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Nicola Cornick – The Forgotten Sister

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It will be coming around again…

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 366
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27849-6
First Published: 30th April 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Popstar and TV presenter Lizzie attended the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Dudley, and his girlfriend Amy. It was a drinks-fuelled day, perhaps most memorable to everyone for the sudden leaps into the pool. But for Lizzie, the most memorable aspect was the strange experience she had when she touched a crystal ball belonging to Amy and found herself falling, then waking up surrounded by people. She remembered Amy’s young brother, Johnny, seemed to not be surprised by what happened. Now, some years later, Amy is dead, and the media is turning on Dudley. It’s also turning on Lizzie, the suspected other woman who has never seemed far from Dudley’s presence. Centuries earlier, the wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley – a woman from a lesser family, called Amy Robsart, was found dead at the bottom of a back staircase. The cycle will continue until it is stopped.

The Forgotten Sister is Cornick’s fourth time-slip novel; it deals with the unsolved mystery of how Amy Robsart died – did she fall? Was she pushed? Did she die essentially due to something else? It’s daring. It’s also simply a very good book.

Beginning with a short narrative from a ghost and then switching to the modern day, the use of the same names for both periods may strike you as too easy – it means that a lot of the story is there on the table for you, straight away to use without any need to work it out. (This assuming you have at least a passing knowledge of the time period – you don’t need to know all that much but a brief reading of the basics of the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley will mean you understand what’s going on quicker. You don’t have to know it, it’s more a case that not knowing will offer a different sort of reading.) However it’s of course not actually that easy.

With its focus on modern day celebrity, this book is very different to Cornick’s last three. Whilst the time-slipping is there as has been usual, and whilst the means by which it happens echoes the author’s work so far, the atmosphere in this book is very different. The atmosphere is very fitting – modern day celebrity as the comparison to Elizabethan royalty – and it works well. There is a necessary distance here where the characters do not move in the wider society, which may take a bit of getting used to, but there’s enough going on without it.

There are few nice people here – the historical situation wasn’t exactly good either – but there are enough to balance out those that are difficult to read about. In keeping with the darker side of celebrity and publicity, it takes modern day Lizzie some time to work out who is friend and who is foe. The various houses and other abodes used in the book – Lizzie’s flat, another property, and modern day Amy’s home – are almost characters in themselves, which fits with Cornick’s characterisation of the place Amy Robsart died, a place quite possibly haunted.

Compared to the modern day thread, the historical thread is more straight forward. It deals with Amy’s life and the trouble there. It doesn’t take long to see why there is more time and detailing given to the modern day – in this book, Cornick uses both time periods to tell a fuller story; the historical section deals with the aftermath of Amy Robsart’s death, a restless ghost and a cycle of trauma; the modern day adeptly deals with the story of the death itself, effectively showing you how not only its modern day counterpart to Amy Robsart died, but how Amy Robsart herself died, essentially taking you from the start of the story to its end and then leaping forward to the aftermath of the aftermath, the breaking of the cycle. This is one of the best aspects of the book, Cornick’s usage of characters who are similar but not the same, to, with complete effect, tell the story of the historical Amy Robsart. (This is another reason why you don’t have to know the history.)

The mystery as solved here by Cornick is of course fictional – we may never know what happened to Amy Robsart – but it’s very believable. And the way it is solved effectively in the present day makes it easier to understand the motivations of the historical characters as we of course do not know as much about them; Cornick brings necessary life to those who now exist only in ink and paint. The reveal draws attention to how easy and thus a bit too obvious the obvious would have been back in the days of awful punishments. The solving is made more thrilling by Cornick’s employment of the supernatural, where Lizzie experiences slices of life of those whose belongings she touches, and by a brief but very satisfying foray into time travel.

The Forgotten Sister is awesome. It gives new life to a mystery, to a person who was essentially pushed aside, the lights of the Queen and her favourite shining brightly. In its fiction it requests another look at what happened as well as a look at the after effects on Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. And it does this whilst providing a superb up-to-the-minute story, super fantasy elements, and that ever-present eerie something that might just slip past your fingers and beyond the last page.

I received this book for review. I’m early writing this review (with permission) so I’ll say here to put 30th April in your diary if you like the sound of the book.

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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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