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Joanna Hickson – The Agincourt Bride

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Metaphorical swings and roundabouts.

Publisher: Harper (HarperCollins)
Pages: 406
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-44697-1
First Published: 3rd January 2013
Date Reviewed: 20th June 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Mette entered Princess Catherine of Valois’s household when she miscarried her own baby and took the job of wet nurse. Now, many years later, she looks back at her time with Catherine as she became the princess’s friend and confident through years of childhood neglect, the back and forth of negotiations with the English King Henry V for Catherine’s hand, and the surrounding issues of civil war.

The Agincourt Bride is the first in a duo of books about Catherine de Valois. Focused on the princess who, during this retelling, becomes Queen of England, the book sports a lot more politics than the cover might have you believe.

Hickson combines the overall atmosphere of historical romance, but not romance itself, with the social and political discussions and wars of the day. Catherine’s marriage to England’s Henry V was something that started to come into being since her early double digit years, a part of the agreements that were decided between the ‘guardians’ of the French crown – the Queen and the Duke of Burgundy, who effectively took over proceedings due to the King’s failing mental health – and the English monarchy. What this amounts to is a lot of good political detail of events that relate in some way to Catherine. Due to the female point of view there is no opportunity for Hickson to detail the war in the first person – in particular, of course, Agincourt – but she brings in messengers to relay what happened. The author balances it well, towing the line neatly between cluing you in and including too much research, effectively providing you with a fair run down of the battle and how it went down.

To look at the narrative, it could be said that a book told from Catherine’s point of view would have been better. As a narrator, Mette has her moments of goodness but she is a bit of a bumbler and overly enthusiastic. Catherine is rendered somewhat distant to the reader so you have to be okay with this idea (you get to read several letters written by the princess, dotted about the narrative, that aid your comprehension of her thoughts, but it’s not a narrative in itself). However Catherine has been well-written and presented. She stands out boldly and Hickson is always careful, rightly having her overshadow Mette.

But if Catherine had been the narrator you would have missed a lot of the content that Hickson wanted to explore. The most obvious element is that of a report, a chronicle, that by Mette’s presenting the story you get to hear a lot more about Catherine, albeit from afar, than you would otherwise. (Mette does end up in a lot of convenient places, Catherine promoting her and taking her everywhere with her, which helps the author tell the story, however there are sections that are missed when Mette cannot accompany the princess.) The presentation from someone older is good, particularly in the case of Hickson’s exploration of the potential child abuse Catherine and her siblings suffered from their mother and the Duke of Burgundy. The current thought is that there was no abuse but in years gone by it has been a prominent suggestion that the children were neglected. Hickson uses this idea in her book, effectively covering two bases at once – the fact that abuse was treated very differently in older times and thus there is a need to explore it, and the way our mindset has changed over time; the author looks at attitudes both then and now, subtly including – for of course it is never stated by our medieval narrator – what appeals to us today in terms of discussion, study, and general discourse of morality. Mette’s narration, beginning just before her introduction to newborn Catherine, allows for a mature assessment of the possibility of abuse, and if history so far is anything to go by, we know that thoughts do chop and change so Hickson’s research may well be of use in this way later on.

There is sexual abuse in this book that many readers may find difficult on both a literary and historical level. Its inclusion asks that you stray from the usual narrative of royalty in the period and it would be difficult to point to specific value in terms of the story.

This is a book well set in its time. It takes a while to get somewhere in terms of plot because it is hampered by historical indecision, the person at the heart of the story bound by limitations and others’ decisions. It is a book that shows how little power women had in the 1400s, how much they would take when they could to good effect, but how it could be for little or nought. Hickson has made Catherine strong in spirit and her personality is winsome, so whilst you know there’s only so far she will be able to carry the story herself before someone with power comes in and decides to change her fate because they didn’t win a battle and she’s the prize they’re dangling, you’ll find some happy moments wherein she’s able to carefully manipulate a situation through all she’s learned.

Very much about Agincourt in terms of the plot’s time scale, The Agincourt Bride is a book that sets the stage for the next but is a story in its own right, shining light on the woman who in time would be at the heart of the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty. And whilst Mette is not the strongest character she does provides a good, solid story of politics and historical possibilities, Hickson’s use of research blending beautifully with the overall story.

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Tom Malmquist – In Every Moment We Are Still Alive

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Sudden changes.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 277
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64000-9
First Published: August 2015; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: I Varje Ögonblick Är Vi Fortfarande Vid Liv (In Every Moment We Are Still Alive)
Translated by: Henning Koch

When poet Tom Malmquist’s fiancée became very ill late in her pregnancy, the couple thought it was flu. But when her breathing starts to become affected, Karin is taken to the ward. In the horror of the idea of loosing his lover, Tom must get to grips with the idea that he will be bringing up his daughter on his own.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a sobering memoir told in a rush of words that communicates the effect of the events on a person’s mental state. I have termed it non-fiction but it’s also considered fiction – the events are real but the style of writing, beyond the words themselves, means the book is somewhere between the two.

Looking at the words and the style together, Malmquist has opted for stream of consciousness and a sort of distancing. In view of the communication of his mental state, both the lack of full stops and the lack of quotation marks mean that you, the reader, are inundated with the information Malmquist received in the same way he received it, putting you in his shoes. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to see what is happening – fairly, not completely – and other times it’s almost impossible but in this book your incomprehension is paramount to your understanding of the way Malmquist is feeling. It is frustrating to read on a literary level, especially considering the text never stops rushing towards you, but it plays its part – it might seem to be a book with a lot of telling but actually, it’s all about showing.

The length of the book is part of this display of showing, too; it’s fairly short – just like the few weeks that pass – but feeling longer than that – again just like the few weeks that pass. In terms of the action of reading it’s a swift one, easily read in a few hours, but it will feel longer.

Karin is going to miss so much, Livia was a black-and-white ultrasound photo, Karin only knew her something that moved inside her.

One can’t really review the story itself; suffice to say it’s told very well and Malmquist often looks back on his life with Karin. There are no clear time changes so sometimes it’s difficult to work out when a scene slots into the timeline but that doesn’t take much away from the overall experience.

Something that must be touched on, however, is the bureaucracy Malmquist details. Because the author was not married and because Karin was too ill and everyone too busy to so much as think about any paperwork, despite the obviousness of the author’s paternity he has to go through Tax lines – yes, makes no sense – in regards to his baby daughter. He has to call Social Services and courts and various other places to try and change her surname to his, to get reports, all that sort of stuff; you don’t get to hear the result, how it ends up, but suffice to say Malmquist now has custody of his daughter, however, according to what is written in the book, he has to check in often until she reaches her majority. The author’s writing style, that deluge of information, further shows just how bizarre the whole thing is. And this all happens whilst he’s reeling from the death, making it even worse. As far as the book goes, Malmquist’s examination and peeling back the layers for all to see, is brilliant.

This is a difficult book in many ways, and a bit more so when you know you’re dealing with a translation. The translation is okay but there are some grammatical choices and turns of phrase that are so English (language) it’s hard to forget you’re reading a translation. But the heart of the story, or, rather, hearts – that communication and fight for parental rights – is very good and well worth your time.

There have been books that have dealt with similar topics before, but In Every Moment We Are Still Alive puts you in the author’s head in a very different and meaningful way.

I received this book for review.

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Kit De Waal – My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon (Penguin) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced today.

Family lost and found.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97338-7
First Published: 2nd June 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Not long after Leon’s brother Jake is born, the children are sent to a foster carer. Leon is confused – he’s been looking after his brother and mother Carol very well and doesn’t know why strange people had to come break up his family. He isn’t sure if he likes Maureen and when baby Jake is taken away by a young couple he vows to see him again.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning story about the British foster care system and adoption, the effects of big changes on children. Set in the 1980s, it’s full of cultural references that will delight many a reader and through small studies of a couple of big moments in the 80s and 90s, looks at the prejudices in the system where mixed race families were concerned.

De Waal is a master of writing. The author has chosen to tell her tale in a way that speaks to Leon whilst showing the target readership – adults – what’s really going on. It’s a fantastic writing style that’s in many ways very easy to read but full of depth, a style that might appeal to children if it weren’t so geared to adults. The writing is what makes the book so profound, so moving; de Waal’s ton of personal knowledge of the foster system, of court, and of these issues across the years means that she packs a lot of punch in ways you really have to read to believe.

Talking of punches, there is a lot of hope in this book, but Leon’s life is never rosy (aside from, perhaps, his allotment) and there are things that will never happen because they didn’t and don’t happen in such situations in real life. Whilst some things are incredibly neatly tied, others are not and cannot be tied. This is a book that truly brings tears.

Leon gets the short end of an already short straw – not only does he end up away from his mother (a woman you will see as neglectful) but he looses his brother. He looses his brother because his brother is white, but Leon is mixed-race, so not only did he stand less chance of adoption due to his age but his skin colour means that either the couple did not want to adopt him or the social workers believed they would not. Yes – it’s horrible. It’s an absolute sod to read but so important.

Leon’s time with Maureen’s sister, Sylvia, coincides with the time of what appears to be the Brixton riots, when black Brits protested against police brutality in the country. The novel deals only with Leon’s early life, he is on the periphery of these protests due to friendships with adults he meets, so the accounts are short, but they hit hard. Do they add a lot to Leon’s story? No, not exactly – what they do is put Leon’s ‘inability’ to be adopted in a wider context. Were the people that could have adopted both white and mixed-race brothers thinking of racial riots whilst they made their decision? Likely not, but de Waal’s themes enable her to explore, for us, problems that were all wrapped up together, if, seemingly, loosely. (Of course the parental candidates for Jake may well never have known much about Leon or even been ‘offered’ him by the social workers, but even if that was the case – we don’t know – it still shows the problems with race in the social services’ system.)

Leon’s friendships lead to one of the more objectively pleasant aspects of the novel – gardening. The book is full of seeds, flowers, vegetables, containers, and it’s wonderful because not only do you get a fair outline of bedding seasons, you get to see how young lives can be changed with the right support, in this story combining with Leon’s foster mother and her sister.

And what about all these characters, this child, the foster parents, the friends? They are very well developed, which considering the writing is quite a feat. As in everything else, de Waal enables the reader to see more than Leon can so you get a delightfully rounded picture of everyone and who they are both to Leon and to the world. De Waal’s characters are great people who lift the novel from its themes. They are a major reason the book remains happy despite all that goes on. Even the more murky characters in this respect, the social workers, are well drawn to the same extent, even if by the very nature of the narrative they come across more neutral than good. (De Waal delves rather well into the thinking behind Leon’s placement and the decisions made for him.)

This is one of the finest novels published, both last year and for many years. Everything about it is just so good and the level of care taken surpasses most else. It is an incredible book that makes quick yet never rushed work of an important subject. It gives a voice to situations we don’t hear about enough by someone who really knows their stuff.

I received this book for review.

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Helen Irene Young – The May Queen

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Women and war.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 214
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-539-99706-1
First Published: 25th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

May lives in the Cotswolds with her family, but one day Sophie leaves and life changes; May can’t shake the feeling that the boy she likes, Christopher, is the reason for Sophie’s disappearance. Deciding to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, life in London results in new friends and new tragedies, but also the potential for marriage – it’s just that May can’t quite see herself married to John while thoughts of Christopher linger in the background.

There is a lot to like about this book. Looking at World War Two from the point of view of a female member of the military, Young’s research is evident and there’s much here that isn’t often discussed in fiction at the moment. You’ll take away a few things you’ve learned but it never feels as though you’re being told too much.

The story itself is good, too. Besides the tragedies, which in view of the page count do happen quite often (besides the fatalities of war), Young presents a great little study of home life. May’s relationship with her mother is fraught by criticism and what seems to be a lack of love from mother to daughter, yet at other times Ma gives much; the effect is such that Young provides you enough to really ask yourself what is going on – it’s up to you to decide the dynamics of the relationship.

Besides this, there’s a good balance of other domestic and social points – runaway sisters and illicit affairs looked at alongside the every-day of war, basement parties, being out and about when sirens could sound at any minute.

Unfortunately there is a lack of detailing in the book. The May Queen does not have any filler sections but the writing is disjointed. The book reads as an extensive plan for a novel, so you’ll have a fair sense of what’s going on but because the scenes aren’t fleshed out enough there can be confusion. The writing is bare in the same way as the detailing.

Where do the characters stand in this? Some are mostly developed, others less so. The book shines best during the second section, set in London, where the story moves with the new location, separating May from her family and allowing you to get to know her better.

This is a good look at the Wrens and the way people lived through war, just a sparse look. It will appeal most to those wanting to read about women’s roles in the war and the way life continued throughout.

I received this book for review.

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Emma Henderson – The Valentine House

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Houses, history, family, and secrets.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 335
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-444-70402-0
First Published: 6th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 26th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

The Valentines own a house in the French Alps and summer there each year. The house remains in the family for decades and so in the nearby village there is a lot of knowledge and rumour spread and over time many residents employed; if female, the mistress of the house looks for very plain, ugly women so that her husband won’t be led astray. Mathilde is one of those employed and ends up spending most of her summers working at Arete. But there is more than meets the eye in Lady C’s wish for plainness and there are more tales behind the elusive Margaret and younger Daisy than people will know.

The Valentine House is a dual plotline book of family issues, history, and climbing, set in France. It switches between Mathilde – both in her early and later years – and a Valentine descendant called George.

This book is an easy read. Full of the colloquial language of the times, it can be fun and often poetic. Many sentences ultimately rhyme; it’s not that the book is written in verse, but there are enough rhymes here to believe that it may have been a stylistic choice.

It is hard to say whether the book is a success from an objective viewpoint – The Valentine House does not have much of a story arc, and depending on what you were hoping for or were thinking might happen, the reveals near the end may not be satisfying. There is a point roughly two-thirds of the way through where Henderson deliberately turns away from giving away an important detail (think the ‘I didn’t want to listen to what the person was saying’ device), which does mean you get to enjoy more of the atmosphere (which is great) but may cause some frustration. At the beginning of the book the idea of ‘uglies’ seems to be very important on a larger scale than the English family’s hiring practises, however as the novel continues it ceases to be looked into. This may well have been a case of nothing from the start, so to speak, but with a nod towards disfigurement, rather than plain looks, in several people, and given Henderson’s previous book, it does seem as though something has been left out.

Beyond this, apart from times of confusion, it’s an enjoyable read. The writing, as said, is rather lovely, especially so at times, and there is a lot to love about the aspects of climbing and general Alps history. You wouldn’t necessarily call this a book about climbing, and not a book about families and climbing, either, but nevertheless the sort of detailing Henderson has included about climbing means it’s likely to satisfy those who enjoy the sport as well as those simply interested in the idea of it. The people might be fictional but the delights as well as the sorrows, the dangers, are very true to history and life, so there is an element of learning here to be had. Nods are given to the Alpine Club and the experiences of individuals, and as the sections about mountaineering occur in both the the early twentieth century as well as the later twentieth century narratives, you get more than one slice of how the sport has changed. And you get the benefit of learning not just how much safety improved but inevitably, as the book’s ‘present day’ narrative is in the 1970s, how much further we have come now.

Read the book for the family saga aspect of it and you’ll find yourself a happy – for you if not for the characters – afternoon. It’s in the family that the idea of the story arc can take a back-seat – if you are reading for the saga, you may well be happy with the arc as it is. As the book isn’t very long compared to other sagas the generations are written both linearly and muddled together (in a carefully considered way) meaning that it does bridge the divide between genres. This said, you are highly likely to prefer one narrative to the other which may affect this. Mathilde’s is the one most likely to inspire as it has a lot more going on than George’s, which for most of the time can seem more a device for Mathilde than a story in itself.

And the family is most definitely a dysfunctional one. Henderson has stuck firmly to the concept of the rich family holiday; she has gone to town with it and done it with aplomb. The characters are stereotypical insofar as literature goes which in this case is a great aid rather than a drawback. There’s an interesting semblance of cut-out along with fine development, with Henderson leaning a little on the stereotypes so that she can spend more time on the not-so-stereotypical, a sort of ‘these are the basics, now let me give you the specific details’. Whilst the characters may not all stay in mind beyond the book – some definitely will do – together they make the book what it is in terms of theme.

In the case of the reveal and how satisfying it may or may not be, it’s worth noting that Henderson takes a very different fork in the road than you might expect. For some it may come out of left field, for others it will be a wonderful difference – this is where personal opinion must trump any talk of objectivity.

It’s hard to place The Valentine House. It’s easy to get through and a good read, but it does seem a missed opportunity for various reasons. Nevertheless there will be some readers who find much to like about it and it must be said the location and atmosphere is lovely. This is a book to read up on before trying yourself to see how you’ll likely fare.

I received this book for review.

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