It’s Who We Are

518ZaAHSR7L._SY346_Five characters in their fifties are poised to begin the next chapter in their lives; all of them carrying emotional baggage representing how they’ve lived, how they’ve loved and who they’ve lost. Originally connected through childhood Minty, Wendy, Philip, Michael, and Julian find themselves drawn together once again through a sequence of connected events. Then a secret revealed by Wendy’s daughter, Hannah, exposes all five friends to a potentially life-changing situation which none of them could have predicted. Budding relationships are held on ice, as the truth has the potential to destroy everything they know about each other and perhaps, more importantly, everything they know and understand about themselves.
Set in London, Ireland, and Norfolk, the background is generally one of affluence – other than Michael, the priest – and touches on the appreciation of literature, good food and wine, careers in business and the entertainment industry. There’s a lot going on in this book and many characters, so much so that I initially jotted down the names and relationships as they were introduced, but the intricate plotting and the story concept is original and well-crafted, and I especially enjoyed the tension build to the mid-point. There’s another neat plot twist towards the end, just when we think all is lost. Overall this is an uplifting novel about later life-choices and the value of friendships, all themes which will appeal to a mature reader.

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Three Loves

23208343Lucy Moore is devoted to her husband and sees nothing wrong in gently controlling his life since not only is he apt to be tardy, she yearns to improve him. But when her husband’s glamorous cousin, Anna, arrives to stay, Lucy’s actions result in a tragic end for Frank. Lucy is left to bring up their son alone since she shuns all help from family, believing them to be frivolous and mocking of her high ideals. She devotes herself then to educating Peter, taking a job and a flat in the Glasgow slums and suffering in abject poverty to enable her son to study to be a doctor, believing his eventual success will save them both. Peter doesn’t disappoint in his chosen career, but he matures and falls in love with a young woman from a rich family, and before too long he’s married and running his own practice in London. Lucy’s plans for them both fall apart. Disappointed in both marriage and motherly love, she takes vows to enter a Belgian monastery to serve and love God, but the physical demands and the seemingly pointless discipline are too much for her, and broken Lucy is sent back to London.
A character study of a proud, obsessive woman who despite her blinkered views can only be admired for sheer determination and will power to remain independent and stay true to herself. However this steely determination is eventually her downfall and since Cronin is the master of hardship, she pays dearly for her convictions. I always enjoy Cronin’s work, although on this occasion I did skim through much of the section in the monastery and I thought the ending was brutal! Overall it could be construed a rather depressing read, but one full of character and harsh lessons about the laws of love.

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Before I Knew You

51jDy1b+c1L._SY346_Two couples swap their houses for the summer. Once away from their familiar routines a succession of hopes, secrets, and dreams force new directions entirely and by the end of the year their respective trips are more about life swaps, than easy holiday solutions. Thanks to his colleague, Andrew and his wife, Sophie, jump at the chance to leave London for the summer and stay in Connecticut, while William and his American wife, Beth, take the opportunity to travel to the UK so that William can spend time with his sons from a previous marriage.
Once in the States Andrew is obsessed with furthering his musical career and exploring various leads open to him and begins to move in circles alien to his wife. Anxious Sophie battles with her sense of direction in life, and wonders about the attentions of a neighbour. Meanwhile, Beth is struggling with a culture shock in London and feeling out of the loop while William is drawn into the problems of his ex-family.

I enjoyed this family drama which, although may be classed as light fiction, explores an interesting set of circumstances in order to test just how solid a relationship might be and how far one might be able to strain it in order to further a personal goal or ambition. Add in the push and pull of family ties and this makes for a gently compelling read.

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The Second Child

41jMqt+Q7pLLove is tested to the limit when Sarah and Phil make a chance life-changing discovery: their profoundly disabled teenage daughter is not theirs. And so unfolds the brutal truth that the life they’ve led with Lauren wasn’t theirs to live. Their real daughter, the pretty, footballing Rosie, is tracked-down by the hospital. But Rosie’s mother, who is separated, is faced with the prospect of losing Rosie to a loving family comprising a cool, footballing brother, and her real father. Added to which the prospect of caring for Lauren in any capacity, is utterly daunting. But who was responsible for the mix-up, and how will the families resolve such an emotional minefield?
Bond writes with integrity and insight. In less capable hands this story would be over-dramatised and full of angst. It’s compelling, thought-provoking, and delivered in a fluid writing style. Characters are relatable and multi-faceted, and although the denouement is satisfying my slight reservation was the ending, which felt a little abrupt. Sarah’s final decision though, was one of great compassion for the other woman.

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The Wheel of Fortune

511HlvwSA8L._SY346_Set in the first half of the 20th Century from around 1913 to 1966, this novel runs parallel to the lives of several Plantagenet Kings and associated historical characters. A novel of tremendous scope, it is immensely detailed and documents the power wielded by a coveted family estate in South Wales: Oxmoon. This house becomes the focus for battles of inheritance spanning many generations, and the rise and fall of the wealthy Godwin family is told through the point of view of six characters. I liked it, but my attention wandered a bit here and there, especially in the final third, and I found the repetition about ‘drawing the line,’ a little irritating. I didn’t love it as much as Penmarric and Cashelmara, both of which were six star reads for me, but it did keep me engrossed for a good while and Howatch never disappoints in depth and authenticity.

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The Forgotten Sister

41tQLBEWQwLTom and Grace adopt a mixed-race baby. In later years when Cassie makes a visit to the doctor, her lack of medical history and a series of random memories prompts a search for blood relations. She doesn’t find her mother – she finds Leah – the sister she never knew she had. While Cassie lives a somewhat privileged life in a leafy suburb, her sister is struggling on a sink estate on the other side of Manchester. Why did her adoptive parents not want Leah, why were they separated? The repercussions raise pertinent questions about the strength of family bonds, the struggle of those teen years and coming to terms with who we really are. This is a compelling novel and Bond doesn’t shy away from exploring deeply emotive subjects in a realistic, non-sentimental narrative which is completely believable. An excellent story, and despite the dark undertone, a novel full of truth and hope.

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Small Pleasures

51VW-URDewL._SY346_Jean works as a features editor and when Gretchen Tilbury contacts the North Kent Echo claiming her child is the result of a virgin birth, she just has to investigate. The facts appear to be resolute and at first it is difficult to prove anything either way, but in following a trail of historical clues, Jean discovers a tantalising glimpse of life beyond a future built on caring for her mother and working on the paper writing trivial articles. I’m in two minds about this book. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t love it because of the ending, because of the pacing, and because of the overall subject matter of the virgin birth. There’s a wonderful, authentic sense of the fifties era, and I’ve always loved the observational detail Chambers brings to her work and the characters are as always well-fleshed-out. I thought the first half felt a bit aimless and bogged-down in domestic trivia; although this aspect ultimately makes sense of the title. Everything picks up pace when Gretchen leaves her husband for another woman, and Jean sees not only her chance to escape life with Mother, but to finally be able to lay some romantic claim on Howard. The build to the denouement solves the mystery of the virgin birth, and it seems Jean is almost assured of a happy ending – until the final few pages when life deals an unexpected, tragic blow. It’s a slow, sad, subtle read.
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The Ladies’ Midnight Swimming Club

B08BV1M1QR.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SX500_Three women facing difficult life stages find emotional release and form bonds by swimming in the Irish sea. Elizabeth is a widow struggling with huge debts, a crumbling house, and an old-fashioned surgery. Her friend, Jo, is facing her own life-changing problems but enlists the help of her daughter, to discover that Lucy prefers a small village medical practice to that of a busy London hospital, after all. Meanwhile, Dan has lost his high-profile job and is renting a cottage in the village to write a novel, and seek out his real blood mother. This is a gentle, undemanding, predictable, rather cosy read despite some of the subject matter being about serious issues such as cancer, adoption, and debt. There isn’t too much tension, the main characters and the village community are all pleasant, and everything is nicely tied-up at the end. Some of the scenes felt a little contrived and lacking in depth and I don’t know why, but I expected this novel to be more gritty. Descriptions of the location were very good indeed and there was a great sense of time and place, but I didn’t feel the plot was especially real, or believable, and there was a distinct overuse of, ‘gently,’ and ‘softly,’ cropping up in dialogue tags. Overall, a decent read for a dose of easy escapism in a beautiful wild setting, and a story which champions the strength of female friendship.

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The Other Woman

41ERDI7XjpL._SY346_Fran, trapped in a soulless marriage with a controlling bully of a man and an indifferent son, lives for her sensitive, secret lover. They hatch a plan to make a new life together. But when the final rendezvous goes awry, she is left with a heart-stopping race to retrace her steps and resume her old life before her indiscretion is discovered. But what has happened to Jack? His silence is painful and confusing. Jack is married to Helena, trapped in a marriage with a needy, volatile, wealthy woman dependent on alcohol and irritated by Jack’s lack of creativity and earnings. But as their relationship begins to fragment, Fran finds the strength to break free of her destructive marriage to discover not only does she have the wherewithal to be truly independent, she’s found the confidence to build relationships based on truth and reality.

Such clever writing, in that my allegiance was with Fran, the ‘other woman,’ the whole way through, and not Helena. Full of tension, especially throughout Fran’s half of the story, and so addictive! It really kept me turning the pages. And as well as a pacy plot moving between Fran and Helena, there is real depth to the characters – whether we like them or not – a reality-based insight into relationships, love and marriage, and children. I love how the entire cast knits together, how they rise and fall by their own hand. It delivered all the elements I enjoy in a novel.

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The Love Child

51Cd403P7GLJanine and Dougie were married for fifteen years until Janine decided she could no longer live with his addictions and his infidelity. Although she is now in a relationship with Dependable Mike, the depth of Janine and Dougie’s history together still lies like an unbreakable, invisible bond through Janine’s teenage daughter, Stevie. Their friends are something of a mixed bag including Dougie’s best friend Simon, and his wife, Victoria – who is so desperate for her own child she is often blind to Simon’s slippery ways. But when it comes to Stevie, Simon bites off more than he can chew and eventually, the dynamic of all their relationships implode.
This is a novel about relationships and how they connect: lovers, friends, husbands, wives, siblings, step-children, parents. It tackles some big issues alongside the domestic strata confirming that genuine, selfless love can overcome anything; and how something better can grow from the ashes of despair. Dougie enjoys the most development as a character, he’s so vibrant and colourful, almost larger than life! But for all his faults he’s big-hearted enough to still care for Janine’s daughter, and his personal struggle to once again build his life back from nothing is an enjoyable, remarkable journey and skilfully executed. The push and pull of emotional chess is rich and insightful, with just enough drama to keep the plot boiling without losing a grip on reality or resorting to sentiment. Deeply compelling, relatable, and hugely enjoyable.

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The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde

51lOsL3L07L._SY346_In 1959 the four Wilde sisters spend the long hot summer with their aunt and uncle in rural seclusion at Applecote Manor. Five years previously, their cousin, Audrey, vanished, and the mystery remains unsolved. Audrey’s mother tends her daughter’s shrine, and barely leaves the house. And what of their big, blustering uncle who likes to swim with them in the river and was arrested by the police at the time of Audrey’s disappearance, for questioning? A second timeline is set in present day when Jessie and widower Will buy the now neglected, empty Applecote Manor not only to escape the pressure of living in London, but to give Will’s teenage daughter, Bella, a fresh start after losing her mother, and falling foul to bad behaviour. Despite her initial protests, Bella feels an affinity to the missing girl and is curious to discover more. As both centuries slowly collide, the past catches up to the present and the truth about what really happened to Audrey Wilde, is finally exposed.

The overriding strength of this novel lies in the historical setting; the shabby chic era of the well-to-do in the English countryside, plus the naivety of the girls in the fifties, has a charm which really resonated. I thought the contemporary timeline not quite as strong, but both plot lines are cleverly structured between the different eras to bring about a compelling conclusion. It is a slow burn of a story, and from an action point of view, only really gets going in the final 30%. A few too many similes/metaphors in the descriptive passages but overall, an enjoyable slice of escapism.

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The Lie of the Land

 

61Yu+TVTqgL._SY346_Quentin and Lottie both lose their prestigious London jobs in the recession whilst trying to divorce each other, adding to an already impossible situation. Lottie’s solution is to rent out their large home and move to a cottage in the country near Quentin’s ageing parents – where the rent is suspiciously low – in order to consider their next move without going bankrupt. Quentin, once an acclaimed columnist is reduced to writing derogatory pieces about country life. Alexander, Lottie’s mixed-race teenage son from a previous relationship, is less than pleased about being buried in a rural idyll with poor internet connections. And instead of going to university he’s encouraged to find a job in the local pie factory. As the mystery of the low rent begins to gather pace, and as local characters become friends – or enemies – the beautiful Devonshire countryside shows its dark side.
This is not only a detailed romp through a failing relationship and the struggles of the family dynamic, its also smart-urban life versus rustic-country life, and a mesmerising study of a large cast of diverse characters; depicted through a generous slice of British society. The Polish workers in the pie factory, the sheep farming health-visitor, the rich rock star in his mansion, the cleaner with the odd, musically talented daughter, the ex-London friends. All of these characters come with their own backstories but they are skilfully threaded together by Craig to produce a fabulous murder-mystery denouement. The character development is terrific, how assumptions about people can be misleading and dangerous, how the loss of a parent can force a different point of view, how the loss of entitlements can lead to something better, richer. If I have to find any fault in this novel I’d flag-up the sometimes confusing mix of tenses through the narrative, but overall, the strength of everything else equalled sheer entertainment for me.

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