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Patrick Gale – A Place Called Winter

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But a book as lovely as summer.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 338
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-20529-2
First Published: 1st January 2015
Date Reviewed: 6th July 2018
Rating: 5/5

In the early 1900s, Harry is in an asylum and given forced bathing treatments until he is brought to a more holistic treatment centre for people whose lives and personalities do not fit the social norm. Now in hypnotherapy he has a chance to find out why he was in the asylum in the first place; the mental journey back will take him from Britain to Canada, from family man to outcast, inherited wealth to pioneering homesteader.

A Place Called Winter is an epic historical with a similar atmosphere (due to both time period and writing) as Anna Hope’s Wake, though the stories are very different. A book with a definite main plot but lots of supporting elements, Gale’s novel offers a sumptuous escape into history alongside a hard story of discrimination.

It would be impossible to talk about this book without revealing the main plot point, as it’s too important; Harry is gay – not always conscious of the fact, or at least not to the reader – living in a time when it was illegal to act on it. When his affair with another man is discovered, Harry’s given two options – leave his family and country or be turned in – and so the book moves on in its location but not its look at Harry’s sexuality. Gale has populated his novel with good characters, both people who are simply likeable – most who would welcome the changes we are making today – as well as those who make hassle; these ‘villains’ at good at presenting the problems and reasoning in the historical context. As much as this is a plot and situational-driven book, the characteration is superb.

Amongst the plot points related to Harry’s sexuality is Gale’s study of other aspects of life that were deemed inappropriate. Time is spent on Harry’s friendship with Ursula, a cross-dresser who in their Native Canadian tribe was living a life revered by their kin. As Canada was taken over by the British, Ursula’s ‘wrong’ way of living meant she was moved to an asylum.

Gale’s writing is wonderful; it adds to the historical atmosphere and is just a joy to read. The information he provides on homesteading and the beginnings of the changed Canada is fascinating, giving more time to a part of the American continent that’s often overlooked in this way.

The novel, told in two narratives, comes to a head as Harry remembers why he was sent to the asylum. It’s not as strong an answer as you might expect, but the threads tied by its revelation are lovely and Gale gives his character a good end, despite everything that has happened previously. And whilst the reason for Harry’s treatment isn’t as strong as the rest of the book, the previous chapters, which constitute an ending themselves, are. Harry finds his people, Gale demonstrating what we know from historical evidence, that social rules didn’t fit everyone. It’s a story that has hints of Kate Chopin, and the better concepts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and it’s great.

A Place Called Winter is brilliant. Go and pick it up; it’s engaging from the first few pages. Any more words included in this review would be superfluous.

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Nicola Cornick – The Lady And The Laird

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A little more conversation.

Publisher: Mira (Harlequin)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-01628-7 (ebook; paperback out of print)
First Published: 30th July 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd June 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Lucy’s twin died in love and now Lucy is afraid to fall herself; happy as a near spinster, she writes erotic letters for her brother’s friends to give to the ladies they wish to woo, donating the money she makes to those in poverty. But her last letter hits the mark a bit too close to home – in helping her brother, she unwittingly ruins the upcoming marriage of Robert, the man she kissed some years ago. Robert needed to wed the lady in order to gain his inheritance and Lucy may be the only possible bride left.

The Lady And The Laird is a very well-written regency romance that includes conflict but never at the cost of a good story.

It is the defining feature of this work that allows the rest to flow so well. The Lady And The Laird sports a good handful of problems that keep the story going without ever going too far. This is to say that the main conflict that prevents the romance moving forward – as you would expect such a thing in romance – carries on only until a very realistic point wherein the characters open up to each other and communicate their problems. Communication is a big element of this book. The characters have trouble at first but they give it their all; there is no situation where a lack of communication is used as a device.

That said, there is one area that could have been tied up a bit quicker, and that is the story behind Alice’s death. It’s not a conflict in itself – the conflict is the result it causes for Lucy as explained above – it’s that it’s one of those times when the reader can tell very quickly what’s gone on but the narrative takes a while to fully inform.

The romance is well done; with the characters given a lot of time to progress and with the realism included (away from the obvious fantastical perfection and coincidences that create a story) it’s steamy not just in the scenes themselves but otherwise. The characters are on a par with each other and whilst there are times when Lucy is undermined by others, Cornick quickly flips the tables and puts her in a position of strength.

There is plenty of history to be had both in terms of the Scottish Highlands and a Scottish version of the Bluestocking society, both of which this reviewer can’t determine the reality of but whether fact or fiction provides a good representation of the real life. (Cornick refers to the ‘Golden Isles’, which may be a nickname for a real place.)

For all of the above then, the book is a fun, quick read. The world-building is often such that you find yourself immersed in the scene, with the running and repairing of inherited land written with aplomb. There are some editing errors but these are mostly confined to the opening chapters. The only thing missing is one possible thread – there is some dialogue and a long-term quarrel between two secondary characters that is presented in a way that suggests the two will discover a romantic connection, but which is not ‘completed’; it could be that it was just a quarrel, it’s simply that it’s referred to a good few times but doesn’t get an ending besides the characters returning to their respective homes.

This book is pretty damn good. It brings refreshment to the staid idea that a romance must have a continual conflict, shows the importance and positive result of communication. The characters themselves may not be the most memorable – because the novel itself is so good.

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Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing

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Homegoing was on the British Book Award shortlist for the Debut Book of the Year 2018.

History is not always confined.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 298
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97523-7
First Published: 7th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Effia’s mother tells her to keep the beginning of her menstruation a secret. It’s long been known that Effia would marry the man next in line to be Chief but Baaba has something else in mind and Effia is traded in marriage to the white governor of the Castle. As she moves away with James, Baaba tells her daughter that she is not related to her and that her mother abandoned them. As Effia’s new life begins, her unknown half-sister is taken prisoner, held with hundreds of other women, about to be sold into slavery overseas. The sisters’ situations will reverberate down the ages.

Homegoing is a superb mainly-historical novel that starts in 1700s Ghana and continues into our present century. Spanning many generations, it spends a number of pages on each character in turn, nevertheless retaining the sense that it is a novel of one story.

Gyasi has created something rather remarkable. Within moments she sucks you into the story, her use of history in all contexts – the writing of it, the knowledge included, the bringing to life – starts it off, and then her masterful characterisation ensures you don’t let go. In terms of the history, there’s a fair amount of information that often gets looked over, as well as the horrors that continue.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive and Gyasi creates the perfect balance of narrative and dialogue. It flows very well; indeed the only negative aspect of the book is the use of ‘off of’, the only thing that stunts the flow.

But at its heart, beyond the subject matter that we’ll go on to in a minute, is that characterisation. There are few books in which multiple narratives are considered to be equally fine. Gyasi’s is one of those few. No matter how invested you are in any one story (which read almost as vignettes despite the time they span; there are no complete endings within a character’s chapter, the only closure is in the descendant’s chapter) you never once feel that sense of loss so often caused by other multi-narrative novels. Would it be nice if there was more of each character’s story? Of course. But the novel does not suffer for the lack of it. The progression is natural and easy to follow; Gyasi includes hints early on and you soon get used to the flicking back and forth between bloodlines. If you do fall behind – and you will when it comes to working out which generation you’re on to – there’s a family tree in the opening pages.

As it’s pretty obvious from the start – or at least from the moment you realise how Gyasi has plotted the book – that somewhere it’s highly likely the two bloodlines will meet in some way, it’s pertinent here to say that the book isn’t predictable on that count. This isn’t your usual ‘and magic happened and they found out who each other was’. There is indeed ‘magic’ in the book – to use the phrase that people down the ages start to refer to traditional spirituality as – and yes there is a meeting of the bloodlines, but there are no unbelieveable discoveries.

On the subject of symbolism is Gyasi’s use of fire and water, with fire particularly pronounced because water is more obviously associated with the beginning. It’s a gentle, weaving sort of symbolism, that takes you through the various generations, creating an impact – the history of a people on their descendants – as well as a sort of coming-of-age, cycling, taking back ownership.

Apart from symbolism, Gyasi explores the slave trade, particularly, as said, in terms of the beginnings and early impact in Ghana. She explores the affects of the difference between the Northern and Southern states and the impact of Southern laws on free men of the North. She explores segregation, the concept of passing, and tensions and social and political problems still occurring today. These explorations are interlaced with the chapters so that black history in America as a whole is explored in depth. Again, Gyasi’s writing makes everything flow together, showing how they are both separate subjects and part of a whole, and as with everything else the author does it with aplomb.

Homegoing is the sort of novel that stays with you, that you want to return to. In the second to last chapter, Marjorie is asked by her teacher if she feels the book she is reading inside of her. I think we all know that feeling, the one that makes reading so worth it.

You may well find it in this book.

I received this book for review.

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Sherry Thomas – The Luckiest Lady In London

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Lucky, but well matched.

Publisher: Berkley Romance (Penguin)
Pages: 276
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-425-26888-9
First Published: 5th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Felix doesn’t trust people. Neglected as a child by his mother, and having to watch his parents’ loveless marriage progress ever further into bitterness, he never lets an affair become serious. Meanwhile family rich but cash poor Louisa is looking for a husband amongst the wealthy; she’s got a few siblings, one with epilepsy, and a mother to look after; if Louisa likes her husband then all well and good but it’s not important. When Felix suggests she become his mistress with the promise of life-long provision she’s tempted but believes she can do better.

The Luckiest Lady In London is a novel that shares its society and a couple of characters with Thomas’ previous book, Private Arrangements. It’s a deftly-plotted story that shows the author’s expertise in writing what her readers want.

The romance is very well done. Thomas has created a couple that are well suited and the relationship is believable. She looks into the ways they are suited in terms of interests – quite a few pages are devoted to astronomy, telescopes, and there’s a fair amount of information to learn about the practices and scientific beliefs of the period.

But the strongest element of this book and what sets it above many others is the way Thomas deals with the requirement for conflict in a story. The defining conflict, apparent early on, is not the be all and end all of the work; Thomas uses it but keeps it realistic and reigned in – never once does it outstay its welcome. Thomas gives a clear nod to what is wrong and then the characters get on with solving the problem.

And they are good characters. Obviously there’s the fantasy of the poor historical woman gaining the hand of the wealthiest man in society, but Thomas makes it work. There is solid reasoning in everything. The story is undemanding and an easy read with a good chunk of value. The writing, as always with Thomas, is top notch.

The Luckiest Lady In London isn’t standout in the way one usually thinks of that category but it’s a good read.

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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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