The Winter Garden by Heidi Swain #BookReview #ChristmasRead

Will love bloom this winter?

 Freya Fuller is living her dream, working as a live-in gardener on a beautiful Suffolk estate. But when the owner dies, Freya finds herself forced out of her job and her home with nowhere to go. However, with luck on her side, she’s soon moving to Nightingale Square and helping to create a beautiful winter garden that will be open to the public in time for Christmas.

 There’s a warm welcome from all in Nightingale Square, except from local artist Finn. No matter how hard the pair try, they just can’t get along, and working together to bring the winter garden to life quickly becomes a struggle for them both.

 Will Freya and Finn be able to put their differences aside in time for Christmas? Or will the arrival of a face from Freya’s past send them all spiralling?

My Review

After Freya’s employer, Eloise, who is more like a grandmother to her, sadly dies, she finds it impossible to work for the unreasonable new owner of the beautiful garden she looks after. So she can’t believe her luck when Luke Lonsdale, the owner of Prosperous Place garden in Norwich, offers her a new job and it comes with accommodation in Nightingale Square. While she works hard assisted by Chloe, a part-time volunteer, to prepare the garden for a winter welcome to the public she soon finds herself accepted as part of the close-knit community.

Luke’s problem with SAD each winter causes him to instigate a programme of weekend craft workshops. Freya lacks confidence but she is persuaded to share a workshop with another member of the community, and she spends a lot of time with Chloe, a young widow and with Luke and his wife Kate. Luke is thrilled to have found artist Finn to make statues for the garden from recycled scrap metal and has provided him with a workshop and accommodation. Unfortunately, Finn shouts at Freya’s beloved dog, Nell, so she decides to avoid him. But inevitably they are often thrown together, and she realises he was actually trying to avoid Nell becoming injured. Freya finds Finn attractive, but they are constantly clashing due to misunderstanding.

This is the third story about Nightingale Square but the first one I have read and it doesn’t seem to matter. The story deals with problems many of us have, dealing with the expectations of family and having the confidence of our own convictions. This is a great feel-good read for Christmas, but I also intend to seek out the earlier volumes in the trilogy.

The Winter Garden on Amazon UK

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan #BookReview

Could one rare plant hold the key to a thousand riches?

It’s the summer of 1822 and Edinburgh is abuzz with rumours of King George IV’s impending visit. In botanical circles, however, a different kind of excitement has gripped the city. In the newly installed Botanic Garden, the Agave Americana plant looks set to flower – an event that only occurs once every few decades.

When newly widowed Elizabeth arrives in Edinburgh to live with her late husband’s aunt Clementina, she’s determined to put her unhappy past in London behind her. As she settles into her new home, she becomes fascinated by the beautiful Botanic Garden which borders the grand house and offers her services as an artist to record the rare plant’s impending bloom. In this pursuit, she meets Belle Brodie, a vivacious young woman with a passion for botany and the lucrative, dark art of perfume creation.

Belle is determined to keep both her real identity and the reason for her interest the Garden secret from her new friend. But as Elizabeth and Belle are about to discover, secrets don’t last long in this Enlightenment city . . .

And when they are revealed, they can carry the greatest of consequences . . .

My Review

I have read many books by Sara Sheridan in the past, including The Secret Mandarin which also has an historical botanical theme, but The Fair Botanists is my favourite. The contrast between worldly wise Belle Brodie, the most expensive courtesan in Edinburgh and recently widowed Elizabeth Rocheid, who is modest and innocent, couldn’t be greater, yet they each bring qualities of independent determination and kindness to their friendship.

Gentle Elizabeth, a skilled artist, is grateful to be taken in by her husband’s aunt after he has left her almost penniless. Her new home at Inverleith House, borders the Royal Botanical Garden so she soon becomes acquainted with Head Gardener, Will McNab, who has given most of his life to developing the rich variety of trees and plants for a salary which is totally inadequate. Meanwhile, Belle mixes heady scents and room perfumes seeking the ultimate love potion to make her fortune. Avoiding emotional attachment, she keeps both “her gentlemen” happy and she is surprised to find her first real friendship with Elizabeth has become important to her.

Edinburgh is waiting expectantly for the arrival of George VI and events are being prepared by the writer Sir Walter Scott and King George’s 3rd cousin Johann von Streitz. Both men become an active part of the social life of Elizabeth and Belle and the portrayal of both real historical characters as well as the fictional heroines is convincing. We also learn of the lives of their servants, such as Duncan Tennent, a stableman who is sorely tried by the attention he attracts because he is an illegitimate son of the poet Robert Burns, Nellie, Belle’s unfaithful maid and the fascinating Mhairi MacDonald, a blind girl with fiery hair and the ability to blend excellent whisky.

The blend of secrets and subterfuge, gentle romance and the importance of work by the 19th century botanists told with a delightful humorous touch makes delightful reading. And you can’t beat Edinburgh for a perfect setting!

The Fair Botanists on Amazon UK

Sara Sheridan is a writer and activist who is interested particularly in female history. She has written more than 20 books.

Truth or Dare, her first novel received a Scottish Library Award and was shortlisted for the Saltire. Her novel On Starlit Seas, was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Prize in 2017. An occasional journalist, Sara has reported for BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and on ‘being a lady’ for Women’s Hour. In 2019 Sara re mapped Scotland according to women’s history for Historic Environment Scotland – the resulting book Where are the Women was listed as one of the David Hume Institute’s Books of the year 2019. In it, she imagined several monuments to the witches.

Sara mentors fledgling writers for the Scottish Book Trust and has sat on the board of several writers’ organisations. In 2015, Sophie McKay Knight’s portrait of Sara garnered media and critical attention at the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Lake Palace by Ann Bennett #NewRelease #TuesdayBookBlogs

India, 1944: Iris Walker, daughter of the British Political Agent in the princely state of Ranipur, is a volunteer nurse, caring for soldiers wounded fighting the Japanese on the border with Burma. One evening the maharajah invites Iris and her parents to a dinner at the Lake Palace, where she meets the enigmatic Edward Stark, a friend of the prince. Edward is dashing, kind and considerate, and the attraction is instantly mutual.

But Edward is en route to a special mission in the Naga Hills, meaning they have only days together before Iris is once again left alone. To distract herself from longing for Edward, Iris volunteers to work in a mobile hospital unit travelling behind the front line of the 14th Army where she sees the horrors of war first-hand and realises how precious and precarious life can be.

In 1985, Iris, newly widowed, returns to India on holiday. A visit to the now neglected Lake Palace, brings back bitter memories from the 1940s that Iris cannot now let rest. She embarks on a journey into the Naga Hills to uncover long-buried truths from the war years.

My Review

Two widows, Iris and Elspeth, have decided to revisit India where they lived forty years earlier. They were not friends then but perhaps now they will have more in common. For while Elspeth had spent the 1940s going to the club and socialising with her mother, looking out for an occasional eligible bachelor, Iris was a volunteer nurse who liked to spend her spare time cycling in the countryside.

Soon Iris has time to herself and so she decides to investigate what had happened to the love of her life, a young man called Edward whom she met at the maharajah’s palace. There had seemed no doubt that he also loved her, when he had to travel into the hills on a mission, but after one letter, she never heard from him again.

We go back in time to share Iris’s experiences working with the medical unit behind enemy lines near the Burmese border. The sorrow and suffering make her appreciate the kindness and devotion to duty of Nigel, one of the doctors, but soon they are both engulfed in the violence of war.

In 1985 Iris rekindles her friendship with Sharmila, remembering how she helped to heal wounds between her and her husband Deepak. This interlude connects to the story Ann Bennett’s book The Lake Pavilion, but the events are clearly explained for those who haven’t read that book.

As I have come to expect from Ann Bennett this story is well researched, taking us back to the contrasts of wartime India and the dying days of the empire. Iris is a likeable character who has so far made the best of life despite sadness and the story’s threads are connected in a final satisfying conclusion.

My review of The Lake Pavilion by Ann Bennett

Wilde by Eloise Williams #FridayReads #BookReview

Being different can be dangerous. Wilde is afraid strange things are happening around her. Are the birds following her? Is she flying in her sleep? Moving to live with her aunt seems to make it all worse. Wilde is desperate to fit in at her new school, but things keep getting stranger.

In a fierce heatwave, in rehearsals for a school play telling the old, local legend of a witch called Winter, ‘The Witch’ starts leaving pupils frightening letters cursing them. Can Wilde find out what’s happening before everyone blames her? Or will she always be the outcast?

My Review

Wilde is a magical story about an unusual girl in a 21st century school. Wilde Jenkins just wants to fit in, despite the name her mother had given her. She has left the boarding school where she was so unhappy and now staying with her aunt, Mae, at Witch Point where her parents grew up, she hopes life will be better in Year 6 at the local school in the hot summer term before they move up to Secondary school. But this is no ordinary village. The locals believe it was cursed many years earlier by a witch called Winter and unwisely, Gwyneth, an “outstanding actress,” currently resting, has decided to make the class act out the legend of Winter.

At first, making friends with a delightful girl called Dorcas, makes up for the class bully, Jemima, but when members of the class receive poisonous notes from “the Witch” suspicion falls upon the new girl. It doesn’t help that birds seem to follow Wilde and swoop down above her head. At first Dorcas remains loyal and, naughty boy, Lewis accepts her without question, but when Wilde finds herself in strange locations in the middle of the night, she begins to wonder about the stories she had heard of her mother.

The expressive language of the author enhanced my enjoyment and helped me to identify with Wilde’s predicament,

“It’s there, inside a cotton cover-all. The costume I’ve seen photos of my mother in. Hermia’s dress. It’s so beautiful. A shimmering moss-green with leaves around the neckline and a brocade skirt. Tiny gold threads run through the material and it has silver spiderwebs embroidered all over it. I’ve heard so many stories about it. It doesn’t feel real to hold it and know she once wore it. I feel a tear roll down my nose and plop on to the bodice. Then another. I have to sit back from the material or I’ll spoil it.

The theme of the story is friendship and acceptance of differences. Despite their friction the class follow the Year 6 code of keeping secrets within their group. Mae’s household contains a menagerie including the independent cat, Mrs Danvers, and Wilde is allowed the independence of traditional fictional heroines. A great book for middle grade and me!

Wilde on Amazon UK

My review of Seaglass by Eloise Williams

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