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Kristin Harmel – The Forest Of Vanishing Stars

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Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-15893-4
First Published: 6th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 10th August 2022

Yona was raised by Jerusza in forests in central and eastern Europe; at twenty, Yona knows how to survive. With war beginning, she comes across a girl in the woods who has been injured; the girl is Jewish and, once better, she leads Yona to her parents, the three of them escapees from a ghetto established by the Nazis. Yona has always been alone and not lived in a society, but this is the start of years spent helping others to survive against the odds.

The Forest Of Vanishing Stars is a wonderfully told story of bravery amongst awful circumstances. Told with care, Harmel presents a story grounded in true history, showing a situation not often covered.

The history is that of over a thousand Jews who survived the war by hiding and learning to live in a forest, people who escaped death and banded together. Harmel takes the concept as her basis and includes the group as reference, creating a different, smaller group effectively led by her fictional resident of the forest, Yona.

It is Yona who makes the fiction. Taken from her German parents by an old woman with a sixth sense who sees a bad future for the then toddler if she’s left there, Yona grows up with an effective mystic who teaches her everything about survival but doesn’t stop her from learning about the outside world, just from living in it. Yona can speak many languages, can read, and knows about religion and history. She also knows how to kill.

This all means that the majority of the book takes place in the forest and Harmel does well in keeping you reading, knowing when to change things up. The fiction she weaves around the history is compelling and, when appropriate, satisfying. And Harmel tells you everything no matter how horrible – this book has one of the worst scenes of death in WW2 books I’ve read so far.

Harmel’s success, then, lies not only in the telling of her story but in the specific choices she makes. There are moments that seem very fictional but you never need to suspend your belief for them to work, however little the odds were of them happening. And the author’s care in itself, as an element on its own even, is also a big reason for the success.

Whilst the plot is inevitably highly important, character development is more so. You see the individuals, always, and you see the very human thoughts and impulses that go on even in survival mode. And again, Harmel’s dedication to her relatively small group of primary characters helps make this novel as good as it is. Whilst things do come to a head at points, and there is some spillover into the wider world, that is still small, and the vast majority of the book concerns the group living away from the war itself, in it but also outside it.

The ending is potentially a surprise depending on your own reading of the book. Either way, it provides a very suitable conclusion to the entirety. There are ‘big’ heroes and ‘small’ heroes and all help the whole.

The Forest Of Vanishing Stars is excellent. It pulls at your emotions, it involves fascinating history, it delivers satisfaction, and it’s written beautifully.

 
Megan Nolan – Acts Of Desperation

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Publisher: Jonathan Cape (PRH)
Pages: 279
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-787-33249-2
First Published: 4th March 2021
Date Reviewed: 21st June 2022

Our unnamed narrator recounts the time of her long-term toxic relationship a short while previously, showing us exactly why things happened and what happened, whether or not she fully understands it yet herself.

Acts Of Desperation is a compelling tale; the plot is scant and not much actually happens, however it is in the telling of the story that the interest lies – Nolan’s writing, both the literal words and the way she imparts meaning and uses subtext to very often show more to the reader than the narrator may even know herself, takes this far beyond the simple plot and character development it has (character development’s scant also) and elevates it to something unique, different, and of page-turning quality.

Others have produced a similar effect before but on a different ‘pathway’; the book that most reminded this reviewer of what she was reading in Nolan’s prose was Rebecca, the comparisons being in the extremely self-minded narrative (I hate to say ‘self-concerned’ because that’s not quite right) and the way the background context is so important. (There are no ‘ghosts’ in Nolan’s book and whilst there’s the equivalent of a first wife, it’s not something to be used in a comparison. Indeed liking the du Maurier is in no way a factor in how much you may or may not enjoy Acts Of Desperation no matter my comparing them.)

The book at hand is, then, the story of a young woman who is obsessed with the initial feelings of falling in love – or what she misinterprets her feelings of addictive ‘romance’ to be – who falls for a toxic older man who she thinks is a catch (unnecessary spoiler alert: he isn’t) and finds herself at the mercy of his whims. The ending that you hope for from very early on is the one Nolan delivers – that the plot is predictable may indeed be part of the author’s point.

On points, the predictability shows that women and people in general are apt to fall for the personality that we see in Ciaran (he is graced with a name when the narrator is not – likely another point), and arguably the biggest point of the novel is to show how often it happens, that it’s understandable, and to present the reasons why young people in particular get caught up in it, as well as showing hope for the future, even if that hope is tempered by the fact that true healing and personal growth away from the mindset that allows that kind of thing to happen (and its been noted many times that women are taught by society to expect certain things for a relationship to be true, so I won’t continue there) can take a while, much like this sentence. The narrator is not a completely new person at the end. She may make mistakes again – it’s likely. But they won’t be the same mistakes and it’s unlikely that she will fall for the same personality in future. We hope.

So our narrator is annoying, childish, ruminating, and utterly hard to enjoy reading about. She’s also someone to root for, understandably immature, and ‘writes’ well enough that you will speed through the book.

Is this story a thinly-veiled memoir? It’s difficult to say that it could be; unlike other novels that are situated in thoughts, there is a study here that suggests a lot of planning and research, a lot of consideration of many stories. It also doesn’t really matter.

The shortness of this review is owing to the plot and character development which, as said, by design is contained. Which is, especially considering a book tends to at least have one or the other if not both, a testament to Nolan’s talent. Is Acts Of Desperation actively enjoyable in that escapist way? No. Is it a stunning example of the literary fiction genre and enjoyable in that vein? Absolutely. This is a particular book for a particular mood and time, and you have to match those correctly. But do that and you’ll have an exceptionally literary experience.

I received this book during the promotion of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

 
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.

 
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.

 

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