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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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Nicola Cornick – House Of Shadows

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What goes around comes around.

Publisher: Mira (Harlequin)
Pages: 468
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45416-3
First Published: 5th November 2015
Date Reviewed: 5th November 2015
Rating: 5/5

Holly is woken in the early hours of the morning by her young niece. The girl can’t find her father, it seems he’s left their house and she hasn’t seen him for a couple of hours; Holly leaves her uncaring boyfriend and travels to Oxfordshire to be with her. Ben is gone and the police can’t find him but as Holly begins to search the house and move into it herself she finds items from her brother’s family research, and in time she discovers that the beautiful old house she sees through the trees has never actually been there.

It’s difficult summing up the plot without giving too much away; House Of Shadows is part contemporary, part 1600s Europe and part 1800s England – the narrative includes Elizabeth Stuart and her possible relationship with a squire as well as the tale of a Georgian courtesan.

This book is magnificent. It’s a historical fantasy mystery romance about a curse that uses tropes to good effect. It’s brilliantly written, well plotted. The mystery is drawn out by way of many factors rather than just to keep the story going – this is to say Cornick doesn’t make you wait, she’s always revealing aspects so you feel rewarded but she reveals things in drips and drabs to keep you coming back. She knows what to reveal and when.

Needless to say it’s lengthy but never boring. There’s always something going on and quite frankly you wouldn’t want it any shorter because it’s just so good. The character development is bar none. Cornick has done a wonderful job, most especially with Holly whose story us modern readers are most likely to relate to. There is romance in each of the eras, defined by a pushing back of affection. It’s sad in the case of the 1600s but understandable – a queen desperately in love with a squire, both knowing they could destroy her life if they made anything of it. It’s sad but understandable in the case of the 1800s, the poor Georgian courtesan who cannot leave her abusive patron for her poor lover. In Holly’s case it’s understandable but in an entirely different way. Holly is constantly pushing back her one night stand, a man she felt an instant connection with for reasons she can’t explain. It’s the sort of setup that annoys many readers but what Cornick does is fully develop Holly’s character and show the reader why Holly does this, really delveing into it but without any naval-gazing or other things that can bring plots down. Cornick lets you into Holly’s mind, into her psyche, she almost wills you to become the character herself (and sometimes you’ll certainly wish you were with the amazing experiences Holly has!) The author has written a fantastic character who, whilst she may be silly every now and then – who wouldn’t be in the situation? – is someone you want to keep reading about.

Holly stays realistic. She leaves her home but brings her work with her; she doesn’t neglect her business. She leaves her boring arrogant boyfriend and the few pages Cornick gives to the scene between them is more than enough to understand it. She goes to her friend’s coffee shop for lunch and to chat but doesn’t forget to walk her dog. And all these things drive the plot forward. The dog is an important character. There’s even a paragraph or two devoted to the career/children debate.

The other characters – Elizabeth Stuart and Lavinia – get their fair number of pages and are well thought-out, it’s just the limitations of their eras’ views of women that make them less memorable than Holly. This said, Lavinia is winsome and Cornick’s use of Elizabeth and William Craven, semi-fictional or not, will make you want to learn more about them. You’re going to want to help bring these Stuarts to the foreground.

The world building, then, is equally as good. You’re drawn in and you stay there. You might prefer one time period to the other but all have that same atmosphere, that pull on your mind. It’s that magical feeling you get when you’re reading an exceptionally good book. Cornick uses the basic history we have about the people and locations and then moulds them until they fit her idea, for example the Ashdown House of the book no longer stands – in reality it’s still around but access is limited. It’s all done respectfully.

The fantasy is there from the beginning and it’s the sort that straddles magical realism and full-on mystical. It’s the sort you wilfully suspend reality for whilst knowing there are patches of realism in it anyway. All genre elements in this book fit well together; they’re equally important.

It’s clear that Cornick has spent much time and effort getting it right; it comes together in one big successful stack of pages. Even the length is perfect. Informative sections have been kept to a minimum – you can almost see where a line was drawn for no more description. There are some errors – proofreading – but whilst noticeable they don’t detract from the reading experience.

House Of Shadows is epic and glorious and a history lover’s dream. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review from the publisher on behalf of the author.

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Georges Simenon – The Late Monsieur Gallet

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Money and murder.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 155
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-39337-7
First Published: 1931
Date Reviewed: 8th July 2015
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Monsieur Gallet, Décédé (Monsieur Gallet, Deceased)
Translated by: Anthea Bell

When Maigret is called upon to solve a murder case, he realises there’s more to it; something’s not quite ‘right’. There are suspects but there seems little reason for Monsieur Gallet to have been killed. The bullet and stab wounds seem slightly suspicious. And whilst there’s motive, no one person sticks out as the murderer.

The Late Monsieur Gallet is the third book in Simenon’s extensive Maigret series and whilst it’s the only one I’ve read I have to say I get the impression that various others are better.

Chances are it’s partly the translation that’s the issue. Missing commas, sentences that aren’t phrased very well. The text reads too simply.

The story is told very swiftly and much of it is facts. It can be contrived, at least in the context of our present day (more on that in a moment). People pop out of the scenery to provide titbits of information as Maigret walks past, to pop back just as quickly. Premises give way to suggestions of dinner just as you’re getting into the swing of things.

The text is outdated but easy to see why it worked at the time. It’s enjoyable if read in the context it was written in, and the work that went into the mystery is plain to see. That the story is told swiftly seems odd nowadays but one can appreciate the way Simenon doesn’t linger on sub-plots – there aren’t any. This is a crime novella and that’s how it stays; everything is focused on the mystery at hand. Maigret walks you through everything so you know exactly what happened and is happening.

And the psychology behind it all is fascinating. Simenon spends just as much time on the who as he does the why, looking into the social context. He lets his character flourish on the page, to be there in front of you even though the man’s been dead since the beginning. Solving the mystery may be key to the world at hand but looking at the deceased as a person is key to Maigret.

I get the sense that this book isn’t reflective of the rest of the series. The books can be read out of order but I would certainly recommend starting with a different one and leaving The Late Monsieur Gallet for later. It’s a perfectly fine way to pass an hour or two but is unlikely to make much in the way of a good early impression.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Guy Ware – The Fat Of Fed Beasts

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When banks do not store money.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 233
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63024-9
First Published: 1st March 2015
Date Reviewed: 7th April 2015
Rating: 4/5

Alex, Rada, and D are ‘loss adjusters’ – they deal with lives that have ended, reporting on the worth. Alex gets up later than D and Rada. He wanted to be with Rada but she chose Gary. D is sick of Rada’s detailing and just completely sick of Alex, and hopes for better. Rada is in the bank when it’s robbed, can’t get the old man to lay on the floor and her following suspension leaves her aloof in the world. And then there are the demoted police who want to give something unlawful a try.

The Fat Of Fed Beasts is a somewhat confusing novel that looks at work, the worth of a life, society, and individual reactions to situations. Honing in on one particular situation, it deals with its subjects swiftly, mostly devoid of extraneous detail.

‘Mostly’ is the the keyword here because there is an aspect of The Fat Of Fed Beasts that is best noted prior to reading – the book is told from various viewpoints (it takes time to work out who is who) and one of these viewpoints is going to make you want to throw the book across the room. It takes a chapter of this viewpoint to realise what is going on and that chapter is a long, tiresome, one. The character provides every minute detail. They are frustrating, repetitive, and take forever to get to the point. It’s important to mention all this because for a time you may well wonder where the editor was: this is a style Ware makes use of for this (one) character. Odds are, Ware found them as tedious to write as the reader will to read; Ware has ensured his characters are different. In sum, you’re going to want to give up early on but bare with it. The author’s on your side, as are the other characters.

The minute detailing takes us to the next point: this is largely a book about personal responses to situations; the bank robbery. Characters worry about their jobs, about the person called Likker who no one seems to know, about society in general. The frustrating character allows us to look at customs and etiquette, British mannerisms, all in a relaxed but nevertheless slightly satirical way. The character who swears a lot shows the way a younger person can strive to keep up to be listened to (not that the swearing is due to age). Another character shows varying levels of anxiety, angst, and a certain sort of empathy that to name would spoil part of the story. It could be said that Ware’s little use of first names, especially at the start, shows that whilst these are individuals, their issues could be anyone’s.

So it’s about people, crime, features a bit of comedy and a smattering of mystery. The writing style, almost to suit this smorgasbord, is part literary, part general. It’s hard to say it’s literary fiction but at the same time that’s sort of what is it.

To be sure The Fat Of Fed Beasts isn’t for everyone, though even those who aren’t overly keen are likely to take something from it. It’s short, almost necessarily so; the length is pretty perfect actually. The ambiguity is something to savour; it let’s you focus on what’s most important.

Give this one a chance; there’s a chance you’ll like it.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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