Heads held high as others fall.
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
First Published: 22nd May 2014
Date Reviewed: 1st March 2015
When Lady Jane Grey is killed the future becomes uncertain for her mother and sisters. Regulars at court and related to Queen Mary, no one knows whether or not they will be safe and as time goes on and this doesn’t change, it’s up to the family to try and find a solution.
Sisters Of Treason is the second novel by Fremantle, which looks at the trials (sometimes literal) of the Greys that remained. It also looks at the little known life of minature artist, Levina Teerlinc, filling in the gaps in the history.
It has to be said that this is no Queen’s Gambit, however this is not entirely down to the author. Whereas previously Fremantle chose to write about a queen with plenty of history behind her, this time her subjects are somewhat obscure and did not lead as eventful a life as Katherine Parr. This, then, presents a conundrum: the book is not particularly riveting, but then Fremantle has followed what is known of the history.
Essentially this book was always going to be limited in scope; yet this limitation itself is worth discussing. Katherine and Mary were rarely away from court and, in Mary’s case especially (at least here in this book), they are not particularly fond of court. This means that whereas we are often told – by teachers, television, evidence – that court was a blustering, busy, exciting place, this novel shows us that actually in many ways it was boring. We all know it was stifling, rife with jealousies and full of backstabbing, but ‘boring’ is rarely a word used.
This is to say that Fremantle effectively shows the reader how dull Katherine and Mary’s lives were. Not dull as in to say unworthy of study, but dull because they had to remain at court when they may not have wanted to. There is the threat of death ever lingering in the background, but as a conflict it is not very strong – it could be said that this is a character-driven story when generally factually-based historical novels straddle both plot and character, tending towards plot as their backbone. It could thus be said that this would have made better non-fiction.
Fremantle makes as much of she can of the known history, and chooses to incorporate less reliable evidence only when it suits her plot. As an example we have Mary, who has a crooked back, scoliosis perhaps. It is interesting to look at this example in light of the recent discovery of Richard III’s body. It was constantly debated whether or not Richard had scoliosis, whether or not we should trust the words of those historical figures who may simply have hated him, and in discovering his body it was found that those people were speaking the truth. All this to say that, given Richard III, if Mary was reported to be crook-backed then it’s very possible she was and thus despite the general lack of evidence in the pictures we have of her, Fremantle’s decision to incorporate a disability into her fictionised Mary’s life is something to savour. Fremantle makes a point of studying the culture in terms of disability, which is aided by her extra focus on Levina Teerlinc.
Teerlinc, a rarity in medieval history – a female artist – is little known, and so Fremantle’s dealing of her is largely similar to the character of Dot from Queen’s Gambit. Through Teerlinc Fremantle explores not only the Tudor working woman but the world beyond the court and the politics in the wider world that merit a totally difference handling when discussed inside the privy chamber.
It should be noted that the dispositions of queens Mary and Elizabeth are not favourable, which in the case of the latter may surprise you. However it is perfectly reasonable considering the viewpoints used – Katherine and Mary were not going to like Bloody Mary and if Elizabeth held them prisoner, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have considered her especially wonderful, either.
Sisters Of Treason looks at the life of those who might have wished for something that would have rendered them even less well-known. Whether you will like it or not really depends on how open you are to the idea of sitting sewing beside the window whilst the world passes you by. It is likely to interest those with a prior interest in the sisters; as for others it is hard to say. The book is certainly well written and full of factual information you won’t forget in a hurry. Indeed the only written element that is cause for thought is the French of Frances Brandon, of which there is a lot.
Sisters Of Treason focuses on hope when everything else is lost. It’s packed with history and is an excellent example of good research and writing. It is respectful of the historical figures it uses, but it should be noted that it is steeped in anxiety and sadness and that the conflict is less apparent then is generally expected.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
I had the flu this month and so didn’t read as much – but what I did read was excellent and more than made up for it. I’ve found at least one if not two of the books I’m sure will be making my top 5 of the year. It seems at the moment I’m quite partial to books that comment on issues, ideas, comment on anything in depth, really.
All books are works of fiction.
Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P – Detailing some of the many short relationships of a writer ensconced in the journalism and publishing industry, with a look at why things go wrong for him. Apologies for the bad summary; this is a really, really, great book. (Thank you, Laurie!)
Aki Ollikainen: White Hunger – A family start their journey to St Petersburg to find food whilst the political classes look on. A good story that’s introduced me to the Finnish famine.
Elizabeth Fremantle: Sisters Of Treason – A fictionised story of Katherine and Mary Grey, sisters of the ill-fated Lady Jane. Good, but it does suffer from the limitations of the girls’ lives (it would’ve made better non-fiction).
J K Rowling: The Casual Vacancy – The death of a parish councillor not only creates a rush to take his place, it also creates even more tension between those for and against the already-existing integration of a council estate. Loved it – as I said, a great book about awful people.
I don’t think I can choose a favourite this month. Perhaps, perhaps The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P? I’d have to admit to a bias, though, because it’s got so many literary references. No, I can’t choose, and there will likely be months aplenty where I can that one won’t matter. I finished the Fremantle with just minutes to go before midnight on the 1st March; I was pretty happy as I had wanted to add another book to my list, make myself motivated just that bit more to continue into the next month.
Striking somewhat of a chord is Nate from The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P who comments on the way the numbers that may constitute a popular book would earn a television show the axe.
Hello Spring. Hello daffodils. Hello too much chocolate. But most of all, hello light. And hopefully lots of reading, too.
What was your favourite book this month (or week if you round-up each week)?
The last natural famine.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2012 in Finnish; 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 26th February 2015
Original language: Finnish
Original title: Nälkävuosi (Hunger Year)
Translated by: Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
As the Finnish famine makes it impossible to remain at home any longer, Marja leaves her dying husband and begins a journey, on foot, across the continent with her two children. In a wealthier place, the senator looks to the new railroad to solve the issue, and a doctor lives away from the horror until it creeps into his life, too.
White Hunger is a novella about the effects of the Finnish famine, particularly in the year 1867. It may be short but it illustrates the famine at large; what would have happened over a period of a few years. The text, in terms of the translation, is generally clear and an unexpected joy to read when considered alongside its subject. There are a few places that may invite confusion but not for long.
Marja and her children set out in the dead of winter in the hope of reaching St Petersburg, so the journey is particularly brutal. Snow is waist deep, they live from one day to the next at the mercy of the households they come across, and are subject to the horrors both of desperation and the breakdown of social order.
Whilst the need for food forms the reason for the story, it’s this desperation and breakdown that is the major theme at hand. In a way very similar to Némirovsky’s Suite Française, White Hunger looks at the affects a disaster can have on people, the way that class systems can remain when it would be best they too were destroyed. Marja is labelled a whore because the higher classes are able to take advantage of her physical weakness, and the educated and political elite are in no danger of starvation. The poor are to be given but ‘thin gruel’, and whilst this makes sense – as one man says, a sudden lot of food in an emaciated body will cause more harm than good – most of the time this ‘thin gruel’ is a symptom of a people unwilling to help those with nothing, unwilling to share the food they have that for them is easy to replace.
Death is never far away in this book, but neither is hope. The balance makes it easier to keep going, even when the hope is comprised of an arrival in St Petersburg, a dream the reader will understand as one of the characters does – as improbable.
The sole drawback of this book is, surprisingly, the length. Whereas in everything else the length is a boon, when it comes to events in the story it means the events seem closer together than they truly are, which can lessen the effect they have. Due to this it is best to read the book slowly, perhaps in more than the usual one sitting, and to keep track of the passing of time.
Focusing on a well-known period of Finnish history and looking at the constant divide between those who have and those who have none, White Hunger may be short and sparse in overall detail, but it succeeds in making its crucial point in the limited time it has.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
An excellent book about awful people.
Publisher: Little Brown
First Published: 1st January 2012
Date Reviewed: 24th February 2015
On his wedding anniversary (which his wife would tell you he spent writing about the life of a girl on the council estate) Barry Fairbrother dies. The semi-rural town of Pagford is struck by it, tossed into chaos. The death means there’s a vacant seat on the parish council and it seems everyone wants a look in or has an opinion. Howard and Shirley Mollison who are secretly glad their rival is dead; Miles and Samantha Mollison, one running to take the free spot, the other trying to run clear away from it; Colin Wall and Parminder Jaswant who were friends of Barry and want to keep his dreams alive; Simon Price who will beat up anyone who might ruin his quest to be the next councillor; the teenage children who are affected by their parents’ narrow-mindedness; Krystal Weedon who lives on the council estate so many want divided from Pagford; everyone has something to win or lose.
The Casual Vacancy is a long in-depth novel that looks at the way classes are divided, at social and political problems at a local level, and about how prejudice can obstruct communication, understanding, and empathy. Likely to offend or shock (in fact I’d say it’s likely to shock most readers at some time or other) Rowling leaves nothing to ambiguity – she has things to say and come hell or high Pagford river water, she’s going to say them.
It will come as no surprise, then, when I say that the book is character-driven. The potential bestowal of Barry’s place forms the nucleus around which everything else spins.
It is worth mentioning that there are no good characters in this book apart from the innocent – one cannot call the toddler bad, for example, and likewise young Paul Price, eternally frightened by his abusive father, cannot be seen in a bad light either. Everyone else has a degree of hatred in them. You will be satisfied at some point, yes, by certain downfalls, but it must be noted that Rowling’s message, her reason for writing, requires her to expose this hatred.
At the same time, there are positive traits shown. Of course many characters have very little good in them, at least in the context of this novel, but others have a fair amount of goodness going for them. What Rowling does is look at stereotypes – this is where we initially acknowledge the offensive content; Rowling takes the stereotypes and runs with them. The stuffy, backwards-thinking white-majority middle class country residents? Check. The council-house-and-violence definition known by an acronym? Check. It can be quite difficult to read this book – more at the beginning when you’re not sure what Rowling’s point is, of course, especially as Rowling is so honest. She writes the accents, the ones we all know, the stereotypical speech patterns. She discusses the exclusive meetings and fake niceties, the drugs and the poor home environment. Abuse, self-harm, infidelity, health. The communication problems between children and their parents, parents not thinking of the affect their choices have on their children.
But then you’ll find the author is far from finished. Rowling shows the good side to both sides. She shows what can happen when the closeted look beyond themselves. She looks at the way poverty and hardship isn’t clear-cut – at how it’s often any endless cycle, at how people try to better themselves to no avail when the ‘other half’ won’t let them in. Certainly there is more ‘good’ time spent on The Fields, Pagford’s detested council estate, but then that becomes what you expect. It becomes what you expect even if you acknowledge what the residents of Pagford are saying (acknowledge but not quite accept). Yes, there is the sense that Rowling has a clear side she wants to win, and she’s not afraid to state her piece in the face of potential backlash (backlash that seems to have happened if articles are anything to go by) but there is never a metaphorical stride in. Rowling doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as remain beside the journalist who sits on the sidelines of the council meeting. Rowling’s primary goal is to make you think, and think hard. What’s really worth arguing over? What’s the worth of one person compared to another? And, of course, where much of the situation is so similar to arguments in real life, it is all the more important.
As for the characters themselves then, they are very believable. As well as the accents and realism it’s easy, at least if you’re familiar with the varying cultures (this is where I acknowledge that my Britishness may have aided my reading), to create the image in your head and supply any details that Rowling may have left out. You inevitably create a stereotype but, as you’ve probably guessed by now, again that’s the point and another way to make you uncomfortable. This creation will work no matter who you are; the diversity is yet another purposefully included element.
And if you can get through the hatred there is a lot to like about The Casual Vacancy. Rowling’s writing is fair. The attention to detail is meticulous. The amount of time each character gets is equal to the others. The issues are written without apology, in a way your Victorian melodramatic matriarch would find intolerable. There is reward for persevering, and whilst the ending may not be quite what you expected (it certainly surprised me), you’ll close the book with enough to work out the final message Rowling wants to leave you with. Ambiguity takes its place, but Rowling often withdraws its invitation at the last moment, the writer making use of her character’s personalities for a gain they would despise. Whether you agree with Rowling’s thoughts or not is of no consequence – the important thing is that she makes you think.
Political and very damning, The Casual Vacancy is one you’ll want to set a time for rather than sit down with on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. And whilst you’ll be sticking your finger up at the most basic etiquette by choosing such a time, it’d be hard to say it isn’t worth it.
Today I’m asking the above – what books have you sought out purely because their titles intrigued you? I believe there are likely some books that would grab everyone, but because we all approach reading differently, in the context of our differing personalities and backgrounds, I think it’s safe to say the answer wouldn’t be a one size fits all, rather ‘multiple sizes to fit a varied audience with a one-off sort-of one size fits all’. If that makes any sense.
As for myself, I’m partial to random titles. Whilst I loved the sound of The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake as Iris presented it in her review, it was nevertheless the title that made the biggest impression on me. The title is just so different, or at least it was at the time (more on that later), however I have to admit the fact that there was ‘lemon cake’ promised was just as important. I’m not a foodie, per se, but the idea of lemon cake just sounds wonderful. When I read that title I couldn’t help but picture a beautiful round springy cake. It makes my mouth water to write about it.
I think in this case it’s fair to say that Aimee Bender may have had this effect in mind when she was planning her title. (Of course if it was suggested by her publisher, they may have been thinking of the marketability of food, too.)
Other ‘random’ titles that have caught my interest and later my utter attention are The Obscure Logic Of The Heart (wasn’t keen) and The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite (loved). The first due to its sheer randomness, the second, well, let me digress.
I love alliteration. Pride and Prejudice, I Capture The Castle, and yes, the aforementioned Colin. I love alliteration so much that if an editing client has made use of it I can’t help but read the sentence with a huge smile on my face, even if I know that we’re ultimately going to have to cut or change it. If I had to write about a newspaper article in English Language class I concentrated on alliteration and whenever I’m stuck for an opening for a review, it gets the first look in. So although I won’t be drawn to an alliterative title as I am random ones, if it rolls off the tongue I will be noting it down.
In moving away from myself to encompass you all, there’s another question that must be asked. My thought that we will be intrigued by different titles still stands, but in recent years something has happened that implies there is that one size fits all.
Do you think the current trend of long quirky titles has anything to do with the idea that we read books because of their titles? Certainly it seems that authors/marketers/publishers have my interests in mind, and as such it’s surely safe to say that quirky titles are the one size fits all. A title is important, so it’s safe to assume that in giving us random quirky titles, market research has shown that they sell well. We’ve titles such as The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, The First Book Of Calamity Leek, and The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D.
On this note I will say that in my own opinion I think the market is saturated. I think now there are so many quirky titles they aren’t going to have as much of an affect, as far as choosing books for their titles, that they would have had in the past couple of years. I know that I’ll see a random title and no matter the subject matter of the title, I will inevitably think ‘been there, done that’. I will read the book anyway if I like the sound of it but the title will play no role in my choice. In a very few cases it has put me off.
Perhaps I, you, we, will stop being interested in random titles entirely and be drawn to another type instead.
I know I will always be drawn to titles that evoke things I like or am interested in. History – naturally, food – sometimes, locations and the names of real people – often, but as far as format goes alliteration and, if not overused for too much longer, random titles, will always hold first place for me. A cover can be average, a blurb not too informative, but if the title’s right I’ll be reading the book.
Over to you – what kind of title entices you to read a book? And do you think the trend of quirky titles is to do with a general interest in books with quirky titles? (Or do you think authors are just copying each other because they like the concept?)