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.

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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.

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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.

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Jane Eyre

downloadJane is an orphan and taken in by a strict Aunt. Her cousins are spoilt, hypocritical, and arrogant, and when Jane stands her ground once too often, she is finally banished to an institution. A terrible period of poverty, neglect, and harsh discipline follows, but Jane is not diminished. As a young woman, Jane takes a governess position at the wonderfully atmospheric Thornfield Hall, and the story begins in earnest. There is nothing predictable or cliched about the forbidden, blossoming romance between Jane and Mr Rochester. This is a meeting of minds. And yet there’s a timeless appeal in the young, naive woman and the older, wealthy, and somewhat mysterious older man. But the path of true love never runs smooth and Bronte throws some big spanners in the works with clever plot twists and perfect timing. And just when we think all is going to be well, along comes a revelation to blow apart everything that has gone before.
Jane Eyre is a powerful novel with strong moral and social values directing the plot; where only God, truth, and love are fully respected. Character is at the heart of the story, revealing fey and selfish actions to be ultimately worthless, regardless of social standing. There are many parallels in which Bronte exposes society roles and their falsehoods. And yet… little substance is granted to the poor, mad soul in the attic. Considering the Victorian era in which Jane Eyre was written, there are long passages of description and introspection which require some patience and perseverance. However, the other ingredients are faultless and there’s no doubt that as a protagonist, Jane Eyre – with her indomitable human spirit – is a superb character to champion.

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Cider with Rosie

12421756A book to read simply for the joy of the English language! Laurie Lee’s prose is poetic and deeply moving. His pen manages to lend a surreal beauty to everything – including poverty and cruelty – I was mesmerised. Set in 1920’s rural England just after the first world war, this memoir documents the rich, idyllic Cotswold landscape as seen through the eyes of young Laurie Lee, and not simply in physical terms but emotional ones, too. It’s a kaleidoscope of village life; the changing seasons, his family, the fascination and acceptance of death, and the close, always powerful proximity of nature.
It even had me think about my grandparents and wonder at the relationship ties and those of love which bind us and remain the same throughout generations, regardless of circumstance and time. How the perception of events we remember from childhood depends on a multitude of factors, but are instantly recognisable in others. Lush prose and full of character, Cider with Rosie is an intense, vivid glimpse into a slice of timeless village life. Sometimes funny, insightful, or sad, but never seen through rose-tinted spectacles or dressed in sentimentality.

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Saturday Night & Sunday Morning

19228763A bleak illustration of late fifties working-class life in Northern Britain. Arthur Seaton works hard, plays hard, and fights hard. He fights against all authority, sleeps with married women, drinks till he falls down flights of stairs and defies anyone to tell him what to do or how to live. Life revolves around working at the bicycle factory, sex, fighting, and drinking. Until the inevitable happens. Contraception for women didn’t exist and neither did the morning-after pill let alone abortion clinics. A scalding bath and a bottle of gin was the only way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Not that this predicament stalls Arthur much in the grand scheme of things.
Off-setting the devil-may-care attitude of the main protagonist is the lyrical use of language, and it does elevate what would otherwise be a somewhat monotonous, depressing tale. But every Saturday night is followed by a Sunday morning, and Arthur is certainly more reflective in the final third. This quiet lead into the denouement is something of a lame, albeit satisfactory ending. However, brimful of character and the atmosphere of those times, and I loved the authentic dialogue.

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