Daughters-in-Law

41JjP6FAJJL._SY346_Rachel has dedicated her married life to bringing up her three sons. When they marry and begin families of their own, their wives have their own ideas about family roles and interactions, and Rachel is often hurt. She says and thinks all the wrong things at the wrong time, and suddenly she is in danger of alienating herself completely.

This is rich, skilful writing; it does not rely on sensationalist plot twists, unreliable narrators, secrets or lies – it’s an intelligent observation of reality within family relationships, marriage, ageing, and what makes people tick. I recognised all the characters (although I did think three artists in one book was one too many) in people I know, even if the personalities were different, the traits and situations were the same. I could relate to the feelings from the young, first-time mother, to the bohemian wife torn in two by her husbands new city job, to the wife from a different country and culture, to the mother-in-law desperate not to be left out of any loops. The role which had been the centre of her life for so many years had suddenly turned on its axis, leaving Rachel lost and directionless, an acute condition for those who live solely for their children, and grandchildren. As Sigrid’s mother says; ‘there has to be enough in your own relationship and retirement to prevent you from living through (and therefore controlling) the life of someone else.’

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The Judge’s Wife

51JgJmt0TWL1950’s Ireland and Grace is coerced into an arranged marriage to an older, wealthy judge by her guardian – a cruel, ruthless aunt. Grace eventually falls in love with an Indian doctor, Vikram, and falls pregnant. Poor Grace is sent to an asylum a few days after giving birth in order to hide the scandal. Vikram is told that Grace has died in childbirth, and Grace is told that her child didn’t survive. Thirty years later and the culmination of all these lies reach breakpoint when Emma – who believes her mother, Grace, died many years ago – returns to attend to her father’s estate on his death, and so begins a journey to discover the full extent of her father’s deception.
I thought this was quite a page-turner for a number of reasons. It’s a highly complex tale with two time-slips set in both India and Ireland, but it didn’t quite work for me as many important aspects felt skimmed over and a bit thin. I thought it lacked some depth, especially of character, and as the story gathered pace the plot began to feel like a procession of shock twists – some of them not especially credible. There were a few niggles with the grammar too, with many repeated words, in particular ‘pleats,’ and ‘pleated.’ And why was Martin repeatedly called ‘The Judge’, when his name would have been more realistic? Emma was a shadowy figure for me, and no explanation as to why the aunt was so cruel. And when Grace – an especially weak character – is taken to the asylum after giving birth there was no reference to her physical or emotional state. The romantic aspects were quite sugary, perhaps too light for the overall tone of the book. Despite this I did read to 80% and then skimmed to the end. All the ingredients were there; the historical time-slips, the secrets, the prejudice of the times, and the forbidden love stories: it just wasn’t executed to my taste. Fabulous descriptions of India, and I love the beautiful cover.

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The Soldier’s Wife

51w-dQ39FqL._SY346_Dan Riley is a British soldier, a vocational career which takes him aeons away from home life and often stretches him to break point. In order to survive mentally and physically he relies on his comrades, and they become such an important and integral part of his life that he finds it difficult to disconnect once home and on leave. Returning from six months in Afghanistan, Dan is faced with the minefields of family life and turns to his equally adrift friend.
Alexa has managed without Dan’s emotional and physical support for so long she’s unsure how the family dynamic will adjust on his return, since the life of a military wife is one built around her husbands career and often leaves Alexa feeling invisible. Moving and making a home so many times not only inhibits taking a job, but her older child is at boarding school in order to provide some sort of continuity, but Isabel is so unhappy that Alexa is forced to make several decisions.

This is a slow, considered novel with a light plot, but it is meaty on character. The writing is pared back and subdued, and Trollope observes the human condition with her usual mix of truth and wry humour.

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A Spanish Lover

51ibpogxyylTwins Frances and Lizzie couldn’t be more different. Lizzie is the traditional achiever with husband and four children, a thriving business set in a fashionable town, and a large period-style family home furnished in the epitome of good taste to show for it all. Her days are interminably busy since looking after everything she’s created with her husband is a full-time job; and when the family finances take a considerable and worrying nosedive, their situation raises serious questions about what they value. Meanwhile, Frances creates a bespoke travel business and whilst seeking out off-the-beaten-track holidays for her clients, she meets and begins an affair with an enigmatic, wealthy – albeit married – Spanish hotelier. It seems that the freedom of choice for Frances is far more liberating and interesting than an indulgent lifestyle, and Lizzie finds she’s suddenly less than fulfilled with her lot.
Again, a misleading title as this novel is much more about the complexities of the family dynamic rather than a casual romance. This is a work-life balance problem versus feminism kind of novel, set in the early nineties. I really enjoyed the way these characters developed and the questions raised by their actions. My only negative was the amount of background detail about Andalusia, although the imagery was vivid and engaging.
 
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One Split Second

508041Five teenagers, a party, a fast car, and a loss of concentration for a split-second. Their parents, their siblings, even the guy who lives across the road from the crash site, is deeply affected by the tragedy and this novel follows the emotional nightmare of the five families involved. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this. The beginning introduces a lot of couples and their offspring so a little confusing, to the point where I made a note as to who was who. But then, something magical happened and I was fully immersed in the lives and thoughts of these people, all those facets of human nature and the constantly changing dynamic. The insight, the slow reveal of facts, the clever structure and the tight narrative made for a totally compelling story. And this could so easily have read like a depressing monologue, but it’s not in the least morbid or mawkish, or sentimental.
It is, however, overwhelmingly character-driven so if you’re looking for dramatic plot twists and surprises, you’re in the wrong book. It’s more a slow burn of emotional fall-out; how different relationships and personalities survive grief, apportion blame, find the strength to make decisions for the future and above all, how the power of forgiveness can heal the deepest of wounds.

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The Legacy

51byIKa1AZL._SY346_When Jonathan Coulter passes away from MND, he leaves a legacy designed to dispel the rivalry between his three adult children, his estranged ex-wife, and his young partner. His children must decide how to divide his estate, and they have one weekend to plan how this will be carried out. If they fail to agree on anything, then they stand to lose their entire inheritance.

I really enjoyed this, such an unusual storyline. The family dynamic constantly shifts and as more information is gradually revealed about each character, the more compelling the novel becomes. Although the subject matter is sad and serious, the author has a good handle on balancing the ups and downs without the need for graphic description. Together with the quality of the writing, The Legacy is a sensitive, well-considered novel about people. Great scene setting in the coastal town of Scarborough.

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Beyond This Place

s-l500Paul Mathry discovers his father isn’t dead after all – he’s in a high security prison where visitors are not allowed. Paul turns his back on his mother, his fiancé, and the prospect of a good job, and devotes himself to finding out if his father really is a murderer. He makes contact with the original witnesses involved in his father’s case, only to discover how thin the prosecution really was. His journey back in time is full of peril as he’s up against the powerful bigwigs of the town, those who see no sin in perverting the course of justice to suit themselves. But Paul’s dogged persistence, along with the help of new friend, Lena, and a news reporter looking for his big chance, pays off, and his father wins an appeal. Together, they manage to blow apart the original trial with solid evidence of wrong-doing. But Paul’s father, now freed from fifteen years of prison is not the kind, gentle man Paul remembers – he’s been hardened by the sheer injustice of it all and the cruel misery of prison hardship, and all seems lost until the final few pages.

This is classic Cronin; full of characters, one man fighting against all the odds and exposing how flawed the judiciary system can be. There’s always a strong feeling of integrity and honesty being played out against greed, and the worst flaws of the human condition, and every strata and class of life is well represented. Compelling, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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Once Upon A Lie

51YZ425tbhL._SY346_Clare and Lorraine have been best friends since college days. Now in their forties, it’s all about careers and families. Lorraine falls pregnant easily, but is without a steady partner. Clare is married to dependable Sam but cannot carry a baby full term and has suffered numerous miscarriages – and Sam is beginning to feel the strain as much as his wife. Despite this, Clare and Sam – Godparents to Lorraine’s children – are happy to accept the children for a sleepover. But while Lorraine is away at a spa with her mother, the unthinkable happens. Baby Theo is discovered dead. Friendships are torn apart, the police are called, lies are told in order to protect the innocent and every relationship is strained to break point. It’s only many years later when Sam discovers some vital evidence, that the shocking truth is revealed. I raced through this. The pace is good, the characters relatable. The clues as to what really happened to Theo and who was responsible are subtly interwoven into the fabric of the story from the beginning. And although I did guess the outcome as the story reached its conclusion, it didn’t spoil the enjoyment. A good thriller with plenty of character as well as plot.

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The Scarlet Dress

51pf40lkj7l._sy346_Alice Lang rents a caravan at Severn Sands holiday park during the blistering summer of 1995. She befriends Marnie, the small caretaker’s daughter, and Will Jones who works in the grounds. He’s not the only boy attracted to the troubled, enigmatic Miss Lang, but Will becomes unnaturally possessive when she attracts the attention of wealthy park owner’s son, Guy deVillars. When Alice disappears and her dress is found by the water’s edge, it is assumed she drowned. 25 years later when the seaside town is no longer fashionable, the holiday park is sold to developers and Alice Langs bones are discovered beneath a flower bed. Will, still consumed by the death of Alice, returns to Seven Sands, determined to discover who murdered the love of his life.
This novel is enriched by a strong sense of atmosphere created by the slightly creepy, old-fashioned holiday park, and the coastal stretches of a lonely estuary form the perfect stage for a murder-mystery. Its brilliantly executed by Douglas who always uses time and place to great effect. The story unfolds through two timelines, past and present, and the cast all come under suspicion. My allegiance changed throughout: Will, the obsessed, spurned lover. The deVillars family, privileged and seemingly above reproach, and then there’s the people around Marnie, the strange little girl who’d lost her mother in shadowy circumstances and is now a mute adult preferring the company of animals. Her father, and his unexplained absence on the night Alice went missing…

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St Trillo’s Chapel

St Trillo’s Chapel, Marine Drive, Rhos-on-Sea, North Wales. This tiny building is thought to be the smallest church in the British Isles. It has enough seats for just six people. The chapel is named after St Trillo, a 6th-century saint. The spring inside the chapel provided St Trillo with drinking water. You can still see the well in front of the altar, if the chapel is unlocked. This water source would have influenced his decision to build his cell at this spot. For centuries, this well supplied the water for baptisms across the extensive medieval parish of Llandrillo. It also had a long tradition of being a healing well.

Second Honeymoon

Empty nest syndrome is preventing Edie from moving on. Her three children have all left home and husband Russell is looking forward to them spending time as a couple again. But eldest boy Matthew earns less than his girlfriend, who is ready to move up the property ladder, and he’s not happy. Rosa has a secret mountain of debt, and the strain of living with his girlfriend’s mother begins to take the shine off being part of a grown-up relationship for youngest boy, Ben. Meanwhile, after a stalled career, Edie lands a part in an Ibsen play, only to find herself offering an empty bedroom to her down-at-heel stage-son. Cue all three adult children eventually asking to come back, and their bohemian family home is fuller than ever.
Not as light as the title might suggest, and I really enjoyed this. A good, easy read without being overly sentimental. A touch of light comedy about it too, as well as Trollope’s usual insight into the complexities of family relationships.

Love on the Dole

First published in 1933, Love on the Dole might be a work of fiction but it is also a great piece of social history. Set in Salford in the wake of The Great Depression, it reflects the grinding poverty of the working classes living in the industrial slums well before the NHS, a fair benefit system, health and safety legislations, and opportunities for further education. The novel follows the coming-of-age stories of Harry and Sally Hardcastle, their struggle to survive, their hopes and dreams, and the reality of becoming an adult in a world where class distinctions set firm boundaries, and men and women had clearly defined roles. Harry has plenty of ambition and a good work ethic but circumstances conspire against him and eventually his faith in hard work is crushed with a dead-end. Only love and blind hope keeps his head above water. His headstrong, independent sister becomes involved with Larry Meath, a self-educated Marxist, but Larry isn’t a well man and Sally is forced to consider other, more lucrative rivals for her affection.
Although the storyline is perhaps somewhat predictable, this is an incredibly compelling read down to the depth of character and the constant, relentless hope that Harry and Sally might in the very least grasp some kind of a lifeline before the last page. And although the denouement is satisfactory it is also equally depressing; but this is a powerful piece of fiction and anything else would have been out of step with the raw reality Greenwood had already created. There are many secondary characters throughout and sometimes I felt they slowed the flow a little, but the writing is good and the dialogue completely authentic. I’m a northerner and understood the nuances, but this aspect might be hard going for those not familiar with such strong, northern dialect.