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Sara Taylor – The Shore

Book Cover

Broad horizons. Land’s end.

Publisher: William Heinemann (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-434-02309-7
First Published: 19th March 2015
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2014
Rating: 5/5

Chloe’s glad to hear Cabel’s dead. He tried to hurt her sister. The girls live with their Dad in a small house; they aren’t as well off as their ancestors. But the ancestors didn’t have great lives either.

It’s easier to carry on the summary in this way: The book sports a ‘fractured narrative’ (a term Taylor uses herself), a style in which the author looks at one person’s life as a short story, then looks at one of their relatives, and so on so that you end up zipping from the twentieth century back to the nineteenth and into the future, learning about the various branches of the same family tree. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

The Shore is a fantastic book. From the first chapter – the first story – it pulls you in and whilst there are dips every now and then it soon draws you back, yes, not unlike the tide.

Taylor’s writing is lovely. She uses a variety of persons and tenses, ensuring each story is different, and whilst every chapter boasts its inevitable literary style, the characters are varied. The world building is naturally limited in space – most of the book is set in the same place – but unlimited in scope. Taylor aptly describes her settings but there’s space to put your own mark on it; much of the beauty of this book is in its potential for numerous visuals. (And for the most part it doesn’t matter how you see the setting as although there is history in the book, other genres are more important, for example, fantasy.) What’s not so varied are the themes; this is part of the book’s concept. Underlying almost every one are a few particular ideas: to have or not to have children, to do what is right or not, to drink or not to drink, to stay or not to stay – the same basic themes run throughout.

Most poignant of these is surely the question of children. It’s a question that isn’t in every single story – some of the chapters are about children themselves so it wouldn’t be appropriate – but individual agency and the right to choose, most particularly in the sense that throughout history women have had that mother, home-maker role to play, are very important to the text. A lot of the women in this book are happy to have children, but many of them are not so keen. The second group are most often victims of abuse. You also have a few members of the family tree who know how to use herbs to prevent pregnancies and the stories surrounding them are full of neighbours coming to their door for help. It’s a study of choice, the ability or not to choose, the extremes of either choice, and history.

Always in the background, or in the foreground, abuse. It’s often the same characters who happen to feature, whether in person or in reference, and one in particular who has an affect on a number of people. The Shore can be hard to read on occasion; Taylor doesn’t shy away from telling the details. And the cycle continues; Taylor shows the classic concept of traits, decisions, in this case abuse, passing down the family tree however in this case it’s not quite the stereotype – it misses generations, it comes in from another branch, and so forth.

The book presents itself as your average nostalgic read, one of those books that are quite comfortable in their telling if not their content, the sort of book about American life that can draw non-Americans to it due to the setting being so different. There’s a hint of magic in this book, there are paranormal elements, and there’s some science fiction. It’s these three elements that stop the book from dipping too far (in the way I suggested earlier) because there comes a point where everything starts to come together, when things you didn’t know you needed to know about, things you didn’t know anything about, all get twisted up into that very satisfying literary notion, that feeling that causes the recently coined phrase ‘you guys, this book!’ Taylor doesn’t just deliver a gratifying literary experience she delivers a gratifying literary experience with bonus points. And she plays with the concept of religion in an interesting way.

There are a few houses in this book, but two are more important than the others. These houses are as much characters in their own right as Manderley and are a further factor that unites the already tangled family members. The houses keep the family grounded in their history; they couldn’t leave forever even if they wanted to.

The Shore is exceptional. It’s written well, it’s planned well, it’s executed well – it’s everything well. It’s a subtle thrill that bowls you over mentally, intellectually, without requiring you jump up and down about it, though you surely will.

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Lisa Hilton – Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince

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Just don’t tell this monarch she’s a strong female character…

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 342
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-544-57784-8
First Published: 9th October 2014
Date Reviewed: 26th November 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Hilton looks at Elizabeth I and her court, aiming to show how the queen was more of a prince than a princess (in keeping with the monarch’s own view).

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is a fairly good read that examines much of the period but has a tendency to follow forks in the road rather than remain focused on the Queen herself.

Let’s start with the writing style. Hilton writes in a way that is both highly academic and very colloquial. ‘Big’ words join phrases such as ‘he gave out that’, making for a book that suggests authority whilst remaining easy enough to read. Sometimes the text can be very dry – the prologue, laborious, in particular shouldn’t be considered an example of the book as a whole – but the fun episodes slotted in throughout keep it from becoming too much.

The vast majority of statements are backed up in some way, be it by primary or secondary sources. Hilton does tend to favour the research of others rather than her own, which can seem as though she needs to rely on other people’s thoughts when what she’s saying is sound, but it does add up the points in her favour so far as evidence is concerned. Sometimes the evidence is sketchy, for example her use of Bernard to make a point – Bernard’s the man who bases books on hunches – and, as another example, her use of what Anne Boleyn said in the tower in her last days as proof of what Anne believed (which again follows Bernard and, as I mentioned in my review of his book, one can’t really take as fact words said in times of trial). The author sometimes neglects other evidence or mainstream opinion without re-enforcing it, such as her statement that Anne Boleyn was not an active reformer and her talk of the gospel to Henry VIII was but part of courtly love (most historians see it as a subtle way of influencing the easily-influenced king’s mind, possibly on behalf of her family).

However when Hilton gets it right, she really gets it right. She is very biased against certain people others favour but relates stories in such a way that show why she is right to be biased – she may call Katherine Parr’s ‘collusion’ with Seymour during the tickling incidents ‘nasty’ but she makes plain the reason why without resorting to name-calling or manipulating the narrative of the event. She points out that, okay, perhaps Anne could have been a reformer but that there is no evidence of her individual involvement, for example, in ‘promoting sympathetic clerics to bishoprics’.

As a book on the whole it’s good; the problem comes with the title and stated focus: this book is not so much a biography of Elizabeth as it is a book about Elizabeth and her courtiers. So much time is spent detailing other people instead of looking at what the queen was doing and thinking, which is almost inevitable when we’ve no diaries and so forth, but does weaken the argument being made. The assertion of princeliness is compelling and believable but beyond a couple of quotations and repetitions of ‘Machiavellian’, the proposal isn’t strong enough to warrant a whole book about it, as shown by the amount of time devoted to other subjects. Instead, unfortunately, we have a book in which a queen does come across as more of a man but there is so much planning and law-making by the actual men, often away from the queen, that it can look like an afterthought.

Away from this believable but hard to show statement of manliness is a competent non-fiction that whilst it needs to be read with the knowledge it’s one person’s work – as most history books are – succeeds in being informative and a good choice for those looking to learn more about the Queen and the upper classes. Hilton’s background in television gives her book an edge others lack, making it, as suggested, both academic and commercial, and the amount of research undertaken practically oozes from it.

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is one to look for once you have a good grasp of the basics (the opinions mean you’ll appreciate it more if you’ve read the mainstream views first) and a good reminder for those who’ve been away from the history for a while. Granted, not all that much is new, but the handling of the information and the presentation of it is on the whole excellent; reading this book is a bit of an experience in itself.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Pushkin Press And The Next Six Months

I like Pushkin Press a lot. They’re the people who published the awesome and bizarre story of writers bouncing around a grocery store due to the extremely compelling power of literature. They’re the people behind the Frenchman who pulls you into his epic Dumas-like adventure. They’re the people who translated the tale of elderly women busting out of their nursing home and engaging in a Battle Royale fight to the death. And they’re the people who gave us Man Booker short-listed Chigozie Obloma’s The Fisherman.

I’ve got the catalogue for next year, from January to June, and thought I’d share some of the books that have caught my eye. I should also mention that the publisher now has a couple of imprints – Vertigo, a thriller imprint, and One which publishes one exceptional work a year. If you wanted to start a collection you’ve certainly lots of time.

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The first new title listed is Stefan Zweig’s Messages From A Lost World. I’ve seen the cover before, possibly on the site, or maybe another blog; it struck me as a good one to choose. Pushkin publish a lot of Zweig’s words. Truth be told I know nothing about him beyond what I’ve read in the catalogue – I’m still making up for the lack-lustre literary classes I attended at school – but he sounds worth the read. This particular book is a collection of essays and speeches from the 1930s and 1940s, ‘a defence of European unity against terror and brutality… a powerful statement of one man’s belief in the creative imagination and the potential of humanity’. These essays would have been written during twelve years – in 1942 Zweig and his wife were found dead. It was likely suicide.

I’m going to bypass the new Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. I could write a post the length of this one on how much and for how long I’ve had One Night, Markovitch on my to-be-read list. Sometimes, when my interest in a book is mostly down to the cover (it happens to the best of us), a cover change is enough to make me delete it from the list. Annoyingly, considering how many books I want to read, Pushkin’s change hasn’t altered my intrigue. Waterstones likes to use it as bait to get me to walk into their stores. They’ll win eventually.

Book cover

Memories: From Moscow To The Black Sea is by Teffi. Teffi, an author of the early 20th Century, travelled around Russia on a reading tour whilst her fellow Russians fled the country. She eventually left, not knowing she wouldn’t be allowed to come back. She writes of her last months in Russia, an epic journey of two thousand miles. Pushkin have thought ahead – they’re publishing a collection of Teffi’s pointedly political writings, too.

Book cover

Soft In the Head – I couldn’t not mark this one. Unsurprisingly ‘sunny’ but also ‘moving’, according to Marie-Sabine Roger’s fellow Frenchmen or women at La Marseillaise, this book is a tale of a wood-whittling graffiti-making young man and his friend, an eighty-five year old woman he meets on a bench. [Edit: I got the date wrong – it was written after Forrest Gump.]

So there you have it – a highly subjective, partly based on covers list of the books I believe may be the stand-outs from Pushkin’s future output. I’m loving the number of translation-based small publishers there are, glad we have so many and that they’re doing well.

Which small-press books, whether translated or not, are you looking forward to next year?

Sarah Howe – Loop Of Jade

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Figuring out the past. Concerning the present.

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Pages: 60
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-701-18869-6
First Published: 7th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 21st November 2015
Rating: 5/5

I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry before, never reviewed a poem at all. As you may know I’m not a big reader of them – technically I like them a lot, the words, phrasing, beauty – but they often confuse me.

I’m giving it a go this time; Howe’s poetry is on the short-list for the Young Writer Of The Year award and having heard the poet read one of them herself, being able to hear her voice in my head and knowing when to pause, helped me a lot.

So, then, Howe’s collection is about her mother’s early life in China as an unwanted and later adopted girl. It’s about Howe’s own experiences as a young child in Hong Kong before the family moved to Britain. It’s a bit about politics, a bit about history, and a bit about Howe’s relationship with her husband. Many of the poems are also based around the divisions of animals as proposed by Dr Franz Kuhn. (The descriptions are included before the poetry begins.)

And whilst some of it flew over my head, I can still say it’s incredible. Howe makes use of various styles. She writes in one-word lines, she writes in a sort of way that echoes prose more than poetry, she uses long sentences, short ones, indented lines. The style that’s most compelling is the one used in the title poem. This is a poem wherein she’s listening to her mother talk about her life and near the end she writes as her mother speaks, using white space between words and phrases to show where her mother is pausing. You get a really good sense of how this conversation played out in reality.

Howe’s written voice moves through perspectives. She often writes from a distance, the third person. Sometimes she writes in the first; but the best times are when she questions the audience directly, or questions herself, or speaks in a particularly intimate way that defies description. It’s really lovely and makes you feel as though you’re privy to something special.

One of the standouts is Tame – hard-hitting, excellent. This is a poem in which Howe uses a quotation about how it’s better to raise geese than a girl as her base and works a fairy tale from it, dark, brutal ending and all. She wraps around the subject, coming full circle. Another is Innumerable wherein Howe remembers going on a day out around the time of Tiananmen; she contrasts the two and brings them together to show how things can be swept under the literal rug but not really.

About half the poems are stories, the other half tiny glimpses. The glimpses work well, you need to keep your wits about you to discover their true meaning.

The writing is quite flowery as you would expect, and very, very literary. Howe’s writing may require you to use a dictionary and you do have to pause sometimes, more than you usually would, to really make sense of what she’s saying – sort of the first step in the discovery program.

It’s a brilliant collection which I can confidently rate top marks even though I didn’t get it all.

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What’s In A Name – 2016 Sign-Up Post

What's In A Name 2016 logo

This is the sign-up post for the ninth annual What’s In A Name challenge, originally started by Annie, handed to Beth Fish Reads, and now continued here at The Worm Hole.

The basics

The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the following categories (examples of books you could choose are in brackets – I’ve included some from other languages, and translations most definitely count!):

  • A country (try not to use ‘Africa’!) Suggestions: Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Xiaolu Guo’s I Am China, Martin Wagner’s Deutschland)
  • An item of clothing (Su Dharmapala’s Saree, Ann Brashare’s The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, Javier Moro’s El Sari Rojo; Pierre Lemaitre’s Vestido De Novia)
  • An item of furniture (Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue; C S Lewis’s The Silver Chair; Goslash;hril Gabrielsen’s The Looking-Glass Sisters)
  • A profession (Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife; Mikhail Elizarov’s The Librarian)
  • A month of the year (Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April; Rhoda Baxter’s Doctor January)
  • A title with the word ‘tree’ in it (Ai Mi’s Under The Hawthorn Tree; Elle Newmark’s The Sandalwood Tree)

Remember the titles I’ve given here are only examples, you can by all means use them if you want to but it’s not necessary. There are plenty of other books that will fit the categories and you may have

some in mind already or even some on your shelves you can read.

Extra information
  • Books can be any format (print, audio, ebook).
  • It’s preferred that the books don’t overlap with other challenges, but not a requirement at all.
  • Books cannot overlap categories (for instance my example of Black Swan Rising for ‘an animal’ could be used for the ‘colour’ category or ‘animal’ category, but not both).
  • Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed, it’s encouraged!
  • You don’t have to make your list of books beforehand, you can choose them as you go.
  • You don’t have to read your chosen books in any particular order.
Everything else

On January 1 I’ll publish 7 posts, one for each category and one for your wrap-up post. These posts will be published as WordPress pages and linked to from one main, ‘gateway’, post on the blog. You will be able to post your links to your reviews or leave comments, depending on whether you’re a blogging reader or a non-blogger reader. If you are a blogger, please leave one review per category. You’ll be able to find the gateway post through a link I’ll be adding to the navigation section of my sidebar. Alternatively, for ease, you might want to subscribe to this blog via Feedly or email so that the gateway post will be immediately available to you without you having to search the site. The non-Feedly feed link and also a Bloglovin’ link are on the sidebar.

If you have trouble finding a book for a category, have a look at the corresponding page for it here once the challenge has started – readers who’ve already completed the category will have linked to their reviews and added titles that you can look through.

To join the challenge, sign up using the Mr Linky if you’re a blogger, and if you’re not a blogger simply leave a comment below (please note that if you’ve not commented on this blog before your comment will not show up straight away as per my site moderation but I will see it so do come back if you’ve asked a question). If at any time you have difficulties adding your link, email me at the address on my contact page with your information, and I’ll add it myself.

How to use Mr Linky: put your name and/or your blog’s name in the top box and the URL (web address) of your blog in the second box. If you have a Tumblr or use a Facebook page instead of a blog, use the web address to that instead.

How you link is up to you, but it’s suggested that you include both your name and blog name in the first box.

If you have any suggestions for this year’s challenge, let me know in the comments (again, if you’ve not commented here before the comment will show up after I’ve approved it as part of my site spam moderation).

And remember that you don’t have to sign up today – as the challenge runs until the end of 2016, you can sign up at any time during the year.

Hope you enjoy the challenge and best of luck! The hashtag for Twitter is #whatsinaname2016 (the number included so we don’t get lost amongst various Romeo And Juliet quotes!)

Sign up here!


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