Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Penny Heart - Martine Bailey - captivating

The Blurb

A historical novel of suspense, seasoned with recipes and remedies, THE PENNY HEART draws on age-old themes of cooking, trickery and revenge.
The North of England 1787. Sentenced to death for a simple confidence trick, Mary Jebb escapes the gallows … but her reprieve is harsh: seven years in the unforgiving penal colony of Botany Bay. Yet Mary is determined not to be forgotten, sending two pennies, engraved with a promise, to the two men who sealed her fate. Timid artist Grace Moore jumps at the opportunity to marry handsome gentleman Michael Croxon – happy if only to get away from her drunken father. But when Grace takes on a new cook, the two penny heart love tokens reveal she is tied to a world she didn’t know existed … A world of deceit, double-crossing, revenge and murder.

My thoughts

I KNEW I was going to love this one, from the enticing description to the delicious cover - I was captivated from the first sentence, and entranced throughout.

I'm a sucker for a very particular kind of historical novel, it must have a ring of authenticity, a strong female protagonist or two and a quirky, thrilling storyline. What it mustn't be is a bodice ripper, fluffy and feminine, an insipid romance.

The Penny heart ticked all my boxes, seized me by the wrist and dragged me back in time to the late 18th century where it beguiled me throughout. I was introduced to not one substantial female but two and immersed in the decaying grandeur of a crumbling mansion, presented with mystery upon mystery and whisked back and forth between here, and Botany Bay penal colony.

The two fascinating females are Mary Jebb, a cunning and enterprising orphan with skill at impersonating her betters and conning people. Her immersion into the criminal underworld of Manchester leads to her downfall when she is caught mid scam and punished with a death sentence from which a last minute reprieve sees her instead transported to Australia. Life here is cruel, brutal and unforgiving, so it's hardly surprising that she carries with her a desire for vengeance which gives her the strength to seek it out.

Meanwhile gentle, innocent, Grace Croxon, a dreamy artistic girl whose only burning desire is to escape the life of drudgery she endures at the hands of her spiteful alcoholic father who constantly belittles her every attempt to make something of herself. Salvation is offered in the guise of marriage to one Micheal Croxon and although they have barely met, she is relieved when he turns out to be handsome and debonair, that she feels an instant attraction to him seems to be the icing on her cake - or will it be her downfall?

In the faded grandeur of neglected, semi derelict mansion DeLaFosse Hall the two womens lives evenually cross paths and we begin to unravel a mystery which keeps us guessing throughout the book.

Each chapter is preceded by a recipe which features in the following chapter and as they become increasingly more bizarre I found it fun to try and guess just how and where this particular "receipt" would appear in the storyline.

The mystery is cleverly written and I went from being gently guided along and thinking maybe really nothing much was happening, to whoah, hold on, I wasn't expecting this!

The beauty lies in two admirably created characters and a strong sense of place and authenticity. I loved the book and felt quite bereft on finishing it. May I give my hearfelt thanks to the author Martine Bailey for very kindly providing me with a copy to review and for entertaining and enthralling me with her delicious storytelling skill.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The Tea Planters Wife - Dinah Jefferies - a new timeless classic

From the publishers description....

Nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper is newly married to a rich and charming widower, eager to join him on his tea plantation, determined to be the perfect wife and mother. But life in Ceylon is not what Gwen expected. The plantation workers are resentful, the neighbours treacherous. And there are clues to the past - a dusty trunk of dresses, an overgrown gravestone in the grounds - that her husband refuses to discuss. Just as Gwen finds her feet, disaster strikes. She faces a terrible choice, hiding the truth from almost everyone, but a secret this big can't stay buried forever . . .

My thoughts:

Loved this one. Classy, quality writing, a stunning historical family drama set in Ceylon in the 1920s.

The description and detail just oozes off the page and I was immersed in the life of Gwendoline a young Engliah woman, fresh off the boat who has come to join her new husband at his tea plantation. Faced with rather huge cuture shock Gwen is pretty adaptable and having come out to be with the man she clearly adores to bits, helps her fall in love with this beautiful country and the people, even if the way of life is comletely alien o her and she finds the caste system and ingrained prejudices of her new home rather difficult to accept.

What she also finds hard to accept is that her new husband Laurence, at first as passionate as she is, soon seems to draw away from her and his manner cools. Who wouldn't feel very alone in this foreign country running a large plantation house? Her cousin and friend Fran is back at home in England and despite visits, it's hard to maintain the closeness the used to enjoy. Yet there are many new folk who come into her life - all characters created with real presence and stunningly believable. There is Naveena, family retainer, her loyal and gentle servant. Savi Ravasinghe the charming and enignmatic local artist and Christina the pushy, wealthy American she just cannot warm to.

When Laurences feckless sister Verity arrives and shows every intention of moving in with them, could this be the opportunity for Gwen to have a close friend she can rely on? Nope, Verity turns out to be a wasp in the honeypot, spiteful and untrustworthy she proves to be the last person Gwen wants around.

When marital relationships improve and Gwen finds herself pregnant, surely now her cup is overflowing and she has all she needs to bring her happiness in this vibrant and exotic land?

Well..... No.

Things go from bad to worse for Gwen, yet she remains an innocent, very sweet girl, who you can't help but like and have sympathy for. The fact that she is so far from her natural home surely makes things harder for her to cope with when things go wrong. It's heartbreaking to watch from the sidelines as she struggles to make almost impossible decisions, cope with the consequences of her actions and above all hang on to the husband she has given up everything for.

When I began this book I didn't know much about life in Ceylon and the political unrest, but the author weves these facts in so adeptly that you absorb them withiut realising. The cuture and landscape are beautifully described and I felt I was there, sitting on the verandah, watching tiny creatures and colourful birds flit through the trees, walking in the grounds by the lake and waterfall surrounded by exotic flowers. The skill with which the author sets the scene is only surpassed by her skills at creating fabulous chacaters and weaving them into an irresistable story of family secrets and personal sacrifice.

The story has a timeless feel and I was in some ways reminded of books I read and loved over 40 years ago by Authors like Susan Howatch and Victoria Holt but the style is more contemporary, the writing slicker and the story sharper and more relevant today. Bravo Dinah this is a stunning second novel following on the heels of a lovely debut novel the Separation.

My thanks to Penguin UK via Netgalley for my review copy.

Updated with this lovely image created and shared by the author herself on Twitter

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