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

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Solving the mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 
Christina Courtenay – The Runes Of Destiny + Podcast

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Falling back in time for a journey.

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 352
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-26824-2
First Published: 10th December 2020
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Mia and Haakon’s daughter, Linnea, is working on an archaeological dig when she finds a Viking-era brooch in the soil. Pricking herself on the pin, she suffers a fall and when she wakes up a bunch of re-enacters are shouting at her. Their use of Old Norse is particularly good, and the dig tents are all gone, but this has to be a joke, right? As the men take her captive and she joins a group of them in a journey across the seas towards Byzantine Istanbul she has to come to accept what has happened and find a way both to live with what’s going on and find her way back. The presence of the group’s handsome second in command, Hrafn, may make this more difficult.

The Runes Of Destiny is the continuation, the second innings, of a family saga that started with Echoes Of The Runes. Taking the series beyond slight time-slip and comparative lives towards complete time travel, the book successfully moves the story up a notch.

The narrative and general approach is far greater this time around. If we consider for the purposes of comparison that the first book featured a simple plot and was heavier on characterisation, then The Runes Of Destiny, as much as it is about characters too – it’s a romance after all – is all about the plot. Greater too is the world building, where the Viking period and, most particularly the ninth century Istanbul the story takes you to, is fully detailed and explored.

The beginning stages of Linnea’s time with the Vikings once the initial time travelling has occurred are dealt with well. With her academic background, Linnea’s acceptance of what has happened to her is no sure thing; it takes her a fair few pages before she comes to seriously consider time travel as a possibility. On paper, then, it seems a long time but in terms of the actual passage of days and weeks, it’s not so much. Certainly it’s easier for the reader to acknowledge the change in the location than it is Linnea.

Linnea herself can take a bit of getting used to; when her acceptance level is minimal she sees everything in a negative light and somewhat understandably views most people she comes across unfavorably. As an example she hates Hrafn’s aunt, and whilst the aunt certainly isn’t the most accepting person herself, Linnea lacks the capacity to see herself and the twenty-first century clothes she turned up in in the way they might be viewed in the ninth century, by people already inclined to treat her as a person they’ve captured. Once receptive to the situation, Linnea is far easier to get along with as a reader.

You also get to look at the question of whether a time traveller – should they exist – ought to be allowed to change history or not. Courtenay looks at the smaller elements of life – Linnea’s wish to introduce the faster and more efficient art of knitting to women who are nalbinding.

On the other women in the story, mostly three fellow thralls and the thrall/mistress of the Jarl, there is a good amount of time spent. Linnea doesn’t always think very much of them in terms of time – she is for the most part focused on getting back to the time of chocolate and hospitals – but the time she does spend, and Courtenay’s added information, makes for a decent overview of life for women in their situation. There is a person among them who teeters on the edge of villainy, whilst also being in a vulnerable position, who doesn’t get as much time in terms of time spent with the others, but her position is considered by the narrative as a whole. Hrafn, the Viking, is likeable and well set in his time, with Courtenay paying a nod both to the factual history we know and the difference in personalities that would afford him to be more willing to accept Linnea’s experiences (the author gives a fair amount of time to his disavowing of Linnea’s story of being from the future).

The best part of the book in terms of reader escapism and expectation is arguably the time travel aspect. This takes you both back to the past and forward to our modern day, with both main characters gaining insight into the other’s life. For all our own thoughts might be to do the travelling ourselves, it’s perhaps Hrafn’s glimpse of the future which is the most anticipated element of the story.

The Runes Of Destiny takes an established story and runs with it. It improves on its earlier foundations and then adds bells and whistles to it at least a couple of times over, building further and further on a solid idea.


Charlie and Christina Courtenay (Echoes Of The Runes; The Runes Of Destiny) discuss what the Vikings were really like, time travellers’ historical partners travelling back with them, and predictability and coincidence as plot devices.

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

 
Zen Cho – Black Water Sister

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Dark and muddy, but sometimes light and clear.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 367
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-509-80000-1
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Jess has moved ‘back’ to Malaysia from America with her parents; they are staying with relatives whilst they get on their feet. It’s difficult for Jess; not only does she not have the best grasp of Hokkien, she’s also got to manage to keep in touch with her girlfriend, Sharanya, back in America, without her parents knowing, and she’s got to decide where to find a job – in Singapore with Sharanya, who is moving for university, or in Penang where she, Jess, is now? It’s more than enough to deal with, but the voice of her dead maternal grandmother, who she never knew, has invaded her head, and Jess doesn’t know how to broach the subject with anyone, let alone get the lady out. And when it becomes clear that Ah Ma’s not going anywhere whilst Jess is there to help her with an old feud, and possibly to intercede with a goddess – or just let spirits take over her body so they can do it themselves – Jess has to face up to her unreal reality and go with it.

Black Water Sister is a low fantasy novel about ghosts and gods set in the reality of our present-day world. It is both incredibly funny and rather deep, issuing lighter moments and times of reflection and strength.

Let’s look at the comedy first because whilst it’s a mainstay of the book, it shouldn’t be the final thought where the topics are concerned. Black Water Sister is laugh-out-loud, the sort of humour I can only describe as very British, and this is because the best comparison is with the BBC series Ghosts. Ergo, if you like Ghosts, you’ll like Cho’s book. It’s got that same atmosphere of spirits and a person who doesn’t want to know they exist and would prefer they not exist, which as time goes on progresses to acceptance. The location is different, the situation is different, but the wit and sense of humour is incredibly similar. (And describing it as Very British, that does also mean that if you like British sitcoms in general you’ll most likely like it to.) It should be noted here that I’m aware the main character is Malaysian American and the book is set in Malaysia – the humour, to the best of my knowledge, fits those places too.

In Jess, Cho has created a wonderful character who slowly comes to find herself and flourish whilst giving herself up to the requirements placed upon her by others, both alive and dead (though in general, mainly those dead). As much as there is a plot, it’d be hard not to say that Jess’ development is not the most important aspect of the book, the way she deals with her worries about coming out to her family, about her ongoing relationship with a woman, about her need for a job and a decision on where that job should be. Cho’s focus on everyday worries is one of the book’s strengths – where Jess needs to become stronger in herself and effectively does so in part by becoming inhumanly strong due to her time with Ah Ma and the goddess, you might be forgiven for forgetting the very real anxieties and coming-of-age struggles that the book is grounded in.

Jess is the main character here but hot on her heels – generally literally, albeit in wisps rather than real shoes – is Ah Ma, her grandmother, who she has only now met since the lady passed on. (Never say Ah Ma has passed on – she has very much not.) Cho has created the quintessential grandmother and granddaughter relationship where the two generations are so different and struggle to understand each other, using stereotypes both global and culture-specific to both humorous and poignant success.

And to go back to the inhuman strength Jess gains – sometimes (it becomes more about Jess as she becomes stronger and less prepared to give her physical self over to the ghostly) we move to look more at the three ‘main women’ in the book in a way that’s more of a study of female empowerment and agency both generally and down the ages, with the Black Water Sister – the goddess herself – focusing on the violence she suffered in life and at the moment of her death. There are moments of both literal and metaphorical poignancy.

Religion, and religious and cultural superstition, are strong in this book, and cover a few different countries and religions, with traditional Chinese beliefs mixed with Christianity to interesting and humorous effect. (Jess’ auntie’s focus on getting out a crucifix in the face of an angry Chinese goddess at her window is a highlight.) I note this to say that the book will interest people of faith (any) and none, Cho achieving a perfect balance between respect and humour.

Black Water Sister is a ride, a riot, and a pause. It’s incredibly unique whilst having echoes of other stories, and is a perfect candidate for any forum thread called ‘books you think about long after you’ve finished them’. Simple plot; tons going on.

I received this book for review. The book is out today.

 
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.

 
Roselle Lim – Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop + Podcast

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Reading tea leaves. Rewriting destinies.

Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-984-80327-6
First Published: 4th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Like Aunt Evelyn, Vanessa can predict people’s futures, only – unlike Evelyn – she does not appreciate the ability as it takes her over and she is forced to speak the prediction aloud. This has only ever led to people running away, predicting bad news too often, and all-consuming headaches. Now grown up and wanting a better life than the one she’s living, and hoping for love beyond the odds (fortune tellers do not have long-term romance in their destinies), Vanessa agrees to spend a couple of weeks in Paris with her aunt as Evelyn opens her tea shop, to try to tame her talent into something more bearable. Paris is the city of love, and Vanessa finds her match, but she knows better than to hope for more than a few days, just like her Aunt whose own love life has been troubled.

This book could be received in two ways; for my British readers, this book is like Marmite if liking or disliking Marmite involved the ability to make an active decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Ergo, then, if picked up with an idea for a ‘normal’ book with some fun and travels in it, Lim’s latest is likely to be a disappointment. In this context, the book could be called lacking true conflict, too nice, and rather odd.

And I want to say that and have chosen those words precisely because this review will not be looking at Lim’s book from that point of view. This is because, if picked up as an escape, with a view for fun and a much happier, colourful, version of the world – Paris, here, particularly, of course – where people largely get on (and when they don’t, it’s fixable) are successful, and where magical things happen (more magical realism than outright fantasy), then Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is an utter delight.

So, like the situation with Marmite if we had something of a decision in the way we respond to it.

All this to say, perhaps, that this is a (‘the’, actually, I’d say) book to pick up when you’re wrapped up in blankets, it’s pouring with rain outside, and you want something that will make you feel good, euphoric even. (It’ll also work in the summer, more as a shady-under-the-tree or after the picnic rather than a beach read.) This book makes you feel… awesome. There is a special something about it that lifts off the page and envelopes you in goodness, even when Vanessa’s struggling.

Vanessa’s character progression is important; she narrates and her character is well-formed, however beyond her the most important elements are the atmosphere, the location, and the art. (The other characters do take a back seat in this way.) Lim’s use of Paris combines the better parts of the stereotype with the sorts of specific details that get left out of the stereotype – Paris is the city of love and happiness… and of these specific works of art that you’ll not find mentioned online quite so much. This is mostly thanks to Vanessa’s artistic nature – she stands and looks at things, and then sits down to memorialise them on paper.

Needless to say, the details inherent in creating art form a large part of the book. Another aspect that is used similarly is food, though this can be diverting. Food – the eating and description of it, formed much of Lim’s previous work, Natalie Tan’s Book Of Luck and Fortune, and the character was a chef. Vanessa, whilst her family is similar in this way, is not, and so it doesn’t work quite so well as the art – the narrative effectively pauses during meals, but it does pick right back up again following their conclusion.

So, as said, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is a pick-me-up, a magical story that is pretty impossible not to enjoy for the brightness it brings with it. Whilst you will remember the plot, it’s the value of the atmosphere, the use of location, and the symbolism of the magical realism elements Lim uses that will etch itself most into your memory – with its goodness and uniqueness, it would be difficult to forget the effect this book has on you, and quite possibly difficult not to want to keep it to hand.

I received this book for review.


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

Charlie and Tammye Huf (A More Perfect Union) discuss her great-great-grandparents’ relationship as an 1840s Irishman and a Black American slave, the way owners used Christianity to support their views of a racial hierarchy, and the lengths reached in order to label people by skin colour.

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

 

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