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June and July 2022 Reading Round-Up

I read a fair amount in June and July, including some exceptional reads. It was an incredibly enjoyable two months for reading; every book had something particular about it that made things special.

All books are works of fiction.

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Chloe Timms: The Seawomen – On the isle of Eden, women are married off and must produce a child within a year if they are not to be cast into the sea. As Esta draws nearer to her own adulthood, she starts to question everything she’s been told about the evils of the sea and the mermaids therein, and when she runs away from a gang of young men and runs into the water to escape, she meets a man from the sea who offers her a different story to the one she’s always been told. An absolutely fantastic dystopian tale that has become one of my most favourite books.

Megan Nolan: Acts Of Desperation – Our unnamed young narrator is addicted to love and relationships and whilst everyone around her looks askance at her becoming the girlfriend of older Ciaran, our narrator doesn’t care. He’s perfect in his darkness, and it’s worth the hurt, the tears, the drunkenness and cigarettes. We hear from her looking back at the relationship a couple of years into the future from where she has the hindsight to assess the time with a more critical eye. This is a very focused book with a narrator that’s incredibly difficult to like and due to the focus it doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere in terms of plot or location – this is one to read for it’s literary value and I say that because in that context it is fantastic. Just prepare for moodiness!

Natalie Jenner: Bloomsbury Girls – 1950s London, and the years following the war have been difficult for women who’ve gone from being needed in the workplace to being pushed aside. Vivian definitely feels this as a member of staff at Bloomsbury Books (shop), and Grace in the back offices. But now there’s a new girl, Evie, starting in the rare books section upstairs and it gives Vivian in particular the push she needed to start making changes at the shop. Their days will include breaking the 51 rules the management has in place, sharing a table with some of the biggest literary stars of the day, and Evie’s secret plan to make up for her not receiving a job in academia she was the best candidate but wrong gender for. A lot of fun, Jenner’s inclusion of Daphne du Maurier as well as her inclusion of book auctions and little-known writers is a joy to behold.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Starling Days – Mina throws her shoe over the railings on the bridge but tells the ambulance staff the police she wasn’t looking to jump. Oscar is not convinced and when the opportunity arises for them to work on his father’s flats in England, the couple go there to have a break. Mina’s given up work for a break, and she takes it, but soon Oscar has to return to the US and Mina is left alone, with Oscar’s friend’s sister. It’s difficult to sum this book up but suffice to say it’s brilliant.

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Sally Page: The Keeper Of Stories – Janice ‘collects’ the stories of her clients, homeowners who she cleans for. She doesn’t have a story herself. Or does she? When she begins working for elderly Mrs B, Janice meets her match – another person who likes collecting stories and who doesn’t believe that Janice does not have her own. An excellent page turner with a wonderful slow build-up of character development, a great personified dog, and a very satisfying ending.

Sylvia Mercedes: Daughter Of Shades – Ayleth has been training to become a shade hunter for years (shades take mortal host bodies) and works with Hollis as a team in their local borough, but she wants more. When a call is put out for candidates to work in the most dangerous borough, Ayleth goes against Hollis to travel to the palace and pitch for herself, but of course she’s not the only one after the job and the others have a lot more experience. The first in a seven book series, this novel gives small hints as to the wider theme but concentrates on the basics of an introduction, to create a whole that is incredibly fun and full of promise in terms of concepts of fantastical religions.

Sylvia Mercedes: Visions Of Fate – Ayleth starts work with Terryn in her bid to become the next Evanderian in Wodechran Borough. Not quite as good as book one, but the promise is there for book three.

Sylvia Mercedes: Paths Of Malice – As Terryn and Ayleth continue to investigate the problems of the Witchwood and Terryn continues to avoid calling his shade by its name, the second attempt at a marriage for Prince Gerald begins with Fayline’s convent novice younger sister. Will a marriage happen this time or will Celine suffer a similar fate to her sister and be taken over by a witch? Much better than book two, this is where the series starts to get incredibly good and is, I can say with hindsight, the last book before the pace goes at a rate of knots.

The use of fantasy and religion in both the Timms and Venatrix books (the three Mercedes) was brilliant – they’re very different (Timms is literary fantasy, Mercedes genre). I also really liked the writing for the reader that Nolan does, a feeling of Charlotte Brontë in a book nothing like the classic author’s, whereas the Jenner was great for its look at literary auctions and past literary figures that aren’t often (if ever?) included in fiction. The Hisayo Buchanan was just great in general, better still than her first book. And Sally Page can write a page turner for commercial fiction as good if not better than any thriller.

It won’t surprise you that so far in August I’ve read more from Mercedes (at the point of posting here, I’ve one more book left to go of the seven). I’ve read Kristin Harmel’s The Forest Of Vanishing Stars for both pleasure and podcast (though on that first alliterative word it’s a difficult book to read due to its subject), and I’ve a Young Adult historical fantasy trilogy waiting on my shelves for a couple of days’ time – I need more fantasy fiction right now!

 
February, March, April, And May 2022 Reading Round Up

I got a fair amount of reading done this late winter and spring, all told. Some absolutely excellent books that kept me from other tasks quite regularly.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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John Bevis: An English Library Journal – Bevis sets out to get a library card from every library authority in England, and some from Wales and Northern Ireland where work-related travel permits. An interesting concept with a certain structure – where a repeat of each interaction would have become, well, repetitive, Bevis interweaves the more interesting anecdotes with slices of library history, both specific to the one he’s visiting and in general.

Natasha Miller (ed.) Jamie Blaine: Relentless – Miller’s teenage years were marked by abuse, and when she gains emancipation early, she starts to chart a course that will lead her to a fantastic career in music and wonderful position as founder of a huge events company. Incredibly compelling and inspiring, a true life story to root for.

Fiction

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Amanda Geard: The Midnight House – After a break-up and problems with her career, Ellie moves back home from Dublin to Kerry; one of the secondhand books she receives from her mum’s friend has an old letter in it that seems related to the mystery of the woman who appeared to have died in the lake at the big house. Great story – a good use of narrative, a good use of the concept of predictability (and unpredictability) and clues, and a hugely satisfying epilogue.

Elizabeth Von Arnim: Elizabeth And Her German Garden – A woman spends as much time as possible in the garden she has created (if not often planted herself, given the time period) and recounts various tales of those she is compelled to socialise with (because it’s apparent she won’t socialise if she could help it, it takes time away from the garden). A book that could easily be mistaken for a memoir, this is an okay book, ‘okay’ mainly due to the main character who could stand to be a little kinder, but there isn’t much going on, nor is there any sort of plot. This is one for a fan of Von Arnim.

Frances Burney: Evelina – A young woman enters society, with some good people and some not so, to various effects, suitors, and lessons. Okay, and better than some books of the same time period (Emmeline, with its similarities) but definitely a first novel.

Grace D Li: Portrait Of A Thief – When Will witnesses the theft of Chinese art from the Sackler Museum, he can’t tell the police much, but what he does leave out is that the thieves slipped him a business card. Do Will and his friends want $10 million in return for 5 heists? The art taken during the looting of the Summer Palace is wanted back and unsuspected students may be the answer. A great story questioning the ownership of looted work, Chinese American identity, which is frankly very fun and completely worth suspending a bit of belief for.

Jennifer Saint: Elektra – So as not to ruin the author’s retelling, I will say that this is Saint’s story of the Trojan War and Elektra’s decisions from the perspective of Elektra, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra. Helen features a fair amount too. Very, very, good – Saint has created a compelling tale whilst sticking to the over all concept of the original myths, keeping all the tragedies and so on.

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Melissa Fu: Peach Blossom Spring – When Changsha is hit during the Second Sino-Japanese War, by friend or foe (it’s not known), Meilin takes her son with the family to safety; this will entail fleeing and becoming refugees in a different land, and we follow Meilin, then Renshu, and then, in turn, daughter Lily. A fantastic if often difficult story, written beautifully, epic in nature.

Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar Of Wakefield – A well-enough-off vicar’s money is lost and he must take his family to a poorer parish and home resulting in mishaps and, before long, rather Dickensian silly situations well before Dickens’ time. I think there’s a reason it did well in its day. There’s also a reason it’s not so well known now.

Susanna Kearsley – The Winter Sea – Author Carrie travels to Scotland for inspiration and research for her latest book, and once at her destination begins to receive memories of sorts from the Jacobite ancestors she wanted to write about, in particular a young woman whose fate Carrie must find out. A character-driven book with a simple plot in two narratives, the reading ‘journey’ is absolutely wonderful and Kearsley’s writing of the narratives well-balanced – both narratives are just as good.

Yvonne Bailey-Smith: The Day I Fell Off My Island – Erna lives with her grandparents and siblings in Jamaica; one day her siblings are taken by their father to England and Erna will follow in due course. This is giving a fair amount of the book away – half is set in Jamaica, half in England – but it’s necessary to give you an idea of what happens; it’s set in the 1960s.

It’s been a time of variety, which may have been the key. There has been much to love, in fact the only book I took a long time to finish, in relative terms at least, was the Goldsmith. There is some hilarity but there’s also so much everything-and-everyone-is-here and coincidence and so on; if we’re talking comedy, I definitely prefer Horace Walpole. In terms of books I was able to savour (because the ones for podcasts had to be read swiftly!) I loved the Kearsley and the Burney; Evelina was my first Burney, and I’ve moved on to Cecilia though I may need to restart it as I’ve left some months in between readings. I enjoyed Evelina a good amount though I dare say at the moment I do prefer the writer Burney inspired, Austen. One of the books, I think it’s Cecilia, threw me with some random antisemitism – at least for a present-day reader it’s random, I expect at the time of publication it would have been one of those known societal things. I’m generally of the mind that we should view offensive phrases and thoughts in their context but I’m struggling with this one as it is literally ‘person + Jewish = bad’. It’s something historical I want to find out more about.

I have already finished two books in June – Sylvia Mercedes’ Daughter Of Shades, a YA fantasy that was recommended by Intisar Khanani on Twitter (I raced through it and am onto book 2) and Chloe Timms’ The Seawomen which I devoured in two days because I couldn’t do anything else – it is an exceptional novel and out on 14th June. So it’ll be Sylvia Mercedes going forward this month and hopefully another podcast read or two.

What have you been reading?

 
Amanda Geard – The Midnight House

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It takes a village… going back to it.

Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 418
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-28370-2
First Published: 12th May 2022
Date Reviewed: 2nd June 2022

Ellie has moved back home to her mum’s farms in County Kerry; a ruined engagement and career have left her running for a retreat to a slower-paced location. Given a box of secondhand books by her mum’s friend, she finds an old letter hidden in one of them; a woman in the 1940s tells someone she’s able to get away and where she’ll be going. There’s an unsolved mystery to do with the family at the big house nearby and as much as Ellie’s come back to Balinn to get away from anything like this, she can’t resist it.

The Midnight House is a triple third-person narrative tale of secrets, the restrictions of class – upper, here – and, arguably, the value of community in Ireland. Told via a wholly historical war-time narrative, a not-as-historical 1950s narrative, and a contemporary narrative, the book explores its issues and questions with a careful hand, ending in a highly satisfactory conclusion with a couple of ending pages that are a wonderfully pleasant surprise and beg a literary consideration of what a happy ending can comprise of.

Geard has made an interesting and ultimately highly successful choice in the way she goes about revealing details of her mystery – the vast majority, particularly in terms of the historical mystery (I think we can call Ellie’s reason for being in Ballinn a ‘reader’s’ mystery) are given pretty freely. We’re not talking predictability here, nor red herrings that are easy to guess – Geard offers you the information on a plate, almost as though it wasn’t supposed to be a mystery. The success, then, comes in the last pieces of information, which you don’t get until a while later. I realise it may seem too open to write about it but I reckon Geard’s plans are good enough it won’t spoil it – the last pieces you are left with seem quite mundane at first but this is perhaps part of the plan; with your guard entirely down, Geard comes in with answers to pertinent questions you likely haven’t thought of before. It’s entirely thrilling and well done, effectively causing you to re-examine and consider what makes a mystery narrative and whether you might be just that bit too used to a general formula.

We’ll leave that there.

What is left out completely in these ‘easy’ servings is the raison d’etre of the contemporary plotline, Ellie’s homecoming. The details help to ‘place’ the novel but their early introduction could well have given too much away about the novel’s structure and would have spoiled the journey of Ellie’s character development. This is important because whilst Charlotte – the main character who doesn’t get a narrative – isn’t the same as Ellie, couldn’t be, due to their respective societies and time periods, there are enough similarities to mean that Ellie’s discovery of Charlotte but, more so the reader’s discovery of Charlotte (because no present day character can find out everything a reader can) affects her own plotline, the part that is informed by her ‘detective’ work but is not critical to it.

On the narratives, then, we have one from Nancy in the 1940s (beginning in 1939), Nancy’s daughter, Hattie, in 1958, and Ellie’s 2019 narrative. They’re all pretty similar in terms of narrative strength; there’s perhaps less time for Hattie but that’s simply due to her overall role, and she appears elsewhere, balancing it out. Nancy’s is perhaps the most important – it deals with particular details and is where the historical information can be found.

Through Nancy’s narrative we learn a bit about the difference in approach to WW2 – Britain’s entry into it, Ireland’s neutrality – and a bit about the elite from the regular person’s perspective. While neither are the focus, they do add to the charm of the narrative, helping it further stand out from the others.

Community is a big part of the novel. Ellie is very, very, often at the coffee shop, she’s very often seeing the same secondary characters, characters who are sometimes (not always) there purely to facilitate this. In most other novels this wouldn’t work, but with Geard’s setting and the overall idea in place of coming home to a more friendly, closer-knit location, it gives the book that added reality, especially as reality often means hanging out at the same places.

We really need to talk about Charlotte, the main character who does not get her own running narrative and only appears in the novel from others’ perspectives – Charlotte is the subject. She’s always there; the novel is effectively hers. As you’d expect, she’s got quite a personality, wants to be more ‘regular’, wants real love and to work and to do the rest that the working classes do. And to some extent she does.

A now-repeating phrase: let’s leave it there.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the epilogue. It’s fantastic, and I don’t think it’s revealing too much (because I don’t want to spoil it here) to say it does an excellent job of asking you to consider what happiness means; it’s a happy scene for the character in it. Top marks to Geard; this and the couples of pages prior are absolutely grand, the kind of satisfying and literary ending you want.

The Midnight House, then, does some subverting, some surprising, and some questioning. With Geard unafraid to be open with her answers in order to play the long game you get a good pace – easy reading at first and great speed at the point of reveal. It has the cosy mystery as well as the thrilling whodunit all in one book and an ending to savour well beyond the last page. Great stuff.

I received this book in preparation for a podcast.

 
On ‘My Darling from the Lions’, The Title Of Rachel Long’s Poetry Collection

A photograph of Rachel Long's My Darling from the Lions laying on a lawn

I wanted to take a brief moment to appreciate the title of Rachel Long’s collection – her first – that has been on at least five award shortlists1.

When I first saw it, when I got the book, I thought it was… different. Unusual. I had no context in which to critique or consider it. I realise now, having started the book properly and reading it slowly, that I had accidentally ‘seen’, as such, a comma: ‘My Darling, from the Lions’. For whatever reason at the time of acquisition, probably due to the length and uniqueness of the title – a new thing for me where poetry is concerned – and also that fact it was my first encounter with the book in any form, I had read it more like the opening of a letter.

As a letter it makes strange, fantastical sense. It may also work in context, nay, it essentially does give the same basic idea as the ‘true’ one, but it’s less easy to decifer.

In its true form then, without the addition of my rogue comma, we have five words in a single sentence clause. The ‘Darling’ is a part of the group of Lions. The stylisation, though it may fit with normal English language styling anyway, helps us focus on the subjects My, Darling, Lions. And even without the ‘from the’, the title still suggests a similar idea, just that it’s more in the form of a group, ‘My Darling Lions’.

(On a related note, the ‘design’ of the title, in terms of where and how it’s printed on the cover, itself suggests this. It’s only the title page that puts it all on one line.)

To roll back from my pedantry and look at the text itself, the first few poems, which I’ll focus on because the first poems in a collection tend to subtly explain the title and are the ones that tend to stay with me – is that something everyone feels, a sort of ever-so-slight fatigue for close reading once you get past the first few poems in a collection? – the poems of the first section, which is called ‘Open’, suggests different interpretations. (Obviously?)

The section is ‘Open’, then the first poem, a single verse, is called ‘Open’. This is followed by ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’, and ‘Night Vigil’.

‘Open’ suggests lions by its ‘I sleep with my mouth open’2. Not easy to miss, though the implication, if we see a narrator and see them as Long herself, is that Long is the Lion.

The other two poems say otherwise. ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’ suggests that the lion is the romantic partner in the situation3, and ‘Night Vigil’ points to the Lion being a priest who shouldn’t be around children – two very different circumstances, but regardless accounting for the plural of Lions. (I’ll note that the idea of ‘MY darling’ works in the context of other poems, too, a darling straight from Long herself.)

I’m sure there is much that could be said about ‘from’, the possibility of possession or travel, the past, changes, but I’ll leave my pedantry to the subject words. I’m really rather into poetry now, having not really ‘got’ it for most of my life – modern poetry has helped a lot – and it continues to thrill me. But Rachel Long’s collection is the first time that thrill has been immediate and before I’ve even opened the book.

Please do share any literary pedantry or close reading you’ve done recently!

Notes

1 The Rathbones Folio Prize, the Costa Poetry Award, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Jhalak Prize, and the Young Writer of the Year Award.
2 Interestingly, understandably, after three uses of the word ‘open’ so far, that one instance is enough for the verse. It’s repeated twice more for the next two instances of an ‘Open’ verse, after which we see changes for the last two.
3 This is an incredibly surface-level comment on the poem, which in fact has a ton of layers and has bowled me over.

 
Natasha Miller (Jamie Blaine ed.) – Relentless

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Surviving and working harder.

Publisher: Poignant Press
Pages: 212
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 979-8-985-60022-3
First Published: 22nd March 2022
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2022
Rating: 5/5

On Christmas Day when Natasha was 16, her mother threatened to kill her with a butcher’s knife. It was the continuation of a pattern of abuse that had been happening Natasha’s entire life and that day she called 911 and laid the first stone towards independence. Experiencing what she had and surviving, she began a young adulthood full of life and progressed to an incredibly successful adulthood that would see her in her musical element and, later, the founder of a company with a great many well-known clients and a position on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies. This is her story.

Relentless is a wonderful tale of breaking the odds, beginning with suffering that climbs towards a glorious success that will lead to many smiles of reader happiness as you see Miller go from strength to strength and, in its turn, inspire a great many people.

Miller’s book is told in an easy conversational prose sectioned into chapters titled after her music. (If you’re an audiobook lover, this may be one for the headphones – the audiobook includes music.) It centres around her successes in the music industry as a classical violinist (and leader of a number of quartets) and jazz singer as well as her entrepreneurial self, the founder of an event production company.

(As to the editor here, it’s worth noting that Miller wrote the book herself with assistance in the editing process by Jamie Blaine later. Worth noting because of the ‘with Jamie Blaine’ included on the cover – Blaine also wrote an introduction for the start of the book.)

There are trigger warnings in the first pages – suffice it to say, this book may not always be a comfortable read but it’s an important one. Miller has experienced an amount of hardship that makes her successes all the more remarkable, and they are going to be relatable to many people. To talk of just one, the abuse Natasha suffers from her mother shows how poorly such situations were dealt with in decades past, decades that aren’t that long ago, allowing us to note how far we’ve come since then – yes, definitely – but, most importantly, the stories may well serve as a support to those who have gone through or are going through similar. Whilst the internet and more open lines of communication in general have made surviving abuse more likely, and more young people are able to identify that they are being abused earlier in life than generations past, Miller’s book adds a new voice to those testimonies that will most certainly resonate with individuals and help them on their journey, and her later successes are important examples of a person being able to move past the identity forced onto them, and getting out.

That is one of, if not the, most crucial thing about this book in terms of its value for readers.

And I say ‘one of’ because of course there is much more to this book. A music lover, obviously particularly orchestral-minded or jazz-minded but really any one, will find a great deal of enjoyment in Relentless. Miller’s career as a singer and her work as a violinist is incredibly exciting to read about – the beginnings and the way she thinks outside the box, the music itself and the events she plays (she’s sung the national anthem at a sports match and performed with Clint Eastwood in the front row) will be like music to your ears, if you’ll pardon the pun. Her journey to record and those she works with top it off.

And then of course comes her event production company, Entire Productions, in which she pivoted from music to something that encompasses music as one part of it. There is a good amount of information here, both on its beginnings (one of the best examples of thinking outside the box this reviewer has heard of) and on the runnings for the many years of its existence up to and during the Covid pandemic.

What Relentless is, then, is a tale of remarkable strength and determination in the face of catastrophic issues, and what it does is show what can be done, offers hope to people starting from similar circumstances, and provide what is a very enjoyable story of progress combined with a real grounding in the reality that is often in the background unseen. A lot of people would likely refer to Miller’s successes as ‘so lucky’, a term that all too frequently dismisses effort and time – as this book reminds us, behind success is sheer will and work.

I received this book in preparation for a potential podcast interview, which has gone ahead.

 

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