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Nicholas Royle – Mother: A Memoir

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A memoir and then some.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 209
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40857-3
First Published: 14th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

Owing to the title of this book and in addition its contents (necessarily discussed below) I’m leaving my usual synopsis paragraph to this one sentence.

Royle’s third narrative book, his first narrative non-fiction (I say ‘narrative’ because the author has also written many academic works), does both what it says on the tin and what it implies on the tin if you were to look at the tin more closely. Mother: A Memoir is a mixture of straightforward memoir about the author’s mother but also a book about the concept of a mother – particularly, of course, his mother – and the concept both of writing a memoir and of memoir as a written form. It’s about writing. What this means in brief, is that this is a highly experimental, artistic, and language and linguistics related book that is nevertheless also a standard memoir.

But ‘standard’, in any quantity, doesn’t really explain this book. The only book that this one comes anywhere close to being similar to, at least to my admittedly limited knowledge, is the Royle’s previous book, An English Guide To Birdwatching. The book succeeds in being something very special: from the title, it’s a memoir of the author’s mother, Mrs Royle. (I’ll be referring to Nicholas Royle as ‘the author’ from now on to limit any confusion.) However as you read through it you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s only half about Mrs Royle, until you’ve read enough to discover that in actual fact it may be more of a memoir and more of a tribute to her than you could have imagined.

The book is also about a love of reading and literature in general; some of the best passages discuss times when the author and Mrs Royle conversed about texts, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the many references to novels and poems that are included without further comment. It can take a few pages to get into it, with its various versions of wordplay, but it’s very easy once you’ve got the hang of it. It’s very appealing and often quite fun.

The writing style is great; there are stylistic choices deliberately chosen and accounted for. The most obvious is in punctuation; the book is devoid of commas, there are none except in quotations, because, as the author says on page 25 (bracketed text mine):

But in writing about my mother I have been compelled to respond to what was quirky and singular about her own language. I have experienced a kind of unfettering. And stumbling into a new closeness to her in the very reaching out to shape words and syntax – idioms and ironies – in the wake of her voice and her laughter. In the remembered tricks and turns of her vivacity. I discovered I had to write – for better or worse – without commas. Things linked without notifications or signposts. Continuous but broken. Making more use of dashes. In sentences sometimes lacking main verbs. Or subjects. Discandying flux. Even if at the same time I cannot write a sentence without wanting to pay homage to my father’s lifelong Maxwellian [both Royle’s and his brother’s word for their father’s passion for the English language, based on his name] vigilance as Grammaticality Enforcement Agency.

(The extract shows the other effect of the lack of commas – the book is quite often very poetic. It also quite often changes the ‘natural’ emphasis in a sentence to highlight what is truly important in it.)

Perhaps – likely? – the author’s father wouldn’t have appreciated the way the book was written, which in the context of the family and the addition of Mr Royle’s letters to newspapers, is an interesting idea in itself. But there’s also an interesting question that this reviewer found herself asking – does the author’s focus on his mother’s language, given the father’s was the language deemed more correct (and thus important), question the traditional ideas of the relative values of men and women’s work and so on? (I should point out the author never says this, it’s just something I took away with me.) It certainly questions whether Mr Royle’s use of language is necessarily better (employed in Mrs Royle’s correspondence, his corrections in the letters she wrote are shown in the author’s discussion and reproduction of one of them).

This is perhaps the time to also note that Mrs Royle was a dedicated, passionate nurse who was well loved by many. Stories of her work are many, are lovely, and are spread throughout the book. (The narrative is not linear – the content is divided into chapters each on a theme – and scenes and elements of Mrs Royle’s life are returned to.) Quite a number of the photographs show Mrs Royle at various stages of her career.

It’s also perhaps the time to note that as much as the book is about Mrs Royle, it’s also about her husband, the author’s brother, who sadly passed away at a young age, and many other members of the family. There’s a lot to be said for the cover photograph showing the nuclear family. This book covers the affects of a mother on lives – the affect of Mrs Royle on the author, his father, his brother, and inevitably somewhat the whole family on who the author is.

To be sure, despite the small number of pages – just over 200 – Mother: A Memoir is a book you will probably want to take a bit of time with; it’s a good one to savour. That’s related to the major point to make – this book is brilliant.

I received this book for review.

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Caroline Lea – The Glass Woman + Podcast

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

Charlie and Zoë Duncan (The Shifting Pools) discuss coping with and healing from war trauma in reality and fiction, the use and power of dreams, employing various styles and formats, and how fascinating reader interpretations can be.

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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Will not shatter.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 400
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-93461-9
First Published: 7th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 11th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

In order to ensure the health of her aged mother, Ròsa agrees to marry Jòn, leader of another village a fair way from home. In doing so, Rosa not only leaves her mother but her childhood friend, Pàl. But life isn’t ‘simply’ going to be more difficult – it’s going to be far beyond that. Jòn is secretive; his first wife, Anna, died in mysterious circumstances and his manner seems controlling – he wants a meek wife; then there’s the villagers who say that Jòn killed Anna – and Ròsa isn’t allowed to talk to them. And Ròsa isn’t allowed into the loft of the home, from which strange sounds arise, haunting her sleep.

The Glass Woman is Lea’s second novel, set in 1600s Iceland, a generally wintry place that offers much for those looking for intrigue and a thrilling tale. Set wonderfully in its history, the book offers a lot of information about the time period that will appeal particularly to those more versed in the medieval continental Europe – the weather makes things a bit different in Iceland compared to Britain, for example. The history is good and pretty immersive.

But it is the story itself that holds the most interest; the novel sports parallels with two classical novels that are in themselves heavily influenced one to another – where Anna’s mysterious death is concerned and where Ròsa naturally starts to question the refusal Jòn gives her when she wants to go into the loft, the book turns towards the concept of the Mad Woman in the Attic, that concept that is a mainstay of Jane Eyre; and in its furthering of this – Anna’s apparent haunting of the place – it looks too at Rebecca.

Whether a deliberate nod by the author or not, the parallels with Brontë and Du Maurier are fantastic, both just far enough away as to not be too similar (as to repeat) and close enough to be a study of the concepts in themselves. The idea of a lingering ghost remains almost until the end (when you necessarily get answers) and the handling by Ròsa also similar enough to warrant further thought; there is – of course? – no question of race here, nor of envy, but the same concept of identity that informs the second Mrs de Winter is at play in Lea’s story.

On the subject of identity – altered here to be personal agency and control (suitable for the time and setting) – it’s well structured. The question as to whether or not Ròsa is at all truly meek, an obedient wife, and in various meanings of the idea, is looked at throughout to great effect, in itself a possible further nod to Du Maurier’s tale – however Ròsa has more leave to change her circumstances than Max’s wife ever did. Lea’s choices of history and place lend themselves well to the study, weaving in tradition and culture from the northern island nation, allowing perhaps for a stronger backdrop to the subjects at hand.

The further use of the classical works cannot be discussed without spoiling Lea’s story; suffice it to say the parallels become weaker at points but also stronger at others, and Lea’s situation as a writer in the 21st century allows for much more. The author is excellent at making you constantly question where she is taking her tale.

Other themes, somewhat related but far more the novel’s own, are the ideas of fragility and purity. These are looked at frankly in dialogue, but perhaps best in the element of the glass woman itself, an ornament Ròsa receives from her husband. There is a lot to be said for symbolism in the novel.

So the novel is thrilling in a good few ways, ‘inherited’ and brand new alike. The style and structure of the book aids in this; there are two narratives – Ròsa’s, told in the third person, and Jòn’s, told in the first person and set a month after that of his wife’s. It is a constant – and intriguing – quest for the reader to work out what has gone on; you’ve got Ròsa’s tale wherein she becomes fearful of Jòn, and you’ve Jòn’s that speaks of a different character to the one you’ve come to expect; the study of perceptions and reality is good. Despite the short time lapse between the narratives and the knowledge of how you have to read them and sort the information, Lea only allows it to be easy once you’re past a certain point, and that point is near the end.

The Glass Woman is a highly interesting one; on the surface you have a novel that is full of the day-to-day necessarily repetitive routine in an isolated, work-dependent place, laced with a burgeoning mystery. But as to be expected, once you look under the surface – and the possibilities are plentiful in an icy place – you’ll find it’s anything but.

And you’ll leave 1600s Iceland, however much Ròsa’s story matches others of her time or not (I can’t pretend to have much knowledge in this respect), with not only a particular set of ideas to think about but also a new approach to some age-old literary ponderings.

 
Fran Cooper – The Two Houses

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Connected and disconnected.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64159-4
First Published: 22nd March 2018
Date Reviewed: 5th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

For the good of Jay’s mental health, she and husband Simon move from London to a northern area that has had its day – resident numbers are few, and those that remain are wary of the newcomers. The couple have purchased the place known as Two Houses, two buildings that were originally one; the middle was removed after a death. As Jay and Simon are to discover, there are many secrets in the place, and in order to work them out they’ll have to work with the others. And it may cause tensions between them.

The Two Houses is Cooper’s wonderful second novel that looks at hauntings, history, and, broadly speaking, the various impacts they can have on the present day.

It seems inspired by These Dividing Walls; where Edward, the ‘starting’ character in that novel, spoke about a scary time in which his sibling danced in between two houses that had seen a death and a demolishing of a middle, so does The Two Houses appear to take up the mantle. But that is only the starting point; whilst there is a haunting in this, the second publication, the further story is very new.

It’s also very different. Whilst the same fantastic prose seen in These Dividing Walls is here, too, as well as the lovely balance of plot and characterisation (characters are perhaps most important in Cooper’s work but the plots aren’t far off – they’re fabulous), The Two Houses is different in genre, idea, and general feel.

The book starts with the future; Jay finds a bone in the grounds by the main house, and we then go back to when she and Simon were looking to purchase a second home. It covers the issues with mental breakdowns, the recovery from them. Jay is broken. She moves into a house that’s been separated into two. The mending of Jay happens with the mending of the house’s situation.

The mending of what is broken reaches further into the narrative – relationships, prejudice, feeling apart from the community; all these are looked at and form aspects of the plot, some more so than others. Interestingly, the differences between London, a big crowded city, and the relatively extremely modest community Jay finds herself in, isn’t as big a focus; you might have expected the idea of a quieter place being more productive to health to be a focus, but it’s a very small element. It is people rather than place that is studied.

On that word – ‘studied’ – it’s worth noting that whilst this is a fairly literary book it is less so than others; the balance between literary and pure enjoyment leans more towards the pure enjoyment, ergo there’s a lot to appreciate in the structure and themes but there’s just as much escapism.

Discovering the new in the old, the old in the new, and changing one for the other is part and parcel here. It is a wonderful story with just the right amount of ghostly goings on, a great cast of characters (including a lovely dog), and a great setting. And whilst the threads are all nicely tied by the end there is enough to think on further, too.

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Camilla Bruce – You Let Me In + Podcast

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

Charlie Place and Camilla Bruce (You Let Me In) discuss the darker side of faerie, being as in the dark about answers as your readers are, survival and coping methods following trauma, and the habits of cats inspiring your work.

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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It is effectively all up to you.

Publisher: Bantam Press (Random House)
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-787-633136-2
First Published: 5th March 2020
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2020
Rating: 5/5

Cassie has disappeared; the elderly romance writer has left a manuscript for her niece and nephew to read that contains the password they require in order to get their inheritance. Cassie wishes to tell them her side of her life’s story, and weaves in excerpts of the book her therapist wrote about her. It’s a dark story – faeries, husbands murdered and recreated, family problems and ownership.

You Let Me In is a Gothic faerie-inspired thriller that makes you want to speed-read it until you get more information.

The book is incredibly well-written and structured; using two effective stories, one Cassie’s narrative, and the other content from the book written by her therapist, you get two sides of the same basic story. This allows you to form your own conclusions, which is very much the point. There are no full answers in this book, it’s one for thought and reader decision, enough that it will linger in your mind for some time whilst you come to your own conclusion as to what really happened and who is telling the truth (though truth in itself is not necessarily easy to delineate out to the people involved). There are no right or wrong answers – again, this is very much a book for readers.

Bruce’s narrative for Cassie is wonderful; Cassie’s story is in the form of a manuscript – you are reading the manuscript-sized letter that she has left for her niece and nephew – and it’s a clever one, because whilst you’re reading about the various family members and finding out what they are doing, so to speak, you’re also not actually doing that at all. Everything you read – potentially even the excerpts of the Doctor’s book – is seen through Cassie’s viewpoint; for all you know, the niece and nephew may well never read the book.

A key part of the book is Cassie’s mental health and situation. There are a number of possibilities in regards to the meaning behind her experiences of the faerie world. Has she been abused by parents? Can she actually simply see faeries where others cannot? Is she just a liar? Without narratives from those she mentions it’s obviously harder work to come to a conclusion but it keeps you reading.

Bruce’s use of Cassie’s narrative also the Doctor’s aids you in your quest. The Doctor’s book gives you a more practical (if that word can be used when the faerie world may be real) idea of what Cassie might have gone through. The excerpts from this book in a book show potential coping methods.

It’s difficult to say that You Let Me In doesn’t provide answers, even though it doesn’t really. Similarly it’s difficult to say it doesn’t end with the threads tied; as said, this is a book for readers. If you are happy to come to your own conclusions when reading fiction you will enjoy it a lot, but even if you prefer more answers you won’t necessarily dislike it because in its own way, the answers are there for the taking, it’s just that what you find might be different to another reader’s.

And that is all rather fitting; a book potentially about faeries, a being that we still ponder over.

It is an incredible book, difficult at times but very much worth it and for all its relatively short length it has a great deal of staying power.

I received this book for review.

 
Susmita Bhattacharya – Table Manners

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It’s ready.

Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Pages: 168
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-63446-6
First Published: 28th September 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

A woman is irritated by the lady who keeps taking her brother’s wife’s time up with her tales of her abusive husband; a man becomes disturbed by the change in the public’s thoughts as to those of his religion; a couple goes on a trip to Venice before one of them is moved to a hospice.

Table Manners is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of food and meals. But as you might expect it’s not quite as simple as that; the food, a theme of varying degrees in each story, relates directly to human relationships and connections.

Bhattacharya’s collection is super. The writer’s basic concept is to take a person’s interest in food, or the fruit tree that is in a person’s life, or a single dinner, and relate it to an event of long-term happening in the character or characters’ lives where the presence, or lack, of other people has made or is making a mark. The collection is deceptive; after the first few stories you’d be forgiven for thinking that the work is brilliant, but on a small, quiet scale. Make no mistake – you’re simply consuming the appertiser. Once you’re a few stories in, the concepts do effectively leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, becoming shockingly excellent, and this continues for a good while enough that you realise the necessity of the quieter beginning. There are pauses to get your breath back, but the mainstay of the collection is the hard-hitting stuff, with some superb characterisation leading the way. There are a number of errors in the book but whilst they are noticeable, they do not detract from the whole.

The collection is international, with stories spanning a number of continents, showing the feelings and aspects of life as worldwide, as well as those more specific to a few places and the present day.

As to the standouts, three of them are noted above; a special mention must be made for the very first story, The Right Thing To Do, which is told by the sister-in-law of the person whose house the story takes place in, and begins with this:

I push the cup towards Mrs Dalal. As usual, she is crying, caressing her bruised arm. She barely looks up at me but takes a deep sip of the tea. My Bhabhi tilts her head slightly, indicating me to leave. I go back to the kitchen, already worrying about the rice that needs to be cooked before Dolly and Rana come home from school. Then there’s the fish to be cleaned and fried. And the clothes to be brought back freshly ironed from the istriwallah. The chapattis to be cooked. Why does Mrs Dalal turn up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times?

Others include Comfort Food, in which a wife in Singapore is happily making her favourite meal as she does every Friday whilst her husband is out entertaining business associates, only this evening he rings her to ask that she join him. It is an uncomfortable meeting for her. Letters Home shows the emotional journey of a man who emigrates from Bangladesh to Cardiff in our current political climate. And then there is Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, the story of a couple taking an end-of-life holiday during which they discuss difficult moments in their relationship.

Table Manners is beautifully written; careful language, a lot of heart. You’re likely old enough to decide for yourself when you get down from the table, and in this case, you’re going to want to wait until long after the conversation is over.

 

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