Summer Sizzlers 2022

In your spare time in this hot weather why do anything more energetic than get into a good book…?

Read on for my summer reading suggestions – including my Book of the Season: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason


The Postcard from Italy by Angela Petch ****

You can’t get much more summery than this dual-timeline novel by Angela Petch set in Puglia, Italy, an area dear to my heart. In Italy in 1945 a young man wakes, bewildered by the bandages covering his face – because he remembers nothing. To the old man who found him he is his dead son Roberto. To Anto, he is a man who fell from the sky who needs to be nursed back to health.

Meanwhile in England in present day, antique shop owner Susannah is reeling after the death of her father. When she finds a postcard of an Italian farmhouse bearing a poignant message of love, she is intrigued. Did her grandmother Elsie have a secret lover?

Elsie suffers from dementia and is unable to give her the answers she is looking for, so Susannah travels to Puglia and manages to track down the Masseria in question. But who wrote the words on the back of the postcard and what are the connections with her family? Susannah feels strangely at home here in Italy. Could it be that this is where she will find her own love as well as the secrets of her past?

This is a story about lost memories and learning to trust and love. I adored the setting – the description is vivid, evocative and the historic element seems impeccably researched. I also felt a great warmth towards the characters – Angela Petch has a way of involving the reader and making her care about the outcome. Most of all however, it is Italy – the culture, the food, the history that came alive for me and made this a compelling read.


The Garden of Lost and Found by Harriet Evans ***

I have to admit that it took me a while to get into this book – but I am glad I persevered as it ended up being a compelling and emotional read.

In the contemporary story, Juliet, an art historian, is part of a complicated family who once lived in the beautiful but dilapidated Nightingale House. She now lives in London with her unpleasant husband Matt and her rather difficult (and also quite unpleasant) children, Bea, Isla and Sandy. What put me off this story was the way the entire family treated Juliet.

The historic story line however, featuring the charismatic Liddy and her artist husband Ned, with Mary, Liddy’s sister and the architect Dalbeattie was fascinating and gripping although also disturbing in places. After a troubled childhood of abuse, Liddy runs away to marry Ned and eventually he buys back the family home, Nightingale House. However, there is more tragedy ahead for the family and it is this that holds the plot together and provides the trigger for Juliet as she gradually uncovers the secrets of her ancestors.

Finally fed up with her treatment at the hands of Matt, Juliet takes the plunge to leave him, aided by the unexpected gift of Nightingale House in which to raise her family. However, the house needs a fortune spending on it and the children do not take kindly to being uprooted and moved away from their friends and their family. Juliet however, finds old friends in the village and a new job which has unexpected rewards.

I really enjoyed this book – especially the historic element – and once again, Harriet Evans weaves an evocative story around the past with the help of an unusual and gorgeous building.


The Distant hours by Kate Morton ***

Edie has always loved the famous and bestselling ‘True history of The Mud Man’ and she begins to suspect that the story may be connected to her mother’s childhood in more ways than her mother has ever admitted. Her mother was evacuated to Milderhurst Castle as a young girl during the second world war and this is the home of ‘Mud man’s’ creator, the author Raymond Blythe.

When Edie finds herself nearby, she decides to go and see the place for herself and she experiences a sense of déja vu – her mother denies it but Edie is sure that she has been here before. Edie is drawn into the history of the place and meets the daughters of the late Raymond Blythe – Persephone, Seraphina and Juniper, all old ladies now. But the more she learns from them, the more mysteries appear, and it is harder than ever to reconcile the evacuated girl with Edie’s straight-laced mother. How can she have changed so much and why?

The story moves between Edie’s contemporary investigations and the older story, told through the viewpoints of the three sisters. It raises many questions – what happened to Juniper’s lover Tom Cavill who disappeared mysteriously one stormy night? What has happened to Juniper, who seems to suffer from some sort of dementia, and why are the twins Percy and Saffy the way they are?

The dual timeline is woven with skill and as a reader, I felt involved with each character and their story. It is a long and at times convoluted read, but the author keeps the reader interested through a series of tantalising questions. One mystery leads seamlessly to the next, until finally the entire story is revealed. Not my favourite Kate Morton book but still highly enjoyable.


A Friend of the Family by Lisa Jewell ***

Lisa Jewell’s easy and fluent writing style is always a joy; she’s my favourite ‘go to’ author when I need an easy-reading book that’s guaranteed to keep me wanting to turn the pages. However, ‘A Friend of the Family’ is one of her older books and lacks the psychological thriller type twists that characterise her later work and I missed that.

Ned, Tony and Sean are the three London brothers whose lives are going wrong (partly due, we are told, by the fact that their contented and happily married parents Bernie and Jerry loved them too much). Ned has just returned from travelling, having left a mentally unstable girlfriend in Australia, and is finding it hard to adjust to the fact that everything at home has somehow changed. Tony, already divorced, is now seeing Ness, but while she is lovable and gorgeous, Tony knows she’s not ‘the one’ and that something is missing from his life. Sean has ‘made it’ with his debut novel but just as he thinks he’s found the perfect woman, everything begins to unravel.

Into this maelstrom of family discontent, steps Gervase, a new friend of the family. He seems innocuous enough – though eccentric – at first, but as time goes on, he gets more involved with the brothers. Gervase appears to have psychic powers. Perhaps he can help this family sort themselves out?

This is a nice idea and a great description of family relationships and exploration of male voices which is completely convincing (to this woman, at least). It may not have the twists and turns of some of Jewell’s books, but it’s still a satisfying read.


Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason *****

I loved this raw, emotional story and found it both hilarious and deeply poignant.

The narrator throughout is Martha, sister to Ingrid (mistress of great one-liners) and daughter to a gentle unsuccessful poet (her father) and an alcoholic, crazy and creative sculptor (her mother). The story opens when Patrick, Martha’s long-suffering husband, finally leaves her. We then go back in time to Martha’s childhood, charting the first time she ever met Patrick, a friend of her cousin’s.

Martha’s story is a sad one. From childhood, she has suffered from an undiagnosed and unspecified mental illness, which drives her to hurt those she loves; she has led a life of mental suffering and even attempted suicide. Life is also far from easy for her soul-mate Patrick.

We follow their relationship, their marriage, their break-up and what happens next. Although heart-breaking, it is also laugh out loud funny and the author has been very clever in making this contradictory combination work so well. Martha is mostly horrible and yet I empathised with her, probably because the reader gets to understand the inner Martha who is often not available, even to those she loves. It’s hardly her fault. The question remains though – can she do anything to change the way she is?

The writing style is honest and succinct. Not a word seems overblown or out of place. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking read. Highly recommended and easily my favourite book of the summer.


© Rosanna Ley
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