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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Only go with the flow to a certain extent.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-25215-4
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Gil sees his wife standing outside the bookshop, he runs after her, causing himself a fair injury in the process. Daughter Nan isn’t amused – Ingrid disappeared many years ago when she and her sister were children – and she’s very likely dead. But Flora sides with his father and as Gil returns home from hospital the sisters look after him, together with Richard, the man Flora had been sleeping with but had split up with, in not so many words, before she left to meet Nan. The family house is full of books which are stacked on every surface, a few layers deep – Gil has an obsession with finding secondhand books that hold receipts, letters, and marginalia. Mixed in with this story is that of Ingrid’s version of her marriage to Gil, told in letters, that she had slipped in between the pages of various relevant titles.

Swimming Lessons is an utterly sensational novel of truths and lies, mystery and a spot of magical realism, and regret, all held together by the theme of literature and writing. Ingrid’s tale begins at university where she studied English and met Gil, her lecturer. Their story moves on from there, with Gil’s friends warning Ingrid about Gil’s personality and the university putting its foot down. The chapters set in the present abound with literary ideas, criticism, and general conversation.

“Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader.”

“…often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words… are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman, or child – who left something of themselves behind.”

This means that whilst the subject of the book, or, rather, subjects, can get pretty dark, the wonders of the text keep you in a positive state. The darker side of the novel – Ingrid’s revelations, which are effectively revelations to the reader, and the question as to what happened to Ingrid – are written superbly; Fuller’s writing style, plotting, and subsequent literary execution are absolutely marvelous to the point that the book is just as good to read for its prose as it is for the way it unravels its subjects. A good use of the present day setting and decades past round out the writing.

As for the characters they are very well drawn and feel far from fictional. Fuller references I Capture The Castle, and there are, in Ingrid’s love of the beach and writing of it, potential allusions to The Awakening (‘potential’ due to the book not being referenced). In the idea of Ingrid having been lost to the sea there is a minor reference to Virginia Woolf. The inter-textual nature of the book enhances both the atmosphere and the characterisation and also leading you to think that situations may match those in the older novels (which can be the case but not always). Gil has a writing room to which no one else is allowed entry. Flora is often naked. Ingrid found her changed life difficult. Like Fuller’s previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons looks a little at neglectful parenting and favouritism.

This book pairs joyous reader escapism with some uncomfortable subjects. It is a good idea to go in prepared for a blunt look at what can be hidden under the surface, of parenting, of marriage, and then give your all to it. Because it’s a triumph; not the sort of characters you might want to spend real time with but the book itself, everything about it, oh heck yes.

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Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing

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As the crow flies.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 229
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-57237-4
First Published: 20th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Jake (a woman) lives on a sheep farm. It’s a fair life but she’s always on tenterhooks, waiting for what she believes is the inevitable appearance of her abusive ex. In her time she’s journeyed far to get away from him and the life that had become sordid. And most recently she’s had more reason to worry – someone or something is killing her sheep.

This is a difficult book. Not in the literary or harrowing ways but in the way it’s been written and structured. All The Birds, Singing is the story of Jake’s life up to the present point but the events are all jumbled and it’s not a case of a chapter per event; one minute you’re reading about farmer Don and stranger Lloyd, the next Karen, who seems to have been/is a friend, then Greg, who soon falls from the narrative without a trace. And because it’s not just about the people – I’ve used names to make the explanation easier but there are various places involved, too, that often sound the same – it’s a good while into each chapter until you’re blessed with the answer as to what and when you’re reading about. The chapters are not differentiated – there are no dates or times and the writing is the same.

This means you end up spending a lot of time trying to ground yourself, time that should be spent understanding what you’re reading and gleaning answers. The plot itself is incredibly vague to the point that it surpasses all notions of ‘clever’ to become too much. This means there’s a great distance between reader and book. It makes it hard to care about what’s going on. One question is answered but in terms of the book it’s very minor; it may have been important to Wyld but it’s not something that occurs to you to think about until later on because there are other things that have been going on for the entire time that you’d like to know about.

Where the confusion and vagueness works is in the way Wyld doesn’t specify Jake’s present day location, instead leaving clues via references to the flora and fauna in perhaps the most dedicated example of ‘show’ yet. It likely won’t be vague to readers familiar with the place but many will likely admire the way it’s eked out.

There’s a nice atmosphere to the nicer sections of All The Birds, Singing, but it’s hard to recommend.

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Nicola Cornick – The Phantom Tree

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Those of both history and the present.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 420
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45504-7
First Published: 29th December 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Alison ran away from her abusive cousin she had no idea that opening the inn door would whisk her away from the 1500s and straight onto a 21st century street. But that it did; when her cousin, now father of her child, sends her away, she returns to the present but though she adapts well to modern life she yearns to return to her son. Meanwhile, Mary Seymour deals with continuous accusations of witchcraft and a house that doesn’t want her. And forefront in her mind is the promise she made to Alison to somehow leave word of baby Arthur.

The Phantom Tree is a time travel book in a similar vein but different voice to Cornick’s previous novel, House Of Shadows. This different voice is one of the stand-out elements – Mary Seymour’s narrative, in particular, is very different from Cornick’s previous narrator, yet the author keeps her writing itself the same. It’s an interesting element that speaks highly of Cornick’s ability to develop characters whilst not changing her style too much.

Interesting, too, is the basic plot and the way the time travel has been included. There is one particular plot point that’s very predictable – the character really should have put two and two together earlier – but other than that it’s well done. Cornick hasn’t created anything new in the way that the time travelling happens but it’s the detail that’s good, the way she’s used a well-used device and just got on with the story – with time travel used so much, there’s little need for basics.

The characters are well drawn. We aren’t given much of Alison’s first days in the present, more of a quick nod, as the focus is on her search to get back. It is easy to wonder every now and then how she could have learned so much in a fairly short time but not unbelievable considering her personality. Throughout Alison is the stronger of the two heroines, and although it is true she’s mostly a modern-day character anyway, reading about her in the past shows a person who could fit in anywhere.

In Mary Seymour’s case it’s very intriguing; Cornick has exploited the lack of knowledge we have about Mary, Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour’s daughter, and really gone to town with it, making Mary not just accused of witchcraft but actually able to see the future. Mary’s magic does contribute to an ending that some may find a bit far-fetched given our collective lack of knowledge (not far-fetched in the concept of fantasy!) and there’s something she shares with another that’s very fantastical. Thus this book goes beyond the sub-genre of time travel – it’s a full on historical fantasy with some hearty romance included.

Speaking of far-fetched, the clues left for Alison by Mary are very vague to the point that unless you trust in their relationship, and the continued significance of it despite the years apart, you may find it hard to believe. This element does stretch the imagination somewhat, though it’s more due to the way less time is spent on the sleuthing and because of the requirement for word and symbol association.

The two heroines are obviously distanced so there’s not as much room for development there as you might have hoped – this is a dual narrative that may never cross paths – but the other relationships in the book are very good. Adam, Alison’s ex-boyfriend of the modern day, is a TV historian, a role which turns out to be as excellent as you would hope in the context, and Mary gets a romance too. Cornick spends time on Alison’s search for Arthur and this thread has a very poignant ending.

There is one issue with this book as a product that unfortunately affects the reading – somewhere towards the middle the proofreading disappears. Cornick’s good writing remains throughout but the editing errors are numerous.

The Phantom Tree has a fair story, strong characterisation and great writing, and a fast pace and attention keeper even during the too-fantastical parts, but more time needed to be spent checking it over before printing.

I received this book for review.

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Benjamin Wood – The Ecliptic

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Do not disturb.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 463
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-12672-7
First Published: 2nd July 2015
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

It’s some time in the 1960s or 70s and Elspeth is living at Portmantle, a mansion and grounds on an island near Turkey, a place for the most talented artistically-minded people who are finding creating impossible. Elspeth has been there a number of years – how many exactly she’s not sure, watching, together with similar residents, others come and go whilst her own project evades her. One day a new resident turns up and won’t fall in line with the status quo. And Elspeth starts looking back at what led her to escape the world.

The Ecliptic is a great novel that is at once very different and rather familiar, a book in which the themes are those not often studied in fiction but the overall presentation resonates in a literarily-relatable fashion.

Wood has a lot to say about artists and the creative process; he uses the book as a base, the story as the means by which he dissects various thoughts, conversation, and points of debate, to a highly effective degree.

The mansion and grounds of Portmantle are, of course, a well-placed – literally! – device by which Wood can look at the way art of all types is often created in isolation at the behest of its creator. The solitude and freedom from distractions, from criticism and review, from opinions whether positive or not so. And no one need do their laundry at Portmantle, either. The only chore is, potentially, that of creating. It’s a haven, an artistic utopia.

But like all fictional utopias, things aren’t as perfect as they are first presented to both reader and residents. Wood’s Portmantle is full of rules – meal times, the ability to stay or leave – that replace all the distractions of sociability at home with things that are perhaps even more stifling to those creative minds. Even the rules regarding the journey to the mansion – don’t bring your possessions, disregard your name, take this many moves before a phone call (I’m simplifying it but that’s the basic idea) – are far more controlling than any professor’s university assignment. And no names, thank you. Pick up a new one because no one’s work should be referenced to or put in the context of another’s.

I walked up to the board as though it were a boy I had decided to kiss and streaked a layer of phthalo blue across the surface with a palette knife, the floppy baking kind my mother owned, making an impulsive shape upon the wood. There was no history standing on my shoulders then, no classical references hanging in my head like dismal weather. I was alone, uninfluenced, free to work layers of chalky stolen paint with a big lolloping knife, to smudge with my fingers, pad flat with my fist, thumb, scrape, and scratch. No judgements of technique arose in my mind, because I did not invite them, did not think to. I simply acted, expressed, behaved, made gestures of the knife that seemed unprompted and divined.

It is the way formal education can have an impact on one’s inspiration, raw talent and subsequent work, that is seen as bad. Wood doesn’t say as much directly about the positive impacts of lessons but then he doesn’t need to, it’s shown in the subtext and in references to other ideas.

Another thing that mills in the background, less studied presumably because Portmantle is fiction, is the way that taking time out of life in such a context would impact the eventual reception of the work created. If Elspeth joined Portmantle in the 1960s and has been there a long time without access to the rest of the world – years, decades even – then won’t much of what she creates be irrelevant? The world would have moved on. As much as we like older works we need, crave, new ones. The world is in fact the antithesis of what pianist James Rhodes recently said on the subject of classical music; Rhodes said that people should not write new classical music, that anything new will never match the work of the masters.

But new is surely inspired by a love of the old, is the natural result of that love, and to discourage it would be to lessen the popularity of the old.

It’s interesting that it’s the ‘short-termers’ at Portmantle, those disliked by Elspeth – who actually get work done, that Elspeth and crowd are those no nearer to finishing.

Does Portmantle keep culture away from humanity? One of the possible answers to the mystery of the place is a prison for the highly talented.

The creativity in general, in this book, is exquisite. Yes, there is a lot about the process of painting to the extent you’d think Wood an artist rather than a writer, but there’s a lot for readers of any artistic persuasion. Reams of paragraphs that beg quotation. We should dissect art somewhat but, as Wood’s use of psychiatry shows, dissections should be limited. Some things really aren’t related, they are the result of pure in-the-moment inspiration. Not everything has a meaning behind it and nor should it have to.

There are a couple of aspects that skim the top from this book. The ending – the reveal – which may be considered a bit too been-there-done-that. And the text – Elspeth is in her 20s in the 1960s yet she uses a lot of present day language, colloquialisms from the 21st century – ‘towel off’, ‘unseeable’, for example – rather recent terms and ways of speaking.

So The Ecliptic is imaginative, awesome in its studies and more than worth a read if you’re a creative type, but it does have some draw backs.

One to explore, this book will make you think, want to debate, and quite possibly make you want to create. Get your paintbrush/pen/instrument; you’ll be here for a long time but unlike Elspeth and co you’ll make use of every moment.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Pamela Hartshorne – House Of Shadows

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Cast your mind back 400 years…

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 466
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-24958-0
First Published: 3rd December 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd June 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Kate wakes up in hospital. She’s had a fall but can’t remember anything about it or even who she is. Everyone calls her ‘Kate’ but it doesn’t feel right… she finds ‘Isabel’ more fitting. She can work an Ipad and recognise things in the hospital but is surprised by people’s clothing and the absence of Tudor items. Her relatives don’t seem too nice and there’s that malicious voice she heard when semi-conscious that said she should have died…

House Of Shadows is a modern day/Elizabethan time-slip in which a woman recovers from amnesia with the wrong memories, memories that nonetheless match up somewhat to her present situation. Author Julie Cohen, quoted on the back cover, called it a cross between Vertigo and Rebecca and whilst I can’t comment on the first reference, there are definite parallels with the latter.

Hartshorne has created a fair premise and the book succeeds in whisking you into that delicious time-slip experience. Kate has memories rather than dreams or travels so it’s not quite as ‘involved’ as some, but Hartshorne includes the memories as scenes so that the effect is the same as any other. The history is luscious, the romance well set up and believable, and it’s got that same big old house thing going on as Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, only here the house isn’t a neutral element, instead it’s almost a character in its own right.

Hartshorne plays with the idea of ghosts, pitting the concept of spirits against possession but taking a less definitive route to most – Kate’s son can see there’s something not quite ‘Mummy’ about the woman presented as his mother, as can Kate’s devoted dog – but still it’s not quite your usual idea of possession; there’s just something unique about it that’s as difficult to put a finger on as the reader as it is difficult for Kate to put her finger on her memories. But it’s a lovely aspect.

One of the themes in the book is the treatment of people and the concept of privilege. Much like E Lockhart in We Were Liars, Hartshorne studies the way class divisions still rule in society, particularly in the upper echelons. Angie, Kate’s friend, helps out in every way she can, running errands for the family and helping out with the estate’s visitor system, without any real acknowledgement. She doesn’t have a defined role and isn’t considered important because she’s a commoner (she’s also of Polish decent), and Hartshorne spends various moments throughout the novel looking at the difference between the family needing her insomuch as there would be some chaos were she to leave, versus the family’s view of her which is completely coloured by her class status. Then there is the general hatred of anything other than complete heterosexuality and a major hatred for disability, interestingly also shared by said disliked Angie. The lord of the manor cannot be disabled and he can’t be gay. The lord cannot be a lady and the lord must uphold all the traditions that have never and must never be deviated from. (Whilst race isn’t commented on, one assumes the family keeps a draw full of smelling salts in case they happen to encounter any non-white tourists.)

There are a few problems with this book and one of them (two, it could be said) is major: Hartshorne gives away the mystery in the first couple of pages. First you understand that there’s hatred around Kate and then a few pages after that the major twist shines brightly and as the twists in both the modern storyline and Elizabethan storyline are exactly the same – you realise that straight away, too – you don’t have much in the way of a reveal to look forward to. It’s not clear whether Hartshorne meant for this to happen – it could easily be said that it’s a case of the author wanting to provide intrigue, a hint, and happening to go too far. Instead of hints you get answers.

This means that your interest in the book changes from wanting to know what’s happened to wanting to witness the journey Kate takes to get there, but, and likely mostly due to that fact of the answer being provided so early on, this does not work. Hartshorne’s use of amnesia is a good idea in theory and it means that you start to look forward to Kate uncovering what you, unfortunately, already know, but as the book goes on the amnesia becomes more of a plot device.

The amnesia becomes a device and then it turns into something akin to a deus ex machina move – by a quarter of the way through you know not just the major twists but have figured out everything that isn’t solely minor, but the amnesia remains a device. The answers are staring Kate and Isabel in the face, the answer is glaringly obvious, and you have to ask yourself could anyone be so, so stupid?

These plot and character problems are joined by poor proof reading and weird writing choices – made up verbs and words ending with -ly when there are perfectly useful words already in existence (‘studiedly’, for instance). Plot points and information are repeated in a way that’s either down to a disbelief in reader memory or a major editing error (it’s not to do with Kate’s memory). The book could’ve done with a heavier editing hand and a few more drafts.

You may well enjoy House Of Shadows if your interest in reading it is to experience a time-slip or to look at social division but if you want anything beyond that, you’re going to want to read something else. It’s fun enough as a story, and easy to go back to – it’s quite like the situation I found with Amy Snow, wherein it may not be great when looked at as a whole but it’s a very fun experience nonetheless.

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