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J Courtney Sullivan – The Engagements

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Diamonds are forever.

Publisher: Virago (Little, Brown)
Pages: 515
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08937-6
First Published: 11th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Copywriter Frances Gerety creates the famous DeBeers slogan, ‘A diamond is forever’, and the company sees a massive hike in sales of engagement rings. A couple of decades later, Evelyn and Gerald are preparing for the unwanted visit of their son – Evelyn does not want him splitting up the family. Another decade and James laments his failed career as a musician as he works as an EMT (paramedic), saving lives. Later still, Delphine jumps ship when a younger man comes on the scene, leaving her husband and their antique shop. And in recent years, happily unmarried Kate tries to stay calm in the face of her dysfunctional family as they prepare for the wedding of cousin Jeff.

The Engagements is a multi-plotline novel with five narratives loosely based on the theme of rings.

Most of the stories in this book are pretty bog standard, nice enough to read but not compelling, however the story of Frances Gerety and the accompanying general information about DeBeers and diamond mining is fascinating. It’s not apparent until a little while into the book, but Sullivan takes time to explore every aspect of the industry; whilst most of this time is spent on the way diamonds have been advertised, the author also looks into the relations between the American company and the countries from which the diamonds are taken; she looks at the way the engagement ring is acquired – bought or passed down the generations; she looks at those who have decided not to marry or fall into any of the associated trappings. And whilst the narratives are average (though the stories are far more about relationships in general than engagements), the use of five stories over the course of several decades allows Sullivan to inform you of the way things have changed over the years.

This all sounds great, and it is, but after a while the stories take their toll. The problem here is that the book is simply too long. There is a great amount of info-dumping – after a couple of rounds of it you start to see the warning signs for when a block of irreverent text is on the way; Sullivan will introduce a minor character and give you a lengthy back story or provide a history of a main character you don’t need. The book is to a large extent a series of flashbacks. And it’s not at all aided by the writing. General sentence structure, grammar, older characters speaking as though they are much younger; often the writing is clunky enough that it’s difficult to work out in which country a character is living.

You’d be forgiven for wondering throughout the book why Sullivan has collected these particular narratives together. They bear no relation to each other apart from the loose engagement ring connection – in big part loose because of the sheer numbers of people who can relate to it. Towards the end, the reasoning for these tales becomes clear as Sullivan forms a circle of relation but it’s rather forced, almost a deus ex machina situation. Tying them all together has the effect of showing you what Sullivan may have been trying to do the entire time – spoilers ahead and for the rest of this paragraph because it needs to be said to be explained: show the passing of a single ring down the ages. This concept as used in the book is actually fascinating due to its execution – Sullivan shows the different ways people go about acquiring their rings and the way the diamond industry exploits people whether they have the money or not. It starts as an heirloom, becomes stolen by someone who hasn’t the money to buy a big ring, gets given to this person’s prospective daughter-in-law by his wife who never liked the big diamond, gets left in a taxi by the prospective daughter-in-law when she leaves her relationship, and is lastly bought from a collector/jeweler by a same-sex couple. Through the use of a single ring, Sullivan makes her way through socioeconomic issues and changes in culture. It’s great; it’s just that it’s a bit too late in the proceedings to be able to say that the prior 500 odd pages were all worth it.

The Engagements offers insight into the creation of a monopoly and the politics surrounding it – DeBeers is of course a real-life company and whilst we haven’t lots of information on Frances Gerety, she did indeed write the slogan; and the book offers a great look at the effects of the industry on reality. But it is a big investment for something with relatively little pay off. Rather like, some would say, engagement rings themselves.

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When An Author Returns To An Old Series

A photograph of the three books that make up the His Dark Materials trilogy

As I was reading La Belle Sauvage, it struck me how relatively inaccessible it was to new readers. I say relatively because it is accessible; it’s a case of there being a lot left unsaid that relies on you having read His Dark Materials, but what’s left unsaid isn’t anything that would actively detract from the experience of a new reader, who would quite likely not notice. Pullman achieved a good balance.

Should a new book for a series that started (and ended) years ago – thinking, of course, of situations like older trilogies and new ones – be written for the original audience only – since grown up and thus creating the situation wherein you want an adult book for what was once a children’s series – or should the new book be written with an eye to the new generation?

What responsibility does the author have in the context of ages? If they were to call the new book an adult book then the intention would be clear but the result would be a book that may well not be appreciated because the original audience would be looking for more of the same – the same magic that was in the previous books.

In that way, writing in the same fashion – for children – works for both original and new readers. You want the magic of the original series; in many ways you’re actively looking for a children’s book. (With all the debates about adults reading Young Adult books, a point must surely be made about YA books in a series that started long ago. Certainly the buzz around La Belle Sauvage suggests that’s perfectly acceptable.)

There’s also a basic responsibility the author surely has – that previous fan base is most likely where sales will begin. And it’s the adults who have been waiting or, if not actively waiting in the case of a new book being a more sudden occurrence, the most appreciative.

Should we or can we expect new, younger, readers, to start with the older books? The young readers who will likely be most interested in the new books are those who have been introduced to the older books by parents, siblings, and so on, so they’re effectively in the same boat. If they haven’t read the original books yet but planned to/have had them put on their reading list by an enthusiastic adult, we can assume they’d not be ‘allowed’ to read the new book until they’d finished the originals.

This naturally moves on to content – should prior details be regurgitated? Pullman didn’t do this – if he had it may have been more of a filler book that it is – but how much is detail needed? Should the length of time between books be considered or is it safe to assume that fans who feel they’ve forgotten will have re-read the original series prior to the new release? I think it is.

Of course the lack of old details – in Pullman’s case there isn’t a long description of the ‘bad guys’ and not much world-building – may stop new readers starting with the new books. That could well be argued to be a good thing.

A lot of all this depends on the individual – what they remember, how much time and inclination they have to re-read, and whether they’re happy with any big changes. But considering the fact that there are lots of books that do include repetitive details in series – in my experience the worst is another old series, The Babysitter’s Club which effectively paraphrases or copies and pastes (I always skipped them so can’t say either way) the same first several pages of the first books continually, presumably to aid memory but actively making it look as though there’s more story – a book that doesn’t has the effect of trusting the reader to remember instead of creating the unfortunate other effect of making the reader feel the author doesn’t trust them to remember.

I think continuing for the original readers is a good thing. And it provides another book for them to introduce to the new generation (or provides the excited conversation that would intrigue a young reader to look for the older ones themselves… we can hope!)

Your thoughts?

 
April Munday – The Heir’s Tale

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More to learn after the war.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 150
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: B075KQ3HX4
First Published: 29th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Ancelin returns home from the war he fought alongside his brothers. His betrothed, Emma, has been waiting a long time and is happy to see him, but so is his sister-in-law Alice, whose husband is now dead. Ancelin has always loved Alice and her sudden interest in him causes him to rethink his betrothal.

The Heir’s Tale is a coming-of-age romance set in the medieval period, and the start of a series of books about a set of brothers.

The research in this book is of a very high standard. Munday strikes the right balance of detailing and holding back to the extent that there are a good few times when it’s easy to get lost in the history. The amount of research is evident but only on consideration, leading to the best of reading experiences where you can relax into it without any worries of the author including too much or any errors. The writing backs it up; it’s solid. There are no anachronisms and the text reads smoothly.

It’s apt to talk about Ancelin’s growing maturity in terms of relationships. The character continually darts back and forth – one minute he knows he likes Emma, the next he’s tempted by his sister-in-law – and it’s a long-term thing, the main conflict in the book. On the surface, Ancelin is a frustrating person to read about however upon reflection it’s quite realistic – it’s all too easy to ascribe modern notions to this young-twenties man and think that he should be better, but when put in the context of his lack of experience and the sudden turnabout of his romantic situation, wherein he has loved Alice for years without her paying any attention and now she’s turned full circle, it makes a lot of sense. The continuation also has another role – it allows Munday to look at the character further.

Here the best example is probably in the character’s gender. Rather than look at Ancelin with an eye to the sort of romance that’s often included – where the male character will act in ways that’s romanticised and dreamed about but not often true to reality – Munday unashamedly puts sex before romance, so that there is more physical action (aside from sex itself which, true to history, doesn’t happen during the betrothal) in places where you might have been expecting roses. This said, there are also roses.

The characters as a whole are good – Emma is very patient with Ancelin but is by no means meek, in fact she’s the strongest character. Ancelin’s brothers get a lot of look in to set up the other books but it doesn’t actively detract; his father is a fair secondary character. Alice however does present a problem.

Alice has very good reason for suddenly showing romantic interest in the brother-in-law she’d previously not spent any thought on – she’s a widow in the medieval world and about to be sent off to a convent against her wishes. It’s obviously rather wretched that she’s trying to break up a prior betrothal, but she doesn’t have many options and as caring as her father-in-law is, society rules will go on ahead.

Where the issue lies is in the actions, the way Alice goes about trying to get Ancelin. You know from the moment Ancelin arrives home from war that Alice is the villain and she’s quite cardboard cut-out. In itself she is just one character but as this becomes part of the conflict of the book, the continuation makes it difficult. It comes to a head towards the end, where it’s obvious to the reader what’s happening but the characters don’t put two and two together. It means it’s a bit too angsty.

There is a lot to like about The Heir’s Tale but it can be overshadowed – the scenes in which Alice is absent, and there are many, are good and show Munday’s work well.

I received this book for review. The author is a friend.

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The Present Past: Lydiard Park

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Park is a large estate in Swindon. Now owned by the local council, only some of the building is accessible to the public as the first floor and some parts of the ground floor are used as meeting rooms and for other council purposes, but the medieval church and the grounds are free to roam, and there is a cafe and walled garden, so all in all it constitutes a good casual day out – a fair length of time if you want to see it all, and a couple of hours if it’s your local park and you want to take the dog for a walk.

Lydiard Manor

Presumably due to the house being mostly council space, the accessible ground floor sports all kinds of rooms. You start in the side corridor rather than at the front of the house, as you do in many others, pay for entry, and walk into a large hallway/receiving hall space. The house was sold by the original owners to the council unfurnished – it had been the in the same family since the medieval period – so the furniture has been collected. It’s been done very well; the rooms are well decorated and there are plenty of paintings on the walls.

Lydiard Manor

The dining room is small, but the living rooms are large and there is a lot to see if you like to look at old items close up. The ‘state bedroom’ is pretty special, so too the blue room at the end that was likely a chapel, and of course it’s always good to see a library. The house, believed to have been built in the medieval period, was restructured in the Georgian decades so behind the walls there are even older elements. It’s that catch 22 that befalls a lot of old buildings that were restructured in the days when people didn’t think of history – the restructure has value as a historic building as much as the Tudor, so decisions have to be made in terms of keeping it as it is or cutting back further in time.

Lydiard Manor

To go back to the original family, briefly, they were called St John (or, rather, are called – one present-day relative writes about the house). There is a connection with the House of Tudor – Margaret Beauchamp, later grandmother of Henry VII, was related to the St Johns via her first marriage. They kept the house right up until the 1940s. It had been requisitioned for use as a war hospitals and training grounds whilst and at the same time this was happening the family were deciding to move on.

Lydiard Manor

Back to the estate itself, whilst the house is a short trip in itself, the church and surrounding parkland make up for it. It’s best to visit the church before you go around the park.

Something that I think can be considered special is the way access to the church is allowed; whilst you understandably can’t visit it when a service is happening (unless you want to join in, I suppose), the key to the church is available to borrow from the staff at the house. This means you get the church to yourself, or mostly for yourself – as keyholder you’re responsible for ushering out anyone who happens to enter before you leave (not to turn them away but so the church can be locked again).

Lydiard Manor

It’s really worth the visit. The church is very old and though you can’t see it from my photos – it was a little too dark near the altar – a lot of what could be assumed the original artwork remains. (At least I like to think it’s original – Catholic churches of old were very beautiful, colourful, and so it does follow that the starry ceiling of St Mary’s could date back to the pre-Reformation years.)

Lydiard Manor

So to the grounds – they are vast, more vast than they first seem (you have to start exploring to see just how much there is to find). The Chinese bridge takes you over the lake to a patch of woodland which then winds round back across the lake where you can choose to tramp round the fields or go further out. The track back to the gates takes you past the ice house, or a slightly different route takes you to the walled garden and stables, where you’ll find the cafe.

Lydiard Manor

Like most house grounds, the items of particular interest outside are near the building, so if you’re coming from afar the opening hours offer more than enough time. A keen walker may want to return to see what lies in the distance. And as the grounds do serve as a local park, it’s a lovely casual experience.

The rest of my photos

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

 
Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

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Genesis.

Publisher: David Fickling (Penguin)
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60441-3
First Published: 19th October 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The first months of Lyra Belacqua’s life: when not at school, Malcolm works at his parents’ pub, regularly visits the convent across the river, and paddles down the water in his canoe. One evening, the pub is visited by three men who politely decline the invitation to dine in the main room instead of the more private one they chose upon entering. Malcolm overhears snippets of conversation, and over the next few days it starts to come together. Baby. Prophecy. The Magisterium. Meanwhile Dr Hannah Relf is studying the Bodleian Library’s Alethiometer, using it to gain answers to questions that a secret group of people have hired her to find.

La Belle Sauvage is the first book of The Book Of Dust, the decades-awaited follow up trilogy to His Dark Materials. It serves as a prequel. Written in a way that’s similar to the Young Adult tone of the ’90s books but with enough nods to those readers who have since grown up, it’s (likely) accessible to new readers but certainly best read by those who’ve read the originals.

Looking at the book in isolation, it’s mostly solid. The writing is good, there’s some scary content, and whilst the second half is monotonous it remains a page turner. Possibly due to the fact that Pullman long ago established his aim, the use of religious fervour in this book is even stronger than before. Here Pullman constructs a system that mirrors many religious and political methods in history, his League of Saint Alexander creating snitches of children in order to flush out any hints of rebellion and scare people into submission. There’s a lot of background detail provided but it’s in order to further express how awful the rulers are rather than a case of infodump.

Malcolm’s a believable hero if not particularly compelling, and his counterpart – who I won’t name because it takes a while for them to be identified – is a fair match, even better, perhaps, despite having little to do. Hannah Relf is okay. One of the villains is only there to ramp up the horror and disappears with his own sets of unanswered questions. But in more important news, if you’re looking for Lyra, you’ll be disappointed, and this is where the long wait and the present come into conflict – Lyra remains a speechless baby throughout.

Is it a fair book? Yes, but when the set up of Lyra as a resident of Jordan College was established in Northern Lights, enough back story was provided. We know where Lyra’s going to end up so the worries in La Belle Sauvage aren’t of any import. And it’s difficult to say that the horrors in His Dark Materials are not somewhat damaged in impact by this new book – one can’t help but think that the people of Lyra’s world might have been on the look out for the Magisterium’s next move and thus not been quite so shocked by the happenings in the north ten years later.

There’s also the world-building. There’s not much of it – presumably because it’s expected that readers are well-versed in Lyra’s Oxford – but what is included doesn’t ring true. In the course of the book we see Malcolm collecting disposable nappies and baby formula, which is at odds with the old-fashioned steam-punk that defined Lyra’s world before.

In sum, this book, isolated from its literary context, is a good enough read. Even the monotony isn’t enough to hold it back. But in the context of history it’s an average and rather jarring addition that would’ve been better as a short story.

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