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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.

 
2020 Year Of Reading Round Up

In 2020 I read 57 books, not my lowest number but definitely less than I’d considered it might be at the beginning of the year! I had a number of books unfinished by the year’s end, most of which I’d begun in the early spring, and, due to not having got very far with them, I decided to leave them off my reading lists completely until such time as I can contemplate starting them again, properly. The only one I kept was James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life; I had read a good chunk of it and it was different to the other books in that whereas I read those outside and in the day in general, Rebanks’ book was saved for bedtime reading – time carved out without other books to distract me kept me going. All this to say that there are two books I carried over into 2021: the ever-present Vanity Fair (perhaps I need a readalong) and A Shepherd’s Life. The latter is in fact my father’s book – I bought it for him upon request when it was first published, and later he lent it to me to read – and so I was originally planning to finish it quickly. Having not seen Dad since last, last, Christmas and not knowing exactly when the next time would be, I admit to taking my time with the book. Got to find those small upshots where they are!

For the first time, I’m not going to do personal favourites. As you’ll see from the ratings, there was little not to like.

Best Of The Best

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Elizabeth Baines: Astral Travel (2020) – Following her father’s death, Josephine looks to make sense of his abusive behaviour through writing about him, and there is a lot more to uncover than her family will allow into the book. Probably the best book about childhood abuse I’ve read – this is an incredibly difficult book to read but the study and further exploration is exquisitely done.

Intisar Khanani: Thorn (2012) – When Princess Alyrra is betrothed to Prince Kestrin, she’s not comfortable with the idea of travelling to his kingdom with Valka, who dislikes her, and the sudden appearance of a mage followed by a fae-like lady the night before has her more so; as Valka betrays her and the two womens’ bodies are switched Alyrra starts a different journey, one that will involve learning all manner of things about herself in order to turn back the changes, and all manner of things about her new kingdom that royalty are never privvy to. A superb fairytale retelling and adaptation, Khanani expanding on the ideas in the original Goose Girl to incredible effect.

Isla Morley: Come Sunday (2009) – The young daughter of Abbe, a woman who is struggling with her general situation, dies in an accident and Abbe has to wade through the repercussions of this whilst learning to live with her grief. An exceptional look at extreme grief and bad circumstances and the process towards acceptance and hope.

Joanna Hickson: First Of The Tudors (2016) – A fictionised story of Jasper Tudor, son of Catherine de Valois and her second husband Owen Tudor, as well as Jane, mother of his illegitimate children, taking us from Jasper’s early years to the initial first campaigns to bring Jasper’s nephew, the future Henry VII, to the throne. A fantastic story, immersive, detailed, and just simply a very good book in general.

Laura Pearson: I Wanted You To Know (2019) – A young mother is diagnosed with cancer and as she struggles through the changes to her world and future she writes letters to her daughter for the girl to read after she is gone, making preparations and healing relationships beforehand. An incredibly emotional read; difficult but important.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes (2016) – Four stories connected by Chinese American history, racism, passing, and that rubbish idea that all Asians look the same: we follow 1800s Ling as he works for a Chinese American laundryman and white American railway construction company owner; Hollywood star Anna May Wong discusses her career progression which is marred by racism; a fictionised friend of Vincent Chin discusses the night of his death and what followed; and John travels to China with his wife to adopt a baby, already having lots to think about on the subject of being Asian American now and throughout history, and finding even more now as he goes through the last stages of the handover. An utterly fantastic book – the handling of the subjects, and the writing and language in general is superb.

Sofie Laguna: The Eye Of The Sheep (2014) – Jimmy sees things differently to other people though he doesn’t quite know it, but he does know about the tentacles in his mother’s chest that cause her problems, sees his dad struggle, and often can’t help himself from running around for ages; the family situation as it is is not sustainable and we see the changes through Jimmy’s eyes. A fantastic book about a child who defies a label, and his very normal, everyday family, living in the 70s and 80s.

Tracy Rees: Florence Grace (2016) – A young girl living in relative poverty in the Victorian period is employed for an evening as a servant for a party, and she meets a boy with the surname Grace – who isn’t going to be her husband. I don’t want to spoil the story so I’ll leave it there; this is as enjoyable as Amy Snow but pretty different and more Dickensian and Emily Brontë than Amy Snow’s Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

5

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4.5

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4

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3.5

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3

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My reading list unsurprisingly reflects my podcast. There are no classics (Oliver Goldsmith was a casualty of the ‘not having got very far’) and nothing before 2007. There are also few review copies which I didn’t always get to in good time; I’m likely to lessen the number of those this new year. Podcast reading also means there are a number of re-reads here. I have changed a couple of ratings to reflect my updated thoughts on them; this accounts for discrepancies between ratings on this page and ratings and words in the linked reviews. I’ve excluded re-reads from my ‘best of the best’ list because it didn’t seem right to include them, especially as many were already on the ‘best of’ list for the year I first read them. The list also follows the one per author rule of previous years and due to that being strict enough, I’ve allowed for a higher number of best reads this time around.

Whilst compiling this post I made a note of various statistics which I later realised would be best included in a different post. I’ll be putting them together with my goals in the next few days. I’ve also a bumper film round up to get to.

What did you most enjoy reading last year?

 
December 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcast

I didn’t read too much in December, favouring festive films this year and spending more time with my rabbits. With no social visits for humans, the furry siblings had the best Christmas ever, which helped lighten the mood. The two have definitely noticed the difference as normal days have resumed.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Elizabeth Baines: Astral Travel – Following her father’s death, Josephine looks to make sense of his abusive behaviour through writing about him, and there is a lot more to uncover than her family will allow into the book. Probably the best book about childhood abuse I’ve read – this is an incredibly difficult book to read but the study and further exploration is exquisitely done.

Marianne Holmes: A Little Bird Told Me – Robin has returned to the place of most of her childhood (relavent) in order to find the truth behind the crying women her mother had round the house, the police visits, and the man in the cowboy hat who knew who she was and seemed protective but very off. Trying not to spoil it too much – this is a very good book that looks carefully at its subjects.

Baines’ book, which I am admittedly very behind on reviewing, is superb and worth the difficult moments. Holmes’ book is easier, but the subject no less difficult if very different. Both well worth the time.

I’m already on book two of 2021 which I consider a success. The unintentional breaks in blogging have done me the world of good too and I’m looking forward to sharing the posts I have ready.


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

Charlie and Marianne Holmes (A Little Bird Told Me; All Your Little Lies) discuss procedures when children go missing, societal changes in regards to domestic violence in the 1970s, and, on a lighter note, trying not to finish books you’re not enjoying.

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

 
November 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcast

November was fairly difficult this year but it’s getting a lot better. I didn’t read as much as usual but I did enjoy what I read, very much, and ended the month with a book started that I’ve since finished and enjoyed too. I’m now looking at trying to get through a backlog of books in terms of reviewing; I’m not the best at writing reviews for books I read a while back – even a week and I struggle! – but I’ll see how it goes.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Deborah Swift: Past Encounters – originally published under the name Davina Blake; when Peter comes home from war, Rhoda marries him, but she’s never been very happy and when she finds a note from a woman she becomes suspicious. A truly excellent book.

Deborah Swift: The Occupation – as the Germans approach Jersey, Celine’s German husband Fred goes off to fight and Celine herself misses the evacuation; instead of leaving for England she and her Jewish friend, Rachel, must stay on the island, whilst in France, Fred must assume the role of a Frenchman to infiltrate the resistance. An excellent book that is fearless in its motive to show what it must and has a very poignant ending.

Roselle Lim: Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop – in order to try to hone the fortunetelling ability she has tried to neglect for fear and dislike of it, Vanessa agrees to stay with Aunt Evelyn in Paris for a couple of weeks; the one thing that can’t be changed, is a fortuneteller’s fate to never find a romantic match, and when Vanessa meets Marc she strives to enjoy the time for as long as it lasts. An incredibly enjoyable magically realistic novel that envelopes you in its generally happy world and brights a rainy day.

As said, I enjoyed all three books. Lim’s made a chilly rainy autumn afternoon much better, Swift’s second book caught me with its ending and her use of characterisation to explore aspects of history, and re-reading Past Encounters, this time with proper knowledge of the film (I hadn’t watched it the first time around) inevitably allowed for an entirely different reading which was interesting to consider as its own element.

I wrote a post on it so I’ll keep it short here: December, or, rather, Christmas, is about finishing books.


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

Charlie and Deborah Swift (Past Encounters; The Occupation; the forthcoming The Lifeline, also many books sets in the 1600s such as The Lady’s Slipper; A Divided Inheritance) discuss Brief Encounter at Carnforth, the experiences of prisoners of war at the time and once back home, the real life story of a Jersey woman who hid her Jewish friend, and reactions to the death of the last woman in Britain to be given capital punishment.

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

 
Planning For (Pandemic) Christmas

A photograph of fairy light in the shape of a star

Amy, you have no idea…

It’ll be quieter here, and whilst not nearly as busy and fun, I’ve realised that a quieter Christmas does mean more time for reading and some solo games I’ve got on a perpetual ‘do that later’ list. I’ve clocked up plenty of unfinished reads this year so I’m hoping to make a dent in that pile, and I might spend more time watching Outlander than I have the previous two Christmases, during which I unintentionally started a new festive routine of watching a decidedly un-festive programme over wine, cheese, and fairy lights. I enjoyed it so much – the fewer sex scenes really helped – that I’ve actually relegated watching the show to Christmas time and am therefore only on season two and reliant on Amazon continuing to make it available.

Books: Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant; Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar Of Wakefield; Diana Evans’ Ordinary People; and, hopefully, Deborah Swift’s The Gilded Lily, which is a very recent addition. No Christmas books as yet; I’m still having a think about that one.

Games: Trine – another few-Christmas’ worth tradition; Overcooked; and possibly The Sims 3 and Kingdom Come Deliverance. If any of you readers are gamers and haven’t tried Trine, I very, very much recommend it.

Films: various cheesy Hallmark Channel ones I’ve not yet seen that our British Channel 5 make available, and Happiest Season (2020) as long as it’s on Amazon.

What are you doing this festive season?

 

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