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.

Rebecca

Whilst in Monte Carlo, Maxim de Winter proposes marriage to a young, orphaned girl working as a ladies maid to the insufferable well-to-do, Mrs Van Hopper. Installing herself as mistress of Manderely back in England, our young heroine has a tough job to do on the back of Maxim’s recently deceased wife, Rebecca. The house staff are not necessarily well disposed towards her either, especially the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and it soon becomes clear that the beautiful Rebecca remains on a saintly pedestal. The new Mrs De Winter makes many small mistakes culminating in the embarrassing horror of choosing the exact same costume as Rebecca during the annual ball at Manderely. All of this is, of course, engineered by Mrs Danvers, who seems to have an unnatural preoccupation with her former mistress. When Rebecca’s body is accidentally discovered there are serious questions raised and Maxim comes under dark scrutiny. Was it murder, suicide, or a boating accident? The truth slowly floats to the surface, exposing a complex web of betrayal, secrets, and twisted personalities.   
A long, introspective novel. Overall, for me, far too much narration and I found it a little irritating that the narrator/heroine had no name (in order to emphasise her lack of power) coupled with the constant documentation of small inconsequential details which slowed the plot to such a degree that the first 60% felt interminably slow. But then we get on to the meat of the story and its only when our heroine comes to realise some truths that she seems to grow and develop, and find a backbone (but still no name!) I loved the gothic setting and the author has a wonderfully descriptive tone but for me it was only the final third of the story which commanded a comfortable 3 stars. 
 

Leap the Wild Water

Set in nineteenth century Wales, Leap The Wild Water is a vivid portrayal not only of the struggles of women in those times, but of my home landscape too. I often come across derelict homesteads, farmhouses and animal enclosures of overgrown tumbledown stone, and one can’t help wondering about those past times. Jenny Lloyd brings all of this alive with her series, The Megan Jones Trilogy. The storyline is simple and yet the narrative is all the more powerful for this. A child out of wedlock was of course a heinous sin for women and the injustice of Megan’s predicament weaves a fascinating picture of those times. The fear and power of the church was the divine ruler, and as a result the cruelty imposed upon women was quite extraordinary. A beautifully written book with accurate detailing and stunning observations of the countryside.
The story continues in Where the Wind Blows and The Calling of the Raven. Sequels can be a mistake but there is plenty of meat on the bones of this one; and the story picks up from book one with a seamless continuity. And a serious message develops through these books; that of the oppression of women in the nineteenth century, and it is vividly portrayed through the eyes of Megan, now happily married to Eli. This was a time when the choices for women were limited to tending the needs of men and the land, so marriage to a rich farmer seemed a good idea at the time… But then news of Megan’s child, Fortune, whom she had out of wedlock and is in the care of her brother, slowly bubbles to the surface and the God-fearing community are up in arms, despite a brave effort by Morgan, to keep the situation under control. Eli turns nasty and straight into the arms of the dairy-maid, leaving Megan trapped in an unhappy household as little more than a domestic slave. And then in the third and final part, poor Megan is under scrutiny again for the murder of Eli.
From the cruel, narrow-minded control of the church to the truth of love, friendship and honour, the author weaves a skilful story of life in nineteenth century Wales. The restrained descriptions of the countryside, the healing hedgerow flowers and the strong influence of the seasons makes a wonderful background to this carefully plotted, often shocking tale. I could hear the larks and the rush of water. I could smell the markets, the honeysuckle, and the wet soil, and I could smell the fear as Megan’s fate drew to a chilling conclusion.

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.

images

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.

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 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.

Five-Stars-Orange_Clear-Background

An Evil Streak

41X9MQBPJCL._SX293_BO1,204,203,200_Uncle Alex, a lonely and unloved translator, enjoys leading his passive, pretty niece, Gemma, astray. At first these possessive indulgences are quite innocent, but when she marries a rather cold, albeit successful doctor – a man Alex actively despises – his mission becomes all-consuming. In working on the story of Troilus and Criseyde, fantasy and reality begin to merge to the point where Alex encourages an affair between Gemma and an attractive out-of-work actor, David. But the increasingly complex web of deceit Alex manipulates for his own entertainment gradually begins to spiral out of control, with devastating results for Gemma.
A unique, somewhat disturbing novel, filled with egotistical liars and actors, voyeurism and sneaky manipulation. Cleverly plotted and impossible to put down. None of these characters are likeable but they are fully fleshed-out, exceptionally large warts and all.
images

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.

1024px-3_stars.svg

Cashelmara

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.

Five-Stars-Orange_Clear-Background

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.

images