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Roselle Lim – Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop + Podcast

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Reading tea leaves. Rewriting destinies.

Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-984-80327-6
First Published: 4th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Like Aunt Evelyn, Vanessa can predict people’s futures, only – unlike Evelyn – she does not appreciate the ability as it takes her over and she is forced to speak the prediction aloud. This has only ever led to people running away, predicting bad news too often, and all-consuming headaches. Now grown up and wanting a better life than the one she’s living, and hoping for love beyond the odds (fortune tellers do not have long-term romance in their destinies), Vanessa agrees to spend a couple of weeks in Paris with her aunt as Evelyn opens her tea shop, to try to tame her talent into something more bearable. Paris is the city of love, and Vanessa finds her match, but she knows better than to hope for more than a few days, just like her Aunt whose own love life has been troubled.

This book could be received in two ways; for my British readers, this book is like Marmite if liking or disliking Marmite involved the ability to make an active decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Ergo, then, if picked up with an idea for a ‘normal’ book with some fun and travels in it, Lim’s latest is likely to be a disappointment. In this context, the book could be called lacking true conflict, too nice, and rather odd.

And I want to say that and have chosen those words precisely because this review will not be looking at Lim’s book from that point of view. This is because, if picked up as an escape, with a view for fun and a much happier, colourful, version of the world – Paris, here, particularly, of course – where people largely get on (and when they don’t, it’s fixable) are successful, and where magical things happen (more magical realism than outright fantasy), then Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is an utter delight.

So, like the situation with Marmite if we had something of a decision in the way we respond to it.

All this to say, perhaps, that this is a (‘the’, actually, I’d say) book to pick up when you’re wrapped up in blankets, it’s pouring with rain outside, and you want something that will make you feel good, euphoric even. (It’ll also work in the summer, more as a shady-under-the-tree or after the picnic rather than a beach read.) This book makes you feel… awesome. There is a special something about it that lifts off the page and envelopes you in goodness, even when Vanessa’s struggling.

Vanessa’s character progression is important; she narrates and her character is well-formed, however beyond her the most important elements are the atmosphere, the location, and the art. (The other characters do take a back seat in this way.) Lim’s use of Paris combines the better parts of the stereotype with the sorts of specific details that get left out of the stereotype – Paris is the city of love and happiness… and of these specific works of art that you’ll not find mentioned online quite so much. This is mostly thanks to Vanessa’s artistic nature – she stands and looks at things, and then sits down to memorialise them on paper.

Needless to say, the details inherent in creating art form a large part of the book. Another aspect that is used similarly is food, though this can be diverting. Food – the eating and description of it, formed much of Lim’s previous work, Natalie Tan’s Book Of Luck and Fortune, and the character was a chef. Vanessa, whilst her family is similar in this way, is not, and so it doesn’t work quite so well as the art – the narrative effectively pauses during meals, but it does pick right back up again following their conclusion.

So, as said, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is a pick-me-up, a magical story that is pretty impossible not to enjoy for the brightness it brings with it. Whilst you will remember the plot, it’s the value of the atmosphere, the use of location, and the symbolism of the magical realism elements Lim uses that will etch itself most into your memory – with its goodness and uniqueness, it would be difficult to forget the effect this book has on you, and quite possibly difficult not to want to keep it to hand.

I received this book for review.


This week’s podcast episode is with Tammye Huf. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Tammye Huf (A More Perfect Union) discuss her great-great-grandparents’ relationship as an 1840s Irishman and a Black American slave, the way owners used Christianity to support their views of a racial hierarchy, and the lengths reached in order to label people by skin colour.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
Joanna Hickson – First Of The Tudors + Podcast

This week’s podcast episode is with Joanna Hickson. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Joanna Hickson (First Of The Tudors; The Tudor Crown; The Lady Of The Ravens also The Agincourt Bride; The Tudor Bride; Red Rose, White Rose) discuss the royal and noble individuals of the War of the Roses, the women who made an impact, the ever-present question of who killed the princes in the tower, and, on another topic entirely, using weasels to prevent conception.

Please note that the question about the fear of pregnancy and childbirth includes a couple of mentions of a weasel’s particulars.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.


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The one with the most importance in this context, and he won’t be the last…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 494
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-13970-4
First Published: 1st December 2016
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2020
Rating: 5/5

Jasper Tudor and his brother Edmund, half-brothers to Henry VI, inevitably fall on the Lancasterian side of the argument. As young men, Edmund marries the even younger Margaret Beaufort, and Jasper begins a relationship with distant relative, Jane Hywel. With Henry’s position at threat from the supporters of the York (and the later Edward IV), Jasper’s life is full of battles. And then there’s the other, perhaps more pressing, factor – Edmund and Margaret’s child, Henry, has more than one claim to the throne in his blood and he is going to require protection.

First Of The Tudors is Hickson’s fourth novel, an absolute triumph of a tome that manages to look in detail at the War of the Roses both accurately and with good pace and continued excitement, and with an undeniably wonderful immersive quality that makes an already well-known subject and people fascinating all over again.

Let’s tackle that accuracy first. Hickson uses a fair mixture of facts and fiction. She includes details that are often thought dry – dates, locations, details of troop movements, in a way that is balanced by her fiction. Specifically, her use of dialogue and narrative – particularly narrative – means that you get a good grounding in those ‘dry’ facts without needing to take a break, the fiction and the quality and thoughtfulness of her writing making the pages turn one after the other. Suffice to say that the page count, whilst it might look daunting at the outset, becomes a fact for indifference pretty quickly. (On a further note, picking up the similarly-numbered The Tudor Crown, directly afterwards, was one of the very few times I’ve looked at a book and found a large page count trivial.)

On the assertion of immersion, this is inevitably also the result of the dialogue and writing but in addition the use of location and the world building in general. There’s something special about Hickson’s narration in this regard that’s difficult to pinpoint exactly – it’s a quality that’s undeniably all her own and just really good to read. It works best in the more modest locations, likely because its in those places where the situation in the country (and, as the book goes on countries) is more relaxed and presumably quieter, but the castles and battlements and so on are pretty awesome, too.

Whilst Jasper narrates approximately half the tale, Jane Hywel narrates the other half. Jane, a semi-fictional character (her family is real, and Jasper did have a relationship and illegitimate children, we just don’t know who with) provides us with a necessarily different perspective on the War in her more ordinary situation; she also heads up a good focus on women at the time. On this, Hickson spends a very good amount of time on the role of Margaret Beaufort – she is pushed to the fore, as it were, given the backup and evidence, albeit sometimes fictional, for the points about her strength that we are told about in non-fiction.

On that ‘sometimes fictional’, we’re looking at the letters she sends to Jasper, which inevitably history, such as we know, has not kept primary evidence of but likely existed. In these we see a leader, a person as important as any of the leading men of the time, someone who worked in the background and got things done.

We also see a good amount about and of Elizabeth Woodville’s role, though it is invariably not as distinct.

And laced through it all, a gentle romance, a story that surely bares a fair semblance to the reality. It’s well written and well done in general, filling in gaps and padding out the life of a man we don’t know so much about but should, Jasper’s role in Henry VII’s ascension to the throne paramount.

First Of The Tudors presents a lesser-known man and an even lesser-known woman, bringing them to the front of the stage. It brings in the younger years of Margaret Beaufort, the life of Edmund Tudor, and well explains the backdrop, both immediate and further afield, to which Henry VII came to fight for the crown. It’s engaging, it’s fun (yes, indeed!). It’s splendid.

 
Christina Courtney – Echoes Of The Runes

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An heirloom with more significance than is usual.

Publisher: Headline (Hachette)
Pages: 280
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-26826-6
First Published: 17th September 2020
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2020
Rating: 3.5/5

Mia is utterly taken by the Viking-era ring in the museum in Sweden – it is exactly the same as hers, a ring she was given by her grandmother. When a fellow academic, Berger, sees what she’s wearing, she’s thought to be a thief, but as the truth of her ownership finds him, he suggests further studies. Living in London with her fiancé, it’ll be rather different travelling to Sweden and staying far longer at her grandmother’s small estate than she’s used to, even if Mia now owns it, but Berger’s suggestion to do an archaeological dig there is too intriguing. She leaves Charles in London and moves into Birch Thorpe, but on the first day, instead of Berger, a man called Haakon arrives in his stead. He’s not very polite, but something draws Mia to him. Meanwhile we hear about Ceri, a Celtic woman stolen from home by Vikings, strangely drawn to her Swedish captor, Haukr, as he is to her.

Echoes Of The Runes is a time-slip story – ever so slightly in literal terms but with a fair resonance – looking at an effective repeat of a relationship without reincarnation.

The set up, particularly in terms of historical information in both narrative threads, is wonderful. Courtney’s attention to getting things correct and her dedication to making it interesting and accessible, easy to learn and take away with you, is apparent from the moment the modern day fictional studies start and the historical Ceri starts getting to grips with her new situation. This information includes details of archaeology; the author strikes a good balance, giving a good amount of information but never too much and always nestling it amongst the threads of the story.

The characters are well drawn. Mia’s fiancé Charles doesn’t really fit in, but then that’s effectively the point. New man Haakon (because you know he will be – more on this in a couple of paragraphs’ time) is pretty abrasive at first, domineering in a way that doesn’t seem to gel with Mia’s own personality, but then given the premise of the story, this may well be a liberty taken by Courtney so that Haakon can be as much like Haukr as possible without breaching the realms of what is realistic for a historian when compared to a Viking invader. Mia herself is fair, as is her counterpart, Ceri, where in the first the needs of the story and in the second the literal abduction play their parts.

Where characterisation doesn’t work so much is in the relationships – whilst some elements are, again, dictated by the situation, both pairings could have done with more time prior to the getting together. It’s obvious very early on that the two characters from each time period will be together, which given the genre and general concept is a good thing, but the time between first meeting and getting together is pretty short – more so in the modern day thread – and thus it can be difficult to see the chemistry in terms of characterisation.

In regards to the predictability of the story, that the basic concepts are predictable is no bad thing. Knowing the rough trajectory you are on is very welcome; the book’s balance of information and escapism is perfect. However the main reason to mention predictability is due to the series of coincidences in the two stories, the predictable nature inherent in them once you get used to comparing them. Usually, coincidences can be a problem, however in Courtney’s book they are included as part of the point – the modern day characters note them, discuss them. The threads follow one another, a historic tale repeating itself in the future as much as it can given the realistic restrictions the author has created, and understandably, given the general idea of spirits and even, though it’s not mentioned as such, the concept of unfinished business, there are many counterparts. It could be called too much, but it’s more something to consider both for its use in the story and as a thought-out device.

The one thing that is difficult is the world building – with so much time spent on the couples and on the time-slip factor, there are fewer details about the landscape and locations themselves, meaning a more limited sense of place and time than you might have hoped for. There are plenty of small mentions but not quite enough to stitch it all together.

Two smaller elements of note: the majority of each narrative is set in a different season to the other which brings a nice balance to the book over all, and the look at attitudes to disability forms a good additional element that asks you to consider not only the historical context but the present day, too.

Echoes Of The Runes does have times where it loses its way, but over all it is a good read. Its strengths are particularly so, and the slight meta hint to it in the form of the question of coincidences is an interesting component. It will leave you with lessons learned but, more over, a good reading experience that will allow you to properly relax into the story.

 
Tracy Rees – Florence Grace + Podcast

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We’re all a bit Dickens here.

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 540
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29617-9
First Published: 30th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 2020
Rating: 5/5

Young Florrie Buckley is employed for an evening to serve at a ball. Whilst there, she catches the eye of a boy around her age and gets him to hide with her; they converse – he’s rich, and, as she comes to find out, a member of the somewhat bizarre Grace family. Florrie returns home but it isn’t long before she is called to join the Graces at their home – she finds out that her mother, who passed away years before, was a member of the family, cast out for marrying a man far below her class. Florrie is compelled to leave everything she knows and join a group of people both revered and thought gauche – the clan want her back.

Florence Grace, Rees’ second novel, is a very enjoyable rags-to-riches-and-perhaps-someone-else tale (I don’t want to spoil it too much) involving a practically Dickensian family and a lot of information on the average person in the Victorian period. Set in the same century as Amy Snow, Florence Grace is nevertheless wholly different from that debut whilst providing the same general reading experience.

There is so much to like about the book – the details of the different ways of living, the difference between classes, society as a whole, childhood; in a way the book is much more about character and place than it is about plot yet the plot emphatically keeps you reading. It’s told in the first person – unsurprisingly Florrie’s point of view – yet it feels like a grand saga. Much like Amy’s story, Florence Grace owes a lot to the classics, though here it’s more about the feel than the voice, and it’s much more Emily than Charlotte.

As a group, the family make for essential reading – you’ll be glad that they are fictional, particularly as the book continues. There are many different sorts amongst them, and Florrie, with her extreme differences, rounds it off really well. Florrie herself remains compelling throughout, a person who is inevitably very worldly wise by the end. The element in her story of homecoming, of finding herself and pushing through, is ever-present. The backdrop of the Cornish moors, described beautifully, is almost a character in itself, and lends itself to a very slight thread of magical realism; this is, of course, where Emily Brontë’s story comes into play.

Unlike that haunting book, however, Florrie’s is a lot more positive. There’s a lot of heartache and hurt but her strength pushes her on. And the ending, which you start to get an idea of as it nears, is both very fitting and somewhat, still, surprising.

This is a long book but it’s worth every page. There is always something going on, always a change of scenery, and the attention to detail in all cases is fantastic. If you’re looking for an epic that sets reality up together with a hint of fantasy, a classic in our present day, this is a brilliant candidate.


Today’s podcast episode is with Peter Ho Davies (The Ugliest House In The World; Equal Love; The Welsh Girl; The Fortunes). Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

We discuss moving as a writer from Britain to the US, Welsh with English as a second language, the first Chinese Americans, Hollywood star Anna May Wong, and the impact – then and now – of the murder of Vincent Chin.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29626-1
First Published: 4th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2020
Rating: 5/5

Londoner Nora has worked her stable but uninspiring job for ten years; one day she sees in her mind’s eye a beach that she thinks she must have visited at some point… and the experience leads her to quit her job to look for a different life, perhaps in the place where the beach is – Tenby, in Wales. She knows her mother won’t be pleased – Jasmine dislikes Tenby – but ninety-three-year-old Gran will be overjoyed. Interspersed In Nora’s tale is that of young Chloe who lives in Wales in the 1950s and spends three weeks every summer in Tenby, where she looks forward to growing up, attending parties for teenagers and flirting with boys, but what she comes to look forward to most is time with Llew, the younger boy she considers her best friend.

The Hourglass is a tome of a book that looks at formative years of lives, not necessarily youthful years, and relationships and their effects.

This, Rees’ third novel, is absolutely fantastic. It actually includes few things generally seen as negatives – it’s slow, the ‘reveal’ could be called contrived and it’s not exactly shocking or groundbreaking, and the book is very long – but all these things as written by Rees turn the stereotypes on their head. The writing is similar to Rees’ previous books as you might expect, that is to say it’s different again in voice but as strong as ever, and the attention to detail and just, simply, attention to telling a fair story very well, forms the backbone of the success.

At a literal glance the novel is long, and indeed it does take and feel like a lot of time whether you read it over the course of several (or more) days, or just one or two, but once it’s over you’ll wish it took even more time. It is just the right length, the perfect novel to sit down and enjoy, it is the sort of book that completely lives up to the romantic idea of reading a good book outside on a sunny day with a big teapot of tea or large glass of wine. It’s slow in that wonderful way – there’s no quick drive as a reader to get to the end, you want to know what’s happened but you’re happy to go slow and find out whenever the author has decided you should know. And having an idea of the rough trajectory of life for the characters early, by way of their stories, helps you in that.

Given my nod to the stereotype of the perfect read above, it will come as no surprise that the book is beautifully atmospheric. Wales, that place in the UK afforded more rain than the rest, or at least in the public’s perception, is provided with floods of sunshine and a lot of detail both historic and present day (Nora’s story takes place in 2014). The relative slowness of ’50s life compared to now aids the reading experience – whilst Chloe’s perfect days are largely due to her age, nevertheless the qualities ascribed and experienced are a big part too.

Inevitably the hourglass of the story is as much a concept, a symbol, as a real item; the passage of time is one of the book’s themes. The reveal, which could perhaps be considered contrived in a vacuum, aligns itself to the concept to good effect. There is a slight deus ex machima to it on the surface – it’s not something you would have considered – but it makes you think back over everything else you’ve read so far, over Chloe’s wish to be more grown up early, over friendships and the use of time.

Of the book’s dual-plot situation, both stories are good in their own right. There is – of course? – a link, but both florish separately, and it would be difficult to say that either is better – if you like one more that will be down to personal preference. The romantic aspects of the book are also well done and lovely to read.

Two other aspects of especial note: the theme of mother-daughter relationships, more obvious in the present-day than the past though still an aspect of the historical thread; and the time given to the older characters in the novel. The mother-daughter relationship, here a strong bond that has become damaged in a way that needs to be studied by both parties, is a strong part of the story, it’s own thread detached from everything else. In terms of the older characers, Rees’ stories stretch a little beyond the happy-ever-after endings, appropriately giving you more time with all the characters following both your reading/emotional investment and time investment, as well as giving a voice to people who often get overlooked.

The Hourglass is one of those books wherein no words however positive and gushing can truly explain how good and in what manner it is. Suffice it to say that it is perfect, that now, when we could all do with a holiday, is a good time to read it, and that it is worth every moment.

 

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