The Mayor of Casterbridge

56759Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor at a fair; a terrible drunken act and something which comes back to haunt him with a vengeance. Eighteen years later the sailor is lost at sea, presumed dead, and Susan seeks out her former husband to discover that Henchard has not only established himself as a wealthy corn merchant, but is also the Mayor of Casterbridge. Anxious to save his reputation and partly out of a sense of duty, Henchard marries Susan again, pretending Elizabeth Jane is his step-daughter – but Susan hides a dark secret, and Henchard has already promised a future to Lucetta Templeman. When a handsome, straight-speaking Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, arrives in town Henchard is quick to employ him and his clever business ideas, but then matters become compounded when both Lucetta and Elizabeth Jane are romantically inclined towards Farfrae, and Henchard is thrown into a state of flux. As their relationships – both business and pleasure – become hopelessly intertwined and fraught with wrong turns, Farfrae’s fortunes look set to rise and Henchard finds himself on the downward spiral as his past rushes to meet him.
The narrative is quite hard-going, partly down to a lot of old English words and the rural slang of the day. The dialogue is authentic, especially the regional variations, and it’s also a rich and vivid portrait of country life in 1840’s Dorset. There are a few convenient deaths and the overall atmosphere is one of melancholy and redemption, but the strength of this novel lies in the twisty plotting and how well it is structured. Characters are multi-dimensional and rise and fall by their own hand. Henchard, although he tries to do the right thing isn’t quite the moral upstanding man his image represents, and the author really does make him pay! It’s a great story, one with a strong social and moral conscience.



19150906Cashelmara is loosely based on the lives of Edward I II and III; although this story mostly takes place in late nineteenth-century Ireland, through those troubled times when the country was besieged with famine and uprisings, and frequently at odds with the Protestant Englishmen who owned the estates. An epic, historical saga written from 6 different viewpoints, the story follows the fortunes of three generations beginning with Edward de Salis and his second marriage to his wife’s cousin, a young American, Marguerite. The eldest son from Edward’s first marriage naturally inherits everything on his death: the Irish estate, Cashelmara, plus the beautiful English county mansion where Patrick grew up, and his considerable wealth. Unfortunately Patrick does not inherit his father’s head for business, and although he follows in his footsteps when he marries his step-mother’s American cousin, Sarah, his drinking, reckless spending and gambling looks set to ruin everything. Forced to live humbly at Cashelmara, Patrick spends his time cultivating the garden and perfecting his wood-carving skills, and continues to form intense ‘friendships’ with men rather than pursue a more serious occupation fitting to a gentleman of his class. When the insidious Derry Stranahan becomes intimately involved not only with Patrick, but also with managing Cashelmara’s estate, the rot really sets in. Poor, beleaguered Sarah forms her own, dangerous allegiance with Hugh McGowan, both romantically and otherwise, and before too long the fate of Cashelmara is the subject of a scandalous power struggle giving rise to affairs, betrayal, revenge, and murder.
This is a heavily characterised novel and the structure is superb, allowing one to be fully immersed not only in the narrators head, but in another time and place as the plot is skilfully moved forwards without repeating what we already know, and without revealing all. There is a strong element of psychology allowed to influence character motivation, leaving no doubt that these events happened. Vivid historical detail, the suppression and sexual naivety of women, the super-rich and the super-poor and the iron fist of the church are all incorporated to great affect.


Three Things About Elsie

35150981._SX318_Florence, Elsie, and Jack, live in sheltered accommodation. When a new resident arrives Florence is convinced it’s someone she used to know, but how can it be when he died more than sixty years ago? As Florence lies waiting for someone to discover her after a fall, her mind takes her on a trip down memory lane. Perhaps she’ll discover who keeps moving her elephant and buying so much cake, and what really happened to Ronnie Butler.

Anyone with personal experience of dementia will perhaps be better placed to relate to this novel – especially the ending – because its strength lies in the observed detail and the superb characterisation not only of Florence but also of those working in sheltered housing or caring for the elderly. The secondary characters in this novel are as strong as the main protagonist, which goes against the grain but Handy Simon and Miss Ambrose not only lift the narrative, but help to set the mood. I love, love the dark humour mixed with poignant insights about life, death, and where we fit in the grand scheme of things, the sort of things we think about as we age and look back. The language, and the nuts and bolts of the writing are faultless and cleverly crafted. My personal enjoyment flagged a little here and there, especially through the mid-section and occasionally where the time-slips caught me out and also, because its incredibly difficult to write engagingly and consistently about such a tough subject. This is a very real book, maybe a little too real to be classed merely as fiction and escapism, but fair to say the essence of it crept under my skin.


A Sense of Guilt

51KBrYQ6qGL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_Richard’s needy, bohemian ex-wife, Inge, makes life with his new wife and step-daughter as difficult as possible. Since leaving her and their two boys, Richard can’t help but respond to her loneliness, driven by guilt and a sense of duty. Inge has been hanging on for eight years, convinced that Richard will eventually return to the family home. Richard’s second wife, Helen, is more self-contained and independent, allowing him to please everybody except perhaps himself. His lifelong friend the handsome, manipulative, promiscuous author, Felix, is not averse in allowing his creativity to overlap real life, and Felix takes his pleasures very seriously. His devoted wife turns a blind eye to his selfish extravagance, so long as it’s not too close to home.
When Felix begins an affair with Helen’s young daughter, Sally – the most forbidden of fruit – a series of unfortunate events slowly unravels all their relationships, finally laying bare the undesirable truth of jealousy, lies, secrets, immorality, and betrayal. What sets this eighties novel apart from others that try to emulate this kind of sex-shock-taboo style, is the incredible depth of character and the highly credible backstories. The storyline might involve time-worn themes but nothing is overdone or overwritten, sex scenes are restrained and impart only what we need to know, making for a deliciously dark and smutty read heavily based on the psychology of relationships, and the prisons we can so easily make for ourselves.


A Bouquet of Barbed Wire

19476996Emotionally spoilt, self-indulgent Prue, falls pregnant at the age of 19 to the dark and dashing Gavin. Her father, respectable Peter Manson, cannot abide the idea of them being close; it’s as if another man has taken his rightful place. As he faces his own mid-life crisis, Peter tries to come to terms with the loss of possession over his daughter by beginning an affair with his young secretary. Gavin and Prue attempt to work through their own marriage anomalies as Prue perfects her role as the introspective, attention-seeking victim; eventually goading Gavin into punishing her. When she spills the beans about her father’s affair to her gentile, subservient mother, Cassie, Gavin sees red. But his out of control heavy-handedness with Prue has an unexpected effect on Cassie, and her own emotional skeleton falls from the closet with the slightest push, sending the sexual dynamic between them all spinning on its axis yet again.
Dark, raw, honest, and still maintaining a scandalous edge, especially when one considers this was written in 1969 and aired on TV in the seventies. I remember watching the series with my mother and we were both transfixed by this melting-pot of emotions played out by the middle-class Manson family. It’s not necessary to like any of these characters or to condone how they live, but rather to view it as an indulgent, hugely entertaining insight into their messy sex lives. But then, it’s so much more than that. How complex we humans are, how fragile our feelings and failures. What to show, what to keep buried. The complexities of ageing, domestic violence, incestuous thoughts, adultery, and sadism and masochism are all touched upon, but what makes this book so good is that none of this is described in any great detail or used gratuitously – it’s much more subtle. And all the more powerful, and recognisable for that.


Lady Chatterley’s Lover

41ePSukmTKL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Lord Chatterley, seriously wounded in the war, is confined to a wheelchair. He’s mostly concerned about his social standing and seeks to find solace in his writing. As he looks to find meaning and purpose to his life in increasingly superficial ways, he fails to notice the difficulties his disability and his emotional detachment forces upon his young, intelligent wife. This especially so when he suggests Connie takes a carefully chosen lover with a view to becoming pregnant – simply to provide him with a son and heir. Lady Chatterley comes to know the estate gamekeeper, and before too long Connie is faced with confronting the differences between the upper and lower classes, forced to make a choice between a future in poorer circumstances with Mellors, or a life of comfortable luxury with her distant, physically challenged husband.

A shocking book in its day, it was banned for being considered pornographic, and understandable too when one considers this was written at a time when sex and adultery in literature was taboo. So, D.H.Lawrence was a bit rude and racy with his pen although by today’s standards his sex scenes are positively tame – and perhaps, slightly surreal given the historical differences – although some of the language he uses is quite coarse and explicit. Outside of this element there are a lot of intellectual, albeit honest conversations about the differences between men and women, and the politics of the day. Sadly, I didn’t care for any of the characters and the storyline felt slow and lacking in substance; ultimately the book felt more about bringing attention to the tide of change shifting across the social strata of England, including the oppression of women – especially sexually – and I think its strength lies in highlighting several social messages, rather than a work of pure fiction. Questions are raised as to why it should be so wrong to cross social boundaries and above all, what price wealth against love.


Only Time Will Tell

11764854A compelling story of a boy winning against all the odds through an educational system beyond his social level, but never beyond his abilities. And his hard-working, widowed mother, Maisie, is determined to give Harry the best of opportunities. But past encounters with an ex are never far away, and when Harry befriends Giles Barrington, his meddlesome, fraudulent father, Hugo, does his best to deny what happened between Harry’s mother and himself all those years ago.

A slow start, but then the story began to really draw me in and the big question about Harry’s parentage ebbed and flowed beneath the surface until the build to the denouement – where everything falls apart beneath an avalanche of revelations. I wasn’t quite convinced that both Hugo Barrington and Maisie Clifton would have allowed matters between Emma and Harry to get quite as far as they did, not without some sort of intervention. Hugo perhaps, because he was such a cowardly toad but Maisie had a good handle on moral responsibility and lived for her son, so I’m not sure she would have simply stood by. Not only are there some unresolved threads in this book, but the story ends on the most terrific cliffhanger of a plot twist, so if you prefer everything to be tied-up with a ribbon by the last page, you might feel cheated.
The writing itself is concise and to the point and without too much of a descriptive slant, but it’s a clever structure and the likeable characters combined with steadily building tension, kept me turning the pages. There are slightly overlapping timelines shared between the characters but I liked this structure as it allowed for a greater understanding, not only of the character viewpoints and motivations but in the way it brought to light more and more subtle information. This is a heart-warming story, an easy-read of a historical family-saga with a slightly soapy feel. The sort of fiction which doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and I really enjoyed it.



51bZI+F96ULMark Castallack inherits Penmarric and marries his father’s mistress. In the late nineteenth century men ruled the world and before too long young, ambitious Castallack is juggling relationships and children with two very different women. Sweet, patient Rose is offset by the older rather steely Jana, who refuses to divorce Mark. Fiercely independent she retreats to her former humble farmhouse, despite the animosity of her stepsons, and Mark sees little alternative but to bring together all of his children – legitimate and illegitimate – to live under one roof. This creates a strained atmosphere where awkward sibling relationships are quickly sullied with dislike and mistrust for years to come.
Penmarric is an epic family saga sprawling across three generations and told from five viewpoints – loosely based on the real lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine – and spans from the Victorian era in 1890 to the Second World War in 1945. Its appeal lies in the complexity of those divided family relationships as well as the portrayal of significant notable social changes, times when marriage did not necessarily mean love, times when the class divide was at its most pronounced, times when the expectations and society roles of women were greatly suppressed and limited. Despite the so-called civilised society of the upper classes, the Castallack men and their rivals are deeply flawed and often hypocritical – driven by greed, lust, blackmail, adultery, and ambition. The truth of the human condition is exposed, warts and all. And all of this played out against the cruel beauty of Cornwall in a forever changing England where class, inheritance, producing a son and heir, and honouring ones duty to God and the King formed the backbone of English society. In contrast to this veneer are the farmers and the tin miners, the bar-maids and the struggling working classes, adding another rich seam to the Castallack story.
Although there are many characters – and not many of them especially appealing – they are all clearly defined and the push and pull against each other to further their own goals is skilfully portrayed. I enjoyed how my allegiance swayed with the change of narrator, and the alteration of perspective allowed for a deeper understanding of motivation and mood. Because of the length and structure of this novel it does feel linear rather than heading towards a neat conclusion, but this is not a negative. The quality of the writing, the huge scope of this book saturated with historical detail, and the fast, slightly sensationalist plotting had me fully engrossed for several days.


The Other Wife

51186869._SX318_SY475_Pregnant Suzy is married to controlling Nick. She admits she’s done a bad thing and her penance is to allow Nick to move them out of London to the Kent countryside in an isolated cottage, leaving behind her job, her friends and the buzz of London. Her only neighbour is lonely, widowed Nora and sensing a vague kinship, a friendship ensues. But Nora has her own backstory and isn’t quite who she seems to be. Before too long Suzy is not only confined by Nick’s behaviours, but by an increasingly complex trail of linked events.
Elle, the ex-concert pianist who has enjoyed a dazzling past career struggles with anxiety and anger. A woman who gave up everything for a handsome man, someone who eventually betrayed and destroyed her. When all of these pasts collide, Suzy finds herself trapped – in all senses of the word, as Elle rises from the ashes of her past to finally seek revenge.
This is a complex, domestic-thriller written in time-slips and from multiple viewpoints allowing just the right information to be drip-fed to the reader at just the right time, creating some interesting tension. The main characters are dysfunctional and unlikeable, but this plot wouldn’t work with even one of them presenting as honest and upstanding. I did think the females were occasionally a little too manipulated by the males, especially as to how one particular character could fool so many people about his fairly high-profile job and there were one or two other tiny issues, but these reservations didn’t spoil what was a great read of human failings; murder, secrets, betrayal, and lies.

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.