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Fran Cooper – The Two Houses

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Connected and disconnected.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64159-4
First Published: 22nd March 2018
Date Reviewed: 5th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

For the good of Jay’s mental health, she and husband Simon move from London to a northern area that has had its day – resident numbers are few, and those that remain are wary of the newcomers. The couple have purchased the place known as Two Houses, two buildings that were originally one; the middle was removed after a death. As Jay and Simon are to discover, there are many secrets in the place, and in order to work them out they’ll have to work with the others. And it may cause tensions between them.

The Two Houses is Cooper’s wonderful second novel that looks at hauntings, history, and, broadly speaking, the various impacts they can have on the present day.

It seems inspired by These Dividing Walls; where Edward, the ‘starting’ character in that novel, spoke about a scary time in which his sibling danced in between two houses that had seen a death and a demolishing of a middle, so does The Two Houses appear to take up the mantle. But that is only the starting point; whilst there is a haunting in this, the second publication, the further story is very new.

It’s also very different. Whilst the same fantastic prose seen in These Dividing Walls is here, too, as well as the lovely balance of plot and characterisation (characters are perhaps most important in Cooper’s work but the plots aren’t far off – they’re fabulous), The Two Houses is different in genre, idea, and general feel.

The book starts with the future; Jay finds a bone in the grounds by the main house, and we then go back to when she and Simon were looking to purchase a second home. It covers the issues with mental breakdowns, the recovery from them. Jay is broken. She moves into a house that’s been separated into two. The mending of Jay happens with the mending of the house’s situation.

The mending of what is broken reaches further into the narrative – relationships, prejudice, feeling apart from the community; all these are looked at and form aspects of the plot, some more so than others. Interestingly, the differences between London, a big crowded city, and the relatively extremely modest community Jay finds herself in, isn’t as big a focus; you might have expected the idea of a quieter place being more productive to health to be a focus, but it’s a very small element. It is people rather than place that is studied.

On that word – ‘studied’ – it’s worth noting that whilst this is a fairly literary book it is less so than others; the balance between literary and pure enjoyment leans more towards the pure enjoyment, ergo there’s a lot to appreciate in the structure and themes but there’s just as much escapism.

Discovering the new in the old, the old in the new, and changing one for the other is part and parcel here. It is a wonderful story with just the right amount of ghostly goings on, a great cast of characters (including a lovely dog), and a great setting. And whilst the threads are all nicely tied by the end there is enough to think on further, too.

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Dan Richards – Outpost + Podcast

Monday’s podcast is/was with Dan Richards. Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Dan Richards (Holloway, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Climbing Days, Outpost) discuss asking to join well-known people for lunch and producing fascinating interviews for your book, travelling the less beaten paths of your mountaineering great-great aunt, finding society in isolated places, and looking ahead to how we might continue to approach humanity’s harming of nature after the benefits to scaling back have been shown by this current crisis.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Isolation before it was cool.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 295
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-89155-6
First Published: 24th April 2019
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2020
Rating: 4/5

Richards looks into the value of various isolated buildings and places – sheds, Svalbard, a Martian research centre, a Japanese temple high in the hills – seeking to find out why we are drawn to them and how they inspire creativity. The book includes elements of Richards’ previous books on art, nature, and travel, pulling the subjects together.

I’ve always been drawn to simple structures (p. 57).

The places Richards visits sometimes gel with what you might expect – a small building in the wilds of Iceland; Desolation Peak in America which Jack Kerouac visited and wrote about – but others are very much the opposite; when looking at isolation, you might not think of those places that inspire community. Chapters focused on the research centre in Utah – which Richards spends mostly on an interview (some chapters are more about his own experience, others focus on other people) – and in Svalbard, where the author is never alone, call into question our inherent need for society.

The Svalbard chapter is particularly poignant – as it shows the requirements for others (away from the tourism people need to be careful given the danger) so too does it show how society, humanity, can have a detrimental effect. As much as we may enjoy the isolation, the impact of it – the continual movement of people through it – so too does the ecosystem become impacted. Perhaps the most notable part of the book is Richards’ contemplation and further discussion with the reader of the role humanity plays in the life of the polar bears, in which he recounts the story of bears drowned in the sea as they have to go further and further out to find slabs of ice; having memorised where the slabs were, there comes a problem when they are not found. The irony in being able to witness the movement of polar bears whilst being a part of the problem is not lost on the author.

I believe the more we know about our world, the more we see, the more deeply we engage with it, understand its nature, the more likely we are to be good custodians and reverse our most selfish destructive behaviour (p.10).

Shedboatshed – the chapter about the modern artwork of the same name – will likely divide opinion; it’s certainly one of the more prominent examples of the unexpected. The art work, by Simon Starling, is covered in an effective two step process – a museum visit and an interview with the artist – marking a change in the proceedings. It’s a different travel and a wholly new concept of isolation – the piece is, both in short and literally, made up of a shed that was then dismantled and recreated as a boat, taken to the water, and then rebuilt into a shed; if you like modern art or are even just interested in the idea from afar, it’s a fascinating chapter, but nevertheless may take some getting used to. If it’s not your sort of thing, it may feel like you’ve started a different book. Whichever side you fall on, however, you will probably appreciate Richards’ motive for discussing it, as well as the various extra ideas surrounding it. (One such is the idea that the display of the piece as well as its practical use adds to its history and conversation). The spin off mid-chapter to briefly cover Roald Dahl’s writing hut also helps provide more context, however much it may seem fairly far from Shedboatshed.

The book’s language and general structure make it an easy read. Richards very much takes the reader with him, always addressing them, and the focus on a few core concepts for each location means an in-depth look at what the author deems most important and interesting to relate; you don’t always get a ‘full’ feel for everything but the attention to the overall theme means a more coherent book.

Richards’ enthusiasm for the places and the travel ensures you come away from Outpost with a fair amount of knowledge, and serviceable knowledge, too. It is in many ways – inevitably? – escapist, but the various points of poignancy in it leaves you with much to think about.

I have interviewed the author.

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Fran Cooper – These Dividing Walls + Podcast

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

Charlie and Weike Wang (Chemistry) discuss having both a scientific – in epidemiology no less! – and a writer background, making use of extracts and white space and preferring them beyond more long-form prose, the difficulties of studies and incorporating friends’ experiences in your stories, and fictional dogs who are inherently important to the text.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Between us.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 256
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64156-3
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 9th April 2020
Rating: 5/5

Edward moves to Paris to get away from his life in Britain. In the apartment building he finds himself are many residents. Some know each other well enough, others are a mystery. And hopefully, to some people, no one new who is different will move in in future. Meanwhile, tensions in wider society echo this worry of difference.

These Dividing Walls is a terrific novel that offers a glimpse at the lives of a small fictional community in Paris, a group of people previously less close. Whilst it is a glimpse in the main sense of the word – the period of time is short – it inevitably shows a great deal more, with Parisian society in general included.

Where to start? The writing is of course the first element to be apparent. Cooper has a precise skill at language; hers is a poetical style; the words flow and the text is both beautifully and deceptively simple, sentences that continue to roll along no matter the subject at hand at any one moment. The text itself is an entire reason for reading the book.

Set in the present day – only a few years ago at the time of this review – the story starts with Edward; as he gets used to the building so too do the other residents’ lives become apparent. The narrative is both character and situation driven, with chapters given over to the different individual residents in the third person. Stripping back the brickwork, Cooper’s cast run the gambit from worried, isolated people, to those in grief, and to those who seek to maintain the status quo by nasty or extreme means.

To that last clause the reference is racial diversity. In a show of what is to come in general, the residents of the apartment building are split between those happy to accept new people of whatever racial background and religion they are, and those who want only people with an ancestrally French background. The Brit was accepted.

And what is to come? These Dividing Walls is heavily invested in the sociopolitical. using factual events, protests, terrorism, as its basis, the fiction constructed looks at social unrest; religious and racial intolerance leading to mass gatherings, targeted attacks, and retaliation. Here the characters’ viewpoints and general personalities provided detailed reasonings for the wider society. It is damning and Cooper doesn’t hold back, showing thoughts and what they can lead to.

Away from this is the subject of motherhood, of the invisibility of mothers when there are cute children to catch people’s attention, and of post-partum depression. Cooper’s look includes a wonderfully described example of how a lack of understanding of the condition can have negative consequences, the opportunity to display both the feelings of the mother and the incomprehension of the father to excellent studious effect.

The subject of grief also marks a couple of characters’ lives, and, needless to say, it’s looked at with the utmost care.

The way These Dividing Walls has been structured means that the content is both a literary escape and an intricut look at contemporary life. If the surface concept, the idea of people in one building is simple, Cooper reminds us that every life is full and complex, and that we are all effected by the wider situation.

It starts in a visual vacuum, diversions afforded by brickwork. It ends with the walls torn down in various ways, with a metaphorical dynamite that is metaphorically as powerful as the real life cirumstances behind the fiction.

 
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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