Larkswood by Valerie Mendes (as she mentions several times in the blurb "proud mother of Sam") is not quite what you might expect. Valerie Mendes gives hope to all of us, who feel there might be a first novel inside, but it hasn't quite made its way out into the big scary world yet. Mrs Mendes was 74 when she wrote her first adult novel, Larkswood, after writing picture books and young adult novels - none of which were written before her 50th birthday.

In the extensive information about the writing of the novel, the author reveals that Larkswood struggled to be published, being rejected several times before a final acceptance by Orion. On the face of it this might seem slightly odd. The novel appears to be a fairly typical thriller-romance. It has all the usual ingredients - a mysterious rich relation, a beautiful heroine, a touch of romance with an unsuitable man, family secrets, and the approach of war. Valerie Mendes is good at telling a story, and drags the reader along with her, even if the dialogue is occasionally horribly clunky. I've certainly read much worse, so why was the novel rejected?

Almost certainly because of the secret that lies at the heart of the tale. Mendes expertly leads her reader in the wrong direction before a surprising denouement. It's not a perfect novel, not least because the happy-ever-after-ending (de rigeur in this type of novel) sits rather uncomfortably with the rather darker tale that is at the heart of the plot. In some ways the novel feels a bit like two rather different novels glued together - a saccharine piece of chick lit with a much harder piece of literary fiction.

It's not brilliantly written, the plot has the occasional "I don't believe that" moment, and there are coincidences and odd happenings all over the place. Nevertheless it's impossible to put it down, and that, I think, will make Valerie Mendes very happy. It's fun escapist fiction, with an unusual twist. It will be interesting to see where her pen takes her next.


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