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Sherry Thomas – Delicious

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If food be the music of love?

Publisher: Bantam Dell (Random House)
Pages: 404
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-440-24432-5
First Published: 29th July 2008
Date Reviewed: 6th February 2020
Rating: 3/5

Verity is a highly-regarded cook. Her food brings goodness to any dinners her employer puts on for guests. Verity has been in a relationship with her employer. But now Bertie is dead and his estate is to go to Stuart, his illegitimate brother, who is engaged to be married. Verity once spent a night with Stuart and she’s worried about what will happen when they meet. And then there is Verity’s past – she was certainly no cook.

Delicious is a romance set in the 1800s that looks at various consequences, mainly those that affect Verity, but a couple for Stuart, too. It sports Thomas’ ever-good usage of language but is lacking in what made her previous book (her first) so good.

Where the book works most is in its hero – Stuart has come from an incredible humble beginning, and at the place he is in his life when the story is told, he remains fairly humble. His choices aren’t always great but they mostly make sense.

The issue is mostly with Verity. Whilst her background, which it would spoil to discuss because you don’t find out much until the end (this is an additional problem because the resulting secondary thread essentially means you’re kept in a state of confusion the entire time) has an understandable impact on her thoughts and emotions, there is further issue in the way that Verity’s worries become a means to keep the book going. Verity hides from Stuart, very literally, and whilst it works at first it later becomes a bit of an ‘oh not again…’ situation, particularly during a couple of scenes where she goes against common sense in her situation as a servant. During the flashbacks, where we find out about the day Verity and Stuart met, her actions are more understandable and certainly less of a device.

The main issue, though, is that state of confusion; with Verity’s background being hinted at but then seemingly taken back, so to speak, and with a minor character’s situation also being hinted at before being taken back, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. Being able to keep track would have aided the process of understanding character motivations. And when the confusion finally ends and you get a clear answer, you may just wonder why the idea was there in the first place because without it the story would have been a lot stronger, and with it, though it might just about work in the historical context, you almost, in fact, don’t have a story.

Delicious is an okay read, but the structure is such that you’re right at the end before you’re in a position to really ‘get’ it, and for this book, that doesn’t really work.

 
Tracy Chevalier (ed.) – Reader, I Married Him

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There was every possibility of reading a book that day.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 282
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-15057-0
First Published: 7th April 2016
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2020
Rating: 4/5

For this anthology, twenty-one women writers, some very well known, others less known but no less great, come together to tell various short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular the famous line that comes towards the end.

This collection is pretty special. Not only are the stories on the same theme but on the same sub-theme, the same sentence. It’s true that many of them do not deal closely with the subject itself, but they do all revolve around it, just at different distances.

Reader, I Married Him explores the variety of ideas that accompany all our personal experiences of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester’s union – some look at it in terms of love, just love; some look at it in terms of the thoughts that have been explored in our more modern times of Rochester’s personality and the difficulties with his ‘woman in the attic’, as well as in terms of Jane’s beliefs in herself, and her experiences in childhood. Others look at it in terms of how it might play out today, others in a modern day context in general. Some look overseas, in countries Charlotte Brontë had possibly never heard of, and some look at same sex romances that would have been completely off the table.

The variety is, both by its nature and simply by fact, the best aspect of this book. You get enough stories about Jane Eyre and other characters from the novel to be satisfied with the literary context and classical exploration, and then there are also enough stories that are close enough, too, in that way, which means that the others – far more loosely based – become an excellent palette cleanser and are highly interesting in themselves. (Because, suffice to say, if you’re picking up this book, you’re either picking it up for Charlotte Brontë or for the authors.)

Chevalier’s compiling of the stories has been done well; the contributing editor has arranged them in such a way that even if you tire of any one particular story, you’re still very interested to read the next. And this is no mean feat when there are twenty-one to get through.

No surprise – there are plenty of standouts. Standouts for you, yourself, are necessarily going to depend on what aspect of the exploration intrigues you most, so this paragraph may be more subjective. Standouts in terms of this review include Kirsty Gunn’s Dangerous Dog, a very loosely-based story that centres on a woman who comes across a group of teenagers hurting a pit bull and tries to show them it’s not a horrible creature; Joanna Briscoe’s To Hold, where a woman marries three men for different reasons but loves Mary; the titular Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill, a fictional narrative concerning the marriage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (though they are not named as such); Francine prose’s The Mirror, which looks at Jane’s story as a repeating pattern in Rochester’s house, Elif Shafak’s A Migrating Bird, loosely-based and concerning a young Muslim student who falls for an effective exchange student who friends say will return home; Patricia Park’s The China From Buenos Aires, incredibly loosely based but fantastic, a tale of a young Korean Argentinian woman who moves to America and misses home; Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me which is exactly what you would think it is; and Tracy Chevalier’s Dorset Gap, where a guy joins a literature student on a walk post-pub (public house) visit and tries to emulate her idea of signing a book for passing ramblers to poor effect.

Certainly a few of the above stories are better than the others in the paragraph but there isn’t a ‘bad’ one in the whole bunch; it’s simply the case that when you find the one or two that speak most strongly to you, be that in the literary context or otherwise, the others just can’t quite match up to them.

But that is to be expected; with the variety of debates on the various themes and topics in the original, some will speak more strongly to you than others. This is where the more average, more ‘plodding along’ periods of your reading will take place, when you want to be done with your current story so you can see what the next one is like. The book can also seem longer than it is because of the need to reset your expectations so often and so much, what with differences in closeness to Brontë’s work. Inevitably the work you have to do to understand them in context changes, too.

Reader, I Married Him does really need a reading of the source work behind it to get the most out of it; it doesn’t matter whether you read it once years ago or whether you’ve studied it over and over – you just need to have read it. And every reader will take away something different from it; interestingly, if we were to say that everyone’s opinions of the classic are branches of the same tree, then these stories and our opinions of them are further branches, from each of the first. It is effectively a secondary or tertiary source. And it’s a good one.

 
E C Fremantle – The Poison Bed + Podcast

On today’s podcast I’m joined by E C Fremantle (Elizabeth Fremantle) author of The Poison Bed; also Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason, Watch the Lady, and The Girl in the Glass Tower. We discuss changing pen names, a horrific murder case in the Stuart nobility, coping as a new mother in a one-of-a-kind situation, and the historical line between witchcraft and ‘simple’ superstition.

Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

The main episode page, which includes the full episode details, the transcript, and a question index, is here. The podcast is also available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and via RSS.


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In all senses of the phrase, do not take it lying down.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 403
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-92007-0
First Published: 14th June 2018
Date Reviewed: 26th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Frances Howard is in the Tower of London, accused on murder. She has confessed. Now, as she awaits trial, she tells her story to Nelly, the girl assigned to look after the baby. Also in the Tower is Frances’ husband, Robert Carr, charged for the same reason. He too tells his story, of a man who was once the King’s favourite. Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Or are they both doing the same thing?

The Poison Bed is a fictionalisation of a true event in history; Frances – a member of the family in a rivalry to be top dog at court – and her husband were brought to trial for the murder of a lower member of the nobility. Using facts wherever possible, bringing in likelihoods and possibilities where information is debated, and creating elements where there is less or no information, the novel pulls the history towards us in a way that makes the thoughts and reasonings of the time very understandable. The book has been described as a historical Gone Girl and it’s a very apt description – the atmosphere of thriller and the manipulative quality is similar, as is the structure.

The book begins with a sense of vagueness – if you don’t know what it’s about (and the blurb on the back is suitably vague) it can take a couple of chapters to get to grips with what’s going on. Some readers may find this difficult – certainly you might feel like a fish out of water – but it’s something to stick with; the confusion is very fitting and in keeping with the genre, and it primes you for the work you will want to do to get to the bottom of what’s happened and is happening – whilst Fremantle gives you all the information by the end, not leaving you wondering at all, you’ll want to do your own detective work on the fly.

The narrative voices may also take some getting used to. The book is formed of two narratives – Frances tells her story for a chapter, then we turn to Robert, and back again. Frances’ narrative is mostly in the third person but sometimes switches to first – the change is intentional, the extra thinking you do keeps the novel in that psychological zone – and Robert’s is in the first person. The characters also deal with their stories differently; both look to the past but Frances’ is more your usual flashback retelling whereas Robert’s sounds more present. Interestingly, for all that Robert appears to speak directly to the reader, he is more distanced than Frances. However, Fremantle’s use of the third person for Frances permits a highly informative look at her thoughts.

The strictness, as it were, of the narratives – this back and forth between only two characters – is one of the biggest strengths of the book. Constrained (or should that be condemned?) to spend your time with only two of the fair-sized cast of characters hones your focus and increases the darkness. Of the darkness it is almost absolute, with the novel situated in the Tower; despite the numerous time spent in sunnier locations during flashbacks and Robert’s storytelling, the despair of the Tower is ever-present. For her second book, Sisters Of Treason, Fremantle spent most of the novel’s pages in the Tower with the sisters of Lady Jane Grey, weaving a tale that was very dark and foreboding; with The Poison Bed the author has managed to take that further with the addition of the psychological thriller aspect and in this regard the book is absolutely stunning. Owing to the nature of it, the story isn’t always pacey, if you want to take breaks (you may well – these are not particularly pleasant characters) you can; rested assured the narrative will hold your attention even when it’s not speeding along. There is manipulation in the book and the list of those at the receiving end has your name on it.

Moving on to the historical concepts, Frances’ value to women at court as a palm reader begins the look at the balance between witchcraft and what was not considered witchcraft. You will most likely learn something new from this book on the subject, and various ideas under the umbrella subject are done so with aplomb. In regards to Robert Carr being a favourite of James I, Fremantle has looked at the potential of the intimacies in terms of sexual connotations. The novel also looks at the position of women in society not ‘just’ in terms of Frances’ place in it but in terms of business, and reputation both general and more specific to the time.

In terms of the historical event, it is a relief, after you’ve turned the last page, to leave the world The Poison Bed steeps you in. In every way beyond that – as a work of fiction, in the planning and storytelling, the attention to historical detail, its literary merit and overall value – the novel is fantastic. And it is most definitely worth the read.

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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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Nancy Bilyeau – Dreamland + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Nancy Bilyeau! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie Place and Nancy Bilyeau (The Crown; The Chalice; The Tapestry; The Blue; Dreamland) discuss the lifestyle of Dissolution-era nuns, using a website’s ‘contact me’ form to great success, there being more relics than there were items, using your family’s name in your work, and the grand amusement parks and luxury hotels of New York’s past.

To see all the details and transcript, I’ve made a blog page here. The episode is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Lastly, you can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


Book Cover

Ice cream, cotton candy, and crime.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44577-7
First Published: 16th January 2020
Date Reviewed: 11th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Reluctant heiress Peggy is summoned away from the regular bookstore job she loves to attend her family‚Äôs holiday, staying in a luxury hotel not far from the amusement parks of early 1900s Coney Island. The Battenbergs have received a sudden invitation to join the mother and son with whom they hope to make an alliance via marriage, and with their own wealth in decline there’s no way they can refuse the offer. They go. But Peggy can’t resist the amusement parks her social class are supposed to stay away from, and when a girl’s body is found and she is amongst a crowd of onlookers, the distance between her circle and the families at the parks shortens considerably, even more so because Peggy’s interest in the other part of Coney Island leads her to meet a working class immigrant and park employee, forming a connection that is unthinkable.

Dreamland is Bilyeau’s fantastic fifth book (third story over all). The setting is incredibly immersive, with the sights and sounds so well described and created that the features stay with you throughout your reading, keeping you in that feeling of somewhat being there yourself as the plot elements keep going on around you.

Of course it is helped by Bilyeau’s choice of setting – this summery location with so many different elements and the grandness of its historical context is incredibly welcoming, albeit that the story is a thriller and thus the situation discomforting.

No surprises then that the research is as thorough as always. The luxurious hotels and amusement parks of Coney Island as detailed by Bilyeau – that are each separate entities as demanded by the class structure no longer stand1, but Bilyeau’s studies and descriptions enable you to get a great idea of what they would have been like. And the character placements mean that you get a pretty good look at both; the number of characters and Peggy’s place in society means that you see more of the hotels – hers in particular – but the descriptions of the parks allow for a built-up picture there, too.

In Peggy, Bilyeau has created a worthy heroine, a good symbol of her time but very relatable today. More curious and desirable of a different life, Peggy moves between the worlds that are otherwise strictly separate, taking a few others along with her; this is naturally where the delineation is most apparent. The wealthy are… wealthy, and privileged, but in Peggy’s choices we see a barrier that has been placed in front of her – it may be positioned as safety guidance, but she isn’t really allowed in the parks.

Peggy’s part in the book shows well the views about women at that time. Peggy is in the highest echelons of society but still she’s essentially just a woman; she goes where the men of the family dictate, and they do dictate. She in fact has less agency, in some ways, than those below her, or at least it seems; Bilyeau shows well how the same values carried over very differently depending on who you were, for example, the regular women can bath in the sea more freely; if Peggy wants to go in the sea she’s required to cover up almost entirely.

The mystery is solid. Interestingly there are only a few options provided for you to really consider however this is in itself as much of a red herring as any other. In providing a very limited number of people who could have ‘dunnit’, the author pushes your focus towards Peggy’s own journey of discovery, and with all the aspects in place there, it’s a ride and a half. The mystery brings into question the changing times of the period, this 1911 year that was on the cusp of a war that would change everyone. It includes the differences between the classes, and the various affects extreme privilege can have. It also, unsurprisingly, shows the favour given to men – of the right class, of course – when it came to investigations.

Once again Bilyeau brings immigration into her stories; here the subject is used quite differently compared to The Blue (where the main character looked at the concept of religious refuge); it studies some of the problems that came with people moving to the States from Europe where they were fairly persons non grata depending on where they were from, not entitled to being believed when there was blame to be found.

Related to this is the romantic subplot; Bilyeau has woven her tale here into the rest of the story and provides it a very satisfying conclusion well in keeping with the time. To be sure the book is a thriller, but the romance is a good addition that further expands on all the topics discussed by the rest of the story.

Dreamland is a very good book; the mystery very well written. The frustration you’ll feel for Peggy keeps you reading as do the sights and sounds of the location, the mix so deliciously at odds with the concept of the area. The fun of the parks will draw you in and the twists of the mystery will hold you there. Find yourself some candy floss and a deck chair or, given the release date – and just as well suited – a warm sweater and hot chocolate – whatever the weather outside your window, this book will pull you into its heatwave summer and a mystery that is very well paced.

Footnotes

1 The area has recently been redeveloped to include one park, which bears the name of one of the originals: Luna (the original three were Luna, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland). Information can be found at Trip Savvy. You can view photographs of the parks and old hotels here.

I received this book for review.

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