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Christina Courtenay – The Runes Of Destiny + Podcast

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Falling back in time for a journey.

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 352
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-26824-2
First Published: 10th December 2020
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Mia and Haakon’s daughter, Linnea, is working on an archaeological dig when she finds a Viking-era brooch in the soil. Pricking herself on the pin, she suffers a fall and when she wakes up a bunch of re-enacters are shouting at her. Their use of Old Norse is particularly good, and the dig tents are all gone, but this has to be a joke, right? As the men take her captive and she joins a group of them in a journey across the seas towards Byzantine Istanbul she has to come to accept what has happened and find a way both to live with what’s going on and find her way back. The presence of the group’s handsome second in command, Hrafn, may make this more difficult.

The Runes Of Destiny is the continuation, the second innings, of a family saga that started with Echoes Of The Runes. Taking the series beyond slight time-slip and comparative lives towards complete time travel, the book successfully moves the story up a notch.

The narrative and general approach is far greater this time around. If we consider for the purposes of comparison that the first book featured a simple plot and was heavier on characterisation, then The Runes Of Destiny, as much as it is about characters too – it’s a romance after all – is all about the plot. Greater too is the world building, where the Viking period and, most particularly the ninth century Istanbul the story takes you to, is fully detailed and explored.

The beginning stages of Linnea’s time with the Vikings once the initial time travelling has occurred are dealt with well. With her academic background, Linnea’s acceptance of what has happened to her is no sure thing; it takes her a fair few pages before she comes to seriously consider time travel as a possibility. On paper, then, it seems a long time but in terms of the actual passage of days and weeks, it’s not so much. Certainly it’s easier for the reader to acknowledge the change in the location than it is Linnea.

Linnea herself can take a bit of getting used to; when her acceptance level is minimal she sees everything in a negative light and somewhat understandably views most people she comes across unfavorably. As an example she hates Hrafn’s aunt, and whilst the aunt certainly isn’t the most accepting person herself, Linnea lacks the capacity to see herself and the twenty-first century clothes she turned up in in the way they might be viewed in the ninth century, by people already inclined to treat her as a person they’ve captured. Once receptive to the situation, Linnea is far easier to get along with as a reader.

You also get to look at the question of whether a time traveller – should they exist – ought to be allowed to change history or not. Courtenay looks at the smaller elements of life – Linnea’s wish to introduce the faster and more efficient art of knitting to women who are nalbinding.

On the other women in the story, mostly three fellow thralls and the thrall/mistress of the Jarl, there is a good amount of time spent. Linnea doesn’t always think very much of them in terms of time – she is for the most part focused on getting back to the time of chocolate and hospitals – but the time she does spend, and Courtenay’s added information, makes for a decent overview of life for women in their situation. There is a person among them who teeters on the edge of villainy, whilst also being in a vulnerable position, who doesn’t get as much time in terms of time spent with the others, but her position is considered by the narrative as a whole. Hrafn, the Viking, is likeable and well set in his time, with Courtenay paying a nod both to the factual history we know and the difference in personalities that would afford him to be more willing to accept Linnea’s experiences (the author gives a fair amount of time to his disavowing of Linnea’s story of being from the future).

The best part of the book in terms of reader escapism and expectation is arguably the time travel aspect. This takes you both back to the past and forward to our modern day, with both main characters gaining insight into the other’s life. For all our own thoughts might be to do the travelling ourselves, it’s perhaps Hrafn’s glimpse of the future which is the most anticipated element of the story.

The Runes Of Destiny takes an established story and runs with it. It improves on its earlier foundations and then adds bells and whistles to it at least a couple of times over, building further and further on a solid idea.


Charlie and Christina Courtenay (Echoes Of The Runes; The Runes Of Destiny) discuss what the Vikings were really like, time travellers’ historical partners travelling back with them, and predictability and coincidence as plot devices.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode page can be found here.

 
Zen Cho – Black Water Sister

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Dark and muddy, but sometimes light and clear.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 367
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-509-80000-1
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Jess has moved ‘back’ to Malaysia from America with her parents; they are staying with relatives whilst they get on their feet. It’s difficult for Jess; not only does she not have the best grasp of Hokkien, she’s also got to manage to keep in touch with her girlfriend, Sharanya, back in America, without her parents knowing, and she’s got to decide where to find a job – in Singapore with Sharanya, who is moving for university, or in Penang where she, Jess, is now? It’s more than enough to deal with, but the voice of her dead maternal grandmother, who she never knew, has invaded her head, and Jess doesn’t know how to broach the subject with anyone, let alone get the lady out. And when it becomes clear that Ah Ma’s not going anywhere whilst Jess is there to help her with an old feud, and possibly to intercede with a goddess – or just let spirits take over her body so they can do it themselves – Jess has to face up to her unreal reality and go with it.

Black Water Sister is a low fantasy novel about ghosts and gods set in the reality of our present-day world. It is both incredibly funny and rather deep, issuing lighter moments and times of reflection and strength.

Let’s look at the comedy first because whilst it’s a mainstay of the book, it shouldn’t be the final thought where the topics are concerned. Black Water Sister is laugh-out-loud, the sort of humour I can only describe as very British, and this is because the best comparison is with the BBC series Ghosts. Ergo, if you like Ghosts, you’ll like Cho’s book. It’s got that same atmosphere of spirits and a person who doesn’t want to know they exist and would prefer they not exist, which as time goes on progresses to acceptance. The location is different, the situation is different, but the wit and sense of humour is incredibly similar. (And describing it as Very British, that does also mean that if you like British sitcoms in general you’ll most likely like it to.) It should be noted here that I’m aware the main character is Malaysian American and the book is set in Malaysia – the humour, to the best of my knowledge, fits those places too.

In Jess, Cho has created a wonderful character who slowly comes to find herself and flourish whilst giving herself up to the requirements placed upon her by others, both alive and dead (though in general, mainly those dead). As much as there is a plot, it’d be hard not to say that Jess’ development is not the most important aspect of the book, the way she deals with her worries about coming out to her family, about her ongoing relationship with a woman, about her need for a job and a decision on where that job should be. Cho’s focus on everyday worries is one of the book’s strengths – where Jess needs to become stronger in herself and effectively does so in part by becoming inhumanly strong due to her time with Ah Ma and the goddess, you might be forgiven for forgetting the very real anxieties and coming-of-age struggles that the book is grounded in.

Jess is the main character here but hot on her heels – generally literally, albeit in wisps rather than real shoes – is Ah Ma, her grandmother, who she has only now met since the lady passed on. (Never say Ah Ma has passed on – she has very much not.) Cho has created the quintessential grandmother and granddaughter relationship where the two generations are so different and struggle to understand each other, using stereotypes both global and culture-specific to both humorous and poignant success.

And to go back to the inhuman strength Jess gains – sometimes (it becomes more about Jess as she becomes stronger and less prepared to give her physical self over to the ghostly) we move to look more at the three ‘main women’ in the book in a way that’s more of a study of female empowerment and agency both generally and down the ages, with the Black Water Sister – the goddess herself – focusing on the violence she suffered in life and at the moment of her death. There are moments of both literal and metaphorical poignancy.

Religion, and religious and cultural superstition, are strong in this book, and cover a few different countries and religions, with traditional Chinese beliefs mixed with Christianity to interesting and humorous effect. (Jess’ auntie’s focus on getting out a crucifix in the face of an angry Chinese goddess at her window is a highlight.) I note this to say that the book will interest people of faith (any) and none, Cho achieving a perfect balance between respect and humour.

Black Water Sister is a ride, a riot, and a pause. It’s incredibly unique whilst having echoes of other stories, and is a perfect candidate for any forum thread called ‘books you think about long after you’ve finished them’. Simple plot; tons going on.

I received this book for review. The book is out today.

 
March And April 2021 Reading Round Up And Podcast Episodes Missing From This Blog

Things are still all over the place; it was actually only this past week I realised I’d not posted here in so long. We do at least now have a pretty firm idea of the reason for the pets’ problem and are working on it, and when I’m back to not living in fortnightly cycles of worry, my head will be a lot clearer. I want to be writing here properly again.

All books are works of fiction.

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Kate Forsyth: Bitter Greens – A fictional story of the woman who wrote the popular version of Rapunzel, and how she discovered the tale (it includes a retelling of its own). It made my ‘best of’ list the year I first read it, and it would make my best of list this year if I didn’t have a rule of no repeats.

Kate Forsyth: The Wild Girl – The fictionalised tale of Dortchen Wild who fell in love with one of the Grimm brothers and helped them in their task of collecting fairy tales. Very good, hard to put down.

Kimberly Derting: The Body Finder – A girl who can sense the bodies of murdered people aids the discovery of the killer. Very good young adult fiction.

Kimberly Derting: Desires Of The Dead – Violet steps up her act by working with the FBI. It may not be as creepy as expected but it’s a worthy continuation of the series that begun with The Body Finder.

Kimberly Derting: The Last Echo – Violet and her team take on a man who kidnaps girls to be his girlfriend, and this time it’s more personal than ever before. The best book of the series so far.

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Kimberly Derting: Dead Silence – Violet now has her own echo playing in her head, and her next assignment involves a young group of people. Still holding onto that strength.

Lillian Li: Number One Chinese Restaurant – Jimmy Han wants to make something of himself, away from his father’s restaurant but things start to go a bit amiss; this all kicks off after Jimmy’s conversion with family friend Uncle Pang, and as Jimmy tries to work around the issues and becomes close to employee/consultant Janine, the cracks in the lives of those who work at the restaurant start to show, and they’ll need work to overcome. A difficult book to summarise without revealing too much, this is a book that studies immigrant parent-child relationships and other familial relationships in the against the backdrop of a busy restaurant.

Liz Fenwick: The Path To The Sea – The impending death of Joan causes her daughter Diana to wonder what exactly happened to her father, who died when she was young; it causes granddaughter Lottie, whilst happy to return to the home she spent her summers at, to look at her current relationship and where she went wrong with her first love; and meanwhile we learn the story of Joan’s days as a spy in the Cold War. Three very good narratives (I personally most enjoyed Joan’s) that will appeal to many give its scope, use of time, and the different characters.

Louise Douglas: The House By The Sea – When Edie’s ex-mother-in-law dies and leaves the house in Sicily to her and her ex-husband, Anna’s son Joe, Edie is forced to go to inspect it with Joe despite the hatred she feels for the woman – Anna was babysitting young Daniel the day he died. A great book about forgiveness and redemption with a heroine as well written as any of Douglas’ previous.

My reading the past couple of months has been very satisfying, a mixture of great re-reads and good new books. I particularly enjoyed the Douglas as I had time to read it slowly, which felt fitting.


Email subscribers may need to open this web page in their browsers in order to see the media players below. The episodes can also be found on all major and most indie podcast apps; links to the biggest are on the page linked to at the bottom of this post.

Podcast episodes 34-38

Charlie and Lillian Li (Number One Chinese Restaurant) discuss racial prejudice in Chinese restaurants, looking at the narrative of immigrant parents and sacrifice, and how her editor pushed her to increase the impact of themes and ideas.

Please note that I have not censored the swear words in this episode because the over all effect would be different without them.

Charlie and Liz Fenwick (The Path To The Sea) discuss the success of spies in the Cold War who were – on the face of it – ‘just’ housewives, bringing new characters to more prominence and bringing past characters back from other books, and the age-old question of cream or jam first.

Charlie and Kate Forsyth (Bitter Greens; The Wild Girl) discuss the story and history of Rapunzel – which was part of Kate’s doctoral thesis – as well as the woman who told the Brothers Grimm many of their tales, and the progression of change those tales went through as the brothers pursued success.

Charlie and Kimberly Derting (The Body Finder) discuss publishing a dark YA series in the wake of Twilight, avoiding romance and family tropes, and the further lives of her characters beyond the final page.

She’s back! Nicola Cornick (The Forgotten Sister; The Last Daughter) returns to discuss Amy Robsart and the mystery of her death, the relationship between Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I, and who killed the Princes in the Tower.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode pages can be found here.

 
February 2021 Reading Round Up + Podcasts

I have a lot of catching up to do on this blog. One of my rabbits has required two emergancy vet visits in as many months, having also had an issue at Christmas which we just managed to catch before it became urgent. It’s a common intestinal issue, GI Statis, where if you don’t treat or catch it early enough the rabbit dies. It’s been constant stress and rushing around and now we’re waiting for blood test results to see if we can find out what’s going wrong. Suffice to say February and March have been overwhelming and my read list is a bit… sparse.

But I did get some reading done, three books that I very much enjoyed, and I hope to review the two that were new reads.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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Catherine Cho: Inferno – A short while after giving birth to her first child, Cho was sent to an involuntary psych ward in the US (she was visiting from the UK) having experienced Post Partum Psychosis; she details the experience, interwoven with the events to the run up. Stunning book; Cho’s story needs reading widely and her handling of the literature side of things is phenomenal.

Fiction

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Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: Secret Passages In A Hillside Town – Mundane, boring, Ollie, who lives in his own world and doesn’t even seem to know or care what his son’s name is, has a blast from the past when a past lover adds him as a friend on Facebook and Ollie starts to be imbroiled in a present-day version of his fantastical childhood. Fantastic, strange, out and out weird – I still haven’t worked it all out but there’s no question; it’s amazing.

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Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Ella becomes the long-awaited 10th member of a society that involves the country’s greatest writers – but are they the greatest writers, really? A very good look at ideas and writing in general.

I had a ball with my February reading. Three excellent books. The categories are incomparable and I couldn’t pretend to choose a favourite.

So far in March I have read one book and have tentatively started another. I’m going to continue doing what I am and taking it one day at a time.


Two podcasts today as I’m behind in posting them here. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media players below.

Charlie and Susmita Bhattacharya (Table Manners; also The Normal State Of Mind) discuss her world-wide travel and moves abroad – including a visa-less stopover, the experiences of recent immigrants to Britain, and having your work featured and serialised on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra.

Charlie and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (The Rabbit Back Literature Society; Secret Passages In A Hillside Town) discuss dreams that become literature – vampires; books where words and plot points change in a sort of book plague; secret passages that wipe your memory, and many more – writing a book that’s difficult for a reader to work out and not knowing yourself what the answer is, creepy and traumatic fictional games, and issuing an alternative ending to your novel in a brand new publication.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode pages can be found here.

 
2021 Goals And 2020 Data + Podcast

A photograph of Hever Castle gardens in autumn

In 2020 I read 57 books. Twelve were by men, 45 were by women. Fourteen were by non-white authors. Four were collections, 2 non-fiction, 17 re-reads. I didn’t read any poetry – I do have one at the ready but didn’t manage it for it to count for the year. I’d like to improve those numbers, particularly I’d like to read more, but I’m going to go careful.

Something very noticeable was the number of new books I read: the most numerous year was 2020 (11), the year of the reading, somewhat understandable with the podcast but I didn’t expect it to be quite as many. The furthest-away year was 2007 (1), which is utterly rubbish; I need to do better there. Further numbers: 2019 (7); 2018 (7); 2017 (8); 2016 (9); 2015 (1); 2014 (1); 2013 (2); 2012 (2); 2011 (1); 2010 (2); 2009 (3); 2008 (1).

I have ummed and ahhed over setting goals. I have ended up with three, and two are different to all other years. I pretty much failed last year’s goals but I think that’s true for a lot of us! Last year’s goals were as follows:

  1. Read more by month, looking at shorter periods of time rather than the longer period of a year: I didn’t do the former, but did do the latter. Going by two weeks at a time all the time really emphasised the passage of time – for quite a while, the slowness of it.
  2. Read more classics of all kinds: failed completely.
  3. Thackeray: it’s still on the list.
  4. Read Dragonfly In Amber: I didn’t actually get a copy until very late in the year; I’ve been purchasing very little and present-giving events were small. Thanks to my Second Mum, as I call her, I now have a copy and hope to get to it soon.

So, this year, I’d like to read at least one classic. I’ll be seeing the word ‘classic’ in terms of ‘older classic’, because at the moment I don’t think Gabaldon should count, and neither do I think George R R Martin, who I hope to get to, should count.

In addition to this, I’d like to get to more books received as presents; I’m thinking from recent years. These are Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock, and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.

And, lastly, more bookish-related than about specifics books, I want to try and work past an issue I have where the feeling of being daunted by starting a new book (all those pages ahead of me…) means that it takes me time to get into the book. I need to get better not only at just starting and getting past the first pages – after which the issue disappears and I’m away – but also a (potentially) related issue, which I’ve spoken of before, where I never really take in the first page or so. Yes, this, despite my interest and focus on first lines.

Did you make any goals for this year?


This Monday’s podcast episode is with Elizabeth Baines. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Elizabeth Baines (Used To Be; Astral Travel; also The Birth Machine; Balancing On The Edge Of The World; Too Many Magpies) discuss writing for radio, short stories – the relative importance of their first lines and differences to novels – writing a book about trying to tell a story, and the difficulties in labelling someone complicit or a victim in the context of past societal values.

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

 

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