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Lewis Carroll – Through The Looking-Glass

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Mirror mirror on the wall.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1871
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Alice is playing with her chess pieces whilst cat Dinah tends to her kittens, but Alice isn’t happy where she is – there’s a big mirror over the mantelpiece showing the room in reverse and she wants to visit it. She goes up to the mirror to have a look, and finds she’s able to climb into it.

Through The Looking-Glass is the slightly lesser known sequel to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Shorter to a fair degree, it shares a couple of the same Wonderland characters but is rather a lot different.

Speaking from an adult perspective, there isn’t any character development here – Alice is exactly the same as she was in the book published 6 years prior and she hasn’t learned anything from her previous time away, that is to say she’s as stubborn as she ever was. It’s an interesting factor because you might reasonably expect a character, particularly in a children’s book, and no matter the era it was written in, to learn something solid, but this book is very much about the fantasy.

Speaking more generally and thinking of the target age group, this is a fun book, just not as good as the first. There is no White Rabbit or Cheshire Cat, and whilst it appears at first glance as though the Mad Hatter and the Hare make an appearance, that appearance is deceiving – they appear to be different characters entirely. The story has a satisfactory concept – a game of chess with human/fantasy creatures, but it’s not as well-plotted as the first. It’s worth a read, but will disappoint if you’re – reasonably – expecting a second visit into Wonderland; this Wonderland sports the same strangeness of character but is otherwise quite different.

But it is fun and has a lot of content for both children and adults. Clever turns of phrase are the ruling factor. The poetry is out in full force. And well-known concepts – such as the afore-mentioned chess – are given a lot of time. There’s having to hurry up if you want to remain in the same place; there’s this:

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

And there’s handing round a cake before one actively slices it. Lots of wordplay and thinking.

The relative shortness of Through The Looking-Glass is good – the story and characters are rather too strange for comfort and leaving the world is a bit of a relief; Alice might want to spend longer but it’s more nightmare than dream. It’s a good book but you’ll likely find the original better.

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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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Samantha Sotto – Love & Gravity

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The apple sometimes falls very far from the tree.

Publisher: Ballantine (Random House)
Pages: 284
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-399-59324-6
First Published: 7th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

When Andrea sees a boy seemingly inside her wall whilst she plays the cello, she knows he’s real, but a resent loss in her family’s life means her explanation is not taken well. In time she starts to push the event out of her mind but one day it happens again and it’s impossible to ignore. As Andrea becomes an adult she tries to work out what’s happening and who the boy is. At the same time 400 years in the past, a young Issac Newton attempts to use science to understand the girl who he realises is from the future.

Love & Gravity is a story of time slip and travel that takes the idea of an undiscovered box of papers and crafts a bold tale from it.

Sotto has based her story on a factual person, inviting interest because her tale is fantastical and ascribes the person with a purely fictional romance. However despite the obvious implausibility of it, Sotto has surely chosen the right person for the job. Using Issac Newton works well; it’s hard to dispute the thought that Newton could have been interested in time travel, a subject of scientific interest.

And beyond the travel, as much as it may sound an oxymoron, Sotto has stuck to reality. The amount of research and the effort to get things correct is evident – though the author doesn’t info-dump. Sotto has woven all her ideas around and in between Newton’s own, always defaulting to a mathematical or scientific reason or method for what she creates. She incorporates Newton’s theories and discoveries in such a way that even a person who dislikes fantasy may be interested in the book.

The writing is at times overly descriptive. There is a lot of use of that construction wherein a reference is made to something and then the next paragraph re-describes the item in other terms – think ‘cake’ and ‘the pink sugary confection’. A few contemporary phrases have crept into the historical sections. But the writing does the job and isn’t bad at all.

The mystery surrounding the ‘postman’ could be considered predictable – there’s a good chance you’ll guess correctly immediately and there’s also a chance, no matter whether you guessed or not, that you won’t like this particular element.

But, and this is a big ‘but’, this book is very difficult to put down. The readability of it doesn’t excuse the flaws, nor will you gloss over them, but the novel is enough of a page-turner that you’ll want to keep reading regardless. Sotto has upped her time travel game – this, her second book, has a lot less going on which means that whilst a lot going on wasn’t a bad thing in the first, this new book is more refined. Suffice to say that if you like time travel novels, it’s very likely you’ll like this one.

There’s a lot of romance towards the end; at times it seems the whole atmosphere of the book might get taken over by it but this is not the case. Sotto is always aware – it’s evident as you read – that a balance must be struck between providing a satisfactory time travel experience and sticking to the concepts we as a society have come to see as important were time travel possible, namely that one shouldn’t change history, should be wary of changing themselves, should consider doing things that would have a very minor impact.

Of note is the fact that the characters may not be forever memorable – they may be, they may not be – but that it doesn’t matter. The focus here is on the fantasy, the history, the possibilities of science and the power of music, and these objectives hold the novel together and keep it going. This is a book steeped in time and cultural history and references, very aware of it, using them openly and to good effect.

It works very well.

Love & Gravity is that rare book – it may have flaws but you may well find you can forget them. Recommended? Yes!

I received this book for review.

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Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

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Curiouser and curiouser.

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1865
Date Reviewed: 21st September 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

When Alice finds herself bored, sitting beside her sister who is reading a book without pictures or conversations, she longs to do something else. Seeing a white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat and holding a pocket watch, she follows him to his rabbit hole and promptly falls down it. At length she finds herself in a room with a tiny door and no way to follow the rabbit through, but there on the table is a bottle with a clear instruction: ‘drink me’.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is a Victorian children’s novel of bizarre fantasy. Ever relevant and deeply ingrained in our popular culture it’s both an important read and a fun one, and it’s good at any age.

Alice is an interesting character. She is in many ways a device, a fictional person Carroll uses to teach his audience various lessons and skills, a young girl who could be said to be a bit silly, oblivious, and perhaps bad tempered for the very fact that it makes the story and lessons more obvious. In Alice we have a very good imperfect person who allows you to see mistakes that could be made, meaning you would learn the cause and effect without, hopefully – I think we can assume Carroll had this in mind – making the same mistake yourself.

As a character otherwise she can be a bit of a bother – ‘irritating’ is too harsh a word – especially as there is no real turning point where she realises what she should be doing or how she should be acting. However this is speaking as an adult and speaking at a time when the Disney film adaptation, with its very polite, perfect, Alice, is more prevalent in popular culture. It’s hard to say for sure whether it’s the product of Alice’s age – alluded to rather than told to us – or perhaps the difference in time period.

It’s fair to say that in our culture where we speak of ‘wonderland’ in terms of something we all know about, the place has become more important than the person. Wonderland is bizarre, it’s the stuff of very strange dreams and far-out imaginings. It’s in part made up of that swords and shields and heroes idea that we have in childhood – and obviously has been a mainstay of childhood for a good couple of centuries at least – partly the dream of animals being able to talk, and also various bits and bobs that you can see Victorian cultural influences from. It’s magical but of the magic that can be more baffling than dreamy. It’s a weird place that is fine to read about, but not a fantasy world you’d want to visit. That’s Narnia’s forte – Wonderland is a little scary.

The writing is simple and the tale fairly short. The text hasn’t aged beyond its few time-specific ideas (that pocket watch, for example) making it completely accessible. For the violent aspects, such as the constant ‘off with his head’ it might be regarded nowadays to be for older children than it was written for but the lessons remain appropriate to the single digit years.

In sum, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland has something for readers of any age because even when you’re past the target age range there’s a lot to appreciate.

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Pamela Hartshorne – House Of Shadows

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Cast your mind back 400 years…

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 466
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-24958-0
First Published: 3rd December 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd June 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Kate wakes up in hospital. She’s had a fall but can’t remember anything about it or even who she is. Everyone calls her ‘Kate’ but it doesn’t feel right… she finds ‘Isabel’ more fitting. She can work an Ipad and recognise things in the hospital but is surprised by people’s clothing and the absence of Tudor items. Her relatives don’t seem too nice and there’s that malicious voice she heard when semi-conscious that said she should have died…

House Of Shadows is a modern day/Elizabethan time-slip in which a woman recovers from amnesia with the wrong memories, memories that nonetheless match up somewhat to her present situation. Author Julie Cohen, quoted on the back cover, called it a cross between Vertigo and Rebecca and whilst I can’t comment on the first reference, there are definite parallels with the latter.

Hartshorne has created a fair premise and the book succeeds in whisking you into that delicious time-slip experience. Kate has memories rather than dreams or travels so it’s not quite as ‘involved’ as some, but Hartshorne includes the memories as scenes so that the effect is the same as any other. The history is luscious, the romance well set up and believable, and it’s got that same big old house thing going on as Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, only here the house isn’t a neutral element, instead it’s almost a character in its own right.

Hartshorne plays with the idea of ghosts, pitting the concept of spirits against possession but taking a less definitive route to most – Kate’s son can see there’s something not quite ‘Mummy’ about the woman presented as his mother, as can Kate’s devoted dog – but still it’s not quite your usual idea of possession; there’s just something unique about it that’s as difficult to put a finger on as the reader as it is difficult for Kate to put her finger on her memories. But it’s a lovely aspect.

One of the themes in the book is the treatment of people and the concept of privilege. Much like E Lockhart in We Were Liars, Hartshorne studies the way class divisions still rule in society, particularly in the upper echelons. Angie, Kate’s friend, helps out in every way she can, running errands for the family and helping out with the estate’s visitor system, without any real acknowledgement. She doesn’t have a defined role and isn’t considered important because she’s a commoner (she’s also of Polish decent), and Hartshorne spends various moments throughout the novel looking at the difference between the family needing her insomuch as there would be some chaos were she to leave, versus the family’s view of her which is completely coloured by her class status. Then there is the general hatred of anything other than complete heterosexuality and a major hatred for disability, interestingly also shared by said disliked Angie. The lord of the manor cannot be disabled and he can’t be gay. The lord cannot be a lady and the lord must uphold all the traditions that have never and must never be deviated from. (Whilst race isn’t commented on, one assumes the family keeps a draw full of smelling salts in case they happen to encounter any non-white tourists.)

There are a few problems with this book and one of them (two, it could be said) is major: Hartshorne gives away the mystery in the first couple of pages. First you understand that there’s hatred around Kate and then a few pages after that the major twist shines brightly and as the twists in both the modern storyline and Elizabethan storyline are exactly the same – you realise that straight away, too – you don’t have much in the way of a reveal to look forward to. It’s not clear whether Hartshorne meant for this to happen – it could easily be said that it’s a case of the author wanting to provide intrigue, a hint, and happening to go too far. Instead of hints you get answers.

This means that your interest in the book changes from wanting to know what’s happened to wanting to witness the journey Kate takes to get there, but, and likely mostly due to that fact of the answer being provided so early on, this does not work. Hartshorne’s use of amnesia is a good idea in theory and it means that you start to look forward to Kate uncovering what you, unfortunately, already know, but as the book goes on the amnesia becomes more of a plot device.

The amnesia becomes a device and then it turns into something akin to a deus ex machina move – by a quarter of the way through you know not just the major twists but have figured out everything that isn’t solely minor, but the amnesia remains a device. The answers are staring Kate and Isabel in the face, the answer is glaringly obvious, and you have to ask yourself could anyone be so, so stupid?

These plot and character problems are joined by poor proof reading and weird writing choices – made up verbs and words ending with -ly when there are perfectly useful words already in existence (‘studiedly’, for instance). Plot points and information are repeated in a way that’s either down to a disbelief in reader memory or a major editing error (it’s not to do with Kate’s memory). The book could’ve done with a heavier editing hand and a few more drafts.

You may well enjoy House Of Shadows if your interest in reading it is to experience a time-slip or to look at social division but if you want anything beyond that, you’re going to want to read something else. It’s fun enough as a story, and easy to go back to – it’s quite like the situation I found with Amy Snow, wherein it may not be great when looked at as a whole but it’s a very fun experience nonetheless.

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