Andrew is living the perfect lie: he’s married to Diane and they have two children and a large family home. The innocence of this lie snowballs rapidly after a successful interview with the local council for a job in Death Administration. Bereaved at a young age, Andrew has had more than his fair share of loss. But in truth, family life on any level doesn’t exist for Andrew – he’s something of a nerdy loner, preferring his own company to socialising, and he’d much prefer to forget about his past. His job for the council is both fascinating and sad, and arranging funerals for those who’ve died alone touches a nerve in Andrew and he becomes steadily more concerned about his own fate. When Peggy joins the office her forthright personality draws out something of the man Andrew used to be, and a friendship blossoms. But a team-building exercise based on Come Dine With Me, is poised to blow everything apart and Andrew’s entire life looks set to be exposed – the rundown flat he shares with his model railway, the difficult relationship with his sister and her husband… and what happened to the real Diane.
Dark humour with a strong and original message about family ties. I found this read a slow burn to start but my enjoyment rapidly increased as the novel developed, and I loved the final third. Although there are dark themes – death, loneliness, depression, funerals – the satirical humour bubbles beneath the surface and the narrative remains witty and engaging. The secondary characters are relatable, colourful and interesting, and these subplots compliment the main story and add complex layers. There are numerous sad circumstances throughout, but it is also about the potential of love, truth, and hope, and the light these powers can bring to the darkest of places.
Alice marries a rich, attractive American to escape the tedium of her life. But when she arrives in small town Baileyville, Kentucky, she soon comes to realise she’s exchanged one prison for another. Her husband, Bennett, shows no interest in her, romantically or otherwise and they soon begin to lead separate lives. Desperate for independence and a sense of purpose in life, Alice joins the horseback librarians. These women ride out to remote homesteads delivering books to those families who are isolated, in both senses of the word. But this is 1937 and women were expected to be homemakers. Her father-in-law, the domineering mine owner is especially over-bearing towards Alice. His behaviour – unchallenged by her husband – eventually becomes intolerable and results in Alice taking up residence with feisty head librarian, Margery O’ Hare. When Margery is accused of foul play, it’s the women against the town as they fight to clear Margery’s name and make a stand for the sisterhood.
Horseback librarian – my dream job! I generally like Moyes (especially loved The Horse Dancer and One Plus One) and since I’m a horse-riding book-lover I really thought I’d find much to enjoy about this novel. Sadly, this wasn’t a dream read. All the fabulous ingredients were there but I didn’t feel the author made quite enough of them and so as a result it’s not developed enough in any one direction, as if the surface had been skimmed off a complex range of topics. Basically, it’s a light romance with a vaguely historical background – and its a sweet, predictable, cheesy romance at that – disappointing when the scope promised so much more. The standout character for me was Margery (and her wonderfully stoic mule) because her story seemed so much stronger and more interesting than Alice’s story and at least she did develop, unlike the rest of the cast. The numerous secondary characters came across as shades of grey, or shrouded in cliche. For example there’s no explanation or backstory as to why Bennett was such a coward, why he was so cold and sexually repressed, and his character more or less faded to black. For those who enjoy one, there’s a wildly happy ending for all the good guys: love, marriage, babies. I thought this took the shine off the main theme, as if the sisterhood meant nothing in the end. Loved the concept and some of the scenes, I just didn’t love the book.
A gentle coming-of-age story and a murder-mystery, set along the coastal region of North Carolina – a vast area of marsh teeming with insects and birdlife. The youngest child of an abusive marriage, Kya finds herself abandoned in the family home, a place which amounts to nothing much more than a primitive shack in the marshlands. She spends her time studying and documenting the wildlife, finding great solace in her environment. Her survival depends on collecting oysters and catching and smoking fish to sell to the local village store, in return for boat fuel and other supplies. She soon meets Tate, and they form a teenage kinship. Although he teaches her to read and their relationship looks set to blossom, Tate moves away to further his education, but breaks his promise to return. Chase, the handsome sporting hero about town wastes no time in pursuing the now mature, beautiful, and elusive Marsh Girl. Kya eventually falls for his superficial charms, until the day Chase reveals his true character and she’s forced to retaliate. Meanwhile, Tate has sourced a publisher interested in Kya’s detailed documentation of the flora and fauna of the marsh. While she’s on a very rare trip out of town meeting her publisher, Chase is discovered dead and the town points its many fingers at the secretive, semi-feral Marsh Girl.
The first half of the book, describing Kya’s early years alone, I found a little tedious and repetitive: I’m not sure I completely swallow the fact that a girl at the tender age of seven finds the wherewithal to live quite as independently as Kya did, and that no one in the town sought to discover the truth about her living conditions and the absence of her family. And the dynamics of the murder reveal and the denouement, didn’t quite work for me. The strength of this novel lies in the lyrical narrative, which is rich in ecology, analogies, and the details of swamp life, all of which are expressed with a deft hand. It’s a unique setting, and the author uses clever comparisons of animal behaviours to add depth of character and explain motivation. I did enjoy the book, I just didn’t love it.
James Brodie is a desperately proud man, not only of his hatter’s business but of his tasteless pile of a house, built purely to impress. He’ll go to any lengths to protect his social standing in the town, but not only is he delusional, he’s also a bully. A selfish, self-indulgent character who rules the family home with a rod of unforgiving iron. His wife is broken-spirited and worn to the bone with her domestic duties, none of which are ever completed to his satisfaction. He’s mortally disappointed in Matthew, his feckless son, a boy who is indulged by his doting mother. Brodie sends him on a long trip abroad – to make a man of him. Their eldest daughter, soft-hearted, dreamy Mary, is mostly ignored. When she makes a grave romantic mistake she’s banished from the house during a terrible storm, and almost loses her life in shocking circumstances. The younger daughter, Brodie’s favourite, is set to win a scholarship but the relentless pressure and threats placed upon her to succeed, is not without dire consequence.
Deliciously dark and disturbing. I was completely gripped by this story! Cronin’s tense, detailed narrative is incredibly compelling. This novel is the study of a character driven by his pride and anger, a man hooked on controlling behaviours, abuse, and tyranny. The gradual decline of Brodie’s empire and his self-destruction is sublime. The strong Scottish dialogue adds vibrant authenticity and drama. And yet the overall darkness gives tremendous power then to the chinks of light towards the end for Mary, and Matthew.
Jim Carver returns home from the front to find his wife passed away and seven children on his hands. His socialist leanings clash with the ambition of his eldest boy who is determined to better his lot since the artful, ruthless Archie has an eye on owning a chain of grocery shops. His eldest daughter mothers his two sets of twins, and daughter Judith, until they also flee the nest.
Mrs Firth’s religious and controlling rod of iron over her husband and children eventually breaks down when her husband discovers the kindness of another woman, and begins an affair. Handsome, gentle creative Esme Fraser is bewitched by the spirited and sensual Elaine Firth, but she rebels against her repressed upbringing and after a boring job in a Welsh seaside town, runs away to join a circus. Esme’s childhood sweetheart, the girl next door, Judith Carver, is heartbroken by his betrayal. And spinster Edith Clegg who looks after her mentally ill sister, finds life much improved when musician Ted Hartnell arrives to lodge with them.
This was right up my street (or avenue). A richly detailed, nostalgic slice of suburban life. The lives of ordinary people, their relationships, their hopes and dreams. Set between the two world wars, this novel covers a period of significant change and makes for an interesting social commentary. It’s a linear story in so much that the structure, like life, is ongoing rather than forming a neat circle with all ends tied in a ribbon. But there is a natural ebb and flow, the acknowledgement of good and bad times, the roots of which evoke a strong sense of realism.
My overriding criticism is the use of similar character names – around 7 or 8 – whose names begin with the letter E. However, I thought the diverse, colourful cast hugely entertaining and well-characterised and I’m pleased to see there is a sequel.
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.
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.
Michael 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.
Cashelmara 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.