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Elizabeth Baines – Astral Travel

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Looking backwards in order to go further forwards.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63219-9
First Published: 15th November 2020
Date Reviewed: 10th December 2020
Rating: 5/5

Now a grown-up in her own right, Josephine is composing a novel about her father who passed away a few years before. In doing this she hopes to better understand him; Josephine’s childhood was marked by a lot of parental abuse and neglect, physical and emotional, and as she tries to work through the trauma herself and to see past the blocks her mind had created to protect her, she learns more about the reasons her father and mother were as they were, why Josephine and her sister were scapegoats, and why their father changed his thoughts on his youngest child.

Astral Travel is a very careful novel that examines the effects of childhood abuse on people as they grow up. Due to its careful handling it is a difficult book to read but, in particular, readers who can relate to some amount of the text may find it cathartic.

The novel takes a few chapters to get going, owing to the question that will quickly arise – is this a book in a book, and, if it is, is it going to be a mashup of literary and magical realism fiction or something a bit different? The answer is that it is mostly not a book in a book due to the requirements of Josephine’s journey, however a more abstract interpretation of the ‘genre’ would be that it still is a book in a book, just not the one Josephine is writing. It is her research, the background she needs to find in order to write her book that we see here.

Most of the characters are unlikeable. Many will be unrelatable, but unlike that persistent idea that a book without relatable characters isn’t good (I digress, but it should be no surprise that this reviewer doesn’t subscribe to that) Astral Travel would not be what it is if you could relate. And frankly you don’t want to relate, not here, not this time.

With the book itself, Josephine’s first person narrative, set in the present day, the majority of the content looks back to the decades of the 20th century – bit from the late thirties, a few moments from earlier than that, and the decades of Josephine’s childhood and early adulthood (the 50s and beyond). This lends the book an interesting aspect – a backdrop of a less busy time foregrounded by concepts that are no longer acceptable, of which there are many and they are varied.

Josephine’s learned behaviour stops her from seeing a more normal family as the support they could be. Whilst her later in-laws have many of their own issues, their relative normality compared to the Jacksons is visible to the reader but never to Josephine. One of the unfortunate aspects of Josephine’s personal journey is that, whilst it simply may be beyond the scope of the book (which is a fair number of pages already), she does not get far enough in her exploration and self-therapy to see where people who are not like her family are okay to trust. This is likewise with Josephine’s mother – whilst her mother isn’t technically abusive, she is nevertheless somewhat complicit in the abuse and places the responsibility for not rocking the boat on her children rather than on her husband where it rightly belongs. And whilst she, the mother, has been physically abused herself, so you see the trauma there too, you can’t help but hope that part of Josephine’s further journey includes an understanding of the role her mother played, if just to make further sense of it.

The good thing is that the reader can see it all – this is why it could be cathartic for some, readers who may be further along their own paths.

To the writing itself, it’s strong and the general structure is very well thought out. Baines’ choice not to reveal ‘basic’ details such as Josephine’s name and gender, as well as a dedication to a writing style that keeps personal details hidden unless explicitly stated (barring subtext) means that you focus on the elements the author wants you to, when she wants you to. The use of white space in terms of presentation – sections are divided by blank pages – is practically a device in itself, a device more often used in poetry employed here in a way that provides literal breathing space for you to recover before you move on.

That’s one thing that ought to be pointed out, given I’ve noted that Astral Travel is difficult to read – the attention to structure and the presentation of the content (we’re back to the ‘careful handling’ here) means that whilst you might want to set it aside for a moment or two you’ll always be okay to return to it. You can’t help but root for Josephine.

I received this book for review.

 
Roselle Lim – Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop + Podcast

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Reading tea leaves. Rewriting destinies.

Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-984-80327-6
First Published: 4th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Like Aunt Evelyn, Vanessa can predict people’s futures, only – unlike Evelyn – she does not appreciate the ability as it takes her over and she is forced to speak the prediction aloud. This has only ever led to people running away, predicting bad news too often, and all-consuming headaches. Now grown up and wanting a better life than the one she’s living, and hoping for love beyond the odds (fortune tellers do not have long-term romance in their destinies), Vanessa agrees to spend a couple of weeks in Paris with her aunt as Evelyn opens her tea shop, to try to tame her talent into something more bearable. Paris is the city of love, and Vanessa finds her match, but she knows better than to hope for more than a few days, just like her Aunt whose own love life has been troubled.

This book could be received in two ways; for my British readers, this book is like Marmite if liking or disliking Marmite involved the ability to make an active decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Ergo, then, if picked up with an idea for a ‘normal’ book with some fun and travels in it, Lim’s latest is likely to be a disappointment. In this context, the book could be called lacking true conflict, too nice, and rather odd.

And I want to say that and have chosen those words precisely because this review will not be looking at Lim’s book from that point of view. This is because, if picked up as an escape, with a view for fun and a much happier, colourful, version of the world – Paris, here, particularly, of course – where people largely get on (and when they don’t, it’s fixable) are successful, and where magical things happen (more magical realism than outright fantasy), then Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is an utter delight.

So, like the situation with Marmite if we had something of a decision in the way we respond to it.

All this to say, perhaps, that this is a (‘the’, actually, I’d say) book to pick up when you’re wrapped up in blankets, it’s pouring with rain outside, and you want something that will make you feel good, euphoric even. (It’ll also work in the summer, more as a shady-under-the-tree or after the picnic rather than a beach read.) This book makes you feel… awesome. There is a special something about it that lifts off the page and envelopes you in goodness, even when Vanessa’s struggling.

Vanessa’s character progression is important; she narrates and her character is well-formed, however beyond her the most important elements are the atmosphere, the location, and the art. (The other characters do take a back seat in this way.) Lim’s use of Paris combines the better parts of the stereotype with the sorts of specific details that get left out of the stereotype – Paris is the city of love and happiness… and of these specific works of art that you’ll not find mentioned online quite so much. This is mostly thanks to Vanessa’s artistic nature – she stands and looks at things, and then sits down to memorialise them on paper.

Needless to say, the details inherent in creating art form a large part of the book. Another aspect that is used similarly is food, though this can be diverting. Food – the eating and description of it, formed much of Lim’s previous work, Natalie Tan’s Book Of Luck and Fortune, and the character was a chef. Vanessa, whilst her family is similar in this way, is not, and so it doesn’t work quite so well as the art – the narrative effectively pauses during meals, but it does pick right back up again following their conclusion.

So, as said, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is a pick-me-up, a magical story that is pretty impossible not to enjoy for the brightness it brings with it. Whilst you will remember the plot, it’s the value of the atmosphere, the use of location, and the symbolism of the magical realism elements Lim uses that will etch itself most into your memory – with its goodness and uniqueness, it would be difficult to forget the effect this book has on you, and quite possibly difficult not to want to keep it to hand.

I received this book for review.


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

Charlie and Tammye Huf (A More Perfect Union) discuss her great-great-grandparents’ relationship as an 1840s Irishman and a Black American slave, the way owners used Christianity to support their views of a racial hierarchy, and the lengths reached in order to label people by skin colour.

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

 
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.

 
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.

 
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.

 

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