Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Elizabeth Baines – Astral Travel

Book Cover

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.

 
Marianne Holmes – All Your Little Lies

Book Cover

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.

 
Isla Morley – Come Sunday + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Isla Morley! Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Isla Morley (Come Sunday; Above; The Last Blue) discuss growing up and travelling back to South Africa, creating a negative heroine, the 1800s medical phenomenon wherein people were literally blue, and what it’s like owning five tortoises.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


Book Cover

Working through grief to acceptance and forgiveness.

Publisher: Two Roads (Hachette)
Pages: 300
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-340-97651-7
First Published: 1st January 2009
Date Reviewed: 7th June 2020
Rating: 5/5

On Maunday Thursday morning, Greg is slow to get up and Cleo’s insistence on wearing unsuitable clothes is getting to her mother. Abbe has all manner of things to deal with and it’s got on top of her. So that she and Greg can get out for the evening, Abbe leaves Cleo with a friend; against perhaps better judgement, the friend chosen isn’t the one she thought of first. But it’s all good; until the couple return to pick Cleo up and find the road full of people, police, and Cleo nowhere to be seen.

Come Sunday is Morley’s superb first novel that looks at the progression of grief towards a new normal. When the revelation of the car accident reaches Abbe’s ears she begins a descent that sees her anger at the driver who couldn’t stop in time, her increased annoyance at her fellow cul-de-sac neighbours and the clique-y members of her minister husband’s church. And she begins to have an increasing number of thoughts about her childhood in South Africa.

Her book set mostly in Hawaii, Morley uses as the time frame the period of Easter – the book starts on Maunday Thursday, as noted, and ends on Ascension Day, however the narrative takes place over a year so the initial Thursday and Ascension Day are from different Easters. More than an extra aspect, the Easter period is used to line up events in the narrative, with the Thursday aligning with Abbe’s ‘betrayal’ of Cleo and the Ascension providing a resolution.

Christianity as a whole forms a fair part of the narrative; with Greg a minister and Abbe thus involved in the church (more than she’d like sometimes), the religion is often there and woven into the whole, however it should be said that this book is far from ‘inspirational’; it’s use is unlikely to turn you off if you’re not into it, however if you do appreciate faith included in books you will like it a lot.

The main themes are grief, later leading also to forgiveness. Morley looks at both carefully, closely. This is a character-driven book with Abbe’s grief front and centre. Greg’s isn’t glossed over, indeed some of Abbe’s choices stem from his own, but Abbe and her friends are more important here. There is a good element of sisterhood, largely informed by the forgiveness.

Abbe was brought up in South Africa, and her history informs a lot of her thoughts. Her grandmother had a servant who was black, so there are looks at racial issues as Abbe questions the relationship of Beauty and her family, and how her grandmother’s belief in equality fit into this. Abbe’s time in the country is brought to the fore as, together with her brother, she inherits her grandmother’s house which has since become a school for HIV-positive children.

I’ve left one of the first things you’ll notice about the story until the end – Abbe is a very negative character, aside from her grief. This is obviously difficult in a novel where a child’s death affects many, but Abbe does have her reasons for being as she is and there is redemption. The book is more about reading about her progression rather than necessarily relating to her all the time; you will relate to her on occasion and this reminds us of how normal it can be to be overwhelmed, to be a result of events, to be in the wrong place.

Come Sunday is exquisite. You’ll find many new meanings and explorations here to other books that look at the same subjects, and it’s all brought together with the use of writing elements, methods, that are very enjoyable. I highly recommend it.

 
Sherry Thomas – Delicious

Book Cover

If food be the music of love?

Publisher: Bantam Dell (Random House)
Pages: 404
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-440-24432-5
First Published: 29th July 2008
Date Reviewed: 6th February 2020
Rating: 3/5

Verity is a highly-regarded cook. Her food brings goodness to any dinners her employer puts on for guests. Verity has been in a relationship with her employer. But now Bertie is dead and his estate is to go to Stuart, his illegitimate brother, who is engaged to be married. Verity once spent a night with Stuart and she’s worried about what will happen when they meet. And then there is Verity’s past – she was certainly no cook.

Delicious is a romance set in the 1800s that looks at various consequences, mainly those that affect Verity, but a couple for Stuart, too. It sports Thomas’ ever-good usage of language but is lacking in what made her previous book (her first) so good.

Where the book works most is in its hero – Stuart has come from an incredible humble beginning, and at the place he is in his life when the story is told, he remains fairly humble. His choices aren’t always great but they mostly make sense.

The issue is mostly with Verity. Whilst her background, which it would spoil to discuss because you don’t find out much until the end (this is an additional problem because the resulting secondary thread essentially means you’re kept in a state of confusion the entire time) has an understandable impact on her thoughts and emotions, there is further issue in the way that Verity’s worries become a means to keep the book going. Verity hides from Stuart, very literally, and whilst it works at first it later becomes a bit of an ‘oh not again…’ situation, particularly during a couple of scenes where she goes against common sense in her situation as a servant. During the flashbacks, where we find out about the day Verity and Stuart met, her actions are more understandable and certainly less of a device.

The main issue, though, is that state of confusion; with Verity’s background being hinted at but then seemingly taken back, so to speak, and with a minor character’s situation also being hinted at before being taken back, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. Being able to keep track would have aided the process of understanding character motivations. And when the confusion finally ends and you get a clear answer, you may just wonder why the idea was there in the first place because without it the story would have been a lot stronger, and with it, though it might just about work in the historical context, you almost, in fact, don’t have a story.

Delicious is an okay read, but the structure is such that you’re right at the end before you’re in a position to really ‘get’ it, and for this book, that doesn’t really work.

 
Sally Rooney – Conversations With Friends

Book Cover

A little more conversation, a little less action please.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-33312-7
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2019
Rating: 4/5

On an evening they had performed Frances’ poetry, Frances and her ex-girlfriend-now-friend Bobbi meet Melissa, a published writer who wants to write an article about them. They go to her house; they meet her husband, Nick; they are in awe of the couple’s wealth. The marriage seems unstable. As the acquaintance deepens, Frances’ interest in the semi-famous Nick increases – he seems someone who ‘gets’ her, likes her, for all her lack of personality.

Conversations With Friends is a book about personality in the sense of identity; feminism; power and control; parental abuse and neglect; and mental illness.

Frances is an interesting choice of narrator; it’s a choice that has made the novel the success it is, whilst at the same time it’s almost baffling. It’s all quite clever. Frances is boring; she says she has no personality but really it’s more that she just doesn’t do much. She has a fair bit going for her, including what is described by those around her as a talent for writing, and overall success academically, but she tends to simply follow the directions and choices of others. And, interestingly here, it’s not that others are actively making choices for her – life just happens to her. The concept of no personality was Bobbi’s, and Frances writes as though she’s taken it to heart as simple fact. Frances is a reliable narrator, just a bit of a non-entity; this allows Rooney to put emphasis on people who have fuller lives, who are more passionate, driven, than the narrator. The lack of a personality is something that is pretty belaboured throughout. It’s more of a ‘true’ character voice rather than anything authorial.

Rooney has chosen to tell her story using subtle means, her choices for Frances only extending that. The book requires a lot of attention, more than is obvious – it’s the sort of novel that likely needs a re-read to fully understand because the ‘aha!’ moments happen so late. Conversations With Friends effectively has a layer of depression covering it, like a layer of thick fog you have to see past, get through, work through, in order to appreciate the content, and that takes time. In terms of literary style it’s incredible, this effective fog that you wouldn’t notice just by reading a page or two; so much has gone into it – the words, the content, the place Rooney is coming from – the best way I can describe it is that it’s like the feeling that there’s something between you and the words on the page, a block that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the text, and nothing in regards to anything the text lacks. The experience of reading this book felt, to me, a bit like the experience of reading The Bell Jar, only the depression wasn’t from the characters’ minds as such, and in terms of Rooney it’s only to do with stylistic choices. It’s also not as difficult to read as Plath’s book nor similar.

To him my arm was not important. He was only concerned with making his child feel bad, making her feel ashamed (p. 268).

Conversations With Friends is about depression, generally without use of the word, and not being able to make heads nor tails of life; this, especially, is where Nick comes into the story. Frances’ upbringing wasn’t good, and this has resulted in a lack of self. In fact, Frances’ parents have a lot to answer for. Emotional abuse and neglect is all over this book. Frances’ father has his own problems and her mother often criticises her and tells her what to do as though she’s younger than she is. Frances never seems as old as her peers, and the divide makes a lot more sense when her mother is in a scene.

He told me he thought helplessness was often a way of exercising power (p. 246).

As the book moves into its final pages (though this number is fairly large as the chapters are long), Rooney lifts some of the fog to let you better see what’s going on. This is where some ‘telling’ comes in and it’s unfortunate because, as excellently crafted as the fog is, if it wasn’t for the fog, Rooney’s explanations wouldn’t be so glaring. The content of this section brings into focus the idea of power and control – particularly in relationships – the power seemingly passive people can have over others.

To introduce the feminism:

Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict? These were the kind of things I wrote about in my diary as a teenager: as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone (p. 176).

Conversations With Friends is subtle but far from unenjoyable – in a slightly studious and highly literary way, it has a lot to recommend it.

 

Older Entries