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Tracy Chevalier (ed.) – Reader, I Married Him

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There was every possibility of reading a book that day.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 282
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-15057-0
First Published: 7th April 2016
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2020
Rating: 4/5

For this anthology, twenty-one women writers, some very well known, others less known but no less great, come together to tell various short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular the famous line that comes towards the end.

This collection is pretty special. Not only are the stories on the same theme but on the same sub-theme, the same sentence. It’s true that many of them do not deal closely with the subject itself, but they do all revolve around it, just at different distances.

Reader, I Married Him explores the variety of ideas that accompany all our personal experiences of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester’s union – some look at it in terms of love, just love; some look at it in terms of the thoughts that have been explored in our more modern times of Rochester’s personality and the difficulties with his ‘woman in the attic’, as well as in terms of Jane’s beliefs in herself, and her experiences in childhood. Others look at it in terms of how it might play out today, others in a modern day context in general. Some look overseas, in countries Charlotte Brontë had possibly never heard of, and some look at same sex romances that would have been completely off the table.

The variety is, both by its nature and simply by fact, the best aspect of this book. You get enough stories about Jane Eyre and other characters from the novel to be satisfied with the literary context and classical exploration, and then there are also enough stories that are close enough, too, in that way, which means that the others – far more loosely based – become an excellent palette cleanser and are highly interesting in themselves. (Because, suffice to say, if you’re picking up this book, you’re either picking it up for Charlotte Brontë or for the authors.)

Chevalier’s compiling of the stories has been done well; the contributing editor has arranged them in such a way that even if you tire of any one particular story, you’re still very interested to read the next. And this is no mean feat when there are twenty-one to get through.

No surprise – there are plenty of standouts. Standouts for you, yourself, are necessarily going to depend on what aspect of the exploration intrigues you most, so this paragraph may be more subjective. Standouts in terms of this review include Kirsty Gunn’s Dangerous Dog, a very loosely-based story that centres on a woman who comes across a group of teenagers hurting a pit bull and tries to show them it’s not a horrible creature; Joanna Briscoe’s To Hold, where a woman marries three men for different reasons but loves Mary; the titular Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill, a fictional narrative concerning the marriage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (though they are not named as such); Francine Prose’s The Mirror, which looks at Jane’s story as a repeating pattern in Rochester’s house; Elif Shafak’s A Migrating Bird, loosely-based and concerning a young Muslim student who falls for an effective exchange student who, friends say, will return home; Patricia Park’s The China From Buenos Aires, incredibly loosely based but fantastic, a tale of a young Korean Argentinian woman who moves to America and misses home; Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me which is exactly what you would think it is; and Tracy Chevalier’s Dorset Gap, where a guy joins a literature student on a walk post-pub (public house) visit and tries to emulate her idea, of signing a book for passing ramblers, to poor effect.

Certainly a few of the above stories are better than the others in the paragraph but there isn’t a ‘bad’ one in the whole bunch; it’s simply the case that when you find the one or two that speak most strongly to you, be that in the literary context or otherwise, the others just can’t quite match up to them.

But that is to be expected; with the variety of debates on the various themes and topics in the original, some will speak more strongly to you than others. This is where the more average, more ‘plodding along’ periods of your reading will take place, when you want to be done with your current story so you can see what the next one is like. The book can also seem longer than it is because of the need to reset your expectations so often and so much, what with differences in closeness to Brontë’s work. Inevitably the work you have to do to understand them in context changes, too.

Reader, I Married Him does really need a reading of the source work behind it to get the most out of it; it doesn’t matter whether you read it once years ago or whether you’ve studied it over and over – you just need to have read it. And every reader will take away something different from it; interestingly, if we were to say that everyone’s opinions of the classic are branches of the same tree, then these stories and our opinions of them are further branches, from each of the first. It is effectively a secondary or tertiary source. And it’s a good one.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Forgotten Sister

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It will be coming around again…

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 366
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27849-6
First Published: 30th April 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Popstar and TV presenter Lizzie attended the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Dudley, and his girlfriend Amy. It was a drinks-fuelled day, perhaps most memorable to everyone for the sudden leaps into the pool. But for Lizzie, the most memorable aspect was the strange experience she had when she touched a crystal ball belonging to Amy and found herself falling, then waking up surrounded by people. She remembered Amy’s young brother, Johnny, seemed to not be surprised by what happened. Now, some years later, Amy is dead, and the media is turning on Dudley. It’s also turning on Lizzie, the suspected other woman who has never seemed far from Dudley’s presence. Centuries earlier, the wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley – a woman from a lesser family, called Amy Robsart, was found dead at the bottom of a back staircase. The cycle will continue until it is stopped.

The Forgotten Sister is Cornick’s fourth time-slip novel; it deals with the unsolved mystery of how Amy Robsart died – did she fall? Was she pushed? Did she die essentially due to something else? It’s daring. It’s also simply a very good book.

Beginning with a short narrative from a ghost and then switching to the modern day, the use of the same names for both periods may strike you as too easy – it means that a lot of the story is there on the table for you, straight away to use without any need to work it out. (This assuming you have at least a passing knowledge of the time period – you don’t need to know all that much but a brief reading of the basics of the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley will mean you understand what’s going on quicker. You don’t have to know it, it’s more a case that not knowing will offer a different sort of reading.) However it’s of course not actually that easy.

With its focus on modern day celebrity, this book is very different to Cornick’s last three. Whilst the time-slipping is there as has been usual, and whilst the means by which it happens echoes the author’s work so far, the atmosphere in this book is very different. The atmosphere is very fitting – modern day celebrity as the comparison to Elizabethan royalty – and it works well. There is a necessary distance here where the characters do not move in the wider society, which may take a bit of getting used to, but there’s enough going on without it.

There are few nice people here – the historical situation wasn’t exactly good either – but there are enough to balance out those that are difficult to read about. In keeping with the darker side of celebrity and publicity, it takes modern day Lizzie some time to work out who is friend and who is foe. The various houses and other abodes used in the book – Lizzie’s flat, another property, and modern day Amy’s home – are almost characters in themselves, which fits with Cornick’s characterisation of the place Amy Robsart died, a place quite possibly haunted.

Compared to the modern day thread, the historical thread is more straight forward. It deals with Amy’s life and the trouble there. It doesn’t take long to see why there is more time and detailing given to the modern day – in this book, Cornick uses both time periods to tell a fuller story; the historical section deals with the aftermath of Amy Robsart’s death, a restless ghost and a cycle of trauma; the modern day adeptly deals with the story of the death itself, effectively showing you how not only its modern day counterpart to Amy Robsart died, but how Amy Robsart herself died, essentially taking you from the start of the story to its end and then leaping forward to the aftermath of the aftermath, the breaking of the cycle. This is one of the best aspects of the book, Cornick’s usage of characters who are similar but not the same, to, with complete effect, tell the story of the historical Amy Robsart. (This is another reason why you don’t have to know the history.)

The mystery as solved here by Cornick is of course fictional – we may never know what happened to Amy Robsart – but it’s very believable. And the way it is solved effectively in the present day makes it easier to understand the motivations of the historical characters as we of course do not know as much about them; Cornick brings necessary life to those who now exist only in ink and paint. The reveal draws attention to how easy and thus a bit too obvious the obvious would have been back in the days of awful punishments. The solving is made more thrilling by Cornick’s employment of the supernatural, where Lizzie experiences slices of life of those whose belongings she touches, and by a brief but very satisfying foray into time travel.

The Forgotten Sister is awesome. It gives new life to a mystery, to a person who was essentially pushed aside, the lights of the Queen and her favourite shining brightly. In its fiction it requests another look at what happened as well as a look at the after effects on Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. And it does this whilst providing a superb up-to-the-minute story, super fantasy elements, and that ever-present eerie something that might just slip past your fingers and beyond the last page.

I received this book for review. I’m early writing this review (with permission) so I’ll say here to put 30th April in your diary if you like the sound of the book.

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Susmita Bhattacharya – Table Manners

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It’s ready.

Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Pages: 168
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-63446-6
First Published: 28th September 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

A woman is irritated by the lady who keeps taking her brother’s wife’s time up with her tales of her abusive husband; a man becomes disturbed by the change in the public’s thoughts as to those of his religion; a couple goes on a trip to Venice before one of them is moved to a hospice.

Table Manners is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of food and meals. But as you might expect it’s not quite as simple as that; the food, a theme of varying degrees in each story, relates directly to human relationships and connections.

Bhattacharya’s collection is super. The writer’s basic concept is to take a person’s interest in food, or the fruit tree that is in a person’s life, or a single dinner, and relate it to an event of long-term happening in the character or characters’ lives where the presence, or lack, of other people has made or is making a mark. The collection is deceptive; after the first few stories you’d be forgiven for thinking that the work is brilliant, but on a small, quiet scale. Make no mistake – you’re simply consuming the appertiser. Once you’re a few stories in, the concepts do effectively leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, becoming shockingly excellent, and this continues for a good while enough that you realise the necessity of the quieter beginning. There are pauses to get your breath back, but the mainstay of the collection is the hard-hitting stuff, with some superb characterisation leading the way. There are a number of errors in the book but whilst they are noticeable, they do not detract from the whole.

The collection is international, with stories spanning a number of continents, showing the feelings and aspects of life as worldwide, as well as those more specific to a few places and the present day.

As to the standouts, three of them are noted above; a special mention must be made for the very first story, The Right Thing To Do, which is told by the sister-in-law of the person whose house the story takes place in, and begins with this:

I push the cup towards Mrs Dalal. As usual, she is crying, caressing her bruised arm. She barely looks up at me but takes a deep sip of the tea. My Bhabhi tilts her head slightly, indicating me to leave. I go back to the kitchen, already worrying about the rice that needs to be cooked before Dolly and Rana come home from school. Then there’s the fish to be cleaned and fried. And the clothes to be brought back freshly ironed from the istriwallah. The chapattis to be cooked. Why does Mrs Dalal turn up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times?

Others include Comfort Food, in which a wife in Singapore is happily making her favourite meal as she does every Friday whilst her husband is out entertaining business associates, only this evening he rings her to ask that she join him. It is an uncomfortable meeting for her. Letters Home shows the emotional journey of a man who emigrates from Bangladesh to Cardiff in our current political climate. And then there is Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, the story of a couple taking an end-of-life holiday during which they discuss difficult moments in their relationship.

Table Manners is beautifully written; careful language, a lot of heart. You’re likely old enough to decide for yourself when you get down from the table, and in this case, you’re going to want to wait until long after the conversation is over.

 
Nancy Bilyeau – Dreamland + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Nancy Bilyeau! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie Place and Nancy Bilyeau (The Crown; The Chalice; The Tapestry; The Blue; Dreamland) discuss the lifestyle of Dissolution-era nuns, using a website’s ‘contact me’ form to great success, there being more relics than there were items, using your family’s name in your work, and the grand amusement parks and luxury hotels of New York’s past.

To see all the details and transcript, I’ve made a blog page here. The episode is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Lastly, you can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Ice cream, cotton candy, and crime.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44577-7
First Published: 16th January 2020
Date Reviewed: 11th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Reluctant heiress Peggy is summoned away from the regular bookstore job she loves to attend her family’s holiday, staying in a luxury hotel not far from the amusement parks of early 1900s Coney Island. The Battenbergs have received a sudden invitation to join the mother and son with whom they hope to make an alliance via marriage, and with their own wealth in decline there’s no way they can refuse the offer. They go. But Peggy can’t resist the amusement parks her social class are supposed to stay away from, and when a girl’s body is found and she is amongst a crowd of onlookers, the distance between her circle and the families at the parks shortens considerably, even more so because Peggy’s interest in the other part of Coney Island leads her to meet a working class immigrant and park employee, forming a connection that is unthinkable.

Dreamland is Bilyeau’s fantastic fifth book (third story over all). The setting is incredibly immersive, with the sights and sounds so well described and created that the features stay with you throughout your reading, keeping you in that feeling of somewhat being there yourself as the plot elements keep going on around you.

Of course it is helped by Bilyeau’s choice of setting – this summery location with so many different elements and the grandness of its historical context is incredibly welcoming, albeit that the story is a thriller and thus the situation discomforting.

No surprises then that the research is as thorough as always. The luxurious hotels and amusement parks of Coney Island as detailed by Bilyeau – that are each separate entities as demanded by the class structure no longer stand1, but Bilyeau’s studies and descriptions enable you to get a great idea of what they would have been like. And the character placements mean that you get a pretty good look at both; the number of characters and Peggy’s place in society means that you see more of the hotels – hers in particular – but the descriptions of the parks allow for a built-up picture there, too.

In Peggy, Bilyeau has created a worthy heroine, a good symbol of her time but very relatable today. More curious and desirable of a different life, Peggy moves between the worlds that are otherwise strictly separate, taking a few others along with her; this is naturally where the delineation is most apparent. The wealthy are… wealthy, and privileged, but in Peggy’s choices we see a barrier that has been placed in front of her – it may be positioned as safety guidance, but she isn’t really allowed in the parks.

Peggy’s part in the book shows well the views about women at that time. Peggy is in the highest echelons of society but still she’s essentially just a woman; she goes where the men of the family dictate, and they do dictate. She in fact has less agency, in some ways, than those below her, or at least it seems; Bilyeau shows well how the same values carried over very differently depending on who you were, for example, the regular women can bath in the sea more freely; if Peggy wants to go in the sea she’s required to cover up almost entirely.

The mystery is solid. Interestingly there are only a few options provided for you to really consider however this is in itself as much of a red herring as any other. In providing a very limited number of people who could have ‘dunnit’, the author pushes your focus towards Peggy’s own journey of discovery, and with all the aspects in place there, it’s a ride and a half. The mystery brings into question the changing times of the period, this 1911 year that was on the cusp of a war that would change everyone. It includes the differences between the classes, and the various affects extreme privilege can have. It also, unsurprisingly, shows the favour given to men – of the right class, of course – when it came to investigations.

Once again Bilyeau brings immigration into her stories; here the subject is used quite differently compared to The Blue (where the main character looked at the concept of religious refuge); it studies some of the problems that came with people moving to the States from Europe where they were fairly persons non grata depending on where they were from, not entitled to being believed when there was blame to be found.

Related to this is the romantic subplot; Bilyeau has woven her tale here into the rest of the story and provides it a very satisfying conclusion well in keeping with the time. To be sure the book is a thriller, but the romance is a good addition that further expands on all the topics discussed by the rest of the story.

Dreamland is a very good book; the mystery very well written. The frustration you’ll feel for Peggy keeps you reading as do the sights and sounds of the location, the mix so deliciously at odds with the concept of the area. The fun of the parks will draw you in and the twists of the mystery will hold you there. Find yourself some candy floss and a deck chair or, given the release date – and just as well suited – a warm sweater and hot chocolate – whatever the weather outside your window, this book will pull you into its heatwave summer and a mystery that is very well paced.

Footnotes

1 The area has recently been redeveloped to include one park, which bears the name of one of the originals: Luna (the original three were Luna, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland). Information can be found at Trip Savvy. You can view photographs of the parks and old hotels here.

I received this book for review.

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Seishi Yokomizo – The Honjin Murders

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A Japanese classic.

Publisher: Pushkin Vertigo (Pushkin Press)
Pages: 181
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27500-8
First Published: 1946; 5th December 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 本陣殺人事件 (Honjin satsujin jiken – The Case Of The Honjin Murder)
Translated by: Louise Heal Kawai

In the early hours of the morning after a wedding, screams and the sound of a koto being plucked are heard from the bridal room. The couple have been killed and there are hand-prints, three fingered, on the walls. A mysterious man had arrived in the hours prior to the wedding.

I would venture to guess that you’ve never read a novel quite like this one. A book with similarities? Quite possibly – this a book influenced by others. But unless you’ve read Yokomizo before, it will still be new to you. The Honjin Murders is as original today as it likely was in 1946. Yokomizo creates a story within a story; the basic idea is that an unnamed writer – our narrator – is recounting a true-to-him story. It’s an interesting enough idea as it is, but Yokomizo’s use of real world classical and then-contemporary crime novels seems to not only influence the fiction and the fiction inside that fiction, but is quite possibly linked to Yokomizo’s own reading. The narrator employs these crime novels – Christie, Conan Doyle, among others – in various ways; they inform the way he writes but they also inform the crime he’s writing about, with the detective of this story within a story – Kosuke Kindaichi, who stars in a total of 77 later books – loving crime novels and able to thus recognise the books on the shelves of the victim’s family which every other inspector believes unimportant to the investigation.

The above is actually something you experience later on in your reading – the first thing you become aware of is the part of the story at which the narrator starts his tale. In a way unlike many others, Yokomizo, through his narrator, begins the tale at the effective end – you see the events that precede the murder, and then you hear about the discovery of the bodies. And then you get a diagram of the murder scene, answers about most of the people who are there at the time, even the suspected murderer is cited.

You’d be forgiven at this point in the story for wondering with what the narrator plans to fill the rest of the book, because the rest consists of the vast majority of the pages. What he does is answer almost all the W questions – ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘who’, and some of the ‘how’ – but leaves out the rest of the ‘how’, a bit of the ‘who’, and all of the ‘why’. This is a whydunnit more than any ‘who’; the ‘why’ is everything here, it carries the story, and it works incredibly well.

The ‘why’ is answered with aplomb, even if the summing up of all the detective’s discoveries is done at the end in one big telling scene. Some of it forms a reminder of history, earlier than the 1930s setting – to note anything further than that would spoil the story. This is a book that has aged, but aged rather well, and the storytelling is such that it’ll likely remain famous for a long time.

The Honjin Murders is an interesting one. It doesn’t seem like a page turner, but you’ll finish it quickly. It doesn’t seem like there are going to be red herrings, and why, anyway, would you read a book when almost all the answers are given straight away? But it will continue to surprise you. (And given everything mentioned so far, the idea of the initially confused reader was likely in Yokomizo’s plan all along.) If you want a crime novel where the (real life) author’s sleuthing exceeds the fictional detective’s, read this book. It is fantastic.

I received this book for review.

 

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