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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.

 
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.

 
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.

 
Tracy Rees – Florence Grace + Podcast

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We’re all a bit Dickens here.

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 540
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29617-9
First Published: 30th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 2020
Rating: 5/5

Young Florrie Buckley is employed for an evening to serve at a ball. Whilst there, she catches the eye of a boy around her age and gets him to hide with her; they converse – he’s rich, and, as she comes to find out, a member of the somewhat bizarre Grace family. Florrie returns home but it isn’t long before she is called to join the Graces at their home – she finds out that her mother, who passed away years before, was a member of the family, cast out for marrying a man far below her class. Florrie is compelled to leave everything she knows and join a group of people both revered and thought gauche – the clan want her back.

Florence Grace, Rees’ second novel, is a very enjoyable rags-to-riches-and-perhaps-someone-else tale (I don’t want to spoil it too much) involving a practically Dickensian family and a lot of information on the average person in the Victorian period. Set in the same century as Amy Snow, Florence Grace is nevertheless wholly different from that debut whilst providing the same general reading experience.

There is so much to like about the book – the details of the different ways of living, the difference between classes, society as a whole, childhood; in a way the book is much more about character and place than it is about plot yet the plot emphatically keeps you reading. It’s told in the first person – unsurprisingly Florrie’s point of view – yet it feels like a grand saga. Much like Amy’s story, Florence Grace owes a lot to the classics, though here it’s more about the feel than the voice, and it’s much more Emily than Charlotte.

As a group, the family make for essential reading – you’ll be glad that they are fictional, particularly as the book continues. There are many different sorts amongst them, and Florrie, with her extreme differences, rounds it off really well. Florrie herself remains compelling throughout, a person who is inevitably very worldly wise by the end. The element in her story of homecoming, of finding herself and pushing through, is ever-present. The backdrop of the Cornish moors, described beautifully, is almost a character in itself, and lends itself to a very slight thread of magical realism; this is, of course, where Emily Brontë’s story comes into play.

Unlike that haunting book, however, Florrie’s is a lot more positive. There’s a lot of heartache and hurt but her strength pushes her on. And the ending, which you start to get an idea of as it nears, is both very fitting and somewhat, still, surprising.

This is a long book but it’s worth every page. There is always something going on, always a change of scenery, and the attention to detail in all cases is fantastic. If you’re looking for an epic that sets reality up together with a hint of fantasy, a classic in our present day, this is a brilliant candidate.


Today’s podcast episode is with Peter Ho Davies (The Ugliest House In The World; Equal Love; The Welsh Girl; The Fortunes). Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

We discuss moving as a writer from Britain to the US, Welsh with English as a second language, the first Chinese Americans, Hollywood star Anna May Wong, and the impact – then and now – of the murder of Vincent Chin.

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

 
Tracy Rees – The Hourglass

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Running out of time, or running into it?

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-29626-1
First Published: 4th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd July 2020
Rating: 5/5

Londoner Nora has worked her stable but uninspiring job for ten years; one day she sees in her mind’s eye a beach that she thinks she must have visited at some point… and the experience leads her to quit her job to look for a different life, perhaps in the place where the beach is – Tenby, in Wales. She knows her mother won’t be pleased – Jasmine dislikes Tenby – but ninety-three-year-old Gran will be overjoyed. Interspersed In Nora’s tale is that of young Chloe who lives in Wales in the 1950s and spends three weeks every summer in Tenby, where she looks forward to growing up, attending parties for teenagers and flirting with boys, but what she comes to look forward to most is time with Llew, the younger boy she considers her best friend.

The Hourglass is a tome of a book that looks at formative years of lives, not necessarily youthful years, and relationships and their effects.

This, Rees’ third novel, is absolutely fantastic. It actually includes few things generally seen as negatives – it’s slow, the ‘reveal’ could be called contrived and it’s not exactly shocking or groundbreaking, and the book is very long – but all these things as written by Rees turn the stereotypes on their head. The writing is similar to Rees’ previous books as you might expect, that is to say it’s different again in voice but as strong as ever, and the attention to detail and just, simply, attention to telling a fair story very well, forms the backbone of the success.

At a literal glance the novel is long, and indeed it does take and feel like a lot of time whether you read it over the course of several (or more) days, or just one or two, but once it’s over you’ll wish it took even more time. It is just the right length, the perfect novel to sit down and enjoy, it is the sort of book that completely lives up to the romantic idea of reading a good book outside on a sunny day with a big teapot of tea or large glass of wine. It’s slow in that wonderful way – there’s no quick drive as a reader to get to the end, you want to know what’s happened but you’re happy to go slow and find out whenever the author has decided you should know. And having an idea of the rough trajectory of life for the characters early, by way of their stories, helps you in that.

Given my nod to the stereotype of the perfect read above, it will come as no surprise that the book is beautifully atmospheric. Wales, that place in the UK afforded more rain than the rest, or at least in the public’s perception, is provided with floods of sunshine and a lot of detail both historic and present day (Nora’s story takes place in 2014). The relative slowness of ’50s life compared to now aids the reading experience – whilst Chloe’s perfect days are largely due to her age, nevertheless the qualities ascribed and experienced are a big part too.

Inevitably the hourglass of the story is as much a concept, a symbol, as a real item; the passage of time is one of the book’s themes. The reveal, which could perhaps be considered contrived in a vacuum, aligns itself to the concept to good effect. There is a slight deus ex machima to it on the surface – it’s not something you would have considered – but it makes you think back over everything else you’ve read so far, over Chloe’s wish to be more grown up early, over friendships and the use of time.

Of the book’s dual-plot situation, both stories are good in their own right. There is – of course? – a link, but both florish separately, and it would be difficult to say that either is better – if you like one more that will be down to personal preference. The romantic aspects of the book are also well done and lovely to read.

Two other aspects of especial note: the theme of mother-daughter relationships, more obvious in the present-day than the past though still an aspect of the historical thread; and the time given to the older characters in the novel. The mother-daughter relationship, here a strong bond that has become damaged in a way that needs to be studied by both parties, is a strong part of the story, it’s own thread detached from everything else. In terms of the older characers, Rees’ stories stretch a little beyond the happy-ever-after endings, appropriately giving you more time with all the characters following both your reading/emotional investment and time investment, as well as giving a voice to people who often get overlooked.

The Hourglass is one of those books wherein no words however positive and gushing can truly explain how good and in what manner it is. Suffice it to say that it is perfect, that now, when we could all do with a holiday, is a good time to read it, and that it is worth every moment.

 

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