn’t been completely honest about their finances and about his dealings with Paige and not only does she face the huge task of making sure they can survive financially when their livelihood is about to be taken away but has a battle on her hands to keep the children with her.

The dilemma that Ella faces in her quest to keep her family together is extremely well written and it made me think about what I would do if faced with that same situation. There were however times when I was willing her not to be so reasonable and to fight harder.

An engaging and thoughtful read with well written characters and a sensitively written storyline. For a debut novel this was excellent and I would certainly be keen to read another book by this author.

Hothouse Flower – Lucinda Riley

Published by Penguin, November 2010

(Originally reviewed May 2012)

A heart-rending page turner which sweeps from war-torn Europe to Thailand and back again . . .

As a child Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park estate, where her grandfather tended the exotic flowers.

So when a family tragedy strikes, Julia returns to the tranquility of Wharton Park and its hothouse. Recently inherited by charismatic Kit Crawford, the estate is undergoing renovation. This leads to the discovery of an old diary, prompting the pair to seek out Julia’s grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed Wharton Park.

Julia is taken back to the 1940s where the fortunes of young couple Olivia and Harry Crawford will have terrible consequences on generations to come. For as war breaks out Olivia and Harry are cruelly separated . . .

This promised to be one of my favourite genres, a dual time story, spanning the generations and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a very satisfying family saga, telling the story of the Crawford family, from Norfolk to Thailand and set both in the present day and the beginning and aftermath of WWII

The story starts in the present day with Julia Forrester, apparently a successful pianist. We gather she has suffered a tragedy – she’s grieving, not eating, and can barely function. Her sister Alicia tries to improve her spirits by taking her out – they end up at a sale of contents at Wharton Park, where they lived on the estate as children. Memories come to the surface, and when Julia again meets the current Lord Crawford (`Kit’), whom she last met as a child, the threads of the story then start coming together.

We then go back to 1939 to the start of Olivia and Harry’s story. I enjoyed their story far more than the present day one with Julia. Olivia was a particularly engaging character and, together with the characters of those around her, is very well written.

The two different time frames work very well together, and although I did see one of the twists coming quite early in the book, there is enough to keep you interested and turning the pages.

A very enjoyable read and one that I would recommend.

Note: This is also published as `The Orchid House’.

Black Heart Blue – Louisa Reid

Published by Penguin, May 2012

(Originally reviewed April 2012)

‘They tried to make me go to my sister’s funeral today. In the end I had to give in … I’d been walking in her shadow for sixteen years and I liked its cool darkness. It was a good place to hide.’

Rebecca’s twin sister Hephzibah was beautiful and daring. She was the one who always wanted more. The one who wouldn’t listen. Now she’s gone, Rebecca is alone.

While there were two of them, they stayed silent about their home life. But Rebecca, who knows the truth about how her twin died, suddenly finds herself keeping too many secrets. Hephzibah dreamt of escape, but failed. Could Rebecca be the one to find freedom?

Original and unforgettable, Black Heart Blue is not just Rebecca and Hephzibah’s story. It’s a story about all of us: a story about the lies we want to believe, the truth we sometimes can’t, and having the courage to discover the difference.

It’s quite rare that I feel so emotional when reading a novel but this certainly was the case with this story. It’s a very powerful and compelling story at which I felt sadness, anger and hope in equal measures. The story is told in two narratives of both past and present from two twin sisters, Rebecca and Hephzibah (Hephzi). The book starts with Hephzi’s funeral. We are not told why she died although as the book progresses, it becomes clear. Although they are twins, the two sisters are very different. Hephzi was the pretty one but Rebecca was severely facially disfigured from a birth defect. We learn about the relationship between the two sisters and that of their lives with their parents – a religious fanatic of a father and an indifferent mother.

There were times when the book horrified me at the way the girls were treated and it’s very true that you never know what goes on behind closed doors.

Although the subject matter is a difficult one to deal with, its not a depressing book by any means and I would wholeheartedly recommend it. The story certainly stayed with me long after I had finished reading it. I look forward to reading more from Ms Reid.

The Good Father – Diane Chamberlain

Published by MIRA, April 2012

(Originally reviewed March 2012)

A LITTLE GIRL, ALL ALONE, WITH A NOTE THAT READS ‘PLEASE LOOK AFTER ME’ Four years ago, nineteen-year-old Travis Brown made a choice: to raise his newborn daughter on his own. While most of his friends were out partying and meeting girls, Travis was at home, worrying about keeping food on the table. But so far he’s kept her safe. And never regretted his decision for a second. But now he’s lost his job, his home and the money in his wallet is all he has. As things spiral out of control Travis is offered a lifeline. A one-time offer to commit a crime for his daughter’s sake. Even if it means leaving her behind. Even if it means losing her. WHAT WOULD A GOOD FATHER DO?

Having enjoyed many DC books, I was really looking forward to reading this one and I’m very happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. The story is told from three points of view, that of Travis, the `Good Father’ of the title, Erin – a stranger who befriends Travis and his four year old daughter Bella, and Robin – Bella’s birth mother. The different narrations go back and forth in time and as the book progresses, the reader finds out more of the background to each character and how their lives become intertwined.

Travis is a devoted young father, now bringing up Bella single handed and due to circumstances completely out of his control, he finds himself homeless and jobless and virtually penniless. He tries to do his best to provide a secure environment for Bella but the decision he subsequently makes has shattering consequences for everybody.

Erin is the stranger who Travis and Bella first meet in a coffee shop, she has her own sadness to deal with but finds herself becoming closer to Bella when the two are unexpectedly thrown together.

Decisions made in Robin’s past meant that she has never been a mother to Bella. She has tried to make a new life for herself but can’t help thinking back to the man she once loved and the daughter she never knew.

All the main characters were well written and believable and Bella was just adorable. You could empathise with Travis’ efforts to do his very best for Bella, and you may not always agree with the choices he makes but you can understand why he made them.

I really enjoyed this book and found it an engrossing read. Definitely recommended.

Stranded – Emily Barr

Published by Headline Review, May 2012

(Originally reviewed July 2012)

What if someone wants you to stay missing? The unmissable new novel from the queen of psychological, suspenseful women’s fiction.

A British woman, Esther, travels alone to a paradise beach resort in Malaysia to get away from a relationship break-up. When she and a group of fellow tourists, each with their own secrets, find themselves stranded on a remote island during a boat trip, sinister things start to happen. Esther soon realises someone doesn’t want her to return from her travels – but who?

The book starts with a prologue, when you learn that something is terribly wrong when the narrator describes the ordeal of being stranded on a desert island. The story then begins.

I was pulled into the story from the start. The main character, Esther, was a 39 year old divorced mother of one, 10 year old Daisy. Esther was an extremely well written character, and one that I could easily identify with. She had decided to take herself off to Malaysia on a backpacking holiday, mainly to prove a point to her ex-husband who thinks she is incapable of organising such an undertaking. Her excitement, fears and insecurities about travelling on her own in a strange country and her encounters with the locals (some of whom are distinctly unfriendly) are so well described you could almost feel as if you were there with her as she makes her way to the meeting point for her island holiday. In fact all the main characters were well written and believable and despite their flaws, you couldn’t help but see the best in them.

The holiday is idyllic at first but then events takes a sinister turn and the true characters of the people with Esther start to emerge and the tension builds as the group begin their struggle for survival.

Interspersed with the main story are chapters by a character called Cathy who, going back in time, appears to be part of a religious cult. Later in the book, Cathy’s part in the story becomes clear and the two strands come together.

I really enjoyed the story, right up until about the last 70 pages and the book would have got 5 stars if it hadn’t been for the way it ended.  I thought the explanation towards the end was quite bizarre with plot holes and unanswered questions. The book definitely deserved a better ending.

This was my first read of this author and I would certainly be happy to read more. In fact, I do have other books by Ms Barr to read and I’m looking forward to them.

Before I Met You – Lisa Jewell

First Published by Cornerstone, July 2012

(Originally reviewed in September 2012)

Having grown up on the quiet island of Guernsey, Betty Dean can’t wait to start her new life in London. On a mission to find Clara Pickle – the mysterious beneficiary in her grandmother’s will – she arrives in grungy, 1990s Soho, ready for whatever life has to throw at her. Or so she thinks…

In 1920s bohemian London, Arlette – Betty’s grandmother – is starting her new life in a time of post-war change. Beautiful and charismatic, Arlette is soon drawn into the hedonistic world of the Bright Young People. But less than two years later, tragedy strikes and she flees back to Guernsey for the rest of her life.

As Betty searches for Clara, she is taken on a journey through Arlette’s extraordinary time in London, uncovering a tale of love, loss and heartbreak. Will the secrets of Arlette’s past help Betty on her path to happiness?

I really enjoyed this book with its dual time frame. The story alternatives between Arlette and her life in 1920’s London and that of Betty, her step-granddaughter, finding her way in the world on her own for the first time in London in the 1990’s, and tracing the footsteps of her grandmother whilst trying to track down a beneficiary in Arlette’s will, named Clara Pickle, who no-one in the family has ever heard of.

Both Arlette and Betty were innocents and of similar age when they left their island home of Guernsey for London life and we share in their new found confidence as they navigate their way through life, love and tragedy. Some wonderful characters make up the cast, each with their own back story. It is clear that a lot of research has been done, especially with regard to 1920’s London and this adds to the enjoyment of the story.

My one slight disappointment is that I would like to have known more about Arlette’s later life. I felt her story finished too soon however I still found it an engrossing read and look forward to Ms Jewell’s next book.


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