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Elizabeth Baines – Astral Travel

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Looking backwards in order to go further forwards.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63219-9
First Published: 15th November 2020
Date Reviewed: 10th December 2020
Rating: 5/5

Now a grown-up in her own right, Josephine is composing a novel about her father who passed away a few years before. In doing this she hopes to better understand him; Josephine’s childhood was marked by a lot of parental abuse and neglect, physical and emotional, and as she tries to work through the trauma herself and to see past the blocks her mind had created to protect her, she learns more about the reasons her father and mother were as they were, why Josephine and her sister were scapegoats, and why their father changed his thoughts on his youngest child.

Astral Travel is a very careful novel that examines the effects of childhood abuse on people as they grow up. Due to its careful handling it is a difficult book to read but, in particular, readers who can relate to some amount of the text may find it cathartic.

The novel takes a few chapters to get going, owing to the question that will quickly arise – is this a book in a book, and, if it is, is it going to be a mashup of literary and magical realism fiction or something a bit different? The answer is that it is mostly not a book in a book due to the requirements of Josephine’s journey, however a more abstract interpretation of the ‘genre’ would be that it still is a book in a book, just not the one Josephine is writing. It is her research, the background she needs to find in order to write her book that we see here.

Most of the characters are unlikeable. Many will be unrelatable, but unlike that persistent idea that a book without relatable characters isn’t good (I digress, but it should be no surprise that this reviewer doesn’t subscribe to that) Astral Travel would not be what it is if you could relate. And frankly you don’t want to relate, not here, not this time.

With the book itself, Josephine’s first person narrative, set in the present day, the majority of the content looks back to the decades of the 20th century – bit from the late thirties, a few moments from earlier than that, and the decades of Josephine’s childhood and early adulthood (the 50s and beyond). This lends the book an interesting aspect – a backdrop of a less busy time foregrounded by concepts that are no longer acceptable, of which there are many and they are varied.

Josephine’s learned behaviour stops her from seeing a more normal family as the support they could be. Whilst her later in-laws have many of their own issues, their relative normality compared to the Jacksons is visible to the reader but never to Josephine. One of the unfortunate aspects of Josephine’s personal journey is that, whilst it simply may be beyond the scope of the book (which is a fair number of pages already), she does not get far enough in her exploration and self-therapy to see where people who are not like her family are okay to trust. This is likewise with Josephine’s mother – whilst her mother isn’t technically abusive, she is nevertheless somewhat complicit in the abuse and places the responsibility for not rocking the boat on her children rather than on her husband where it rightly belongs. And whilst she, the mother, has been physically abused herself, so you see the trauma there too, you can’t help but hope that part of Josephine’s further journey includes an understanding of the role her mother played, if just to make further sense of it.

The good thing is that the reader can see it all – this is why it could be cathartic for some, readers who may be further along their own paths.

To the writing itself, it’s strong and the general structure is very well thought out. Baines’ choice not to reveal ‘basic’ details such as Josephine’s name and gender, as well as a dedication to a writing style that keeps personal details hidden unless explicitly stated (barring subtext) means that you focus on the elements the author wants you to, when she wants you to. The use of white space in terms of presentation – sections are divided by blank pages – is practically a device in itself, a device more often used in poetry employed here in a way that provides literal breathing space for you to recover before you move on.

That’s one thing that ought to be pointed out, given I’ve noted that Astral Travel is difficult to read – the attention to structure and the presentation of the content (we’re back to the ‘careful handling’ here) means that whilst you might want to set it aside for a moment or two you’ll always be okay to return to it. You can’t help but root for Josephine.

I received this book for review.

 
Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Savior Of 6th Street

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Not at all a blank canvas.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-838-04510-4
First Published: 20th August 2020 (ebook); 22nd October 2020
Date Reviewed: 3rd November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Virgilio lives in a lower class area of Los Angeles with his mother, a spirit medium of Santería; Virgilio is an artist, respected at his local community centre. At an exhibition of the centre’s artists’ works, his paintings are admired and then bought by Beatrice, a wealthy woman from a privileged area of the city; she takes the acquaintance further than others would, attempting a friendship with Virgilio and offering to boost his work into a fine career. Despite reservations, his own and those of his mother and friends, he goes along with it, not realising a connection between the plan and the underground network of tunnels – a travel network under construction – used by many for illicit means, and by himself as inspiration.

The Savior Of 6th Street is an intriguing thriller that uses the subjects it looks at in its structure. This is to say that it has an art-like atmosphere to it from the reading perspective and may take some effort to get a hold of what’s going on in terms of what the idea is, what the author is saying, but that effort pays off a very decent amount.

To begin with, my assertion of ‘art-like’, the book obviously has a lot about art in it; in the literal use of the word we have a main character and a few secondary characters with varying roles in the art world. Virgilio the artist – you could well say in this case the struggling artist; Beatrice the collector, curator, manager; Anne the journalist, who quite possibly only works on art-based articles, the people at the community centre with Virgilio, and a couple of others it would spoil the story to name. Backgrounds and character development are shown through dialogue and specific word choices. And then, beyond this literal art, is the art-inspired way in which Ortega-Medina has told the story. The use of art as well as the religious aspects often come together in interesting ways, but then there is the prose itself where strings of words are placed together to form pieces of art in metaphor such as cars in rush hour being written as though they are a river. It’s an abstract usage – less Rococo, more Picasso – and it works very well.

A lot of the art-inspiration of the book rests on the use of religion. The main character being half Cuban, and with his mother very tied to her roots, has enabled a look at Santería, an African diaspora religion, developed over the last few centuries, which draws together elements of Roman Catholicism and traditional West African beliefs. The author not only has the religion as a religion, so to speak, but uses it to tell the story, with aspects from Catholic (and, simply, Christian) stories, such as the Crucifixion and Ascension, used as chapter headings, and likewise aspects of Santería.

(This means that it’s a good idea, if your knowledge is more Christian-only, or, indeed, neither side of things, to get a basic knowledge of the other side before reading. Research later, including – including just reading the author’s note – will open up the story to you as well, but if you like to note details and nuances, you will miss out on a few by doing only this.)

The application of Santería, then, is pretty awe-inspiring. It informs the narrative in a few different ways; questions you may have: who is the ‘savior’ exactly, in this book? How do we see the progression and fact of life? Is the fantastical element ‘real’? In effect, the book as art makes you look at life as art.

Having mentioned the potential use of ‘savior’ of the title, we can carry on across the sentence to ‘6th Street’. This is 6th Street in Los Angeles, which in basic terms largely involves a bridge that connects two areas in the city, a less privileged and a more privileged area. 6th Street thus brings two worlds together, literally, and in this book fictionally, and therein lies the basis of the tale. Many questions can be asked of the bridge’s role in the story, too, including possible abstract personification.

So there is a fair amount going on in The Savior Of 6th Street. And as said, it may take time and effort depending on your prior knowledge, but the end result is great, everything coming together, the series of literary triptychs ending in a big final piece; in the Christian sense, it’s like an extremely alternative (and definitely adult) take on the stations of the cross, and certainly an exhilarating one.

I received this book for review.

 
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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Julia Armfield – Salt Slow + Podcast

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Short periods of the paranormal.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 189
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-529-01256-9
First Published: 28th May 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

A girl with a skin condition grows more and more different to everyone around her; in a city people start to awaken to Sleeps – their sleeping self – and find they can stay awake all the time, the ghostly beings following them; a stepmother’s adoption and humanisation of a wolf signals her stepdaughter’s decent into animalism.

Salt Slow is a stunning collection of short stories that differ in their subjects but share an eerie quality. All the stories are about women, with men featuring in only a few.

This is a collection that is from start to finish absolutely brilliant. Every one of the stories makes for a good read, studies of ideas and playings with extreme versions of everyday occurrences that are a literary delight – to be sure this isn’t a fun read in the usual sense (it’s far too weird for that) but the literary experience is wonderful.

A lot of this has to do with Armfield’s choice of which angle to take. The stories balance well morals, with a starting point that makes the story easy to understand; this is to say that whilst you’ll want to pay attention anyway, the collection is one that’s very accessible. This in turn adds to the enjoyment of it, the ease at which each story moves to the next; whilst there are few shared specific subjects, you can read the collection as the well-planned series it is.

When we were younger, our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities; ghosts in office chairs and office bathrooms, hot and cold running ghosts on tap (p. 24).

The first story, Mantis, where a girl finds friends and seeming support enough but still a pull of something else more dark and unarguably paranormal, introduces this whole concept. But it’s perhaps in the second story, The Great Awake, which looks at the idea of our twenty-first century attentions pulled in every direction 24 hours a day that the concept is solidified. It’s hard to call any one story better than the others, such is the strength of the book, but of meanings and relatability, The Great Awake is perhaps the best, Armfield’s paranormal expression of something that is widely known and studied bringing with it, for all its fictional aspects, the very real truth behind this particular reality. Another standout, Formally Feral, looks at the anthropomorphism of animals – in its extremes, of course – and offers a look at how animals can be just as aware, juxtaposing where a wolf takes on the parenting for a child who is meant to follow suit with her parent’s strange choices and decisions pertaining to siblings.

Salt Slow‘s offering is long-term; whilst the book may have the most impact the first time around, there is plenty to take from it on subsequent readings where you can pick your favourites and delve into them more. The themes of identity – both the basic sense of self, and in relation to others – the themes of relationships, and the various concepts intrinsic to them (as well of those that are intrinsic in the sense of being away from them), and possible effects of religion, are a joy to discover. Armfield’s collection both sits well alongside others and carves a place all of its own, at once a great new work in the genre and a fantastic voice completely unique. It’s weird and wonderful and utterly worth it.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.


Today’s podcast

Tune in with Orlando Ortega-Medina and me as we discuss celebrity fictional reincarnation, writing short stories that don’t have messages, and working with ideas that could – if misinterpreted – look like something else.

If you can’t use the embedded player above or want to access the purchase links, click here to go to the hosting site. The podcast is now also available on Spotify.

 

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