The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton

39719145Musician Grace Atherton is conducting a long-term love affair with David – a married man intent on leaving his wife just as soon as the children are older. His wife turns a blind eye since they have an ‘arrangement.’ Grace has already endured much misery in her life – deceased parents who sacrificed their own happiness for hers, an abusive relationship with her tutor which added to her inhibitions and her ability to play in public; and another, more personal loss connected to David – but she seems determined to hang on to a man who can’t, or won’t fully commit. Of course, it happens, this is not an unusual situation. And the intense, obsessive character of Grace is perhaps the perfect foil for someone like David; a man who manages to spend days at a time in Grace’s company even though he lives in another country. On the face of it David seems almost gallant and heroic at times, especially so when he saves a woman from falling into the path of a tube train in Paris. But when all of this is captured by CCTV and the incident goes viral across social media, all of his relationships come under scrutiny and his clandestine love affair with Grace is blown apart.

This author writes about grief, disappointment, and depression exceptionally well, and the nuts and bolts of the writing flow like silk, making it a pleasure to read and I was drawn in immediately. The story of an affair with a slippery married man is a well-worn one and somewhat predictable, but of course the enjoyment of it lies in the telling; although I would have liked a little more story. And for me, too much description concerning the repair to musical instruments; the sounds they make, how they are made, and the playing of them. I found this slowed the action and these long passages felt a little too dense and detailed for the overall tone of the story. Classical music lovers will no doubt find more to endear them to this aspect of the novel than I did. However, the continental settings are vivid and beautifully described, the pacing is good, and the themes of friendship are honest and enduring, allowing Grace to finally discover a better, stronger version of herself.


The Catcher in the Rye

52566051._SX318_SY475_Narrated in first person, this short novel is an intense snapshot into the thoughts of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield as he goes underground in New York on a discovery of self. Traumatised by two events in his short life, Caulfield is heading for a breakdown. He isn’t convinced that preparing himself for the adult world is something to aspire to and feels the education system is predisposed to those intent on commercial success and crowd-pleasing popularity. He’s aimless, drifting, forgetting to eat, unable to connect to anything or anyone other than his young sister; almost to the point where I wondered if he was mildly autistic. Fun and imaginative one moment, depressed and despairing the next.
Caulfield seeks truth, beauty, and reality but sees only the false and the phoney, the critics, the bullies. What he really wants to do is save the innocent from falling, and from the horrible truth of growing up in an ugly world.
I found this novella completely absorbing.


Ponies Plot

24818049Browsing through an online list of vintage books I came across an ancient, yellowing copy of this book, first published in 1965. I decided I must have it, purely for the sake of nostalgia and, I told myself, pertinent to the writing of my equine diaries. And so I reacquainted myself with the story of Dundreary Riding School and its imminent closure. Narrated partly by eight rebellious inmates it soon becomes clear that the future is not entirely in the hands of their owner, Daisy Dedleigh-Sirkett. Being especially bright, Daisy’s ponies are fully aware that the most desirable outcome lies in acquiring a loving, knowledgable little girl of their own. Of course, all ponies know that little girls are something designed by nature to look after them. Naturally, they dread being sold to an ill-trained, wilful child. In the event of impending disaster along these lines, Old Smoky’s advice is to fully utilise the four equine aids at their disposal: the head, the hooves, the whinny, and the teeth. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, he says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
Smoky goes on to explain that head-shaking is usually enough to dispel small disagreements such as being asked to trot instead of staying in walk, turning left instead of right, and so on. Fix those too-tight reins by stopping to graze; thus allowing the errant child to suddenly shoot forwards and hit the grass. If the child clutches at your mane and begins to kick and scream instead, fling up your head and hit the child smartly on the nose. With exceptionally ill-mannered children it might be necessary to force a temporary separation through swerving, rearing, or bucking. At any chosen moment – preferably in full gallop – simply change course with no warning and the offending child will sail smartly over your withers. Some ponies scamper away after such an event, others choose to consider the matter closed and graze quietly. On the yard, it’s important to draw attention to any instances of neglect by whinnying; instances such as being late with your bucket feed, not noticing an empty hay-net, failing to refresh your water, and so on. If all else fails, a firm nip is always a good reminder of who is in charge. Meanwhile, at The South Dorset Pony Club, there’s a dismounted rally taking place and Miss Nutshell offers some sage advice to the beginners and nervous children. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, she says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
I begin to wonder just how much ‘training’ I’ve been given over the years without realising! Is ‘being in charge,’ quite so relevant these days? ‘Show him who’s the boss,’ was something I heard throughout the sixties and seventies. The principle is perhaps much the same, although we talk more about Leadership than Mastership in these politically correct times. And as the ponies of Dundreary discover, that point when novice riders became tolerable and gain sufficient equine intelligence (what a wonderful term this is; it suggests that good horsemanship is a satisfactory dovetailing of a concessionary partnership, something I believe in wholeheartedly) they vanish, and buy ponies of their own. And the tiresome learner-rider business begins all over again. How true these sentiments are. And I love that Smoky tempers his advice with the idea that once discrepancies have been settled, the relationship between rider and pony must continue with kindness and consideration. Every pony deserves an owner blessed with a modicum of equine intelligence. I do hope there’s a special place in heaven for all riding-school ponies, fictional and otherwise. They sure deserve it.


The Darling Buds of May

11073763Upstanding and thoroughly uptight tax inspector Cedric Charlton pays a visit to the Larkin’s sprawling farm and junk yard – intent on discovering why a certain buff-yellow tax return hasn’t been returned to his office for inspection. Before too long he’s bewitched by the Larkin’s beautiful – albeit secretly pregnant – daughter, Mariette, and within a matter of days tax evasion becomes a distant memory. Pa and Ma Larkin quickly see the advantages of having Charlton on side and he’s soon seduced into a world of feasting and drinking amid the lush 1950’s countryside in the grip of a heatwave, when everything – even the strawberry picking – feels overwhelmingly sensual.
Food pays a big part in the Larkin’s generous household, where the TV is never turned off and there’s always a couple of geese in the oven and a slab of butter on the table. There’s no finesse or good taste attached to this gorging it’s more about the quantity, the tomato ketchup, the cocktails, the beer for breakfast, and the size of the joint. And there’s always a deal to be done, whether its taking an extravagant car in lieu of a debt, or something more personal… The slightly shifty, happy-go-lucky, belching Larkins’ are well contrasted against their neighbours; the shrewish church mice Edith Pilchester and Miss Barnwells, tiny Aunt Fans, and the impoverished Brigadier, constantly worried about his vast, crumbling estate. Never one to miss an opportunity, Pa Larkin offers him scrap value for it. The result is a kaleidoscope of colourful, original, larger-than-life characters coming together for the final scene in the Larkin’s meadow. Perfick.


Things we Choose to Hide

50544743._SY475_On the rebound at the end of a long-term relationship, Rachel flees to friends in Florence – and falls in love with handsome, albeit secretive, Tommaso. They marry within weeks. It seems a rash decision for such an independent, intelligent woman with career prospects – plans she has no intention of giving up or changing for the preferences of a man bound by Italian convention. And this especially since she’s given up everything to stay in Italy with her new husband; to learn his first language, make new friends, and pursue her photography career in a foreign country rather than on home ground in Scotland.
Unease grows within the relationship when Rachel discovers her husband is keeping secrets. During a low time, Rachel travels to India to revisit the places she grew up as a child. The poverty and spirituality she experiences there and a sympathetic meeting-of-minds through the Catholic priest, Pasha, contrasts sharply with the rich scenery and her privileged, more formal way of life in Italy. As Tommaso’s complex secrets come to light and disaster strikes, Rachel must find great reserves of character to keep afloat, both emotionally and practically. Her reward – eventually – is to discover love in the most unexpected of places.
The great strength and appeal of this book lies in the rich descriptive knowledge the author brings to the locations: the food, the people, and the culture, without detracting from the story. I did sense some detachment from the main character from time to time, where a little more depth might have convinced me more assuredly of her emotions and motivations. Otherwise, a well written novel with ambitious scope. Great escapism.


Jane Eyre

downloadJane is an orphan and taken in by a strict Aunt. Her cousins are spoilt, hypocritical, and arrogant, and when Jane stands her ground once too often, she is finally banished to an institution. A terrible period of poverty, neglect, and harsh discipline follows, but Jane is not diminished. As a young woman, Jane takes a governess position at the wonderfully atmospheric Thornfield Hall, and the story begins in earnest. There is nothing predictable or cliched about the forbidden, blossoming romance between Jane and Mr Rochester. This is a meeting of minds. And yet there’s a timeless appeal in the young, naive woman and the older, wealthy, and somewhat mysterious older man. But the path of true love never runs smooth and Bronte throws some big spanners in the works with clever plot twists and perfect timing. And just when we think all is going to be well, along comes a revelation to blow apart everything that has gone before.
Jane Eyre is a powerful novel with strong moral and social values directing the plot; where only God, truth, and love are fully respected. Character is at the heart of the story, revealing fey and selfish actions to be ultimately worthless, regardless of social standing. There are many parallels in which Bronte exposes society roles and their falsehoods. And yet… little substance is granted to the poor, mad soul in the attic. Considering the Victorian era in which Jane Eyre was written, there are long passages of description and introspection which require some patience and perseverance. However, the other ingredients are faultless and there’s no doubt that as a protagonist, Jane Eyre – with her indomitable human spirit – is a superb character to champion.


Cider with Rosie

12421756A book to read simply for the joy of the English language! Laurie Lee’s prose is poetic and deeply moving. His pen manages to lend a surreal beauty to everything – including poverty and cruelty – I was mesmerised. Set in 1920’s rural England just after the first world war, this memoir documents the rich, idyllic Cotswold landscape as seen through the eyes of young Laurie Lee, and not simply in physical terms but emotional ones, too. It’s a kaleidoscope of village life; the changing seasons, his family, the fascination and acceptance of death, and the close, always powerful proximity of nature.
It even had me think about my grandparents and wonder at the relationship ties and those of love which bind us and remain the same throughout generations, regardless of circumstance and time. How the perception of events we remember from childhood depends on a multitude of factors, but are instantly recognisable in others. Lush prose and full of character, Cider with Rosie is an intense, vivid glimpse into a slice of timeless village life. Sometimes funny, insightful, or sad, but never seen through rose-tinted spectacles or dressed in sentimentality.


Saturday Night & Sunday Morning

19228763A bleak illustration of late fifties working-class life in Northern Britain. Arthur Seaton works hard, plays hard, and fights hard. He fights against all authority, sleeps with married women, drinks till he falls down flights of stairs and defies anyone to tell him what to do or how to live. Life revolves around working at the bicycle factory, sex, fighting, and drinking. Until the inevitable happens. Contraception for women didn’t exist and neither did the morning-after pill let alone abortion clinics. A scalding bath and a bottle of gin was the only way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Not that this predicament stalls Arthur much in the grand scheme of things.
Off-setting the devil-may-care attitude of the main protagonist is the lyrical use of language, and it does elevate what would otherwise be a somewhat monotonous, depressing tale. But every Saturday night is followed by a Sunday morning, and Arthur is certainly more reflective in the final third. This quiet lead into the denouement is something of a lame, albeit satisfactory ending. However, brimful of character and the atmosphere of those times, and I loved the authentic dialogue.


The Rector’s Wife

19245347Anna, as rector’s wife in a small rural village, attracts a clearly defined role. When Peter fails to gain promotion on the religious ladder to archdeacon, not only does he fall into bitter isolation but their marriage also begins to suffer, and money remains tight. Despite her willingness and capabilities, the male-dominated world of the church deems it not appropriate for Anna to be seen earning a living outside of church duties. Her first step of rebellion, not only to recover her self-worth but to support her family in their hour of need, is to take a part-time job in a supermarket. The small-minded politics of the village – an idyllic setting on the surface – hides a hornet’s nest of disquiet, desire, and disapproval.
Originally published in 1991. If you’re looking for big dramatic plot developments and action then this isn’t one for you. If, however you enjoy the careful consideration of the family dynamic and the internal struggles of a woman needing to be recognised as her own person – then well worth the read. Trollope’s insight into relationships as well as the expectations and restraints of the church within the village community and beyond, makes for a quietly compelling read.


Camberwell Beauty

19861393Entertaining Observations of The Human Condition. A wonderfully absorbing, funny and observant book, full of larger-than-life Marmite characters who both fascinate and repel at the same time. The Metcalfs and the Cunnnghams live privileged, indulgent lives on one of nicest streets in London; the good end, that is. And yet plenty of money and all the material things in the world can’t fix absolutely everything. Big-hearted Jo Metcalf at number 95 is desperate for a good friend and homes in on the rather elusive, beautiful Anna Cunningham who lives at the Pink House, and a friendship ensues.
Their men chum along but they’re not really from the same mould: Nigel the philanderer likes to dabble in the white stuff, as opposed to Anna’s husband Chris, who is practically saintly in comparison. But their friendships endure over the years despite Anna taking everything and everyone for granted and even Jo’s martyrdom is sometimes pushed to its limits. Eventually Anna pushes everyone too far and makes a mistake, culminating in an event which has devastating consequences for them all.
Although Jenny Eclair’s writing is sharp and at times outrageously funny – or sometimes simply outrageous – this isn’t a shallow read. There are layers, dark depths, and subtle character motivations are revealed along the way. Can anyone who wasn’t shown how to love by their own mother show love to their own children? And there’s a strong message about the power of love and forgiveness within a marriage, too.