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E T A Hoffman – The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King

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Sugar plums are not always fairies.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Book cover is Vintage Classics’ edition)
First Published: 1816; 1853 in English
Date Reviewed: 12th December 2019
Rating: 5/5 (in its context)

Original language: German
Original title: Nussknacker und Mausekönig (Nutcracker And Mouseking)
Translated by (my edition): Mrs St Simon; Vintage Classics’ translation by Joachim Neugroschel

On Christmas Eve, Maria and Frederic wait excitedly for the moment when their parents will let them into the room to see the presents brought to them by their godfather. When it happens, the children find dolls, and soldiers; Frederic has a horse as he hoped. But soon Maria’s eye is drawn to a peculiar-looking figure that her godfather says is a nutcracker for all three of the siblings (there is an older sister, Louise), however as Maria particularly likes it she will be its keeper. When Frederic breaks the nutcracker’s mouth, Maria decides to stay up longer in order to look after it. She plans to go to bed afterwards; the toys have other ideas – there are mice in the house and a battle awaits.

The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King is the original version of the story used for Tchaikovsky’s ballet1. (The story used for the ballet is the revised, though not dissimilar, version by Alexandre Dumas.) Written in 1816, not too long after the concept of childhood was first formed, it is a particularly fantastical tale that, with Hoffman’s fame at the time2, most likely inspired the stories that came after it.

The story is very simple; a lot of the pages are given over to descriptions. The translation I read was the first known English translation, from 1853 – if you’re happy to read a scanned copy of the book I can recommend it because it has the added benefit of showing you the culture of the time.

Hoffman’s approach to storytelling for children (he also wrote for adults and is said to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe) is wonderful. Whilst the book is pretty scary and violent in places – though less so than the works of Lewis Carroll – it’s also written entirely to delight readers. You can see the idea of parents reading to their children being a likely component – Hoffman often talks directly to the reader, telling them when to listen carefully (‘listen, children’, added as a sentence clause) and writing in a way that they will relate to what’s going on.

The concept of dreams and the use of a story within a story pad out the fantasy; Hoffman blurs the lines between dreams and reality and employs a flashback sort of tale to help draw the reader further into the story. Speaking as an adult, it doesn’t quite hold its magic, but you can see where children would love it, and that’s just as much the case now as it would have been then.

To go back to that showing of the culture of the time, depending on your reason for reading – study/adult enjoyment or to read to children – you may need to find a modern translation (potentially – I’ve not read them) or be ready to consider different phrasing on occasion. Whilst the idea of a biting mouse might be fairly easy to work around, the cultural differences in regards to race are not. The ‘moors’ in this book are cute but ‘disturbed’ people, some of the only human characters but nevertheless considered very simple compared to the toys who have come alive.

Back to the better parts – the book is unisex. Hoffman does refer, in his addresses to children, more to boys than to girls but then as the main character is a girl this makes sense – it was likely considered the best way of keeping boys’ attention when the story is about a girl, and one younger than her brother at that.

For the adults, there are some great references to older literature and literary figures. There is a scaramouche, and the nutcracker invokes Shakespeare. There is also fun to be found in the names chosen for the characters – Stahlbaum, the family’s surname, means ‘steel tree’, and the elders are definitely not believers in Maria’s stories.

Interestingly, the majority of The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King takes place in the days after Christmas – a good few days after, if Mrs Simons’ translation is correct – the magic in the story is mostly down to the confectionery landscape of the ending. Nevertheless its beginning, and that sense of magic, ensure the entirety works as a Christmas story. And, contextual issues aside, it’s a lovely one at that.

Footnotes

1 Tchaikovsky hated the music he wrote for the ballet as he had been given incredibly strict instructions in regards to tempo and length; his story is essentially one of micromanagement before the word existed.
2 Hoffman was a composer and music critic as well as a novelist. He famously reviewed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which became a turning point – it set new standards. (He actually reviewed the music without hearing it, only having read the score. This was the usual method at the time.) Fun fact: Hoffman’s initials were originally E T W – the W stood for Wilhelm. Due to his love of Mozart, he changed it to Amadeus.

 
Samantha Sotto – A Dream Of Trees

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“A dream is not reality, but who’s to say which is which?” – Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking-Glass (quoted by Sotto).

Publisher: (self published)
Pages: 326
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-081-78019-7
First Published: 30th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 4th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

Aiden sits down in his hotel room’s chair and waits to die. Instead, the door opens and a Japanese woman walks in. She tells him she’s here to take him to his ‘rooms’, places he must visit before his soul can pass on. It’s unbelieveable, but he starts to trust her as she tells him to look over to the chair where his double sits; he has left his body. Meanwhile, the lady, Shiori, knows how incredible it all seems – she’s not sure why she is in the position she is and longs for the short periods of time she gets to spend in a greenhouse; rather that than these visits to those who are dying. But for now it is Aiden she has come to see and she must get him through however many doors will exist for him to pass through.

A Dream Of Trees is an exceptional book about what could happen between life and death and how we treat each other when times are hard. Somewhere between fantasy and magical realism, the novel offers an experience you will not easily forget.

This book is stunning. In a move away from time traveling and road trips, for her third novel Sotto has turned to a subject that is very moving and ever relate-able, with threads particularly relevant to our present day, her choices for the various characters and scenes up-to-the-minute. The writing is a delight, word choice and general detailing very effective. There are a number of proof-reading errors but – and this is, to me, all credit to the strength of the book – they don’t matter. Sotto’s story and her message are strong enough that it withstands them.

The novel transcends beliefs in regards to religion and faith. Concerned with the in-between and unfinished business, questions and thoughts aligned with religious ideas feature but are part of the wider spiritual whole, for example at least one person questions whether Shiori is an angel. There is a look at the afterlife in the sense of people waiting for others.

The characterisation is very good but regardless this is more of a theme-led book. The characters’ purpose is to look at questions we have and troubles that occur in our world. Situations such as a person who has suffered from poor treatment from peers, the ripple of impact years later, and the realisation of the perpetrator that what went on affected their victim far more than they thought. So in exploring the life/death moment, the novel revolves around the idea of unfinished business – having or not having it and how that might affect a soul going forward. It covers accidents, murder, and natural causes of death. It covers acceptance, disbelief, and simple incomprehension.

And around it all is the mystery of Shiori, of who she is and why she has such a job of leading souls. The narrative is open to predictions – you’ll likely have your own idea of what or who she is but there are many possibilities and no matter whether or not you were on the right track does not make a difference to your experience; when it comes to the answer it’s a surprise, a powerful one. At the same time there is the diary of days passed without an understanding of what’s going on that adds to the mystery whilst, ironically, adding to your own understanding. Sotto puts our relationships with each other as paramount, showing how important love and forgiveness are.

A Dream Of Trees is… well, it’s hard to say exactly how brilliant this book is; it is a book for everyone. I would pick your moment carefully – this may not (or may in fact be) the right time if you’re in a bad place – but I would most certainly recommend it. It’s an important subject and set of considerations.

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Eloisa James – A Kiss At Midnight

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The dream that you wish will come true.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62684-5
First Published: 27th July 2010
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Soon after Kate’s mother died, her father brought home a new wife – his long-term mistress. Now, her father dead, Kate has the attic room and shoulders all the responsibilities over the servants’ and tenants’ employment; her stepmother will let them go if she doesn’t. Kate would like a simple life – a man who loves her, no matter his rank, would be great. One evening her stepmother tells her she must pretend to be her stepsister, Victoria, and meet a prince; the prince’s approval of Victoria is required for her to marry his nephew, and Victoria is already pregnant so it must happen immediately. Kate leaves the house with Victoria’s doting fiancé and three lap dogs, looking forward to Victoria’s recovery from a minor facial injury so that the pretense can be dropped, but her story is heading in a different direction to the one she hoped for.

A Kiss At Midnight is James’ regency romance retelling of Cinderella (the version by Charles Perrault used by Disney). It stays pretty close to the author’s usual level of historical accuracy but allows for slices of fantasy in terms of dialogue and dress – more modern phrases, for example, have been added where the author spied them a good fit.

The book lies more in the realms of ‘based on’ than usual retelling – cover aside, you could potentially get quite a way through it before the details revealed the concept behind James’ story. The author has made some fairy tale devices more realistic, for example the glass slippers which, it is noted, aren’t made of glass because they’d break – instead they’re made of a material that’s a good alternative. There isn’t a pumpkin. There isn’t any magic. Instead, James has substituted concepts and modified others to suit. The stepsister isn’t evil, in fact she’s rather sweet. Cinderella has a good amount of time to get to know the prince before any decisions must be made.

There are times, however, when, perhaps realising that her story is veering too far from the path, the author uses devices. These do jolt you out of the experience but thankfully normal service is resumed as soon as possible. The sudden, fairy-tale-aligned appearance of a previously unknown godmother, for example, is backed up by an ample backstory to provide reason for the character popping out of nowhere. (The godmother does effectively pop up out of nowhere which, as the story moves on, seems less of a ‘must include her quickly’ element and more of a ‘the original idea was strange, let’s just go with it’.)

The story in general is good, the changes making the retelling better. The characters are well developed and matched, and James has ensured that there’s lots of chemistry. The light humour is great as is the ‘cute’ factor – the dogs, who James has spent an equal amount of time characterising. Less successful is the change to the ball, which is partly due to the reading expectation that it be excellent but also down to James’ choice to use it as a chance to cement the couple’s feelings whilst making it a more passive experience for the heroine – a bit too ‘wait around while I go enjoy the evening’, to hint without spoiling.

A Kiss At Midnight is a very good book, certainly one of James’ best, but its role as retelling has its drawbacks no matter how small.

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Nicola Cornick – The Woman In The Lake

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Too beautiful to lose. Too dark to keep.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45694-5
First Published: 26th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2019
Rating: 4/5

Lady Isabella Gerald would like her husband dead. Lord Gerald is a bully, an adulterer, and involved in shady practices; and he is often violent towards her. Meanwhile Isabella’s maid, Constance, isn’t as silly and sweet as Isabella thinks she is – in fact Constance is spying on her Lady for her Lord. One day, Isabella declines to wear the new dress her husband has bought her; after raping her he tells Constance to destroy the dress. But Constance doesn’t destroy it, although its presence seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. Centuries later, young Fen Brightwell visits Lydiard House, but upon walking into one of the rooms she finds herself alone; there’s an angry man in the next room, who is dressed in historic clothes and screaming at her to take away the dress that is lying there. She does so, and keeps it. Years later, after an abusive marriage and the death of the grandmother she lived with, the dress comes back into her life, together with thoughts and propensities she thought she’d left behind.

The Woman In The Lake is an appropriately fast-paced novel full of secrets and crime. Set in two time periods – the 1760s and the present day – it doesn’t use time travel/slip to the same extent as Cornick’s previous two dual-plot novels, instead spending time on both eras equally, the extra time afforded by the relative lack of travel spent on a stunning few ideas that slowly become more complex and exciting.

The story is good but it is specifically Cornick’s construction and execution of the various elements that makes this book what it is. The novel is like a whodunnit doubled, or even tripled; the amount of thought and planning that’s gone into it is obvious and it is as much this easy-to-see display of composition as the actual effect of it that makes the reading experience so vibrant.

This remains true even on those occasions wherein secrets and answers are predictable (sometimes they’re not hidden from you at all). The predictable nature of a fair number of plot and character elements may seem at first a drawback; but it’s not. Cornick has populated her novel with a fairly standard number of main and secondary characters but because she’s brought the use of secrets to them all – some more than others, of course – those secrets that are predictable are often of the sort that you need to know to be able to work out others. And even if you do work out more secrets than you may have been expected to, you’ve still got that complexity of the writing itself to enjoy.

The use of history is brilliant, and where it turns to historical fantasy it’s well thought out. You may need to suspend a bit of belief but that is part and parcel – if you’re happy reading a book where someone slips back in time, you’re going to be okay with the rest of it.

So there is a lot about the process to like about this book, and it could well be the best part, but the rest is right up there. The plot is paramount in general; the characters each in their turn bring the focus to their small section of the world, their individual lives within the whole. Cornick uses some social history here, particularly the alcohol smuggling that went on in Swindon, and then there’s Lydiard House and the parkland; in a break from her work in this genre so far, she populates her locales with fictional characters for both eras, using Lydiard Park and its past inhabitants for inspiration and spinning her own story from there. (A word about Lydiard House: Cornick’s history about the house as its own entity is based in facts – the council owns it now and it’s open to visitors. The council uses the upper floor for meeting rooms and so forth, so the bedroom as a museum piece is downstairs, a recent creation, as are other rooms that may have been upstairs; this is to say that if Fen’s visit confuses you at all, this is the reason. I wrote about the House and Park last year, including photos.)

The characters are good, but considering everything discussed so far, you may not find in them much to take away; they do each propose things to consider and the historical people provide food for historical thought but it is those ‘things’ that will likely stand out to you most, the characters interesting enough but more of a vehicle for the plot. No one is particularly winsome, however this is part of the point of the narratives. The historical characters are mostly loathsome, even those who have been treated badly aren’t very nice, and the present-day characters have many flaws to their traits; Cornick’s tale looks beyond perfections and dreamy heroes, in fact you may not be one hundred percent sure about any of the relationships or friendships. It’s a good reflection of reality and often also a good reflection of humanity in general. (The narrative is written from four points of view as a whole, with three taking the majority of the time.)

Domestic abuse is an important thread in both of the narrative eras with different stories behind them, the differences in society weaving into them in their own ways. In conjunction with this, Fen’s life includes a lot of child neglect, which combines with her married past. Cornick looks at Fen’s experiences as a fact-of-the-matter – Fen’s been hurt, and still is hurt, but it’s been happening for so long that emotions are largely off the table. It’s a hard-hitting tale that Cornick is careful not to tie up too neatly – some people never change.

The Woman In The Lake is a spooky book, a somewhat Gothic tale, that might just keep you up a bit longer than you’d thought, the story taking twists you may not have seen coming in terms of the way the characters deal with them, and Cornick being unapologetic in her writing of it. This is a solid work of fiction, factual when needed and when it works with the fantasy, and fantastical where it fits. It looks a various concepts with care and consideration. But most of all, it’s simply chock full of good literary action.

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Diana Gabaldon – Outlander

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Make certain the period you are researching was peaceful…

Publisher: Arrow (Random House)
Pages: 851
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75137-1
First Published: 1st June 1991
Date Reviewed: 8th January 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Reunited after WWII, Claire and Frank travel from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Highlands. It’s part second honeymoon, part research trip to find out more about Frank’s six-times great-grandfather who was a British officer for the army in the 1740s. Early one morning, the couple visit an ancient stone circle to witness a pagan ritual and it’s an interesting enough event, but when Claire decides to spend more time at the circle and touches the centre stone, she is whisked inside it; upon waking she is once more in the stone circle but there’s a battle going on outside between a band of kilted men and a small English patrol of Red Coats.

Outlander is an epic historical fantasy romance1 that takes a 1940s nurse back in time to the period her husband is researching. Creating for Claire a new life, including a second marriage, and written from her perspective, it stays exclusively in the 1740s.

The first in what is currently a series of eight books with another in the works, Outlander is a lengthy work, and mostly focused on the relationship Claire has with Highlander Jamie. This is to say that while it is a time travel and includes a lot of historical information, the romantic element is paramount and thus the aspect of fantasy far less used.

The history here is very good; whilst not always completely accurate, and not always developed where you might expect it to have been, Gabaldon’s research is evident. Often the reason any one section is slow – there are a fair few of these sections in the first half of the book – is due to the author’s focus on either information or the wish to detail the day-to-day of Claire’s new life as she settles in (or, rather, settles in whilst still planning to escape back to the stones). There is little info-dumping in the book – Gabaldon includes information well – and apart from the few issues with language the history in the book is enjoyable.

In terms of the language it’s 50/50 between highly believable conversation (word choice and phrasing for the time periods) and not so well written in terms of grammar and general phrasing. There are some sentences that use modern phrasing from across the pond that likely skipped through unnoticed, but overall Claire’s descriptions read well. There are a few Gaelic words and Scots words included, the former not necessarily meant to be understood, the latter easy enough to pick up in a short amount of time.

Looking at descriptions, it could well be said that the book would have been better had it been written in the third person. Claire isn’t particularly compelling – in fact she’s often downright irritating – and because Gabaldon sticks to her perspective, lots of elements you might have expected to be included are very short on the ground. Claire doesn’t often compare her new life to her old one or find any difficulties with it; apart from the times when she decides she wants to escape what is otherwise being developed by the author as a comfortable, romantic, new life, and apart from the handful of times when she knows the medical treatment she is giving to a patient won’t actually help, she doesn’t think of Frank, the 1940s, or modernity anywhere near as much as you would expect.

Due to all this, you never once hear about how Frank is doing back in the 1940s – once Claire time travels, he drops out of the story, to be referred to only in thought. This means that the development of Claire’s relationship with Jamie is a lot easier. Another literary device comes in the form of Jamie’s lack of sexual experience, which neatly side-steps the requirement to discuss STIs, which would surely have otherwise entered Claire’s medical mind.

Romance, but mainly the sexual aspect, is a huge part of the book and generally included ‘just because’ rather than to advance the story. The book is essentially an erotic romance, extremely explicit in places, rarely leaving anything to the imagination. As the book continues, it goes further than consensual sex, with scenes of dubious consent, and graphic, violent, rape (the non-sexual violence is also extreme, and there comes a point near the end when it could be called intolerable2 (and means that something minor in terms of story but crucial to the historical context is left out3).

For this then, then, it is difficult to say that Outlander is a general romance, and it’s not only the concentration on lust at the expense of love but the fact of perspective to blame here. Is there romance in the book? Yes, and a fair amount, but given Claire’s indecision, the romance is mostly in Jamie’s court where development and content is concerned. With no time for Jamie’s perspective, this all has to be filtered through dialogue. (Jamie’s perspective, and more historical context, would have helped explain the clash of cultures that forms one of the common criticisms of the book, which cites a man’s punishment of his wife.) The chemistry between the characters is evident, but not portrayed as well as it could have been, especially as Jamie has no real competition due to Frank’s exit stage right.

Outlander definitely has its good – excellent, in fact – moments, and there are patches of terrific humour to be found as well as a steady sense of duty, family, and kin, but it does spend a lot of time on moments that do not move the narrative forward and on things that don’t inform the premise of the story (there are well over 40 sex scenes in the book, both fully consensual and not) and would have been better edited down by a few hundred pages; suffice to say that when Gabaldon returns from the bedroom to the narrative, the effect on proceedings is immediate, and the story continues well. And the positives do out-way the negatives.

Footnotes

1 The author has noted both that as she was writing the book for herself she didn’t limit what she included (Gabaldon, n.d) and that the book has been shelved in shops under a vast variety of genres (Gabaldon, 2016).
2 On page 735 of the novel, Gabaldon does say the following, through Claire, which goes a fair way towards explaining the reason for the inclusion:

One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling and voilà! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh.

3 Due to the focus on violence, Christmas comes and goes, indeed the days are spent at a Catholic monastery, with absolutely no mention of it by anyone.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019
Gabaldon, Diana (2016) Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019

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