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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


Long Summer Day

It’s the late nineteenth century and Paul Craddock is invalided out of the Boer War. At the same time he inherits some money from his father’s scrap-metal business. Tired of the ugly fighting he’s witnessed and the anonymous bustle of city life, he’s drawn to the sale of a large country estate in Devon. He has much to learn, but Paul promises to be a fair squire and he’s soon respected by the tenant farmers. Although Craddock has purchased something of a rural idyll there is plenty of conflict not only from the daily minutiae of running the estate but also from wider political unrest, the class divides, the rise of the suffragettes showcased by his difficult first marriage, and those in authority striving to become more liberal-minded.
The Devonshire brogue adds immediate authenticity and local characters leap from the page. By way of contrast members of the gentry, the medical profession, opposing politicians, and the church, are equally well-formed and characterised. The push and pull of such diverse relationships form the basis of a family-saga with a big scope. It’s a novel which covers a detailed period of social history rather than follows any one character – but this is what Delderfield does best. Edwardian country life; farming the land, destiny shaped by the rise and fall of ones own hand, the beauty and hardships presented by living in the countryside, the horses, the gentle pace of life. Change was – and is – inevitable, and while much of it was for the better then, I finished this book feeling we’ve lost something along the way…

Crusader’s Tomb

Stephen Desmonde is expected to succeed his father as the rector of a rural parish, but Stephen is a sensitive, passionate artist driven by an obsession to discover the beauty in truth. The lack of understanding and subsequent derision from his family results in Stephen leaving for Paris – the hub of all things creative – and then to travel across Spain. He’s a passive character, spurned in love, starved, cheated, forced to take a tough road, and to suffer terribly for believing in his art. Material comforts are sparse but his journey, both artistically, physically, and spiritually, all culminate into a rich and multi-layered experience.
So many great artists are not understood or revered until after their death. Desmonde also falls victim to this stereotype, although arguably some of this down to his pride and lack of interest in material gain. Above all, Stephen Desmonde’s story exposes the flaws of Christian beliefs and the perceived realities of war during the early 20th century. Desmonde and his family are real flesh and blood, as are the many characters who play numerous supporting roles. The depiction of life at Stillwater in England, and of France and Spain are deep and rich without compromising reality.
I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. Cronin is a master of historical detail and perspectives, and manages to extract every ounce of empathy for his protagonist.