“But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness.” My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
I don’t get as much time to read as I used to (and even less time to write blog posts that do more than scratch the surface of books) but I was determined to read My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier before the Roger Michell directed film version starring Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz hit the cinemas, or at least before going to see it.
For readers who first encountered Daphne du Maurier through her most famous novel Rebecca and have loved her works ever since, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t disappoint, offering the same rugged Cornish landscape, with a plot featuring stately piles, mystery, romance and intrigue which keeps twisting and turning to the very end.
In My Cousin Rachel, Philip Ashley takes on the role of naïve narrator, whose comfortable existence is rocked when his beloved cousin Ambrose Ashley dies abroad, shortly after his marriage to Philip’s mysterious cousin Rachel. The official verdict is that Ambrose has died of a fever, which was further complicated by a brain tumour that lead to violent delusions, but Philip believes that there is some truth to the letter Ambrose has sent him begging for help and suggesting that his wife has poisoned him. Philip vows revenge upon Rachel, and soon has this in his sights when she arrives at his house to return Ambrose’s belongings. But Rachel is every bit as charming as Ambrose made out, and despite his suspicions, Philip finds himself increasingly drawn to the attractive widow.
Though My Cousin Rachel has a huge amount to recommend it, what stands out for me is the psychological complexity of the novel. Despite being the titular character, Rachel remains something of an enigmatic figure, in part a vulnerable woman living at the mercy of her erratic relative, in part a woman with huge power to entice, heal and potentially destroy, we receive almost all of her history and description through other characters which means her actions can never receive a straightforward interpretation. Philip’s progression from his self-perception as something of a man of the world who has modelled himself on his idol, sees him move from outright misogyny to falling into a deep obsession, acting out an Oedipal complex with his father figure’s widow who oscillates wildly between being an object of desire and a symbol of destruction in his mind.
It’s enough to make you want to go on a Daphne du Maurier binge all summer. And I’m going to Cornwall soon… as to whether Rachel is guilty or innocent, I’m keeping spoilers out for my review for those who have yet to read it, but let’s discuss in the comments!
I’ve been finding it difficult to get drawn into novels recently. You know the kind of thing, you’re busy with work and life, so when you do get the time to read you’re so tired that your brain doesn’t really engage enough to full commit to the world of the novel.
But every so often, something comes along which really hooks you, so you forget about that. The kind of book where you go and have a lie down with a low level headache when the baby’s gone to bed at seven, start reading the first chapter, and before you know it, it’s two in the morning and you just have to finish the last chapter even though you know you need to be up at half past five. Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig was that book for me this week.
The novel opens with fourteen year old Ginny, an autistic girl who is living with her Forever Parents having been removed from the care of her unreliable, drug addict mother, looking aft er one of those electronic plastic babies they give teenagers to give them a better understanding of what an unplanned pregnancy can do to your quality of sleep. She’s tried rocking it, shushing it, letting it suck her finger, but it just keeps crying. And it reminds her of her Baby Doll, the real one, which she left in a suitcase at her mother’s apartment when the police came to remove her into care.
People will inevitably compare Ginny Moon to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but for me, Ginny Moon was actually a far more gripping read, the kind of gripping where someone has hold of your intestines and every now and again gives them a little twist to make sure that you’re paying attention. With respect to Mark Haddon, it might be the benefit of fourteen years life experience and having worked with autistic children since I read The Curious Incident… and it might be having a child of my own, but I really felt that in Ginny Moon the author Benjamin Ludwig had crafted something much more involving.
I don’t want to give too much away, because I would highly recommend that you read this, and that you do so without spoilers, but I felt like I was being dragged along through Ginny’s story, seeing all of the pieces fitting together from the information that Ginny was unable to communicate to her Forever Parents and therapist because they were unable to fully appreciate that what she was saying was true, and becoming more and more horrified by the potential situations that I anticipated playing out but that Ginny was partially blind to because of her all-consuming fixation on her Baby Doll. I found myself simultaneously feeling an immense like for characters for the way they behaved towards Ginny, and a total empathy and pity because who could honestly say they would have been able to behave differently?
I was one chapter from the end of Ginny Moon when my nearly-two year old woke up. I went in to her room, picked her up and cuddled her back to sleep all the while thinking how lucky we are. A real privilege checker of a book.
“As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick.”
The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan
At the opening of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, fifteen year old Anais Hendricks, the anti-hero of the piece, is sitting hand cuffed in the back of a police car being transferred to The Panopticon a children’s unit with a watchtower that forces its residents to live under constant observation. She has blood on her school uniform, and a police woman is lying in a coma that she is unlikely to come out of.
The opening of the novel, coupled with the fact that Anais is feisty, intelligent and stylish, seemingly possessed of a six sense which allows her to see to the very core of people, could make this sound like a middle of the road, young adult dystopian novel. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because beneath her tough exterior, Anais is incredibly vulnerable, a teenage girl for whom the label at risk might have been invented- in the grip of delusions fuelled by narcotic psychosis or untreated borderline personality disorder, she has been exploited or failed by most of the adults she has encountered in her short life. This is not a novel which uses a dystopia as a smoke screen for real world issues, this is a novel about real world issues which hammers home the appalling ways that the most vulnerable members of society are so often failed and demonized.
Jenni Fagan’s writing is like slam poetry, the perfect words chosen with flair that punches you in the guts. Her characterisation is exemplary and nothing I can say will do it justice, so what I will say is that The Panopticon is a novel which probably needs a thousand trigger warnings, but I would recommend that everyone reads it.
When Anne Morgan’s restaurateur boyfriend and boss begins an affair with an investor’s daughter, Anne becomes obsessed with lifestyle guru Emma Helmsley whose Marie Kondo-style lifestyle tips promise to bring order to her newly chaotic existence. And it isn’t too long before she sends a speculative application to be Emma’s housekeeper, so that she can be closer to the lives of Emma and her perfect family.
I’m normally not a fan of books without likeable characters to get behind, but in this single white female with a twist novel, Suellen Dainty has gotten it to work to make The Housekeeper an entertaining story of memory, abuse and betrayal.
Only kidding. I knew it was World Book Day, just about. I remembered the day before it when the a sign on the nursery door reminded me that children were meant to come in dressed up as their favourite book character. This post is late because I’m too tired to blog any more.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried talking to a toddler about who their favourite book character is, but even a relatively verbose twenty month old can be quite evasive on the subject. Throw in the need to cobble together at short notice a costume that won’t be torn off in a fit of pique and you face a challenge.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Peter Rabbit… or at least, bunny ears and a blue jacket.
The costume is, admittedly, not great but I had to admire the spirit in which she wore it. She strutted into nursery and glared at anyone who dared to call her Phoebe. As soon as they called her Peter, she hopped quite happily around the room and settled down quite happily for a snack.
As for me, I’m joining the ranks of parents not quite sure why World Book Day seems to be about dressing up and not, say, reading a book.
I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the Tudor dynasty, and Catherine Parr as the surviving wife of Henry VIII always fascinated me, how do you follow up marrying one of the greatest tyrants in history? Falling in love with and marrying an equally questionable man (see the rumours around Thomas Seymour’s relationship with his stepdaughter on Katherine Parr’s watch) before dying shortly after giving birth to your sole child. Tragic. And what happened to Mary Seymour, the baby who survived? She disappears from history. And that’s where Nicola Cornick’s latest novel The Phantom Tree comes in.
“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”
Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.
The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.
But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…
Part timeslip, part romance, part mystery, part ghost story The Phantom Tree follows the dual narrative of Mary Seymour in Tudor England, and Alison Bannister in (mostly) modern England. Alison, trapped in the 21st century, desperately searches for clues left as to the whereabouts of her lost son by her sometime enemy, Mary, who in turn struggles to carve a life for herself in a land where her mysterious visions have lead to accusations of witchcraft while still making time to fall recklessly in “love”.
I appreciate that this sounds like a jumble sale of genres, but for me it worked. Especially the witchcraft element of the story and the way that this played out with the mysterious Darrell, though I have to admit a part of me found the story of the lost child really challenging. When the novel had finished, I thought that it was really nicely handled, but I think that this might be a challenging read for anyone who has been separated from a baby.
The feminist slant on life in Tudor England was very welcome, and I thought that the character progression of Alison throughout the novel was really well handled. I wasn’t wholly sold on Mary’s transition from a wise imp of a child to a would be Juliet surrendering much of her integrity to the first good-looking man who pays attention to her, but hey, we all did silly things as teenagers and the story had gained enough momentum to carry me through- though I would have liked to see more time and attention giving to the riddle of Alison’s sewing box.
Something that I found really interesting was the use of historical and fictional characters, in as much as I wondered why the author had decided to create a fictional version of the historical Wild William Darrell in Will Fenner. I assume it was because of the misdeeds of the characters associated with the family in the book- one of which was clearly forewarned in the earlier part of the novel and one of which really took me by surprise- and concerns about how their descendants might react to the artistic license taken with the story, or perhaps out of respect to the memory of the individuals in question. Either way, very interesting, and I’d love to pick the authors brains about it.
In summary, it’s an interesting read, and another instance of Nicola Cornick putting her own spin on history to create an enjoyable yarn. It would make a great summer read…summer, it is coming.
I’ve written this post as a part of Midas’ The Phantom Tree Blog Tour. Please visit some of the other blogs involved to see what their reviewers thought.
The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Having won the enduring love of the majority of her people, but stirred up a hornets nest by stopping the shipment of Tear slaves to neighbouring Mortmesne, Kelsea Glynn finds her kingdom on the verge of invasion by a vastly superior force. With guerrilla warfare tactics only able to stall the inevitable defeat of the Tear, the Red Queen’s Dark Thing taking an unhealthy interest in her, and her nobles and the Church agitating at home, Kelsea is in need of a miracle. But her sapphires are silent, their only effects seeming to be a dramatic change in Kelsea’s appearance and a darkening of her own soul, the chances of a way out seem slim. And when Kelsea starts having visions of the life of a pre-Crossing woman, her concentration is taken away from the business of battle to the events of three hundred years ago…
I’m still loving this series. While I initially found the flashbacks to the pre-Crossing era a bit irritating, especially with the upsetting levels of sexual violence, I really came to appreciate the more rounded view they gave of pre-Crossing society and the formation of the Tear. It was especially interesting to speculate as to how this lined up with Kelsea’s own genealogy (seriously, who is Kelsea’s father?) and what events must have occurred to place a Raleigh monarch on the throne and the Church and the Arvath (does that word come from Our Father?) in a position of power sufficient to rival the monarch in a nation that was designed to be free from religion.
I’m hoping that The Fate of The Tearling the third novel in the trilogy focuses more on the Post-Crossing world, but I’m really looking forward to it. For a start I can’t wait to discover what caused the particularly interesting dynamic between the Fetch and Rowland Finn and who Kelsea’s father is. I can’t see any of the characters described in the novel so far being a likely candidate… though I do think that the Fetch might be of the Tear line as well as Kelsea… could the red haired woman he asked about be Jonathan Tear’s wife and thus his mother? It doesn’t explain what he’s being punished for though.
Speculation always welcomed.
On her nineteenth birthday, the Queen’s Guard come to collect Kelsea, who has come of age sufficient to claim her throne, the throne of the Tearling from her Uncle who has held it as Regent since her mother’s assassination. Kelsea knows that she hardly stands a chance of surviving the journey to New London, and that even if she does, she is likely to be murdered soon after her arrival by one of the many enemies that lurk in every shadow of the Keep. Kelsea is strong, idealistic and has a vision of a better world for her people, but can she survive long enough to impose her rule? Especially since her first act as Queen seems guaranteed to provoke the mysterious Red Queen of neighbouring Mortmesne.
I’ll be honest, I avoided reading The Queen of The Tearling for a very long time because of the Emma Watson association. I don’t really rate her as an actress, and there’s nothing more annoying than trying to immerse yourself in the world of a novel with the face of a miscast actor jarring you out of the novel every time a character description comes up. Fortunately, despite the terrible name, Kelsea is a unique enough character to stand out from that starting association and the book grips you the rest of the way. Kelsea is not your typical Queen in waiting, painfully aware that she is plain and stocky, she lives by her wits and hides her inner turmoil about gaining the loyalty of her men behind a cast iron exterior. An idealist, she eschews pragmatic compromise, and while this wins the support of the reader and the common folk, it drives further conflict within the novel. It’s a common complaint about fantasy novels that they are often peopled with trope characters, or rely on the well mapped characterisation of one character to fill out the rest. While this may be true for more minor characters, there are some really engaging and well-rounded secondary characters here which suggest real potential for storyline development throughout the rest of the trilogy.
Something I particularly liked about The Queen of The Tearling was the world building. At first, it seems to be set in a generic, everyone’s swinging a sword and wearing body armour type fantasy universe, but as the novel progresses there are hints that it’s actually set in something of an uncanny dystopia. A rough historical sketch lets the reader know that the countries of the Tear and Mortmesne were established as a Utopian society following a sea crossing to uncharted territory. Drip, drip, drip with the odd notes of description then, bam! There’s a seven set of leather-bound Rowling, an ancient, pre-Crossing author in the library and you realise that The Queen of The Tearling is set in the vastly distant future, though how to Post-Crossing Utopia came to be mired with so many horrific problems, the most obvious of which is the trafficking of adults and children, can only be guessed at. Again, I’m seeing this playing a big role throughout the rest of the trilogy.
I’ve already borrowed the sequel to The Queen of the Tearling, book two of the trilogy, The Invasion of the Tearling from the library and am really looking forward to the release of book 3, The Fate of the Tearling.
It’s been a while since I’ve gotten my teeth into a decent fantasy novel. I’ve mostly been reading other genres, checking Patrick Rothfuss’ blog to see if he has any intention of ever finishing The Kingkiller Chronicles, deciding he hasn’t, then reading other genres. That’s the problem with fantasy series, unless the series has been completed before you begin reading (thank you Tolkein, Lewis et al) you can end up committing to a series and waiting a decade* to read the next flipping installment. By which time you’ve forgotten all the minutiae of the author’s world building and the theories you’ve woven around them.
Despite this, I received a copy of Truthwitch, the first book in Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series in my Illumicrate a few months ago and since I was clearing my bookshelves out, I thought I might as well give it a go. Now I’m back at square one and waiting until 2017 for the next book in the series to come out.
By the end of the opening sentence of Truthwitch, threadsisters Safi and Iseult are already in trouble. The kind of trouble that involves holding up the wrong carriage, telling the wrong lie and becoming the main obsession of a Bloodwitch trained as an elite fighter Carawen Monk who knows that you’re a heretic Truthwitch and wants to sell you to the highest bidder… and from there, things only get worse for the threadsisters and more exciting from the reader. Well-paced, packed with interesting characters, dripping with tantalizing titbits of in novel mythology and set in a world poised on the brink of war, Truthwitch really whets your appetite for the rest of the series.
The thing I really liked about this book was the description of the witcheries. Truthwitches, Firewitches, Waterwitches, Earthwitches, Cursewitches, Threadwitches, Glamourers, Wordwitches and more, each with their own abilities and weaknesses. If you’ve ever liked that game where you consider what superpower you’d choose if you could, then you’ll probably like speculating on which witchery you would like best. Threadwitchery sounds like a pretty interesting one to me, in many ways more useful than Truthwitchery which would do you a lot more harm than good in Safi’s world if you couldn’t fight as well.
Some readers might be put off by the fact that this book has been a bestseller in children’s book lists (I’m never sure why this does put people off, but hey ho). What I would say is that this didn’t strike me as a children’s novel at all. Apart from some pretty explicit violence and injuries, there are some quite steamy sections. I’m not sure who it was said that dancing is a vertical representation of a horizontal desire, but the Truthwitch Safi and Merik dance scene illustrates this perfectly. I look forward to seeing the Nubrevnan four-step on the next series of Strictly…
My current series predictions: Without naming names, because spoilers, Good will naturally triumph in the end, though not without some major character losses along the way. One character who seems evil now will turn out to be good at heart (with possibly a sibling relationship?), and there will be some real shadiness among background characters who’ve seemed benign.
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