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Marianne Holmes – All Your Little Lies

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Things stands to get better.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 237
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-913-09969-5
First Published: 22nd October 2020
Date Reviewed: 23rd October 2020
Rating: 5/5

Annie struggles greatly with people – she has only one friend who is often busy, she doesn’t fit in at work, and she’s in a situation where Paul’s suddenly treating her badly after all those times he’s spoken to her nicely, sat on her desk whilst going through statistics… Annie’s always known it’s better to be on her own. After Paul escorts her out of the bar and into a taxi after she’d tried to open up to him, she travels back to the neighbourhood they share, takes his car keys from his exhaust pipe, and lets herself into his flat, eventually falling asleep. A noise wakes her up. She leaves. The next day, the local news reports that a young girl called Chloe has gone missing, and the CCTV image of Chloe, walking away from the train station, includes Annie’s car, headlights on. No one’s likely noticed it’s Annie’s car, but if she was the last person around, then she needs to say something, and that would likely lead to being found out for drinking and letting herself in to Paul’s flat. It’ll also mean having to go against her mother’s sensible advice of staying away fro people.

All Your Little Lies is a character-driven thriller, a book that balances well the elements of page-turner with the requirement to get its protagonist to where she needs to be, which is somewhat independent of the mystery that pushes it on. It’s a particularly winning formula, a pacey crime novel with a slice of the kind of atmosphere that readers who have read and enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine will likely be drawn to.

Whilst the book is written in the third person, Holmes’ attention to Annie’s thought processes blurs the boundaries at the same time as it provides an important ‘outsider’ aspect that allows that crucial reader comprehension of the character’s perception of reality and how and why they got there. This is paramount to the narrative – where you’re effectively in Annie’s head, Holmes’ approach is constantly employed to the extent that whether you can relate to any of the character’s worries personally or not, a relation between character and reader is created.

Is it difficult being in Annie’s head? Yes; this is part of the point. Seeing Annie missing the mark, and, more frustratingly, often just missing the mark, or seeing things correctly but then dismissing it, pushes you on, the drive to continue reading and hope for better for Annie a constant.

It is perhaps needless to say that Annie’s thoughts and world-view have been created and confirmed over the years due to a series of traumatic experiences. Beginning with and most determinedly, in her early years, the resulting poor social experiences have combined to leave Annie with extreme anxiety, paranoia, and a fair amount of PTSD/C-PTSD.

As you might expect, a second story thread comprising of the reason for the most damning trauma runs alongside the main thread of Annie’s obsession with Chloe’s disappearance. This thread is fairly predictable from early on, which is a good thing because it helps you understand Annie, however if there’s anything that might, possibly, be considered a draw back in this otherwise stellar book, it is the execution of the thread – it’s perhaps a bit too drawn out in terms of its telling, where reader understanding of the basic problem at hand means it’s not quite the shocking reveal it was likely intended to be. (Though this doesn’t mean it’s any less damning to read; it’s horrible.)

As we’re noting sections near the ending it’s probably worth saying that the ending chapters of the story, and the place Annie ends up in all senses of the word (physical, mental, and so on), may be quite different to what you’ve been expecting. With Holmes’ attention all on Annie, the ending isn’t particularly ‘juicy’. But it is certainly highly appropriate, and very good. Holmes never breaks away from what she’s trying to achieve, keeping the focus on Annie and her progression. Any questions you have, you’ll be well able to work out for yourself.

All Your Little Lies is absolutely fantastic. It has been well planned, well written, and the entire package is excellent. Whether you begin by liking Annie or not (either is possible) you will be hoping for her to excel in the end. Heck knows she’s going to need therapy, and here’s hoping she gets it.

I received this book for review.

 
Joanna Hickson – First Of The Tudors + Podcast

This week’s podcast episode is with Joanna Hickson. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Joanna Hickson (First Of The Tudors; The Tudor Crown; The Lady Of The Ravens also The Agincourt Bride; The Tudor Bride; Red Rose, White Rose) discuss the royal and noble individuals of the War of the Roses, the women who made an impact, the ever-present question of who killed the princes in the tower, and, on another topic entirely, using weasels to prevent conception.

Please note that the question about the fear of pregnancy and childbirth includes a couple of mentions of a weasel’s particulars.

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


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The one with the most importance in this context, and he won’t be the last…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 494
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-13970-4
First Published: 1st December 2016
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2020
Rating: 5/5

Jasper Tudor and his brother Edmund, half-brothers to Henry VI, inevitably fall on the Lancasterian side of the argument. As young men, Edmund marries the even younger Margaret Beaufort, and Jasper begins a relationship with distant relative, Jane Hywel. With Henry’s position at threat from the supporters of the York (and the later Edward IV), Jasper’s life is full of battles. And then there’s the other, perhaps more pressing, factor – Edmund and Margaret’s child, Henry, has more than one claim to the throne in his blood and he is going to require protection.

First Of The Tudors is Hickson’s fourth novel, an absolute triumph of a tome that manages to look in detail at the War of the Roses both accurately and with good pace and continued excitement, and with an undeniably wonderful immersive quality that makes an already well-known subject and people fascinating all over again.

Let’s tackle that accuracy first. Hickson uses a fair mixture of facts and fiction. She includes details that are often thought dry – dates, locations, details of troop movements, in a way that is balanced by her fiction. Specifically, her use of dialogue and narrative – particularly narrative – means that you get a good grounding in those ‘dry’ facts without needing to take a break, the fiction and the quality and thoughtfulness of her writing making the pages turn one after the other. Suffice to say that the page count, whilst it might look daunting at the outset, becomes a fact for indifference pretty quickly. (On a further note, picking up the similarly-numbered The Tudor Crown, directly afterwards, was one of the very few times I’ve looked at a book and found a large page count trivial.)

On the assertion of immersion, this is inevitably also the result of the dialogue and writing but in addition the use of location and the world building in general. There’s something special about Hickson’s narration in this regard that’s difficult to pinpoint exactly – it’s a quality that’s undeniably all her own and just really good to read. It works best in the more modest locations, likely because its in those places where the situation in the country (and, as the book goes on countries) is more relaxed and presumably quieter, but the castles and battlements and so on are pretty awesome, too.

Whilst Jasper narrates approximately half the tale, Jane Hywel narrates the other half. Jane, a semi-fictional character (her family is real, and Jasper did have a relationship and illegitimate children, we just don’t know who with) provides us with a necessarily different perspective on the War in her more ordinary situation; she also heads up a good focus on women at the time. On this, Hickson spends a very good amount of time on the role of Margaret Beaufort – she is pushed to the fore, as it were, given the backup and evidence, albeit sometimes fictional, for the points about her strength that we are told about in non-fiction.

On that ‘sometimes fictional’, we’re looking at the letters she sends to Jasper, which inevitably history, such as we know, has not kept primary evidence of but likely existed. In these we see a leader, a person as important as any of the leading men of the time, someone who worked in the background and got things done.

We also see a good amount about and of Elizabeth Woodville’s role, though it is invariably not as distinct.

And laced through it all, a gentle romance, a story that surely bares a fair semblance to the reality. It’s well written and well done in general, filling in gaps and padding out the life of a man we don’t know so much about but should, Jasper’s role in Henry VII’s ascension to the throne paramount.

First Of The Tudors presents a lesser-known man and an even lesser-known woman, bringing them to the front of the stage. It brings in the younger years of Margaret Beaufort, the life of Edmund Tudor, and well explains the backdrop, both immediate and further afield, to which Henry VII came to fight for the crown. It’s engaging, it’s fun (yes, indeed!). It’s splendid.

 
September 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcast

September has been an all systems go month. During the latter half in particular, I was reading a lot, enough that I’m taking a break from it for a few days. As well as the list below I read all but a few percent of two more so there was officially more reading done but those books will be on October’s list.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Christina Courtney: Echoes Of The Runes – Mia would never have expected to see an exact copy of her own ring in the display cabinet of a Viking museum exhibit, but it happens and sets off a chain of events that see her co-leading an archaeology team with a handsome expert, digging up her grandmother’s lands… and being called to echoes of a story of early medieval romance in Viking Sweden. A fun time slip with a good back story and an interesting use of the concept of coincidence.

Intisar Khanani: Thorn – When Princess Alyrra is betrothed to Prince Kestrin, she’s not comfortable with the idea of travelling to his kingdom with Valka, who dislikes her, and the sudden appearance of a mage followed by a fae-like lady the night before has her more so; as Valka betrays her and the two womens’ bodies are switched Alyrra starts a different journey, one that will involve learning all manner of things about herself in order to turn back the changes, and all manner of things about her new kingdom that royalty are never privvy to. A superb fairytale retelling and adaptation, Khanani expanding on the ideas in the original Goose Girl to incredible effect.

Joanna Hickson: First Of The Tudors – A fictionised story of Jasper Tudor, son of Catherine de Valois and her second husband Owen Tudor, as well as Jane, mother of his illegitimate children, taking us from Jasper’s early years to the initial first campaigns to bring Jasper’s nephew, the future Henry VII, to the throne. A fantastic story, immersive, detailed, and just simply a very good book in general.

Joanna Hickson: The Tudor Crown – Centering this time on Henry and his mother Margaret Beaufort, the story takes us to the early days of Henry VII’s reign. As good as the previous book.

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Joanna Hickson: The Lady Of The Ravens – A fictionalised story of Joan Vaux, lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, taking us from Elizabeth’s early days as queen (before her coronation) to beyond Joan’s marriage. With a change in over all focus to court life in the context of the experience of women, this book is both a sequel to the previous and its own story entirely; it’s also very good.

Nicholas Royle: An English Guide To Birdwatching – Silas and Ethel have handed their undertaking business to their son in exchange for a relaxing retirement by the sea, and meanwhile an unrelated Stephen Osmer is hammering out diatribes on his computer keyboard, but both stories are woven together in the form of their unfortunate connection to a literary critic called Nicholas Royle who has unwittingly upset them all. A brilliant piece of meta fiction by one of the two writers called Nicholas Royle.

Nicholas Royle: Quilt – His parents both having passed away, his father’s death very new, our main character moves into the house and starts to wonder about rays, the marine kind, eventually deciding to build a massive tank in the dining room and importing a few for his own. Difficult to say more than that, and it’s already giving a fair amount away – this book is a highly literary, meta, story about particular struggles and, in particular, death.

This has been an absolutely stellar month; I have a favourite, Thorn, but everything else was up there. There was a lot of immersive fiction too, with Hickson and Khanani being particularly excellent in this regard.

So moving (further) into October, I have some more podcast reads lined up as well as a couple of review copies I’m looking forward to.

What are you reading at the moment?


This week’s podcast episode is with Nicholas Royle (Quilt; An English Guide To Birdwatching; Mother: A Memoir). Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Nicholas Royle (Quilt; An English Guide To Birdwatching; Mother: A Memoir) discuss killing yourself – your avatar – off in your fiction, using ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’, and sharing a name with another British writer who also writes fiction… that is also about birds…

Please note that the first reading is set in a public toilet and discusses explicitly concepts around discomfort in this regard, ‘size’, and so forth.

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

 
On Chipped Mugs

A photograph of a mug, one of the 'literary transport' mugs that has a list of locations used in The Great Gatsby. Admittedly, this mug has no chips in it

I reckon eighty to ninety percent of the times in the last several years of my reading, I’ve found a contemporary book’s reference to a (any) mug to be ‘chipped’. It’s a bit like the present obsession with the verb ‘to reveal’ where so many of the things being revealed are, in fact, not actually being revealed. (Soapbox moment. To paraphrase, ‘She arrived at the coffee shop and took off her coat to reveal a nice green t-shirt with some branding on it’ – do we not take our coats off because we’re now inside rather than to reveal what we’re wearing underneath? And isn’t the usage of the term – not always male – too focused on attractiveness and a deliberation to entice that simply isn’t there? If it were ‘revealing’ that was used it would work much better.)

I digress. Chipped mug – doubtless it is to infer some amount of wear, age, or issue. A reference to the state of a place, or life, or someone’s thoughts. The mug has most likely been around a long time. It could be that it’s too loved, holds too much nostalgia, to be thrown away, but the use of the adjective and noun together is never (in my experience) surrounded by context. It’s merely an over-used convention.

I always see these mugs as a cup with a massive chip on (in?) the lip, rather like Chip from the cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast. This is probably wrong – it’s likely imagined by the authors as more like the slight chip on the thick handle (thus effectively superficial) of a mug from a number my dad gave me when he was having a chuck out. I took them because I’d loved using them. One did get broken – Dad didn’t have any bubble wrap so they were brought home in a plastic bag and one got smashed against the front door as the door was opened. But I wouldn’t throw the one with the superficial chip away. I even kept the smashed one – not smashed enough to be in pieces. It’s on the top shelf with the rest of my broken keepsake mugs.

I expect lots of characters have similar tales of keepsakes. This is surely more what the authors of fictional chipped mugs are thinking. Surely.

And I say ‘surely’ twice because to cycle back to the beginning, it’s just so prevalent, like ‘to reveal’, and wrought iron gates and gun-metal gray. There are few simple ‘mugs’ in contemporary literature; I get excited when there is one. And other mugs that aren’t ‘just’ mugs tend to have context – tin mugs in a scene set outdoors, designs and colours.

Oft-used sentence: as often happens, I’ve no conclusion. These are just musings. But there are enough chips that I felt the need to fill them in somehow.

 
Christina Courtney – Echoes Of The Runes

Book Cover

An heirloom with more significance than is usual.

Publisher: Headline (Hachette)
Pages: 280
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-26826-6
First Published: 17th September 2020
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2020
Rating: 3.5/5

Mia is utterly taken by the Viking-era ring in the museum in Sweden – it is exactly the same as hers, a ring she was given by her grandmother. When a fellow academic, Berger, sees what she’s wearing, she’s thought to be a thief, but as the truth of her ownership finds him, he suggests further studies. Living in London with her fiancé, it’ll be rather different travelling to Sweden and staying far longer at her grandmother’s small estate than she’s used to, even if Mia now owns it, but Berger’s suggestion to do an archaeological dig there is too intriguing. She leaves Charles in London and moves into Birch Thorpe, but on the first day, instead of Berger, a man called Haakon arrives in his stead. He’s not very polite, but something draws Mia to him. Meanwhile we hear about Ceri, a Celtic woman stolen from home by Vikings, strangely drawn to her Swedish captor, Haukr, as he is to her.

Echoes Of The Runes is a time-slip story – ever so slightly in literal terms but with a fair resonance – looking at an effective repeat of a relationship without reincarnation.

The set up, particularly in terms of historical information in both narrative threads, is wonderful. Courtney’s attention to getting things correct and her dedication to making it interesting and accessible, easy to learn and take away with you, is apparent from the moment the modern day fictional studies start and the historical Ceri starts getting to grips with her new situation. This information includes details of archaeology; the author strikes a good balance, giving a good amount of information but never too much and always nestling it amongst the threads of the story.

The characters are well drawn. Mia’s fiancé Charles doesn’t really fit in, but then that’s effectively the point. New man Haakon (because you know he will be – more on this in a couple of paragraphs’ time) is pretty abrasive at first, domineering in a way that doesn’t seem to gel with Mia’s own personality, but then given the premise of the story, this may well be a liberty taken by Courtney so that Haakon can be as much like Haukr as possible without breaching the realms of what is realistic for a historian when compared to a Viking invader. Mia herself is fair, as is her counterpart, Ceri, where in the first the needs of the story and in the second the literal abduction play their parts.

Where characterisation doesn’t work so much is in the relationships – whilst some elements are, again, dictated by the situation, both pairings could have done with more time prior to the getting together. It’s obvious very early on that the two characters from each time period will be together, which given the genre and general concept is a good thing, but the time between first meeting and getting together is pretty short – more so in the modern day thread – and thus it can be difficult to see the chemistry in terms of characterisation.

In regards to the predictability of the story, that the basic concepts are predictable is no bad thing. Knowing the rough trajectory you are on is very welcome; the book’s balance of information and escapism is perfect. However the main reason to mention predictability is due to the series of coincidences in the two stories, the predictable nature inherent in them once you get used to comparing them. Usually, coincidences can be a problem, however in Courtney’s book they are included as part of the point – the modern day characters note them, discuss them. The threads follow one another, a historic tale repeating itself in the future as much as it can given the realistic restrictions the author has created, and understandably, given the general idea of spirits and even, though it’s not mentioned as such, the concept of unfinished business, there are many counterparts. It could be called too much, but it’s more something to consider both for its use in the story and as a thought-out device.

The one thing that is difficult is the world building – with so much time spent on the couples and on the time-slip factor, there are fewer details about the landscape and locations themselves, meaning a more limited sense of place and time than you might have hoped for. There are plenty of small mentions but not quite enough to stitch it all together.

Two smaller elements of note: the majority of each narrative is set in a different season to the other which brings a nice balance to the book over all, and the look at attitudes to disability forms a good additional element that asks you to consider not only the historical context but the present day, too.

Echoes Of The Runes does have times where it loses its way, but over all it is a good read. Its strengths are particularly so, and the slight meta hint to it in the form of the question of coincidences is an interesting component. It will leave you with lessons learned but, more over, a good reading experience that will allow you to properly relax into the story.

 

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