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October 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcasts

October was quite busy as reading and podcasting goes. I was a little under the weather for a few weeks of it – torn muscles (there’s definitely a limit to how much housework can be done at once!) – so I was pleasantly surprised by how many books I finished, and more so when I noted the ones I had on the go that were almost finished. There were days to read outside which was lovely. And during my mandatory no-more-housework days I got through the BBC’s Ghosts which I highly recommend, and Love Life which seems to be BBC/American, a well structured romance/drama sort of series by and starring Anna Kendrick. I can also highly recommend the Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn Bringing Up Baby if you’ve not seen it – it’s on iPlayer for several months and is pretty hilarious. Don’t read the film summary; not knowing what it’s about made it even better.

The Books

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Eric Beck Rubin: School Of Velocity – Jan’s lined up to play in front of an audience, one of many occasions he’s done so, but this time the random music in his head is too much to bear; he takes us back to his childhood, his extremely popular and extroverted friend, and a relationship that he’s still to get his head around. This was a re-read: a super book about the lasting affects of a friendship and a whole lot about music in all its technicality.

Intisar Khanani: Sunbolt – On the run from the puppeteers behind the government. A diverse quasi-Asian/Eastern fantasy that’s brilliantly written and thrilling, but is short in terms of plot – this was a re-read: there is now a second book out (this was a re-read) and knowing that means that the issue of length is not a problem. The second book is also a lot longer. In essence, it’s best to go into the novella with a plan to continue the full story. The series as a whole is utterly fab.

Intisar Khanani: Memories Of Ash – Hitomi, now somewhat better and with more magical knowledge, looks to find her mentor who has had to leave to be questioned by the Arch Mages. This is the book mentioned above: it’s full of diversity, very well planned and written and just an absolute riot – a brilliant book full of hope and reader fun against a backdrop of evil.

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Marianne Holmes: All Your Little Lies – Local teenager Chloe is missing, and Annie realises she’s probably the last one who saw Chloe that night… except that she was drunk and so didn’t see anything, had driven home drunk, and before that had entered her boss’s home without permission after he told her to leave the pub the team was socialising in; difficult to explain. An incredibly well-planned novel exploring PTSD and the effects of trauma and alienation from society.

Orlando Ortega-Medina: The Savior Of 6th Street – Virgilio’s artwork is bought by a wealthy woman; Beatrice wants to make him a star but this means leaving behind a lot and being among people very different to those he values, people with connections to the underground. Hopefully that brief premise is enough – this is a very good tale about art and an effective clash of a couple of different worlds that uses as its literary base the religion of Santería, weaving religious concepts into its chapters.

Tammye Huf: A More Perfect Union – The potato famine in Ireland has left Henry’s family destitute; he travels to America in the hope of a better life and whilst looking for work meets Sarah, a house slave walking back to her plantation from an errand; the two become close and the ultimate goal is to escape, which will prove more difficult than Henry could ever expect. A fantastic story, based on the author’s great-great-grandparents, that in its use of romance amongst an appalling situation manages to highlight all the more the horrors of the slavery era whilst maintaining that feeling of hope for those who escaped.

This was a very strong set of books, all very different and so difficult to compare in any way. I loved the Holmes for the author’s careful handling of her character’s situation; I loved the Huf for that excellent balancing of romance and the history; the Ortega-Medina was compelling for its use of Santería, the way it was used as a crucial aspect yet carefully placed as to sometimes appear abstract; Khanani’s Chronicles were a lot of fun (despite the bad guys) and refreshing; and re-reading the Beck Rubin was a delight.

Looking at November, I’m happy to say I’ve a couple of Deborah Swift books to read – the subtextual answer there is ‘yes’ and I’m looking forward to it! Earlier this month I finished Roselle Lim’s Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop which I hope to review soon – it’s going to be quite a different review for good reason, and the basics are ‘loved it’. And I’ve got a couple of Young Writer of the Year shortlisters waiting for me. I’m also starting to look at books I started earlier in the year and didn’t manage to finish – Christmas is going to be very quiet this year and unless my nephew commandeers all my time for gaming over the Internet (which I wouldn’t mind), there’s going to a lot of reading involved.

Has the pandemic changed your reading, and if so, in what way?


Owing to my lesser ability to use a computer recently, I’ve two podcast episodes to include here. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media players below.

Episode 25: Intisar Khanani

Charlie and Intisar Khanani (Thorn; Sunbolt; Memories Of Ash; the forthcoming The Theft Of Sunlight) discuss working to better the health of people in Cincinnati, rewriting and exploring the Goose Girl fairy tale to stunning effect, bonkers jail-breaking heroines, and men who take a far more subtle approach than riding in on horses to save the day.

To see all the details including links to other apps, go to the dedicated blog page.

Episode 26: Eric Beck Rubin

Charlie and Eric Beck Rubin (School Of Velocity) discuss the representation of the Holocaust in literature, using classical music as a literary device, having a main character whose person limits the opportunity for dialogue through his obsession with another, and the reader being a writer.

Please note that the first reading contains sexual content.

To see all the details including links to other apps, go to the dedicated blog page.

 
Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Savior Of 6th Street

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Not at all a blank canvas.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-838-04510-4
First Published: 20th August 2020 (ebook); 22nd October 2020
Date Reviewed: 3rd November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Virgilio lives in a lower class area of Los Angeles with his mother, a spirit medium of Santería; Virgilio is an artist, respected at his local community centre. At an exhibition of the centre’s artists’ works, his paintings are admired and then bought by Beatrice, a wealthy woman from a privileged area of the city; she takes the acquaintance further than others would, attempting a friendship with Virgilio and offering to boost his work into a fine career. Despite reservations, his own and those of his mother and friends, he goes along with it, not realising a connection between the plan and the underground network of tunnels – a travel network under construction – used by many for illicit means, and by himself as inspiration.

The Savior Of 6th Street is an intriguing thriller that uses the subjects it looks at in its structure. This is to say that it has an art-like atmosphere to it from the reading perspective and may take some effort to get a hold of what’s going on in terms of what the idea is, what the author is saying, but that effort pays off a very decent amount.

To begin with, my assertion of ‘art-like’, the book obviously has a lot about art in it; in the literal use of the word we have a main character and a few secondary characters with varying roles in the art world. Virgilio the artist – you could well say in this case the struggling artist; Beatrice the collector, curator, manager; Anne the journalist, who quite possibly only works on art-based articles, the people at the community centre with Virgilio, and a couple of others it would spoil the story to name. Backgrounds and character development are shown through dialogue and specific word choices. And then, beyond this literal art, is the art-inspired way in which Ortega-Medina has told the story. The use of art as well as the religious aspects often come together in interesting ways, but then there is the prose itself where strings of words are placed together to form pieces of art in metaphor such as cars in rush hour being written as though they are a river. It’s an abstract usage – less Rococo, more Picasso – and it works very well.

A lot of the art-inspiration of the book rests on the use of religion. The main character being half Cuban, and with his mother very tied to her roots, has enabled a look at Santería, an African diaspora religion, developed over the last few centuries, which draws together elements of Roman Catholicism and traditional West African beliefs. The author not only has the religion as a religion, so to speak, but uses it to tell the story, with aspects from Catholic (and, simply, Christian) stories, such as the Crucifixion and Ascension, used as chapter headings, and likewise aspects of Santería.

(This means that it’s a good idea, if your knowledge is more Christian-only, or, indeed, neither side of things, to get a basic knowledge of the other side before reading. Research later, including – including just reading the author’s note – will open up the story to you as well, but if you like to note details and nuances, you will miss out on a few by doing only this.)

The application of Santería, then, is pretty awe-inspiring. It informs the narrative in a few different ways; questions you may have: who is the ‘savior’ exactly, in this book? How do we see the progression and fact of life? Is the fantastical element ‘real’? In effect, the book as art makes you look at life as art.

Having mentioned the potential use of ‘savior’ of the title, we can carry on across the sentence to ‘6th Street’. This is 6th Street in Los Angeles, which in basic terms largely involves a bridge that connects two areas in the city, a less privileged and a more privileged area. 6th Street thus brings two worlds together, literally, and in this book fictionally, and therein lies the basis of the tale. Many questions can be asked of the bridge’s role in the story, too, including possible abstract personification.

So there is a fair amount going on in The Savior Of 6th Street. And as said, it may take time and effort depending on your prior knowledge, but the end result is great, everything coming together, the series of literary triptychs ending in a big final piece; in the Christian sense, it’s like an extremely alternative (and definitely adult) take on the stations of the cross, and certainly an exhilarating one.

I received this book for review.

 
The 2020 Young Writer Of The Year Shortlist

The book covers of the 2020 shortlist

The time of what I consider a big highlight of the literary year has begun, albeit quite different this time as is everything else. The shortlist for the 2020 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award was announced on Sunday, and it looks pretty stellar. Here is the announcement by Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times (email subscribers, you’ll likely have to open this post in your browser using the link at the bottom of this email in order to view the video):

Most years there are 4 shortlisted authors; like the judges in 2017, the judges this year have chosen 5 authors they believe to be the best contenders, spanning the realms of poetry, non-fiction, and novel. Of the five, two are poetry collections, which is unusual (and pretty awesome). So, the writers are:

Jay Bernard for the poetry collection Surge (Chatto & Windus)
Catherine Cho for the memoir Inferno (Bloomsbury)
Naoise Dolan for the novel Exciting Times (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Seán Hewitt for the poetry collection Tongues Of Fire (Jonathan Cape)
Marina Kemp for the novel Nightingale (4th Estate)

This year’s judges are Sebastian Faulks, Tessa Hadley, Kit de Waal, and Houman Barekat. Tessa Hadley said that “The books stand out because they’re so well written, with important things to say – and the wonderful thing is that they have nothing in common apart from that.” Kit de Waal points to the authors “demonstrating a range of technical ability, outlook and style”, and Sebastian Faulks notes that “They have absorbed the lessons of those who have gone before them; but their own books all seem urgent and modern”.

The winner will receive £5,000 and offered a ten week residency by the University of Warwick. The London Library, in normal times the host of the winner’s ceremony, has added a year’s membership to these offerings.

As mentioned by Andrew Holgate in the video, extracts from the books will be in Granta magazine over this week. The first, comprised of two poems from Surge, is now online.

A digital winners ceremony will be held on Thursday 10th December.

 
Marianne Holmes – All Your Little Lies

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Things stands to get better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I received this book for review.

 
Joanna Hickson – First Of The Tudors + Podcast

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

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

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

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


Book Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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