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Nicolai Houm – The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland

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Fading away from home.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 182
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1–782-27377-6
First Published: 2016 in Norwegian; 26th April 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 23rd March 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jane Ashlands gradvise forsvinning (Jane Ashland’s Gradual Disappearance)
Translated by: Anna Paterson

Jane wakes up naked in a tent in a deserted Park in Norway; suffering from immense grief, she’d decided to travel to Norway, reputedly in search of family ties, leaving behind her career as a novelist. When her visit to a distantly-related family ends badly, she decides to phone a stranger, a random man she met on the plane.

The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland is a super novel that looks at grief as it affects the life of its character. Sporting excellent literary methods and slight, clever, foreshadowing, it stands on many different levels, being both a work of art and a pleasure to read.

The unashamedly individualistic look at grief here works well – Houm only ever looks at Jane and to all intents and purposes the world turns around her yet nonetheless pieces of ideas, poignant ones, leave strong marks. Grief is looked at as something that invades a life without the person’s noticing; whilst Jane may be very sad she does not realise just how much both the grief and her medications affect what she sees and experiences, to the point that whilst some of the narrative is clear, often it’s unreliable and down to you, the reader, to make sense of what Jane is experiencing.

This three-way sense of writing, if you will – the definite, the vague, and the likely unreal – is excellent in itself, but it is then backed up further by Jane’s active choices. Jane makes bad choices – like phoning Ulf, the stranger – and whilst this is commented on via the third-person narrative, it continues to spin out; at the beginnings of this narrative, the book reads as a fantasy novel in what not to do.

No surprise, then, that the writing is good. Houm has struck perfectly the cultural balance that has been noted by critics – he has been called the most American of Norwegian writers. The translation, whilst not perfect, is generally clear and easy to read.

On occasion the text moves seamlessly between the third person and the dialogue, Houm’s descriptions serving as the dialogue for the next line. Houm never inserts himself in the narrative – there is no breaking of fourth walls and the cleverness is strictly limited to the fictional aspects – but it furthers the study he is progressing through and shows a glimpse of the workings of Jane’s mind in such a way as to render the third person almost the first.

It should be noted that the title of the book is phrasing at its best – this is not a thriller and does not compare to novels of similar naming styles that have been released in recent years. The title is an active part of the story and Jane’s fate not at all what you would expect from just that first scene of isolation. However this book does pack a punch, the ending and the chapters before it being incredibly powerful.

Necessarily coming last in this list of points is Jane’s career. Jane lives and breathes writing; a lot of her thought processes go through literary terminology and methods; this book is to a fair extent a book about books, with Houm writing about writing in itself and making whole conversations out of career dreams, Jane’s inability to critique her husband’s work, and the life of an active, travelling author. This is where something special happens – is this book, with its new cover, Jane’s own?

A short novel it may be, but there are enough ideas and studies and literary gems included that no matter how short and how easy it is to read, you come away feeling like you’ve just finished an incredibly impressive tome. The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland it may be, but make no mistake – this book isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I received this book for review.

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Sherry Thomas – The Luckiest Lady In London

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Lucky, but well matched.

Publisher: Berkley Romance (Penguin)
Pages: 276
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-425-26888-9
First Published: 5th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Felix doesn’t trust people. Neglected as a child by his mother, and having to watch his parents’ loveless marriage progress ever further into bitterness, he never lets an affair become serious. Meanwhile family rich but cash poor Louisa is looking for a husband amongst the wealthy; she’s got a few siblings, one with epilepsy, and a mother to look after; if Louisa likes her husband then all well and good but it’s not important. When Felix suggests she become his mistress with the promise of life-long provision she’s tempted but believes she can do better.

The Luckiest Lady In London is a novel that shares its society and a couple of characters with Thomas’ previous book, Private Arrangements. It’s a deftly-plotted story that shows the author’s expertise in writing what her readers want.

The romance is very well done. Thomas has created a couple that are well suited and the relationship is believable. She looks into the ways they are suited in terms of interests – quite a few pages are devoted to astronomy, telescopes, and there’s a fair amount of information to learn about the practices and scientific beliefs of the period.

But the strongest element of this book and what sets it above many others is the way Thomas deals with the requirement for conflict in a story. The defining conflict, apparent early on, is not the be all and end all of the work; Thomas uses it but keeps it realistic and reigned in – never once does it outstay its welcome. Thomas gives a clear nod to what is wrong and then the characters get on with solving the problem.

And they are good characters. Obviously there’s the fantasy of the poor historical woman gaining the hand of the wealthiest man in society, but Thomas makes it work. There is solid reasoning in everything. The story is undemanding and an easy read with a good chunk of value. The writing, as always with Thomas, is top notch.

The Luckiest Lady In London isn’t standout in the way one usually thinks of that category but it’s a good read.

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Jessie Greengrass – Sight

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Acknowledgement and the desire to know more.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-65237-8
First Published: 22nd February 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our narrator looks back at the part of her life when she was considering whether to have a child, and then the subsequent pregnancy. She interweaves into this story another, of her grief at her mother’s death, as well as the discomfort she felt staying with her grandmother, and the history surrounding the discovery of X-Rays, Freud, and the work of early doctors.

Sight is a sensational novel about one woman’s journey to parenthood and the worry of being good enough; it’s also about longing and grief, and the self.

Greengrass is a master of subtlety and letting the story unfold at its own pace. Never worrying about speed, the tale is very slow but a wonder to read, the writing calling to mind novels from decades, even hundreds, of years ago, that same sense of the narrator sitting by the window at their desk writing, that is most prominent in film adaptations, here in full bloom. To be sure it is a page turner but it’s of that lovely lazy afternoon kind, the book being the perfect companion for a cup of tea and a chair on the lawn as the sun shines overhead. (The writing is similar in its subtly to the author’s short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It, though the length of Sight allows the author to take her way of executing ideas further than she could in the short stories.)

Yes, that sounds rather at odds with the content of the story – the narrator’s anxiety and grief, the constant struggles she has to work through that her writing of them seems to help but not necessarily conquer. (It’s a somewhat open-ended work, very much a character study that nevertheless sports a conclusion.) And with all the chopping and changing of narrative – one moment in the present day, the next in the past, the next describing history – it can take a little while to find your bearings. But when you find your way (not too far into the novel, it must be said) there is a lot of literary enjoyment to be had.

In writing about Freud and Rontgen and other historical people – which is a factual aspect of the novel – Greengrass has used a particular type of showing. The cause of the narrator’s anxieties and doubtless depression is shown in what she teaches the reader about Rontgen and Freud – she knows about Freud because her grandmother was a psychoanalyst and she knows about Rontgen because she read up on him. These in turn, particularly the information about Freud as related to her grandmother and upbringing, help the reader to understand her nervousness about having a child, the way her mother’s passing affected her and so on. It becomes apparent that whilst, in a sense, the information about historical people reads as an info-dump, irrelevant to the narrator herself, those very facts are things that were not only something to become perhaps obsessed by as a way of working out her grandmother and her own life, but also a way of coping; in the narration of Freud and Anna, the narrator lives wildly through others without perhaps realising it.

Whilst there is no direct historical story in relation to the death of the narrator’s mother, the literary result is much the same.

Taking character further in terms of Greengrass’s subtlety, to the concept of characterisation itself, this is another factor worth looking at. The novel is very much about the narrator, in many ways everyone else mentioned is but a device, and Greengrass engages with this every so often. There’s the place wherein the narrator looks at Johannes’ role in the proceedings to good effect. As the narrator acknowledges – more so points out in terms of social roles – the way Johannes is but on the periphery of the pregnancy – not essential, a bit-player who can stay in the waiting room whilst the pregnancy unfurls, makes him irrelevant to what’s going on. This mixes in with the overall feeling that the narrator is the person to listen to – the others are not so important; whilst they may have affected her, it’s now the narrator’s time to shine.

Sight is fascinating. The narrator comes to a greater knowledge of herself but the knowledge the reader gains about her is the most important thing, and that effect makes the novel what it is. It’s both difficult in terms of content and wonderful in terms of its execution, a very self-contained and meticulously planned tale that is very effective and moving without any sort of pointing to itself to tell you so. An average person with a sad story that, when you look at it, shows just how much depth there is to every one of us and how our childhoods have a colossal effect on who we become, no matter how it pans out.

I received this book for review.

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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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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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