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Elizabeth Chadwick – Shields Of Pride

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And prejudice.

Publisher: Sphere (Little, Brown)
Pages: 361
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-54027-7
First Published: 1994; re-printed and edited 2007
Date Reviewed: 7th March 2016
Rating: 3/5

Joscelin’s been a mercenary for years but when he gets in a fight with a man who accuses him of trying to carry off his wife, things start to change. The man, now dead, leaves a widow and child and they will need taking care of. And in the background is the conflict between Joscelin and his half-brothers – Joscelin is the child of his father’s other woman – and the fight between the king and his son.

Shields Of Pride is one of Chadwick’s earlier novels, recently reprinted, that deals with completely fictional characters. It’s a fair book but far outmatched by some of her others.

The history is as strong as always; Chadwick’s knack for throwing the reader back in time is just as good here as elsewhere. The details ensure an almost film-like, immersed quality, and the two main characters are stunning. Particularly Joscelin. Chadwick’s hero is fully medieval. Unlike some of her books wherein the hero is a historical dream, inevitably very similar to her other historical dream heroes, and sometimes a little too modern in sensibility, Joscelin is simply a medieval man. He’ll fight to the death, no holds barred and in anger, then kiss his wife who, similarly unaffected by any misplaced modernity, doesn’t comment on the fight and happily follows him to bed. If it feels like the book lacks any nicety, it’s for good reason.

Not so good is the plot. One could say there isn’t a plot, just a scene, a man who takes to wife the woman whose husband he killed, and their resulting average life together; indeed if that were it it would be fine – and it is for a good chunk of pages. What happens, then, is that the story begins to drag and continues to drag until the end. Unnecessary minor conflicts are conveniently added to, it can only be assumed, lengthen it. (The book would have made a lovely novella.) Fights happen then life happens then fight happens and rinse, repeat; you can see the conflicts coming a mile off. Each battle is meticulously detailed but as you know who is going to win you could skip them if you wanted to. It’s hard to say there’s a climax because the end of the book is a lot weaker than the middle.

Amongst this is the family set-up: Joscelin is the lauded, loved, out-of-wedlock oldest son whose father treats his wife and younger sons badly. The initial introduction works – you’re introduced to the hurt wife who had to live in the footsteps of the other woman (who lived with them) and the official heirs who are constantly criticised because their mother was married out of duty and isn’t loved. The thing here is that these people are rightly angry and it’s well established that they have reason, but as the book carries on they are written more and more as crazy bad guys who are too hateful and as much as one might agree that they shouldn’t blame the messenger for the faults of the sender it all becomes a bit too hubble bubble toil and trouble, and a bit too good versus evil. Add to this the young-skinny-woman and older-large-woman divide and the release date shows.

Where Shields Of Pride works, then, is in the afore-mentioned factual hero and the history. It works as a generally upbeat, escapist read, that doesn’t demand anything of you, but shouldn’t be picked instead of others.

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Bernhard Schlink – The Reader

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War comes with a price.

Publisher: Phoenix (Orion)
Pages: 216
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-753-80470-4
First Published: 1995
Date Reviewed: 23rd August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Vorleser (The Reader)
Translated by: Carol Brown Janeway

At the age of fifteen, Michael has an affair with an older woman. Hanna entices him but he notes the distance she keeps between them, the way she avoids discussing her past. A few years later, whilst studying law, Michael sits in on the trial of several women who were guards in the SS. Amongst them is Hanna.

The Reader is a fantastic book. It’s compelling, informative, and quite moving, too.

Let’s start with the history the novel is based on: Schlink introduces the reader to the way war crimes of Germans were dealt with by the German courts. You get to see the views of the everyday people of their history and the characters run the gambit – people want justice, children dislike their parents even if the parents didn’t play a role (they dislike them for not fighting against the Nazis), and then you’ve Michael who doesn’t defend the war in any sense but looks at those who participated (via Hanna) in an objective light.

Of course whether or not it’s truly objective, so to speak, is down to the reader. Because the personality and personal history of Hanna is so intrinsic to who she is at the trial, and because of the affair, it could be inferred that Michael is biased towards her somewhat. He doesn’t believe she’s innocent – she’s not – but he looks at her in light of her choices, the reasons for them. (‘No, Hanna had not decided in favour of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and had fallen into a job as a guard.’) Schlink, through Michael, then, doesn’t just question Hanna’s involvement in the war, he questions her choices away from it. He questions her as a person, questions the decisions she makes. Hanna is all about honesty when it comes to the trial – whilst the other women lie, she simply affirms or denies. Michael sees in her behaviour someone who knows this is what should happen. Where personality is involved we see the affect illiteracy has on Hanna’s answers. Beyond all else, it seems to Michael, is Hanna’s worry of being exposed as illiterate. Keeping hidden her lack of education, in a place where being able to read and write was is, is more important than avoiding jail.

This is where the idea of ‘the reader’ takes to the stage; this book is about far more, literary-wise, than Michael’s reading aloud in the bedroom. Michael realises that far from making the noted weak women of the concentration camps become her slaves, Hanna’s assigning them to read to her is an attempt to make comfortable what little time they have left. Although she later learns to read and write, Hanna is very much a reader.

In the subtext there is a question: is Hanna selfish? She provides money for a survivor to give to charities – in her, Hanna’s, name. She takes Michael to bed though he is underage and she affectively on the run. She gets those bound for the gas chambers to read to her. Are these displays of selfish or unselfish behaviour?

Both Hanna and Michael take control. Hanna controls Michael in the bedroom – not literally, but in experience – and Michael later controls their contact when she’s in jail. Michael uses Hanna’s imprisonment to atone for his guilt but only so much – he records himself narrating fiction but never goes to visit her. He exploits the literal and emotional distance between them.

Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance… How could we meet face to face without everything that had happened between us coming to the surface?

Michael liked the idea of Hanna and the teenage view of perfect love he had, he doesn’t want to spoil it; he doesn’t want to grow up, in fact – every woman he is with in his life is compared to Hanna. And he doesn’t want to face what’s happened. When Hanna leaves Michael, the reader will note she’s (finally) doing the right thing by him, taking her past with her, letting him be a child again and not rolled up in the affects of war, but of course he doesn’t see that himself.

This book isn’t atoning for involvement; it is the case that it shows how people could be pulled in – by the promise of more pay, for example – because as we know that’s a lot of what it was. We can compare Schlink’s writing of the events of WWII with Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française: Némirovsky wrote of the war whilst she was living it as a person of Jewish heritage hiding from the Nazis. Both Schlink and Némirovsky show the human side of the Nazi party, or, rather, the human side to those who were at the bottom, the low-ranking soldiers who did what they were told to do, or at the very least did what they felt they had to do. Of course in Némirovsky’s case this is more profound, she’s giving a voice to fictional versions of the people who were hunting her down as she wrote, but both Némirovsky and Schlink write in such a way that asks for thought, does not suggest forgiveness nor ask for it.

It’s almost too obvious to state, but there is a lot of information about Auschwitz in The Reader, and about the role of women in the SS. The books ends in a way you may feel it ‘ought’ whilst showing there are far more reasons behind it than the ones on the surface.

A brief word on the writing – beautiful. Simple, to the point, and full of sub-textual imagery. The words may technically be Janeway’s but Schlink’s prose seeps through.

The Reader is a book of great magnitude. The potential for impact is high, the content hard to read but invaluable, the journey sad but necessary. It is a book for everyone.

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Elizabeth Chadwick – The Leopard Unleashed

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A leopard can/can’t change its spots – delete as applicable.

Publisher: Sphere (Little Brown)
Pages: 376
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-54136-6
First published: 1992
Date Reviewed: 28th September 2014
Rating: 4/5

Renard has been in Antioch for a good few years, and as those years draw to an end he meets Olwen. He’s had dancing girls before, but Olwen sets him on fire and when she tells him she’s pregnant and needs to return with him, he allows it as his betrothed at home does not interest him. But Olwen’s after power as always, and when Renard finds he does like Elene, she moves on to his rival – a man who wants Renard’s lands far more than he wants to fight in the war between Stephen and Matilda.

The Leopard Unleashed is a solid offering from Chadwick, the last of her purely fictional works (the others being The Wild Hunt and The Running Vixen) with a story that may not have you staying up all night but will definitely have you reading until the end.

The editing isn’t so good; there are the usual errors and the usual sudden leaps in time that can be disappointing, however in this case they are particularly disappointing because they come at times such as a major disagreement or where an illustration of chemistry is needed. Instead of a continuation the issues are worked out off the page with simply a sentence or two to summarise and whilst in the case of Renard and Olwen’s affair it later makes sense, other times it does not.

This said the structure of the story overall is good. This book is one in which Chadwick concludes the story at the end of the story (sometimes books are continued passed their natural conclusion) and the balance between war and romance works well. Whilst Chadwick writes excellent scenes in the bedroom that for the most part further the development of the characters, The Leopard Unleashed contains few but still manages to show the characters well. The book is shorter for it, and it could be said that the structure is better, too. The book is certainly a romance but the rivalry strong. This doesn’t mean everything is clear, however – you will need to keep your wits about you as you read, not only because there are a few names repeated but because there are a few battles fought, numerous occasions where the men are waiting for war or entrenched in war, and there are various reasons for all of them. Indeed Chadwick’s book offers the reader a good reminder that whilst the royals might have been fighting for the kingdom, and their subjects chose sides and fought with them, as always local feuds can be more important.

As always, as expected, the characters are extremely well written and development. If Chadwick wants you to feel for a character you will, and she provides enough narrative for the rivals that whilst you won’t be able to say they are particularly good people, you can see how with a simple switch of view, the story could just as well have been able them. Chadwick suggests who is good and who is bad, but reminds you that it’s not quite as simple as that when heritage, proclamations, and royalty are concerned. Also as expected, the chemistry is excellent, the dialogue fun, informative, and believable, and the historical details abundant. Being about a fictional family, you know much of the history is made up, simply woven into the factual history, but (or ‘and’, depending on your thoughts) it doesn’t matter a jot.

The book may not be thrilling as, for example, the later Lords Of The White Castle that aimed for the reader to be riding full pelt with the horses, but there is a whole lot to like in The Leopard Unleashed.

Yet despite the pace still, when unleashed, the leopard bites, and feel free to read into this statement both the expected might of war and innuendo because both are intended. It’s not going to be your favourite Chadwick, but you’re going to have a whale of a time regardless, forget the fact that there are no whales in the book.

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Philip Pullman – The Broken Bridge

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Who am I? Who are you? Do we care?

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 295
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-330-39797-1
First Published: 1990
Date Reviewed: 14th August 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Ginny’s not really sure whether or not she fits in. At sixteen, she’s happy in Wales, has a great relationship with her devoted father, and a fair few friends. But being one of only two black people in her town, she doesn’t feel quite… right. Okay, so she’s not completely black, unlike Andy, because her father is white, but when her skin colour is added to her artistic nature the question of who she is starts to become more prevalent. Yet suddenly this isn’t so important. Her father’s about to bring an unknown brother home. If he’s never told her she has a brother, what else is he hiding, and if she was wondering where she fit in before, where does this leave her now?

The Broken Bridge is a fantastic little novel that, although a YA book, has just as much if not more to offer the adult reader. I’ve read it three times now – as a child, as a teenager, and just yesterday, and each experience has been very different, but this last time had the most impact on me.

Perhaps it’s to do with the book’s age – as in all Pullman’s books, the content is not censored and real issues are confronted, and in the 90s when subjects such as homosexuality and racial diversity weren’t discussed quite so openly, and given that The Broken Bridge was written for teenagers, it is somewhat ahead of its time, or at least it feels as though it is. This is a major reason why I say it offers a lot to adult readers.

The story revolves around the theme of identity. Racial identity, familial identity, identity in the world in the long term. Pullman effectively pits one after the other, showing that everything is just as important – Ginny feeling happy in herself is important, but here’s her brother and her identity in this new set-up is just as important, and hey, look, here are a bunch of questions about her mother and where all her memories of her childhood stem from and what impact do these have on her?

There is the furthering of the theme beyond Ginny, and it touches on her brother, father, and in a rather compelling way her mother, too, but the main focus of course remains on Ginny as she makes mistakes, makes rash but good decisions, and works out who and what she is.

Pullman asks us to consider what makes a family and what is and isn’t ‘right’ in this context. He sets some difficult challenges for the reader – reunions that do not go the way you would expect them to and for their subject are very hard to read, relationships that are full of angst. He challenges the status quo almost to excess when you consider the book as a whole. But it’s a good excess. And, anyway, what is family and what is important? Almost everyone in the book lies somewhat or keeps the truth hidden, but Pullman does let go at the end, explaining everything. It’s particularly unsavoury but a good look at how people view independence differently, and how others can view dependence and routine as important.

And, somewhat obviously, the author takes time to look at racism. He shows how it isn’t always in your face, so to speak, how it can be quiet, how it can be worse depending on the situation, and how sometimes it can be part of a bigger burst of anger.

Lastly, if you are an artist or lover of art, of any kind – not just painting or drawing – you will love the detailing in this book. Pullman doesn’t just inform you about the great artists and about good paintings, he brings to mind the utter pleasure and passion that comes with working out what another is saying through their art, and the sparks, the love, that creators and enthusiasts feel.

The Broken Bridge is one you don’t want to miss. My copy, at least, looks to be very much a children’s book, and as Pullman’s writing is at times quite literary and of that earlier decade, you would be forgiven for starting it and wondering if it’s going to be a satisfying read. But it is, so much.

Mend this bridge – read this book.

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Hanne Ørstavik – The Blue Room

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Don’t move – not because you can’t, but because you fear doing so.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 164
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67015-1
First Published: 1999 in Norwegian; 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 8th June 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Like Sant som jeg er Virkelig (As True as I Really Am)
Translated by: Deborah Dawkin

Johanne can’t leave her room. She’s woken up on the day she’s set to fly to America with Ivar and her door is jammed, or locked. She could call to someone from the window, or she could wait for her mother to return to the apartment. Whilst trapped she ruminates over recent events, on her relationship, and on her mother. Has Unni locked her in? If she has, Johanne can understand why.

The Blue Room, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is a short, little-action story of fear, manipulation, and what you as the reader will recognise as decisions that have the potential to lead to regret. It is often confusing because of the sudden changes in time and place, but this matches Johanne’s mind and the way we flit from subject to subject when there is nothing to do but think.

At the heart of the story is the manipulation and control you see (or think you can see), the mother exerting over her daughter, and the way Johanne’s relationship with her parents has made her, Johanne, prefer routine and the safety of home over anything that little bit different. Even if the fun in difference is to her liking. This isn’t to say that Johanne gives up straight away each time, because sometimes she doesn’t – note that ‘sometimes’ – but when it really, really matters, when it’s the equivalent of reaching the last rung on the ladder, she ultimately gives in. Gives in, not gives up.

What’s interesting about Unni’s (the mother) control is that you are never quite sure whether she is manipulative or whether it’s the case that Johanne is holding herself back. This is one of the best elements of the book because Ørstavik keeps the whole truth from you by way of the first-person narration. Maybe it’s the effect of many unreliable narrators in the past – perhaps if this is your very first first-person book you’ll see through the clever storytelling and structure – but the conditioning that you have, your experience of unreliable narrators means that Ørstavik can play games with you. Is Johanne thinking too much? Obviously she is in some respects – her innocent relaying of Ivar’s response to the things she says shows she thinks too much sometimes – but when it comes to Unni, you’ll think you have it worked out only to be thrown back into confusion.

For a time. There comes a point when the answer is undeniable, and yet even then perhaps there is something ‘off’. As you go about trying to work it all out, trying to work out whether Johanne is locked in or whether she hasn’t tried enough or isn’t bothered enough about leaving, you are effectively introduced to the mistrust that can accompany a victim’s account of their troubles.

In Johanne’s memories, and once you’re back to the present for good, and the dialogue between the two, Unni says some strange, some bad things. She suggests, in a passive-aggressive manner that Johanne is deaf to, that Johanne dump a nice boyfriend. Or does she see something in Ivar that Johanne has missed? It is obvious that The Barns, the housing development the family will build (‘with what money?’ is an assuming but obvious question here) sometime in the distant future, is both a lie to keep Johanne at home and a reason for Johanne to want to forgo any attempt to better her life. Why have a boyfriend and live independently when you’ll be able to live with your mother in a nice house with your brother (who’s no longer there), setting up your business there and thus never needing to leave?

It’s worth noting that some things Unni remarks upon would be simply laughed at or ignored by most people. This is a prime point to the debate over Johanne’s decisions (she thinks up some peculiar ideas that seem not to be influenced by anything). We wonder – we mistrust again.

Whether or not Unni is to blame (in a big way – we could never rule her influence out completely) for the following, Johanne has a fear of difference, of the unknown. It’s worth considering that if Unni has locked the door, then this is Johanne’s strongest effort to leave so far. If Unni’s locked her in, she must feel as if Johanne is slipping from her grasp. It’s the same with Johanne’s self-worth. There is a punishment and reward system at work, both solely resting with Johanne, and at the behest of Unni.

There are the erotic, perverted, thoughts. The blurb of the book speaks of our erotic fantasies being influenced by our parents and as you read on you see how Johanne’s arousal from horrible ideas has happened. Johanne doesn’t want to be in those situations, she apologises to God and worries about it all the time (Johanne’s faith in God itself is seemingly her choice but possibly furthered by those she knows).

It sounds like Johanne’s brother doesn’t see his mother any more, or at the most he’s got away from the family and is in America. If we consider this and Johanne’s chance to spend time in that country, then perhaps Ørstavik is using the ideals about America, the land and the freedom. There is nothing wrong with Oslo – unless your name is Johanne. And if your name is Johanne then every reader will be rooting for you no matter what they think about you.

Is Johanne held back? Is she too like her mother? Will she just repeat the cycle and not break it?

Johanne has a chance to get away, even if she misses this opportunity, even if she loses Ivar. She needs you to support her, and the best way you can do that is to read The Blue Room.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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