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Intisar Khanani – Thorn + Podcast

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Far from a silly goose.

Publisher: Hot Key Books
Pages: 331
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-40872-4
First Published: 20th May 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th September 2020
Rating: 5/5

Princess Alyrra of Adania is betrothed to Prince Kestrin of Menaiya via proxy, the king of Menaiya arriving in her kingdom to arrange it with her mother. When he first greets Alyrra he mentions her honesty, which is nice yet perhaps an odd thing for her to hear. As per her status in the family, she’s not invited to any of the meetings. Then comes an attack; Alyrra is visited in the night by a mage she has never met who talks to her about being careful going forward, but as she starts to make sense of what he means they are joined by a woman in white, dark, empty eyes, who attacks the mage. The King makes plans for Alyrra to leave home sooner so she can be protected in Menaiya early – everyone knows that members of the Menaiyan royal family go missing and no one wants to take any chances with Alyrra or the prince. But on the road, accompanied by Valka, a young woman who hates her, Alyrra is found by the woman in white who speaks of her wish to destroy the family; having been aided by Valka, the woman switches their bodies and casts a spell on Alyrra, stopping her from speaking the truth. Knowing the Menaiya family is at stake, Alyrra must warn them, but how can she? And does she want to when a simpler life, far from her brother’s abuse, is incredibly appealing?

Thorn is a retelling of the fairytale The Goose Girl, best known as told by the Brothers Grimm. It is an utterly fantastic story that greatly expands on the tale, adding details where there were few, interpreting concepts in new ways or taking them to conclusions that a study of them could reach, and modernising it just that little bit without losing any of the original ideas. It’s both very careful and completely daring.

On this ‘careful’ and ‘daring’, we might as well start with the switching of bodies. An almost Prince and the Pauper concept, had that story featured hatred in the two boys, Khanani’s choice to further the original concept of the princess and companion, taking the original switching of identities via clothes and general lies and manipulation, and making it a literal change, renders the story more believable, and more frustrating in that intriguing literary way that causes the message and point of the story to be more apparent and more satisfying when it comes to revealing it, the reader having waited a long time. You could say that Khanani’s change makes the story more fantastical than it needs to be, inching ever more towards the idea of a deus ex machina than the original, but then the original includes, just as Khanani’s story does, a talking Horse and a personified breeze, so ultimately it fits right in.

But further than this, Khanani’s choice to switch Alyrra and Valka’s bodies, and to change the original concept of oath taking to an enforced lack of ability to speak the truth, focuses our attention on Alyrra’s character progression. Alyrra must show who she is, a showing rather than a telling that is far stronger than the popular literary advice. She must also find a way to explain her truth without explaining her truth, and in so doing spend more time on herself and in thinking of those around her than she was able to do previously. On this point it’s interesting how relatively passive Alyrra is for a lot of the book, but again, that’s part of the point.

For a fair amount of the book, then, you have this passive heroine – she is unable to take advice, both due to fear and due to her wish to have a different life, which effectively shows itself as a lack of strength. Khanani spends a great deal of time showing you why Alyrra is as she is – though it’s true the author does show it from the first, Khanani, subtextually acknowledges that what Alyrra has gone through needs explaining so that every reader understands. Alyrra has been treated as a nobody by her family – stupid, weak, easy to give up to a family who may just want a body to shield the rest of them – and has had a life of emotional and physical abuse. It’s one of the things she tips Valka off to after the switch – Valka, as princess, will have to live with the physical reminders of Alyrra’s past. And Alyrra must work through this to come to the realisations she must make in order to save the family she is betrothed into.

This means that the narrative is slow. Out of context, it could be called frustrating – there is a lot of back and forth, with Alyrra as Valka – let’s just call Alyrra Thorn, as that’s the name she chooses after the switch – summoned to the palace time and time again by various royals and court members, most often the prince. The reader is privvy very early on to the notion that the prince has guessed what has happened, but rest assured, if this sounds like a spoiler, the ‘why’ takes a long time to become fully apparent. (‘Fully apparent’ because in fact part of it is easy to predict which, given the rest of the book, was most likely by design.) And the ending is worth the wait. Khanani knows you’ve been waiting patiently and she doesn’t disappoint.

Through these back and forths, and the conversations with Falada, the talking Horse (different to a non-talking lowercase bog-standard horse), as well as Thorn’s continued peace in her new job as a goose girl, understanding and purpose develops.

To go back to the idea I noted, of Khanani’s daring, beyond the literal switch of bodies, there are other elements. Given that this is an adaptation and given that by not saying what happens we can discuss this without any actual spoilers, one of the most daring things is perhaps the conclusion to Falada’s story thread. Through her narrative, Khanani seems to waiver on what she is going to do – you get a sense that she’s exploring what would happen if she took the route of the original story and what would happen if she didn’t – and her decision may surprise you. It could well surprise you no matter which one you were expecting. Further to this is the conclusion of Valka’s thread, which is handled in a similar manner. Again you may be surprised but it provides a lot to think about. What is Khanani saying by her choice? It’s a point to ponder.

As well as trauma suffered, Thorn is informed by her increasing knowledge of the social issues that abound her new home. Showing why she is a good choice for Menaiya, even if they didn’t know this bit about their kingdom, Khanani allows ample time for Thorn to immerse herself in the Land and gain knowledge that would set her up to be a wonderful ruler. These are big issues and as with everything else, Khanani considers everything with care, does not shy away from spoiling happy moments to further the plot and message, and if things have changed drastically in terms of people by the end of the book it simply reflects reality.

The prince, Kestrin, has his role greatly expanded. Rather than your stereotypical handsome love interest, he plays an active part from early on, and in fact informs Thorn’s character greatly. His role is one of protection without the swords and shields – his offers are literal but nevertheless he leaves it to Thorn to decide. Leaving that there and moving on to the relationship, there is a subtle romantic atmosphere that runs throughout the book but the narrative stays true to the characters – the ending of the book fits the content.

Lastly, briefly, looking at the role of men in the book, furthering Kestrin’s role as non-invasive support, as it were, the men in Menaiya – well, those in the good guy and human camp – are there when needed but otherwise remain secondary to the plot. The women take centre stage, the men generally out of the important aspects unless the plot requires it.

I’ve aimed to write about this book without spoilers but in order to do it justice, being quiet about everything is extremely difficult; the book is far greater than any premise could say and there is so much that needs to be considered. Thorn is one of the very best fairytale retellings to be published in recent years, during this time when there have been tons of them, and one can only hope that Khanani feels this strongly about another one and does this all again. It’s also simply one of the best fantasies, period.


Today’s podcast episode is with Midge Raymond (Forgetting English; My Last Continent). We discuss the current situation in Antarctica and the balance of keeping it clean whilst allowing research and tourism, environmental and climate changes in the same location, and being followed to the toilet by a penguin. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player above.

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

 
Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Isla Morley – Come Sunday + Podcast

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

Charlie and Isla Morley (Come Sunday; Above; The Last Blue) discuss growing up and travelling back to South Africa, creating a negative heroine, the 1800s medical phenomenon wherein people were literally blue, and what it’s like owning five tortoises.

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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Working through grief to acceptance and forgiveness.

Publisher: Two Roads (Hachette)
Pages: 300
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-340-97651-7
First Published: 1st January 2009
Date Reviewed: 7th June 2020
Rating: 5/5

On Maunday Thursday morning, Greg is slow to get up and Cleo’s insistence on wearing unsuitable clothes is getting to her mother. Abbe has all manner of things to deal with and it’s got on top of her. So that she and Greg can get out for the evening, Abbe leaves Cleo with a friend; against perhaps better judgement, the friend chosen isn’t the one she thought of first. But it’s all good; until the couple return to pick Cleo up and find the road full of people, police, and Cleo nowhere to be seen.

Come Sunday is Morley’s superb first novel that looks at the progression of grief towards a new normal. When the revelation of the car accident reaches Abbe’s ears she begins a descent that sees her anger at the driver who couldn’t stop in time, her increased annoyance at her fellow cul-de-sac neighbours and the clique-y members of her minister husband’s church. And she begins to have an increasing number of thoughts about her childhood in South Africa.

Her book set mostly in Hawaii, Morley uses as the time frame the period of Easter – the book starts on Maunday Thursday, as noted, and ends on Ascension Day, however the narrative takes place over a year so the initial Thursday and Ascension Day are from different Easters. More than an extra aspect, the Easter period is used to line up events in the narrative, with the Thursday aligning with Abbe’s ‘betrayal’ of Cleo and the Ascension providing a resolution.

Christianity as a whole forms a fair part of the narrative; with Greg a minister and Abbe thus involved in the church (more than she’d like sometimes), the religion is often there and woven into the whole, however it should be said that this book is far from ‘inspirational’; it’s use is unlikely to turn you off if you’re not into it, however if you do appreciate faith included in books you will like it a lot.

The main themes are grief, later leading also to forgiveness. Morley looks at both carefully, closely. This is a character-driven book with Abbe’s grief front and centre. Greg’s isn’t glossed over, indeed some of Abbe’s choices stem from his own, but Abbe and her friends are more important here. There is a good element of sisterhood, largely informed by the forgiveness.

Abbe was brought up in South Africa, and her history informs a lot of her thoughts. Her grandmother had a servant who was black, so there are looks at racial issues as Abbe questions the relationship of Beauty and her family, and how her grandmother’s belief in equality fit into this. Abbe’s time in the country is brought to the fore as, together with her brother, she inherits her grandmother’s house which has since become a school for HIV-positive children.

I’ve left one of the first things you’ll notice about the story until the end – Abbe is a very negative character, aside from her grief. This is obviously difficult in a novel where a child’s death affects many, but Abbe does have her reasons for being as she is and there is redemption. The book is more about reading about her progression rather than necessarily relating to her all the time; you will relate to her on occasion and this reminds us of how normal it can be to be overwhelmed, to be a result of events, to be in the wrong place.

Come Sunday is exquisite. You’ll find many new meanings and explorations here to other books that look at the same subjects, and it’s all brought together with the use of writing elements, methods, that are very enjoyable. I highly recommend it.

 
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.

 
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.

 

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