Crusader’s Tomb

Stephen Desmonde is expected to succeed his father as the rector of a rural parish, but Stephen is a sensitive, passionate artist driven by an obsession to discover the beauty in truth. The lack of understanding and subsequent derision from his family results in Stephen leaving for Paris – the hub of all things creative – and then to travel across Spain. He’s a passive character, spurned in love, starved, cheated, forced to take a tough road, and to suffer terribly for believing in his art. Material comforts are sparse but his journey, both artistically, physically, and spiritually, all culminate into a rich and multi-layered experience.
So many great artists are not understood or revered until after their death. Desmonde also falls victim to this stereotype, although arguably some of this down to his pride and lack of interest in material gain. Above all, Stephen Desmonde’s story exposes the flaws of Christian beliefs and the perceived realities of war during the early 20th century. Desmonde and his family are real flesh and blood, as are the many characters who play numerous supporting roles. The depiction of life at Stillwater in England, and of France and Spain are deep and rich without compromising reality.
I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. Cronin is a master of historical detail and perspectives, and manages to extract every ounce of empathy for his protagonist.

The Secrets Between Us

Sarah takes a holiday in Sicily in the wake of bereavement and a failed relationship. She meets troubled, brooding Alex and they immediately form a bond. When Alex suggests Sarah might like to become his housekeeper-cum-childminder in England, she accepts without hesitation – anything other than return to her previous life, a life destroyed by her partner and her best friend. On the face of it this sounds like the recipe for an impulsive holiday romance. However, once installed in the chaotic farmhouse in rural Somerset where Alex and his son live, Sarah soon becomes drawn in to the mysterious disappearance of his wife, and questions are raised.
A beautiful equestrian star, Genevieve has gone missing following the impending break down of her marriage to Alex. Can Sarah trust Alex’s speculations as to what has happened, or should she believe the more uncomfortable rumours in the village?
An unusual mix of genre; an interesting murder-mystery with a hint of paranormal. I didn’t care much for the ghostly element – it felt displaced somehow in a novel rich in reality but other than that, this was a compelling read especially in the second half when the pace picked-up, and various characters began to show their hand. There’s also a wonderful sense of place throughout; the author being especially skilled at creating atmosphere and imagery.

Something To Live For


Andrew is living the perfect lie: he’s married to Diane and they have two children and a large family home. The innocence of this lie snowballs rapidly after a successful interview with the local council for a job in Death Administration. Bereaved at a young age, Andrew has had more than his fair share of loss. But in truth, family life on any level doesn’t exist for Andrew – he’s something of a nerdy loner, preferring his own company to socialising, and he’d much prefer to forget about his past. His job for the council is both fascinating and sad, and arranging funerals for those who’ve died alone touches a nerve in Andrew and he becomes steadily more concerned about his own fate. When Peggy joins the office her forthright personality draws out something of the man Andrew used to be, and a friendship blossoms. But a team-building exercise based on Come Dine With Me, is poised to blow everything apart and Andrew’s entire life looks set to be exposed – the rundown flat he shares with his model railway, the difficult relationship with his sister and her husband… and what happened to the real Diane.

Dark humour with a strong and original message about family ties. I found this read a slow burn to start but my enjoyment rapidly increased as the novel developed, and I loved the final third. Although there are dark themes – death, loneliness, depression, funerals – the satirical humour bubbles beneath the surface and the narrative remains witty and engaging. The secondary characters are relatable, colourful and interesting, and these subplots compliment the main story and add complex layers. There are numerous sad circumstances throughout, but it is also about the potential of love, truth, and hope, and the light these powers can bring to the darkest of places.

The Giver of Stars

Alice marries a rich, attractive American to escape the tedium of her life. But when she arrives in small town Baileyville, Kentucky, she soon comes to realise she’s exchanged one prison for another. Her husband, Bennett, shows no interest in her, romantically or otherwise and they soon begin to lead separate lives. Desperate for independence and a sense of purpose in life, Alice joins the horseback librarians. These women ride out to remote homesteads delivering books to those families who are isolated, in both senses of the word. But this is 1937 and women were expected to be homemakers. Her father-in-law, the domineering mine owner is especially over-bearing towards Alice. His behaviour – unchallenged by her husband – eventually becomes intolerable and results in Alice taking up residence with feisty head librarian, Margery O’ Hare. When Margery is accused of foul play, it’s the women against the town as they fight to clear Margery’s name and make a stand for the sisterhood.
Horseback librarian – my dream job! I generally like Moyes (especially loved The Horse Dancer and One Plus One) and since I’m a horse-riding book-lover I really thought I’d find much to enjoy about this novel. Sadly, this wasn’t a dream read. All the fabulous ingredients were there but I didn’t feel the author made quite enough of them and so as a result it’s not developed enough in any one direction, as if the surface had been skimmed off a complex range of topics. Basically, it’s a light romance with a vaguely historical background – and its a sweet, predictable, cheesy romance at that – disappointing when the scope promised so much more. The standout character for me was Margery (and her wonderfully stoic mule) because her story seemed so much stronger and more interesting than Alice’s story and at least she did develop, unlike the rest of the cast. The numerous secondary characters came across as shades of grey, or shrouded in cliche. For example there’s no explanation or backstory as to why Bennett was such a coward, why he was so cold and sexually repressed, and his character more or less faded to black. For those who enjoy one, there’s a wildly happy ending for all the good guys: love, marriage, babies. I thought this took the shine off the main theme, as if the sisterhood meant nothing in the end. Loved the concept and some of the scenes, I just didn’t love the book.

Where the Crawdads Sing

A gentle coming-of-age story and a murder-mystery, set along the coastal region of North Carolina – a vast area of marsh teeming with insects and birdlife. The youngest child of an abusive marriage, Kya finds herself abandoned in the family home, a place which amounts to nothing much more than a primitive shack in the marshlands. She spends her time studying and documenting the wildlife, finding great solace in her environment. Her survival depends on collecting oysters and catching and smoking fish to sell to the local village store, in return for boat fuel and other supplies. She soon meets Tate, and they form a teenage kinship. Although he teaches her to read and their relationship looks set to blossom, Tate moves away to further his education, but breaks his promise to return. Chase, the handsome sporting hero about town wastes no time in pursuing the now mature, beautiful, and elusive Marsh Girl. Kya eventually falls for his superficial charms, until the day Chase reveals his true character and she’s forced to retaliate. Meanwhile, Tate has sourced a publisher interested in Kya’s detailed documentation of the flora and fauna of the marsh. While she’s on a very rare trip out of town meeting her publisher, Chase is discovered dead and the town points its many fingers at the secretive, semi-feral Marsh Girl.

The first half of the book, describing Kya’s early years alone, I found a little tedious and repetitive: I’m not sure I completely swallow the fact that a girl at the tender age of seven finds the wherewithal to live quite as independently as Kya did, and that no one in the town sought to discover the truth about her living conditions and the absence of her family. And the dynamics of the murder reveal and the denouement, didn’t quite work for me. The strength of this novel lies in the lyrical narrative, which is rich in ecology, analogies, and the details of swamp life, all of which are expressed with a deft hand. It’s a unique setting, and the author uses clever comparisons of animal behaviours to add depth of character and explain motivation. I did enjoy the book, I just didn’t love it.

Hatter’s Castle

James Brodie is a desperately proud man, not only of his hatter’s business but of his tasteless pile of a house, built purely to impress. He’ll go to any lengths to protect his social standing in the town, but not only is he delusional, he’s also a bully. A selfish, self-indulgent character who rules the family home with a rod of unforgiving iron. His wife is broken-spirited and worn to the bone with her domestic duties, none of which are ever completed to his satisfaction. He’s mortally disappointed in Matthew, his feckless son, a boy who is indulged by his doting mother. Brodie sends him on a long trip abroad – to make a man of him. Their eldest daughter, soft-hearted, dreamy Mary, is mostly ignored. When she makes a grave romantic mistake she’s banished from the house during a terrible storm, and almost loses her life in shocking circumstances. The younger daughter, Brodie’s favourite, is set to win a scholarship but the relentless pressure and threats placed upon her to succeed, is not without dire consequence.
Deliciously dark and disturbing. I was completely gripped by this story! Cronin’s tense, detailed narrative is incredibly compelling. This novel is the study of a character driven by his pride and anger, a man hooked on controlling behaviours, abuse, and tyranny. The gradual decline of Brodie’s empire and his self-destruction is sublime. The strong Scottish dialogue adds vibrant authenticity and drama. And yet the overall darkness gives tremendous power then to the chinks of light towards the end for Mary, and Matthew.

The Dreaming Suburb

Jim Carver returns home from the front to find his wife passed away and seven children on his hands. His socialist leanings clash with the ambition of his eldest boy who is determined to better his lot since the artful, ruthless Archie has an eye on owning a chain of grocery shops. His eldest daughter mothers his two sets of twins, and daughter Judith, until they also flee the nest.
Mrs Firth’s religious and controlling rod of iron over her husband and children eventually breaks down when her husband discovers the kindness of another woman, and begins an affair. Handsome, gentle creative Esme Fraser is bewitched by the spirited and sensual Elaine Firth, but she rebels against her repressed upbringing and after a boring job in a Welsh seaside town, runs away to join a circus. Esme’s childhood sweetheart, the girl next door, Judith Carver, is heartbroken by his betrayal. And spinster Edith Clegg who looks after her mentally ill sister, finds life much improved when musician Ted Hartnell arrives to lodge with them.

This was right up my street (or avenue). A richly detailed, nostalgic slice of suburban life. The lives of ordinary people, their relationships, their hopes and dreams. Set between the two world wars, this novel covers a period of significant change and makes for an interesting social commentary. It’s a linear story in so much that the structure, like life, is ongoing rather than forming a neat circle with all ends tied in a ribbon. But there is a natural ebb and flow, the acknowledgement of good and bad times, the roots of which evoke a strong sense of realism.
My overriding criticism is the use of similar character names – around 7 or 8 – whose names begin with the letter E. However, I thought the diverse, colourful cast hugely entertaining and well-characterised and I’m pleased to see there is a sequel.

The Green Years


Robert Shannon is orphaned and sent from Ireland to live with his mother’s estranged family in Scotland, where a frugal existence in a dour town looks set to be his world. His maternal great-grandpa becomes an important character in his life despite grandpa’s disdain of Catholicism, and Robert’s paternal great-grandma’s active encouragement of it. Through his childhood amidst the prejudice and fear of religion, and the forming of fierce friendships and future hopes, Grandpa is not only there to advise, but often to rescue. As the years advance this relationship is often turned on its head – much to the exasperation of Robert. But Grandpa has the last say, in a moving and deeply satisfying denouement.

This was an incredibly absorbing, insightful read. A tender coming-of-age novel which highlights the strong oppositions between Catholics and Presbyterians, and how – often with gentle humour – this impacts on young Robert trying to find his way in life and make sense of historical, often puzzling beliefs. But Robert discovers he has a scientific mind, and as he matures his ambition to be a doctor leads him along a difficult and often disappointing path, fraught with obstacles. The depth and variety of character and rural scene-setting, brings this period of Edwardian history to life and makes perfect sense of the title.

The Cidadel

Andrew Manson takes up his first post as a newly qualified doctor – in a Welsh mining town. The tight-knit communities of the Welsh valleys present Manson with plenty of daily challenges, not only with regard to the poor sanitation and the spread of disease, but in opposition to those who suspect his honesty and outspokenness. His refusal to take the line of least resistance lands him in trouble with some of the established members of society, but he does make a good friend in Philip Denny, and meets his future wife in Christine Barlow, the local, equally idealistic school teacher. Manson is offered a better position in a larger town, but once again when his integrity does not allow for unscrupulous dispensing and money-making schemes, Andrew and Christine are forced yet again to move on. Andrew’s research into lung diseases takes the Manson’s to London, but Andrew misses front-line diagnosis and he soon takes the plunge in buying a run-down surgery.
Frustrated at not earning enough money to live on, Manson’s principles begin to fray at the edges, and when lucrative ways of making easy money from wealthy patients and private clinics begin to take-over from his everyday surgeries and pioneering work, his standards begin to slip. Christine is unhappy with the change in her husband, dislikes the city, and cares nothing for fur coats and fancy furniture. When matters come to a crisis point and Manson is in danger of losing everything, he’s forced to examine everything he holds dear.

Astonishing to discover that this novel written in 1937 and set in 1924 inspired the creation of the NHS. There are many enlightening passages and ideas which clearly illustrate the need of trustworthy medical care for all, regardless of social standing and the ability to pay.
Manson is deliberately challenging, and I enjoyed the journey of his development through the stages of his career. As a work of fiction it didn’t have the huge impact of The Stars Look Down, but this is a straightforward novel written in a biographical style and because the author was a medical professional, full of interesting facts and plenty to say. 

The Stars Look Down

md879247812A novel based around a North East coal-mining town in the early 1900’s. This was the age of capitalism and the rapid growth of industry, interrupted only by the first world war. For a while, fighting on the front for King and country seemed a better alternative, until the reality hit and few hero’s returned home in one piece. But for most working men in this northern town, this era meant the continuous daily grind of working below ground in pitiful conditions, often facing the possibility of death – or starvation if they came out on strike. Socialism was beginning to raise its head but more often than not it was considered a dangerous and dirty word. Joe Gowlan escapes the mine by running away to the big city, living on his wits and looking for every opportunity to better his life. Unscrupulous, full of swagger, and prepared to take risks, Joe climbs the gilded ladder mostly by exploitation and cunning. He avoids conscription, continuing to work his way into a number of lucrative business deals presented by the war.
David Fenwick, also born into the life of a miner along with his father and brothers breaks away from a life below ground by educating himself. He looks set to achieve a B.A. until his head is turned by pretty inveterate social-climber, Jenny. Determined to do right by everyone and full of integrity, David is the voice of the working man and after playing his part in the war eventually breaks into politics; only to go head-to-head with Joe Gowlan.
Arthur, sensitive son of the mine owner becomes estranged from his father after a terrible flooding disaster in the pit kills hundreds of men, including David’s father and brother. Like David, Arthur suspects his father failed to invest enough in planning and safety. He refuses to fight in the war as he only sees more death and destruction, and Arthur is thrown into prison. When he eventually takes control of the pit, Arthur spends too much money on improving working conditions and when the big industrial slump comes along and the workers riot, he’s forced to sell out to Joe Gowlan.
The strength of this novel lies in the richness of the story and the strong social messages throughout, skilfully expressed through real, multi-layered characters. The hopeless, fearful trudge of life in the mining community is well contrasted with those lives of the rich fat cats in charge; the steak and oyster feasts, the gleaming cars and the ignorance of working life. And yet despite the hardships of the mining towns there is a relentless pride and a strong sense of comradeship. Arthur serves as a wonderful bridge between the classes, and yet his lack of hard-nosed business acumen results in the complete collapse of the mine, and this subtlety adds a clever dimension to the black and white politics of the day.
The understandable greed of Joe Gowlan after such humble beginnings. The strength, pride, and stoic nature of David’s mother, Martha, faced with a strike in the dead of winter, no food, no money, and giving birth to a stillborn child. And those powerful scenes when the mine is flooded and husbands, brothers, and sons, are trapped below ground; scenes which will stay in my mind for a very long time. This is just great storytelling, a huge saga involving many intertwined threads, the triumphs and struggles of life through many different eyes, and the harsh reality that the good guy does not necessarily win.

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