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Naomi Hamill – How To Be A Kosovan Bride

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Tradition, modernity, politics, and folklore.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 212
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63095-9
First Published: 15th August 2017
Date Reviewed: 11th August 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A young woman begins the traditional process of leaving her family’s home for that of her inlaws; she may stay with her new family or she may return home. Her life plays out against a backdrop of a country at war, and the beginnings of a new nation.

How To Be A Kosovan Bride looks at the cultural traditions surrounding life in post-war Kosovo, bringing in stories of refugees and a few folklore-esque tales, too. Told by someone who goes to the country each year, it offers a particular perspective.

There are two threads in this book. In the first, Hamill balances tradition in all its trappings of dignity and honour, with the very modern. There’s a peppering of humour here and there but by and large this is a look at the clash between tradition and modernity, of being a traditional bride and a modern university student with all the cultural and, in the context of university, political, elements behind it.

To do all this, the author takes the wedding day as her starting point, a bride both excited and reluctant – unsure if this is the right thing to do – and then splits her story in two from wedding night onwards. The bride becomes plural, two people, as Hamill looks at two possible lives, one girl ‘passing’ her virginity test and the other ‘failing’ it (though she is in fact a virgin); one girl becomes the traditional Kosovan wife, the other, having been ‘returned’ on day one by her in-laws, deciding to pursue a university degree. For the most part this results in two narratives that are very, very different, and Hamill’s ‘Kosovan Wife’, as the character is called, does not find much happiness, so the narrative leans towards modernity, but there does come a point where both girls have a ‘grass is greener’ moment and wonder whether another life would’ve been a better choice.

Through the Kosovan Wife, Hamill is able to look further into culture, but it’s during the Returned Girl’s sections that the narrative comes into its own, where the author looks at the way the university entrance exam must be passed with flying colours in all subjects and how schools get around this issue where it concerns pupils having particular skills in particular subjects. The book as a whole is full of politics and it packs an almighty punch for its relatively small number of pages and white space. The second thread of the book, vignettes, stories, of the war – people fleeing, children killed, men walked to their death, liberation by people that aren’t all good – are absolutely harrowing; Hamill is completely blunt and in the acknowledgements of the book she thanks various Kosovan acquaintances for their stories that she used as a jumping point for her fiction, underlining the reality behind it all.

Finally there are a couple of faux-folktales dotted about, one spanning several chapters, adding a bit of magical realism to the book, rounding out the text so that it has information about history and the arts as well as the political element. This is where Hamill’s love for the country is shown best, her writing here being fictional but aligning to folklore well.

Of the writing, that second person, it’s difficult to say… if you hate the method, you may grit your teeth at this book, but because the author has made a point of often tamping it down, you may find it easy enough to get on with. There are only a handful of chapters that directly specify a ‘you’ – admittedly it’s not obvious who this ‘you’ is, whether the reader or a character and if the latter which – and the style matches the various stories told. It adds to the sense of oral history, folklore, and stories of war.

How To Be A Kosovan Bride is a good look at a country in conflict and the people on the wrong side of it, as well as a country still coming into its own. It is hard-hitting and very political but the humour and shortness of it balances this out. You’ll likely want to research the facts alongside your reading, especially if your knowledge is limited, as the book has a sense of a basic knowledge base behind it. It’s very much worth doing so.

I received this book for review.

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Jennifer Donnelly – Revolution

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‘Let them eat cake’ did not happen here.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 470
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-408-80152-9
First Published: 12th October 2010
Date Reviewed: 30th April 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Andi’s little brother, Truman, died unexpectedly a couple of years ago, and Andi is struggling to come to terms with it; it happened under her watch. Failing school and with a poor outlook on university, her father tells her she must join him on a work trip to Paris. She doesn’t want to go but Paris was the home of a historical musician she loves and her father’s friends are converting an old museum into a house; the building is full of artefacts from another time, including the diary of a girl living in 1700s Paris.

Revolution is a semi dual plot line book that looks at the horrors of the French Revolution starting from before the time of the fall of Bastille; it connects a young travelling servant’s life with a contemporary person in a not dissimilar position, one grieving her brother, the other trying to look out for a young prince. The book has a lot of promise – history in tandem with the present; the possibility of time travel that is somewhat realised – but is unfortunately plagued by very lazy writing.

Andi does not read as real. Her status in society – high – is not explored enough for you to believe it. The way she speaks does not correspond to her age. Donnelly has inserted a lot of strange non-words that heighten this – ‘parslied carrots’ – and employs the likes of the unnecessary ‘shake my head no’. Were it contained to Andi’s narrative, the laziness would not be so bad, but the 1700s Alexandrine speaks the same way, anachronisms running riot, the two girls sounding one and the same – in a literal way rather than symbolically. You could say Andi is translating it, but it still doesn’t ring true.

The information on the Revolution is the redeeming factor – this book has it in spades. The musician of Andi’s thesis may not be real (in our world) but everything surrounding him and his time is. The underground tunnels. The morbid death parties. The author’s research seeps through the pages.

In regards to the sort of time travel, it’s worth knowing that Andi is always under the influence of pills – she overdoses often – and whilst this doesn’t excuse her awful behaviour, it’s enough to wonder if she would have been such an uncaring person before. (Neither character is likeable.) The time travel concerns Andi, solely. Alexandrine’s part in the novel is limited to her diary. The diary is a bit far-fetched, with Andi reading it everywhere, including the artefacts section of a library, and not being asked about it. Her restringing of a guitar from two centuries ago using modern strings without research… thankfully this is fiction!

If you want information about the underground mausoleums in Paris, it’s worth dipping in and out of the pages, but otherwise it’s one to pass by.

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Joanna Hickson – The Agincourt Bride

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Metaphorical swings and roundabouts.

Publisher: Harper (HarperCollins)
Pages: 406
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-44697-1
First Published: 3rd January 2013
Date Reviewed: 20th June 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Mette entered Princess Catherine of Valois’s household when she miscarried her own baby and took the job of wet nurse. Now, many years later, she looks back at her time with Catherine as she became the princess’s friend and confident through years of childhood neglect, the back and forth of negotiations with the English King Henry V for Catherine’s hand, and the surrounding issues of civil war.

The Agincourt Bride is the first in a duo of books about Catherine de Valois. Focused on the princess who, during this retelling, becomes Queen of England, the book sports a lot more politics than the cover might have you believe.

Hickson combines the overall atmosphere of historical romance, but not romance itself, with the social and political discussions and wars of the day. Catherine’s marriage to England’s Henry V was something that started to come into being since her early double digit years, a part of the agreements that were decided between the ‘guardians’ of the French crown – the Queen and the Duke of Burgundy, who effectively took over proceedings due to the King’s failing mental health – and the English monarchy. What this amounts to is a lot of good political detail of events that relate in some way to Catherine. Due to the female point of view there is no opportunity for Hickson to detail the war in the first person – in particular, of course, Agincourt – but she brings in messengers to relay what happened. The author balances it well, towing the line neatly between cluing you in and including too much research, effectively providing you with a fair run down of the battle and how it went down.

To look at the narrative, it could be said that a book told from Catherine’s point of view would have been better. As a narrator, Mette has her moments of goodness but she is a bit of a bumbler and overly enthusiastic. Catherine is rendered somewhat distant to the reader so you have to be okay with this idea (you get to read several letters written by the princess, dotted about the narrative, that aid your comprehension of her thoughts, but it’s not a narrative in itself). However Catherine has been well-written and presented. She stands out boldly and Hickson is always careful, rightly having her overshadow Mette.

But if Catherine had been the narrator you would have missed a lot of the content that Hickson wanted to explore. The most obvious element is that of a report, a chronicle, that by Mette’s presenting the story you get to hear a lot more about Catherine, albeit from afar, than you would otherwise. (Mette does end up in a lot of convenient places, Catherine promoting her and taking her everywhere with her, which helps the author tell the story, however there are sections that are missed when Mette cannot accompany the princess.) The presentation from someone older is good, particularly in the case of Hickson’s exploration of the potential child abuse Catherine and her siblings suffered from their mother and the Duke of Burgundy. The current thought is that there was no abuse but in years gone by it has been a prominent suggestion that the children were neglected. Hickson uses this idea in her book, effectively covering two bases at once – the fact that abuse was treated very differently in older times and thus there is a need to explore it, and the way our mindset has changed over time; the author looks at attitudes both then and now, subtly including – for of course it is never stated by our medieval narrator – what appeals to us today in terms of discussion, study, and general discourse of morality. Mette’s narration, beginning just before her introduction to newborn Catherine, allows for a mature assessment of the possibility of abuse, and if history so far is anything to go by, we know that thoughts do chop and change so Hickson’s research may well be of use in this way later on.

There is sexual abuse in this book that many readers may find difficult on both a literary and historical level. Its inclusion asks that you stray from the usual narrative of royalty in the period and it would be difficult to point to specific value in terms of the story.

This is a book well set in its time. It takes a while to get somewhere in terms of plot because it is hampered by historical indecision, the person at the heart of the story bound by limitations and others’ decisions. It is a book that shows how little power women had in the 1400s, how much they would take when they could to good effect, but how it could be for little or nought. Hickson has made Catherine strong in spirit and her personality is winsome, so whilst you know there’s only so far she will be able to carry the story herself before someone with power comes in and decides to change her fate because they didn’t win a battle and she’s the prize they’re dangling, you’ll find some happy moments wherein she’s able to carefully manipulate a situation through all she’s learned.

Very much about Agincourt in terms of the plot’s time scale, The Agincourt Bride is a book that sets the stage for the next but is a story in its own right, shining light on the woman who in time would be at the heart of the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty. And whilst Mette is not the strongest character she does provides a good, solid story of politics and historical possibilities, Hickson’s use of research blending beautifully with the overall story.

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Kit De Waal – My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon (Penguin) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced today.

Family lost and found.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97338-7
First Published: 2nd June 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Not long after Leon’s brother Jake is born, the children are sent to a foster carer. Leon is confused – he’s been looking after his brother and mother Carol very well and doesn’t know why strange people had to come break up his family. He isn’t sure if he likes Maureen and when baby Jake is taken away by a young couple he vows to see him again.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning story about the British foster care system and adoption, the effects of big changes on children. Set in the 1980s, it’s full of cultural references that will delight many a reader and through small studies of a couple of big moments in the 80s and 90s, looks at the prejudices in the system where mixed race families were concerned.

De Waal is a master of writing. The author has chosen to tell her tale in a way that speaks to Leon whilst showing the target readership – adults – what’s really going on. It’s a fantastic writing style that’s in many ways very easy to read but full of depth, a style that might appeal to children if it weren’t so geared to adults. The writing is what makes the book so profound, so moving; de Waal’s ton of personal knowledge of the foster system, of court, and of these issues across the years means that she packs a lot of punch in ways you really have to read to believe.

Talking of punches, there is a lot of hope in this book, but Leon’s life is never rosy (aside from, perhaps, his allotment) and there are things that will never happen because they didn’t and don’t happen in such situations in real life. Whilst some things are incredibly neatly tied, others are not and cannot be tied. This is a book that truly brings tears.

Leon gets the short end of an already short straw – not only does he end up away from his mother (a woman you will see as neglectful) but he looses his brother. He looses his brother because his brother is white, but Leon is mixed-race, so not only did he stand less chance of adoption due to his age but his skin colour means that either the couple did not want to adopt him or the social workers believed they would not. Yes – it’s horrible. It’s an absolute sod to read but so important.

Leon’s time with Maureen’s sister, Sylvia, coincides with the time of what appears to be the Brixton riots, when black Brits protested against police brutality in the country. The novel deals only with Leon’s early life, he is on the periphery of these protests due to friendships with adults he meets, so the accounts are short, but they hit hard. Do they add a lot to Leon’s story? No, not exactly – what they do is put Leon’s ‘inability’ to be adopted in a wider context. Were the people that could have adopted both white and mixed-race brothers thinking of racial riots whilst they made their decision? Likely not, but de Waal’s themes enable her to explore, for us, problems that were all wrapped up together, if, seemingly, loosely. (Of course the parental candidates for Jake may well never have known much about Leon or even been ‘offered’ him by the social workers, but even if that was the case – we don’t know – it still shows the problems with race in the social services’ system.)

Leon’s friendships lead to one of the more objectively pleasant aspects of the novel – gardening. The book is full of seeds, flowers, vegetables, containers, and it’s wonderful because not only do you get a fair outline of bedding seasons, you get to see how young lives can be changed with the right support, in this story combining with Leon’s foster mother and her sister.

And what about all these characters, this child, the foster parents, the friends? They are very well developed, which considering the writing is quite a feat. As in everything else, de Waal enables the reader to see more than Leon can so you get a delightfully rounded picture of everyone and who they are both to Leon and to the world. De Waal’s characters are great people who lift the novel from its themes. They are a major reason the book remains happy despite all that goes on. Even the more murky characters in this respect, the social workers, are well drawn to the same extent, even if by the very nature of the narrative they come across more neutral than good. (De Waal delves rather well into the thinking behind Leon’s placement and the decisions made for him.)

This is one of the finest novels published, both last year and for many years. Everything about it is just so good and the level of care taken surpasses most else. It is an incredible book that makes quick yet never rushed work of an important subject. It gives a voice to situations we don’t hear about enough by someone who really knows their stuff.

I received this book for review.

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Helen Irene Young – The May Queen

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Women and war.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 214
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-539-99706-1
First Published: 25th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

May lives in the Cotswolds with her family, but one day Sophie leaves and life changes; May can’t shake the feeling that the boy she likes, Christopher, is the reason for Sophie’s disappearance. Deciding to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, life in London results in new friends and new tragedies, but also the potential for marriage – it’s just that May can’t quite see herself married to John while thoughts of Christopher linger in the background.

There is a lot to like about this book. Looking at World War Two from the point of view of a female member of the military, Young’s research is evident and there’s much here that isn’t often discussed in fiction at the moment. You’ll take away a few things you’ve learned but it never feels as though you’re being told too much.

The story itself is good, too. Besides the tragedies, which in view of the page count do happen quite often (besides the fatalities of war), Young presents a great little study of home life. May’s relationship with her mother is fraught by criticism and what seems to be a lack of love from mother to daughter, yet at other times Ma gives much; the effect is such that Young provides you enough to really ask yourself what is going on – it’s up to you to decide the dynamics of the relationship.

Besides this, there’s a good balance of other domestic and social points – runaway sisters and illicit affairs looked at alongside the every-day of war, basement parties, being out and about when sirens could sound at any minute.

Unfortunately there is a lack of detailing in the book. The May Queen does not have any filler sections but the writing is disjointed. The book reads as an extensive plan for a novel, so you’ll have a fair sense of what’s going on but because the scenes aren’t fleshed out enough there can be confusion. The writing is bare in the same way as the detailing.

Where do the characters stand in this? Some are mostly developed, others less so. The book shines best during the second section, set in London, where the story moves with the new location, separating May from her family and allowing you to get to know her better.

This is a good look at the Wrens and the way people lived through war, just a sparse look. It will appeal most to those wanting to read about women’s roles in the war and the way life continued throughout.

I received this book for review.

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