Book Review: A Dream of Italy, by Nicky Pellegrino

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_dream_of_italyBestselling author Nicky Pellegrino’s latest novel, A Dream of Italy, is a celebration of some of the most delightful things in life: travel, food, and love.

The book addresses the present-day phenomenon of small towns facing abandonment in the “Old World” of Europe. Salvio Valentini, mayor of Montenello in southern Italy, is determined to revive his “ghost town.” He comes up with a simple, albeit ambitious, plan: sell the houses of Montenello for one euro. In renovating and inhabiting these abodes, the prospective buyers would be contributing to the restoration of the entire mountain town and its future. This project is not the only big issue in the life of the young mayor. His mother Donna Carmela is now urging him to marry and have children, desiring to be nonna (“grandma”) to the future generation of Montenello.

The emails start pouring in. In London, the illustrator Mimi Wilson is looking for a change. Recently divorced, and with her sons now at university, she comes across a newspaper article about Salvio’s proposal for Montenello. The same advertisement reaches Edward Roberts in Sydney, who loves all things Italian, while his Italian partner, Gino Mancuso, does not. For the young relief teacher Elise Hartman, who lives with her partner Richard Lynch in Bristol, Montenello might just be the chance to get on the property ladder. All three look towards this curious, historical town for a fresh, new start.

Pellegrino’s storytelling is rich and tasteful. She weaves together the details of Italian life through the eyes of locals and foreigners, describing the unique gastronomic offerings of the local trattoria, a traditional Italian eatery. Through its narration, setting, and characterisation, the novel also reflects on the contemporary tensions between tradition and modernity.

Pellegrino’s reverie of a novel would appeal to anyone who has read, or even watched the cinematic adaptations of, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Pellegrino’s A Dream of Italy marries both foreign and familiar experiences. Italy is and always will be a dreamscape on tourist brochures and travel websites. For others it can be a true home.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

A Dream of Italy
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN ‎9781409178989

The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins at #AWF16

When I got home from today’s sessions, I looked at the movie trailer for the movie of this book which is due for release in October. Emily Blunt is perfectly cast as Rachel, the main character in the novel, a drunk whose life has spiraled down into an absolute mess. The highlight of her day is the daily commute on the train, fantasizing about the lives of the people who live in the houses the train passes twice a day, premixed gin and tonic in the bag at her feet. Until the day that as she passes, she sees something happen with a couple she has given a fantasy life to, setting her on a path that will actually give her a life back. Paula Hawkins and chair Nicky Pellegrino, were very careful in their discussions not to give too much away about the plot, as there were people in the audience who had not read the book.

Pellegrino’s approach to the session was to find out from Hawkins how she came to write this phenomenally successful novel. Originally a financial and business journalist, she became a novelist after she was commissioned to write romantic fiction – chick lit.  She wrote four novels under a pseudonym, with declining levels of success, until, broke in finances and spirit, she made a last ditch attempt with a shift to the murder mystery thriller genre. Fascinated by female thriller writers such as Agatha Christie, PD James and Patricia Highsmith since her teen years, she was intensely interested in the psychology of why people under immense pressure end up doing terrible things to others. Not so much the depiction of physical violence, but the psychology of it. She said people don’t really want to read about happiness; it is far more appealing to explore one’s dark side in the safe space of a novel, taking us out of the everyday predictability of such things as the train commute.

She wrote frantically for the first six months, secreting herself away from the rest of the world, desperately aware that she had to make a success of this novel, or she may have to give up being a writer and find a real job again. So she says the novel is written with intensity and she was under no illusions that it would be a hit, although aware that parts of it, including her characterisation of Rachel, were actually very good. So success, when it came, was unexpected.

With Rachel, Hawkins tapped into her interest in the power of memory, how unreliable memory can be, and how the same thing or event can be remembered differently by those who saw or were a part of it. For Rachel of course, this is exacerbated and aided by her drinking problems, which has distorted and destroyed everything in her life. Rachel seems to have polarized readers, Hawkins saying that many people don’t like her at all. This was not her intention – to make an unlikeable person – but rather wanting to make a real person who actually wants to get out of the situation she has found herself in. There are many women out there whose lives have not panned out how they imagined they would – failed relationships, childless, dead end jobs, single mothers, large mortgages, and in our society, alcohol is an easy pit to fall into. When I read the book I don’t remember feeling judgmental towards Rachel, but sorry for her yes, and I certainly cheered her on when she starts the long journey to fix herself.

The reviews and commentary on this book have compared it to Gone Girl, and the rise of a new genre of writing which made this audience laugh – grip lit, or was it chick noir, or was it domestic noir? The use of the word ‘girl’ was also discussed. The book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sequels may well have started this trend, but Hawkins sees all of this as a massive coincidence: there is no similarity at all between any of the female protagonists. Gone Girl was a sociopath, in full control of everything she did, whereas Rachel is simply a lush who happens to stumble across a situation that she thinks needs sorting out. The media seems to love giving stuff labels, and in Hawkins’ words: “Would the media ever pigeon hole fiction written by men as ‘men’s fiction’ the way it labels books written by women as ‘women’s fiction’, or ‘chick lit’?”

She also talked a bit about the feminism backlash the book has received, but goes onto say that the subject of domestic violence, crime in the home, the realism of violence in our world, and relationships gone wrong are what the attention should be focused on, and not whether the title has a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’ in it.

The session was very thought provoking and it was so interesting to be taken behind the scenes of a novel that is so much more than just a psychological murder thriller.

The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins, Reviewed by Felicity Murray

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: One Summer in Venice, by Nicky Pellegrino

Available now in bookstores nationwide.
I have to say first off, I like Nicky Pellegrino as an author. Her books make a nice change in my preferred choice of reading material. This book is no exception – it is light, funny and at times thought provoking. We all get stuck in ruts, often not realising we are in them.

The main character, Addolorata (Dolly) Martinelli’s life seems to be a bit of a car wreck; her marriage to her husband Eden is in tatters, and she’s exhausted from working long hours in her family’s Italian restaurant. Dolly’s sister Pieta encourages her to take leave and travel to Venice for a week’s holiday. Of course it doesn’t work out like that – as most travellers to Venice do, she falls in love with the place, the music and the people she meets and of course not forgetting the gorgeous food. Dolly meets an elderly woman called Coco, who makes her take stock of her life and encourages Dolly to stay for a summer.

After a lot of soul searching Dolly decides that’s not a bad idea. Coco of course has a solution as to where to live – the hotel where Dolly has been staying is much too expensive and not conducive to living like a Venetian, but Coco just happens to have an apartment above her own that she also owns and occasionally rents out.

Meanwhile back in Clerenwell in the U.K, life is continuing on without Dolly. Her husband Eden is working on a building site, Dolly’s parents have come back from their retirement in Italy to run the restaurant while Dolly is away and her daughter Katia is enjoying being spoiled by grandparents.

Dolly learns to tango; she tastes dishes in restaurants and then recreates them in her own kitchen. She relaxes and starts to make a list of what makes her happy. As time goes on she adds to her list, coming up with ten things that make her happy; this includes parties, a glass of chilled Prosecco and being surrounded by water.

I became rather fascinated with the idea of making a list – Dolly’s criteria was that everything that went on her list had to make her truly happy. I think I would interpret that to mean “to make your heart sing”, and this is probably harder to do than most of us would imagine.

This story does have a happily ever after ending, which I think fans of Pellegrino will be happy to see. I enjoyed this book, and managed to read it in two days, despite life’s usual interruptions.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

One Summer in Venice
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Orion (Hachette)
ISBN  9781409159452

The Storyteller, with Diane Setterfield at WORD Christchurch, Saturday 30 August

It was something of a spur-of-the-moment decision to attend Diane
Setterfield‘s talk at the WORD festival. I had previously read The
Thirteenth Tale and absolutely adored it, then picked up Bellman and
Black, which had a different sort of feel − evocative and rich, but
with slower pacing. This proved to be an excellent decision, for Diane
Setterfield was an absolute delight to listen to.WORD-Web-Event-STORYTELLER

Diane Setterfield (right) is an English author, whose 2006 debut novel became a
New York Times No 1 bestseller and was beloved by readers and book clubs
everywhere. She was joined on the stage by Nicky Pellegrino, herself a
fine writer, who lead the questions with a cheeky smile and candid good humour.

Pellegrino opened the discussion with the topic of storytelling in
general, during which we learned that Setterfield’s earlier days had
contained strong elements of oral story-tellings − including bawdy jokes
− as well as the classics. She seemed a humble sort, modest of her own
successes but with quirky, witty answers to many of the questions that
were posed to her.

I was especially taken by her descriptions of stories 200px-Thirteenthtale− comparing them with a natural phenomenon, something that can only be created by special and unusual people − and the final realisation that maybe anyone could do it, as long as they read and enjoy reading. When she decided that she wanted to become an author, she gave up her day job − with no clear inkling of the tale she wanted to tell − and began to write. It took five years to write The Thirteenth Tale, during which
the complicated plot, with its many twists and turns, almost lead her to give up on it. We are all the more fortunate for her perseverence.

Her lyrical, evocative prose can be in some ways attributed to her
earlier career as a translator of literature − from English to French
and French to English. Translation, she explains, really helps you
realise what words are actually important and how the sentences are
structured. It is something that any author can benefit from, as long as
they have a knack for languages.

She also spoke of books as “shy creatures”, especially in the early days
of writing − hiding when you get near the keyboard and needing to be
ignored until they manage to take roots and grow. This is one of the
most eloquent, and whimsical, metaphors I have heard to describe the
writing process and, as a writer myself, I would have to say that it is

It was when we moved on to the topic of her second book, bellman and blackBellman and
Black, that the topic of death came up in their conversation. Death is prevalent in both her novels – but in the first book most of the characters dying are old and/or mad, whereas in the second there is a
great deal more tragedy involved. Death, she explains, isn’t nice, but it is really interesting. Especially when children learn of the concept of death, until that stage they are “like little gods, living as though
they are immortal…” It was this idea, and William Bellman, that lead her to write this gothic ghost story, exploring also the powerful combination of death and retail in the Victorian era (when the mourning period lasted years rather than days).

When asked if she was Margaret, the writer in The Thirteenth Tale she
informed us that she was not, but she could have been and nor was she
Mrs Winters (the elderly lady with the secret) but that she had it in
her to be.  When she wrote her first book, she wrote it first and
foremost for herself − because otherwise what would be the point? − and
also aimed to write something her mother would like. Thankfully she
suceeded, and exceeded, on all counts.

Diane Setterfield was a pleasure to listen to, with her whimsical views
on writing, and life in general, this was truly a worthwhile experience.

by Angela Oliver, writer, artist, reviewer and reporter for Booksllers NZ

Diane is on this Sunday 31 August at 4pm, in Beyond the Veil: Historical Ghost Stories

Book review: When in Rome by Nicky Pellegrino

This book is in bookstores now.

Over time I have heard many good comments about Nicky Pellegrino’s novels, and when people said they got an urge to travel and eat as they flicked through the pages of her books, I never really understood it… until I laid my hands on one myself. You really do gain an appetite for international food and an urge to pack your bags and travel to beautiful places that some can only dream of (or like me just close your eyes and you’re there).

When in Rome is set in Trastevere, Rome in the 1950’s. Serafina, the eldest of three sisters, spends her days caring for her siblings. Together they sing at the Piazza to busk for change and flick through magazines as the girls listen to the Mario Lanza records they secretly play over and over while their mother is out at work.

When Serafina discovers Mario is coming to town to be in a movie, her and her sister head out to meet him. Standing at the train station Serafina’s sister is ready to preform for Mario and his family; using this opportunity as an attempt to become famous herself she is left disappointed when an influx of people makes this an impossible task.

In search of Mario the girls find out where he is staying and upon arrival at his hotel, Serafina manages to get up to his suite in an attempt to make Mario hear her sister sing. But with a twist of fate she is offered a job working for the Lanza family as their Governess, which leaves her sister disappointed once again.

From here the story leads into detail of Serafina’s journey as she lives and works for the Lanza family, and slowly begins falling for Pepe the chef. With a mix of facts and fiction of Mario Lanza’s life, this is an enjoyable and emotional tale of love, food, passion and the battle to be a star.

Truly a book that keeps you hanging on and wanting more. I will certainly be heading out to buy one of Nicky Pellegrino’s previous books as I wait for the release of her next novel and make a trip to see her on her current book tour through New Zealand.

Reviewed by Jessica Moore

When in Rome
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Orion
ISBN 9781409133773

Winner of a copy of When in Rome by Nicky Pellegrino
Thanks to our generous friends at Hachette, we had 
a copy of When in Rome to give away. We took entries on this blog post and chose a winner using
Congratulations to our winner… Margo. We’ve emailed you to chat about how to send out the book.