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Fran Cooper – The Two Houses

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Connected and disconnected.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64159-4
First Published: 22nd March 2018
Date Reviewed: 5th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

For the good of Jay’s mental health, she and husband Simon move from London to a northern area that has had its day – resident numbers are few, and those that remain are wary of the newcomers. The couple have purchased the place known as Two Houses, two buildings that were originally one; the middle was removed after a death. As Jay and Simon are to discover, there are many secrets in the place, and in order to work them out they’ll have to work with the others. And it may cause tensions between them.

The Two Houses is Cooper’s wonderful second novel that looks at hauntings, history, and, broadly speaking, the various impacts they can have on the present day.

It seems inspired by These Dividing Walls; where Edward, the ‘starting’ character in that novel, spoke about a scary time in which his sibling danced in between two houses that had seen a death and a demolishing of a middle, so does The Two Houses appear to take up the mantle. But that is only the starting point; whilst there is a haunting in this, the second publication, the further story is very new.

It’s also very different. Whilst the same fantastic prose seen in These Dividing Walls is here, too, as well as the lovely balance of plot and characterisation (characters are perhaps most important in Cooper’s work but the plots aren’t far off – they’re fabulous), The Two Houses is different in genre, idea, and general feel.

The book starts with the future; Jay finds a bone in the grounds by the main house, and we then go back to when she and Simon were looking to purchase a second home. It covers the issues with mental breakdowns, the recovery from them. Jay is broken. She moves into a house that’s been separated into two. The mending of Jay happens with the mending of the house’s situation.

The mending of what is broken reaches further into the narrative – relationships, prejudice, feeling apart from the community; all these are looked at and form aspects of the plot, some more so than others. Interestingly, the differences between London, a big crowded city, and the relatively extremely modest community Jay finds herself in, isn’t as big a focus; you might have expected the idea of a quieter place being more productive to health to be a focus, but it’s a very small element. It is people rather than place that is studied.

On that word – ‘studied’ – it’s worth noting that whilst this is a fairly literary book it is less so than others; the balance between literary and pure enjoyment leans more towards the pure enjoyment, ergo there’s a lot to appreciate in the structure and themes but there’s just as much escapism.

Discovering the new in the old, the old in the new, and changing one for the other is part and parcel here. It is a wonderful story with just the right amount of ghostly goings on, a great cast of characters (including a lovely dog), and a great setting. And whilst the threads are all nicely tied by the end there is enough to think on further, too.

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Nicola Cornick – The Forgotten Sister

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It will be coming around again…

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 366
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27849-6
First Published: 30th April 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Popstar and TV presenter Lizzie attended the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Dudley, and his girlfriend Amy. It was a drinks-fuelled day, perhaps most memorable to everyone for the sudden leaps into the pool. But for Lizzie, the most memorable aspect was the strange experience she had when she touched a crystal ball belonging to Amy and found herself falling, then waking up surrounded by people. She remembered Amy’s young brother, Johnny, seemed to not be surprised by what happened. Now, some years later, Amy is dead, and the media is turning on Dudley. It’s also turning on Lizzie, the suspected other woman who has never seemed far from Dudley’s presence. Centuries earlier, the wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley – a woman from a lesser family, called Amy Robsart, was found dead at the bottom of a back staircase. The cycle will continue until it is stopped.

The Forgotten Sister is Cornick’s fourth time-slip novel; it deals with the unsolved mystery of how Amy Robsart died – did she fall? Was she pushed? Did she die essentially due to something else? It’s daring. It’s also simply a very good book.

Beginning with a short narrative from a ghost and then switching to the modern day, the use of the same names for both periods may strike you as too easy – it means that a lot of the story is there on the table for you, straight away to use without any need to work it out. (This assuming you have at least a passing knowledge of the time period – you don’t need to know all that much but a brief reading of the basics of the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley will mean you understand what’s going on quicker. You don’t have to know it, it’s more a case that not knowing will offer a different sort of reading.) However it’s of course not actually that easy.

With its focus on modern day celebrity, this book is very different to Cornick’s last three. Whilst the time-slipping is there as has been usual, and whilst the means by which it happens echoes the author’s work so far, the atmosphere in this book is very different. The atmosphere is very fitting – modern day celebrity as the comparison to Elizabethan royalty – and it works well. There is a necessary distance here where the characters do not move in the wider society, which may take a bit of getting used to, but there’s enough going on without it.

There are few nice people here – the historical situation wasn’t exactly good either – but there are enough to balance out those that are difficult to read about. In keeping with the darker side of celebrity and publicity, it takes modern day Lizzie some time to work out who is friend and who is foe. The various houses and other abodes used in the book – Lizzie’s flat, another property, and modern day Amy’s home – are almost characters in themselves, which fits with Cornick’s characterisation of the place Amy Robsart died, a place quite possibly haunted.

Compared to the modern day thread, the historical thread is more straight forward. It deals with Amy’s life and the trouble there. It doesn’t take long to see why there is more time and detailing given to the modern day – in this book, Cornick uses both time periods to tell a fuller story; the historical section deals with the aftermath of Amy Robsart’s death, a restless ghost and a cycle of trauma; the modern day adeptly deals with the story of the death itself, effectively showing you how not only its modern day counterpart to Amy Robsart died, but how Amy Robsart herself died, essentially taking you from the start of the story to its end and then leaping forward to the aftermath of the aftermath, the breaking of the cycle. This is one of the best aspects of the book, Cornick’s usage of characters who are similar but not the same, to, with complete effect, tell the story of the historical Amy Robsart. (This is another reason why you don’t have to know the history.)

The mystery as solved here by Cornick is of course fictional – we may never know what happened to Amy Robsart – but it’s very believable. And the way it is solved effectively in the present day makes it easier to understand the motivations of the historical characters as we of course do not know as much about them; Cornick brings necessary life to those who now exist only in ink and paint. The reveal draws attention to how easy and thus a bit too obvious the obvious would have been back in the days of awful punishments. The solving is made more thrilling by Cornick’s employment of the supernatural, where Lizzie experiences slices of life of those whose belongings she touches, and by a brief but very satisfying foray into time travel.

The Forgotten Sister is awesome. It gives new life to a mystery, to a person who was essentially pushed aside, the lights of the Queen and her favourite shining brightly. In its fiction it requests another look at what happened as well as a look at the after effects on Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. And it does this whilst providing a superb up-to-the-minute story, super fantasy elements, and that ever-present eerie something that might just slip past your fingers and beyond the last page.

I received this book for review. I’m early writing this review (with permission) so I’ll say here to put 30th April in your diary if you like the sound of the book.

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Stein Riverton – The Iron Chariot + Podcast

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Ghostly goings on?

Publisher: Lightning Books (Eye Books); ebook: Abandoned Bookshop
Pages: 110
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-63161-0
First Published: 1909; 18th March 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2019
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jernvognen (The Iron Chariot)
Translated by: Lucy Moffatt

Our narrator is staying at a hotel near the coast, close to both sea and plains. One evening he is out walking and barred entry to the farmhouse he wants to visit – over the course of a few holidays he’s taken a liking to Hilde, who co-owns it – and so he leaves, but not before spotting the departure of the forestry inspector, Blinde, from the company of Hilde. The narrator carries on his walk. As the evening continues towards the time for him to return to the hotel, he hears an eerie sound, iron chains rattling which, says the fisherman he passes on his way, precedes a death.

The Iron Chariot is a classic crime novella by a well-known Norwegian author who was also a journalist. A somewhat cosy mystery, it may not be as frightening as it likely was when it was first published, but it’s still a good read.

The narrator is joined, in terms of main characters, by a detective who is requested by a fellow hotel guest when a body is found. The detective is just the sort of character you both want and somewhat expect in a book of the period, very casual in his manner, not in any hurry, and he studies things in a different way to others. His presence is what makes the book a bit of a cosy mystery because aside from him the thriller/paranormal aspects get the most time. You have then an interesting pair of characters – one pretty upbeat, always raring to go yet not worried about time, and the other always nervous, bordering on paranoid, and worried. As you would expect, there is more to the detective’s demeanor than the narrator realises, which is perhaps more compelling in making you continue read than the mysteries themselves – when is the detective going to solve it all and how will he have done it?

The use of location is great, pathetic fallacy employed often but never too much. You can see where the narrator is headed, mentally, when he can’t. And of course the lack of technology means more thought (for all this was obviously not in Riverton’s mind).

Some may find that it’s best to read this book keeping in mind the context of its time; there are a couple of areas to be aware of and, ultimately, forgive. The drawn-out nature of the detective’s work, his unwillingness to tell the narrator what he knows, is entirely suitable but it does feel at times like a device to keep the book going, particularly when you’ve worked out a fair amount and want it to be dealt with. The other element is the predictability; you’ll probably work out at least half of the mystery fairly early on. This is a drawback due to the drawing-out of the mysteries – in the context of the whodunnit it is, like the detective’s work, also suitable. And of course the revelation of a couple of the plot points would have been more surprising in times past.

The Iron Chariot is a perfect choice if you want a book with a truly spooky element (because it is very eerie) but nonetheless want something more easy – cosy – to read as well. And it’s a great example of older crime fiction that’s perhaps different to what you’ve read so far (supposing you’ve not read Riverton in Norwegian before).

I received this book for review.


Today’s podcast

The podcast is also available on iTunes and Spotify.

Tune in as Naomi Hamill, author of How To Be A Kosovan Bride, and me discuss post-war Kosovo, using a narrative method that divides opinion, and researching Albanian folklore.

If you can’t see the media player above or would like to see the purchase links, click here for the SoundCloud track page (be aware it may autoplay).

 
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.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Woman In The Lake

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Too beautiful to lose. Too dark to keep.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45694-5
First Published: 26th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2019
Rating: 4/5

Lady Isabella Gerald would like her husband dead. Lord Gerald is a bully, an adulterer, and involved in shady practices; and he is often violent towards her. Meanwhile Isabella’s maid, Constance, isn’t as silly and sweet as Isabella thinks she is – in fact Constance is spying on her Lady for her Lord. One day, Isabella declines to wear the new dress her husband has bought her; after raping her he tells Constance to destroy the dress. But Constance doesn’t destroy it, although its presence seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. Centuries later, young Fen Brightwell visits Lydiard House, but upon walking into one of the rooms she finds herself alone; there’s an angry man in the next room, who is dressed in historic clothes and screaming at her to take away the dress that is lying there. She does so, and keeps it. Years later, after an abusive marriage and the death of the grandmother she lived with, the dress comes back into her life, together with thoughts and propensities she thought she’d left behind.

The Woman In The Lake is an appropriately fast-paced novel full of secrets and crime. Set in two time periods – the 1760s and the present day – it doesn’t use time travel/slip to the same extent as Cornick’s previous two dual-plot novels, instead spending time on both eras equally, the extra time afforded by the relative lack of travel spent on a stunning few ideas that slowly become more complex and exciting.

The story is good but it is specifically Cornick’s construction and execution of the various elements that makes this book what it is. The novel is like a whodunnit doubled, or even tripled; the amount of thought and planning that’s gone into it is obvious and it is as much this easy-to-see display of composition as the actual effect of it that makes the reading experience so vibrant.

This remains true even on those occasions wherein secrets and answers are predictable (sometimes they’re not hidden from you at all). The predictable nature of a fair number of plot and character elements may seem at first a drawback; but it’s not. Cornick has populated her novel with a fairly standard number of main and secondary characters but because she’s brought the use of secrets to them all – some more than others, of course – those secrets that are predictable are often of the sort that you need to know to be able to work out others. And even if you do work out more secrets than you may have been expected to, you’ve still got that complexity of the writing itself to enjoy.

The use of history is brilliant, and where it turns to historical fantasy it’s well thought out. You may need to suspend a bit of belief but that is part and parcel – if you’re happy reading a book where someone slips back in time, you’re going to be okay with the rest of it.

So there is a lot about the process to like about this book, and it could well be the best part, but the rest is right up there. The plot is paramount in general; the characters each in their turn bring the focus to their small section of the world, their individual lives within the whole. Cornick uses some social history here, particularly the alcohol smuggling that went on in Swindon, and then there’s Lydiard House and the parkland; in a break from her work in this genre so far, she populates her locales with fictional characters for both eras, using Lydiard Park and its past inhabitants for inspiration and spinning her own story from there. (A word about Lydiard House: Cornick’s history about the house as its own entity is based in facts – the council owns it now and it’s open to visitors. The council uses the upper floor for meeting rooms and so forth, so the bedroom as a museum piece is downstairs, a recent creation, as are other rooms that may have been upstairs; this is to say that if Fen’s visit confuses you at all, this is the reason. I wrote about the House and Park last year, including photos.)

The characters are good, but considering everything discussed so far, you may not find in them much to take away; they do each propose things to consider and the historical people provide food for historical thought but it is those ‘things’ that will likely stand out to you most, the characters interesting enough but more of a vehicle for the plot. No one is particularly winsome, however this is part of the point of the narratives. The historical characters are mostly loathsome, even those who have been treated badly aren’t very nice, and the present-day characters have many flaws to their traits; Cornick’s tale looks beyond perfections and dreamy heroes, in fact you may not be one hundred percent sure about any of the relationships or friendships. It’s a good reflection of reality and often also a good reflection of humanity in general. (The narrative is written from four points of view as a whole, with three taking the majority of the time.)

Domestic abuse is an important thread in both of the narrative eras with different stories behind them, the differences in society weaving into them in their own ways. In conjunction with this, Fen’s life includes a lot of child neglect, which combines with her married past. Cornick looks at Fen’s experiences as a fact-of-the-matter – Fen’s been hurt, and still is hurt, but it’s been happening for so long that emotions are largely off the table. It’s a hard-hitting tale that Cornick is careful not to tie up too neatly – some people never change.

The Woman In The Lake is a spooky book, a somewhat Gothic tale, that might just keep you up a bit longer than you’d thought, the story taking twists you may not have seen coming in terms of the way the characters deal with them, and Cornick being unapologetic in her writing of it. This is a solid work of fiction, factual when needed and when it works with the fantasy, and fantastical where it fits. It looks a various concepts with care and consideration. But most of all, it’s simply chock full of good literary action.

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