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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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Phillip Lewis – The Barrowfields

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A contemporary coming-of-age tale with a slice of Southern gothic.

Publisher: Sphere (Hodder)
Pages: 348
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63682-8
First Published: 7th March 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2017
Rating: 5/5

Henry’s father wanted to be a writer. Growing up in a house without books in a town that didn’t value reading, he struggled, achieving a little success but ultimately not getting far, in part, by that time, due to his need to get things right. Henry himself thus grew up around thousands of books, housed in a large library in a large foreboding house. As he grows up himself, he too struggles to find success, his life marred by the disappearance of his father, other family deaths, and communication problems with his family that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

The Barrowfields is a magnificent work that reads like a great work of American literature. Lewis’s writing style is subtle, beautiful, and the book feels as though it is from another time. It’s very much literary fiction, the plot simple but full of meaning. The end result is a book that is in many ways an easy read, and for all the right reasons.

At its heart are two major elements: the effect of parental neglect and loss on children, and the wonder of literature. The effect on Henry of his father’s leaving is huge but he doesn’t often confront it directly, he can’t. Lewis’ characterisation is fantastic, the author makes you second-guess for a very long time as to the worth of the story as a whole whilst simultaneously giving you plenty of other reasons to keep reading, which has the effect, particularly by the end, of demonstrating how damaging being silent can be but also showing how it can be difficult to identify problems when you are on the outside looking in. Even though you spend the entire book in Henry’s head, you are kept back from many of his deepest thoughts – what he portrays as his deepest thoughts are often layers of disguise.

It is perhaps easier to see where parental loss has an effect (I apologise for using that word so much) in the character of Threnody, Henry’s sister with whom, as a child, he had a terrific bond. Henry is very open about his sister and as Lewis’s character development shines throughout the novel, it is through Threnody that all the hurt and pain is revealed. (Lewis’s sibling relationship here, in terms of literary bonding, is influenced by his becoming a father early in life.) Yet The Barrowfields is not a depressing book. Whilst Lewis deals with the darkness of his subject, he includes a lot of humour in his description and dialogue, enough to make you laugh out loud.

This humour brings us to the second major theme of the book – this is a book about books. About books and literary studies and grammar and the classics, even book banning and burning. The Barrowsfields is soaked in references to classic works of many genres and eras – literature is what father and son bond over, what son and daughter fill their time with, and what Henry often discusses with his friends. Harper Lee. Faulkner. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe. Marion Zimmer Bradley. References are sometimes blunt (a character asks someone if their situation isn’t straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird), others are woven into the text in such a way that the book seems at its heart a love letter to literature. Many references are made to Southern literature, matching Lewis’s setting of North Carolina. It is difficult to explain just how satisfying this novel is; it goes above and beyond many others.

The foreboding nature of the house has its place, forever towing the line between being in the background and becoming a character in its own right. It’s what situates the novel firmly in gothic territory, beckoning over another couple of classic works – Du Maurier, Brontë – but remaining almost defiantly apart from them. The plot line here is often on the back-burner but it smolders constantly until Lewis gets to the place you come to realise most makes sense to explain it. Whether or not the house has or had a direct influence on the rest of what happens is left up to you to decide; Lewis, through his characters, never says one way or another. It’s the big old dark creepy house with the residents who are used to it.

The Barrowfields sometimes takes patience, holding back much for a while, but it rewards in spades. It also takes a sudden seemingly odd turn during the middle – one of those occasions where a character joins the narrative half-way through and due to experience you wonder if it’ll work; it does so with good reason. This is very much a bildungsroman, and you learn along with Henry, at his pace. It reads as partly autobiographical, the extent of the detail, the depth of the knowledge that seeps from it.

It’s just glorious. If you want to read something classical from our present day, if you want a book about books and a skilled, careful, look at heavy themes that will nevertheless make you feel positive, this is your book. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review.

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Ricarda Huch – The Last Summer

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School’s not just out for summer.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 115
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67034-2
First Published: 1910; 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th February 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Russia: the students of the university are causing the governor hassle (they’re protesting) and he closes the place down. When he goes on holiday, a plot to assassinate him comes together and Lyu decides to help; under the pretence of security, Lyu joins the governor’s family where he hopes to carry out the assassination. It may prove difficult – the family rather like him, one daughter in particular, and where they assign good work to him he ends up procrastinating.

The Last Summer is a short and somewhat comedic epistolary thriller. Originally published in German in 1910, whilst the time period may have moved on, the sometimes light-hearted (yes, despite the subject) spirit of the book remains as fresh as though it were a new piece of writing.

This is perhaps aided by the translation. Translated into English for the first time, Huch’s book has been well rendered by Jamie Bulloch. The translator of a good few previous Peirene novellas, Bulloch’s language decisions have ensured the text remains steeped in its now historical context whilst being very readable for us today.

The letters – the detailing and wording, the characterisation – mean that you don’t just get to know the people writing, you get to know the recipients too. This is a book of correspondence purposefully lacking in written responses – the characters retort to replies you haven’t been privy to but whilst this may at the outset seem a setback it means the narrative is brisk without any losses. (And it’s interesting that on the whole it seems the receipts do a lot more thinking than our writers, showing the dynamics of the family.)

Because there is a lot of extra detailing beyond the crime at hand – of the good kind. The comedy comes in the form of the everyday quarrelling between the siblings, the responses to the responses of the aunt you don’t get to meet who seems to have suggested trouble afoot for the lovestruck niece who just wrote to her, and even, at one point, the failure of Lyu to come up with a believable reason for a threatening letter to have got past all the security. The comedy fits the time – if you like the classics and other well-known books about everyday life in this period, you’ll enjoy this book. The shortness means you may not get as much out of it but it’s a good couple of hours company.

As for the crime, there is enough if that’s the genre you’re looking for – the ending is rather super. It might often seem as though it’s more a novella of the family but Huch doesn’t forget her premise.

Seeming far from its age, The Last Summer is a novella to look out for. Do the thinking the characters should be.

I received this book for review.

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Tom Connolly – Men Like Air

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43488-3
First Published: 21st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th February 2017
Rating: 5/5

Finn hops on a plane from London to New York City with girlfriend Dilly, looking forward to seeing the sights but most importantly to maybe finding his older brother, Jack, who looked after him as a child. When he meets Jack, the man is coming down with the flu and Dilly decides she doesn’t want to stay in what she feels is an underwhelming place, so they move on. In due course, Finn will find himself employed at a swanky art gallery after stealing money from a location in front of it – Leo, the owner, will be impressed by his guts and the idea of having someone so unsuited to the art world in their sphere. And the man Leo used to meet for breakfast everyday, brother-in-law William, will continue being content, nay, happy, with his simple routine.

Men Like Air is a book that uses stereotypes unashamedly in order to do what it wants to do. It’s all about character and is a whole lot of fun.

The book has everything you’d expect of a good novel that’s all about characters rather than plot. Even the plot, which is mostly day-to-day (in Jack’s case, for example, for a long time this book is mostly about trying to live through the flu, a level of detailing and time provided to routine illness that Connolly is obviously adamant needs to be realistic and is a welcome change from the very brief moments of illness or just being told someone is sick that happens in other books) will disappoint if you’re expecting a good one. There is a plot but the ending is quick, sudden, and not particularly satisfying outside of its prognosis for the characters. Go into this book for plot rather than characterisation and you’ll likely not enjoy it. (You can also go into it looking for patches of bookish discussion.)

In many ways, then, the book is a parody. The quick ending sports a brief forward-flash of what will happen in a way that mimics the ending of Mansfield Park – yes, two very different books that nevertheless share something specific. The time spent on the characters, making them real, is matched by the time having a laugh and doing things that reminds you they are fictional. Connolly uses a lot of devices to good effect – the extreme personalities, the use of female characters as supporting roles, the use of a past year when the present would have been fine, scenes that don’t do much to push the narrative forward. One could say it’s literary fiction that bridges the gap – literary fiction that those who don’t like literary fiction will enjoy just as much as those who do, even more so, perhaps.

New York is shown as both a tourist destination and in its day-to-day life. Finn looks forward to seeing it and there is a brief sudden trip up the Empire State Building but other than that the tourism happens in bog standard restaurants and lesser internationally well-known places. And the tourism mainly consists of Finn walking around. It is in some ways a character itself, especially when it comes to William’s ruminations on the mornings and beauty of it, but more than that it’s Connolly’s admiration that shows through. Evie Wyld’s blurb on the front cover says it perfectly: “An epic love letter to New York City.”

Coming to the narration, then, it’s third person past tense and moves back and forth between the characters with often a mere single linked sentence – if you’re not on the ball you may have to backtrack when you realise the point of view has changed. It’s the sort of narrative choice that can come under fire but with all the comedy and intentional extremes it’s easy to view it as another carefully considered device. Connolly often details, briefly, the situation of strangers who pass by the characters, adding to the comedy, but ‘briefly’ is the word – it’s quick, stopping before the time you’d get bored of the idea of a detour.

This is, as the summary says, a book about male relationships, but for all the comedy, parody, and simple delight of the work, it can seem a subtle one. In many ways it’s a book about the self. Is it very ‘manly’? Yes, but as said above, whilst the woman support, supporting is a device. There is often a female aspect at work, for example standing up to sexism, even whilst in the first chapters the worrier know-it-all whirlwind that is Dilly may make you want to stop reading (another feeling Connolly has created and knows when to stop – he’s quite the master of this sort of storytelling).

It is difficult to say exactly why this book is so good. It moves slowly through the days (if you ever forget that there is Jack’s continuing flu to remind you), slowly through everyday routine. You feel you’re learning something or being told something without being able to pinpoint exactly what. Things that suggest it would be boring. But it’s not. It takes time but it makes you smile, it steeps you in New York without really exploring it or detailing much about it (one assumes many of the locations – restaurants, galleries – are fictional), it allows you to laugh at it as well as with it. Throughout you can see the author considering his reader and, much like he has his characters, he’s considered many different types of reader rather than the idea of a whole.

As Wyld’s blurb continues, “…bold, absorbing and very funny.” Men Like Air is a super book that needs to be read – reviews will only ever be able to go so far in explaining it. It’s a book for mornings, for lunchtimes, for evenings. A book for weekdays and weekends. There is so much to it and whilst you may wish you could have spent longer seeing where the characters went, you won’t feel at a loss.

I received this book for review.

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Nicola Cornick – The Phantom Tree

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Those of both history and the present.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 420
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45504-7
First Published: 29th December 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Alison ran away from her abusive cousin she had no idea that opening the inn door would whisk her away from the 1500s and straight onto a 21st century street. But that it did; when her cousin, now father of her child, sends her away, she returns to the present but though she adapts well to modern life she yearns to return to her son. Meanwhile, Mary Seymour deals with continuous accusations of witchcraft and a house that doesn’t want her. And forefront in her mind is the promise she made to Alison to somehow leave word of baby Arthur.

The Phantom Tree is a time travel book in a similar vein but different voice to Cornick’s previous novel, House Of Shadows. This different voice is one of the stand-out elements – Mary Seymour’s narrative, in particular, is very different from Cornick’s previous narrator, yet the author keeps her writing itself the same. It’s an interesting element that speaks highly of Cornick’s ability to develop characters whilst not changing her style too much.

Interesting, too, is the basic plot and the way the time travel has been included. There is one particular plot point that’s very predictable – the character really should have put two and two together earlier – but other than that it’s well done. Cornick hasn’t created anything new in the way that the time travelling happens but it’s the detail that’s good, the way she’s used a well-used device and just got on with the story – with time travel used so much, there’s little need for basics.

The characters are well drawn. We aren’t given much of Alison’s first days in the present, more of a quick nod, as the focus is on her search to get back. It is easy to wonder every now and then how she could have learned so much in a fairly short time but not unbelievable considering her personality. Throughout Alison is the stronger of the two heroines, and although it is true she’s mostly a modern-day character anyway, reading about her in the past shows a person who could fit in anywhere.

In Mary Seymour’s case it’s very intriguing; Cornick has exploited the lack of knowledge we have about Mary, Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour’s daughter, and really gone to town with it, making Mary not just accused of witchcraft but actually able to see the future. Mary’s magic does contribute to an ending that some may find a bit far-fetched given our collective lack of knowledge (not far-fetched in the concept of fantasy!) and there’s something she shares with another that’s very fantastical. Thus this book goes beyond the sub-genre of time travel – it’s a full on historical fantasy with some hearty romance included.

Speaking of far-fetched, the clues left for Alison by Mary are very vague to the point that unless you trust in their relationship, and the continued significance of it despite the years apart, you may find it hard to believe. This element does stretch the imagination somewhat, though it’s more due to the way less time is spent on the sleuthing and because of the requirement for word and symbol association.

The two heroines are obviously distanced so there’s not as much room for development there as you might have hoped – this is a dual narrative that may never cross paths – but the other relationships in the book are very good. Adam, Alison’s ex-boyfriend of the modern day, is a TV historian, a role which turns out to be as excellent as you would hope in the context, and Mary gets a romance too. Cornick spends time on Alison’s search for Arthur and this thread has a very poignant ending.

There is one issue with this book as a product that unfortunately affects the reading – somewhere towards the middle the proofreading disappears. Cornick’s good writing remains throughout but the editing errors are numerous.

The Phantom Tree has a fair story, strong characterisation and great writing, and a fast pace and attention keeper even during the too-fantastical parts, but more time needed to be spent checking it over before printing.

I received this book for review.

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