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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.

 
Gill Paul – The Second Marriage

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Life can be operatic.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 412
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-36626-1
First Published: 18th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st July 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

In the mid 20th century, Jackie Bouvier married the man who would become president of the United States only to be assassinated two years later. In the same few years, the wildly popular opera singer Maria Callas was in her prime. The two would come to be in relationships with Greek shipping magnate – one his mistress, the other his wife. Paul imagines this period in American history, focusing on the women’s individuality, lives, marriages, loves, and the people they may have been away from the cameras.

The Second Marriage (Jackie And Maria in the US), is a literarily thrilling and very bold book that begins with strong characterisation and continues with the author’s excellent balancing of the known facts and rumours. Structured in the form of an opera with its Acts, the book blends both your regular story with moments of high drama and tragedy, rather mirroring the life of the characters; it also shows that even the ordinary is not. Favouring exploration, Paul pays heed to, as well as moves away from, the presentations and opinions of the time, covering all bases before looking into the reasons the two women might have been one way or another way and so on. (For example, Callas certainly appears haughty in interviews (to this reviewer, at least) but, says Paul, was this a persona? Was she fed up of the way she was treated by the press?

On the subject of mainly separate lives, it should be noted that Paul has created a few scenes in this regard – the two women are not known to have met. However, they were linked in more ways than one; whilst both had a relationship with Ari Onassis, through him and Jackie’s family was a further link. Jackie’s sister, Lee, is rumoured to have had an affair with JFK, and a relationship with Onassis whilst he was seeing Callas. And related to this in terms of rumours, Paul has taken rumours such as miscarriages and secret children to create her tale. The use of these ideas – often things that could have damaged a women’s status at the time – allows for an exploration of agency without a requirement for foresight.

Of the lack of foresight – which is good – and staying in context, Paul’s version of Onassis asks many questions in its subject. You see a womaniser who simply had money (and whilst not directly referenced by Paul, recent focus on him has included alleged abuse of Callas) who was nevertheless pined for. It’s another bold choice by Paul, letting the history be itself, letting the reader come to their own conclusions, and moving away slightly (through Onassis) from the idea that a reader relate to characters.

The characterisation, in itself, is sublime, particularly, not surprisingly, when it comes to Jackie and Maria. The characters are brought wonderfully to life, as well as if they’d been narrated in the first person, and the scenes echo reality.

It is perhaps the active focus on Jackie and Maria here, rather than the book, that may divide opinion. Paul’s versions of these women focus here on the men in their lives, marriage, love, and children. As much as they are individuals and the focus of the story, the women are secondary to the men, and this is where the expectation of the reader comes in. The context of the women being secondary is correct in its time and Paul makes no bones about Jackie and Maria’s relative dependence, but a reader wanting more of the idea of a strong woman might be disappointed with the way they are strong. Are Paul’s Jackie and Maria strong, yes, but they are still restricted by the mores of their day, even if they are the one making money. (Maria also said in at least one interview that she had wanted a family.)

What this book does then is provide an excellent exploration of the time period and an idea (sometimes more a possibility, as discussed) of the women at hand. Jackie Kennedy’s life following the death of JFK – her worries for herself and her children both in terms of being the next target (JFK’s brother, later standing as a presidential nominee, was killed) and money. In the years since her life, her story has been seen as one of likely Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, her strength due to the needs of the day. Maria Callas, as said, was seen as haughty, and to some extent Paul has used this, showing a measure of on-stage persona and discussing the idea of such a thing. There is, moving towards support for Paul’s choice, a lot to be said for honing into specifics. Paul’s ideas can be found in further research and she allows focus on things that weren’t in focus at the time.

The Second Marriage is, then, full of thought, facts and various people’s rumours, and a fully-fledged look at some fascinating lives. This is a book very much worth reading and a book that will push even the most escapist of readers to do further research, both to see where Paul has diverted and created, and more about Jackie and Maria in general.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Last Daughter + Podcasts (Zen Cho, Rosanna Ley, Gill Paul)

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Solving the mystery.

Publisher: Harlequin (HarperCollins)
Pages: 355
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27852-6
First Published: 8th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2021
Rating: 5/5

Serena’s twin, Caitlin, disappeared in her late teens and Serena could not remember the last time she saw her. Now, years later, a body has been found in a centuries-old tomb that nevertheless matches Caitlin’s DNA. Serena needs to try again to remember what happened that last day she saw her sister and find out the solution to the mystery that doesn’t make any sense. As the story unfolds, we also hear the story of the Wars of the Roses from the experience of Anne, the wife of Francis Lovell, loyal ally of Richard III.

The Last Daughter is a dual-narrative timeslip that looks at a purely fictional mystery as well as an in-context reason for the mystery of the princes of the tower (the book is called The Last Daughter Of York in the US).

Cornick’s blending of history and the present day, with its splash of fantasy, is as strong as ever. The research and fictionalisation of the early life of a lesser-known person, Anne FitzHugh, is wonderful. (And for this, Anne’s narrative could certainly be said to be better than Serena’s.) The way the fantasy is brought in aligns with the sort of superstitions of the time.

The use of location is also strong. Bringing to life a house in ruins (Minster Lovell Hall) as well as a castle (Ravensworth), you get a greater sense of the day to day life of those living in the wars of the 1400s.

In this book it is the way in which the timeslip happens rather than the timeslip itself that is the most fascinating thing. Cornick uses a lodestone that has been revered for decades as the item that creates havoc, and with the science behind the well known object, it’s a convincing idea. Similarly to her other books, the author uses a few time periods to explore and examine her concept, which makes the story all the more fun, even if in this case it includes tragic circumstances.

The most compelling aspect of the book in terms of the present day is the way in which Cornick deals with the mystery of the Princes. Whilst it may not solve it quite as you might expect – this is a fantasy after all and we don’t know what happened – the author does do something that few people have; Cornick removes the ‘either, or’ factor from the equation. Certainly so doing means that the reader’s focus is on the story she has constructed, but it is and was always going to be inevitable that the reader is at least distracted by the idea Cornick sets forth. The question of ‘what if?…’ here allows the medieval-minded reader to look at the whole thing in an entirely different way and prod at possibilities that tend to get overlooked or just left out completely.

The Last Daughter offers a compelling story of historical mystery told with Cornick’s trademark uniqueness of narrative strength. The timeslip element is different, fresh, and the book a great addition to the author’s list.


Charlie and Zen Cho (Black Water Sister) discuss traditional Chinese beliefs, smashing up shrines, and Jane Austen.

Charlie and Rosanna Ley (The Orange Grove) discuss whether one of her main characters, Ella, made the right decision with the situational contexts at hand, the viability of a shop focused on orange-related products and set up in Dorset, the Seville producers of those products, and the secrets of the flour-free cake that starts the whole thing off.

Charlie and Gill Paul (The Second Marriage) discuss the lives and loves of Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas from their early married years until later life, the womanising ways of the men in their lives, and the opera and celebrity that in Gill’s book links them all.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode pages can be found here.

 
Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29626-1
First Published: 4th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2020
Rating: 5/5

Londoner Nora has worked her stable but uninspiring job for ten years; one day she sees in her mind’s eye a beach that she thinks she must have visited at some point… and the experience leads her to quit her job to look for a different life, perhaps in the place where the beach is – Tenby, in Wales. She knows her mother won’t be pleased – Jasmine dislikes Tenby – but ninety-three-year-old Gran will be overjoyed. Interspersed In Nora’s tale is that of young Chloe who lives in Wales in the 1950s and spends three weeks every summer in Tenby, where she looks forward to growing up, attending parties for teenagers and flirting with boys, but what she comes to look forward to most is time with Llew, the younger boy she considers her best friend.

The Hourglass is a tome of a book that looks at formative years of lives, not necessarily youthful years, and relationships and their effects.

This, Rees’ third novel, is absolutely fantastic. It actually includes few things generally seen as negatives – it’s slow, the ‘reveal’ could be called contrived and it’s not exactly shocking or groundbreaking, and the book is very long – but all these things as written by Rees turn the stereotypes on their head. The writing is similar to Rees’ previous books as you might expect, that is to say it’s different again in voice but as strong as ever, and the attention to detail and just, simply, attention to telling a fair story very well, forms the backbone of the success.

At a literal glance the novel is long, and indeed it does take and feel like a lot of time whether you read it over the course of several (or more) days, or just one or two, but once it’s over you’ll wish it took even more time. It is just the right length, the perfect novel to sit down and enjoy, it is the sort of book that completely lives up to the romantic idea of reading a good book outside on a sunny day with a big teapot of tea or large glass of wine. It’s slow in that wonderful way – there’s no quick drive as a reader to get to the end, you want to know what’s happened but you’re happy to go slow and find out whenever the author has decided you should know. And having an idea of the rough trajectory of life for the characters early, by way of their stories, helps you in that.

Given my nod to the stereotype of the perfect read above, it will come as no surprise that the book is beautifully atmospheric. Wales, that place in the UK afforded more rain than the rest, or at least in the public’s perception, is provided with floods of sunshine and a lot of detail both historic and present day (Nora’s story takes place in 2014). The relative slowness of ’50s life compared to now aids the reading experience – whilst Chloe’s perfect days are largely due to her age, nevertheless the qualities ascribed and experienced are a big part too.

Inevitably the hourglass of the story is as much a concept, a symbol, as a real item; the passage of time is one of the book’s themes. The reveal, which could perhaps be considered contrived in a vacuum, aligns itself to the concept to good effect. There is a slight deus ex machima to it on the surface – it’s not something you would have considered – but it makes you think back over everything else you’ve read so far, over Chloe’s wish to be more grown up early, over friendships and the use of time.

Of the book’s dual-plot situation, both stories are good in their own right. There is – of course? – a link, but both florish separately, and it would be difficult to say that either is better – if you like one more that will be down to personal preference. The romantic aspects of the book are also well done and lovely to read.

Two other aspects of especial note: the theme of mother-daughter relationships, more obvious in the present-day than the past though still an aspect of the historical thread; and the time given to the older characters in the novel. The mother-daughter relationship, here a strong bond that has become damaged in a way that needs to be studied by both parties, is a strong part of the story, it’s own thread detached from everything else. In terms of the older characers, Rees’ stories stretch a little beyond the happy-ever-after endings, appropriately giving you more time with all the characters following both your reading/emotional investment and time investment, as well as giving a voice to people who often get overlooked.

The Hourglass is one of those books wherein no words however positive and gushing can truly explain how good and in what manner it is. Suffice it to say that it is perfect, that now, when we could all do with a holiday, is a good time to read it, and that it is worth every moment.

 
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.

 

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