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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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Helen Oyeyemi – What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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…But this book may be yours.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 263
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-29936-3
First Published: 8th March 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th November 2017
Rating: 5/5

An abandoned child looks for the lock that the key around her neck is linked to; a girl looking for a place in the world joins a puppetry school and her experience of the paranormal extends beyond the ghost in her house; an all-female university society seeks new members, detailing its history with the all-male society that led to their own creation.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a fantastic and fantastical short story collection of the sort that draws you in swiftly and keeps you glued to the page.

These stories don’t always come with a message or shocking ending like some, but there’s a grain of truth (or fictional truth) in all of them. What they are is incredibly enjoyable; the mix of fantasy and paranormal together with the balance of contemporary and historical is a dream to read. Then there’s the fact that often, stories are written in such a way that they seem historical when they aren’t, and it’s the magic of them that makes them feel as though they’re set in the past. Take the first story, for example, Books And Roses that has a big element of The Secret Garden in it, where things are not bona fide magical but do feel so. (Books And Roses also features a massive library so it’s beautiful in that way, too.) Is Your Blood As Red As This? calls in a paranormal, almost horrific, vibe, looking at ghosts and puppets, the second of which might be able to move by themselves. Then there’s the wonderfully titled If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think? which doesn’t tell you exactly what it’s about – you find out the consequence for unlocking the book but not the history or reason for what happens – but that doesn’t really matter. It’s bizarre, but here bizarre is a feature, something that you nod or even shrug about and then move on, the strangeness somehow making the book even better.

On the subject of stories sometimes seeming historic when they aren’t, the writing plays a big part. Oyeyemi’s prose is simply gorgeous, somewhere between the literary fiction of today and the glorious Gothic of the Victorian period. (Oyeyemi recently covered Emily Brontë’s writing for a television documentary so there’s an influence here. She’s also inferred a love of classics elsewhere.) It’s just lovely, the sort of writing you want to be reading for hours.

The book mainly looks at women but there are a number of men, and the book is diverse in race, setting, and sexuality. Sometimes these things are they with reason, so to speak – that is to say they are there for a studious reason – other times they’re just part of the story, the collection being a mix of stories for interest-sake only and ones that look into society. Indeed one story looks at one society in particular, focusing on the fictional Homely Wench Society of Cambridge, formed to rival a male-only one.

Do the stories go on on occasion? Yes and no. These are slightly-longer-than-usual stories, so it can feel you’re reading them for a long time, but as books go, the 263 pages really aren’t a lot and there aren’t any dull moments. The object of the book does seem to be to entertain first and foremost and perhaps leave you with something to think about. Above all, the experience of reading it is the highlight. With its admittedly random, long titles, no matter how interesting they might be, it can be difficult to recall later exactly what you were reading and for once that’s not a big drawback, the similarities in the tales being intentional with the same characters showing up various times.

In an entirely unrelated song from the 1980s, Radio Musica, British singer-songwriter Nik Kershaw sung ‘Experience has made me rich’. I note it here because that is the perfect way to describe What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Reading this book leaves a small mark in your conscious – whilst you may not necessarily wish it would carry on forever, your sense of literary knowledge will be better for having read it.

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Nicholas Royle – Ornithology

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Anthologies for birds, now in 140 characters or less.

Publisher: Cōnfingō Publishing
Pages: 177
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-59660-3
First Published: 2nd June 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A man obsesses over a woman he meets on Twitter whilst his neighbours seem to follow each other around. A man puts up shelving with his girlfriend as a man in a second block of flats across from him puts up shelving with the same girlfriend. A person who admires the ever-rarely seen birds about his house gets sick and finds an unknown entity inside him.

Ornithology is a collection of short stories on variations of the concept of birds and what they are. Individuality, identity, the modern world and phrasing, and the difference and likeness between birds and humans are all considered in what you will come to find a strange, weirdly horrific collection.

The collection bares a resemblance to Max Porter’s recent Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, in fact for those of you who’ve read that book referring to it is a fairly good way to describe Ornithology. That eerieness of Porter’s book and its is-it-really-happening factor is here, too, in Royle’s collection. It’s a weird mix of respect for wildlife and the destruction of it, in many ways presenting an extreme version of the mix of protection and moves towards extinction we see today, with its often literal gobbling up of animals and transposing of what birds do to their prey onto the human condition. Different levels of strangeness appear throughout with the stories arranged in such a way that you start with the hint of magical realism and end up in the realms of science fiction and literal horror.

Some stories barely approach the main subject, using it more as a lean-to, whilst others are heavily invested. The first story, Unfollow, is a particular highlight and its placement sets the tone for the rest of the book; it’s a story in which social media and our appropriation of an onomatopoeic word are at the forefront of a tale that looks at a person’s worry that they are stalking someone online against a backdrop of people physically stalking each other. The Obscure Bird, a few stories in, looks at our relationship with each other and with birds, in a literal, all-consuming, way.

When it comes to the horror stories – in particular – some are better than others. There’s a reason for this – the book is a collection spanning years of work. The unfortunate fact is that these works on a theme inevitably include plots that are similar, resulting in a lessening of impact as you go along; on their own, each story is very good, with the usual slight differences in literary enjoyment you’d expect. It’s best to read this book slowly; it favours a dip in, dip out approach.

Overall, this is a top notch collection that keeps you thinking and provides a lot of literary pleasure. If consumed more slowly than a rogue human eating birds, it’s a strange beast, but there’s much beauty in it.

I received this book for review.

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Barbara Erskine – Sleeper’s Castle

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Now I lay me down to sleep…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 530
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-51319-2
First Published: 30th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 28th August 2017
Rating: 3/5

When Andi’s partner dies, she’s forced out of his London home by his ex-wife; Andi moves to Hay-On-Wye to house and cat sit for a friend. Sleeper’s castle, as the house is known, poses a bit of a paranormal conundrum – those who remain there are visited by history, dreaming of the lives of the medieval residents of the house. Andi must balance this mental take over with the looming presence of her partner’s wife, whose home Andi starts to visit in her dreams. The woman seems to have a penchant for violence.

Sleeper’s Castle is an epic novel of history, and a psychological thriller. It requires a lot of time that may be seen as a reward by some but not worth it to others.

The book is effectively two stories melded into one package and it can be a bit jarring when the narrative moves from one to the other; especially where it concerns the time-slipping, the reversion back to thriller can seem an after thought. And as the novel continues, it does drag on, not knowing when to call it a day.

What’s interesting though, is that the historical content isn’t particularly compelling in itself; aside from the bit on Owain Glyndŵr it’s largely an ordinary tale; but the time-slipping itself is a lot of fun to read. The process of it. The theories. The way the cat is a fully developed character, an aspect that has been done with aplomb.

The thriller starts off well enough, with the long-gone wife returning to lord it over the long-standing loyal partner, and the ensuing conversations between the characters affected by the woman, about emotional instability, make for a solid foundation, but it starts to get unrealistic with people leaving things to fate instead of acting on the threat. The ending of the thread is very unsatisfying.

The writing is so so. There appears to have been a very heavy hand in the editing process, a distinct lack of commas and odd grammar choices which are at odds with the author’s longevity and affect the dialogue badly.

So it’s fun sometimes but for the length of it and everything that detracts from the fun, you might be better off reading (or re-reading) Erskine’s previous novel about the town of books.

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Susanna Kearsley – The Shadowy Horses

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Even when not in Rome, if the Romans are there, do as they do.

Publisher: Allison & Busby
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-749-00703-4
First Published: January 1997
Date Reviewed: 16th August 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Verity is offered an archaeological job in Scotland, the decision to go for the interview is easy, but saying yes to the job – digging where only one person thinks there’s something to be found – is harder. But she takes it, and together with her equally sceptical colleagues, starts to see the paranormal aspects that are making her employer believe there’s a Roman fort underfoot. And by the time she’s been there a few days, the presence of David means she won’t be leaving quickly.

The Shadowy Horses is a paranormal historical with a bit of romance, looking further back in time than Kearsley tends to.

The use of location here is very good. Kearsley has steeped the story in the Scottish setting, the specific place. (There’s very much the feeling that if anything has been changed it was in error.) There’s some sunshine but a lot of wind and rain, and the descriptions are excellent. It’s easy to get a feel for the place and world-building is well-balanced between town, weather, and the subjects at hand. Kearsley mixes the present-day and true history with the paranormal very well, letting the ghostly elements and slight magical realism blend in neatly; it does become more fantastical at a certain point, with everyone believing, but this suits the temperament of the leader of the archaeological group; suffice to say you don’t have to believe it possible for it to work as part of the story, you just have to believe the characters believe it.

In this Kearlsey has been prudent. Her version of a sixth sense aligns with the more realistic ideas about and there’s an even split between others who believe, are not sure, and completely disregard the notion. The author taps into the idea of ‘feelings’, sensing consciousness.

Due to drawbacks covered below, Verity is not a particularly strong character owing to author intervention, but the others are written well enough. There’s some sudden changes – mostly in Verity, and different to the author intervention – that are there presumably to aid the slow transition of the book from paranormal historical to paranormal historical with romance, but it’s enough to make you want to keep reading through the problematic sections. Quinnell, director of the dig and the person who believes in it all despite a complete lack of evidence, is winsome. (Kearsley uses this idea a lot, to good effect – the utter belief in something by one balanced out by others who require evidence.) The romance itself is strictly okay, its average nature in part owing to the fact that you’ll find yourself wanting to return to the archaeology, and there’s obviously more development of other aspects of the book than couples’ chemistry.

There is a lot of research behind it all, both in terms of present-day Scotland and the Roman legion, and in the notes Kearsley has thanked many local residents for their help. But whilst there’s a lot of information that is great, particularly about the Romans and, of course, archaeology (though the author does info-dump a bit when it comes to methodology), the show of how much Scots Kearsley has learned is continuously referenced. Verity is always pulling out her Scots dictionary to look up a word that’s just been used by someone else. It detracts from the character, making her a mouthpiece for language lessons. The specific detailing in the book, away from world-building and characterisation, is a little too much, with information about what the cats are doing and which cat is doing any one thing (when names are not needed because you’ve been informed as to their markings) a mainstay of the book.

The dialogue and narrative is mainly good but the Canadian phrasing and words of the author have sometimes slipped through – an understandable factor that will affect some readers (British English speakers and others familiar with it may find it jolts them from the text).

The Shadowy Horses isn’t Kearsley’s best but is still worth reading. It’s her only ancient history-based book, so it’s something very different in terms of her work, and not as refined as others, but there is still a lot of fun to be had.

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