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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.

 
Katy Yocom – Three Ways To Disappear

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In which the hope is that a tyger tyger does indeed burn bright.

Publisher: Ashland Creek Press
Pages: 316
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-618-22083-7
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st February 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Sisters Quinn and Sarah are still haunted by the death of Sarah’s twin, Marcus, in childhood, and the family’s subsequent move back to the US from India; mother and daughters left, leaving dad, the reason they were in India, behind. Now, many years later, Quinn has a young family and finds herself always worrying about her son’s asthma (he’s also half of a set of twins), and Sarah’s so far spent her career reporting on dangerous situations. When Sarah leaves her career to go back to India and join a tiger conservation, it brings things back to the fore for both sisters as well as their mother. And amidst this is the plight of the tigers and the villages that live next to the reserves, two species vying for the same resources that too often results in disaster.

Three Ways To Disappear is a very well written and carefully handled novel about trauma such as that stated above, and conservation when there is little literal space between animals and humans.

There is a special individuality to Yocom’s book. You have the two narratives that, whilst connected, are very different and enable the story as a whole to have a very diverse atmosphere to it – and I’m not talking about the different cultures and locations here. The sisters are very different, their working backgrounds and choices in regards to family are different, and whilst at heart their thoughts and, often, problems, are informed by the same events, the resulting actions are dissimilar enough that it can be easy to forget that they are indeed forged by the same thing.

The choice of family, or life in general, is where this is most apparent, particularly when it comes to Quinn. Quinn’s story is pretty mundane and quiet compared to Sarah’s life covering war zones and further violence; it can come as a surprise that Quinn’s story can have more of an affect on your reading experience and what you take away than Sarah’s does.

Let’s look at the two stories. Sarah’s is where the tiger conservation comes in and, as the cover might suggest, this is a major part of the book. Yocom’s research shines through each section, from the expected conservation, to life in the locations in India where the needs of human survival come into conflict with animal survival. Yocom details the circumstances that create this conflict – lack of land, the need to conserve whilst also acknowledging the fact that more tigers equals less space and resources for humans. She looks at communities that are obviously based in reality in both an emphatic and studious way – this book is certainly fiction, but the truths that run throughout it, and the very real issues, are laid out very well. Where Sarah herself is concerned – Sarah serves as both a fully-fledged character driving the narrative herself and a vehicle to allow the reality to show – we have the appreciation that this is a white western person looking from the outside in; however much Sarah spent her formative years in India and remembers the language local to her, she is still an outsider and makes poor choices, the choices themselves another aspect of the book that Yocom has handled with care. So, too, the use of religion and mythology, which I’ll leave there.

Away from the conservation, Sarah’s story starts with relief – along with the background we get to begin with, our picture of her is of her past career and the choice to change it for something that – if still overseas from home – is completely different. Her passion drives her – she sees something to work for and she goes for it, and this pervades throughout the book whether it’s the tigers, or the women who need an income, or a possible romance.

Quinn’s passion is different, quieter, like her life. The affects of Marcus’ death have led to her being an anxious mother, particularly as she grew up to have twins herself. Quinn’s strength as a character are in her thoughts on family, on how the present relates to today, where her family – nuclear and extended – come into it. Her twins have some growing to do, but so does she, in the way she deals with others, the advantage she gives them over her. Quinn’s narrative, whilst, as said, not the exciting one, and pretty restricted in locale, is perhaps the stronger one, which is an interesting point in itself. I’d go so far as to say that it serves as a reminder of how important every person is, regardless of how ‘average’ their life.

The book walks an interesting line between the predictable and not so – if you strip the book down to its bare basics, you will see where some of it is headed (some, not all) but with the entirety of its contents together, a lot of aspects are far more foggy to work out. It’s well done. Will you expect a romance? You might, you might not. There may or may not be one. Will you expect the ending? The same applies.

The ending is incredibly poignant, and asks you to consider the whole, starting from the beginning of what you’ve read to the final pages; it also asks you questions about specifics.

This, the winning nature of the ending, is due to the characters’ thought processes and the use of the concept of the three ways to disappear. You may count many sets of three ways, and each will bring you new understanding, opening the novel a bit further every time in a way that I can only call interactive. It’s based in the way each character copes, it’s based in the past, present, and future, and the various ways of living that are presented in the book.

Three Ways To Disappear is great. It does so much in a relatively short time, takes you to locations beyond the geographical, and it presents constant beginnings and ways forward, regardless of endings.

 
Elizabeth Baines – Astral Travel

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Looking backwards in order to go further forwards.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63219-9
First Published: 15th November 2020
Date Reviewed: 10th December 2020
Rating: 5/5

Now a grown-up in her own right, Josephine is composing a novel about her father who passed away a few years before. In doing this she hopes to better understand him; Josephine’s childhood was marked by a lot of parental abuse and neglect, physical and emotional, and as she tries to work through the trauma herself and to see past the blocks her mind had created to protect her, she learns more about the reasons her father and mother were as they were, why Josephine and her sister were scapegoats, and why their father changed his thoughts on his youngest child.

Astral Travel is a very careful novel that examines the effects of childhood abuse on people as they grow up. Due to its careful handling it is a difficult book to read but, in particular, readers who can relate to some amount of the text may find it cathartic.

The novel takes a few chapters to get going, owing to the question that will quickly arise – is this a book in a book, and, if it is, is it going to be a mashup of literary and magical realism fiction or something a bit different? The answer is that it is mostly not a book in a book due to the requirements of Josephine’s journey, however a more abstract interpretation of the ‘genre’ would be that it still is a book in a book, just not the one Josephine is writing. It is her research, the background she needs to find in order to write her book that we see here.

Most of the characters are unlikeable. Many will be unrelatable, but unlike that persistent idea that a book without relatable characters isn’t good (I digress, but it should be no surprise that this reviewer doesn’t subscribe to that) Astral Travel would not be what it is if you could relate. And frankly you don’t want to relate, not here, not this time.

With the book itself, Josephine’s first person narrative, set in the present day, the majority of the content looks back to the decades of the 20th century – bit from the late thirties, a few moments from earlier than that, and the decades of Josephine’s childhood and early adulthood (the 50s and beyond). This lends the book an interesting aspect – a backdrop of a less busy time foregrounded by concepts that are no longer acceptable, of which there are many and they are varied.

Josephine’s learned behaviour stops her from seeing a more normal family as the support they could be. Whilst her later in-laws have many of their own issues, their relative normality compared to the Jacksons is visible to the reader but never to Josephine. One of the unfortunate aspects of Josephine’s personal journey is that, whilst it simply may be beyond the scope of the book (which is a fair number of pages already), she does not get far enough in her exploration and self-therapy to see where people who are not like her family are okay to trust. This is likewise with Josephine’s mother – whilst her mother isn’t technically abusive, she is nevertheless somewhat complicit in the abuse and places the responsibility for not rocking the boat on her children rather than on her husband where it rightly belongs. And whilst she, the mother, has been physically abused herself, so you see the trauma there too, you can’t help but hope that part of Josephine’s further journey includes an understanding of the role her mother played, if just to make further sense of it.

The good thing is that the reader can see it all – this is why it could be cathartic for some, readers who may be further along their own paths.

To the writing itself, it’s strong and the general structure is very well thought out. Baines’ choice not to reveal ‘basic’ details such as Josephine’s name and gender, as well as a dedication to a writing style that keeps personal details hidden unless explicitly stated (barring subtext) means that you focus on the elements the author wants you to, when she wants you to. The use of white space in terms of presentation – sections are divided by blank pages – is practically a device in itself, a device more often used in poetry employed here in a way that provides literal breathing space for you to recover before you move on.

That’s one thing that ought to be pointed out, given I’ve noted that Astral Travel is difficult to read – the attention to structure and the presentation of the content (we’re back to the ‘careful handling’ here) means that whilst you might want to set it aside for a moment or two you’ll always be okay to return to it. You can’t help but root for Josephine.

I received this book for review.

 
Roselle Lim – Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop + Podcast

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Reading tea leaves. Rewriting destinies.

Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-984-80327-6
First Published: 4th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Like Aunt Evelyn, Vanessa can predict people’s futures, only – unlike Evelyn – she does not appreciate the ability as it takes her over and she is forced to speak the prediction aloud. This has only ever led to people running away, predicting bad news too often, and all-consuming headaches. Now grown up and wanting a better life than the one she’s living, and hoping for love beyond the odds (fortune tellers do not have long-term romance in their destinies), Vanessa agrees to spend a couple of weeks in Paris with her aunt as Evelyn opens her tea shop, to try to tame her talent into something more bearable. Paris is the city of love, and Vanessa finds her match, but she knows better than to hope for more than a few days, just like her Aunt whose own love life has been troubled.

This book could be received in two ways; for my British readers, this book is like Marmite if liking or disliking Marmite involved the ability to make an active decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Ergo, then, if picked up with an idea for a ‘normal’ book with some fun and travels in it, Lim’s latest is likely to be a disappointment. In this context, the book could be called lacking true conflict, too nice, and rather odd.

And I want to say that and have chosen those words precisely because this review will not be looking at Lim’s book from that point of view. This is because, if picked up as an escape, with a view for fun and a much happier, colourful, version of the world – Paris, here, particularly, of course – where people largely get on (and when they don’t, it’s fixable) are successful, and where magical things happen (more magical realism than outright fantasy), then Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is an utter delight.

So, like the situation with Marmite if we had something of a decision in the way we respond to it.

All this to say, perhaps, that this is a (‘the’, actually, I’d say) book to pick up when you’re wrapped up in blankets, it’s pouring with rain outside, and you want something that will make you feel good, euphoric even. (It’ll also work in the summer, more as a shady-under-the-tree or after the picnic rather than a beach read.) This book makes you feel… awesome. There is a special something about it that lifts off the page and envelopes you in goodness, even when Vanessa’s struggling.

Vanessa’s character progression is important; she narrates and her character is well-formed, however beyond her the most important elements are the atmosphere, the location, and the art. (The other characters do take a back seat in this way.) Lim’s use of Paris combines the better parts of the stereotype with the sorts of specific details that get left out of the stereotype – Paris is the city of love and happiness… and of these specific works of art that you’ll not find mentioned online quite so much. This is mostly thanks to Vanessa’s artistic nature – she stands and looks at things, and then sits down to memorialise them on paper.

Needless to say, the details inherent in creating art form a large part of the book. Another aspect that is used similarly is food, though this can be diverting. Food – the eating and description of it, formed much of Lim’s previous work, Natalie Tan’s Book Of Luck and Fortune, and the character was a chef. Vanessa, whilst her family is similar in this way, is not, and so it doesn’t work quite so well as the art – the narrative effectively pauses during meals, but it does pick right back up again following their conclusion.

So, as said, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is a pick-me-up, a magical story that is pretty impossible not to enjoy for the brightness it brings with it. Whilst you will remember the plot, it’s the value of the atmosphere, the use of location, and the symbolism of the magical realism elements Lim uses that will etch itself most into your memory – with its goodness and uniqueness, it would be difficult to forget the effect this book has on you, and quite possibly difficult not to want to keep it to hand.

I received this book for review.


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

Charlie and Tammye Huf (A More Perfect Union) discuss her great-great-grandparents’ relationship as an 1840s Irishman and a Black American slave, the way owners used Christianity to support their views of a racial hierarchy, and the lengths reached in order to label people by skin colour.

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

 

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