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Susanna Kearsley – Mariana

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Making amends for the past.

Publisher: Allison & Busby
Pages: 387
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-749-00706-5
First Published: 1994
Date Reviewed: 17th April 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Julia moves into a little house in a lovely village that she had always admired. Very soon she’s experiencing very realistic daydreams wherein she’s herself but not quite, a historical person rather like her. It happens everywhere – the big old house, her own house, and outside. It’s worrying – one day she’s spotted pottering around oblivious to the road traffic – but also too mysterious not to follow. Someone many many years in the past experienced much sadness and Julia feels the need to work it out. And whilst her brother may have his reservations – her safety is at stake, after all – it seems others in the village might have played a role back then, too, including the rather handsome lord of the manor.

Mariana adheres to that particularly special set of mixed genres so many love: it’s a historical time-slip romance. And it’s an excellent one.

The story goes a bit further than your usual haunting or time-slip shadows idea, presenting you with a character who is both the modern day time ‘slipee’ and the ghost; Julia is ‘Julia’ during her waking and non-daydream hours and ‘Mariana’ in the opposite. It’s an excellent concept that plays right into the idea of reincarnation, karma, and unfinished business, and it’s not just Julia in the mix – there’s a suitor or two and a friend or three there, as well.

It really is very special and as it was written in the 90s there are no phones or computers to divert attention. It harkens back to days of yore when people spent more time outside – for many readers it’ll be as much a nostalgic trip as a historical time-slip, and it’s topped off by Julia’s career as a book illustrator; she’s all about drawing.

If you like nature and villages, this one’s for you. Rather than the totally stereotypical accent-full northern Cotswold village, or the Cornish seaside, Kearsley opts for Exbury in Wiltshire which is less romantic than some but makes sure you don’t get too carried away with the present. With this book you want to stay in the past until Aunt Freda says it’s time to move on.

The writing is fair. There are a few errors, understandable considering the author’s nationality, but nothing to stop you reading. Indeed it may surprise you that it’s Kearsley’s first book – there are niggles and perhaps hints that she’s following a well trodden path but it’s a very competent piece of work. It’s hard to put down even when you know where it’s headed. The ending may leave the question of ‘what about so and so…?’ unanswered but it’s not frustrating or ambiguous.

And when it’s predictable? It doesn’t matter – this book is all about the journey, the ride. As one of the characters says, Julia is on a journey and it will come to an end – we begin at the start and finish where she leaves off. There’s no superfluity here and only minimal, planned, convenience.

Mariana is a historical dream, a romantic’s wish, a reader’s demands satisfied. It is quite something.

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Helen Slavin – Crooked Daylight

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The definition of magic?

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 204
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-29567-9
First Published: 24th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 3/5

When their grandmother dies, Anna, Charlie, and Emz inherit her cottage and the woods that surround it, but, already having homes of their own (well, Emz lives with Mum) they decide to let it as a holiday rental. One of these rentals is to a mysterious young woman who likes to bathe in the lake they’d always been told to avoid, and when they spot a man in the woods the sisters are worried. And it seems their grandmother is still around, helping them. Amidst this are the sister’s own stories of relationships, deaths, and young adulthood.

Crooked Daylight is the first book in a planned series focusing on three modern sisters who may have a little magic about them.

This is an interesting take on the idea of magic. It’s the sort of thing that’s been done many times before but not quite in this way which sounds like a paradox and therefore requires explaining. The three sisters – Anna, Charlie, and Emz (whose full name is Emma but as that isn’t revealed until near the end there’s plenty of space to speculate whether, perhaps, Slavin had thoughts of the Brontë sisters in mind) – are people living in our present day with our mobile phones and conveniences. This time period isn’t so much explained as it is shown through slang and the sisters’ often abbreviated language. (Sometimes it can seem as though they are a lot younger than their ages which may be a turn-off for some.) The various housing involves terraces, town houses, and their mother’s new state-of-the-art home… but then there’s also their late grandmother’s cottage in the woods that Slavin’s descriptions infer to be your fantastical wooden thatched cottage. So it’s a meeting of modern reality and slightly older fantasy, but it’s still not that simple. Slavin doesn’t explicitly address the magical elements until near the end which has the effect of pulling you deeper into the narrative as you try to work it out. Is there any magic, really? What sort? Is it just something supernatural?

So Slavin has aimed for something between reality and fantasy that skews more towards reality. It’s the sort of usage that brings to life those times when we wonder how something no one could have had a hand in could be so coincidental. It all works very well.

However, to go back to those characters and their ages that are hard to believe, it can be difficult to relate to them. It’s not that they are dislikeable per se, but they do at times get into drama and other people’s business when they should mind their own, for example one time they have a quite valid worry about a person’s safety but instead of approaching them – a tenant – to mention it, they use their privilege as the holiday home owners to enter the cottage and look around without asking whilst the woman hides in another room, uncomfortable. Another occasion sees one of them becoming quite snotty with some women who so far have done nothing to her (barring trying to stop her and her sisters when they run off with their grandmother’s body to cremmate it in the way they, the sisters, feel it should be done). There’s a disconnection between action and reason.

A seemingly minor element but a compelling one – the sisters’ mother, Vanessa. Vanessa is very different to her daughters and her own mother alike; whereas Hettie (the sisters’ grandmother – Vanessa’s mother) had something magical going on about her and so, it seems, do Anna, Charlie, and Emz, Vanessa is a scientist who lives in an incredibly modern home. Her home is so modern her daughters can’t work out how to use it and whilst this factor may bring about an extra few centimetres in the gulf between mother and daughters, there’s the slight suggestion in it that Vanessa is trying to forge her own path. Whilst the daughters are modern but affected by this magic of their grandmother’s, Vanessa is left out. Her daughters may feel neglected, and that may be true, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder on – why is Vanessa so different? Is it simply that Slavin wants to bring to the fore the difference between traditional magic, superstition, and up-to-the-minute scientific findings, or is it a look at how a person left out will try to forge their own path, their own identity? It may be something, it may be nothing – this reviewer may be over-thinking it – but it’s interesting to contemplate and the difference between mother and daughters will doubtless be further explored as the series continues.

There is no major plot-line in this book which can make it difficult to keep up with the goings on. Various threads and a large number of secondary characters make it feel like a soap opera at times but when the narrative focuses it’s pretty good. It takes a while for that particular thread to become less blurred, to show what it actually is, but the pace gets swifter once it’s settled into. It’s a case of having a lot of information at once, presumably to set up the scene for the series, but it would’ve been better for it to be unwound slowly.

The writing is generally good. Slavin often uses unconventional words – onomatopoeias, for example – that are distinct because we tend to use other words, but this becomes a quirk you look forward to and the meaning of these words is always obvious. But there is a shortage of commas – sometimes clauses that are meant to mean one thing read as something else.

Crooked Daylight is a nice read but quite disjointed. It ends well, suggesting the next book will be very good (and a lot higher in magical content) so if you like the general idea you may want to read it or at least keep the series in mind for when the next one is out.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Ashley Stokes (ed.) – The End

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They didn’t all live happily ever after.

Publisher: Unthank Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-06127-5
First Published: 1st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th August 2016
Rating: 4/5

The End is a collection of short stories inspired by scratch-work paintings. Nicholas Ruston created the paintings in the style of old film ‘end’ cards – all black and white – and the writers went off and wrote what they would. The titles of the stories have become the titles of the paintings. It’s an intriguing concept that promises variety – there’s the simple link between them of the paintings but beyond that they are very different meaning there is wide appeal.

To my mind the absolute stand-outs in this book are the stories that have taken endings literally – they’ve written the literal end of what could well have been a longer story. Suffice to say there’s a lot of extra thinking you can do after finishing them, whole novels to imagine. The Slyest Of Foxes by Angela Readman details the end of a gunman’s visit, a woman who sees what’s going on in her neighbour’s house, choosing to go round with a bowl of soap that continues a hint of razor. Harbour Lights by AJ Ashworth details the aftermath of a relationship, a very sombre note. Ashley Stokes’ own, Decompression Chamber, looks at the non-ending of the world. Crow by Aiden O’Reilly, a political-sounding ending.

But perhaps the winner is All The TVs In Town by Dan Powell. It focuses on the very end of whatever apocalyptic situation (or is it The Truman Show?) it’s talking about. Various genres within a whole, the mainstay is science fiction/dystopia with a liberal spritz of literary fiction.

The paintings themselves are rendered small but the composition and overall creation is such that that’s all that’s needed. It is indeed true to form – the aspect ration fitting cinema, the frames sporting an almost Hitchcockesque atmosphere. There’s a deliciousness in the blend of old and new – a car in one of them, for example, is mid-twentieth century, but then there’s a psychedelic design in another, with other paintings being decidedly more modern – old base, new ideas. One suspects that for the paintings… it’s hardly the perfect analogy, mass-produced as they were, but consider those foil and copper art packs your parents bought you when you were a child – the finished works were quite something.

So in this book there’s a lot to enjoy, and that there’s a base theme but no other means it’s a lovely break if you like short stories but have had enough of all the connections. The introduction to the book, which includes the background to the pictures and the commissions, is a short story in itself. The book could have done with another proof-read but overall this is a great choice for an evening’s read or perhaps even better if spread over the course of a few days.

Dark in many definitions of the word, The End offers a special experience and an introduction to a plethora of authors you may not have heard of.

I received this book for review from the editor.

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V H Leslie – Bodies Of Water

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Not just a siren’s call.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 130
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63071-3
First Published: 15th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 3rd May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Following a sad breakup, Kirsten moves into an apartment building situated beside the Thames, which used to be a wing of a Victorian hospital. Drawn by the location, she starts to unpack but is relieved to find she’s not the sole resident of the renovated block. Then there’s Evelyn, rescuer of fallen women in the late 1800s, who has been sent by her father to a hospital for the Water Cure. She’s haunted by the loss in her life of her former lover, a woman she rescued, and hopeful that her stay can help her.

Bodies Of Water is a paranormal, gothic, novella that looks at the way water has had an effect on lives through the decades. It’s a dual plotline work that doesn’t go the way of many others, making it more unique (there are no revelations of connections between the characters).

Leslie has compiled a few concepts and it works very well. The book studies the treatment of women in the Victorian times, contrasting it slightly with the present day. The author works from the diagnosis of hysteria, that Victorian concept of a particularly feminine illness often associated with what we’d now consider the repressed sexuality of women. Leslie never says what caused Evelyn’s hysteria directly – in a way it’s up to the reader to decide – but this works in the book’s favour, allowing for more thought as much as it ushers you to concentrate on the bigger picture. Because whilst Evelyn seems fine, her stay at the hospital speaks of the wider issue.

It’s the basis behind Evelyn’s calling that Leslie wants you to focus on; Evelyn works for the Rescue Society, going out into the streets to aid prostitutes, hoping to save them from the abuse many suffer, from sexually transmitted infections. She likes the idea of bringing the women to a better, higher life, though through the chapters we see her realising that this cannot always happen – in the case of Evelyn’s lover, Milly, for example, Evelyn can’t get away from the fact she’s got Milly a set of rooms but no society to mix in, and that their relationship may be about love on her own side, but Milly may see it as just more of the same.

It’s Milly’s death that gives the study its backbone; Milly is one of many women who have taken their lives, fallen into the Thames, so that whilst Kirsten, who comes to see the paranormal in her leaky ceiling and in the drenched woman on the river bank, is more a bystander, learning about what happened at the scene abstractly, Evelyn’s direct relationship with the river allows a more poignant mode of thought. And as the Victorian character comes to understand the finer details of the hospital and suffers a setback, so her thoughts take quite a shape:

As for lust, it seemed to be the curse of every man. The Rescue Society would have no fallen women to rescue if men could only control what was between their legs. Evelyn had read in her father’s medical journals that hysterectomies and clitoridectomies were often performed to cure women of the very condition Dr Porter had diagnosed Evelyn with. They were so ready with the scalpel, these medical men, to cut and slice, yet no one had thought that castration was the logical solution to venereal disease.

A running point through the book is this plight of women to be heard and to gain freedom; Virginia Woolf’s thought of a room of one’s own is given space, her demise compared to that of the many fallen women ending their lives in the river. There are echoes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, too. Kirsten’s introduction to the relative reality of what’s going on is in the form of drawings of bodies being pulled out, doctor’s knives at the ready. Because how else were women to be understood?

Leslie’s study is a good one, just a little short. There is some confusion in the story that would not be there if the plot had been teased out more, given more time between revelations. Everything happens a bit too quickly and questions are left unanswered. In terms of the text there are patches of proofreading errors that are noticeable and add to the confusion on occasion.

But all in all Bodies Of Water is a solid article. It’s well-researched and it puts a different spin on a well-used format. It’s got enough of the history that intrigues many people without treading the same path. Recommended.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Elizabeth Baines – Used To Be

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You may be ‘seeing things’ but that’s not always a bad thing.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 121
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63036-2
First Published: 15th September 2015
Date Reviewed: 3rd November 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Used To Be is an anthology of short stories Baines has had published over the years. The general theme is choices – the impact of important decisions and the maybes that abound in what ifs.

Baines has a distinctive way of writing. The writing itself is mostly literary; the author has no qualms over colloquial language. It’s a nice mash-up of tradition and the present day, making the book very accessible. Various tenses and persons are involved; it’s a stylistically diverse experience. The stories themselves are subtle in their meaning. These are average, everyday situations, tales that anyone can draw comparisons to in their own lives. On the surface nothing is remarkable – it could be said that the collection is just okay and nothing more. But this is key to the point – the stories are often about things that we might like to discuss further but worry about mentioning because we’re taught it should be no big deal or we think it’s nothing or we think we worry too much about it – and Baines shows how we should be thinking twice in these situations, questioning this concept of keeping the seemingly silly hidden away.

This is the case, to some extent, in Falling, in which a woman falls and hurts herself, quite badly, and once healed goes about her life in much the same way but with a different mindset. When she falls again she questions whether she should have changed her mindset, whether she was wrong. The underlying issue is never questioned. Only, then, is it really happening or is she dreaming? And/or is the person who asks her if she’s alright also dreaming? – how, exactly is the woman falling, in which way is she ‘falling’?

One of the stand-outs is Possibility in which Baines looks at choices not from one person’s perspective but from three. It’s people who are the ‘choices’ here. A lecturer, a businessman, and a newly-arrived immigrant travel on a train chosen for a suicide. You see three reactions to the incident, the different effects a cause can have, and whilst you may ‘prefer’ one to another, reading between the lines shows the validity, if you will, of each reaction. It shows the continuing effects.

Other stand-outs include the titular story, in which a woman listens to her friend’s continual tale of how happy she is whilst the reader sees something else and That Turbulent Stillness wherein a girl gives up her middle-class life to live with a factory worker, seeing her future through rose-tinted, passion-tinted, glasses.

Sometimes the stories can feel repetitive – this is where it’s worth remembering they were written separately for various outlets. There are a couple of occasions you could speculate a more pressing relationship between the stories than the overarching theme, for example the two stories that look at the Brontë sisters.

Inevitably, as a book about choices and what ifs, you’ll end up questioning your own life. Baines doesn’t offer answers so much as a study, making you realise how important even trivial-looking decisions can be. (And in study comes ambiguity and hints rather than detailed endings.)

Used To Be shows the ordinary for what it is. It reminds you that everyone is in the same boat if not on the same deck, and it’s written with a meticulous eye to detail. It’ll blow you away when you least expect it.

I received this book for review from the author.

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