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Samantha Sotto – Love & Gravity

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The apple sometimes falls very far from the tree.

Publisher: Ballantine (Random House)
Pages: 284
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-399-59324-6
First Published: 7th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

When Andrea sees a boy seemingly inside her wall whilst she plays the cello, she knows he’s real, but a resent loss in her family’s life means her explanation is not taken well. In time she starts to push the event out of her mind but one day it happens again and it’s impossible to ignore. As Andrea becomes an adult she tries to work out what’s happening and who the boy is. At the same time 400 years in the past, a young Issac Newton attempts to use science to understand the girl who he realises is from the future.

Love & Gravity is a story of time slip and travel that takes the idea of an undiscovered box of papers and crafts a bold tale from it.

Sotto has based her story on a factual person, inviting interest because her tale is fantastical and ascribes the person with a purely fictional romance. However despite the obvious implausibility of it, Sotto has surely chosen the right person for the job. Using Issac Newton works well; it’s hard to dispute the thought that Newton could have been interested in time travel, a subject of scientific interest.

And beyond the travel, as much as it may sound an oxymoron, Sotto has stuck to reality. The amount of research and the effort to get things correct is evident – though the author doesn’t info-dump. Sotto has woven all her ideas around and in between Newton’s own, always defaulting to a mathematical or scientific reason or method for what she creates. She incorporates Newton’s theories and discoveries in such a way that even a person who dislikes fantasy may be interested in the book.

The writing is at times overly descriptive. There is a lot of use of that construction wherein a reference is made to something and then the next paragraph re-describes the item in other terms – think ‘cake’ and ‘the pink sugary confection’. A few contemporary phrases have crept into the historical sections. But the writing does the job and isn’t bad at all.

The mystery surrounding the ‘postman’ could be considered predictable – there’s a good chance you’ll guess correctly immediately and there’s also a chance, no matter whether you guessed or not, that you won’t like this particular element.

But, and this is a big ‘but’, this book is very difficult to put down. The readability of it doesn’t excuse the flaws, nor will you gloss over them, but the novel is enough of a page-turner that you’ll want to keep reading regardless. Sotto has upped her time travel game – this, her second book, has a lot less going on which means that whilst a lot going on wasn’t a bad thing in the first, this new book is more refined. Suffice to say that if you like time travel novels, it’s very likely you’ll like this one.

There’s a lot of romance towards the end; at times it seems the whole atmosphere of the book might get taken over by it but this is not the case. Sotto is always aware – it’s evident as you read – that a balance must be struck between providing a satisfactory time travel experience and sticking to the concepts we as a society have come to see as important were time travel possible, namely that one shouldn’t change history, should be wary of changing themselves, should consider doing things that would have a very minor impact.

Of note is the fact that the characters may not be forever memorable – they may be, they may not be – but that it doesn’t matter. The focus here is on the fantasy, the history, the possibilities of science and the power of music, and these objectives hold the novel together and keep it going. This is a book steeped in time and cultural history and references, very aware of it, using them openly and to good effect.

It works very well.

Love & Gravity is that rare book – it may have flaws but you may well find you can forget them. Recommended? Yes!

I received this book for review.

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Andrew McMillan – Physical

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In all its flaws, in all its beauty.

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Random House)
Pages: 45
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-224-10213-1
First Published: 9th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 1st November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Physical is a short collection of poems that’s focused on the male body and sexuality – relationships, encounters, day-to-day life. It uses a specific style to focus attention on a few ideas at any one time. (It is also apparently inspired by poet Thom Gunn – I don’t know enough about his work to comment on this properly; I can only say there is similarity in the themes and the approach to them.)

There are some fantastic passages in this book that have the power to leave you a little stunned in the way of all great poetry (that sort of pause effect this reviewer is coming to love). As it’s short it can be good to read it slowly and it pays to take your time over the lines, to really read into what is being said; McMillan often uses double meanings that are rather clever, a line ending acting also as the start of the next line.

taken allegorically     he is beating on himself
until the point at which the inner river of the word grace
runs passed and everything lays down in calm
and walking back across the stream to his possessions
he feels the bruise that is staining his thigh
and he wonders at the strength of one so smooth

One of the stand outs is the very first entry, Jacob With The Angel, which takes a biblical tale, looking at it from both the usual and another angle. It’s a variation full of artistic license and provocation that asks you not to look at the story in another way exactly, but in a way that asks you to consider a potentially different meaning or possibility behind the words. McMillan explains himself outright, saying, “taken literally” then “taken allegorically” – it’s a story exploration of possibilities that makes you admire the thinking behind it.

At the risk of making it seem as though this review only concerns the very first few poems (because an example of style using the third poem follows this paragraph), another stand out is Urination. The whole being just as blunt as its title, this piece looks at discomfort in public situations, childhood memories, having to use the toilet at home when in a relationship. It seems an almost odd choice of subject but McMillan makes it important, stylist choices making it so much more than you’d think it might be. (And to get away from the first poems the multiple-page-spanning-or-is-it middle section of the book is worth reading just for the use of white space.)

In terms of McMillan’s use of pause, white space, to denote meaning and so forth, The Men Are Weeping In The Gym – about power and things that are seen as weaknesses – is one poem that illustrates the method constantly and consistently, so that you can just extract a couple of lines from the rest to show the method in action. For example:

the bicepcurl     waiting     staring
straight ahead     swearing that the wetness
on their cheeks is perspiration

A good use of language, a play on grammar, sentence clauses, and when added to McMillan’s tendency to put words together that aren’t ‘supposed’ to be together but could be – twelveyearold; slowpunctured; shortflightstopover – words that in McMillan’s collection become their own entity, it’s quite something.

Quite something – that’s it in a nutshell. Physical is powerful, stunning, mind-blowing, but not quite perfect – a word which of course has value here because in the context of the collection not being perfect is sometimes the point. The collection repeats itself to interlink, to draw connections between poems, but it also repeats itself literally, subjects that are in reality separate scenes but on the page sound very similar. Is that a problem? The answer is subjective – it really depends on how much you’re enjoying reading about the themes; McMillan’s writing itself never waivers. It’s another reason to take your time.

However you feel, it’s safe to say that McMillan’s book is a valuable addition to the world of poetry. To be taken literally.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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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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Tahmima Anam – The Bones Of Grace

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One epic love letter.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-67977-2
First Published: 19th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2016
Rating: 4/5

Zubaida was studying in America when she met him: Elijah, a man she came to know for just a few days; she had to leave for Pakistan when her university department’s hopes of uncovering an ancient fossil were realised. But when the project came to an abrupt halt, Zubaida went back to her native Bangladesh and married her childhood friend, effectively bringing an end to her acquaintance with Elijah. Years later, after meeting and splitting from him again, she has chosen to tell him everything in a letter.

The Bones Of Grace is a somewhat epic story that also includes another story within the story. It’s the sort of book you’ll likely either love or hate (very difficult to rate!) but either way appreciate the background detailing.

What first strikes you is Anam’s writing – it’s sublime. There are no two ways about it. It’s the sort of writing that is so wonderful, so well put together, so constant, that it has a very real affect on the novel’s flaws. You won’t dismiss the flaws, but you will feel as though you want to dismiss them. But what’s interesting is that this isn’t necessarily Anam’s natural writing style, it’s all Zubaida – during the story within a story, where we hear directly from Anwar (and it’s just that Zubaida has included his words in her letter) the writing is very different. More… male, appropriately. (Anwar is a man looking for his past love who puts his search on hold when he runs out of money.) Zubaida’s words, the flow of her writing, does make up somewhat for what could be called a frustrating narrative.

And I could imagine almost every day of your childhood, because it would have been documented in films or on television – in that way, you had probably lived a deeply unremarkable life, had experiences without specificity, and that had bothered you, the way my own past grated at me. All the things that irrritated you were things that I longed for, and all the things you longed for were things I took for granted.

I want to tackle this narrative before moving forward (hopefully the above extract exudes the quality and how the narrative can be both beautiful in what it says and, to use a word from the extract, grating). Whether Zubaida is annoying is really up to you, your personality, and, likely, down to your own experience of love and heartbreak. That Anam has captured her particular tale in a very honest way is hard to dispute – I think we’ve all had times when we’ve realised we’re dwelling too much on something and need to stop discussing it, and that that doesn’t always mean we stop thinking about it – it’s just a case of whether you’re happy to spend 400 pages on it and, indeed, whether you believe in this woman, Zubaida, writing a 400 page letter of excuse and apology.

Of course without the number of pages, we wouldn’t have a novel, we’d have a pamphlet, a novella at most, so this is where the background and ship-breaking comes in.

“It’s a cruel industry. For years we’ve been working slowly, patiently with the owners. Suddenly she comes and tells us how terrible things are. A film isn’t going to change anything.”

Anam uses Zubaida to look at the end-of-life of ships, in this case a cruise ship. There is the time when the ship is created – overseas – and sets sail, multiple times – overseas – and then, when it’s deemed too old, it comes to Bangladesh where men work for little pay, breaking it into pieces to be sold on. Zubaida comes to the beach as a translator for a western reporter who is looking to make a film (and possibly press charges against the management). Through Zubaida, Anam shows the horrors of the situation – the lack of safety, the deaths, and the exposure to chemicals and other toxic ingredients the workers face. It’s a uniquely-realised story. The inclusion of Anwar’s story, in which he comes to work at a ship-breaking beach, adds to the level of detail involved.

Then there is the palaeontology. Zubaida’s passion is the study of the fossil of a walking whale – a creature that slowly evolved to live under water whilst other creatures evolved to live out of it. Her journey is set around her attempts to get access to the fossil, first overseas then through the removal and sending of the bones to America. The journey shows the conflict between work (the will to, in this case) and relationships. Anam is an anthropologist which means you get a lot of detailing, but her writer self stops it becoming too much.

Amidst this is Zubaida’s lifelong mental conflict – she was adopted, lives in a well-off family and her fiancé is rich, but she doesn’t know anything about her birth mother and starts to feel a need to know where she came from. This is where privilege and class enters, where the underlining of Zubaida’s poorer beginnings limits what there is for her to know. It’s there in the background when she begins to question, no matter what category the question comes under; her thoughts of love, duty, and Elijah are informed by her adoption. In meeting Elijah she finds herself thinking of things she’d never thought about before and quite possibly never would have otherwise, and family duty and a general lack of mental strength hold her back from taking it further. She has all this luxury in consequence of being with Rashid, she’s lucky, she shouldn’t be thinking of Elijah. But she is thinking of him.

And amidst this turmoil is a minor story – minor in how much time it takes up (it’s big in terms of real-world impact) – of war, of the effects of it and of war crimes coming to light. Zubaida’s mother has spent her years working towards justice. Her father’s work and business has been ethical. You see glimpses of the Bangladesh war.

Now the ‘twist’, if it can be called so, that you start to see when Anwar makes his entrance (because if a stranger becomes involved you know there’s got to be a connection somewhere), isn’t as predictable as you might first think. It’s quite likely you’ll guess correctly, and, yes, of course this part of the narrative could be considered a device because how likely is it that it’d all happen in real life and so on, but it’s a novel after all. The reveal is pretty satisfying – it won’t blow your socks off but it may well make up for any frustration you had been feeling due to the way Anam goes about it. Make no mistake – don’t go assuming the twist the main reason for the book. It’s not – the book is all about the journey, the writing, the history, the palaeontology, and the ship-breaking – but it does give it an extra lift.

The Bones Of Grace is a slow-paced book. There’s not really any action in it; certainly that it’s one long letter should suggest this as a possibility. It’s very much a literary book, an issues book, wherein the pleasure is in its bookish sensuality.

If you like the sound of that and if what’s heralded as good about it hits the right notes for you, it’s likely you’ll fall completely in love with it. If it doesn’t hit the right note, you’ll likely still appreciate it but it may take you a while to get through.

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Pamela Hartshorne – House Of Shadows

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Cast your mind back 400 years…

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 466
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-24958-0
First Published: 3rd December 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd June 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Kate wakes up in hospital. She’s had a fall but can’t remember anything about it or even who she is. Everyone calls her ‘Kate’ but it doesn’t feel right… she finds ‘Isabel’ more fitting. She can work an Ipad and recognise things in the hospital but is surprised by people’s clothing and the absence of Tudor items. Her relatives don’t seem too nice and there’s that malicious voice she heard when semi-conscious that said she should have died…

House Of Shadows is a modern day/Elizabethan time-slip in which a woman recovers from amnesia with the wrong memories, memories that nonetheless match up somewhat to her present situation. Author Julie Cohen, quoted on the back cover, called it a cross between Vertigo and Rebecca and whilst I can’t comment on the first reference, there are definite parallels with the latter.

Hartshorne has created a fair premise and the book succeeds in whisking you into that delicious time-slip experience. Kate has memories rather than dreams or travels so it’s not quite as ‘involved’ as some, but Hartshorne includes the memories as scenes so that the effect is the same as any other. The history is luscious, the romance well set up and believable, and it’s got that same big old house thing going on as Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, only here the house isn’t a neutral element, instead it’s almost a character in its own right.

Hartshorne plays with the idea of ghosts, pitting the concept of spirits against possession but taking a less definitive route to most – Kate’s son can see there’s something not quite ‘Mummy’ about the woman presented as his mother, as can Kate’s devoted dog – but still it’s not quite your usual idea of possession; there’s just something unique about it that’s as difficult to put a finger on as the reader as it is difficult for Kate to put her finger on her memories. But it’s a lovely aspect.

One of the themes in the book is the treatment of people and the concept of privilege. Much like E Lockhart in We Were Liars, Hartshorne studies the way class divisions still rule in society, particularly in the upper echelons. Angie, Kate’s friend, helps out in every way she can, running errands for the family and helping out with the estate’s visitor system, without any real acknowledgement. She doesn’t have a defined role and isn’t considered important because she’s a commoner (she’s also of Polish decent), and Hartshorne spends various moments throughout the novel looking at the difference between the family needing her insomuch as there would be some chaos were she to leave, versus the family’s view of her which is completely coloured by her class status. Then there is the general hatred of anything other than complete heterosexuality and a major hatred for disability, interestingly also shared by said disliked Angie. The lord of the manor cannot be disabled and he can’t be gay. The lord cannot be a lady and the lord must uphold all the traditions that have never and must never be deviated from. (Whilst race isn’t commented on, one assumes the family keeps a draw full of smelling salts in case they happen to encounter any non-white tourists.)

There are a few problems with this book and one of them (two, it could be said) is major: Hartshorne gives away the mystery in the first couple of pages. First you understand that there’s hatred around Kate and then a few pages after that the major twist shines brightly and as the twists in both the modern storyline and Elizabethan storyline are exactly the same – you realise that straight away, too – you don’t have much in the way of a reveal to look forward to. It’s not clear whether Hartshorne meant for this to happen – it could easily be said that it’s a case of the author wanting to provide intrigue, a hint, and happening to go too far. Instead of hints you get answers.

This means that your interest in the book changes from wanting to know what’s happened to wanting to witness the journey Kate takes to get there, but, and likely mostly due to that fact of the answer being provided so early on, this does not work. Hartshorne’s use of amnesia is a good idea in theory and it means that you start to look forward to Kate uncovering what you, unfortunately, already know, but as the book goes on the amnesia becomes more of a plot device.

The amnesia becomes a device and then it turns into something akin to a deus ex machina move – by a quarter of the way through you know not just the major twists but have figured out everything that isn’t solely minor, but the amnesia remains a device. The answers are staring Kate and Isabel in the face, the answer is glaringly obvious, and you have to ask yourself could anyone be so, so stupid?

These plot and character problems are joined by poor proof reading and weird writing choices – made up verbs and words ending with -ly when there are perfectly useful words already in existence (‘studiedly’, for instance). Plot points and information are repeated in a way that’s either down to a disbelief in reader memory or a major editing error (it’s not to do with Kate’s memory). The book could’ve done with a heavier editing hand and a few more drafts.

You may well enjoy House Of Shadows if your interest in reading it is to experience a time-slip or to look at social division but if you want anything beyond that, you’re going to want to read something else. It’s fun enough as a story, and easy to go back to – it’s quite like the situation I found with Amy Snow, wherein it may not be great when looked at as a whole but it’s a very fun experience nonetheless.

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