Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Kristy Woodson Harvey – The Wedding Veil

Book Cover of Kristy Woodson Harvey's The Wedding Veil

Kristy Woodson Harvey wanted to write about a wedding veil. Her agent suggested a historical wedding veil, and when Woodson Harvey started thinking about the Vanderbilts (because she loved visiting Biltmore House, the family’s home in Asheville, North Carolina), on a whim she Googled one of the women of the family to see if there might be a veil included somewhere. There was.

In the present day, Julia is about to marry Hayes, her long-term on-again-off-again boyfriend. During her bridemaid’s lunch at Biltmore House the day before, there’s a sudden load of pings; all the women’s phones go off with notifications. Someone has filmed Hayes cheating and sent it to everyone at the lunch. Julia is devastated but she’s been with Hayes so long and they always make up and get back together, so she says she’ll still marry him. The next day she puts on the family wedding veil; it brings good luck. And she will marry Hayes… well, she means to but then to heck with it, she does a runner and by the end of it all she finds herself on her honeymoon by herself thinking about all the things she gave up and being drawn to a man she meets early into the holiday. At the same time, narrative-wise, in the 1800s, Edith Dresser is about to marry into the Vanderbilt family; she wears her family’s wedding veil (yes, there is no sense in hiding it – there is a connection) and finds herself in a happy marriage that later produces Cornelia, the next in line to inherit the family’s wealth.

The Wedding Veil is Woodson Harvey’s wonderful stand-alone novel of the lasting power of female friendship and familial love, romantic love and being who you should be… and the mystery behind where Julia’s family’s wedding veil came from. Told via four narratives (Julia’s grandmother Babs and Cornelia Vanderbilt round us off) the book offers a wholesome, winsome, story that is pretty much guaranteed to delight.

Woodson Harvey is great at character development and her way of writing is absolutely lovely; from the first page you’re very much invited to join the story. The author has a particular talent for writing characters which means that even if there’s one you don’t like (you’re not going to like Hayes, for example, and for a few pages you may not even like Julia) you’re totally invested in the tale. And in the case of Woodson Harvey, writing definitely needs to be placed in the same paragraph in a review as her character development because they are part and parcel of each other; in the author’s Southern States setting and general ambiance, you get a complete sense of calm, of escape, of knowing you’re about to be whisked away into a well-told story.

That is, I think, the exact defining element of this author’s work – her ability to give you that promise, through her writing, of having chosen the right book and take you on a great journey; maybe you know where it’ll end up, maybe you won’t (Woodson Harvey definitely knows how to get the balance right between mystery and predictability), but you are guaranteed a satisfying story no matter what.

So you’ve got four fab narratives here – 1800s’ Edith Vanderbilt, whose husband George built the Biltmore House in Asheville, Cornelia (their daughter) born in 1900, and then Julia and Babs from the present day. Edith’s narrative allows you to see the Vanderbilt family in their prime, and then Cornelia’s shows the slow decline, her narrative straddling the fence of before the Great Depression and the aftermath. There is also, of course, the look at both women in their own rights as well as their relationship with each other and the way they both ‘deal’ with romance. Julia’s narrative offers a sad but busy beginning and a happier forward journey, showing how one can get swamped and lose themselves in a bad relationship and the change that can come from a better one, whereas Babs shows two good relationships – one in absentia, so to speak (Reid is dead) – and, perhaps most importantly, that love can happen at any age. Writing older women, giving them a voice and putting them front and centre of the narrative is another thing that Woodson Harvey does well.

Of the Vanderbilts’ lives, then, you see the opulence and the glamour but also – perhaps in part due to Woodson Harvey’s knowledge of Biltmore – the real life, down-to-earth stuff, too. You get the Gilded Age and the way the family looked after all the employees and tenants of the estate, and the perspective, narration-wise, that Woodson Harvey uses, allows for a particular readerly intimacy with it all.

But Julia and Babs would say they are just as important. They might not have the same glamour but they do have their modern day relatability and two lovely romances. Both also have their character progression and their relationship with each other which, I think this can be said without spoiling the book, is what we end the story on.

There’s a lot to love about this book – Julia spends a while (page-wise) in the Virgin Islands, sun, sea, sand, Babs’ retirement village is very well described and fun, and the Vanderbilts bring some fascinating history into the mix. The romantic leads are winsome, whilst being very much secondary characters and rightly so.

In short, if you haven’t already figured it out by what I assume is my very obvious attempt and failure to explain exactly what I like about this book, it’s the atmosphere and the sum of the writing and the specific vibes that make this book what it is – things that are difficult to describe.

The Wedding Veil just… rocks. It’s poignant, it will occasionally make you want to tell a character to stop thinking what they’re thinking (okay, not ‘a’ character, mostly Julia when she’s thinking that maybe her cheating fiancé isn’t so bad), and it simply provides a glorious reading experience. The ambiance ensures that while, over time, you might forget the little things, you certainly won’t forget the feeling of reading this book and you will certainly miss it once it’s over.

Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 395
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-18071-3
First Published: 29th March 2022
Date Reviewed: 4th December 2023

November 2023 Reading Round Up

Very happy with my reading this month. Those finished were frankly riveting.

All fiction books.

Book cover of Jennifer Saint's Atalanta Book cover of Lucy Barker's The Other Side Of Mrs Wood Book cover of Sarah Marsh's A Sign Of Her Own

Jennifer Saint: Atalanta – Saved as a baby by a mother bear and later taken in by the goddess Artemis, lives in Artemis’ forest with nymphs. She’s sworn to Artemis a life away from men and is quite happy with this but there will come a day when, as the best archer and runner in the land, Artemis will want her to join the Argonauts, the famed band of heroes sent to gain the Golden Fleece. This is a stunning retelling and detailing of the ancient myth, Saint’s careful choosing of what to take from the various original stories excellent.

Lucy Barker: The Other Side Of Mrs Wood – Victorian medium, Mrs Wood, looks to keep her reputation intact as others fail and looks to stay popular whilst she ages away from being, essentially, new and shiny. When she finds a young woman watching her house, she catches her and the result is that Mrs Wood has a new trainee – great for keeping society’s focus on Mrs Wood herself. But perhaps all is not quite as it seems with Miss Finch – beyond the literal tricks of the trade, of course – and Eliza the maid might have good reason for her distaste. Incredibly witty, well plotted and set, this is a wonderfully immersive and enjoyable book.

Sarah Marsh: A Sign Of Her Own – Ellen’s wanted to help her old teacher, Alexander Bell, as he looks to publicise his telephone, but her childhood of learning to lip-read and speak (the way hearing people wanted deaf children to communicate) was at odds with the deaf community who signed and she was caught between two worlds. Now she starts learning information she never knew and it will impact her choice as to whether to support Bell or not. A very good tale of finding oneself and growing in confidence that gives a lot of information about deaf and Deaf history.

I can’t choose a favourite, each were great in their own way. Saint brought me into an epic story which was incredibly comforting and wonderful despite me having read up on the myth prior; Barker made me grin many times and had me immersed in Victorian London completely; Marsh taught me history I did not know and did a good job of mixing social issues with an interesting story.

Going into December I’m picking up The Wedding Veil again as I’m loving it. I’m also going to make an effort to finish These Violent Delights, and I’ll hopefully be adding a completely new book to the mix, I just have to choose which!

What did you read this month?

Elizabeth Fremantle – Disobedient

Book Cover of Elizabeth Fremantle's Disobedient

Elizabeth Fremantle had wanted to write about Artemisia Gentileschi for a while but had kept the idea on her back burner – she was a writer of historical fiction set in Britain. But Gentileschi’s work is starting to have a renaissance of interest and so it was time for Fremantle to put pen to paper in the artist’s favour.

Artemisia is growing up to be quite the talent. Working on sections of her father’s work, she has honed her craft and is starting to excel past his own skill. It’s not gone unnoticed; though Orazio tries to hide the images she creates based on Biblical scenes from which she’s focused on the perspective of women, Artemisia is starting to wow art aficionados. But the family is poor; they have to move to a cheaper home and Orazio really needs a good commission. Unmarried, Artemisia must stay at home and do as her father says, and some male artists are not as nice as they seem. But Artemisia is a survivor.

Disobedient is Fremantle’s latest well-told story, this one about a formative year in Artemisia Gentileschi’s life. Writing again under her full name, as opposed to E C Fremantle, the author has returned to her more ‘straight forward’ historical fiction after a couple of historical thrillers, but the progress in writing skill carries over.

I’m starting a new paragraph here because this skill – essentially what sets Fremantle apart from other writers, her unique selling point, if you will – is the way she hones in on a, or some, specific element(s) to the successful eradication of all else. But what makes this so successful is that nothing is lost in this process – whilst the content hones in on one element, in this case a particular part of this one year of Artemisia’s life, the world building is not forgotten, the development of other characters is not forgotten, and so on. It’s really quite something. The world building, for example, could be said to exist between the lines and in particular words and phrases – it’s just there, in the atmosphere, providing a backdrop without any real focus on description.

In terms of Fremantle’s work in general, suffice to say I think this is the biggest takeaway, what makes the author special, and in terms of Disobedient it’s one of the defining aspects that informs everything else.

To Artemisia then, our main character, from whom we hear via Fremantle’s close-by third person perspective. The artist is brought fully to life, the moments that are factual honoured with a lot of love and care, the fiction created with an eye to relative accuracy and further understanding. There are parallels to be found in the Biblical tale of Judith, a figure Artemisia paints early on in the novel; she painted Judith a couple of times over all.

In Judith, and also, later, Susanna, as well as other women from the Bible, Fremantle has highlighted stories of sexual assault in a way that both includes them in the narrative and isolates them as tales in their own right. Involving her own fictional writings about these women, the author creates extra information from an effective other source before or whilst she weaves them into Artemisia’s story. And on this note, we see how Artemisia was regarded as an artist at that time – with respect; she travelled, her paintings more famous, perhaps then, than they currently are (as said, that is changing).

Disobedient is a stunning story of one woman’s fight to be known in her own right and the way she worked to be a survivor. The story ends before she is an adult but Fremantle shows us the way the story would continue – you’ll want to read more about Artemisia once you’ve finished the book if you didn’t know about her life previously. And her paintings are as wonderful as Fremantle describes.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 349
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-58304-3
First Published: 6th July 2023
Date Reviewed: 27th November 2023

Jennifer Saint – Atalanta

Book Cover of Jennifer Saint's Atalanta

Jennifer Saint wondered why she had never written about Atalanta before. Here was this mythological character that so few people have heard of – everyone knows about the Argonauts, but not about the one woman who joined them. Jennifer set about changing that. (She also liked the idea of an adventure story – her previous novel, Elektra, was full of tragedy.)

Left on a mountaintop as a baby because her father wanted a son, Atalanta was first raised by a mother bear and then taken in by the goddess Artemis, who introduced Atalanta to her forest and the devoted nymphs who resided there under her protection. There was just one rule – no men. Atalanta becomes an incredible warrior and the fastest runner there ever was; when Jason and his Argonauts set about their journey, Artemis tells Atalanta to join them as her champion. The group of heroes don’t want a woman in their midst and Atalanta isn’t sure about it all, either, but she agrees to go.

Atalanta is a retelling of a classic tale. Arguably the author’s best book yet, it’s a compelling story that will have you flipping pages quickly no matter how much you already know of the character.

This book is a little mix-and-match by its very origins – there are a few different storylines of Atalanta’s life (there’s even an entirely different story about an Atalanta who may or may not have been the same person) and then Saint has added elements that are purely hers, such as the ending which has been studied in a way that reflects the author’s and our present day interpretations and thoughts.

Given that Saint has focused on a woman, a woman forgotten at that, there is a lot in this book that has been fleshed out and detailed in ways not seen before. As in Elektra (and no doubt Ariadne – it’s just that this reviewer hasn’t read the latter) Saint never shies away from the dark matter of the stories, in fact, all the more so in Atalanta she uses them to examine things left unsaid. As an example, when the nymph Callisto, who had sworn herself to celibacy to stay in Artemis’s forest, is raped and made pregnant by Zeus, Artemis casts her out, laying a hand on her and transforming her into a bear. It is in how Saint then goes on to explore what these various mythological plot points mean that the story excels – in this example, why cast out Callisto, why when Artemis is the goddess who looks after women in labour (though we know that’s a big part of why she wants her followers to be chaste), and then why make Callisto a bear (in terms of the wider themes of the story)?

Leaving spoilers there – that one will be it for this review – it’s fair to say that Saint’s theme work drives this book. Plot is important, character is important, but it’s the themes and the question of ‘why?’ that make this novel what it is. The ‘because’ also plays a role and Saint looks at both the historical context of this fantasy story, and how we view mythology in our present day, how we add our own, newer, contexts into the stories to continue adding to the history of them – how mythology is important still, and why it is is something that is paramount to Saint’s work in general.

One particular theme is motherhood – what makes a good mother? What is a mother? There are so many bad mothers in Greek mythology and here Saint has a chance to really examine that from many angles – yes, the bears in this book are one of them. Freedom is another theme – Saint explores this through Atalanta’s home, her devotion to Artemis, her relationship with men as a gender, and her family.

I’m going to make a special, out of left field mention of Jason – Saint shows us Jason in a different light than his name being in ‘and the Argonauts’ suggests. He’s not much of a hero… or a sailor… or a leader.

The book ends on a triumph, with Saint using the original and then doing some level of interpretation that will not be defined here – you’ll have to read it for yourself – but closes the novel on a wonderful note.

Atalanta is a brilliant retelling and expansion of an ancient story. You don’t need to know about the original stories but you may want to have some level of grounding in them in order to fully appreciate what the author has done (Wikipedia will do if you’ve little time). It has set the bar ever higher for Saint’s next book – she’ll undoubtedly pass it – and is more than fine company for your reading time.

Publisher: Wildfire (Hachette)
Pages: 354
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-29215-5
First Published: 11th April 2023
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2023

September – October 2023 Reading Round Up

After a month away from interviewing, I started back in September in earnest. The below are mostly books for the podcast (only Fair Rosaline was read without a plan to interview) however they were all books I wanted to read regardless.

All books are works of fiction.

Book cover of Celina Baljeet Basra's Happy Book cover of Elizabeth Fremantle's Disobedient Book cover of Maggie Brookes' Acts Of Love And War Book cover of Natasha Solomons' Fair Rosaline Book cover of Stacey Thomas' The Revels

Celina Baljeet Basra: Happy – Happy, of Jalandhar, in a spot that used to be his parents’ land but was sold to a theme park, is looking to move to Europe; he writes his thoughts in various different voices and looks forward to a hopeful film career. But to reader things may seem a bit different. This is an intriguingly told story of migration and poor environments – the narrative takes some getting used to but once you’re there the story opens to you completely, and there is a poignant ending involved.

Elizabeth Fremantle: Disobedient – Artemisia Gentileschi is growing up under the art tutelage of her father, Orazio; they are loosing money and have to move but Artemisia’s talent is eclipsing her father’s and the family is okay. But in the 1600s women are owned and not at all independent and when her father starts bringing around another painter, trying to ingratiate himself into a bigger project, the man takes a liking to her. A richly detailed historical tale, Fremantle brings her story of survival to life.

Maggie Brookes: Acts Of Love And War – British brothers Tom and Jamie decide to go to Spain during the civil war, each of them supporting a different side; Lucy, loving both of them, finds herself seeking to travel also, to try and get them to come home, but when a fellow teacher introduces her to the work Quaker volunteers are doing in Spain, Lucy adopts a second purpose – she will find the men but in the process help the lives of a great many refugee children. A good look at the Spanish Civil War from a perspective not well known, with a different romantic thread and arguably great ending.

Natasha Solomons: Fair Rosaline – Where was Rosaline in those days when Romeo and Juliet were together? In this tale, Solomons shows us the time of the play through the eyes of the forgotten cousin, matching many of the scenes with her own and creating others that fit until a point where she changes it to suit. This is a wonderful, wonderful book that shows the original story in the light the author feels is Shakespeare’s purpose – and given the new things we’ve learned about Shakespeare it’s very possible. Romeo is not a good guy, Juliet is the young teenager she is, and things are fair from peachy.

Stacey Thomas: The Revels – When Nicholas’ brother dies, his father summons him home; he’s to journey with Judge Percival, looking into witch trials. But what no one knows is that Nicholas meets the criteria for being a witch; the dead sing of the manner of their death, and Nicholas hears it. He must work with this knowledge, all the while knowing the many women put to death are innocent. But when he meets Althamia, he starts to wonder about his gift, and when he meets her cousin, this gift starts to become very insistent. A beautifully told tale – good storytelling and incredibly fitting prose, that looks at the witch trials of Britain from both a different point of view, person-wise, and different angles, concept-wise. It’s difficult to explain without giving too much away – read it!

These were a good couple of months; I may have read less than I hoped to, but the reading experience was fantastic. I very much recommend Baljeet-Basra’s book to those looking for uniqueness – the narrative is very different to anything I’ve read previously; at most I’d say it’s a little like the chapter formatted to look like a tree in Zadie Smith’s NW, but it really is only slightly like it, it’s just the most apt comparison I can make. I was rather taken by Stacey Thomas’ prose, and I could and have waxed lyrical about Solomon’s retelling – I didn’t know any of the background before reading it and was surprised by it, but what the author has created is exceptional. No less praise for Elizabeth Fremantle and Maggie Brookes – the former’s work just keeps getting better and better, more and more focused, and the latter’s ending for this, her second novel, really was fab – bold for a book with such a focus on the romantic thread.

November has so far seen me read Jennifer Saint’s Atalanta, and Lucy Barker’s The Other Side Of Mrs Wood, both great. I’m also in the middle of Kristy Woodson Harvey’s The Wedding Veil which I got after loving The Summer Of Songbirds. And I’ve made a tentative start on Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow – the gaming in it is rocking my reading sessions.


Older Entries