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Nicola Cornick – The Forgotten Sister

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It will be coming around again…

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 366
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27849-6
First Published: 30th April 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Popstar and TV presenter Lizzie attended the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Dudley, and his girlfriend Amy. It was a drinks-fuelled day, perhaps most memorable to everyone for the sudden leaps into the pool. But for Lizzie, the most memorable aspect was the strange experience she had when she touched a crystal ball belonging to Amy and found herself falling, then waking up surrounded by people. She remembered Amy’s young brother, Johnny, seemed to not be surprised by what happened. Now, some years later, Amy is dead, and the media is turning on Dudley. It’s also turning on Lizzie, the suspected other woman who has never seemed far from Dudley’s presence. Centuries earlier, the wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley – a woman from a lesser family, called Amy Robsart, was found dead at the bottom of a back staircase. The cycle will continue until it is stopped.

The Forgotten Sister is Cornick’s fourth time-slip novel; it deals with the unsolved mystery of how Amy Robsart died – did she fall? Was she pushed? Did she die essentially due to something else? It’s daring. It’s also simply a very good book.

Beginning with a short narrative from a ghost and then switching to the modern day, the use of the same names for both periods may strike you as too easy – it means that a lot of the story is there on the table for you, straight away to use without any need to work it out. (This assuming you have at least a passing knowledge of the time period – you don’t need to know all that much but a brief reading of the basics of the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley will mean you understand what’s going on quicker. You don’t have to know it, it’s more a case that not knowing will offer a different sort of reading.) However it’s of course not actually that easy.

With its focus on modern day celebrity, this book is very different to Cornick’s last three. Whilst the time-slipping is there as has been usual, and whilst the means by which it happens echoes the author’s work so far, the atmosphere in this book is very different. The atmosphere is very fitting – modern day celebrity as the comparison to Elizabethan royalty – and it works well. There is a necessary distance here where the characters do not move in the wider society, which may take a bit of getting used to, but there’s enough going on without it.

There are few nice people here – the historical situation wasn’t exactly good either – but there are enough to balance out those that are difficult to read about. In keeping with the darker side of celebrity and publicity, it takes modern day Lizzie some time to work out who is friend and who is foe. The various houses and other abodes used in the book – Lizzie’s flat, another property, and modern day Amy’s home – are almost characters in themselves, which fits with Cornick’s characterisation of the place Amy Robsart died, a place quite possibly haunted.

Compared to the modern day thread, the historical thread is more straight forward. It deals with Amy’s life and the trouble there. It doesn’t take long to see why there is more time and detailing given to the modern day – in this book, Cornick uses both time periods to tell a fuller story; the historical section deals with the aftermath of Amy Robsart’s death, a restless ghost and a cycle of trauma; the modern day adeptly deals with the story of the death itself, effectively showing you how not only its modern day counterpart to Amy Robsart died, but how Amy Robsart herself died, essentially taking you from the start of the story to its end and then leaping forward to the aftermath of the aftermath, the breaking of the cycle. This is one of the best aspects of the book, Cornick’s usage of characters who are similar but not the same, to, with complete effect, tell the story of the historical Amy Robsart. (This is another reason why you don’t have to know the history.)

The mystery as solved here by Cornick is of course fictional – we may never know what happened to Amy Robsart – but it’s very believable. And the way it is solved effectively in the present day makes it easier to understand the motivations of the historical characters as we of course do not know as much about them; Cornick brings necessary life to those who now exist only in ink and paint. The reveal draws attention to how easy and thus a bit too obvious the obvious would have been back in the days of awful punishments. The solving is made more thrilling by Cornick’s employment of the supernatural, where Lizzie experiences slices of life of those whose belongings she touches, and by a brief but very satisfying foray into time travel.

The Forgotten Sister is awesome. It gives new life to a mystery, to a person who was essentially pushed aside, the lights of the Queen and her favourite shining brightly. In its fiction it requests another look at what happened as well as a look at the after effects on Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. And it does this whilst providing a superb up-to-the-minute story, super fantasy elements, and that ever-present eerie something that might just slip past your fingers and beyond the last page.

I received this book for review. I’m early writing this review (with permission) so I’ll say here to put 30th April in your diary if you like the sound of the book.

 
Susmita Bhattacharya – Table Manners

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It’s ready.

Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Pages: 168
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-63446-6
First Published: 28th September 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

A woman is irritated by the lady who keeps taking her brother’s wife’s time up with her tales of her abusive husband; a man becomes disturbed by the change in the public’s thoughts as to those of his religion; a couple goes on a trip to Venice before one of them is moved to a hospice.

Table Manners is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of food and meals. But as you might expect it’s not quite as simple as that; the food, a theme of varying degrees in each story, relates directly to human relationships and connections.

Bhattacharya’s collection is super. The writer’s basic concept is to take a person’s interest in food, or the fruit tree that is in a person’s life, or a single dinner, and relate it to an event of long-term happening in the character or characters’ lives where the presence, or lack, of other people has made or is making a mark. The collection is deceptive; after the first few stories you’d be forgiven for thinking that the work is brilliant, but on a small, quiet scale. Make no mistake – you’re simply consuming the appertiser. Once you’re a few stories in, the concepts do effectively leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, becoming shockingly excellent, and this continues for a good while enough that you realise the necessity of the quieter beginning. There are pauses to get your breath back, but the mainstay of the collection is the hard-hitting stuff, with some superb characterisation leading the way. There are a number of errors in the book but whilst they are noticeable, they do not detract from the whole.

The collection is international, with stories spanning a number of continents, showing the feelings and aspects of life as worldwide, as well as those more specific to a few places and the present day.

As to the standouts, three of them are noted above; a special mention must be made for the very first story, The Right Thing To Do, which is told by the sister-in-law of the person whose house the story takes place in, and begins with this:

I push the cup towards Mrs Dalal. As usual, she is crying, caressing her bruised arm. She barely looks up at me but takes a deep sip of the tea. My Bhabhi tilts her head slightly, indicating me to leave. I go back to the kitchen, already worrying about the rice that needs to be cooked before Dolly and Rana come home from school. Then there’s the fish to be cleaned and fried. And the clothes to be brought back freshly ironed from the istriwallah. The chapattis to be cooked. Why does Mrs Dalal turn up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times?

Others include Comfort Food, in which a wife in Singapore is happily making her favourite meal as she does every Friday whilst her husband is out entertaining business associates, only this evening he rings her to ask that she join him. It is an uncomfortable meeting for her. Letters Home shows the emotional journey of a man who emigrates from Bangladesh to Cardiff in our current political climate. And then there is Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, the story of a couple taking an end-of-life holiday during which they discuss difficult moments in their relationship.

Table Manners is beautifully written; careful language, a lot of heart. You’re likely old enough to decide for yourself when you get down from the table, and in this case, you’re going to want to wait until long after the conversation is over.

 
Nancy Bilyeau – Dreamland + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Nancy Bilyeau! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie Place and Nancy Bilyeau (The Crown; The Chalice; The Tapestry; The Blue; Dreamland) discuss the lifestyle of Dissolution-era nuns, using a website’s ‘contact me’ form to great success, there being more relics than there were items, using your family’s name in your work, and the grand amusement parks and luxury hotels of New York’s past.

To see all the details and transcript, I’ve made a blog page here. The episode is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Lastly, you can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Ice cream, cotton candy, and crime.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44577-7
First Published: 16th January 2020
Date Reviewed: 11th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Reluctant heiress Peggy is summoned away from the regular bookstore job she loves to attend her family’s holiday, staying in a luxury hotel not far from the amusement parks of early 1900s Coney Island. The Battenbergs have received a sudden invitation to join the mother and son with whom they hope to make an alliance via marriage, and with their own wealth in decline there’s no way they can refuse the offer. They go. But Peggy can’t resist the amusement parks her social class are supposed to stay away from, and when a girl’s body is found and she is amongst a crowd of onlookers, the distance between her circle and the families at the parks shortens considerably, even more so because Peggy’s interest in the other part of Coney Island leads her to meet a working class immigrant and park employee, forming a connection that is unthinkable.

Dreamland is Bilyeau’s fantastic fifth book (third story over all). The setting is incredibly immersive, with the sights and sounds so well described and created that the features stay with you throughout your reading, keeping you in that feeling of somewhat being there yourself as the plot elements keep going on around you.

Of course it is helped by Bilyeau’s choice of setting – this summery location with so many different elements and the grandness of its historical context is incredibly welcoming, albeit that the story is a thriller and thus the situation discomforting.

No surprises then that the research is as thorough as always. The luxurious hotels and amusement parks of Coney Island as detailed by Bilyeau – that are each separate entities as demanded by the class structure no longer stand1, but Bilyeau’s studies and descriptions enable you to get a great idea of what they would have been like. And the character placements mean that you get a pretty good look at both; the number of characters and Peggy’s place in society means that you see more of the hotels – hers in particular – but the descriptions of the parks allow for a built-up picture there, too.

In Peggy, Bilyeau has created a worthy heroine, a good symbol of her time but very relatable today. More curious and desirable of a different life, Peggy moves between the worlds that are otherwise strictly separate, taking a few others along with her; this is naturally where the delineation is most apparent. The wealthy are… wealthy, and privileged, but in Peggy’s choices we see a barrier that has been placed in front of her – it may be positioned as safety guidance, but she isn’t really allowed in the parks.

Peggy’s part in the book shows well the views about women at that time. Peggy is in the highest echelons of society but still she’s essentially just a woman; she goes where the men of the family dictate, and they do dictate. She in fact has less agency, in some ways, than those below her, or at least it seems; Bilyeau shows well how the same values carried over very differently depending on who you were, for example, the regular women can bath in the sea more freely; if Peggy wants to go in the sea she’s required to cover up almost entirely.

The mystery is solid. Interestingly there are only a few options provided for you to really consider however this is in itself as much of a red herring as any other. In providing a very limited number of people who could have ‘dunnit’, the author pushes your focus towards Peggy’s own journey of discovery, and with all the aspects in place there, it’s a ride and a half. The mystery brings into question the changing times of the period, this 1911 year that was on the cusp of a war that would change everyone. It includes the differences between the classes, and the various affects extreme privilege can have. It also, unsurprisingly, shows the favour given to men – of the right class, of course – when it came to investigations.

Once again Bilyeau brings immigration into her stories; here the subject is used quite differently compared to The Blue (where the main character looked at the concept of religious refuge); it studies some of the problems that came with people moving to the States from Europe where they were fairly persons non grata depending on where they were from, not entitled to being believed when there was blame to be found.

Related to this is the romantic subplot; Bilyeau has woven her tale here into the rest of the story and provides it a very satisfying conclusion well in keeping with the time. To be sure the book is a thriller, but the romance is a good addition that further expands on all the topics discussed by the rest of the story.

Dreamland is a very good book; the mystery very well written. The frustration you’ll feel for Peggy keeps you reading as do the sights and sounds of the location, the mix so deliciously at odds with the concept of the area. The fun of the parks will draw you in and the twists of the mystery will hold you there. Find yourself some candy floss and a deck chair or, given the release date – and just as well suited – a warm sweater and hot chocolate – whatever the weather outside your window, this book will pull you into its heatwave summer and a mystery that is very well paced.

Footnotes

1 The area has recently been redeveloped to include one park, which bears the name of one of the originals: Luna (the original three were Luna, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland). Information can be found at Trip Savvy. You can view photographs of the parks and old hotels here.

I received this book for review.

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E T A Hoffman – The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King

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Sugar plums are not always fairies.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Book cover is Vintage Classics’ edition)
First Published: 1816; 1853 in English
Date Reviewed: 12th December 2019
Rating: 5/5 (in its context)

Original language: German
Original title: Nussknacker und Mausekönig (Nutcracker And Mouseking)
Translated by (my edition): Mrs St Simon; Vintage Classics’ translation by Joachim Neugroschel

On Christmas Eve, Maria and Frederic wait excitedly for the moment when their parents will let them into the room to see the presents brought to them by their godfather. When it happens, the children find dolls, and soldiers; Frederic has a horse as he hoped. But soon Maria’s eye is drawn to a peculiar-looking figure that her godfather says is a nutcracker for all three of the siblings (there is an older sister, Louise), however as Maria particularly likes it she will be its keeper. When Frederic breaks the nutcracker’s mouth, Maria decides to stay up longer in order to look after it. She plans to go to bed afterwards; the toys have other ideas – there are mice in the house and a battle awaits.

The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King is the original version of the story used for Tchaikovsky’s ballet1. (The story used for the ballet is the revised, though not dissimilar, version by Alexandre Dumas.) Written in 1816, not too long after the concept of childhood was first formed, it is a particularly fantastical tale that, with Hoffman’s fame at the time2, most likely inspired the stories that came after it.

The story is very simple; a lot of the pages are given over to descriptions. The translation I read was the first known English translation, from 1853 – if you’re happy to read a scanned copy of the book I can recommend it because it has the added benefit of showing you the culture of the time.

Hoffman’s approach to storytelling for children (he also wrote for adults and is said to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe) is wonderful. Whilst the book is pretty scary and violent in places – though less so than the works of Lewis Carroll – it’s also written entirely to delight readers. You can see the idea of parents reading to their children being a likely component – Hoffman often talks directly to the reader, telling them when to listen carefully (‘listen, children’, added as a sentence clause) and writing in a way that they will relate to what’s going on.

The concept of dreams and the use of a story within a story pad out the fantasy; Hoffman blurs the lines between dreams and reality and employs a flashback sort of tale to help draw the reader further into the story. Speaking as an adult, it doesn’t quite hold its magic, but you can see where children would love it, and that’s just as much the case now as it would have been then.

To go back to that showing of the culture of the time, depending on your reason for reading – study/adult enjoyment or to read to children – you may need to find a modern translation (potentially – I’ve not read them) or be ready to consider different phrasing on occasion. Whilst the idea of a biting mouse might be fairly easy to work around, the cultural differences in regards to race are not. The ‘moors’ in this book are cute but ‘disturbed’ people, some of the only human characters but nevertheless considered very simple compared to the toys who have come alive.

Back to the better parts – the book is unisex. Hoffman does refer, in his addresses to children, more to boys than to girls but then as the main character is a girl this makes sense – it was likely considered the best way of keeping boys’ attention when the story is about a girl, and one younger than her brother at that.

For the adults, there are some great references to older literature and literary figures. There is a scaramouche, and the nutcracker invokes Shakespeare. There is also fun to be found in the names chosen for the characters – Stahlbaum, the family’s surname, means ‘steel tree’, and the elders are definitely not believers in Maria’s stories.

Interestingly, the majority of The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King takes place in the days after Christmas – a good few days after, if Mrs Simons’ translation is correct – the magic in the story is mostly down to the confectionery landscape of the ending. Nevertheless its beginning, and that sense of magic, ensure the entirety works as a Christmas story. And, contextual issues aside, it’s a lovely one at that.

Footnotes

1 Tchaikovsky hated the music he wrote for the ballet as he had been given incredibly strict instructions in regards to tempo and length; his story is essentially one of micromanagement before the word existed.
2 Hoffman was a composer and music critic as well as a novelist. He famously reviewed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which became a turning point – it set new standards. (He actually reviewed the music without hearing it, only having read the score. This was the usual method at the time.) Fun fact: Hoffman’s initials were originally E T W – the W stood for Wilhelm. Due to his love of Mozart, he changed it to Amadeus.

 
Nancy Bilyeau – The Blue

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Colour shades and shady practices.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 434
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44562-3
First Published: 3rd December 2018
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2019
Rating: 4/5

1700s London – Huguenot Genevieve Planché wants to train to be an artist, but that is not the done thing for women; she steals her grandfather’s invitation to an event hosted by William Hogarth, hoping to gain his support. Instead she meets Sir Gabriel Courtney, a man who seems open to her ideas; the next day he arrives at her home to talk to her and her grandfather and later presents her with a proposition – if she goes to work at Derby Porcelain (as her grandfather wishes) and spies for him to find out the formula of the latest shade of blue the factory are working on (which isn’t her grandfather’s plan) he will see that she gets to Venice where she’ll find people willing to train her in painting. It’s not the best thing Genevieve’s ever heard – she doesn’t want to work on porcelain full stop – but the promise for the future proves too irresistible.

The Blue is a thriller that looks at the extent people might go to in history in order to be ahead of the rest of the game. It also gives time to the Huguenot refugees (as Genevieve says, ‘refugee’ was a word coined in this period) and the political situation between England and France in the time of King George II/Louis XV.

Bilyeau’s attention to research, first highlighted in her Joanna Stafford trilogy, is alive and well in The Blue. The amount undertaken as well as the careful balancing of fact and fiction when fiction is needed for the story, is evident on the majority of pages. The use is careful too, with the detailing abundant yet never straying into info-dumping territory; when the characters discuss contemporary industry, it is always necessary to the story. You’ll learn a good amount about early western porcelain and the creative industry in general. (You just have to keep in mind the areas that are fiction – easily discovered thanks to the author note. Genevieve’s story itself is fictional but it’s woven around many different factual elements to the extent that the majority is true.)

Genevieve is a fair character for the fictional ride – she’s not always ‘strong’ per se, but it’s with good reason (she falls in love, whilst a spy). There are anachronisms involved, mostly in terms of Genevieve’s phrasing – she is the narrator – generally limited to times when the stakes are high.

For the most part the book is fast-paced; it slows down towards the middle when Genevieve starts to like her above-board work, gets used to Derby, and starts to question her role in Sir Gabriel’s plan, but the last third is as swift as an arrow and an absolute riot for it, the truths and lies flying quickly at you as the full extent of the espionage on all sides shows itself.

As well as the main story and the industrial history, Genevieve’s experience as a Huguenot and a close descendant of those who fled from France is given time. As well as the idea of the refugee and the basic history of the Huguenots, you also see the effective cycle of experience as Genevieve corrects those who would call her French, worries about what will happen if France wins the war, supports England wholeheartedly, and so forth. Her experience, her description and thoughts on it, echo in many ways present-day debates and stories of refugees and immigration which brings a nice comparison and particular historical look at the issue.

There are quite a number of proof-reading errors in the book which do detract, but given the research and storytelling, you may find that to be less of a problem than it might have been.

The Blue looks at how something so seemingly simple can create a commotion on an international scale, and it does this not only in the context of manufacture but of many other social and political concepts and issues of the time. It’s informative, and for all its many pages it flies by.

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