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Wendy Holden – The Duchess

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Always Duchess, never Queen.

Publisher: Welbeck
Pages: 423
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: ?978-1-787-39624-1
First Published: 19th August 2021
Date Reviewed: 13th September 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Wallis Simpson marries her second husband Ernest after a short relationship; Ernest is wonderfully caring, the complete opposite of her first, abusive, husband. The new marriage isn’t perfect – Wallis wants to move up in the world, if just a bit, whilst Ernest’s happy as they are, and Wallis still carries the metaphorical scars from her first marriage – but it’s good. But Wallis still hopes to enter a society closed off to her due to lack of wealth, a society her mother was unable to introduce her to, and due to a series of lucky events, she gradually makes the sort of acquaintances she always dreamed of. One of them is the mistress of the unwed Prince Edward, heir to the throne.

The Duchess, Holden’s second novel about figures in royalty who have been put in particular lights, puts Wallis Simpson in a more positive one than she ever was in life, at least not once she entered the life of Edward VIII.

(Nor, for that matter, since – during my research whilst I read the book I struggled to find any mention of good values or any descriptions that were particularly positive. There may well be factual accounts that are positive but they are not to be found in articles on the Internet. Most likely Wallis’ own ghost-written memoir would be positive but there are of course going to be biases in that.)

However this positivity is not constant. Holden’s story is not completely positive, indeed her descriptions of good points are balanced out by her fictional Wallis’ relentless drive to be high in society, which obviously echoes thoughts of the time. This said, as the book reaches its end it does very much move towards the idea that Wallis did not want to be Queen and did not want to marry Edward at all, at least not following his abdication, which does directly conflict with various thoughts, especially where recent research shows a possible case of abuse.

If it sounds like there’s a lot of fiction here, again, as noted above by the positivity not being constant – thus the commonly-held view of the conflicts and issues are included – the fact that Holden’s account is openly a novel allows further study and further question. It is all very well adhering to the most popular points of view when they haven’t changed since the 1930s and 1940s, particularly given the contents (see here the visit to Nazi Germany, the discourse with Hitler, the photo of smiling faces) but the fact remains that it is one based in those years in a society that was very British, against divorcees marrying into royalty, and all about tradition. And whilst things have changed – Camilla has married Charles, Meghan married Harry – they haven’t changed enough to support new viewpoints coming through into the public domain; Camilla will likely never be ‘Queen’, Meghan is seen as a big problem.

All that rambling to say that, whilst Holden’s Wallis is incredibly different to the accounts that are most easily accessible, and the presentation is that of a problematic prince who is needy and increasingly manipulative and has more say than Wallis, it’s impossible to say that this is far-fetched and too fictional. Is it quite a quiet book in its way, yes, does it break lots of new ground, no. And it’s intriguing why it ends on the note it does without going further.

But as I hope all this rambling and considering and pointing out has done, the fact that The Duchess presents such a highly different account and, possibly, interpretation, is very much in its favour. Wallis is still, today, ‘that woman’, and it’s worth looking at the information again, looking at it in terms of the time to view the biases openly, and arguably Holden has done an excellent job doing so.

Will The Duchess change minds? It could be said that it does something far more important – it pushes you to review what you thought, what you’ve heard, and what the actual truth might be.

Perhaps a couple of sentences would have sufficed: this book is brilliantly planned, written, and executed in all ways. That it provides a fair amount of historical information about real-life socialites, and detailed reasoning for the break-up of Wallis’ first marriage is more of a bonus, even though they are in fact quite extensive in terms of pages. Great stuff.

I received this book for review.

 
Gill Paul – The Second Marriage

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Life can be operatic.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 412
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-36626-1
First Published: 18th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st July 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

In the mid 20th century, Jackie Bouvier married the man who would become president of the United States only to be assassinated two years later. In the same few years, the wildly popular opera singer Maria Callas was in her prime. The two would come to be in relationships with Greek shipping magnate – one his mistress, the other his wife. Paul imagines this period in American history, focusing on the women’s individuality, lives, marriages, loves, and the people they may have been away from the cameras.

The Second Marriage (Jackie And Maria in the US), is a literarily thrilling and very bold book that begins with strong characterisation and continues with the author’s excellent balancing of the known facts and rumours. Structured in the form of an opera with its Acts, the book blends both your regular story with moments of high drama and tragedy, rather mirroring the life of the characters; it also shows that even the ordinary is not. Favouring exploration, Paul pays heed to, as well as moves away from, the presentations and opinions of the time, covering all bases before looking into the reasons the two women might have been one way or another way and so on. (For example, Callas certainly appears haughty in interviews (to this reviewer, at least) but, says Paul, was this a persona? Was she fed up of the way she was treated by the press?

On the subject of mainly separate lives, it should be noted that Paul has created a few scenes in this regard – the two women are not known to have met. However, they were linked in more ways than one; whilst both had a relationship with Ari Onassis, through him and Jackie’s family was a further link. Jackie’s sister, Lee, is rumoured to have had an affair with JFK, and a relationship with Onassis whilst he was seeing Callas. And related to this in terms of rumours, Paul has taken rumours such as miscarriages and secret children to create her tale. The use of these ideas – often things that could have damaged a women’s status at the time – allows for an exploration of agency without a requirement for foresight.

Of the lack of foresight – which is good – and staying in context, Paul’s version of Onassis asks many questions in its subject. You see a womaniser who simply had money (and whilst not directly referenced by Paul, recent focus on him has included alleged abuse of Callas) who was nevertheless pined for. It’s another bold choice by Paul, letting the history be itself, letting the reader come to their own conclusions, and moving away slightly (through Onassis) from the idea that a reader relate to characters.

The characterisation, in itself, is sublime, particularly, not surprisingly, when it comes to Jackie and Maria. The characters are brought wonderfully to life, as well as if they’d been narrated in the first person, and the scenes echo reality.

It is perhaps the active focus on Jackie and Maria here, rather than the book, that may divide opinion. Paul’s versions of these women focus here on the men in their lives, marriage, love, and children. As much as they are individuals and the focus of the story, the women are secondary to the men, and this is where the expectation of the reader comes in. The context of the women being secondary is correct in its time and Paul makes no bones about Jackie and Maria’s relative dependence, but a reader wanting more of the idea of a strong woman might be disappointed with the way they are strong. Are Paul’s Jackie and Maria strong, yes, but they are still restricted by the mores of their day, even if they are the one making money. (Maria also said in at least one interview that she had wanted a family.)

What this book does then is provide an excellent exploration of the time period and an idea (sometimes more a possibility, as discussed) of the women at hand. Jackie Kennedy’s life following the death of JFK – her worries for herself and her children both in terms of being the next target (JFK’s brother, later standing as a presidential nominee, was killed) and money. In the years since her life, her story has been seen as one of likely Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, her strength due to the needs of the day. Maria Callas, as said, was seen as haughty, and to some extent Paul has used this, showing a measure of on-stage persona and discussing the idea of such a thing. There is, moving towards support for Paul’s choice, a lot to be said for honing into specifics. Paul’s ideas can be found in further research and she allows focus on things that weren’t in focus at the time.

The Second Marriage is, then, full of thought, facts and various people’s rumours, and a fully-fledged look at some fascinating lives. This is a book very much worth reading and a book that will push even the most escapist of readers to do further research, both to see where Paul has diverted and created, and more about Jackie and Maria in general.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Last Daughter + Podcasts (Zen Cho, Rosanna Ley, Gill Paul)

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Solving the mystery.

Publisher: Harlequin (HarperCollins)
Pages: 355
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27852-6
First Published: 8th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2021
Rating: 5/5

Serena’s twin, Caitlin, disappeared in her late teens and Serena could not remember the last time she saw her. Now, years later, a body has been found in a centuries-old tomb that nevertheless matches Caitlin’s DNA. Serena needs to try again to remember what happened that last day she saw her sister and find out the solution to the mystery that doesn’t make any sense. As the story unfolds, we also hear the story of the Wars of the Roses from the experience of Anne, the wife of Francis Lovell, loyal ally of Richard III.

The Last Daughter is a dual-narrative timeslip that looks at a purely fictional mystery as well as an in-context reason for the mystery of the princes of the tower (the book is called The Last Daughter Of York in the US).

Cornick’s blending of history and the present day, with its splash of fantasy, is as strong as ever. The research and fictionalisation of the early life of a lesser-known person, Anne FitzHugh, is wonderful. (And for this, Anne’s narrative could certainly be said to be better than Serena’s.) The way the fantasy is brought in aligns with the sort of superstitions of the time.

The use of location is also strong. Bringing to life a house in ruins (Minster Lovell Hall) as well as a castle (Ravensworth), you get a greater sense of the day to day life of those living in the wars of the 1400s.

In this book it is the way in which the timeslip happens rather than the timeslip itself that is the most fascinating thing. Cornick uses a lodestone that has been revered for decades as the item that creates havoc, and with the science behind the well known object, it’s a convincing idea. Similarly to her other books, the author uses a few time periods to explore and examine her concept, which makes the story all the more fun, even if in this case it includes tragic circumstances.

The most compelling aspect of the book in terms of the present day is the way in which Cornick deals with the mystery of the Princes. Whilst it may not solve it quite as you might expect – this is a fantasy after all and we don’t know what happened – the author does do something that few people have; Cornick removes the ‘either, or’ factor from the equation. Certainly so doing means that the reader’s focus is on the story she has constructed, but it is and was always going to be inevitable that the reader is at least distracted by the idea Cornick sets forth. The question of ‘what if?…’ here allows the medieval-minded reader to look at the whole thing in an entirely different way and prod at possibilities that tend to get overlooked or just left out completely.

The Last Daughter offers a compelling story of historical mystery told with Cornick’s trademark uniqueness of narrative strength. The timeslip element is different, fresh, and the book a great addition to the author’s list.


Charlie and Zen Cho (Black Water Sister) discuss traditional Chinese beliefs, smashing up shrines, and Jane Austen.

Charlie and Rosanna Ley (The Orange Grove) discuss whether one of her main characters, Ella, made the right decision with the situational contexts at hand, the viability of a shop focused on orange-related products and set up in Dorset, the Seville producers of those products, and the secrets of the flour-free cake that starts the whole thing off.

Charlie and Gill Paul (The Second Marriage) discuss the lives and loves of Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas from their early married years until later life, the womanising ways of the men in their lives, and the opera and celebrity that in Gill’s book links them all.

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

 
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.

 

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