Friday, April 26, 2013

Before I Met You – Lisa Jewell

Ten-year old Elizabeth has her life thrown into turmoil when she, her mother and stepfather pack their bags and head from their bungalow in Surrey to a run-down, rambling, damp old house on top of a cliff in Guernsey. They have come to look after her stepfather’s mother, the formidable, eighty-four year old, Arlette, who has taken a fall and is in need of help. When the two meet for the first time, Elizabeth is determined to be miserable and uncooperative, but notices, as she looks down, Arlette is wearing red silk shoes with matching rosette’s which takes her by surprise. When they are introduced, the first thing Elizabeth can say is “I like your shoes” and from that moment on they fall in love with each other. A little later, after Elizabeth has been living there a while, Arlette says:

“…..And now here you are. In my home. And I have to say. From the first time I saw you, I liked you very much.’ Arlette smiled then and appraised Elizabeth with twinkling eyes. “I’d like to call you Betty, if I may?”


“Yes. In my day if you were Elizabeth, you were Betty. Or Bet. But Betty was more popular. And I don’t know, you just look like a Betty to me”………

More than a decade later, Betty, now in her early twenties, has become Arlette’s sole carer after she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Determined to be there at the end, she nurses and soothes her grandmother through the terrors of her illness during sleepless nights, until one morning she finds herself waking up after 9 a.m. with no interruptions. The moment she looks at the clock she knows Arlette has gone.

In her will Arlette has left the house to her son, and all her wardrobe, including her mink coat and jewellery to Betty, plus one thousand pounds. The rest of her considerable, albeit, diminished estate has been left to a mysterious woman called Clara Pickle, last known at an address in London. In all her years living with and looking after Arlette, Betty has never heard her mention the name and nobody else has heard of her either. Jumping at the chance to be free of Guernsey, Betty volunteers to head to London in search of Clara. The mystery deepens when Betty unwraps the mink coat and finds folded inside it an old children’s story book with an inscription, in Arlette’s handwriting:

To Little Miss Pickle
I do hope you will be a glad girl
Yours eternally,
Arlette Lafolley

When Betty arrives in London she is determined to find out as much as she can about her grandmother’s earlier years and when it transpires that Arlette had been living in London during the early 1920’s and was a trendsetter of the time, the story divides into two versions of the mystery; one told in the 1990’s by Betty as she uncovers the truth and one in the 1920’s by Arlette as we find out more about her and her trendy friends who are trailblazing through night clubs and jazz orchestra’s as they go.

This is a story of a girl’s devotion to her grandmother as she cares for her and is determined to uncover the mystery she has left behind. It is also the story of young Arlette in the 1920’s and Betty in the mid 1990’s, both hailing from Guernsey, trying to establish themselves and settle into life in London. After Arlette dies their stories run side by side throughout the rest of the book and sometimes even run parallel to each other. As the reader hears Arlette's story directly they are always one step ahead of Betty as she tries to find Clara Pickle and learn more about the young woman her grandmother was.

It is a lovely book and I was instantly drawn to Betty and her story, although it took me a little longer to feel the same about Arlette and her story, however, within no time of travelling back to the 1920’s I was with her all the way. The story is amusing, poignant, interesting and offers a tantalising glimpse into the life of a young, independent woman living the high life as one of the Bright Young People of 1920’s London. It also offers a little insight into the domestic life of a modern day 90's rock star, but, I will let Betty tell you about that!

I have read three other Lisa Jewell books and I believe this one is possibly the best, although I did love The Truth about Melody Browne which definitely runs a close second. Lisa Jewel offers her readers more than just the usual chick-lit romances (although there is nothing really wrong with some of those). Her stories are about believable people in real situations whose life doesn’t always turn out how they expect it to. This book leaves an impression and is memorable after it is finished. I will definitely read it again and can highly recommend it.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Very Picture of You – Isabel Wolff

Ella Graham is a portrait painter who has begun to gain lots of recognition for her touching portraits. Her sister, Chloe, is about to get married to Nate and for a wedding present she has asked Ella to paint his portrait which she intends to give him as a gift on the eve of their wedding. Ella is unhappy about this as she doesn’t much like nor trust Nate, even though she has only met him once. However, as she spends more time with him during their sittings, her initial opinions begin to change significantly.

Ella also has other clients she is getting to know more about, too: there is a beautiful French woman whose husband wants her to have a portrait painted as a fortieth birthday present, although she is reluctant; a lonely, elderly widow and a popular politician with a secret. There are many secrets floating around in Ella’s life, not least of all those her mother kept from her about her father so as Chloe’s wedding draws closer and preparations become more frantic, Ella is surprised to receive an email from her father, John, who she hasn’t seen or heard from for more than thirty years.

The Very Picture of You is a lovely story and an easy read. I almost inhaled it in during two big sittings it was so enjoyable. There are many things I love about Isabel Wolff’s writing and this book did not disappoint. She always draws such a full landscape of characters; this and all of the previous Isobel Wolff books I have read are not in the least bit confusing even though they are filled with more than one storyline; and she always provides great insight into the topic she is writing about, in this case, the life of a portrait painter. I particularly loved learning about the lives of the sitters through the eyes of Ella as she got to know them better. I had not realised how intimate a relationship a portrait painter can have with their clients.

If you enjoy an interesting story with a little romance thrown in then this is the book for you.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Snapper – Brian Kimberling

Bird researcher, Nathan Lochmueller, works in a square mile of forest in the backwaters of Indiana. His job is to map the territory, record details of the local bird population and report on their habits, antics and happenings. In the first chapter we meet Gerald, a sad, lonely, genius ornithologist working at Indiana University and the person who offers Nathan this unusual job. The two first meet through the enigmatic Lola, the love of Nathan’s life and a free spirited beauty who finds it difficult to be faithful to him, only coming back when she gets bored with her latest conquest. Lola and Gerald are neighbours.

In the following chapters we meet many of the characters who bring meaning and unique experiences into Nathan’s life. Amongst them are Shane, Nathan’s childhood friend and another of their school friends, Eddie, who later becomes the proprietor of Fast Eddie’s Beer and Burger Bar where the customers are encouraged to provide their own entertainment during events such as “Thong Thursday’s”. Nathan’s Uncle Dart, a big, bold Texan, makes an appearance when he stroll’s into Indiana bringing Texas with him. Gypsy Moth is born when Lola decides to decorate Nathan’s almost broken down truck with glitter painted butterflies and renames it. These are but a few of the vast array of characters that pepper Nathan’s life but none of them play as big a role as the birds in the forest and the townsfolk. It is really a story of Nathan’s love for his hometown, Indiana, it’s people and the lessons he learns from them.

The writing style is enjoyable with each chapter effectively forming a short story in itself, which then follow along, more or less, chronologically. Through them we weave in and out of various meaningful events of Nathan’s life from his early childhood to his job as a bird researcher, to his departure from Indiana and his eventual return. Some of the characters appear several times and some only once. When I read that Brian Kimberling grew up in Indiana and took part in a bird study project whilst studying at Indiana University, I was not surprised and began to wonder how much of this story is autobiographical. I don’t know the answer to that question but I do know that it is told with wit, humour and the author shows a great perception of the human condition. I enjoyed the matter-of-fact way character flaws in people are observed without judgement.

Snapper is a great read, sometimes laugh out loud funny and I now have a new found respect for the heroic antics of female ovenbirds and Kentucky warblers as they try to defend their nests. Brian Kimberling is now on my “Author to Watch” list.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Miranda’s Mount (UK edition) Girl vs. Earl (US edition) – Phillipa Ashley.

Miranda Marshall loves her job as property manager of the beautiful castle and old fort, St. Merryn’s Mount. Steeped in history and home to the Cornish aristocratic family, the St. Merryn’s, this beautiful castle is not just a museum, but, a welcoming place for visitors to have fun in the beautiful Cornish countryside and get to learn a little about the Mount's past. Working her way up from taking tickets at the entrance, for the last three years Miranda has held the role of property manage and has helped grow the business dramatically during that time, attracting more visitors and organising regular family fund raising events, which are bigger and bigger successes each year. Miranda is Lady St. Merryn’s eyes and ears on site and even though she seems to be slowing down a little recently, Miranda’s boss still has a keen interest in everything to do with the family home.

We first meet Miranda at the end of a busy day when she is doing the final rounds following the days visitors who have all left on the last ferry back to the mainland. She is surprised by a man who appears to be an intruder, brandishing a cutlass which he has taken off the wall in the Armoury. After Calling security to detain him even though she doesn't believe he looks like a madman, Miranda finally comes to realise that this is no intruder but Jago St. Merryn, rightful heir to the Mount and son of Lady St Merryn. Jago has been away from Cornwall, travelling the world for over ten years and is seldom mentioned by Lady St Merryn. After his father’s death, Jago left the running of the family home to his mother who had welcomed the task at the time after years of living in the shadow of her cruel husband, the previous Earl.

Jago is handsome and dashing in a Johnny Depp kind of way and Miranda is instantly drawn to him, in-spite of his wielding a cutlass and his silly antics in the armoury. Soon she learns, however, that Jago has a plan for St Merryn’s Mount and he is back to execute this as his mother is ready to take somewhat of a back seat in the running of the estate and let him take over. Before long it is clear that his intentions are not what Miranda or any of the people who work there want to happen.

This is a funny, witty love story filled with interesting characters, not least of all the family estate itself. St Merryn’s Mount is based on the estate of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and plays a huge role in this story. I was so drawn to this lovely place that I had to take a peep at the St Michael’s Mount website, just to see what it looked like ( I was not surprised when I saw a photo of it as Phillipa Ashley does a great job of describing the island fort and her love of the Cornwall countryside is clear.

This is the fifth Phillipa Ashley book I have read and believe it to be the best one so far. She delves into the personalities and motivation of the main protagonists decision making and there are also many other well drawn players in this story to get to know. They are humorous, sometimes not quite what they seem and the dialogue is believable and flows easily.

If you want an enjoyable escape to Cornwall for a few hours entertaining reading, then this is the book for you.

Miranda's Mount is published in the US with the title Girl vs. Earl