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Kristy Woodson Harvey – The Wedding Veil

Book Cover of Kristy Woodson Harvey's The Wedding Veil

Kristy Woodson Harvey wanted to write about a wedding veil. Her agent suggested a historical wedding veil, and when Woodson Harvey started thinking about the Vanderbilts (because she loved visiting Biltmore House, the family’s home in Asheville, North Carolina), on a whim she Googled one of the women of the family to see if there might be a veil included somewhere. There was.

In the present day, Julia is about to marry Hayes, her long-term on-again-off-again boyfriend. During her bridemaid’s lunch at Biltmore House the day before, there’s a sudden load of pings; all the women’s phones go off with notifications. Someone has filmed Hayes cheating and sent it to everyone at the lunch. Julia is devastated but she’s been with Hayes so long and they always make up and get back together, so she says she’ll still marry him. The next day she puts on the family wedding veil; it brings good luck. And she will marry Hayes… well, she means to but then to heck with it, she does a runner and by the end of it all she finds herself on her honeymoon by herself thinking about all the things she gave up and being drawn to a man she meets early into the holiday. At the same time, narrative-wise, in the 1800s, Edith Dresser is about to marry into the Vanderbilt family; she wears her family’s wedding veil (yes, there is no sense in hiding it – there is a connection) and finds herself in a happy marriage that later produces Cornelia, the next in line to inherit the family’s wealth.

The Wedding Veil is Woodson Harvey’s wonderful stand-alone novel of the lasting power of female friendship and familial love, romantic love and being who you should be… and the mystery behind where Julia’s family’s wedding veil came from. Told via four narratives (Julia’s grandmother Babs and Cornelia Vanderbilt round us off) the book offers a wholesome, winsome, story that is pretty much guaranteed to delight.

Woodson Harvey is great at character development and her way of writing is absolutely lovely; from the first page you’re very much invited to join the story. The author has a particular talent for writing characters which means that even if there’s one you don’t like (you’re not going to like Hayes, for example, and for a few pages you may not even like Julia) you’re totally invested in the tale. And in the case of Woodson Harvey, writing definitely needs to be placed in the same paragraph in a review as her character development because they are part and parcel of each other; in the author’s Southern States setting and general ambiance, you get a complete sense of calm, of escape, of knowing you’re about to be whisked away into a well-told story.

That is, I think, the exact defining element of this author’s work – her ability to give you that promise, through her writing, of having chosen the right book and take you on a great journey; maybe you know where it’ll end up, maybe you won’t (Woodson Harvey definitely knows how to get the balance right between mystery and predictability), but you are guaranteed a satisfying story no matter what.

So you’ve got four fab narratives here – 1800s’ Edith Vanderbilt, whose husband George built the Biltmore House in Asheville, Cornelia (their daughter) born in 1900, and then Julia and Babs from the present day. Edith’s narrative allows you to see the Vanderbilt family in their prime, and then Cornelia’s shows the slow decline, her narrative straddling the fence of before the Great Depression and the aftermath. There is also, of course, the look at both women in their own rights as well as their relationship with each other and the way they both ‘deal’ with romance. Julia’s narrative offers a sad but busy beginning and a happier forward journey, showing how one can get swamped and lose themselves in a bad relationship and the change that can come from a better one, whereas Babs shows two good relationships – one in absentia, so to speak (Reid is dead) – and, perhaps most importantly, that love can happen at any age. Writing older women, giving them a voice and putting them front and centre of the narrative is another thing that Woodson Harvey does well.

Of the Vanderbilts’ lives, then, you see the opulence and the glamour but also – perhaps in part due to Woodson Harvey’s knowledge of Biltmore – the real life, down-to-earth stuff, too. You get the Gilded Age and the way the family looked after all the employees and tenants of the estate, and the perspective, narration-wise, that Woodson Harvey uses, allows for a particular readerly intimacy with it all.

But Julia and Babs would say they are just as important. They might not have the same glamour but they do have their modern day relatability and two lovely romances. Both also have their character progression and their relationship with each other which, I think this can be said without spoiling the book, is what we end the story on.

There’s a lot to love about this book – Julia spends a while (page-wise) in the Virgin Islands, sun, sea, sand, Babs’ retirement village is very well described and fun, and the Vanderbilts bring some fascinating history into the mix. The romantic leads are winsome, whilst being very much secondary characters and rightly so.

In short, if you haven’t already figured it out by what I assume is my very obvious attempt and failure to explain exactly what I like about this book, it’s the atmosphere and the sum of the writing and the specific vibes that make this book what it is – things that are difficult to describe.

The Wedding Veil just… rocks. It’s poignant, it will occasionally make you want to tell a character to stop thinking what they’re thinking (okay, not ‘a’ character, mostly Julia when she’s thinking that maybe her cheating fiancé isn’t so bad), and it simply provides a glorious reading experience. The ambiance ensures that while, over time, you might forget the little things, you certainly won’t forget the feeling of reading this book and you will certainly miss it once it’s over.

Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 395
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-18071-3
First Published: 29th March 2022
Date Reviewed: 4th December 2023

 
Lucy Barker – The Other Side Of Mrs Wood

Book Cover of Lucy Barker's The Other Side Of Mrs Wood

Into studying the Victorian period, Lucy Barker set her book in a time she knew a lot about. It’s paid off in spades.

Mrs Wood is a successful medium. Originally from a poor background, she has risen (no pun intended) to be solidly middle class and able to furnish her home and person to a degree acceptable to the wealthy patrons she has collected. Having patrons is critical to financial independence – being a medium gives her means that many women do not have – and critical to her career is staying above any rumours of trickery; while many mediums has been found to be frauds, Mrs Wood is still okay. One day she sees a young woman outside her house, clearing watching the goings on of her Circle; Mrs Wood follows her, catches her, and the event ends with Miss Finch becoming a pupil, because, despite maid Eliza’s disgust at a member of her own class being placed above her, Mrs Wood needs something new and sparkly to keep her patrons eyes on her as she ages, and a trainee is just the thing. But might Eliza’s disgust have a real point?

The Other Side Of Mrs Wood is a very witty and incredibly immersive story of a period of history that a lot of people will be aware of but not to the extent that Barker goes into it. Educational as well as it is excellent, this is a tale that’s been well plotted and characterised and is very easy to become lost in and thus very quick to finish.

This immersion is down to Barker’s focus on world-building in all its guises. The author sticks to a few specific areas of London – in particular Notting Hill – and goes to town on fleshing out the details so that you get a vivid picture of what the places are like; yet there is no info-dumping or too-long detailing in this book – everything comes from very brief descriptions, and from the characterisation and dialogue. You get so much information from Barker without realising it for quite a while and it’s a glorious thing.

Then once you get inside the séance rooms and into the events themselves, more immersion happens. There’s no second person narrative or anything like that – Barker doesn’t literally welcome you to the circular table – but it very often feels like she has. You’re fully amongst all the goings on and it’s rather awesome as you get to experience both the spooky, haunting, effect, as well as the reality of the mechanics that Mrs Wood and her companion Miss Newman use to make the guests think there are really spirits amongst them. (Some may have figured it out – this is never said, but that in itself reflects the ambiance of the time.)

I mentioned Miss Newman there, which I hadn’t done before: let’s get into the characters. No surprise here – Barker’s attention to characterisation is brilliant. There is ample ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, the characters come fully alive (except the spirits, but they aren’t real), and while there might be a plethora of secondary characters it’s also quite difficult to say they are secondary characters because they are drawn so fully. Yes, there are stereotypes, adding to the humour, but everyone is involved often. Mrs Wood and Miss Finch get most of the billing – Miss Finch is generally considered through Mrs Wood’s point of view (Barker uses the third person but places it strongly on Mrs Wood) but we see other possibilities through the looks and gestures of Eliza and a few times the words of Miss Newman. Barker does well with Miss Newman – the character is always going out to her suffrage society (this is the very early stages of the movement) but she never feels too far away as Mrs Wood considers her often and you, the reader, inevitably end up wondering what Miss Newman would say to what Mrs Wood is thinking of doing.

Mrs Wood is brilliant – funny without often being actively funny in herself (Barker very obviously loves her characters), and a good person to read about, to centre the story around. She may miss a lot but you never feel a different character would have made a better focus. And Miss Finch is as blurred and obscured as you’d expect of someone who could be good, neutral, or bad.

On the note of secondary characters, a special mention must be made for columnist Magnus Clore of The Spiritual Times, whose short reviews and general thoughts of the world of mediums provide a different perspective, an inventive way to add twists and interest to the plot, and an important bit of white space (by way of the reviews being short) during which to get your breath back before you plunge back into the proceedings; it’s easy to lose track of time when reading this book. You also have letters from various secondary characters – and the odd primary character – to Mrs Wood, which lends a different use of voice to the novel.

Suffice to say, given all of the above, that the book is big on women’s independence – being a medium was a very good way for women of the era to make their own money and way in society. Mrs Wood’s childhood in poverty and the choices she makes, during the time the novel takes place, to keep her standing – to keep her patrons and remain a successful medium, keeping rumours of fraud well away – form the backbone of the story, with Miss Finch’s own background adding to that.

The ending is very well done and incorporates a few different elements of the plot that have been woven in since the beginning. It may or may not surprise you – there are at least a couple of possibilities of where the book might go that begin to be laid early on – but whether or not it’s as you expected, you’ll likely agree that it is a fantastic ending regardless.

The Other Side Of Mrs Wood makes for a brilliant reading choice. Well plotted, well characterised, and an excellent balance of humour and seriousness, this book is one of the best books of this year and it’ll be interesting to see what Lucy Barker comes up with next. Just don’t expect a further exploration of fully-fledged spirit manifestations – as Mrs Wood would tell you, they probably don’t exist.

Publisher: 4th Estate (HarperCollins)
Pages: 389
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-59720-7
First Published: 13th June 2023
Date Reviewed: 17th November 2023

 
Elissa Soave – Ginger And Me

Book Cover of Elissa Soave's Ginger And Me

Elissa Soave set Ginger And Me in Uddingston, the town just outside Glasgow where she is from. She thought about the ordinary people there, including young mothers with their children in prams and thought of how they each have a story, and how the world of literature does not often have these women’s stories; when it does, they are not from the women’s points of view1. She wrote a first person narrative with that in mind.

In the book we meet Wendy, a nineteen-year-old bus driver who has recently lost her mother. She’s coping as much as she can but is inevitably struggling – she’s alone and although she tries to make friends, no one ever seems to like her. One day a young teen, Ginger, gets on the bus and the two begin a fledging friendship. Wendy’s also got Diane – a local writer whose Tweets she (Wendy) likes and replies to, which makes them friends. But we begin in prison where Wendy is being held after being found in Diane’s garden during a distressing event. Wendy just happened to be there and everyone misunderstands.

Ginger And Me is a superb novel of friendship, difference, and, as intimated, the working class. Soave’s story is extremely realistic, hard-hitting, and a reminder that we still have a long way to go in recognising, acknowledging, and understanding neuro-diversity, as well as factors that may or may not impact upon a person to make them the way they are. (‘May not’ because there are not always easy ‘reasons’ for things and, as Soave has said herself, she doesn’t want to use labels).

This is a character-driven novel in its entirety. Whilst the reader may be initially drawn in by the promise of a mystery to be solved (by them, because Wendy doesn’t understand it), you happily leave that behind you for a time as Wendy takes you back to the days (not long ago) when she worked on the buses in Uddingston. You meet her and her regular travellers, get a sense for her life lived quietly in her empty home, before Ginger comes on the scene, fifteen years old and a new passenger. We get a lot more description of Ginger than we do Wendy – she’s the character on the cover (in name and image) for a reason, and it’s evident straight away that she has a troubled home life and that Wendy hasn’t caught on to this. Ginger is a great character, easy to picture, easy to like and root for.

When Wendy goes to a writer’s group, which she informs her social worker about it (the social worker does very little but you can see why from the narrative Wendy gives her). In literary terms the group is great – Soave shows very well, through them, why people struggle with Wendy, and she also shows the cruelty of people, too. That last part is why they’re not so great in people terms.

As said, you don’t get labels here. You can come to your own conclusions about what’s ‘up’ with Wendy if you like, but the main point is to simply be more aware of difference and, due to the first person narrative, understand more by the end of it. Personally, I saw a few ‘options’, and I want to say this because this is a book that will definitely be defined by your own experience of life no matter who you are.

On that note I will bring in the look at how we treat people and how we could (and need to) do better. The social worker, Saanvi, is a great starting point – she could do better, but should we point the finger at her or is her lack of support not just another symptom of the lack of funding and resources given to social care in this country? Same for the police, and for the regular people. Some people don’t accept Wendy, some do.

There is also a similar case to be made for Ginger. Ginger’s not Wendy, but there are things in her life that happen during the pages that should’ve been picked up by people tasked to check on them. Instead, Ginger drops off the radar of society; she did so a while ago.

Aside from Ginger, Saanvi, and the writing group, we have Diane. Wendy sees her as a friend purely after Diane ‘Likes’ a few of her Tweets. Diane is understandably in a middle place – she’s kind at events and as kind as she can be when Wendy turns up at her house (as we know happens, just from the prologue) but she’s of course freaked out by having a fan arrive at her door. The mystery becomes a driving force towards the end and doesn’t disappoint.

Ginger And Me is really great. It can be compared to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – it’s not the same but there are similarities. It is excellent.

Publisher: HQ (HarperCollins)
Pages: 357
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-45841-6
First Published: 21st July 2022
Date Reviewed: 18th August 2023

Footnotes

1 See my interview with Elissa Soave, episode 80 of the podcast.

 
Alex Hay – The Housekeepers

Book Cover of Alex Hay's The Housekeepers

Alex Hay was washing the dishes when the premise of his debut started to come to him – the glamorous early twentieth century and a cunning plot to empty a grand house of its contents. The result works so well that washing dishes should probably be added to the list of writer tips.

Mrs King has been fired from her post as housekeeper having been found in the men’s quarters where women are not supposed to be. She leaves without much of a fuss (though she does remind Mr Shepherd that she has a nice set of knives) and later heads to the home of Mrs Bone, a deft criminal with plenty of people in her employ and a hand in many pies. Mrs King, a relative of the family whose house she administered, has a plan up her sleeve – an elaborate heist wherein the entire contents, every single item, of the de Vries mansion, is taken and sold for the benefit of those working with her. Miss de Vries is holding a ball, an inappropriate event given the recent death of her father, but to Mrs King the timing is perfect.

The Housekeepers is a spectacularly good debut, meticulously planned and executed. Hay has delivered the timeline brilliantly via the use of multiple narratives that switch between the characters ever quicker; you get a ringside seat to all the goings on. The pacing is excellent – the book sports zero filler scenes, it jumps straight into the plotting, and the heist begins a long way away from the last page; it’s thrilling from start to finish.

The multiple narratives here really work. Hay has a glowing cast of characters, mostly women, the vast majority from the working class. It is a real below stairs novel and the one character above stairs, Miss de Vries, has been included incredibly well. She is not there for the fun of it – she’s not there for laughter or mockery – instead she has her own subplot and a firm reason for being in the narrative.

The characters are well written; you get to know several of them very well in the context of the plot, a few more fairly well, and then the rest are in the backgrounding adding to the comedy. The main cast includes Mrs Bone who, like Mrs King, has her own fish to fry with the de Vries; Winnie – housekeeper before Mrs King; Hephzibah – a former member of staff, now an actor who brings with her a whole troop of others to great comedic and mayhem-ic effect; and a couple of young women who may or may not both be called Jane.

The writing itself is of particular note. (Okay, I know, I’ve technically been writing about the writing for four paragraphs now.) There is a uniqueness to it that’s difficult to define exactly but wonderful to witness. It’s in Hay’s characterisation and more so in his dialogue. It lends a certain Dickensian atmosphere to the novel that is nevertheless not at all belonging to Dickens and is in fact Hay’s own.

There is a very strong ‘why’ to The Housekeepers that is more than the literal relative reasons and which balances out the humour and brings a dose of reality to it. It’s dark and grounding – any more description will be too much information.

The ending is fab, everything you come to want from the book happens but Hay also leaves a poignant moment to think about which may or may not be considered an untied thread – it absolutely works.

The Housekeepers is being lauded, has been optioned for adaptation, and there’s every reason for it. This is an exceptional novel in every way and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing what Alex Hay produces next.

Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 391
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-035-40664-7
First Published: 4th July 2023
Date Reviewed: 13th June 2023

I received this book for the purposes of a podcast which has gone ahead and will be published in September.

 
Ronali Collings – Love & Other Dramas

Book Cover of Ronali Collings' Love and Other Dramas

Ronali Collings had a fascinating journey to publication. Her children getting older, she realised how much of herself she’d given to everyone else and started writing and taking courses (an MA with Bernadine Evaristo as her mentor) before dropping out of her PhD, stopping writing, and then starting again under the mentorship of her now agent. She kept going this second time and Love & Other Dramas was the phenomenal result.

The book follows Tania and Priya – both in their forties – as well as Helen, Tania’s 66-year-old mother. Tania is newly divorced and looking to find herself (she’s somewhat based on Collings), Priya did not receive a much hoped for promotion after giving her all to her long-standing employer, and Helen is discovering herself after years as an unhappy wife (unhappy is an understatement). The book covers their transitions to new milestones.

There is something incredibly special about Collings’ book and, dare I say, utterly unique. (The more I read, the more I find that there is something unique about the vast majority of authors, but it still deserves a mention, particularly here.) To speak personally, I got to the end of this book, blissfully happy about the film scenes I had had playing in my head and the characters whose faces and general looks I had created and seen in detail, but couldn’t work out what I thought of the writing itself. It took a few minutes of further thinking before I realised that the fact that Collings’ book raced by, as well as the fact it was so easy to visualise, easy to feel deeply about the characters and the connections between them, whether romantic or familial, themselves summed up the writing. Collings is a superb writer. So as not to reiterate what I’ve just listed as positives, the author’s use of character (and with it development) is bar none. This is very much a character-driven book, and highly relatable – they are very British, very multicultural, and just like any person you might meet on the street. The very fact of their everyday-ness is a winning factor and with everything that happens to them being completely believable, it is impossible not to feel a lot for them.

This doesn’t necessarily equate to actively liking them. Tania in particular keeps making the same mistake which is frustrating, if incredibly realistic. Priya could often do with a bit more self-awareness. (Helen gets a pass here as she’s been through hell.) But perhaps that is part of the point – these women and, often, the other people around them, are just so true to life that they make you question your own life decisions, which isn’t generally a comfortable thing to do.

As well as the theme of women coming into their own, the racial backgrounds add a constantly-running background question about how British people of colour, particularly, in this case, people of South Asian heritage, are treated. Priya’s done very well in her job but she’s not done as well as she could due to being a British Indian; she’s the wrong colour. Tania wanted to do ballet when she was younger, but her skin colour didn’t fit the look. She also wasn’t able to cook Sri Lankan food at home without wafting the smell away because her white husband didn’t like it. It’s the things that keep adding up and adding up.

A mention must be made of Helen’s newly found happiness – she starts blossoming from the beginning but once she discovers love her story becomes perhaps the best. She represents an age group in women that is generally forgotten and Collings brings not only her story to life but shines a light on older women as a whole. Helen’s burgeoning relationship with Oscar is a joy to read and she is the character that ends the tale with the most tied threads.

The ending is interesting, both sudden – you’re likely to expect it to continue for a bit longer – and absolutely perfect. You’ll want to read more about the women whilst at the same time recognising and appreciating why Collings leaves it where she does.

Love & Other Dramas is simply wonderful. It’s a book with the power to hit you in a way you haven’t experienced in reading before and the amount is does within its limits of being a look at everyday characters and lives is incredible. Without a doubt, one of the best books of 2022.

Publisher: Embla (Bonnier)
Pages: 269
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-41308-7
First Published: 19th July 2022
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2023

 

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