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J Courtney Sullivan – The Engagements

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Diamonds are forever.

Publisher: Virago (Little, Brown)
Pages: 515
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08937-6
First Published: 11th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Copywriter Frances Gerety creates the famous DeBeers slogan, ‘A diamond is forever’, and the company sees a massive hike in sales of engagement rings. A couple of decades later, Evelyn and Gerald are preparing for the unwanted visit of their son – Evelyn does not want him splitting up the family. Another decade and James laments his failed career as a musician as he works as an EMT (paramedic), saving lives. Later still, Delphine jumps ship when a younger man comes on the scene, leaving her husband and their antique shop. And in recent years, happily unmarried Kate tries to stay calm in the face of her dysfunctional family as they prepare for the wedding of cousin Jeff.

The Engagements is a multi-plotline novel with five narratives loosely based on the theme of rings.

Most of the stories in this book are pretty bog standard, nice enough to read but not compelling, however the story of Frances Gerety and the accompanying general information about DeBeers and diamond mining is fascinating. It’s not apparent until a little while into the book, but Sullivan takes time to explore every aspect of the industry; whilst most of this time is spent on the way diamonds have been advertised, the author also looks into the relations between the American company and the countries from which the diamonds are taken; she looks at the way the engagement ring is acquired – bought or passed down the generations; she looks at those who have decided not to marry or fall into any of the associated trappings. And whilst the narratives are average (though the stories are far more about relationships in general than engagements), the use of five stories over the course of several decades allows Sullivan to inform you of the way things have changed over the years.

This all sounds great, and it is, but after a while the stories take their toll. The problem here is that the book is simply too long. There is a great amount of info-dumping – after a couple of rounds of it you start to see the warning signs for when a block of irreverent text is on the way; Sullivan will introduce a minor character and give you a lengthy back story or provide a history of a main character you don’t need. The book is to a large extent a series of flashbacks. And it’s not at all aided by the writing. General sentence structure, grammar, older characters speaking as though they are much younger; often the writing is clunky enough that it’s difficult to work out in which country a character is living.

You’d be forgiven for wondering throughout the book why Sullivan has collected these particular narratives together. They bear no relation to each other apart from the loose engagement ring connection – in big part loose because of the sheer numbers of people who can relate to it. Towards the end, the reasoning for these tales becomes clear as Sullivan forms a circle of relation but it’s rather forced, almost a deus ex machina situation. Tying them all together has the effect of showing you what Sullivan may have been trying to do the entire time – spoilers ahead and for the rest of this paragraph because it needs to be said to be explained: show the passing of a single ring down the ages. This concept as used in the book is actually fascinating due to its execution – Sullivan shows the different ways people go about acquiring their rings and the way the diamond industry exploits people whether they have the money or not. It starts as an heirloom, becomes stolen by someone who hasn’t the money to buy a big ring, gets given to this person’s prospective daughter-in-law by his wife who never liked the big diamond, gets left in a taxi by the prospective daughter-in-law when she leaves her relationship, and is lastly bought from a collector/jeweler by a same-sex couple. Through the use of a single ring, Sullivan makes her way through socioeconomic issues and changes in culture. It’s great; it’s just that it’s a bit too late in the proceedings to be able to say that the prior 500 odd pages were all worth it.

The Engagements offers insight into the creation of a monopoly and the politics surrounding it – DeBeers is of course a real-life company and whilst we haven’t lots of information on Frances Gerety, she did indeed write the slogan; and the book offers a great look at the effects of the industry on reality. But it is a big investment for something with relatively little pay off. Rather like, some would say, engagement rings themselves.

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April Munday – The Heir’s Tale

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More to learn after the war.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 150
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: B075KQ3HX4
First Published: 29th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Ancelin returns home from the war he fought alongside his brothers. His betrothed, Emma, has been waiting a long time and is happy to see him, but so is his sister-in-law Alice, whose husband is now dead. Ancelin has always loved Alice and her sudden interest in him causes him to rethink his betrothal.

The Heir’s Tale is a coming-of-age romance set in the medieval period, and the start of a series of books about a set of brothers.

The research in this book is of a very high standard. Munday strikes the right balance of detailing and holding back to the extent that there are a good few times when it’s easy to get lost in the history. The amount of research is evident but only on consideration, leading to the best of reading experiences where you can relax into it without any worries of the author including too much or any errors. The writing backs it up; it’s solid. There are no anachronisms and the text reads smoothly.

It’s apt to talk about Ancelin’s growing maturity in terms of relationships. The character continually darts back and forth – one minute he knows he likes Emma, the next he’s tempted by his sister-in-law – and it’s a long-term thing, the main conflict in the book. On the surface, Ancelin is a frustrating person to read about however upon reflection it’s quite realistic – it’s all too easy to ascribe modern notions to this young-twenties man and think that he should be better, but when put in the context of his lack of experience and the sudden turnabout of his romantic situation, wherein he has loved Alice for years without her paying any attention and now she’s turned full circle, it makes a lot of sense. The continuation also has another role – it allows Munday to look at the character further.

Here the best example is probably in the character’s gender. Rather than look at Ancelin with an eye to the sort of romance that’s often included – where the male character will act in ways that’s romanticised and dreamed about but not often true to reality – Munday unashamedly puts sex before romance, so that there is more physical action (aside from sex itself which, true to history, doesn’t happen during the betrothal) in places where you might have been expecting roses. This said, there are also roses.

The characters as a whole are good – Emma is very patient with Ancelin but is by no means meek, in fact she’s the strongest character. Ancelin’s brothers get a lot of look in to set up the other books but it doesn’t actively detract; his father is a fair secondary character. Alice however does present a problem.

Alice has very good reason for suddenly showing romantic interest in the brother-in-law she’d previously not spent any thought on – she’s a widow in the medieval world and about to be sent off to a convent against her wishes. It’s obviously rather wretched that she’s trying to break up a prior betrothal, but she doesn’t have many options and as caring as her father-in-law is, society rules will go on ahead.

Where the issue lies is in the actions, the way Alice goes about trying to get Ancelin. You know from the moment Ancelin arrives home from war that Alice is the villain and she’s quite cardboard cut-out. In itself she is just one character but as this becomes part of the conflict of the book, the continuation makes it difficult. It comes to a head towards the end, where it’s obvious to the reader what’s happening but the characters don’t put two and two together. It means it’s a bit too angsty.

There is a lot to like about The Heir’s Tale but it can be overshadowed – the scenes in which Alice is absent, and there are many, are good and show Munday’s work well.

I received this book for review. The author is a friend.

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Sarah MacLean – A Rogue By Any Other Name

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Or name(s) – he has two already.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 386
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-06852-1
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 15th January 2016
Rating: 2.5/5

Michael, Lord Bourne, has been gone for a decade; he left after his guardian, Langford, lured him into gambling away his land and fortune. Michael’s childhood friend, Penelope, is swiftly aging away from eligibility in the marriage market; her father adds to her dowry Bourne’s old lands, which the family have since gained. Now part owner in a casino, Michael is a very different man, but he remains determined to get back his heritage. And if marrying Penelope is the way to do it then so be it.

A Rogue By Any Other Name is a book that begins very well. The set up works; the characterisation is good, the use of a casino different, the writing strong – everything holds a lot of promise. Penelope and Michael are great characters – Penelope’s wanting to have a different, more interesting, life than that which is usual means she’s adventurous and generally not afraid to say what she thinks and whilst Michael has changed a great deal since she knew him, the way they interact indicates a good book ahead.

At this stage the romantic element of the book is easy to read and enjoyable, and the inclusion of letters the younger Penelope sent to Michael is a nice touch. In terms of relationship content, it quickly becomes apparent that Michael will be taking the lead but it’s of a type that is supposed to be alluring and will be to some readers and just not alluring but likely readable for others. (Mostly – I should point out that there are a couple of things that could be called either way depending on personal preferences.)

However as the book continues, the promise of the beginning first flies out of the window, then comes back to not only shut it but lock it several times over. The story and development is ever more manipulated, the angst overdone to the point of becoming boring. The characters continue to believe things can never be good between them, which works whilst they are having problems but as the relationship takes a turn for the better – as you knew it would because this is a romance – still this ‘it won’t work’ carries on. It’s a constant refrain from both even when they’re in each others arms and giddy with love, an obvious device to keep the book going.

Change too does Michael’s nature – he becomes domineering to the extent you might wonder whether Christian Grey was the inspiration in terms of control, the problems here being similar in their effect, if not their content (though there are some minor similarities), to E L James’ series.

And the writing takes a turn. Anachronisms, historical errors, and the constant use of repetitive thoughts.

Had the angst been curtailed and literary devices limited, A Rogue By Any Other Name may have kept its promise, but by the end of the book, when the love is fully established and known by both, and yet the angst is still going on, you’ll be wondering if another name might indeed have made a difference.

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Terri Fleming – Perception

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Redux.

Publisher: Orion Books (Hachette)
Pages: [to come]
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-409-17062-4
First Published: 13th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

With Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia married and away from the family home, only Mary and Kitty remain. When Mr Montague arrives in town – single, wealthy, – Mrs Bennet sees possibilities ahead. Mary is inclined to believe marriage is not for her, but the man proves bookish, has a large library, and may have taken a shine to her.

This is a superb book, a fine follow up to a famous book by someone else.

Fleming has chosen to stick with Austen’s way with words; the language is Victorian and the effort to get it right practically leaps off the page – but it’s never overwhelming: Fleming blends in. Are there occasion moments of modernity? Yes, but more often than not it’s a discrepancy with grammar, wherein one could say that perhaps, maybe, Austen or her contemporaries might have said whatever it is. It would be impossible to say that this book has not been gone through with a fine tooth comb and that those few errors are not the equivalent of the odd typo found nowadays. (Indeed there are far fewer errors here than there in new books sets in our present era.)

The overall literary atmosphere is also Victorian, with Fleming keeping to the same relative lack of action as Austen. In terms of physical movement, nothing much happens – it’s all in the character development, which is rather good. It’s also an easy read, a book that makes you want to keep reading and isn’t at all difficult to resume reading when you need to take a break. It can be read in short bursts to no ill effect.

As said before, the character development is good. Fleming’s got them just right – they match Austen’s well yet Fleming manages to bring a bit of our present day feeling into it without distracting from the original context. Where, for example, some now say that Mr Bennet did not treat Mrs Bennet well (I’m personally of the opinion that they are a bad match and Mr Bennet is dealing with a lifetime of unnecessary drama), Fleming slides this idea in finely, looking at the question without detracting at all from the surface dressing.

There are a few characters that the book could have done without, namely the two shopkeepers whose role doesn’t have any true impact and who could have been edited out without issue. Thankfully their chapters are very short and there are only a handful of them. (They are also two of the purely fictional people so that combined with their lack of impact renders them completely irrelevant.) The other new characters work well and the original characters have been handled carefully, Fleming putting her own spin on proceedings and detracting from the original context as little as possible.

This is a book for book lovers. In addition to the major factors of the book, the story revolves around libraries, with Mary’s bookish nature allowed full reign. Whereas Jane and Lizzie’s stories are full of sweeping romance, Mary’s is more quiet (though no less compelling). It could be said it wraps up a bit too neatly but the same could very well be said of Mansfield Park.

Kitty’s romance is a lot less important in context, and isn’t as developed – at least in terms of time – as Mary’s, but given the relative shadow over her from Lydia’s presence, it’s not so out of place, so to speak. That Mary is provided more time, with all things considered, does make sense.

Perception is fantastic. It looks to conquer any language and structure issues head on, and creates a story that whilst factually unnecessary, does provide a lot of value, enough that you can say that its worth goes far beyond the simple idea of continuing a story very much loved. It’s also an excellent read just for the effort put into it, Fleming’s time spent researching and getting it all right being a delight to witness for itself.

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Barbara Erskine – Sleeper’s Castle

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Now I lay me down to sleep…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 530
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-51319-2
First Published: 30th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 28th August 2017
Rating: 3/5

When Andi’s partner dies, she’s forced out of his London home by his ex-wife; Andi moves to Hay-On-Wye to house and cat sit for a friend. Sleeper’s castle, as the house is known, poses a bit of a paranormal conundrum – those who remain there are visited by history, dreaming of the lives of the medieval residents of the house. Andi must balance this mental take over with the looming presence of her partner’s wife, whose home Andi starts to visit in her dreams. The woman seems to have a penchant for violence.

Sleeper’s Castle is an epic novel of history, and a psychological thriller. It requires a lot of time that may be seen as a reward by some but not worth it to others.

The book is effectively two stories melded into one package and it can be a bit jarring when the narrative moves from one to the other; especially where it concerns the time-slipping, the reversion back to thriller can seem an after thought. And as the novel continues, it does drag on, not knowing when to call it a day.

What’s interesting though, is that the historical content isn’t particularly compelling in itself; aside from the bit on Owain Glyndŵr it’s largely an ordinary tale; but the time-slipping itself is a lot of fun to read. The process of it. The theories. The way the cat is a fully developed character, an aspect that has been done with aplomb.

The thriller starts off well enough, with the long-gone wife returning to lord it over the long-standing loyal partner, and the ensuing conversations between the characters affected by the woman, about emotional instability, make for a solid foundation, but it starts to get unrealistic with people leaving things to fate instead of acting on the threat. The ending of the thread is very unsatisfying.

The writing is so so. There appears to have been a very heavy hand in the editing process, a distinct lack of commas and odd grammar choices which are at odds with the author’s longevity and affect the dialogue badly.

So it’s fun sometimes but for the length of it and everything that detracts from the fun, you might be better off reading (or re-reading) Erskine’s previous novel about the town of books.

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