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Christina Courtney – Echoes Of The Runes

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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.

 
Intisar Khanani – Thorn + Podcast

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Far from a silly goose.

Publisher: Hot Key Books
Pages: 331
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-40872-4
First Published: 20th May 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th September 2020
Rating: 5/5

Princess Alyrra of Adania is betrothed to Prince Kestrin of Menaiya via proxy, the king of Menaiya arriving in her kingdom to arrange it with her mother. When he first greets Alyrra he mentions her honesty, which is nice yet perhaps an odd thing for her to hear. As per her status in the family, she’s not invited to any of the meetings. Then comes an attack; Alyrra is visited in the night by a mage she has never met who talks to her about being careful going forward, but as she starts to make sense of what he means they are joined by a woman in white, dark, empty eyes, who attacks the mage. The King makes plans for Alyrra to leave home sooner so she can be protected in Menaiya early – everyone knows that members of the Menaiyan royal family go missing and no one wants to take any chances with Alyrra or the prince. But on the road, accompanied by Valka, a young woman who hates her, Alyrra is found by the woman in white who speaks of her wish to destroy the family; having been aided by Valka, the woman switches their bodies and casts a spell on Alyrra, stopping her from speaking the truth. Knowing the Menaiya family is at stake, Alyrra must warn them, but how can she? And does she want to when a simpler life, far from her brother’s abuse, is incredibly appealing?

Thorn is a retelling of the fairytale The Goose Girl, best known as told by the Brothers Grimm. It is an utterly fantastic story that greatly expands on the tale, adding details where there were few, interpreting concepts in new ways or taking them to conclusions that a study of them could reach, and modernising it just that little bit without losing any of the original ideas. It’s both very careful and completely daring.

On this ‘careful’ and ‘daring’, we might as well start with the switching of bodies. An almost Prince and the Pauper concept, had that story featured hatred in the two boys, Khanani’s choice to further the original concept of the princess and companion, taking the original switching of identities via clothes and general lies and manipulation, and making it a literal change, renders the story more believable, and more frustrating in that intriguing literary way that causes the message and point of the story to be more apparent and more satisfying when it comes to revealing it, the reader having waited a long time. You could say that Khanani’s change makes the story more fantastical than it needs to be, inching ever more towards the idea of a deus ex machina than the original, but then the original includes, just as Khanani’s story does, a talking Horse and a personified breeze, so ultimately it fits right in.

But further than this, Khanani’s choice to switch Alyrra and Valka’s bodies, and to change the original concept of oath taking to an enforced lack of ability to speak the truth, focuses our attention on Alyrra’s character progression. Alyrra must show who she is, a showing rather than a telling that is far stronger than the popular literary advice. She must also find a way to explain her truth without explaining her truth, and in so doing spend more time on herself and in thinking of those around her than she was able to do previously. On this point it’s interesting how relatively passive Alyrra is for a lot of the book, but again, that’s part of the point.

For a fair amount of the book, then, you have this passive heroine – she is unable to take advice, both due to fear and due to her wish to have a different life, which effectively shows itself as a lack of strength. Khanani spends a great deal of time showing you why Alyrra is as she is – though it’s true the author does show it from the first, Khanani, subtextually acknowledges that what Alyrra has gone through needs explaining so that every reader understands. Alyrra has been treated as a nobody by her family – stupid, weak, easy to give up to a family who may just want a body to shield the rest of them – and has had a life of emotional and physical abuse. It’s one of the things she tips Valka off to after the switch – Valka, as princess, will have to live with the physical reminders of Alyrra’s past. And Alyrra must work through this to come to the realisations she must make in order to save the family she is betrothed into.

This means that the narrative is slow. Out of context, it could be called frustrating – there is a lot of back and forth, with Alyrra as Valka – let’s just call Alyrra Thorn, as that’s the name she chooses after the switch – summoned to the palace time and time again by various royals and court members, most often the prince. The reader is privvy very early on to the notion that the prince has guessed what has happened, but rest assured, if this sounds like a spoiler, the ‘why’ takes a long time to become fully apparent. (‘Fully apparent’ because in fact part of it is easy to predict which, given the rest of the book, was most likely by design.) And the ending is worth the wait. Khanani knows you’ve been waiting patiently and she doesn’t disappoint.

Through these back and forths, and the conversations with Falada, the talking Horse (different to a non-talking lowercase bog-standard horse), as well as Thorn’s continued peace in her new job as a goose girl, understanding and purpose develops.

To go back to the idea I noted, of Khanani’s daring, beyond the literal switch of bodies, there are other elements. Given that this is an adaptation and given that by not saying what happens we can discuss this without any actual spoilers, one of the most daring things is perhaps the conclusion to Falada’s story thread. Through her narrative, Khanani seems to waiver on what she is going to do – you get a sense that she’s exploring what would happen if she took the route of the original story and what would happen if she didn’t – and her decision may surprise you. It could well surprise you no matter which one you were expecting. Further to this is the conclusion of Valka’s thread, which is handled in a similar manner. Again you may be surprised but it provides a lot to think about. What is Khanani saying by her choice? It’s a point to ponder.

As well as trauma suffered, Thorn is informed by her increasing knowledge of the social issues that abound her new home. Showing why she is a good choice for Menaiya, even if they didn’t know this bit about their kingdom, Khanani allows ample time for Thorn to immerse herself in the Land and gain knowledge that would set her up to be a wonderful ruler. These are big issues and as with everything else, Khanani considers everything with care, does not shy away from spoiling happy moments to further the plot and message, and if things have changed drastically in terms of people by the end of the book it simply reflects reality.

The prince, Kestrin, has his role greatly expanded. Rather than your stereotypical handsome love interest, he plays an active part from early on, and in fact informs Thorn’s character greatly. His role is one of protection without the swords and shields – his offers are literal but nevertheless he leaves it to Thorn to decide. Leaving that there and moving on to the relationship, there is a subtle romantic atmosphere that runs throughout the book but the narrative stays true to the characters – the ending of the book fits the content.

Lastly, briefly, looking at the role of men in the book, furthering Kestrin’s role as non-invasive support, as it were, the men in Menaiya – well, those in the good guy and human camp – are there when needed but otherwise remain secondary to the plot. The women take centre stage, the men generally out of the important aspects unless the plot requires it.

I’ve aimed to write about this book without spoilers but in order to do it justice, being quiet about everything is extremely difficult; the book is far greater than any premise could say and there is so much that needs to be considered. Thorn is one of the very best fairytale retellings to be published in recent years, during this time when there have been tons of them, and one can only hope that Khanani feels this strongly about another one and does this all again. It’s also simply one of the best fantasies, period.


Today’s podcast episode is with Midge Raymond (Forgetting English; My Last Continent). We discuss the current situation in Antarctica and the balance of keeping it clean whilst allowing research and tourism, environmental and climate changes in the same location, and being followed to the toilet by a penguin. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player above.

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

 
Peter Ho Davies – The Fortunes

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Some things don’t change, some things do; they all should.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hachette)
Pages: 222
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-340-98025-5
First Published: 6th September 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th September 2020
Rating: 5/5

1800s – Ling is an early immigrant to American; America seems a better life with its promise of gold, but as it turns out, Chinese people are not welcome, and struggle in lowly positions. Ling manages to break the mould a little, and leave for a better job, but there are always questions and discomfort in the background. 1936 – Hollywood star, Anna May Wong, has struggled throughout her career to gain non-stereotypical roles; as an Asian American there are rules regarding race that she can’t get around, and now she has come to China to her ‘home’ land, finding that as much as she’s ‘other’ in America, she’s not Chinese here. 1980s – a friend of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man killed in 1982 by white men because they thought he was Japanese – looks at what has happened and the fallout. Present day – John, a Eurasian, has travelled to China with his wife, the final stage in their adaptation process, and the trip and his prior writing has him questioning issues of race, situation, and the history of racism against Asian Americans.

The Fortunes, a book with an overarching theme – story, really – told in four stories, is a fantastic work that looks at the experiences of Chinese Americans and in turn Asian Americans over time, from the first immigrants during the gold rush era.

Ho Davies’ choice of four stories and the way he uses subtlety to connect them – because whilst you can see the themes, there’s still some subtlety to it – is compelling. Initially, whilst you’re reading the first story, it can be frustrating – here you are, completely ‘in’ Ling’s world, interested in seeing where it goes, meeting the various people, learning the history – and then it ends, and moves on to the next story, but once beyond that, or once you’ve accepted it, so to speak, the author’s choices come to the fore and you find yourself on a certain kind of journey. For those who don’t know much or anything about the historical, real, people, there is history to learn. Beyond that you’ve the methods – the language, the way of description – Ho Davies’ employs to tell his stories, to explain, and to teach.

For people who aren’t Asian, there’s a lot here about the experience of difference, of racism, historical and present-day, of stereotyping. Likely – or possibly (I’m not in a position to say for definite) for readers who are Asian, the value will be in the writing down and popularising, and the validation. The stories in The Fortunes are spaced out from the 1800s, they apply to separate eras in order to bring a full overview, and the constant moving forward of time shows how slow change has been in coming, and, although society has moved forward, that there is more that needs doing.

In story four, present-day fictional John looks back at other periods in time, pulling the stories together, suggesting that they are more novel than separate stories. If you’d already been wondering if there would be some joining up, this is where it happens. John’s thoughts, and his situation as a writer with the subjects he writes about, question the role of narrator and the place of the author in the book; with the stories sharing a theme and, whilst all different in character, sharing nevertheless a certain something that’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, there seems almost a novel-in-a-novel aspect to the book, Ho Davies’ pen being near enough to see. This of course links to the stories themselves, but also has a place in the text as a text, so to speak, the literary nature of it and the use of language being most apparent here.

You could perhaps say it’s a fractured narrative.

The Fortunes is, as said, fantastic. It looks at things in a certain way – perhaps not new, exactly, yet it kind of is – and offers a different way to read and learn about subjects (the use of the factual documentary footage Anna May Wong had made instead of the backdrop of one of her films, for example, is intriguing). Read it as both a novel and four novellas; to define it definitively either way would be wrong.

 
August 2020 Reading Round Up

August got the better of me; I didn’t read as much. I spent a lot more time gaming than reading but I did get back to books I started a few months ago, namely James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, which I borrowed from my dad a year or two ago…

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Midge Raymond: Forgetting English – A collection of stories based around the themes of travel, and women trying to live with the career versus family issue. Rather awesome; there’s lots going on here away from the obvious things that an inevitable number of characters and storylines brings, and the attention to the details Raymond has chosen is wonderful.

Midge Raymond: My Last Continent – A cruise ship is heading a little too much towards Antarctica and Deb knows that lover Keller may be on board. A good book about a titanic-like shipwreck with lots of information about Antarctica and what we need to do to save it.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes – Four stories connected by Chinese American history, racism, passing, and that rubbish idea that all Asians look the same: we follow 1800s Ling as he works for a Chinese American laundryman and white American railway construction company owner; Hollywood star Anna May Wong discusses her career progression which is marred by racism; a fictionised friend of Vincent Chin discusses the night of his death and what followed; and John travels to China with his wife to adopt a baby, already having lots to think about on the subject of being Asian American now and throughout history, and finding even more now as he goes through the last stages of the handover. An utterly fantastic book – the handling of the subjects, and the writing and language in general is superb.

Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl – A German man, Jewish by Nazi standards, becomes an investigator for the Allies and works on getting information from Rudolph Hess; meanwhile, Esther deals with a short relationship that goes very wrong and the introduction of a German POW into her life; said POW, Karsten, tries to make sense of everything including his surrender on the behalf of those with him. A difficult one to summarise without spoilers, this is an interesting book that looks at aspects of WWII we don’t often hear about, and deals with them in a unique way.

I’ll pick a favourite from both the authors, because that’s a lot easier than picking a favourite over all – Raymond’s My Last Continent, Ho Davies’ The Fortunes.

For September I’m continuing Christina Courtney’s Echoes Of The Runes, Roselle Lim’s Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop and I need to get to Orlando Ortega-Medina’s Savior Of Sixth Street; I’m late on that.

What do you plan to read in these next few weeks?

 
Favourite Book Covers

It struck me last week as I was writing out the first lines post that I’ve never really looked at favourite book covers.

I have always been enticed by nice covers, though perhaps more so since I started reading ebooks and particularly now during isolation where I’m reading them almost entirely.

Most often I will be struck by the combination of a nice cover and a hardback book. Hardbacks tend to have more than their fair share of nice covers; when publishers switch covers for the paperback I find the new one is often not as appealing. Hardback jackets also seem to lend themselves better to embossing, gold paint, and better colour pigmentation. The bigger size of the book also gives it more grandeur.

This is to say that I’m not entirely sure I could make a decision on favourites without that context. Even looking at the covers online, without the physical nature of the hardback, it’s difficult to get away from the way they look in person. So I won’t try – the covers below are sometimes going to be influenced by the fact of the hardback.

I’m leaving out all books that are in the public domain where the ideas of the author and original designers are long gone, and I’m keeping it to one book per author. I’m also keeping it to books I’ve read. I’ve put title tags on all these as the covers are small – hover over them if you’d like the details.

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Due to there being so many – and this is inevitably the shortened list – I’ll leave out any navel-gazing. I think it’s safe to say I love bright colours, multicolours, and images where one person stands in front of something, a future or situation being the subtext. (I’ve always though the latter is probably the reason for those covers – they make you want to find out more.) I like YA fantasy/magical realism/paranormal covers. And I rather love both covers that were created for One Night, Markovitch enough that whilst the reason I wanted to buy the book was the cover I’d seen, I still bought it when I found a copy with the new cover. Likewise The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake – I loved the title and the hardback cover but I guess the title drew me more as I read the paperback version seen above.

Which covers of books you’ve read are your favourites?

 

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