The Second Child

41jMqt+Q7pLLove is tested to the limit when Sarah and Phil make a chance life-changing discovery: their profoundly disabled teenage daughter is not theirs. And so unfolds the brutal truth that the life they’ve led with Lauren wasn’t theirs to live. Their real daughter, the pretty, footballing Rosie, is tracked-down by the hospital. But Rosie’s mother, who is separated, is faced with the prospect of losing Rosie to a loving family comprising a cool, footballing brother, and her real father. Added to which the prospect of caring for Lauren in any capacity, is utterly daunting. But who was responsible for the mix-up, and how will the families resolve such an emotional minefield?
Bond writes with integrity and insight. In less capable hands this story would be over-dramatised and full of angst. It’s compelling, thought-provoking, and delivered in a fluid writing style. Characters are relatable and multi-faceted, and although the denouement is satisfying my slight reservation was the ending, which felt a little abrupt. Sarah’s final decision though, was one of great compassion for the other woman.

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The Wheel of Fortune

511HlvwSA8L._SY346_Set in the first half of the 20th Century from around 1913 to 1966, this novel runs parallel to the lives of several Plantagenet Kings and associated historical characters. A novel of tremendous scope, it is immensely detailed and documents the power wielded by a coveted family estate in South Wales: Oxmoon. This house becomes the focus for battles of inheritance spanning many generations, and the rise and fall of the wealthy Godwin family is told through the point of view of six characters. I liked it, but my attention wandered a bit here and there, especially in the final third, and I found the repetition about ‘drawing the line,’ a little irritating. I didn’t love it as much as Penmarric and Cashelmara, both of which were six star reads for me, but it did keep me engrossed for a good while and Howatch never disappoints in depth and authenticity.

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The Forgotten Sister

41tQLBEWQwLTom and Grace adopt a mixed-race baby. In later years when Cassie makes a visit to the doctor, her lack of medical history and a series of random memories prompts a search for blood relations. She doesn’t find her mother – she finds Leah – the sister she never knew she had. While Cassie lives a somewhat privileged life in a leafy suburb, her sister is struggling on a sink estate on the other side of Manchester. Why did her adoptive parents not want Leah, why were they separated? The repercussions raise pertinent questions about the strength of family bonds, the struggle of those teen years and coming to terms with who we really are. This is a compelling novel and Bond doesn’t shy away from exploring deeply emotive subjects in a realistic, non-sentimental narrative which is completely believable. An excellent story, and despite the dark undertone, a novel full of truth and hope.

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Small Pleasures

51VW-URDewL._SY346_Jean works as a features editor and when Gretchen Tilbury contacts the North Kent Echo claiming her child is the result of a virgin birth, she just has to investigate. The facts appear to be resolute and at first it is difficult to prove anything either way, but in following a trail of historical clues, Jean discovers a tantalising glimpse of life beyond a future built on caring for her mother and working on the paper writing trivial articles. I’m in two minds about this book. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t love it because of the ending, because of the pacing, and because of the overall subject matter of the virgin birth. There’s a wonderful, authentic sense of the fifties era, and I’ve always loved the observational detail Chambers brings to her work and the characters are as always well-fleshed-out. I thought the first half felt a bit aimless and bogged-down in domestic trivia; although this aspect ultimately makes sense of the title. Everything picks up pace when Gretchen leaves her husband for another woman, and Jean sees not only her chance to escape life with Mother, but to finally be able to lay some romantic claim on Howard. The build to the denouement solves the mystery of the virgin birth, and it seems Jean is almost assured of a happy ending – until the final few pages when life deals an unexpected, tragic blow. It’s a slow, sad, subtle read.
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The Ladies’ Midnight Swimming Club

B08BV1M1QR.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SX500_Three women facing difficult life stages find emotional release and form bonds by swimming in the Irish sea. Elizabeth is a widow struggling with huge debts, a crumbling house, and an old-fashioned surgery. Her friend, Jo, is facing her own life-changing problems but enlists the help of her daughter, to discover that Lucy prefers a small village medical practice to that of a busy London hospital, after all. Meanwhile, Dan has lost his high-profile job and is renting a cottage in the village to write a novel, and seek out his real blood mother. This is a gentle, undemanding, predictable, rather cosy read despite some of the subject matter being about serious issues such as cancer, adoption, and debt. There isn’t too much tension, the main characters and the village community are all pleasant, and everything is nicely tied-up at the end. Some of the scenes felt a little contrived and lacking in depth and I don’t know why, but I expected this novel to be more gritty. Descriptions of the location were very good indeed and there was a great sense of time and place, but I didn’t feel the plot was especially real, or believable, and there was a distinct overuse of, ‘gently,’ and ‘softly,’ cropping up in dialogue tags. Overall, a decent read for a dose of easy escapism in a beautiful wild setting, and a story which champions the strength of female friendship.

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A Family Man

41yXDcWNW8L._SY346_Matt Webster’s life is changed forever when he returns home from work to discover his wife has not only walked out on their marriage but has also abandoned their four-year-old son. Thrown in at the deep-end trying to juggle a demanding career in media with child-care, proves to be a massive learning curve for Matt but ultimately, a situation which brings rich rewards and Josh soon becomes the centre of his life.

I really enjoyed this; it’s always refreshing to read relationship-focused novels dealing with marriage and children from the male point of view, and I especially liked the blend of domestic tragedy with non-patronising, observational humour. The secondary characters are equally fleshed-out and add realistic colour such as Matt’s elderly father, and the absconded wife’s predatory best friend.

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The Other Woman

41ERDI7XjpL._SY346_Fran, trapped in a soulless marriage with a controlling bully of a man and an indifferent son, lives for her sensitive, secret lover. They hatch a plan to make a new life together. But when the final rendezvous goes awry, she is left with a heart-stopping race to retrace her steps and resume her old life before her indiscretion is discovered. But what has happened to Jack? His silence is painful and confusing. Jack is married to Helena, trapped in a marriage with a needy, volatile, wealthy woman dependent on alcohol and irritated by Jack’s lack of creativity and earnings. But as their relationship begins to fragment, Fran finds the strength to break free of her destructive marriage to discover not only does she have the wherewithal to be truly independent, she’s found the confidence to build relationships based on truth and reality.

Such clever writing, in that my allegiance was with Fran, the ‘other woman,’ the whole way through, and not Helena. Full of tension, especially throughout Fran’s half of the story, and so addictive! It really kept me turning the pages. And as well as a pacy plot moving between Fran and Helena, there is real depth to the characters – whether we like them or not – a reality-based insight into relationships, love and marriage, and children. I love how the entire cast knits together, how they rise and fall by their own hand. It delivered all the elements I enjoy in a novel.

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The Love Child

51Cd403P7GLJanine and Dougie were married for fifteen years until Janine decided she could no longer live with his addictions and his infidelity. Although she is now in a relationship with Dependable Mike, the depth of Janine and Dougie’s history together still lies like an unbreakable, invisible bond through Janine’s teenage daughter, Stevie. Their friends are something of a mixed bag including Dougie’s best friend Simon, and his wife, Victoria – who is so desperate for her own child she is often blind to Simon’s slippery ways. But when it comes to Stevie, Simon bites off more than he can chew and eventually, the dynamic of all their relationships implode.
This is a novel about relationships and how they connect: lovers, friends, husbands, wives, siblings, step-children, parents. It tackles some big issues alongside the domestic strata confirming that genuine, selfless love can overcome anything; and how something better can grow from the ashes of despair. Dougie enjoys the most development as a character, he’s so vibrant and colourful, almost larger than life! But for all his faults he’s big-hearted enough to still care for Janine’s daughter, and his personal struggle to once again build his life back from nothing is an enjoyable, remarkable journey and skilfully executed. The push and pull of emotional chess is rich and insightful, with just enough drama to keep the plot boiling without losing a grip on reality or resorting to sentiment. Deeply compelling, relatable, and hugely enjoyable.

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The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde

51lOsL3L07L._SY346_In 1959 the four Wilde sisters spend the long hot summer with their aunt and uncle in rural seclusion at Applecote Manor. Five years previously, their cousin, Audrey, vanished, and the mystery remains unsolved. Audrey’s mother tends her daughter’s shrine, and barely leaves the house. And what of their big, blustering uncle who likes to swim with them in the river and was arrested by the police at the time of Audrey’s disappearance, for questioning? A second timeline is set in present day when Jessie and widower Will buy the now neglected, empty Applecote Manor not only to escape the pressure of living in London, but to give Will’s teenage daughter, Bella, a fresh start after losing her mother, and falling foul to bad behaviour. Despite her initial protests, Bella feels an affinity to the missing girl and is curious to discover more. As both centuries slowly collide, the past catches up to the present and the truth about what really happened to Audrey Wilde, is finally exposed.

The overriding strength of this novel lies in the historical setting; the shabby chic era of the well-to-do in the English countryside, plus the naivety of the girls in the fifties, has a charm which really resonated. I thought the contemporary timeline not quite as strong, but both plot lines are cleverly structured between the different eras to bring about a compelling conclusion. It is a slow burn of a story, and from an action point of view, only really gets going in the final 30%. A few too many similes/metaphors in the descriptive passages but overall, an enjoyable slice of escapism.

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The Lie of the Land

 

61Yu+TVTqgL._SY346_Quentin and Lottie both lose their prestigious London jobs in the recession whilst trying to divorce each other, adding to an already impossible situation. Lottie’s solution is to rent out their large home and move to a cottage in the country near Quentin’s ageing parents – where the rent is suspiciously low – in order to consider their next move without going bankrupt. Quentin, once an acclaimed columnist is reduced to writing derogatory pieces about country life. Alexander, Lottie’s mixed-race teenage son from a previous relationship, is less than pleased about being buried in a rural idyll with poor internet connections. And instead of going to university he’s encouraged to find a job in the local pie factory. As the mystery of the low rent begins to gather pace, and as local characters become friends – or enemies – the beautiful Devonshire countryside shows its dark side.
This is not only a detailed romp through a failing relationship and the struggles of the family dynamic, its also smart-urban life versus rustic-country life, and a mesmerising study of a large cast of diverse characters; depicted through a generous slice of British society. The Polish workers in the pie factory, the sheep farming health-visitor, the rich rock star in his mansion, the cleaner with the odd, musically talented daughter, the ex-London friends. All of these characters come with their own backstories but they are skilfully threaded together by Craig to produce a fabulous murder-mystery denouement. The character development is terrific, how assumptions about people can be misleading and dangerous, how the loss of a parent can force a different point of view, how the loss of entitlements can lead to something better, richer. If I have to find any fault in this novel I’d flag-up the sometimes confusing mix of tenses through the narrative, but overall, the strength of everything else equalled sheer entertainment for me.

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Good Girls

 
41sTq0N9D+L._SY346_As sisters, Eleanor and Kat Keating couldn’t be more different but with a scatterbrained, alcoholic mother and a somewhat misguided, controlling priest for a father the family unit was always going to be one of intense diversity. When Eleanor leaves home for university, the relationship with her sister undergoes subtle changes. It becomes even more fractured when Eleanor’s handsome friend, Nick, is captivated by her younger and prettier sister. Many years later, Nick has married into a wealthy family in South Africa. A near-death accident forces him to re-evaluate his life and pick up the threads of his friendship with the Keating girls, and although the trail of lies he is fed eventually leads to a reunion of sorts, there are innumerable hurdles to jump before the truth is finally laid bare.

I was fully engaged in this story from the first to the last page. Terrific character development centered around basically good girls – but the products of bad parents – coupled with a lifetime of misunderstandings which only become clear as the novel develops. Skilfully written with a deep understanding of the nuances and the sometimes see-saw of emotions within different relationships.

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The World at my Feet

51cEaWpxaOL._SY346_In 1990 Harriet’s job as a journalist takes her to Romania to report on the terrible conditions in the state orphanages there. Her mantra is never to become involved in ‘the story,’ or to make it about herself but on this occasion, she breaks all the rules. In 2018 Ellie is suffering from agoraphobia and anxiety: a legacy from her childhood. Her sanctuary is her garden and her highly profitable Instagram account where she creates an image of herself as keeper of the quintessential English country garden. When two, very different men enter her life, Ellie is forced to make that leap beyond her garden gate and take her life back to its bare roots, not only to find a future but to discover who she really is.

This is light, intelligent fiction with a romantic slant and a compelling, time-slip structure which kept me turning the pages. It does not suffer from cliche or sentiment and the denouement is equally satisfying without being overly predictable. Lovely, original read

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