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Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29626-1
First Published: 4th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2020
Rating: 5/5

Londoner Nora has worked her stable but uninspiring job for ten years; one day she sees in her mind’s eye a beach that she thinks she must have visited at some point… and the experience leads her to quit her job to look for a different life, perhaps in the place where the beach is – Tenby, in Wales. She knows her mother won’t be pleased – Jasmine dislikes Tenby – but ninety-three-year-old Gran will be overjoyed. Interspersed In Nora’s tale is that of young Chloe who lives in Wales in the 1950s and spends three weeks every summer in Tenby, where she looks forward to growing up, attending parties for teenagers and flirting with boys, but what she comes to look forward to most is time with Llew, the younger boy she considers her best friend.

The Hourglass is a tome of a book that looks at formative years of lives, not necessarily youthful years, and relationships and their effects.

This, Rees’ third novel, is absolutely fantastic. It actually includes few things generally seen as negatives – it’s slow, the ‘reveal’ could be called contrived and it’s not exactly shocking or groundbreaking, and the book is very long – but all these things as written by Rees turn the stereotypes on their head. The writing is similar to Rees’ previous books as you might expect, that is to say it’s different again in voice but as strong as ever, and the attention to detail and just, simply, attention to telling a fair story very well, forms the backbone of the success.

At a literal glance the novel is long, and indeed it does take and feel like a lot of time whether you read it over the course of several (or more) days, or just one or two, but once it’s over you’ll wish it took even more time. It is just the right length, the perfect novel to sit down and enjoy, it is the sort of book that completely lives up to the romantic idea of reading a good book outside on a sunny day with a big teapot of tea or large glass of wine. It’s slow in that wonderful way – there’s no quick drive as a reader to get to the end, you want to know what’s happened but you’re happy to go slow and find out whenever the author has decided you should know. And having an idea of the rough trajectory of life for the characters early, by way of their stories, helps you in that.

Given my nod to the stereotype of the perfect read above, it will come as no surprise that the book is beautifully atmospheric. Wales, that place in the UK afforded more rain than the rest, or at least in the public’s perception, is provided with floods of sunshine and a lot of detail both historic and present day (Nora’s story takes place in 2014). The relative slowness of ’50s life compared to now aids the reading experience – whilst Chloe’s perfect days are largely due to her age, nevertheless the qualities ascribed and experienced are a big part too.

Inevitably the hourglass of the story is as much a concept, a symbol, as a real item; the passage of time is one of the book’s themes. The reveal, which could perhaps be considered contrived in a vacuum, aligns itself to the concept to good effect. There is a slight deus ex machima to it on the surface – it’s not something you would have considered – but it makes you think back over everything else you’ve read so far, over Chloe’s wish to be more grown up early, over friendships and the use of time.

Of the book’s dual-plot situation, both stories are good in their own right. There is – of course? – a link, but both florish separately, and it would be difficult to say that either is better – if you like one more that will be down to personal preference. The romantic aspects of the book are also well done and lovely to read.

Two other aspects of especial note: the theme of mother-daughter relationships, more obvious in the present-day than the past though still an aspect of the historical thread; and the time given to the older characters in the novel. The mother-daughter relationship, here a strong bond that has become damaged in a way that needs to be studied by both parties, is a strong part of the story, it’s own thread detached from everything else. In terms of the older characers, Rees’ stories stretch a little beyond the happy-ever-after endings, appropriately giving you more time with all the characters following both your reading/emotional investment and time investment, as well as giving a voice to people who often get overlooked.

The Hourglass is one of those books wherein no words however positive and gushing can truly explain how good and in what manner it is. Suffice it to say that it is perfect, that now, when we could all do with a holiday, is a good time to read it, and that it is worth every moment.

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Isla Morley – The Last Blue + Podcast

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

Charlie and Terri Fleming (Perception) discuss looking at the further lives of Mary and Kitty Bennet, working with Austen’s original stories and prose, Mr and Mrs Bennet’s relationship, and organising bookshelves.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Far from gloomy.

Publisher: Pegasus Books
Pages: 326
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-643-13418-5
First Published: 5th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

1972 – a young man has come into town and he’s asking questions, questions of the type Havens doesn’t want dragged up. We return to 1937, when Havens and Massey, photographer and journalist respectively, travelled to Chance, Kentucky, to find out about some local news and end up instead two of few witnesses to the life of an outcast family, living away from others on account of two of the children having very unusual skin. The siblings are blue.

The Last Blue is Morley’s fantastic third novel based on a real medical occurrance, and set in such a time (a century later than the factual history) that it effectively looks at further social issues, too.

The 1930s setting means that the fictional Buford family of Morley’s creation live during the time of racial discrimination; this results in a interesting aspect of the book where, as the reader, you can see a similarity between treatment of these white-blue people and black people; it can at times seem very allegorical – difference is not to be tolerated.

So there’s a lot of discrimination in the book – the Bufords are hated simply because they are different. There are times of extreme violence, and there are a number of looks at the affects and effects of violence as a whole.

Put together in terms of literature, the effect is brilliant – this book gets you thinking. And it almost creeps up on you as the story starts out fairly slowly, almost quietly. However this simply allows you to get a hold of the situation better.

Our main characters – our narrators – are the aforementioned Havens (first name Clay) and one of the ‘blues’, Jubilee. Morley uses an interesting narrative voice, far closer to first person than your usual third person, meaning that you get a number of effective sub-narratives, so to speak. The writing style, like the slowness of the book’s beginning, is deceptive – you’ll be thinking you’re in a soft fantasy novel for a while (even after reading this); at the start you do have to work at that surface to see under it, and that fact is one of the best parts of the text. And our characters are great to hear from, in fact one of the best aspects here is that one is just as intriguing as the other.

(On this note is Morley’s use of birds in the book. Birds are both a factor of life – we begin the book with Havens going to feed a pigeon -, and, in the way Morley situates them in her fiction, a symbol.)

Havens’ passion for photography informs a lot about the novel. There are two points of interest here: the first is the detailing. Morley provides a suitable amount of detail about photography in the era, which covers the role of a photographer in the media (Clay is in some ways what we’d call a photojournalist). Crucial is Clay’s ability to take colour photographs. The second is in the use of photography and imagery as a theme; as Havens comes to know Jubilee, photography becomes a way to tell not only a story in the way we know it can do, but also informs the progression of their friendship.

There is some lovely romance in this book, and it does exactly what you might think – highlight issues in its particular way as well as simply enhancing the story.

It is difficult to discuss The Last Blue in depth without revealing the story; hopefully there are enough pointers to show how successful Morley is in what she’s done. The text is both novel and study, a wonderful creation that you’ll want to keep with you for its fiction and its relation to multiple aspects of historical and contemporary reality. It is also just a very good story.

I received this book for review.

 
Caroline Lea – The Glass Woman + Podcast

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

Charlie and Zoë Duncan (The Shifting Pools) discuss coping with and healing from war trauma in reality and fiction, the use and power of dreams, employing various styles and formats, and how fascinating reader interpretations can be.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Will not shatter.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 400
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-93461-9
First Published: 7th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 11th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

In order to ensure the health of her aged mother, Ròsa agrees to marry Jòn, leader of another village a fair way from home. In doing so, Rosa not only leaves her mother but her childhood friend, Pàl. But life isn’t ‘simply’ going to be more difficult – it’s going to be far beyond that. Jòn is secretive; his first wife, Anna, died in mysterious circumstances and his manner seems controlling – he wants a meek wife; then there’s the villagers who say that Jòn killed Anna – and Ròsa isn’t allowed to talk to them. And Ròsa isn’t allowed into the loft of the home, from which strange sounds arise, haunting her sleep.

The Glass Woman is Lea’s second novel, set in 1600s Iceland, a generally wintry place that offers much for those looking for intrigue and a thrilling tale. Set wonderfully in its history, the book offers a lot of information about the time period that will appeal particularly to those more versed in the medieval continental Europe – the weather makes things a bit different in Iceland compared to Britain, for example. The history is good and pretty immersive.

But it is the story itself that holds the most interest; the novel sports parallels with two classical novels that are in themselves heavily influenced one to another – where Anna’s mysterious death is concerned and where Ròsa naturally starts to question the refusal Jòn gives her when she wants to go into the loft, the book turns towards the concept of the Mad Woman in the Attic, that concept that is a mainstay of Jane Eyre; and in its furthering of this – Anna’s apparent haunting of the place – it looks too at Rebecca.

Whether a deliberate nod by the author or not, the parallels with Brontë and Du Maurier are fantastic, both just far enough away as to not be too similar (as to repeat) and close enough to be a study of the concepts in themselves. The idea of a lingering ghost remains almost until the end (when you necessarily get answers) and the handling by Ròsa also similar enough to warrant further thought; there is – of course? – no question of race here, nor of envy, but the same concept of identity that informs the second Mrs de Winter is at play in Lea’s story.

On the subject of identity – altered here to be personal agency and control (suitable for the time and setting) – it’s well structured. The question as to whether or not Ròsa is at all truly meek, an obedient wife, and in various meanings of the idea, is looked at throughout to great effect, in itself a possible further nod to Du Maurier’s tale – however Ròsa has more leave to change her circumstances than Max’s wife ever did. Lea’s choices of history and place lend themselves well to the study, weaving in tradition and culture from the northern island nation, allowing perhaps for a stronger backdrop to the subjects at hand.

The further use of the classical works cannot be discussed without spoiling Lea’s story; suffice it to say the parallels become weaker at points but also stronger at others, and Lea’s situation as a writer in the 21st century allows for much more. The author is excellent at making you constantly question where she is taking her tale.

Other themes, somewhat related but far more the novel’s own, are the ideas of fragility and purity. These are looked at frankly in dialogue, but perhaps best in the element of the glass woman itself, an ornament Ròsa receives from her husband. There is a lot to be said for symbolism in the novel.

So the novel is thrilling in a good few ways, ‘inherited’ and brand new alike. The style and structure of the book aids in this; there are two narratives – Ròsa’s, told in the third person, and Jòn’s, told in the first person and set a month after that of his wife’s. It is a constant – and intriguing – quest for the reader to work out what has gone on; you’ve got Ròsa’s tale wherein she becomes fearful of Jòn, and you’ve Jòn’s that speaks of a different character to the one you’ve come to expect; the study of perceptions and reality is good. Despite the short time lapse between the narratives and the knowledge of how you have to read them and sort the information, Lea only allows it to be easy once you’re past a certain point, and that point is near the end.

The Glass Woman is a highly interesting one; on the surface you have a novel that is full of the day-to-day necessarily repetitive routine in an isolated, work-dependent place, laced with a burgeoning mystery. But as to be expected, once you look under the surface – and the possibilities are plentiful in an icy place – you’ll find it’s anything but.

And you’ll leave 1600s Iceland, however much Ròsa’s story matches others of her time or not (I can’t pretend to have much knowledge in this respect), with not only a particular set of ideas to think about but also a new approach to some age-old literary ponderings.

 
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.

 

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