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July 2020 Reading Round Up, Pausing Wednesday Posts + Podcast

The start of August got a bit lost, another trip to the vet and stress-related illness for the humans, this time due to rabbit escape artist antics; I’m slowly getting back on track. Reading in July was all for the podcasts; Tracy Rees’ backlist in particular is quite substantial when it comes to page count per book. I’m listing these books by author, and publication date.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Sofie Laguna: One Foot Wrong – A young girl lives in her parents’ home all the time, isolated; her friends are common household items and her parents are not good to her and as she gets older things do not improve. This is a very difficult book to read in the sense that it’s about horrific abuse but the telling of it is incredible.

Sofie Laguna: The Eye Of The Sheep – Jimmy sees things differently to other people though he doesn’t quite know it, but he does know about the tentacles in his mother’s chest that cause her problems, sees his dad struggle, and often can’t help himself from running around for ages; the family situation as it is is not sustainable and we see the changes through Jimmy’s eyes. A fantastic book about a child who defies a label, and his very normal, everyday family, living in the 70s and 80s.

Sofie Laguna: The Choke – A young girl from a bad background struggles to live her life despite her inability to understand what’s going on around her. A brilliant look at the cycle of abuse.

Tracy Rees: Amy Snow – Upon the death of her friend/mistress, a young woman sets out to discover what happened when said friend left home for a longer period than expected. Very good book, totally set in its Victorian period.

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Tracy Rees: Florence Grace – A young girl living in relative poverty in the Victorian period is employed for an evening as a servant for a party, and she meets a boy with the surname Grace – who isn’t going to be her husband. I don’t want to spoil the story so I’ll leave it there; this is as enjoyable as Amy Snow but pretty different and more Dickensian and Emily Brontë than Amy Snow’s Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Tracy Rees: The Hourglass – Nora quits her well-paid but mundane job when she keeps seeing a beach in her mind’s eye, a beach she knows; meanwhile Chloe is growing up in the 1950s, visiting Tenby in Wales on her summer holidays and looking forward to growing up, perhaps too much. Again, I’m trying not to spoil the story – this is a fantastic dual-plot novel, perfect for summer days.

Tracy Rees: Darling Blue – 1920s – Blue’s father, drunk at her party, declares that whomever can win her love via letter will be given her hand in marriage, which doesn’t go down well with her; meanwhile working-class Delphine runs away from her husband but falls asleep on the train and wakes up further down the line, in Richmond where Blue’s family lives. An interesting look at the ’20s, this book incorporates both fantastical and fun ideas, and sobering social factors (the issues for women when men returned to the workplace post-war).

Tracy Rees: The House At Silvermoor – 1890s – Tommy is growing up to be a miner but hopes for more, and during this time he meets Justine who lives in the next town; they become friends and Tommy shares his dreams but might it be that Justine, with her striking hair that looks more akin to that of the owner’s niece, has more of a chance? A light fantasy/fairy tale set in the industrial period.

So far in August I’ve read Peter Ho Davies’ longer works and I’ve started Midge Raymond’s My Last Continent which I first read a few years ago. I’ve got a couple of other books ready to start, and in one case, continue, after that.

On the subject of Wednesday posts, I have decided to press pause on them for now and move to a twice weekly posting schedule of Monday and Friday whilst this pandemic is ongoing. I’m finding it difficult to keep up with everything at the moment and have to pull back a bit, give myself a bit more space in between. I don’t intend it to be permanent – my plan is to reinstate it once there’s a vaccine and that constant background stress we’re all feeling dissipates. This should make my posting more routine again; overwhelm of things to do has affected it a lot.


The latest podcast episode is with Tracy Rees. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Tracy Rees (Amy Snow; Florence Grace; The Hourglass; Darling Blue; The House At Silvermoor) discuss Richard, Judy, Dickens, Austen, and Brontë – not all at once – coffee houses in Victorian times, landslides and hourglasses, changes to the Yorkshire mines in the late 1800s to early 1900s, and the inclusion of the average person in historical fiction.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
Reading Life: 27th July 2020 + Podcast

A photograph of a stalked flower bed at Hever Castle

Reading is going well at the moment; I’m aiming to have a good few books finished by this month, to try and get back to that ‘lots of books in July’… thing I used to have going on. And it’s thanks to some really excellent novels.

Inevitably I’m reading for interview; I’ve read and re-read both Sofie Laguna’s and Tracy Rees’ backlist (in the latter case it’s the present tense re-reading) and it’s been a ball. Laguna’s work is brilliant but difficult at times, in terms of the content. Her three current books (one more on the way in October) all look at formative childhood years and positives and negatives of those times; most cases include some level of abuse and neglect in a very caring way and the children are the narrators which allows for what is a balance of informed and uninformed look at what’s happening. Laguna has a superb talent for characterisation and realistic characters and she also looks at various learning difficulties and disabilities.

Tracy Rees’ books are far from Laguna’s in terms of genre, historical fiction with a tiny bit of contemporary plot thread – I say tiny bit because it’s a part of one book. I’m guessing most of you who read this will have heard of her and a good number of you will have read her books, they are often tomes, very high on the bestseller lists and with good reason. I’m currently reading her fourth book, which is very different to the rest of them. The first and second books, Amy Snow and Florence Grace, are set in the 1800s, and as noted in my review, the third, The Hourglass, is set in the 1950s and present day. However, despite the big differences in time it’s actually the fourth book, Darling Blue, set in the 1920s, that breaks the mould. The characterisation differs, the narrative structure looks at more people, and the storytelling, too, is new. I quite like it – I absolutely loved the first three books but the difference in Darling Blue is like reading a book by a different author and I rather like it when that happens without the book foregoing anything in particular.

I’m getting a lot out of the historical content; one of the things I love about Amy Snow is the detailing of what the average person’s day might be like, those people who are perhaps most like ourselves today; working in what we’d now call retail, visiting pubs and coffee shops. There’s only one scene in a coffee shop and only a very brief scene in a bookshop but when then added to Florence Grace’s visit to a cheese shop (Rees’ second book) it adds up to some interesting context. To be sure, there’s a lot of this kind of stuff in TV shows and films, but in a book, where everything’s slower and there’s more detail to help you imagine what the places look like, it’s just… better.

On my list to read next are Orlando Ortega-Medina’s The Savior Of Sixth Street and Roselle Lim’s Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop, both out in August. It’s going to be another diversion in genre, two in fact as they will be very different, and I love that idea. I know the basics of both of them but am otherwise keeping away from information. I’m also hoping to return to Christina Courtney’s Echoes Of The Runes which I started at the very beginning of June and had to leave for a while; it’s a time-slip set, so far, in Britain and Sweden, and involves a present-day character who finds an exact match for the ring she always wears in a museum display cabinet for early history; in short, it’s right up my street.


Today’s podcast is with Sofie Laguna. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Sofie Laguna (One Foot Wrong; The Eye of the Sheep; The Choke; the forthcoming Infinite Splendours) discuss beginning with acting, writing from a child’s perspective and not labelling those who are different, bad fictional parents, not liking John Wayne… and we have the inaugural reading of Sofie’s October release.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29626-1
First Published: 4th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2020
Rating: 5/5

Londoner Nora has worked her stable but uninspiring job for ten years; one day she sees in her mind’s eye a beach that she thinks she must have visited at some point… and the experience leads her to quit her job to look for a different life, perhaps in the place where the beach is – Tenby, in Wales. She knows her mother won’t be pleased – Jasmine dislikes Tenby – but ninety-three-year-old Gran will be overjoyed. Interspersed In Nora’s tale is that of young Chloe who lives in Wales in the 1950s and spends three weeks every summer in Tenby, where she looks forward to growing up, attending parties for teenagers and flirting with boys, but what she comes to look forward to most is time with Llew, the younger boy she considers her best friend.

The Hourglass is a tome of a book that looks at formative years of lives, not necessarily youthful years, and relationships and their effects.

This, Rees’ third novel, is absolutely fantastic. It actually includes few things generally seen as negatives – it’s slow, the ‘reveal’ could be called contrived and it’s not exactly shocking or groundbreaking, and the book is very long – but all these things as written by Rees turn the stereotypes on their head. The writing is similar to Rees’ previous books as you might expect, that is to say it’s different again in voice but as strong as ever, and the attention to detail and just, simply, attention to telling a fair story very well, forms the backbone of the success.

At a literal glance the novel is long, and indeed it does take and feel like a lot of time whether you read it over the course of several (or more) days, or just one or two, but once it’s over you’ll wish it took even more time. It is just the right length, the perfect novel to sit down and enjoy, it is the sort of book that completely lives up to the romantic idea of reading a good book outside on a sunny day with a big teapot of tea or large glass of wine. It’s slow in that wonderful way – there’s no quick drive as a reader to get to the end, you want to know what’s happened but you’re happy to go slow and find out whenever the author has decided you should know. And having an idea of the rough trajectory of life for the characters early, by way of their stories, helps you in that.

Given my nod to the stereotype of the perfect read above, it will come as no surprise that the book is beautifully atmospheric. Wales, that place in the UK afforded more rain than the rest, or at least in the public’s perception, is provided with floods of sunshine and a lot of detail both historic and present day (Nora’s story takes place in 2014). The relative slowness of ’50s life compared to now aids the reading experience – whilst Chloe’s perfect days are largely due to her age, nevertheless the qualities ascribed and experienced are a big part too.

Inevitably the hourglass of the story is as much a concept, a symbol, as a real item; the passage of time is one of the book’s themes. The reveal, which could perhaps be considered contrived in a vacuum, aligns itself to the concept to good effect. There is a slight deus ex machima to it on the surface – it’s not something you would have considered – but it makes you think back over everything else you’ve read so far, over Chloe’s wish to be more grown up early, over friendships and the use of time.

Of the book’s dual-plot situation, both stories are good in their own right. There is – of course? – a link, but both florish separately, and it would be difficult to say that either is better – if you like one more that will be down to personal preference. The romantic aspects of the book are also well done and lovely to read.

Two other aspects of especial note: the theme of mother-daughter relationships, more obvious in the present-day than the past though still an aspect of the historical thread; and the time given to the older characters in the novel. The mother-daughter relationship, here a strong bond that has become damaged in a way that needs to be studied by both parties, is a strong part of the story, it’s own thread detached from everything else. In terms of the older characers, Rees’ stories stretch a little beyond the happy-ever-after endings, appropriately giving you more time with all the characters following both your reading/emotional investment and time investment, as well as giving a voice to people who often get overlooked.

The Hourglass is one of those books wherein no words however positive and gushing can truly explain how good and in what manner it is. Suffice it to say that it is perfect, that now, when we could all do with a holiday, is a good time to read it, and that it is worth every moment.

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On Reading For Interviews Versus Reading For Reviews

A photograph of an open notepad with a big question mark drawn on it and a pen lying on top

Something I didn’t expect or, rather, didn’t know to expect, is that reading a book primarily with an eye to interviewing would be so at odds with reading for review and/or study, or indeed enjoyment. Granted, if I read purely for enjoyment – in other words I’m not taking many or any notes – it can be hard to write a thorough review later, but it can definitely still be done. Likewise reading for study purposes – it’s sufficiently similar.

Reading for interview is very different; perhaps not for everyone but I certainly find that regardless of the long list of questions and topics I have compiled ready for a podcast, it can be incredibly hard to continue on to a review. All talking points are there, and in theory those talking points should be able to inform a review but they become very literal – talking points, not review points.

I thought it would be as ‘easy’ as remembering that I’m reading for both interview and review (when I plan to review as well) but it’s not. This has made me aware that the two are in fact pretty different types of reading and that to combine them is a lot of work. It’s actually a bit like walking into a strong wind – not impossible but still hard.

I find in the two types different variations of close reading. I’ve wondered whether a book requires two reads for the two purposes – certainly that would make it easier to keep track. You could say they require different skills. It’s the reason there haven’t been many reviews here lately. It underlines the need to write the review soon after finishing the book; when working on a podcast the book’s ‘review’ details fade far fastest than they would normally, which makes sense given focuses.

It’s something I want to figure out a best practice for so I’ll be thinking about it in future.

Have you any experience in reading the same book(s) for different purposes?

 
Chibundu Onuzo – Welcome To Lagos

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Slice of lives.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages:
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 26th June 2020
Rating: 4/5

As Chike’s regiment prepares to do something he wants no part in, he and Yemi break ranks and escape. In so doing they meet Isoken – a young woman who has been assaulted – Fineboy – who does this and that and nobody’s completely sure about him – and Oma, who Chike finds himself attracted to and the feeling’s mutual. Together the unlikely group travel to Lagos to look for a place to stay and jobs to make money. It’s difficult – sometimes there are buildings, sometimes there are spaces underneath a bridge – but things take extra turns when they meet Ahmed, a journalist, and later a government minister.

Welcome To Lagos is an interesting novel that looks at the coming together of five different people – two already known to each other – in a way that explores both the characters themselves and the city of Lagos.

Akin to many novels, Onuzo’s narrative almost seems too easy until you scratch the surface, but unlike other novels that are akin to this, once the surface is scratched, it almost seems too clever. That may sound against Welcome To Lagos‘ favour; it isn’t. What Onuzo presents is a novel that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels; to be sure if you want to know why there is so much talk surrounding Onuzo you have to be prepared to spend a bit of time digging deeper – that surface dressing really does look easy – but if you did happen to have a bit lesser time you would still in theory get something out of it.

As you may guess given it’s very unlike me to suggest a novel should be read at it’s surface – you could do this, but you shouldn’t.

Part of the reason for this is that it would make the articles in the book seem disjointed. Onuzo employs both a regular third person narrative and the use of fictional journalism to tell her story. You have the main bulk of the book composed of the lives and short travels of Chike and ‘co’, interspersed with articles written by a secondary character who also moonlights as a primary character: Ahmed. Where Chike and his friends move around Lagos, live in a few different places, allowing Onuzo to show you around Lagos at a grassroots level, the articles show the wider story, including the politics that run the city as a whole. These narratives intersect, both through the use of Ahmed (his in-person appearances are rare) and in the later introduction of a politcian to our characters’ lives.

So to the friends – with Chike at the effective helm, the story focuses on five runaways who have joined together; Chike and Yemi have run away from the regiment, Isoken is mentally scarred from harrassment and assault; Fineboy is along for the ride; and Oma wants to leave also. The characters are both individuals and one homogenous group – in their grouping and story progression, they become one character – Lagos. They represent different aspects of it as well as creating reasons for other aspects to show, and then Ahmed, the Chief, and the various teriary characters tie everything together. And it’s more ‘parts of its sum’ than ‘sum of its parts’.

One of the book’s strengths is in the way Onuzo slowly reveals what’s going on with Isoken – you’re told from the start but with the book’s narrative generally looking at things from Chike’s perspective, it takes a bit of time. It’s done slowly, in actions rather than words.

Two other aspects of note: the conflict at the beginning of the book, and the use of religion. As Chike and Yemi decide to break ranks we get a glimpse of what they’re leaving behind – a lot of killings; it’s an interesting look at the situation, with Onuzo paying a lot less time and attention to it than you’re expecting, showing by not showing it that it may be ‘simply’ an every day thing for the company. As for religion, it’s constant but never too much; Chike reads the Bible to his friends in the evenings and there are brief discussions. It forms part of Chike’s character and informs the others in a way that is accessible to all.

Welcome To Lagos is both deceptive and open, in different ways. With the fairly diverse cast of characters it takes a few chapters to come into its own; it’s also quite its own book. Some questions remain at the end but not many; Ahmed’s role is perhaps the one most likely to cause curiosity – he may be up to interpretation; but over all this is an enjoyable read in both the usual and literary senses.

 

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