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.

Rebecca

Whilst in Monte Carlo, Maxim de Winter proposes marriage to a young, orphaned girl working as a ladies maid to the insufferable well-to-do, Mrs Van Hopper. Installing herself as mistress of Manderely back in England, our young heroine has a tough job to do on the back of Maxim’s recently deceased wife, Rebecca. The house staff are not necessarily well disposed towards her either, especially the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and it soon becomes clear that the beautiful Rebecca remains on a saintly pedestal. The new Mrs De Winter makes many small mistakes culminating in the embarrassing horror of choosing the exact same costume as Rebecca during the annual ball at Manderely. All of this is, of course, engineered by Mrs Danvers, who seems to have an unnatural preoccupation with her former mistress. When Rebecca’s body is accidentally discovered there are serious questions raised and Maxim comes under dark scrutiny. Was it murder, suicide, or a boating accident? The truth slowly floats to the surface, exposing a complex web of betrayal, secrets, and twisted personalities.   
A long, introspective novel. Overall, for me, far too much narration and I found it a little irritating that the narrator/heroine had no name (in order to emphasise her lack of power) coupled with the constant documentation of small inconsequential details which slowed the plot to such a degree that the first 60% felt interminably slow. But then we get on to the meat of the story and its only when our heroine comes to realise some truths that she seems to grow and develop, and find a backbone (but still no name!) I loved the gothic setting and the author has a wonderfully descriptive tone but for me it was only the final third of the story which commanded a comfortable 3 stars. 
 

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 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.

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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Cashelmara

19150906Cashelmara 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.

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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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Penmarric

51bZI+F96ULMark Castallack inherits Penmarric and marries his father’s mistress. In the late nineteenth century men ruled the world and before too long young, ambitious Castallack is juggling relationships and children with two very different women. Sweet, patient Rose is offset by the older rather steely Jana, who refuses to divorce Mark. Fiercely independent she retreats to her former humble farmhouse, despite the animosity of her stepsons, and Mark sees little alternative but to bring together all of his children – legitimate and illegitimate – to live under one roof. This creates a strained atmosphere where awkward sibling relationships are quickly sullied with dislike and mistrust for years to come.
Penmarric is an epic family saga sprawling across three generations and told from five viewpoints – loosely based on the real lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine – and spans from the Victorian era in 1890 to the Second World War in 1945. Its appeal lies in the complexity of those divided family relationships as well as the portrayal of significant notable social changes, times when marriage did not necessarily mean love, times when the class divide was at its most pronounced, times when the expectations and society roles of women were greatly suppressed and limited. Despite the so-called civilised society of the upper classes, the Castallack men and their rivals are deeply flawed and often hypocritical – driven by greed, lust, blackmail, adultery, and ambition. The truth of the human condition is exposed, warts and all. And all of this played out against the cruel beauty of Cornwall in a forever changing England where class, inheritance, producing a son and heir, and honouring ones duty to God and the King formed the backbone of English society. In contrast to this veneer are the farmers and the tin miners, the bar-maids and the struggling working classes, adding another rich seam to the Castallack story.
Although there are many characters – and not many of them especially appealing – they are all clearly defined and the push and pull against each other to further their own goals is skilfully portrayed. I enjoyed how my allegiance swayed with the change of narrator, and the alteration of perspective allowed for a deeper understanding of motivation and mood. Because of the length and structure of this novel it does feel linear rather than heading towards a neat conclusion, but this is not a negative. The quality of the writing, the huge scope of this book saturated with historical detail, and the fast, slightly sensationalist plotting had me fully engrossed for several days.

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Inheritance

A clever, multi-stranded time-slipping generational novel centred around Kittiwake; a crumbling Cornish mansion. The story begins with a 50th birthday celebration in honour of its present-day owner, Lance. His mother, Natasha, flies in from France – free several years now from the cruel clutches of her husband, Hugo. Lances’ adoptive sister, Bel, who lives in much less grand circumstances, is also a guest. She’s nervous of the occasion, fearful of where it all began. But how will it end? And then we’re taken back seventy years to when American heiress Peggy Carmichael first set eyes on the mansion and sets about making it a home. But the death of a child means Peggy flees back to America and Kittiwake lies empty again, housing only wild parties in the sixties hosted by Peggy’s son, Benedict and his sister, Natasha.
A chance meeting at a party with runaway Serena is another beginning of sorts, and we’re taken along another journey, one of hope, ambition, and a naive young woman’s search for love. But Hugo is ever watchful and manipulative, and the consequences of greed, power, and control are just around the corner.
I thought this was an outstanding novel about the ripple effect of consequences. Despite the number of central characters and time slips, never once did I loose my way. It’s certainly more serious than Eclair’s other books, it’s also insightful, poignant, heart-rending and above all, completely compelling.

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To Kill A Mockingbird

‘Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.’  Set in 1930’s Alabama the language and writing style of this novel initially took some effort to become engaged. And dare I say it, some of the opening scenes were a little tedious? There, I’ve said it, but then something slowly grabbed my attention and I was there, in the long slow heat of a developing drama. The story is narrated through the eyes of nine year old tomboy Jean Louise Finch (Scout) who lives with her older brother, Jem. Both children are being raised by their widowed father Atticus, a lawyer and a man of some standing and integrity in the county of Maycomb.
Atticus is defending a black man against the accusal of raping a white woman. To say the odds are stacked against Tom Robinson is an understatement. And the fallout of the trial witnessed through the eyes of Scout and Jem, highlights the stubborn longstanding ignorance and prejudice of those times and beyond.
Slivers of description threaded through the narrative are vivid and the rest of the cast spans every strata of society; the upper class white women taking tea and cake down to the servitude of the lower-classes, and those who dare to step into both worlds. Then there’s the mysterious Boo Radley, the steadfast Miss Maudie, the slippery, no-good Ewell family, the morphine-addicted, acidic Mrs Dubose, the Finch family’s black cook and mother-figure Calpurnia – who often serves as a bridge across the divided communities. The respective warts and good deeds of these characters are always exposed, the consequences of their actions fully played out. Atticus advises his children to always try and understand what life is like in another person’s skin, in the hope that any hatred will never destroy their faith in human kindness and understanding. There’s a strong, simple social message in this story and it’s still relevant today.

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The Citadel

Andrew Manson takes up his first post as a newly qualified doctor – in a Welsh mining town. The tight-knit communities of the Welsh valleys present Manson with plenty of daily challenges, not only with regard to the poor sanitation and the spread of disease, but in opposition to those who suspect his honesty and outspokenness. His refusal to take the line of least resistance lands him in trouble with some of the established members of society, but he does make a good friend in Philip Denny, and meets his future wife in Christine Barlow, the local, equally idealistic school teacher. Manson is offered a better position in a larger town, but once again when his integrity does not allow for unscrupulous dispensing and money-making schemes, Andrew and Christine are forced yet again to move on. Andrew’s research into lung diseases takes the Manson’s to London, but Andrew misses front-line diagnosis and he soon takes the plunge in buying a run-down surgery.
Frustrated at not earning enough money to live on, Manson’s principles begin to fray at the edges, and when lucrative ways of making easy money from wealthy patients and private clinics begin to take-over from his everyday surgeries and pioneering work, his standards begin to slip. Christine is unhappy with the change in her husband, dislikes the city, and cares nothing for fur coats and fancy furniture. When matters come to a crisis point and Manson is in danger of losing everything, he’s forced to examine everything he holds dear.

Astonishing to discover that this novel written in 1937 and set in 1924 inspired the creation of the NHS. There are many enlightening passages and ideas which clearly illustrate the need of trustworthy medical care for all, regardless of social standing and the ability to pay.
Manson is deliberately challenging, and I enjoyed the journey of his development through the stages of his career. As a work of fiction it didn’t have the huge impact of The Stars Look Down, but this is a straightforward novel written in a biographical style and because the author was a medical professional, full of interesting facts and plenty to say.