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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Good Girls

 
41sTq0N9D+L._SY346_As sisters, Eleanor and Kat Keating couldn’t be more different but with a scatterbrained, alcoholic mother and a somewhat misguided, controlling priest for a father the family unit was always going to be one of intense diversity. When Eleanor leaves home for university, the relationship with her sister undergoes subtle changes. It becomes even more fractured when Eleanor’s handsome friend, Nick, is captivated by her younger and prettier sister. Many years later, Nick has married into a wealthy family in South Africa. A near-death accident forces him to re-evaluate his life and pick up the threads of his friendship with the Keating girls, and although the trail of lies he is fed eventually leads to a reunion of sorts, there are innumerable hurdles to jump before the truth is finally laid bare.

I was fully engaged in this story from the first to the last page. Terrific character development centered around basically good girls – but the products of bad parents – coupled with a lifetime of misunderstandings which only become clear as the novel develops. Skilfully written with a deep understanding of the nuances and the sometimes see-saw of emotions within different relationships.

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The World at my Feet

51cEaWpxaOL._SY346_In 1990 Harriet’s job as a journalist takes her to Romania to report on the terrible conditions in the state orphanages there. Her mantra is never to become involved in ‘the story,’ or to make it about herself but on this occasion, she breaks all the rules. In 2018 Ellie is suffering from agoraphobia and anxiety: a legacy from her childhood. Her sanctuary is her garden and her highly profitable Instagram account where she creates an image of herself as keeper of the quintessential English country garden. When two, very different men enter her life, Ellie is forced to make that leap beyond her garden gate and take her life back to its bare roots, not only to find a future but to discover who she really is.

This is light, intelligent fiction with a romantic slant and a compelling, time-slip structure which kept me turning the pages. It does not suffer from cliche or sentiment and the denouement is equally satisfying without being overly predictable. Lovely, original read

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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 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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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.

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.

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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.

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.
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