Saturday, 18 April 2020

Emma's Review: Letters from the Past by Erica James

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

It's the autumn of 1962 in the idyllic Suffolk village of Melstead St Mary. Evelyn Devereux's husband Kit is planning their 20th wedding anniversary party. But as they prepare to celebrate, Evelyn receives an anonymous letter that threatens to unravel the secrets she's kept hidden for many years - secrets that reach back to the war and her days at Bletchley Park.

Evelyn's sister-in-law, Hope, has brought joy to countless children with her bestselling books, but despite having a loving husband and caring family, happiness has never come easily to her. Then in an instant her fragile world is turned upside down when she too receives an anonymous letter.

Across the village, up at Melstead Hall, Julia Devereux has married into a life beyond anything she could have dreamt of, not realising until it's too late that it comes with a heavy price.

Meanwhile, in the sun-baked desert of Palm Springs, Romily Devereux-Temple, crime-writer and former ATA pilot, is homesick for her beloved Island House, where she's saved the day more times than she can count. On her return home, and shocked to learn what has been going on in her absence, she finds herself reluctantly confronting a secret she's kept hidden for a very long time. Once again Romily is challenged to save the day and hold the family together. Can she do it, and maybe seize some happiness for herself at the same time?

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Many thanks to Orion via NetGalley for my copy of Letters from the Past to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

A new book from Erica James is always a welcome treat even more so when you started reading Letters From the Past and discover it is a follow up to Coming Home to Island House which I read and adored several years ago. This new book can easily be read as a standalone as Erica does a fantastic job of filling in new readers as to the background stories to all the various characters and to be honest it also served as a refresher for me. Admittedly there are an awful lot of characters introduced in the beginning and perhaps some people might find it confusing to keep track. But once this has been done the book really gets going and many new story lines are established and developed over the course of what proves to be another wonderful read from the author. I had always felt that these characters deserved a further outing and a continuation of their story and I was pleased to read in the end notes that Erica had always planned to write a follow on book but was simply waiting for the right idea to arise. It felt like I was returning to a familiar setting with characters I had previously been deeply invested in and now we get to see how some of the younger generation as mentioned in the previous book are fairing and also how old familiar faces are coping with all the changes that continue to arise.

Romily, the widow of Jack Devereux, still remains the matriarch of the family and the glue that holds all the pieces together. She is the person whom everyone turns to for advice in times of trouble and strife. She is the stalwart and steady one although we do get a deeper insight into her experiences during the war and how she is getting on now. She is clear headed and knows how to deal with a crisis letting commonsense prevail rather than hysteria manifest itself ten fold. When we meet her again she is in America, in Palm Springs, and about to meet with a script writer in the hopes that one of her novels can be turned into a film. She has had a very successful writing career and is a wise and wily woman who won't just hand her book over to anyone. She encounters Red St.Clair but they don't hit it off the right foot, instead they rub each other up the wrong way but even though this occurs the reader can still see the chemistry that is there waiting to be ignited between the pair.

I desperately wanted Romily to find some love and happiness in her life having been on her own since Jack's death. She is always there for everyone else and can be relied upon to solve problems and to probe that little deeper to uncover the mysteries as to what is going on. There is a big mystery that kept me gripped throughout the book and it was as if the characters were waiting for Romily to return to Melstead St. Mary and Island House before they could join together the pieces of the puzzle and for happiness to once again be restored. I felt now was the time that Romily should put herself forward and seek some contentment and long lasting joy for herself as she has put her own personal happiness on the back burner for quite some time. But she must look to the past and events and memories that still haunt her before she can truly accept what is waiting for her in the present.

Evelyn Dvereux is married to Kit, Romily's stepson, and they are about to throw a big party to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. But Evelyn is on edge as a nasty surprise has arrived in the post, a poison pen letter containing a damning statement if proven to be true. Said statement really sets the reader thinking about all the possible conundrums from the fallout if people discover the contents. Evelyn can't believe this is happening to her and wonders who could be targeting her and what could that person possibly gain from such vindictive behaviour? I loved how this turn of events for Evelyn lead to her recollections working at Bletchley Park during the war, the details of which she has kept secret for many years. This really added even more of a historical flavour to the book and made me enjoy it even more as I love historical fiction. But its not only Evelyn receiving letters, it seems several women in the village receive numerous letters too over the course of the book. The only problem is they don't confide in each other and each woman believes it is only happening to her. Florence, who works as a housekeeper for Romily and is married to local baker Billy, gets some unexpected letters in the post. But to be honest she was the character that concerned me the least as to why she was a target. She just didn't grab my attention whereas Hope, Kit's sister, her angle to to the overall storyline was really interesting.

Hope is a very successful children’s author who loves nothing more than locking herself away and writing as much as possible but when she opens the post one day and reads the message in her letter, her muse deserts her. She starts to question everything in her life. She second guesses things that she has taken for granted and the darkness starts to overwhelm her once more as it has done so in the past. She always fears and thinks the worst under normal circumstances so this has only aggravated her even further. Is her husband, local doctor Edmund, exactly who he says he is, the loyal and loving man she married? Has she neglected adopted daughter Annelise for two long and now when Annelise needs her the most she is not there for her. Things conspire and Hope faces the greatest challenge in her life. Annelise herself, now a student in Oxford, finds herself thrown to the lions so to speak as love has ruled her heart instead of a clear head. She is torn between a rock and a hard place and is seeking guidance but the very person who wants to offer it to her is right under her nose but will she see it or perhaps said person will be left to deal with their own traumas and issues?

Isabella is another member of the family whose mother was the illegitimate child of Jack Devereux's brother but she has become one of the family. She is an actress in London but when she meets someone who unexpectedly arrives at Evelyn and Kit's party, her life is turned upside down. Is what she has been searching for out there or will it cause untold distress to many family members? The issue of the letters provides the backbone of the story from which many other strands spread out all of which are very interesting and engaging and keep the reader guessing until the very last minute. I didn't actually twig who was the culprit and why until just before the big reveal but the fact that this happened open many doors and thought processes for various characters many of which had internal battles to deal with.

Kit and Hope's brother Arthur was a character I detested in the previous book and in this instance my hatred for him grew even more. He is one of the worst characters I have ever read. His cruelty towards his elder son Ralph and younger son Charlie is unbelievable. Not to mention the way he treats his third wife Julie. She was like a lamb to the slaughter in that she took all the hard blows she was dealt with and did everything she was ordered to do by Arthur. I wanted her to get some backbone and stand up for herself but she was so scared of stepping out of line and doing the wrong thing that she became a shadow of the woman she once was prior to marrying Arthur.

Letters from the Past is another triumph for Erica James. There is so much going on here that you easily lose yourself in everything that is unfolding. Yes the poison pen letters provide us with the bare bones of the story but they allow so much more to spill forth and I loved reading of all the different characters and what was going on in their personal lives. The further you got into the book you just knew that sooner or later some home truths were going to be shared and that things were going to come to a head with either disastrous results or perhaps things did really need to get out in the open? Romily remains my favourite character, she is that rare kind of character who stabilises everything and is someone you would wish to meet in real life. I really enjoyed how all the strands of the story were eventually woven together and it showed how Erica James has written a book with great substance and multi faceted characters where intrigue abounds to reveal connections between the past and the present.

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