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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.

 
Tracy Rees – Florence Grace + Podcast

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We’re all a bit Dickens here.

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 540
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29617-9
First Published: 30th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 2020
Rating: 5/5

Young Florrie Buckley is employed for an evening to serve at a ball. Whilst there, she catches the eye of a boy around her age and gets him to hide with her; they converse – he’s rich, and, as she comes to find out, a member of the somewhat bizarre Grace family. Florrie returns home but it isn’t long before she is called to join the Graces at their home – she finds out that her mother, who passed away years before, was a member of the family, cast out for marrying a man far below her class. Florrie is compelled to leave everything she knows and join a group of people both revered and thought gauche – the clan want her back.

Florence Grace, Rees’ second novel, is a very enjoyable rags-to-riches-and-perhaps-someone-else tale (I don’t want to spoil it too much) involving a practically Dickensian family and a lot of information on the average person in the Victorian period. Set in the same century as Amy Snow, Florence Grace is nevertheless wholly different from that debut whilst providing the same general reading experience.

There is so much to like about the book – the details of the different ways of living, the difference between classes, society as a whole, childhood; in a way the book is much more about character and place than it is about plot yet the plot emphatically keeps you reading. It’s told in the first person – unsurprisingly Florrie’s point of view – yet it feels like a grand saga. Much like Amy’s story, Florence Grace owes a lot to the classics, though here it’s more about the feel than the voice, and it’s much more Emily than Charlotte.

As a group, the family make for essential reading – you’ll be glad that they are fictional, particularly as the book continues. There are many different sorts amongst them, and Florrie, with her extreme differences, rounds it off really well. Florrie herself remains compelling throughout, a person who is inevitably very worldly wise by the end. The element in her story of homecoming, of finding herself and pushing through, is ever-present. The backdrop of the Cornish moors, described beautifully, is almost a character in itself, and lends itself to a very slight thread of magical realism; this is, of course, where Emily Brontë’s story comes into play.

Unlike that haunting book, however, Florrie’s is a lot more positive. There’s a lot of heartache and hurt but her strength pushes her on. And the ending, which you start to get an idea of as it nears, is both very fitting and somewhat, still, surprising.

This is a long book but it’s worth every page. There is always something going on, always a change of scenery, and the attention to detail in all cases is fantastic. If you’re looking for an epic that sets reality up together with a hint of fantasy, a classic in our present day, this is a brilliant candidate.


Today’s podcast episode is with Peter Ho Davies (The Ugliest House In The World; Equal Love; The Welsh Girl; The Fortunes). Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

We discuss moving as a writer from Britain to the US, Welsh with English as a second language, the first Chinese Americans, Hollywood star Anna May Wong, and the impact – then and now – of the murder of Vincent Chin.

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

 
Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29626-1
First Published: 4th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2020
Rating: 5/5

Londoner Nora has worked her stable but uninspiring job for ten years; one day she sees in her mind’s eye a beach that she thinks she must have visited at some point… and the experience leads her to quit her job to look for a different life, perhaps in the place where the beach is – Tenby, in Wales. She knows her mother won’t be pleased – Jasmine dislikes Tenby – but ninety-three-year-old Gran will be overjoyed. Interspersed In Nora’s tale is that of young Chloe who lives in Wales in the 1950s and spends three weeks every summer in Tenby, where she looks forward to growing up, attending parties for teenagers and flirting with boys, but what she comes to look forward to most is time with Llew, the younger boy she considers her best friend.

The Hourglass is a tome of a book that looks at formative years of lives, not necessarily youthful years, and relationships and their effects.

This, Rees’ third novel, is absolutely fantastic. It actually includes few things generally seen as negatives – it’s slow, the ‘reveal’ could be called contrived and it’s not exactly shocking or groundbreaking, and the book is very long – but all these things as written by Rees turn the stereotypes on their head. The writing is similar to Rees’ previous books as you might expect, that is to say it’s different again in voice but as strong as ever, and the attention to detail and just, simply, attention to telling a fair story very well, forms the backbone of the success.

At a literal glance the novel is long, and indeed it does take and feel like a lot of time whether you read it over the course of several (or more) days, or just one or two, but once it’s over you’ll wish it took even more time. It is just the right length, the perfect novel to sit down and enjoy, it is the sort of book that completely lives up to the romantic idea of reading a good book outside on a sunny day with a big teapot of tea or large glass of wine. It’s slow in that wonderful way – there’s no quick drive as a reader to get to the end, you want to know what’s happened but you’re happy to go slow and find out whenever the author has decided you should know. And having an idea of the rough trajectory of life for the characters early, by way of their stories, helps you in that.

Given my nod to the stereotype of the perfect read above, it will come as no surprise that the book is beautifully atmospheric. Wales, that place in the UK afforded more rain than the rest, or at least in the public’s perception, is provided with floods of sunshine and a lot of detail both historic and present day (Nora’s story takes place in 2014). The relative slowness of ’50s life compared to now aids the reading experience – whilst Chloe’s perfect days are largely due to her age, nevertheless the qualities ascribed and experienced are a big part too.

Inevitably the hourglass of the story is as much a concept, a symbol, as a real item; the passage of time is one of the book’s themes. The reveal, which could perhaps be considered contrived in a vacuum, aligns itself to the concept to good effect. There is a slight deus ex machima to it on the surface – it’s not something you would have considered – but it makes you think back over everything else you’ve read so far, over Chloe’s wish to be more grown up early, over friendships and the use of time.

Of the book’s dual-plot situation, both stories are good in their own right. There is – of course? – a link, but both florish separately, and it would be difficult to say that either is better – if you like one more that will be down to personal preference. The romantic aspects of the book are also well done and lovely to read.

Two other aspects of especial note: the theme of mother-daughter relationships, more obvious in the present-day than the past though still an aspect of the historical thread; and the time given to the older characters in the novel. The mother-daughter relationship, here a strong bond that has become damaged in a way that needs to be studied by both parties, is a strong part of the story, it’s own thread detached from everything else. In terms of the older characers, Rees’ stories stretch a little beyond the happy-ever-after endings, appropriately giving you more time with all the characters following both your reading/emotional investment and time investment, as well as giving a voice to people who often get overlooked.

The Hourglass is one of those books wherein no words however positive and gushing can truly explain how good and in what manner it is. Suffice it to say that it is perfect, that now, when we could all do with a holiday, is a good time to read it, and that it is worth every moment.

 

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