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. 

The Giver of Stars

Alice marries a rich, attractive American to escape the tedium of her life. But when she arrives in small town Baileyville, Kentucky, she soon comes to realise she’s exchanged one prison for another. Her husband, Bennett, shows no interest in her, romantically or otherwise and they soon begin to lead separate lives. Desperate for independence and a sense of purpose in life, Alice joins the horseback librarians. These women ride out to remote homesteads delivering books to those families who are isolated, in both senses of the word. But this is 1937 and women were expected to be homemakers. Her father-in-law, the domineering mine owner is especially over-bearing towards Alice. His behaviour – unchallenged by her husband – eventually becomes intolerable and results in Alice taking up residence with feisty head librarian, Margery O’ Hare. When Margery is accused of foul play, it’s the women against the town as they fight to clear Margery’s name and make a stand for the sisterhood.
Horseback librarian – my dream job! I generally like Moyes (especially loved The Horse Dancer and One Plus One) and since I’m a horse-riding book-lover I really thought I’d find much to enjoy about this novel. Sadly, this wasn’t a dream read. All the fabulous ingredients were there but I didn’t feel the author made quite enough of them and so as a result it’s not developed enough in any one direction, as if the surface had been skimmed off a complex range of topics. Basically, it’s a light romance with a vaguely historical background – and its a sweet, predictable, cheesy romance at that – disappointing when the scope promised so much more. The standout character for me was Margery (and her wonderfully stoic mule) because her story seemed so much stronger and more interesting than Alice’s story and at least she did develop, unlike the rest of the cast. The numerous secondary characters came across as shades of grey, or shrouded in cliche. For example there’s no explanation or backstory as to why Bennett was such a coward, why he was so cold and sexually repressed, and his character more or less faded to black. For those who enjoy one, there’s a wildly happy ending for all the good guys: love, marriage, babies. I thought this took the shine off the main theme, as if the sisterhood meant nothing in the end. Loved the concept and some of the scenes, I just didn’t love the book.

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The Dreaming Suburb

Jim Carver returns home from the front to find his wife passed away and seven children on his hands. His socialist leanings clash with the ambition of his eldest boy who is determined to better his lot since the artful, ruthless Archie has an eye on owning a chain of grocery shops. His eldest daughter mothers his two sets of twins, and daughter Judith, until they also flee the nest.
Mrs Firth’s religious and controlling rod of iron over her husband and children eventually breaks down when her husband discovers the kindness of another woman, and begins an affair. Handsome, gentle creative Esme Fraser is bewitched by the spirited and sensual Elaine Firth, but she rebels against her repressed upbringing and after a boring job in a Welsh seaside town, runs away to join a circus. Esme’s childhood sweetheart, the girl next door, Judith Carver, is heartbroken by his betrayal. And spinster Edith Clegg who looks after her mentally ill sister, finds life much improved when musician Ted Hartnell arrives to lodge with them.

This was right up my street (or avenue). A richly detailed, nostalgic slice of suburban life. The lives of ordinary people, their relationships, their hopes and dreams. Set between the two world wars, this novel covers a period of significant change and makes for an interesting social commentary. It’s a linear story in so much that the structure, like life, is ongoing rather than forming a neat circle with all ends tied in a ribbon. But there is a natural ebb and flow, the acknowledgement of good and bad times, the roots of which evoke a strong sense of realism.
My overriding criticism is the use of similar character names – around 7 or 8 – whose names begin with the letter E. However, I thought the diverse, colourful cast hugely entertaining and well-characterised and I’m pleased to see there is a sequel.

Hatter’s Castle

James Brodie is a desperately proud man, not only of his hatter’s business but of his tasteless pile of a house, built purely to impress. He’ll go to any lengths to protect his social standing in the town, but not only is he delusional, he’s also a bully. A selfish, self-indulgent character who rules the family home with a rod of unforgiving iron. His wife is broken-spirited and worn to the bone with her domestic duties, none of which are ever completed to his satisfaction. He’s mortally disappointed in Matthew, his feckless son, a boy who is indulged by his doting mother. Brodie sends him on a long trip abroad – to make a man of him. Their eldest daughter, soft-hearted, dreamy Mary, is mostly ignored. When she makes a grave romantic mistake she’s banished from the house during a terrible storm, and almost loses her life in shocking circumstances. The younger daughter, Brodie’s favourite, is set to win a scholarship but the relentless pressure and threats placed upon her to succeed, is not without dire consequence.
Deliciously dark and disturbing. I was completely gripped by this story! Cronin’s tense, detailed narrative is incredibly compelling. This novel is the study of a character driven by his pride and anger, a man hooked on controlling behaviours, abuse, and tyranny. The gradual decline of Brodie’s empire and his self-destruction is sublime. The strong Scottish dialogue adds vibrant authenticity and drama. And yet the overall darkness gives tremendous power then to the chinks of light towards the end for Mary, and Matthew.