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Wendy Holden – The Duchess

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Always Duchess, never Queen.

Publisher: Welbeck
Pages: 423
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: ?978-1-787-39624-1
First Published: 19th August 2021
Date Reviewed: 13th September 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Wallis Simpson marries her second husband Ernest after a short relationship; Ernest is wonderfully caring, the complete opposite of her first, abusive, husband. The new marriage isn’t perfect – Wallis wants to move up in the world, if just a bit, whilst Ernest’s happy as they are, and Wallis still carries the metaphorical scars from her first marriage – but it’s good. But Wallis still hopes to enter a society closed off to her due to lack of wealth, a society her mother was unable to introduce her to, and due to a series of lucky events, she gradually makes the sort of acquaintances she always dreamed of. One of them is the mistress of the unwed Prince Edward, heir to the throne.

The Duchess, Holden’s second novel about figures in royalty who have been put in particular lights, puts Wallis Simpson in a more positive one than she ever was in life, at least not once she entered the life of Edward VIII.

(Nor, for that matter, since – during my research whilst I read the book I struggled to find any mention of good values or any descriptions that were particularly positive. There may well be factual accounts that are positive but they are not to be found in articles on the Internet. Most likely Wallis’ own ghost-written memoir would be positive but there are of course going to be biases in that.)

However this positivity is not constant. Holden’s story is not completely positive, indeed her descriptions of good points are balanced out by her fictional Wallis’ relentless drive to be high in society, which obviously echoes thoughts of the time. This said, as the book reaches its end it does very much move towards the idea that Wallis did not want to be Queen and did not want to marry Edward at all, at least not following his abdication, which does directly conflict with various thoughts, especially where recent research shows a possible case of abuse.

If it sounds like there’s a lot of fiction here, again, as noted above by the positivity not being constant – thus the commonly-held view of the conflicts and issues are included – the fact that Holden’s account is openly a novel allows further study and further question. It is all very well adhering to the most popular points of view when they haven’t changed since the 1930s and 1940s, particularly given the contents (see here the visit to Nazi Germany, the discourse with Hitler, the photo of smiling faces) but the fact remains that it is one based in those years in a society that was very British, against divorcees marrying into royalty, and all about tradition. And whilst things have changed – Camilla has married Charles, Meghan married Harry – they haven’t changed enough to support new viewpoints coming through into the public domain; Camilla will likely never be ‘Queen’, Meghan is seen as a big problem.

All that rambling to say that, whilst Holden’s Wallis is incredibly different to the accounts that are most easily accessible, and the presentation is that of a problematic prince who is needy and increasingly manipulative and has more say than Wallis, it’s impossible to say that this is far-fetched and too fictional. Is it quite a quiet book in its way, yes, does it break lots of new ground, no. And it’s intriguing why it ends on the note it does without going further.

But as I hope all this rambling and considering and pointing out has done, the fact that The Duchess presents such a highly different account and, possibly, interpretation, is very much in its favour. Wallis is still, today, ‘that woman’, and it’s worth looking at the information again, looking at it in terms of the time to view the biases openly, and arguably Holden has done an excellent job doing so.

Will The Duchess change minds? It could be said that it does something far more important – it pushes you to review what you thought, what you’ve heard, and what the actual truth might be.

Perhaps a couple of sentences would have sufficed: this book is brilliantly planned, written, and executed in all ways. That it provides a fair amount of historical information about real-life socialites, and detailed reasoning for the break-up of Wallis’ first marriage is more of a bonus, even though they are in fact quite extensive in terms of pages. Great stuff.

I received this book for review.

 
Katy Yocom – Three Ways To Disappear

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In which the hope is that a tyger tyger does indeed burn bright.

Publisher: Ashland Creek Press
Pages: 316
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-618-22083-7
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st February 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Sisters Quinn and Sarah are still haunted by the death of Sarah’s twin, Marcus, in childhood, and the family’s subsequent move back to the US from India; mother and daughters left, leaving dad, the reason they were in India, behind. Now, many years later, Quinn has a young family and finds herself always worrying about her son’s asthma (he’s also half of a set of twins), and Sarah’s so far spent her career reporting on dangerous situations. When Sarah leaves her career to go back to India and join a tiger conservation, it brings things back to the fore for both sisters as well as their mother. And amidst this is the plight of the tigers and the villages that live next to the reserves, two species vying for the same resources that too often results in disaster.

Three Ways To Disappear is a very well written and carefully handled novel about trauma such as that stated above, and conservation when there is little literal space between animals and humans.

There is a special individuality to Yocom’s book. You have the two narratives that, whilst connected, are very different and enable the story as a whole to have a very diverse atmosphere to it – and I’m not talking about the different cultures and locations here. The sisters are very different, their working backgrounds and choices in regards to family are different, and whilst at heart their thoughts and, often, problems, are informed by the same events, the resulting actions are dissimilar enough that it can be easy to forget that they are indeed forged by the same thing.

The choice of family, or life in general, is where this is most apparent, particularly when it comes to Quinn. Quinn’s story is pretty mundane and quiet compared to Sarah’s life covering war zones and further violence; it can come as a surprise that Quinn’s story can have more of an affect on your reading experience and what you take away than Sarah’s does.

Let’s look at the two stories. Sarah’s is where the tiger conservation comes in and, as the cover might suggest, this is a major part of the book. Yocom’s research shines through each section, from the expected conservation, to life in the locations in India where the needs of human survival come into conflict with animal survival. Yocom details the circumstances that create this conflict – lack of land, the need to conserve whilst also acknowledging the fact that more tigers equals less space and resources for humans. She looks at communities that are obviously based in reality in both an emphatic and studious way – this book is certainly fiction, but the truths that run throughout it, and the very real issues, are laid out very well. Where Sarah herself is concerned – Sarah serves as both a fully-fledged character driving the narrative herself and a vehicle to allow the reality to show – we have the appreciation that this is a white western person looking from the outside in; however much Sarah spent her formative years in India and remembers the language local to her, she is still an outsider and makes poor choices, the choices themselves another aspect of the book that Yocom has handled with care. So, too, the use of religion and mythology, which I’ll leave there.

Away from the conservation, Sarah’s story starts with relief – along with the background we get to begin with, our picture of her is of her past career and the choice to change it for something that – if still overseas from home – is completely different. Her passion drives her – she sees something to work for and she goes for it, and this pervades throughout the book whether it’s the tigers, or the women who need an income, or a possible romance.

Quinn’s passion is different, quieter, like her life. The affects of Marcus’ death have led to her being an anxious mother, particularly as she grew up to have twins herself. Quinn’s strength as a character are in her thoughts on family, on how the present relates to today, where her family – nuclear and extended – come into it. Her twins have some growing to do, but so does she, in the way she deals with others, the advantage she gives them over her. Quinn’s narrative, whilst, as said, not the exciting one, and pretty restricted in locale, is perhaps the stronger one, which is an interesting point in itself. I’d go so far as to say that it serves as a reminder of how important every person is, regardless of how ‘average’ their life.

The book walks an interesting line between the predictable and not so – if you strip the book down to its bare basics, you will see where some of it is headed (some, not all) but with the entirety of its contents together, a lot of aspects are far more foggy to work out. It’s well done. Will you expect a romance? You might, you might not. There may or may not be one. Will you expect the ending? The same applies.

The ending is incredibly poignant, and asks you to consider the whole, starting from the beginning of what you’ve read to the final pages; it also asks you questions about specifics.

This, the winning nature of the ending, is due to the characters’ thought processes and the use of the concept of the three ways to disappear. You may count many sets of three ways, and each will bring you new understanding, opening the novel a bit further every time in a way that I can only call interactive. It’s based in the way each character copes, it’s based in the past, present, and future, and the various ways of living that are presented in the book.

Three Ways To Disappear is great. It does so much in a relatively short time, takes you to locations beyond the geographical, and it presents constant beginnings and ways forward, regardless of endings.

 
Peter Ho Davies – The Fortunes

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Some things don’t change, some things do; they all should.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hachette)
Pages: 222
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-340-98025-5
First Published: 6th September 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th September 2020
Rating: 5/5

1800s – Ling is an early immigrant to American; America seems a better life with its promise of gold, but as it turns out, Chinese people are not welcome, and struggle in lowly positions. Ling manages to break the mould a little, and leave for a better job, but there are always questions and discomfort in the background. 1936 – Hollywood star, Anna May Wong, has struggled throughout her career to gain non-stereotypical roles; as an Asian American there are rules regarding race that she can’t get around, and now she has come to China to her ‘home’ land, finding that as much as she’s ‘other’ in America, she’s not Chinese here. 1980s – a friend of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man killed in 1982 by white men because they thought he was Japanese – looks at what has happened and the fallout. Present day – John, a Eurasian, has travelled to China with his wife, the final stage in their adaptation process, and the trip and his prior writing has him questioning issues of race, situation, and the history of racism against Asian Americans.

The Fortunes, a book with an overarching theme – story, really – told in four stories, is a fantastic work that looks at the experiences of Chinese Americans and in turn Asian Americans over time, from the first immigrants during the gold rush era.

Ho Davies’ choice of four stories and the way he uses subtlety to connect them – because whilst you can see the themes, there’s still some subtlety to it – is compelling. Initially, whilst you’re reading the first story, it can be frustrating – here you are, completely ‘in’ Ling’s world, interested in seeing where it goes, meeting the various people, learning the history – and then it ends, and moves on to the next story, but once beyond that, or once you’ve accepted it, so to speak, the author’s choices come to the fore and you find yourself on a certain kind of journey. For those who don’t know much or anything about the historical, real, people, there is history to learn. Beyond that you’ve the methods – the language, the way of description – Ho Davies’ employs to tell his stories, to explain, and to teach.

For people who aren’t Asian, there’s a lot here about the experience of difference, of racism, historical and present-day, of stereotyping. Likely – or possibly (I’m not in a position to say for definite) for readers who are Asian, the value will be in the writing down and popularising, and the validation. The stories in The Fortunes are spaced out from the 1800s, they apply to separate eras in order to bring a full overview, and the constant moving forward of time shows how slow change has been in coming, and, although society has moved forward, that there is more that needs doing.

In story four, present-day fictional John looks back at other periods in time, pulling the stories together, suggesting that they are more novel than separate stories. If you’d already been wondering if there would be some joining up, this is where it happens. John’s thoughts, and his situation as a writer with the subjects he writes about, question the role of narrator and the place of the author in the book; with the stories sharing a theme and, whilst all different in character, sharing nevertheless a certain something that’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, there seems almost a novel-in-a-novel aspect to the book, Ho Davies’ pen being near enough to see. This of course links to the stories themselves, but also has a place in the text as a text, so to speak, the literary nature of it and the use of language being most apparent here.

You could perhaps say it’s a fractured narrative.

The Fortunes is, as said, fantastic. It looks at things in a certain way – perhaps not new, exactly, yet it kind of is – and offers a different way to read and learn about subjects (the use of the factual documentary footage Anna May Wong had made instead of the backdrop of one of her films, for example, is intriguing). Read it as both a novel and four novellas; to define it definitively either way would be wrong.

 
Chibundu Onuzo – Welcome To Lagos

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Slice of lives.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages:
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 26th June 2020
Rating: 4/5

As Chike’s regiment prepares to do something he wants no part in, he and Yemi break ranks and escape. In so doing they meet Isoken – a young woman who has been assaulted – Fineboy – who does this and that and nobody’s completely sure about him – and Oma, who Chike finds himself attracted to and the feeling’s mutual. Together the unlikely group travel to Lagos to look for a place to stay and jobs to make money. It’s difficult – sometimes there are buildings, sometimes there are spaces underneath a bridge – but things take extra turns when they meet Ahmed, a journalist, and later a government minister.

Welcome To Lagos is an interesting novel that looks at the coming together of five different people – two already known to each other – in a way that explores both the characters themselves and the city of Lagos.

Akin to many novels, Onuzo’s narrative almost seems too easy until you scratch the surface, but unlike other novels that are akin to this, once the surface is scratched, it almost seems too clever. That may sound against Welcome To Lagos‘ favour; it isn’t. What Onuzo presents is a novel that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels; to be sure if you want to know why there is so much talk surrounding Onuzo you have to be prepared to spend a bit of time digging deeper – that surface dressing really does look easy – but if you did happen to have a bit lesser time you would still in theory get something out of it.

As you may guess given it’s very unlike me to suggest a novel should be read at it’s surface – you could do this, but you shouldn’t.

Part of the reason for this is that it would make the articles in the book seem disjointed. Onuzo employs both a regular third person narrative and the use of fictional journalism to tell her story. You have the main bulk of the book composed of the lives and short travels of Chike and ‘co’, interspersed with articles written by a secondary character who also moonlights as a primary character: Ahmed. Where Chike and his friends move around Lagos, live in a few different places, allowing Onuzo to show you around Lagos at a grassroots level, the articles show the wider story, including the politics that run the city as a whole. These narratives intersect, both through the use of Ahmed (his in-person appearances are rare) and in the later introduction of a politcian to our characters’ lives.

So to the friends – with Chike at the effective helm, the story focuses on five runaways who have joined together; Chike and Yemi have run away from the regiment, Isoken is mentally scarred from harrassment and assault; Fineboy is along for the ride; and Oma wants to leave also. The characters are both individuals and one homogenous group – in their grouping and story progression, they become one character – Lagos. They represent different aspects of it as well as creating reasons for other aspects to show, and then Ahmed, the Chief, and the various teriary characters tie everything together. And it’s more ‘parts of its sum’ than ‘sum of its parts’.

One of the book’s strengths is in the way Onuzo slowly reveals what’s going on with Isoken – you’re told from the start but with the book’s narrative generally looking at things from Chike’s perspective, it takes a bit of time. It’s done slowly, in actions rather than words.

Two other aspects of note: the conflict at the beginning of the book, and the use of religion. As Chike and Yemi decide to break ranks we get a glimpse of what they’re leaving behind – a lot of killings; it’s an interesting look at the situation, with Onuzo paying a lot less time and attention to it than you’re expecting, showing by not showing it that it may be ‘simply’ an every day thing for the company. As for religion, it’s constant but never too much; Chike reads the Bible to his friends in the evenings and there are brief discussions. It forms part of Chike’s character and informs the others in a way that is accessible to all.

Welcome To Lagos is both deceptive and open, in different ways. With the fairly diverse cast of characters it takes a few chapters to come into its own; it’s also quite its own book. Some questions remain at the end but not many; Ahmed’s role is perhaps the one most likely to cause curiosity – he may be up to interpretation; but over all this is an enjoyable read in both the usual and literary senses.

 
Isla Morley – The Last Blue + Podcast

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

Charlie and Terri Fleming (Perception) discuss looking at the further lives of Mary and Kitty Bennet, working with Austen’s original stories and prose, Mr and Mrs Bennet’s relationship, and organising bookshelves.

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.


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Far from gloomy.

Publisher: Pegasus Books
Pages: 326
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-643-13418-5
First Published: 5th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

1972 – a young man has come into town and he’s asking questions, questions of the type Havens doesn’t want dragged up. We return to 1937, when Havens and Massey, photographer and journalist respectively, travelled to Chance, Kentucky, to find out about some local news and end up instead two of few witnesses to the life of an outcast family, living away from others on account of two of the children having very unusual skin. The siblings are blue.

The Last Blue is Morley’s fantastic third novel based on a real medical occurrance, and set in such a time (a century later than the factual history) that it effectively looks at further social issues, too.

The 1930s setting means that the fictional Buford family of Morley’s creation live during the time of racial discrimination; this results in a interesting aspect of the book where, as the reader, you can see a similarity between treatment of these white-blue people and black people; it can at times seem very allegorical – difference is not to be tolerated.

So there’s a lot of discrimination in the book – the Bufords are hated simply because they are different. There are times of extreme violence, and there are a number of looks at the affects and effects of violence as a whole.

Put together in terms of literature, the effect is brilliant – this book gets you thinking. And it almost creeps up on you as the story starts out fairly slowly, almost quietly. However this simply allows you to get a hold of the situation better.

Our main characters – our narrators – are the aforementioned Havens (first name Clay) and one of the ‘blues’, Jubilee. Morley uses an interesting narrative voice, far closer to first person than your usual third person, meaning that you get a number of effective sub-narratives, so to speak. The writing style, like the slowness of the book’s beginning, is deceptive – you’ll be thinking you’re in a soft fantasy novel for a while (even after reading this); at the start you do have to work at that surface to see under it, and that fact is one of the best parts of the text. And our characters are great to hear from, in fact one of the best aspects here is that one is just as intriguing as the other.

(On this note is Morley’s use of birds in the book. Birds are both a factor of life – we begin the book with Havens going to feed a pigeon -, and, in the way Morley situates them in her fiction, a symbol.)

Havens’ passion for photography informs a lot about the novel. There are two points of interest here: the first is the detailing. Morley provides a suitable amount of detail about photography in the era, which covers the role of a photographer in the media (Clay is in some ways what we’d call a photojournalist). Crucial is Clay’s ability to take colour photographs. The second is in the use of photography and imagery as a theme; as Havens comes to know Jubilee, photography becomes a way to tell not only a story in the way we know it can do, but also informs the progression of their friendship.

There is some lovely romance in this book, and it does exactly what you might think – highlight issues in its particular way as well as simply enhancing the story.

It is difficult to discuss The Last Blue in depth without revealing the story; hopefully there are enough pointers to show how successful Morley is in what she’s done. The text is both novel and study, a wonderful creation that you’ll want to keep with you for its fiction and its relation to multiple aspects of historical and contemporary reality. It is also just a very good story.

I received this book for review.

 

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