Published by Penguin Viking, 23 July 2020, 368 pages, £2.99
I’ve been an avid fan of Dinah Jefferies since The Tea Planter’s Wife; always entranced by her divine descriptions of far-flung places, historical detail and quietly powerful heroines. It’s always the highlight of my year when a new Dinah Jefferies novel is announced. My favourite is The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, which is set in colonial-era Vietnam. This latest venture has an experimental approach and is set in Italy during the Second World War.
The novel has everything to love about Jefferies’ writing; the stunning scene-setting that makes you feel the warm Mediterranean breeze on the nape of your neck. It’s about two fascinating and very different women who fight for their freedom and the men they love: elegant and refined Contessa Sofia, and confident and daring Maxine, an Italian-American spy. Like all Jefferies’ leading ladies, they have admirable courage and learn about their identity through place. It’s also brimming with emotion; comforting joy, age-old love, passion, heart-ache, striking pain and unrestrained desire. You’ll easily marvel at the sheer beauty of the Tuscan landscape contrasted with the horrors of the German occupation.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find this as strong as her previous work. I was missing the exciting build-up of a central love story from the old formula, as well as the unassuming nature of the heroine. Sofia and Maxine are different from Jefferies’ previous characters and I found it tricky to connect with them, especially as the focus was split between them. Some passages were also quite long and slow at times, causing the momentum to slip and feel scattered. Even though this wasn’t for me this time, I appreciate the author’s attempt to try new concepts, the gorgeous writing and careful research.
Published by Penguin Viking Books, 21 March 2019, £3.50
Another true gem from Dinah Jefferies! Packed with gorgeous detail, mystery, humour, and romance. Any season, any day, any time- a new Dinah Jefferies book will whisk you away into an exotic vintage dream. After a few pages of The Missing Sister, you will be strolling down dynamic streets of 1930s Burma feeling the humidity and getting peckish for the local food.
Jefferies is already established as one of my favourite writers, her addictive stories are always flowing beautifully as the far-flung settings she visits. The Missing Sister is the most mysterious addition to her repertoire. It is about a young English woman called Belle, who takes up a job as a singer for a hotel in Burma. Her father had just passed away and she has no connections left at home. She recently found a newspaper clipping that stated how her parents were living in Rangoon when their baby daughter disappeared; a daughter that they had before her and that she never knew about. She decides to go to Burma, still under British colonial rule, to see if there are any remnants of her parent’s history and her past.
Racial politics and mental health are the two main compelling themes, especially the treatment of women suffering from mental health problems. Ignorance is recognised as the biggest enemy. Interwoven with Belle’s new adventure are segments of her mother’s life from a few decades earlier. These chapters are written in the first person, which compared to Belle’s third person POV are a little jarring, but certainly, thicken the plot. I love how Belle begins to connect threads of mystery and how friendly characters she meets along the way appear disturbingly suspicious. Moving melancholia and heart-fluttering moments punctuate continuously- and what a wonderful ending!
Many thanks to Georgia Taylor at Penguin for my review copy
Published by Piatkus Books, 31st July 2018, 384 pages, £5.99
Born to be Wilde begins beautifully, as all of Eloisa James’ novels, perfect for early morning commutes and lazy Sunday noons. It instantly claims you from the first few sentences and fills you with that warm, soothing glow you expect from a classic regency romance.
Lavinia Gray, friend of the scandalous Wildes clan who we were introduced to in Wilde in Love, is in trouble. The money has gone and her mother has committed crimes. In a fit of desperation she turns to Parth Sterling, unofficial Wilde member, bosom pal of her friends’ husbands and self-made rich bachelor. Despite being the one who has always irritated her, prickled her with his comments about her frivolity, caused her to retaliate with childish taunts, she asks for his hand in marriage. But he turns her down. That is what she expected anyway. Why would sensible, serious Parth want her anyway? And she doesn’t want a man who lacks understanding, compassionate and respect. As she comes to terms with her rejection, she realises how hurt she was. However, her proposal was not born out of love… or was it?
Parth has already chosen a perfect bride for himself. Someone who ticks all the boxes and is as practical as he is. When he learns part of Lavinia’s problems, he volunteers to find her a husband, the best candidate being a Prince. But he also finds it hard to get her proposal out of his head. When Lavinia realises she can earn money by doing what she loves best, she grows in confidence. Parth is able to understand her interests more, and the longer they spend time together on his ‘matchmaking’ trials, he realises that practicality is no match for what he has been denying for years.
I loved how the two MCs gradually accepted their feelings for each other. A deliciously stubborn coupling who bicker, clash heatedly and are drawn together like magnets. My favourite scene was a reckless rain-soaked one. Typical but quite necessary. We also follow Lavinia’s journey to earn independence and save her mother, learning about 18th fashion and addiction on the way. However, the narrative struggled to keep my interest towards the end and falls a little flat towards the final fifty pages. Still waiting for the best of the series.
Many thanks to Little, Brown/Piatkus for my copy xxx
To be published on 5th April 2018, Viking Penguin, 400 pages, £5.75
Courage. Grief. Passion. It always amazes me how Dinah Jefferies can create characters with such immense inner strength and intense vulnerability. Every year I wait to get lost in the sensory and emotional explosion of her writing. The Sapphire Widow is set in Ceylon during the 1930s. Louisa is a young wife besotted with her charming, handsome and charismatic husband Elliot. She is convinced they have the perfect marriage, but still struggles with their inability to have children and Elliot’s reckless behaviour. After the shock of his sudden death, strange mysteries and terrible secrets are revealed, exposing a side of her husband she had never known or truly acknowledged.
This novel was a real journey. Amongst the utterly gorgeous descriptions of the everyday scenes, sights and smells of Ceylon, Jefferies unravels a compelling tale of heart-break and betrayal. The reader slips effortlessly into Louisa’s routine, her inner thoughts, needs and anxieties. We are gently eased into a story about marital issues, which at first appear typical, but are soon revealed to be tiny cracks towards a dark mesh of secrets. After news of Elliot’s sudden death, Louisa discovers each of these with thrilling fast-paced succession. Whilst she struggles to process the consequences of Elliot’s behaviour, the reader tries to catch up with the baffling and dangerous turn of events. We then follow Louisa’s attempts to pick up the pieces, find some sort of resolve and move on with admirable composure. Jefferies writes about grief with tenderness and delicacy.
There is a small but stable set of secondary characters lending both uplifting support and grating antagonism. Louisa’s path runs into Leo, an owner to a Cinnamon plantation where Elliot spent much of his time. Silent, steely and sensitive, Leo is blatantly Elliot’s opposite. Her attraction to him is immediate but troubling. Is it her vulnerable need for companionship or the start of a bond stronger than her whole marriage? As she tries to negotiate her feelings, there is no doubt that she depends on Leo, who is the only link to one of Elliot’s mysterious legacies. A really absorbing read.
Many thanks to Penguin for my review. Can’t wait for another story soon…
Published by Piatkus, 31st October 2017, 416 pages, £8.99
Eloisa James returns with another heart-hugging and racy romp perfect for this season. As days darken and leaf strewn streets beckon us into the sanctuary of a warm reading nook, this book is ideal for curling up and warming the soul, with of course some pulse quickening moments.
It’s the first in a new series (although it never really matters which part of a romance series you begin with), set in the Georgian period and is an idol story. Lord Alaric Wilde returns to England from years of exploring and writing to find out he has become something of a sensation, with leagues of women devouring his books and plastering their bedroom walls with his handsome face. Confused by all the attention he retreats to his father’s castle to reunite with his family only to find a host of their guests fawning over his every movement. The one who isn’t the least bit interested (of course) is a young woman called Willa Ffynche. Spirited and witty, Willa is unfazed by his reputation and is frankly indifferent to him.
The fact that it’s a simple plot set in one location with a small circle of characters, is a testament to the author, who kept me reading into the night. The obstacles keep on piling. Alaric has to convince Willa that his interest in her, whilst other women are throwing themselves at him, is not because she is another unmarked territory to conquer. Willa, composed and sensible, finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the mere heat of his presence. James is skilled at creating tension without dialogue, just with the characters being in the same space. Even if Willa does succumb to her attraction, marriage with Alaric, who is followed eagerly by every newspaper, is the last thing that she wants if she is to have a peaceful life. James expertly drops moments of recognition and satisfaction, building towards a blissful ending with a note of suspense. She also throws in memorable quirks such as a delusional missionary and an intelligent skunk that helps save the day.
Published by Piatkus, May 30th 2017, 352 Pages, £5.99
I can think of no better way to kick off the heat wave than sinking into Julia Quinn’s world. This is a romance author that can do little wrong. I flew past this new installment of The Bridgerton Series. Like any of the series’, no prior knowledge is required. Quinn’s pens a world that effortlessly welcomes both newcomers and fans.
This little tale is about Cecelia Harcourt, a young women who learns of her beloved brother’s injury during war in the Colonies. Penniless after her father’s death and faced with marriage to an oily cousin, she dashes across the world to New York in the hopes of reuniting with her brother and taking care of him. Instead she finds his best friend, Edward Rokesby, a man who she had gotten to know through her brother’s letters. He is unconscious and clinging to life. Just when senior officers usher her away from the hospital, with little enthusiasm to help her search, she blurts out that she is Edward’s wife.
Edward wakes to the sound of her voice and recognizes her, the sister of his dearest friend. The one who wrote the loveliest letters. Letters that he looked a little too forward to reading. The problem was he couldn’t remember marrying her. His injury wiped away six months of his memory. But the fact that she claims to be his wife did not feel off-balance, given his circumstances. There was a comforting logic to it, even if it was a tad confusing. Here Quinn serves us a clever example of instant-love. For a reader who prefers the passionate hate-love transition, this was a charming start to the story. It was a situation that deepened without feeling flat. A case in which the language of truth and lies are no match for base feelings. Despite Cecelia lying for practical reasons, she finds that it’s not just morals getting the way of her revealing the truth.
As Edward gradually recovers, they help each other search for Cecelia’s brother feeling the heat snow-balling between them. Quinn successfully switches between endearing newlyweds to determined lovers. However, there were moments in which I thought the conversations pushed too long. Repeated comments about pretty facial features filled a page or two longer than necessary. I also wished there was more building of secondary characters, who rapidly flit in and out. The mystery of the brother was well sustained but wraps up a little awkwardly. But look forward to a heated and satisfying ending of declarations.
Many thanks to Little, Brown for my review copy xxx
Published by Penguin, 13th July 2017, 345 pages, £7.99
I spent the last week in Kenya. It was 1952, political unrest had taken a vicious turn and the young Queen Elizabeth is soon to be crowned. Eighteen year old Rachel returns to the country after spending six years in England during the wake of her mother’s death. Turning her back on this life, which included a stifling boarding school, cold nights at her grandparents and meager rationing, she looks towards her real home with a tentative, but relieved heart. Her father, who remained in Kenya, kept very little contact whilst she was away and she hopes to reunite with him and revive memories of her mother. However, on her arrival he remains distant and is living with an unlikable woman and her quiet son.
This was my first time reading Jennifer McVeigh’s work, recommended as being a fan of Dinah Jefferies. I think anyone who favours stories about young women negotiating life and love in an exotic setting would enjoy this. The time I spent with this novel was a warm escape. It started off with a very calming pace, like sun rays settling onto my back. I saw Kenya through Rachel’s young and hopeful eyes, its endless landscape, dusty beauty and rural way of life. As Rachel struggles to reconnect with her father and rebuild her childhood memories, she runs into Michael, a former tutor and local. The intrigue and attraction between the characters was there, but I didn’t feel their romance was full-bodied enough. Michael started as a masculine and intellectual enigma, revealing very little until the end. Their relationship leaned more towards silent acceptance rather than a heady whirlwind.
The slow pace that begins the story almost stagnates in the middle, leaving me wondering if there would be any action. It eventually picks up and speeds towards a dizzying tumble of events. The title ‘Leopard At The Door’, becomes more apparent towards the later half of the novel. Danger in multiple forms slink around. The story becomes stabbed with graphic violence (too much for my taste) as the threat of Mau Mau rebels looms closer. Not only this, but the deteriorating relationships in the house and the sadistic nature of the British enforcement close in. The novel also comments on the chilling treatment of women and mental health under Imperial rule and its obsession for sweeping issues under the rug.
The novel ends perhaps too quickly and wraps up with a mixture of unresolved acceptance, sadness and the survival of hope.
Published by Penguin UK, 23rd February 2017, 416 pages, £7.99
I am an avid follower of Dinah Jefferies, thanks to The Tea Planter’s Wife and even more so after the beautiful The Silk Merchant’s Daughter. Before the Rains is another installment about a plucky young woman overcoming personal struggles during the tumultuous period of her exotic setting and, of course, getting swept by a complicated romance.
Its 1930, Rajputana, India, Eliza Fraser is a young widow and aspiring photojournalist with the first big job of what she had been told was an impossible career. She is sent on behalf of the English Government to an Indian princely state to capture images of the royal family, the first ever English woman to enter its impenetrable palace walls. Having lived in India as a young girl, she has a soulful connection to the country which only blossoms when she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome and distant brother. Eliza enters the palace carrying her unresolved problems related to her father’s death in India, consuming guilt over her husband’s death and the alcoholic mother she left in England. Meeting Jay, who begins by being attractively disagreeable, helps her uncover mysteries of her past but throws her into a buffer position, having to navigate between England’s controlling grip and the might of Indian monarchy.
I wasn’t absorbed in this story as much as I was with Silk Merchant, the premise was not as heart-poundingly gripping for me. There is no question that the author delivers another vivid time portal, a VR version of prose. She captivates the reader’s senses with stunningly rich descriptions that read smoothly rather than in dense clumps. For about a week, I was in 1930s India, walking the shadowy halls of the palace with Eliza and smelling cardamon or riding into the dusty landscapes with Jay.
Yet the main structure of the plot was predictable but not in a comforting and satisfying way. The way events unfolded were far-fetched and felt more like the author connecting loose dots to summon meaning about fate and destiny. Some of the other characters felt like soap-opera stereotypes- the evil royal advisor, the long lost sibling. The relationship between Eliza and Jay had its sweeping and heady moments, but its whole appeal was of a forbidden romance guarded by race and ancient laws, hardly something memorable and absorbing.
Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy, eagery awaiting another Dinah Jefferies world xxx
Published by Macmillan Children’s, 9th February 2017, 464 pages, £5.59
I was so excited when I got my ARC of this, but unfortunately I did not enjoy it as much as hoped. I read the entire Lunar Chronicles this summer and it blew me away, bumping Marissa Meyer up as one of my favourite authors. The premise of Heartless seemed interesting enough- an origin story of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. I’m not a huge Lewis Caroll fan. I love the Jabberwock poem, but I haven’t read Alice in Wonderland in years and I vaguely remember the Disney movie. So I haven’t been interested in reading Caroll adaptations in the past. I was only reading this because of the author. I thought it was going to be like Fairest, the origin story of the evil Queen Levana in the Lunar Chronicles, tragic and fascinating.
Before she became a blood thirsty loon, Catherine Pinkerton was once a young vivacious woman who dreamed of opening her own bakery. But being the daughter of nobility, she was forced into a marriage with the tiny air-headed King of Hearts who was unfortunately besotted with her. She meets Jest, the King’s new mysterious court entertainer, who introduces her to new ideas, worlds, and most importantly, freedom. They enter a secret romance despite the inevitable danger. Meanwhile the Kingdom is being terrorised by vicious monsters with no hope of being vanquished.
I was quickly enchanted by Meyer’s world building which was beautifully and cleverly written. Magic, wonder and intrigue filled each description, from lemon trees that grow from dreams to dancing lobsters. There are so many allusions to Caroll’s creation, which was a nice unearthing of my childhood memories. Familiar and new characters slip in together naturally. Catherine is a very passionate and warm character. Her struggle for independence, which evokes Victorian female oppression, is very endearing.
However, I’m afraid this is where my interest ends. My reading of this book took two months, way longer than I anticipated. Instead of racing through to the end as I did the Lunar Chronicles, I kept getting distracted by other books. I had to ask myself why it almost went into a slump pile, despite having so much promise? I think at the end of the day, when you take away all the beautiful (and sometimes heavy) descriptions, which is primarily adapted from other works, you are left with a singular story line: a young girl with a dream who is forced to abandon it. I’m not saying this story is too simple, but in this case it doesn’t survive. The romance between Catherine and Jest developed too slowly and just wasn’t strong enough. This resulted in the shift in Catherine’s character at the dreaded ending being quite displaced.
Perhaps it belongs to more devoted Caroll fans. The only reason I am not giving it 2.5 stars is because of the beautiful writing which is undeniably impressive. I will, of course, still look forward to more of Marissa Meyer’s work.
I’ve been sampling a few vintage romances lately because I have been astounded with how they are so violent against women despite being a popular genre for women, see The Sheik (1919) and The Flame and the Flower (1972)as horrific examples.
I’ve read Georgette Heyer before; soft, sentimental regency dramas that have an uncanny knack to charm the reader and remain very much cherished to this day (you only have to walk into any library and see recent reprints taking over the whole book case). I chose Devil’s Cub (1932) because its been heralded as the more violent of the corpus. Apparently its part of a trilogy, but I didn’t notice this at all as the characters were re-introduced.
The story involves an abominably wild rake, Marquis of Vidal, who has earned the nickname ‘Devil’s Cub’ for his speedy chariot driving and ruthless killing of dueling opponents. In the first chapter, he shoots a highwayman and leaves him on the road without a thought. So this murderer plans on abducting the prettiest debutante of the ton to Paris to be his mistress. Unfortunately for him, this pretty, but brainless girl, has a smart older sister, Mary, who impersonates her sibling and goes to meet Vidal. Mary pretends that the trick was her sister’s idea, hopefully putting an end to their relationship and saving her sister from ruin.
Vidal, ever the beast, abducts Mary instead and threatens violence against her if she objects. Once they arrive in France the damage was done and Mary has no choice but to marry Vidal if she wants to return to England with her reputation intact. The alternative is to find employment at a genteel household, which she of course prefers. For some reason, Vidal becomes very possessive of her and refuses to let her leave him. The relationship is far from ideal. At this point, I wasn’t exactly drawn to their ‘romance’. I did warm to Mary, who is your typical plucky ‘plain Jane’ seeing right through Vidal’s hysterics, as well as being dignified and kind.
In the mean time there is added drama with Mary’s mother, who is delighted and persuading Vidal’s mother, a hot headed French woman, that a marriage must happen. Vidal’s mother rushes to France to put an end to the affair, followed by Vidal’s father, a once legendary rake in his day. Vidal and Mary get stickily entangled with another couple, Vidal’s cousin Juliana and her betrothed, who she plans on marrying secretly in France.
Despite the fairly entertaining mess described above, which heightens towards the end in a sword fight, the book is filled with very lengthy dialogues on topics like the rules of card games and social positions. Vidal and Mary have very few interactions, and most of them abusive on the side of Vidal except for the one occasion Mary draws a pistol, so I am not entirely sure how they fall in love. However, for some reason Heyer pulls off a satisfying ending which might have resulted from a balance between still dialogue and dangerous scenes.