Book Review: One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle

Title: One Italian Summer
Author: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: March 1, 2022
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When Katy’s mother dies, she is left reeling. Carol wasn’t just Katy’s mom, but her best friend and first phone call. She had all the answers and now, when Katy needs her the most, she is gone. To make matters worse, their planned mother-daughter trip of a lifetime looms: two weeks in Positano, the magical town Carol spent the summer right before she met Katy’s father. Katy has been waiting years for Carol to take her, and now she is faced with embarking on the adventure alone.

But as soon as she steps foot on the Amalfi Coast, Katy begins to feel her mother’s spirit. Buoyed by the stunning waters, beautiful cliffsides, delightful residents, and, of course, delectable food, Katy feels herself coming back to life.

And then Carol appears—in the flesh, healthy, sun-tanned, and thirty years old. Katy doesn’t understand what is happening, or how—all she can focus on is that she has somehow, impossibly, gotten her mother back. Over the course of one Italian summer, Katy gets to know Carol, not as her mother, but as the young woman before her. She is not exactly who Katy imagined she might be, however, and soon Katy must reconcile the mother who knew everything with the young woman who does not yet have a clue.

When Katy’s mother dies, Katy is wrecked — which is completely to be expected. She reflects on how her mother was her person, the one she turned to for everything, who knew her better than anyone.

My mother, you see, is the great love of my life. She is the great love of my life, and I have lost her.

Beyond that, she also relied on her mother for everything, even as an adult. Carol knew how to do everything well — cooking, decorating, planning, socializing, running a life — and as Katy acknowledges to herself throughout the book, because she had Carol at the center of her life, she never really learned how to do much of anything without her.

How could she do this to me? How could she tell me year over year that it was okay, that I didn’t need to know, that I didn’t need to have all the answers, because I had her? How could she make herself so indispensible, so much a part of my life, my very heart — so woven into the fabric of who I am — only to leave? Didn’t she know? Didn’t she know that one day I’d be left without her?

This is problematic in a lot of ways, not least because Katy has been married for years. She and Eric met and fell in love in college, got married, and bought a house just 15 minutes away from Katy’s parents. Carol’s advice and involvement has been central to their marriage as well. Katy just doesn’t know who she is without her mother, and in the months leading up to Carol’s death, everything falls apart, to the point that Katy tells Eric that she’s done with their marriage.

Going to Italy on what was supposed to be the ultimate mother-daughter trip, mere weeks after Carol’s death, is an emotionally momentous undertaking for Katy. They’d always dreamed of going together, so Carol could show Katy the place that meant so much to her as a young woman. Arriving on her own, Katy is immediately wowed by the beauty of Positano, and settles in to soak up the surroundings and try to create one more connection with her mother.

But as the synopsis says, as Katy sets out the next day, she meets a woman in the hotel lobby who is all too familiar: It’s Carol, at age 30 — living in Positano, carefree, beautiful, and without a clue as to Katy’s identity. Once she recovers from the shock, Katy is determined to take this strange opportunity to know her mother in a whole new way, and the women strike up a friendship.

Meanwhile, Katy also explores Positano, meeting people, experiencing the sun, the food, and the sea, and developing a connection to an attractive man she meets at her hotel. As the days pass, she balances her time with Carol and Adam, and delves deeper into her own feelings about where she is in her life and what might come next.

That’s a lot of synopsis, so I’ll hit pause and share some thoughts.

There’s a lot to love about One Italian Summer… and seriously, where do I sign up for this exact trip to Italy? I want to stay in that specific hotel, meet those people, eat that food, go to those beaches. Now. It all sounds incredibly gorgeous and delicious and amazing.


I have a lot of “buts” about this book.

Carol and Katy’s mother-daughter relationship is beautiful in many ways. They love each other and are completely devoted to one another, and that’s lovely. But the more we learn, the less healthy it seems. Carol is too central to Katy’s life — everything she has or does seems connected back to Carol in some way, and even her marriage to Eric keeps Katy’s parents, especially Carol, firmly at its center. Even small-ish things, like why they never actually cook — it’s because their home-cooked meals always happen at Carol’s house, and Carol never taught anyone in her life, Katy or her own husband, to manage without her.

Now, as for central concept of this novel, in which Katy encounters Carol as a younger woman…

There are hints (like the selection of books on the hotel’s shelves) that Katy is somehow spending time 30 years in the past, but it takes her an awfully long time to figure that part out. She just accepts Carol’s presence and doesn’t think much further about it, although it’s pretty obvious to the reader. (Aha, so that’s why Adam has never heard of the movie Jurassic Park and she can’t reach Eric when she tries to call him!)

Katy just accepts that she’ll be able to spend time with Carol as a gift, and that’s that. Yet, Carol has her own life in Positano, which means that Katy has plenty of time on her own too. She follows the itinerary that real-world Carol created for the two of them and connects to her mother’s memory through what she experiences, but she also has plenty of time for Adam.

Spoilers ahead! Does it count as cheating if it happens 30 years in the past in a weird alternate pocket of time? I’d say yes, but it doesn’t seem to trouble Katy all that much. And it’s not at all clear whether what happens during this Italian vacation will carry through to Katy’s present. Is there a man out there who has memories of the young woman he had a fling with in Italy all those years earlier?

Beyond the Adam storyline — well, it’s nice that Katy gets both closure and a new perspective on who her mother was. As she spends time with young Carol, she learns new facts about her mother’s life that she’d never known, and also has time to understand that Carol always had parts of her life that didn’t revolve around Katy.

In some ways, it’s a moving look at loss and grieving, and how the loss of a loved one can force someone to take a fresh look at everything in their life. There are some moments of reflection that I found startlingly real and emotionally honest.


Bottom line, this book makes no sense. I can’t go with a storyline that takes place “because magic” without any explanation whatsoever. Why is Katy experiencing this time 30 years in the past? How is she able to be there? Why did it start and why did it end?

Your guess is as good as mine. There’s no explanation. And I can’t just shrug and accept it as just the way things happened — not when it’s clear that this wasn’t a dream state or alternate reality or coma-dream or even a time slip in the fabric of the world. It just happens, and then it stops, and Katy just accepts it all.

On a more positive note, the author has a lovely way with words, bringing tastes and sounds and smells to life quite vividly. The Italy of Katy’s visit is beautifully described and presented — it’s an immersive experience just reading about it.

I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Serle’s two other books for adults (The Dinner List and In Five Years), although even in both of these, there’s a magical element that happens to advance the plot but has no real explanation. Somehow, this aspect bothered me much more in One Italian Summer than it did in the other books.

Overall, there are a lot of enjoyable aspects to this book, but the plot holes kept me from fully engaging. On top of that, what I initially felt was an incredibly beautiful mother-daughter relationship was revealed to be less healthy than I first imagined, and that left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Still, it’s a quick and often emotionally engaging read, and I do appreciate the author’s ability to cast a spell with her writing. I’ll look forward to whatever she writes next.

Book Review: A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong

Title: A Stitch in Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: October 31, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Time slip/ghost story
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.

Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past. 

Who doesn’t love a good time-slip/haunted house/ghost story romance? I was ready to love this book from page 1.

At age 38, Bronwyn is an established history professor, a widow of eight years, and the new owner of Thorne Manor, the Yorkshire estate she’s just inherited from her great-aunt. Some of her happiest memories are from her summers at Thorne Manor, but also, some of her worst.

As a small child, Bronwyn finds a time slip, allowing her to travel back in time 200 years to play with William, a boy her age who lives in the house. At age five, her family chalks up her William experiences to having an imaginary friend. After an absence of ten years due to her parents’ divorce, Bronwyn returns at age 15, and once again slips back and forth in time. This time around, William is also 15, and their friendship begins to blossom into love. But a family tragedy occurs in Bronwyn’s time, and she leaves Thorne Manor, seemingly for good.

As the story opens, adult Bronwyn arrives back at the manor once more. She’s convinced herself that her time with William wasn’t real, so she’s startled by a vivid dream where she wakes up in his bed. Soon, she realizes that the time slips are real after all, and she is able to reconnect with William, who is now an adult as well.

William at first is angry and tries to send her away, believing she abandoned him all those years ago. As they spend time together, he’s able to understand why she disappeared from his life, and their reunion quickly becomes passionate as they fall back into the love that started so many years earlier.

There are complications. Bronwyn, in her own time, sees ghosts. She encounters three very distinct ghosts, and all seem to have messages for her. Are they trying to warn her or scare her away?

In William’s time, she learns that he’s retreated to his country home in part because of scandal and rumors. His younger sister has disappeared, his best friend’s wife has disappeared and is presumed dead, and his former fiancée is missing as well. Gossip depicts William as a murderous mad lord, luring victims to their death on the moors. Can any of this be true? Bronwyn doesn’t believe William is capable of murder, but clearly, someone killed the people who haunt her own time, and she’s determined to learn the truth and free the spirits of the dead.

Ah, what a fun, captivating read! Yes, a big suspension of disbelief is required, but that’s to be expected in a novel where the main plot hinges on slipping through time.

I loved that Bronwyn is a mature, professional woman with a clear head on her shoulders. She’s smart and reasonable, and has also suffered in her life. She understands love and loss, and while William was her first love, he wasn’t her only love. It’s also pretty cool to see her enjoy her time in William’s world not just as a romantic interlude, but as an amazing experience as an historian, learning all she can about daily life in that era from first-hand experience.

The mystery is really well constructed and kept me guessing. The author does such a skillful job of sprinkling clues and red herrings that my suspicions really were all over the place, and I definitely went down the wrong path in my mind. I was pleased with the resolution and how well the answers fit together with what we’d learned about the various characters.

William and Bronwyn have great chemistry and mutual respect. I love that even when they’re trying to figure out what a future together might look like, Bronwyn never considers giving up her own world to live in his. She values her career, her independence, and her friends and family — she’ll spend as much time with William as she can, but she won’t make him her entire world. And to his credit, he doesn’t ask that of her.

I did find the time-slipping a little too easy. Bronwyn can basically slip back and forth at will, so that it starts to feel practically ordinary. If William has a busy day ahead, she’ll plan to pop back home to take care of her kitten and return for dinner. It starts to sound as if she’s just going down the road, rather than jumping back and forth across centuries.

Also, I had to laugh that Bronwyn has her smartphone with her when she time-slips, and that William just accepts that she can take photos and play music with her bizarre little device. And, the fact that William has apparently added to his fortune by investing based on what he learned about the future from 15-year-old Bronwyn… ummm, okay.

Still, I will freely admit that my secretly-a-sucker-for-a-good-romance heart really enjoyed the love story, and I got very caught up in the ghosts and murder mystery too.

A Stitch in Time is, plain and simple, a sweep-you-up kind of romantic tale, with great gothic elements to make it so much more.

I’ve never read any books by this author before now, but I understand that she’s a prolific urban fantasy writer and that A Stitch in Time was a big departure for her. Well done! Goodreads lists this book as the first of two, which confuses me a little because the story has a very satisfactory ending.

Still, if the story of Thorne Manor, William and Bronwyn, and time slips continues? I’ll be there for it.

Book Review: Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins

Until We Meet AgainAn upper class seaside retreat is the setting for this YA timeslip novel by Renee Collins. Main character Cassandra, age 17, is spending the summer with her mother, stepfather, and 3-year-old brother at a rented beachfront mansion, and she’s bored to tears. Until one day, she wanders down the path between the property’s bushes and ends up on the private beach, where she meets a (very attractive) young man named Lawrence.

The first meeting is full of suspicion: What are you doing on my family’s private beach? No, what are YOU doing on MY family’s private beach??!! But within the first couple of meetings, it becomes clear: The beach seems to be a place that’s shared by both Cassandra’s world in 2015 and Lawrence’s world… in 1925. Apparently, no one in either time seems to like the beach much, because while anyone can reach it, it’s mostly just Cassandra and Lawrence there, undisturbed for hours and days at a time.

The two connect, quickly, and soon come to realize their deep feelings for one another. But trouble looms: Lawrence is the summer guest of his wealthy uncle Ned, who plans for Lawrence to go to Harvard and then law school, then enter the family business. Ned also seems to be pushing a pretty flapper named Fay at Lawrence, and is quite insistent that Lawrence get involved with her. Something seems shady, all right — and when Cassandra hits the library microfiche to see what she can find out about Lawrence and his family, she stumbles upon a shocking news article, which reveals that Lawrence will be murdered on the beach in only a few weeks. Cassandra vows that she’ll find a way to stop it, and between her modern-day research and Lawrence’s snooping in his own time, the two race the clock to save his life… and hope to find a way to be together afterward.

The novel leaves the timeslip element mostly unexplained, although Cassandra agonizes over whether she can or should influence the events of 1925, for fear that the consequences will be devastating. And yet, she plunges right ahead once she realizes Lawrence’s life is on the line.

In terms of plot, there are pros and cons. Pro-wise, the concept of the beach as a portal between the times is interesting. It’s not that either Lawrence or Cassandra has a special ability, but rather, it’s the place that’s powerful. Anyone who passes through the bushes onto the beach can see whoever’s there, from either time — so the beach isn’t some sort of special protected bubble, it’s just that very few people actually go there and so no one else has discovered the odd time disconnect. Also strong is the portrayal of Cassandra as a girl ready for something to happen, throwing herself headfirst into a crazy, emotion-fueled adventure that really should be beyond her belief. I liked the sense of Cassandra’s drive and devotion, and how determined she became to do whatever she needed to do.

In the middle ground for me are the 1920s-era standards — flappers, mobsters, crooked businessmen, hints of Prohibition-defying smuggling. I suppose this may be newer in the realm of young adult fiction, but lately it seems to be done almost to death. While Lawrence’s side of the story is interesting, it’s a pretty surface-level glide through that world, and I didn’t feel that it really explored the setting in a deep enough way.

I could also go either way on the insta-love aspect of the story. Cassandra and Lawrence seem to fall head over heels in love from one moment to the next, but I know that mainly because I was told that’s how they felt, not because I saw it developing organically. Still, I do give the author some credit on this issue, because a teen romance in an exotic setting really could convincingly blossom from casual acquaintance to love-of-my-life status, given a dramatic or extreme enough set of circumstances.

Pieces that didn’t really work for me related to Cassie’s family life. I didn’t get her mother’s issues with Cassandra: She seemed to always be suspicious, very demanding of Cassandra’s time, and then, weirdly, pretty insistent on Cassandra dating some random boy. Why would she be pushing her to date this guy? It just didn’t make sense to me. Cassandra also had this habit of lying about her trips to the beach by announcing she was going running, but half the time she seemed to be in a sundress when she said this, so again, a little hard to believe.

Still, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy the book as a whole. Once the race-against-the-clock element merges with the intense love story, the plot begins zooming forward, and has a great sense of drama that gives a high-stakes feel to the whole thing.

In a way, this book is a metaphor for the quintessential summer romance. Two teens, dragged by their families to a summer vacation spot, meet and fall in love, but have the awful end-of-summer separation looming over them, giving the romance a super-heightened sense of intensity and passion. They’re from two different worlds, their time together is brief, and not being adults yet, they don’t have the control over their futures or lives to prolong the relationship beyond the summer. Take out the timeslip element, and that’s what we have here: Cassandra and Lawrence are flung into each other’s lives because they just happen to have been brought to the same place; they immediately fall in love, but they know they’ll be forced apart when the vacation ends. How glorious for teens in that extra-dramatic period of life, to get the star-crossed lovers experience!

Until We Meet Again combines the best elements of a summer romance with the dramatic build-up of a tragic, doomed love story. In some ways, the ending of the story reminded me of one of my very favorite Doctor Who episodes… although I won’t go into spoiler territory by saying which one. While some pieces of the plot rang a little hollow for me, overall I’d say that Until We Meet Again is an exciting, engaging, quick read that’s worth checking out. And while the timeslip plotline felt a bit thinly developed in places, I also need to recognize that I’m an adult who’s read a LOT of timey-wimey fiction over the years, and for a reader in the target young adult audience, this may be a first encounter with the concept of time travel and its consequences — which could make it a really new and exciting reading experience.

On a final note, this was a very fun read for a chilly week in November! There’s nothing like reading about sunny beach days to chase the cold away.


The details:

Title: Until We Meet Again
Author: Renee Collins
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

Book Review: Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

The newest cover. My favorite.

Julia Beckett is an independent woman of 30, living in London and succeeding professionally as an illustrator of children’s books. Since childhood, Julia has felt a strange calling to a house in the rural English town of Exbury, and when she happens to pass by the house once again as an adult, fate intervenes. The house is for sale, Julia’s recent inheritance means that she has the wherewithal to make a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and voila! Julia is now the owner of the lovely but mysterious Greywethers.

Uprooting her London life, Julia settles in and is immediately welcomed by the locals, especially the friendly pub owner Vivien, the lord of the nearby manor, Geoffrey de Mornay, and Geoff’s best friend Iain. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, Julia begins to see a dark man on a gray horse at the edges of her property, and that’s just the beginning of strange occurrences.

Soon, Julia begins to have momentary lapses in which she slips through time.

It is difficult to describe the sensation of sliding backwards in time, of exchanging one reality for another that is just as real, just as tangible, just as familiar. I should not, perhaps, refer to it as “sliding,” since in actual fact I was thrust — abruptly and without warning — from one time to the next, as though I had walked through some shifting, invisible portal dividing the present from the past.

When she enters this alternate world, it is as a young woman named Mariana, and the time is the mid-17th century.  As Mariana, Julia relives key events from the other woman’s life, and during those spells knows no other reality – she is, in fact, Mariana. When she returns to herself, Julia remembers what she has experienced as Mariana, but cannot understand why she slips into the past or how these episodes are relevant to her own life.

With the help of her brother Tom, Julia comes to believe that she is Mariana reincarnated, destined for some as-yet-undiscovered purpose related to Mariana’s life. As Julia digs deeper, she comes to understand the love and sorrows that Mariana experienced, and must find a way to live in the present when the past holds so much that tempts her.

I’ll just come right out and say that I love the writing in Mariana. Lush and romantic, Susanna Kearsley’s writing captures the small moments and glances that build to deeper connections and passions. Rustic village life is conveyed in all its quaint charm, and yet the 1600s version of the same village is dark and mistrustful, full of superstition, plotting, and deception. As Julia explores the town, I could practically see the gardens and streams come to life, and would have liked nothing more than to wander the country lanes with her and explore the old manor house and its magnificent library.

As I read Mariana, I became enthralled by the mystery of Mariana’s past and how it could possibly intersect with Julia’s present. The alternating timeframes were so engaging that I never wanted either one to end. By the end of the book, I was completely hooked on the central romance and (without giving anything away here) felt keenly Mariana’s joys and sorrows.

My only quibble with the book is that Julia and Tom arrive at an explanation for Julia’s time slips almost immediately, never question their explanation, and indeed are proven correct pretty much off the bat, with no alternate theories or trial and error. I understand that investigating the cause of the timeslips isn’t really the point here, but it felt a bit too neat to me.

Other than that, there isn’t much that I would change about Mariana. The pace is lively, but with enough suspense and dramatic timing to keep me coming back for more. There’s a sense of impending tragedy – something must have happened to cause Mariana to need to come back across the centuries to find resolution and peace. I especially loved the main plot twist that occurs in Mariana – but again, not wanting to enter spoiler territory, I won’t say what the twist is or when it occurs.

Mariana was first published in 1994 and has been reissued several times since. Call me shallow, but what originally drew me to Susanna Kearsley’s books was the newest set of covers. I was hooked as soon as I saw The Winter Sea on a bookstore shelf, had to have it, and have since snapped up several others. Although Mariana has had several covers since its original publication, the current cover, with its sense of sensual, moody introspection, is the one that really captures the feel of the book for me.

Really, how could you not fall in love with these covers?

I’ve read two other Susanna Kearsley books, The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. Each involves some sort of time displacement or time slippage, each for difference reasons or using different mechanisms. In all three books, the heroine experiences something inexplicable in which she is thrust into another life or another timeline; she must figure out why it happens and what is expected of her. And of course, in each of the three books, true love – a deep, abiding love that knows no boundaries of time – is at the center of the plot. The romances at the heart of the author’s writings are desperate, lovely, dangerous affairs, and the passion is palpable.

What I also appreciate and enjoy in these books is the historical element. Without feeling like a history lesson, these books manage to convey a time and place gone by. They present the drama of the day’s events, politics, and social structures in a way that feels current and vibrant, with special emphasis on the role of women in these times and the choices (or lack of choices) available to them.

Mariana is a fine example of this type of journey to the past, combined with a contemporary woman’s search for identity and meaning, and as such, is both engaging as fiction and emotionally compelling as well.

I highly recommend Mariana to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, love stories, strong female characters… and simply gorgeous English countryside. An appreciation for dashing men on horseback wouldn’t hurt either.

I have another Susanna Kearsley book, The Shadowy Horses, all queued up and ready to go on my e-reader. As soon as I get over the emotional ups and downs of Mariana, I’ll be ready to dive right in.