Book Review: The House at the Edge of Night, by Catherine Banner

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_house_at_the_edge_of_nightOn a tiny island off the coast of Italy, Amedeo Esposito thinks he has finally found a place where he can belong. The newly-trained doctor is welcomed into the small community and marries Pina, the widow of a local school teacher.

However, “by noon on the day of Pina’s baby’s birth it was rumoured across the whole island that the doctor had delivered two babies, one his wife’s and the other, his lover’s.”

The scandal grips the inhabitants of Castellamare, it threatens Amedeo’s marriage, and causes him to be sacked as the local doctor. So he throws his life into restoring the House at the Edge of Night and reopening its bar to the public, as well as rebuilding his marriage to Pina.

The family saga unfolds through the many chapters and the reader delves into the layers which hold the family together throughout the book, which spans a long period from 1914 to 2009. It is a big read, 470 pages, but the story line flows easily and one is soon absorbed into the dramas of everyday life: floods, wars, storms and earthquakes.

A paratrooper washed ashore during World War Two is accepted into the Esposito family. Television also comes to the island, but when tourists begin to arrive, the islanders are forced to re-evaluate their lifestyles to accept that this may be how they earn their living in the future.

Catherine Banner was born in Cambridge and began writing at the age of fourteen, signing her first publishing deal shortly after sitting her final GCSE. She now lives in Italy but did her research for this novel while teaching in the north of England. This is her debut adult novel, and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves a family saga. Banner has divided the book into five parts and I enjoyed the inclusion of the old Sicilian and Italian folk stories at the beginning of these sections.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The House at the Edge of Night
by Catherine Banner
Published by Hutchinson
ISBN 9780091959333


Review & Interview: Under Italian Skies, by Nicky Pellegrino

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_italian_skiesUnder Italian Skies is the latest book by Nicky Pellegrino. Nicky was kind enough to answer questions about her book and I’ve incorporated them into this review.

Stella, a sensible soul, is faced with needing to reevaluate her life after her friend (and boss) dies. She is unsure what she wants to do in terms of employment, just knows that she needs new direction. She is inspired by the concept of a gap year, and comes across the idea of an international house swap. Unlike women portrayed in similar novels, she does not fall apart and she isn’t running away. She just creates a scenario where she can get inspiration. I asked Nicky(below right) if she had a real life inspiration for Stella:

pp_nicky_pellegrino“I tend to avoid change in my own life. But often it’s forced on us and we have to deal with it; which is Stella’s situation. I think she does panic to begin with because she’s a person who is used to having a plan and making things happen. Then when she comes up with the house-swap idea she throws herself into it with all the efficiency she brought to her working life. The character wasn’t inspired by any one real person but I guess I always take bits and pieces of things that people say and do, and end up stitching them into my stories.”

My favourite aspect of the story was the character of Stella. Stella seeks direction and in watching her do so, we learn a lot about her life, career, friendships and relationships. She is not defined by any of these domains and is a very well-rounded character. Nicky says, “I think about my characters all the time; like I would a good friend who was at a crossroads in their life. I might be driving along or walking the dogs or lying in bed or blow-drying my hair; but my brain is busy turning them and their situation over in my mind. So in the end they are real to me and hopefully to the reader.

I think in my books the story is generally driven by the characters, so it’s important they are rounded and balanced.”

A lot of books that are involve the protagonist visiting a foreign location see the setting through the character’s eyes only. The setting is there just to be different, and is really there just for the character to comment on its difference. I was really impressed with how strong the fictional ‘Triente’ came across in Under Italian Skies. This is helped by Triente having such a passionate advocate – the owner of the house Stella swaps with is keen for her to experience the region through visiting interesting destinations and meeting people. He enjoys her emails discussing her adventures and really wants her to love the house and Triente as he does. The beauty of the region is well explained, without being corny.

Maratea_real_trienteNicky Pellegrino spent her childhood summers in Italy and I asked if there was a particular influence for Triente. Nicky says,”It’s actually a real place, called Maratea (image to left), which is beside the coast of Basilicata in the south west of Italy. My father’s cousin has a house there which we’ve stayed in several times: that is what Villa Rosa is based on. It’s a beautiful area – kind of like Amalfi but without the crowds – but I changed its name because I wanted to be free to do a bit of creative “town planning”. There is a linen shop there though, that is very like the one in my books. And many churches and a harbour area with lots of seafood restaurants. It’s become a special place to me over the years.”

This is great sit-by-a-sunny-window read – an inspiration for creating change or resetting your life without requiring extreme chaos to do so. There are so many fantastic supporting characters – people who are helped by Stella as she is helped by them. I could think of real life acquaintances who remind me of these characters, so had quite a giggle. Under Italian Skies can be quite funny at times but its success as a novel ultimately rests in the strength of its characters and their interactions. I really enjoyed reading it.

Review and Interview by Emma Wong-Ming

Under Italian Skies
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Orion
ISBN 9781409150862

Book Review: No Mortal Thing, by Gerald Seymour

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_no_mortal_thingWhen a young Englishman on secondment to a Berlin bank witnesses a violent assault on a woman, he does what most of us would do – intervene and try to stop it. For Jago Browne, that sets in motion a chain of events that will test the mild-mannered banker and put his life – and the lives of many others – in danger.

The man who committed the assault is Marcantonio, grandson of Ndrangheta crime boss Bernardo Cancello. In Berlin learning how to channel the money his family makes from crime into legitimate businesses, he can’t resist demonstrating his power by earning a little on the side. Little does he know that his run-in with Jago will have devastating consequences for his whole family.

After reporting the assault to the police and realising no action will be taken, Jago takes matters into his own hands. Instead of going back to his safe job at the bank, he follows Marcantonio to Italy with the intention of teaching him a lesson. Helped by Consolata, a woman who hates the criminal gangs as much as he does, Jago ends up hiding in a cave on a hillside above the Cancello home. He has no idea there are two undercover police officers (Fabio and Ciccio) nearby and that his presence could sabotage a long-running surveillance operation to flush out Bernardo. What is Jago there for? Will he succeed where trained professionals have so far failed?

As you would expect from a book about a Mafia-style family, there are a number of violent deaths. Some historic deaths still haunt those involved years later, including a priest who shares a dark secret with Bernardo that he can’t live with any longer.

This book has a huge cast of characters and for that reason the first hundred or so pages involved a lot of flicking back to work out who the different names belonged to and how they fitted in. In addition to the various members of Bernardo’s family and inner circle, there are small-time English gangsters, undercover agents, a police prosecutor, and officers from several different countries. Every day they all live with the danger of discovery – but who will be the first to be exposed? Jago? Fabio and Ciccio? Bernardo? Or someone else?

The pace picked up about halfway through the book and the plot developed a few unexpected twists and turns that kept me eagerly turning the pages. However I have to admit I found the last chapter unsatisfying. Several loose ends and a final twist that I don’t think anyone would have seen coming left me a little disappointed with No Mortal Thing.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

No Mortal Thing
by Gerald Seymour
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 9781444758641

Book Review: Absence, by Joanna King

cv_absenceAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I was reluctant to face the four of us being together, and for a long as two weeks. It felt too close to what had been destroyed eighteen years ago.

Four sisters are getting together in beautiful Cinque Terre at Rose’s instigation. It is to be a holiday of relaxing and discovering the delights off the tourist track in some modest Italian villages. When Rose does not appear for dinner one night, she sets in motion an unveiling of the past and a dissection of present relationships. Each sister’s personality is displayed by their reaction to the alarming news and, in turn, the dynamics of the sibling relationships are also revealed.

Initially fearing what may have befallen her sister, the narrator and youngest sister, is greatly relieved to finally hear from her, particularly as she had been the last one to talk to Rose. The reason for Rose’s absence brings an unpleasant history back to the fore. The parents’ divorce eighteen years ago is still keenly felt, if not acknowledged, by each sister and has shaped how their own relationships are played out. Over the course of a few days, following Rose’s disappearance and shocking news, the narrator is forced to look closely at her own current relationship with Adrian – a man she cannot claim as her own. A keen-eyed observer of her sisters’ lives, she closely examines her own expectations of love, and reaches a conclusion she feels necessary.

As the story unfolds, so too does some of the family’s history, particularly that of Rose and the narrator; these two are the closest and share a secret that goes a long way to offer an explanation for Rose’s actions.’Laugh, laugh. I didn’t join the mirth. Where they saw subservience, I saw Rose seeking shelter from the storm of herself.’

Joanna King’s wonderful prose is at times full of imagery:
Along the stretch of beach below, the waves hardly appeared to make an effort to shrug their shoulders before they subsided in tranquillity.

At other times, it is lyrical stream of consciousness:
Breathe the night.
Oh, yes.
It’s not often I’m this light.
It’s not often the past has so little hold. I possess the present. That’s all I can live.
That’s all that possesses me…
… Light brain, sly brain, light head, I hardly know what to do.

This makes for vivid and thought-provoking, if somewhat challenging, reading and it pulls you into the lives of these sisters, compelling you to immerse yourself in the intrigues and dynamics of the family, making you hope that they all find contentment and happiness.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

by Joanna King
Published by Black Swan (Penguin Random House NZ)
ISBN: 9781775538653

Book Review: My Father’s Ears, by Karen Goa

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_fathers_earsEvery family has a past, most of which is concealed in collective and individual whispers. The resulting silence creates wide gaps between parents and children, brothers and sisters. Yet the time eventually comes when some people, tired of distance, look for answers.

My Father’s Ears, the debut novel of New Zealand-based travel writer Karen Goa, tells the story of Sophia Sanzari, the daughter of an Italian-Canadian immigrant, Lou. Right at the beginning of the novel, Sophia finds out that she has a brother. His name is Alex and he comes all the way from New Zealand. The purpose of his visit in Canada is to get to know more about the history of the Sanzari family, now that he has a son.

At the arrival of Lou’s long-sought son, Sophia is initially sceptical. She gradually warms up to Alex and finds herself discovering new truths about her family, which has been pulled apart by their history of journeys and mysteries. She learns not only about Lou and Alex, but also her own mother, Rose. As he relates his childhood experiences, Lou (“Luigi” in Italian) reveals that he and his brother, Antonio, suffered at an internment camp during World War II. They faced abuse simply for belonging to the nation headed by the fascist dictator, Mussolini. What made matters worse for the boys was their separation from their mother and their sisters, Carmina and Margherita. Through her father Lou, Sophia learns about the bleak reality of war and loneliness, the eagerness to escape and the conflict between one’s needs and those of others.

This story of familial relationships is set against an emotional backdrop of war and immigration history. Through the character of Sophia, the story is painful, comical, dramatic, and sincere. And Goa’s skillful incorporation of Italian culture, language and gastronomy enlivens the narrative, inviting the reader to travel through time, from continent to continent, with the reassuring thought that anyone can open a door to the future despite a past of darkness.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

My Father’s Ears
By Karen Goa
Published by GoaNotesNZ
ISBN 9780473335878

Book Review: Lonely Planet From the Source: Italy

cv_italy_from_the_sourceIn addition to the eponymous travel guides, Lonely Planet occasionally publishes cookbooks. From the Source: Italy is the third such cookbook I’ve owned and enjoyed cooking from.

Like the travel guides, the Lonely Planet cookbook range is concerned with a genuine experience. This is not ‘watered down Italian food featuring universally available ingredients.’ This is an authentic book, celebrating produce throughout different regions of Italy, then providing a recipe featuring that item. Each recipe is accompanied by a story about the ingredient, region or chef and weaves together a tale. It is a beautifully readable book, a great gift for anyone who loves either travel or food.

I found the book inspiring and it set off a burst of pasta-making. I forgot how easy it is to make pasta, especially now that my children are old enough to use the pasta roller!Ravioli_Emma_Wong_ming

The recipe I decided to make first was Tortelli di zucca (Pumpkin tortelli), traditionally served on Christmas Eve in the Mantua region. I used the last of my summer crop of pumpkins and loved the final product – gorgeous dumplings of pumpkin, cheese, amaretti biscuit crumbs and relish. I knew that the recipe would produce a good result, so doubled the recipe and have some frozen for another night.

Review by Emma Wong-Ming

From the Source: Italy
by Sarah Barrell, Susan Wright and Lonely Planet
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781743607619