It’s such a pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for Coming Home to Holly Close Farm by Julie Houston, published by Aria Fiction on 5th February, available for kindle and in paperback, and also available via Kobo, iBooks and Googleplay: my thanks to the publishers for providing my e-copy via netgalley, and for inviting me to be part of the tour. You might just know by now that I’m a bit of a fan of Julie’s writing – I loved Looking for Lucy (read my review here), really enjoyed An Off-Piste Christmas (her Christmas novella, review here), and A Village Affair (review here – and just 99p at time of writing) was sheer enjoyment from its first page to the very last. Julie unfailingly writes the kind of rom-coms I love, with a perfect comic touch but a real sense of balance… but hang on a minute, this one looks like something a little different.
Charlie Maddison loves being an architect in London, but when she finds out her boyfriend, Dominic, is actually married, she runs back to the beautiful countryside of Westenbury and her parents.
Charlie’s sister Daisy, a landscape gardener, is also back home in desperate need of company and some fun. Their great-grandmother, Madge – now in her early nineties – reveals she has a house, Holly Close Farm, mysteriously abandoned over sixty years ago, and persuades the girls to project manage its renovation.
As work gets underway, the sisters start uncovering their family’s history, and the dark secrets that are hidden at the Farm.
A heart-breaking tale of wartime romance, jealousy and betrayal slowly emerges, but with a moral at its end: true love can withstand any obstacle, and, before long, Charlie dares to believe in love again too…
Yes, this is something very different – a story with a dual timeline, a wartime story of dark secrets and hidden history, but coupled with a modern story with that more familiar light romantic feel and the usual family chaos. And I have to say that I thought it was just wonderful. I’d been intrigued by the atmospheric prologue, but the first dip into the past did have me slightly concerned – it’s Madge’s story, she initially does the telling, and I really just wanted to get back to Charlie and the family, her sparring with her sister, the wonderful and very funny characters. But this is a story combination that really works – the wonderful wartime tale really takes off, an unlikely but totally engrossing love story, filled with drama, heartbreak and long-hidden secrets, and the way the story moves seamlessly between past and present is an absolute joy. I particularly loved the way the story is anchored by Holly Close Farm itself – an atmospheric ruin in the present day, a restoration project perfect for architect Charlie, but the setting for some really dramatic developments as we delve into the past.
The modern story is excellent – Charlie immensely likeable, recovering from a broken relationship in the bosom of the family, looking for a fresh start that comes from a direction she hadn’t foreseen. The author really does create the most wonderful characters – I loved her distracted vet father, aging thespian Vivienne, artist mother, the builder with benefits, and sister Daisy with her aspirations to be a landscape gardener postponed by pulling pints and a spell as a trolley dolley. The author’s trademark wicked humour is all there – the sparky exchanges, the vivid scene building, the moments of the ridiculous, the laugh-out-loud moments balanced by others of real poignancy. But I’ll readily admit that it was Madge’s story that I enjoyed the most – lovely well-researched period detail and a sweeping story of a doomed love affair, full of issues around class, duty and expectations, impacted by the moral code of the time, and so cleverly tied in with the present day story. And as for the ending – I’ll admit I cried. Wonderful stuff – and highly recommended.
With thanks to the publishers, I’ll include an extract to give you a flavour of the writing – present day, and come and meet Madge…
Great-granny Madge, Mum’s gran, was, at the last count, ninety-four and still going strong. She’d lived alone – apart from various moth-eaten cats and dogs – as long as I could remember in an untidy bungalow on the other side of Midhope, perhaps fifteen minutes or so from where we lived in the village of Westenbury. While the bungalow had always been in need of a good dust round, according to Granny Nancy – my Mum’s mum and Madge’s only daughter – the garden, where Granny Madge had spent much of her day, regardless of the weather, could have been a model for the lid of one of those chocolate boxes full of strawberry creams and sickly Turkish Delight. It was obvious from which gene pool Daisy had been handed her love of, and ability for, gardening.
To my shame, I’d not seen Madge since Granny Nancy and Mum had moved her from her bungalow into a care home, six months previously when it became obvious, after breaking her femur falling off a ladder as she pruned her wisteria, she was no longer capable of living alone.
‘I’m not intending to stay here for ever, you know,’ Granny Madge stated crossly as soon as the three of us trooped in and found her staring out of the window at the rain and gathering dark, an abandoned gardening book on her knee ‘They’re all so bloody old in here. Old codgers who sit watching TV all day or sleeping. I need to be getting back to my garden. There’s jobs to be done.’
‘Hello, Granny Madge,’ Daisy said, sitting down beside her and giving her a kiss. ‘I shouldn’t worry too much about your garden – there’s not a great deal to be done this time of year.’
‘I thought you said there was loads…’ I trailed off as Daisy glared at me.
‘Would you like me to go over there next week and see what’s needed?’ Daisy asked. ‘In fact, can’t we take you home for the afternoon and you can show me?’ It was Mum’s turn to glare at Daisy.
‘You can all stop glaring at each other,’ Granny Madge said crossly. ‘I’m not in my dotage yet even though you’ve put me in here. I’m fully aware that you,’ she nodded towards Mum, who had the grace to look embarrassed, ‘and especially Nancy, are wanting to sell the bungalow from under my feet. But you can’t. You do know that. I’m perfectly capable, once this damned leg is up and running again, of returning home, and I fully intend to do so.’
‘Look, Granny,’ Mum said, placating, ‘why don’t we see what happens once you’re all mended?’
‘Kate,’ Granny spoke in measured tones, ‘I’m not a child so stop treating me like one.’
‘I’m well aware you’re not a child,’ Mum said gently, ‘but it’s not safe, you going back to the bungalow by yourself. And you’d hate having someone to live in with you.’
‘Hell, I certainly would. I’ve lived far too long by myself to consider flat sharing.’
Daisy and I both looked at each other and giggled. Granny Madge laughed too. ‘God, you two girls, don’t ever get to my age. It’s bloody awful. And avoid hellholes like this. They’re determined to call me Poppet or Dearie and feed me mush on a spoon. I’m dying for a decent steak and a good bottle of red. If you want to bring me anything, girls, a bottle of Merlot would be very much appreciated. And then there’s the damned singalongs, for heaven’s sake and the woman who comes to do our hair once a week. She ended up giving me a lacquered helmet; so ageing.’ Granny Madge patted Daisy’s knee and then looked hard at me. ‘Not seen you for a while, Charlotte. Been busy in London?’ Before I could reply, she went on, ‘Some man, I suppose? Yes, I know what that’s like. Nothing else matters when you’re feeling so in love that you forget everyone else. Being in love makes one terribly selfish, of course, but better to have known that passion than not.’ She looked at me intently as I sat, embarrassed, unable to speak, wanting to cry and, for some reason, tell her everything, but then she smiled and the moment passed.
Wishing you every success with this one, Julie – I really loved it. Here are all the tour stops…
About the author
Julie Houston is the author of The One Saving Grace, Goodness, Grace and Me, and Looking for Lucy, a Kindle top 100 general bestseller and a Kindle Number1 bestseller. She is married, with the two teenage children and a mad cockerpoo and, like her heroine, lives in a West Yorkshire village. She is also a teacher and a magistrate.
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