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Susanna Kearsley – The Shadowy Horses

Book Cover

Even when not in Rome, if the Romans are there, do as they do.

Publisher: Allison & Busby
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-749-00703-4
First Published: January 1997
Date Reviewed: 16th August 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Verity is offered an archaeological job in Scotland, the decision to go for the interview is easy, but saying yes to the job – digging where only one person thinks there’s something to be found – is harder. But she takes it, and together with her equally sceptical colleagues, starts to see the paranormal aspects that are making her employer believe there’s a Roman fort underfoot. And by the time she’s been there a few days, the presence of David means she won’t be leaving quickly.

The Shadowy Horses is a paranormal historical with a bit of romance, looking further back in time than Kearsley tends to.

The use of location here is very good. Kearsley has steeped the story in the Scottish setting, the specific place. (There’s very much the feeling that if anything has been changed it was in error.) There’s some sunshine but a lot of wind and rain, and the descriptions are excellent. It’s easy to get a feel for the place and world-building is well-balanced between town, weather, and the subjects at hand. Kearsley mixes the present-day and true history with the paranormal very well, letting the ghostly elements and slight magical realism blend in neatly; it does become more fantastical at a certain point, with everyone believing, but this suits the temperament of the leader of the archaeological group; suffice to say you don’t have to believe it possible for it to work as part of the story, you just have to believe the characters believe it.

In this Kearlsey has been prudent. Her version of a sixth sense aligns with the more realistic ideas about and there’s an even split between others who believe, are not sure, and completely disregard the notion. The author taps into the idea of ‘feelings’, sensing consciousness.

Due to drawbacks covered below, Verity is not a particularly strong character owing to author intervention, but the others are written well enough. There’s some sudden changes – mostly in Verity, and different to the author intervention – that are there presumably to aid the slow transition of the book from paranormal historical to paranormal historical with romance, but it’s enough to make you want to keep reading through the problematic sections. Quinnell, director of the dig and the person who believes in it all despite a complete lack of evidence, is winsome. (Kearsley uses this idea a lot, to good effect – the utter belief in something by one balanced out by others who require evidence.) The romance itself is strictly okay, its average nature in part owing to the fact that you’ll find yourself wanting to return to the archaeology, and there’s obviously more development of other aspects of the book than couples’ chemistry.

There is a lot of research behind it all, both in terms of present-day Scotland and the Roman legion, and in the notes Kearsley has thanked many local residents for their help. But whilst there’s a lot of information that is great, particularly about the Romans and, of course, archaeology (though the author does info-dump a bit when it comes to methodology), the show of how much Scots Kearsley has learned is continuously referenced. Verity is always pulling out her Scots dictionary to look up a word that’s just been used by someone else. It detracts from the character, making her a mouthpiece for language lessons. The specific detailing in the book, away from world-building and characterisation, is a little too much, with information about what the cats are doing and which cat is doing any one thing (when names are not needed because you’ve been informed as to their markings) a mainstay of the book.

The dialogue and narrative is mainly good but the Canadian phrasing and words of the author have sometimes slipped through – an understandable factor that will affect some readers (British English speakers and others familiar with it may find it jolts them from the text).

The Shadowy Horses isn’t Kearsley’s best but is still worth reading. It’s her only ancient history-based book, so it’s something very different in terms of her work, and not as refined as others, but there is still a lot of fun to be had.

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Hay Festival 2017: David Mitchell And Colm Tóibín

A photograph of Rosie Goldsmith and David Mitchell at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

David Mitchell’s newest book was released last month (July). It’s a translation of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8, written in Japanese by Naoki Higashida, about living with autism. Translated by both Mitchell and his wife – who is Japanese – the English language release is an effort towards making autism more understood; their son has it.

The speech and then talk between Mitchell and Rosie Goldsmith – who also has a child with autism – revolved around the condition. Like Steve Silberman last year, Mitchell used the hour to explain autism in real-world terms, breaking down the medical/world barrier. (Good, honest, conversation is something Hay does well.)

Historically, autism was seen as under the umbrella of clinical schizophrenia, or ‘living with the fairies’. Treatment was psychological analysis; in the 1960s, electrotherapy and LSD was used. The damage from these methods was massive and research into the condition was not worth the name.

Mitchell said, in the context of today, that the more ideas there are, even wrong ones, the more our knowledge will increase. “Just because research is faulty, [it] doesn’t mean there was nothing in it in the first place.” he said of MMR.

The writer uses the term ‘person with autism’ because people with it have asked him to; people made the adjective known to him – it’s fine when it’s a person. But Mitchell with call a person by the term they prefer on an individual level.

He does not like the assumption that a person with autism who can’t communicate is intellectually affected – it’s better to assume the reverse.

A photograph of Colm Tóibín at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Chris Athanasiou.

There were a reported 1700 people in attendance for Colm Tóibín’s talk with Claire Armistead. The two talked about the author’s latest work with ancient texts – House Of Names, a retelling of a Greek tragedy.

Tóibín talked about Antigone and Electra, working with the stories, using voice. He said that what Antigone, the character, says in dialogue is a translator’s dream; well-worded lines. He looked at Electra’s story from the point of view of her mother which gave him a different perspective, helping him with his own novel. In using ancient texts, he could get away from Ireland, the rosaries, tea, and rain – he kept the new book dry in that way. He pointed out that in retelling an older story, you can take just the story, whereas a contemporary novel has to be detailed and move more slowly. ‘Things you can just see in a play, you have to detail in a novel.’

He ended by saying that if you start to feel the weight of the historical work on you, you’re in trouble. (He just took what he needed.)

Armistead asked ‘why this story, now?’ Colm Tóibín responded that Nora Webster had taken many years, then came Brooklyn for another while as there was so much he had to use from his memory, his childhood, that he had to get right. He said that no matter how much you try to resist, some of what you know – your background, studies, and so on – will make it into a book; there’s a bit of Nora Webster in House Of Names.

The author works at 3:30 in the morning for a bit; the morning is useful for erasing bad ideas; one has time to chew on it.

Naomi Hamill – How To Be A Kosovan Bride

Book Cover

Tradition, modernity, politics, and folklore.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 212
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63095-9
First Published: 15th August 2017
Date Reviewed: 11th August 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A young woman begins the traditional process of leaving her family’s home for that of her inlaws; she may stay with her new family or she may return home. Her life plays out against a backdrop of a country at war, and the beginnings of a new nation.

How To Be A Kosovan Bride looks at the cultural traditions surrounding life in post-war Kosovo, bringing in stories of refugees and a few folklore-esque tales, too. Told by someone who goes to the country each year, it offers a particular perspective.

There are two threads in this book. In the first, Hamill balances tradition in all its trappings of dignity and honour, with the very modern. There’s a peppering of humour here and there but by and large this is a look at the clash between tradition and modernity, of being a traditional bride and a modern university student with all the cultural and, in the context of university, political, elements behind it.

To do all this, the author takes the wedding day as her starting point, a bride both excited and reluctant – unsure if this is the right thing to do – and then splits her story in two from wedding night onwards. The bride becomes plural, two people, as Hamill looks at two possible lives, one girl ‘passing’ her virginity test and the other ‘failing’ it (though she is in fact a virgin); one girl becomes the traditional Kosovan wife, the other, having been ‘returned’ on day one by her in-laws, deciding to pursue a university degree. For the most part this results in two narratives that are very, very different, and Hamill’s ‘Kosovan Wife’, as the character is called, does not find much happiness, so the narrative leans towards modernity, but there does come a point where both girls have a ‘grass is greener’ moment and wonder whether another life would’ve been a better choice.

Through the Kosovan Wife, Hamill is able to look further into culture, but it’s during the Returned Girl’s sections that the narrative comes into its own, where the author looks at the way the university entrance exam must be passed with flying colours in all subjects and how schools get around this issue where it concerns pupils having particular skills in particular subjects. The book as a whole is full of politics and it packs an almighty punch for its relatively small number of pages and white space. The second thread of the book, vignettes, stories, of the war – people fleeing, children killed, men walked to their death, liberation by people that aren’t all good – are absolutely harrowing; Hamill is completely blunt and in the acknowledgements of the book she thanks various Kosovan acquaintances for their stories that she used as a jumping point for her fiction, underlining the reality behind it all.

Finally there are a couple of faux-folktales dotted about, one spanning several chapters, adding a bit of magical realism to the book, rounding out the text so that it has information about history and the arts as well as the political element. This is where Hamill’s love for the country is shown best, her writing here being fictional but aligning to folklore well.

Of the writing, that second person, it’s difficult to say… if you hate the method, you may grit your teeth at this book, but because the author has made a point of often tamping it down, you may find it easy enough to get on with. There are only a handful of chapters that directly specify a ‘you’ – admittedly it’s not obvious who this ‘you’ is, whether the reader or a character and if the latter which – and the style matches the various stories told. It adds to the sense of oral history, folklore, and stories of war.

How To Be A Kosovan Bride is a good look at a country in conflict and the people on the wrong side of it, as well as a country still coming into its own. It is hard-hitting and very political but the humour and shortness of it balances this out. You’ll likely want to research the facts alongside your reading, especially if your knowledge is limited, as the book has a sense of a basic knowledge base behind it. It’s very much worth doing so.

I received this book for review.

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The Forest Of Bere, Rainy Spring Day

A photograph of the Forest of Bere, bluebells all over the ground

On a dreary day in May, having decided to get lunch to go, we chose to drive for longer than usual to find somewhere new to sit. On a road we’d never been on, a ‘what’s that?’ moment happened; we turned down the tiny lane and found the Forest of Bere. It’s a relatively small area of land just north of Fareham and on that day there were bluebells as far as the eye could see.

A photograph of the Forest of Bere, a path leading to an old railway bridge

A couple of bridges define the place where a railway line once skirted the edge of what is now a road. There are a couple of entrances, that we could find, and the ‘main’ one is set up for picnics and short walks, parking and benches aplenty. Some sites call it ‘the former forest of Bere’ – it is essentially, now, at least, a patch of forest in an otherwise rural but populated place – there is a country park and myriad villages nearby.

A photograph of the Forest of Bere's picnic area

A photograph of the Forest of Bere, a path surrounded by bluebells

A photograph of the Forest of Bere, an old railway bridge, graffiti on the underside of it

Reading Life: 7th August 2017

A photograph of the church section of Netley Abbey

I’ve been struggling with overwhelm recently. I received a lot of books for purposes other than review that I hadn’t expected; I’m making progress but together with other happenings it’s been difficult. I’m making an effort to clean up my list of currently reading books, finishing those I’m nearing the end of and making a decision on those I’d not got too far through that have been languishing on the list for months. A Brief History Of Seven Killings is off for now; I only got about 50 pages in and the amount left… I know it’d just languish longer. 12 Years A Slave has been removed because I think by removing it I might actually get back to it; I was enjoying it a lot (as much as it can be enjoyed; as a historical document). There is definitely something to be said for not having a number of books currently on the go. I think three’s the limit for me – any more and it doesn’t feel as though I’m making any progress. It’s also, I’m starting to realise, a reading slump creator.

I finished Erskine’s Sleeper’s Castle last week. As it continued it seemed to me that it’s two stories put together, a plot thread of time slip and a plot thread heading in the direction of Gone Girl; both threads petered out in the end. I may give Lady Of Hay a go but it isn’t something I’m going to prioritise at the moment.

The past couple of weeks I’ve been making a big effort to read in the tiny moments available; I’m trying out the idea of reading in queues, when waiting for people to be ready to leave, that sort of thing. At the moment it’s an ebook I’m carrying via a tablet so there has been some start up time factored into it, but I’ve read a fair number of pages this way, particularly when considering my slow reading speed. Whether I’m actively retaining the information, in terms of whether the ‘quality’ of such reading will result in a fair opinion at the end of the book I’m not yet sure – I think in this case it will be fine because the book is an easy read.

I’m determined to have finished more currently-reading books by the end of this month for a better reflection of what or, rather, how much I’ve read, which is more than it seems at present. A reading list with many finished books means a clearer head for future reading.

What are you currently reading, and do you read in those spare moments?


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