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review 2020-05-14 15:43
A totally immersing and wonderful reading experience
The Glass House - Eve Chase

Thanks to Penguin UK - Michael Joseph and NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. This is the first time I’ve read one of Eve Chase’s novels, and I’m sure it won’t be the last one as I found it a totally immersing and wonderful experience.

The plot has something of the fairy tale (or of several fairy tales), as this is a dual-timeline story where we read about some events that took place in the early 1970s —although that part of the action (in fact, the whole book) has something timeless about it— and then others that are taking place in the present. The story is told from three different points of view, those of Rita (told in a deep third person, as readers are privy to her feelings and thoughts), a very tall nanny (they call her ‘Big Rita’) with a tragic past; Hera, one of her charges, an intelligent and troubled child (almost a teen), who is more aware of what is truly going on around her than the adults realise; and Sylvia, a recently separated woman, mother of an eighteen-year-old girl, Annie, and trying to get used to an independent lifestyle again. Both, Hera and Sylvia, tell the story in the first person, and the chapters alternate between the three narrators and the two timelines. Rita and Hera’s narratives start in the 1970s and are intrinsically linked, telling the story of the Harrington family and of a summer holiday in the family home in the Forest of Dean, intended as a therapeutic break for the mother of the family, which turns up to be anything but. Most readers will imagine that Sylvia’s story, set in the present, must be related to that of the other two women, but it is not immediately evident how. There are secrets, mysteries, adultery, murders, lost and found babies, romance, tragedy, accidents, terraria (or terrariums, like the lovely one in the cover of the book), cruelty, fire… The book is classed under Gothic fiction (and in many ways it has many of the elements we’d expect from a Victorian Gothic novel, or a fairy tale, as I said), and also as a domestic thriller, and yes, it also fits in that category, but with a lot more symbolism than is usual in that genre, a house in the forest rather than a suburban or a city home, and some characters that are larger than life.

Loss, grief, identity (how we define ourselves and how we are marked by family tradition and the stories we are told growing up), the relationship between mothers and daughters, and what makes a family a family are among the themes running through the novel, as are memory and the different ways people try to cope with trauma and painful past events.

I’ve mentioned the characters in passing, and although some of them might sound familiar when we start reading about them (Rita, the shy woman, too tall and scarred to be considered attractive, who seeks refuge in other people’s family; Hera, the young girl growing in a wealthy family with a mother who has mental health problems and a largely absent father; and Sylvia, a woman in her forties suddenly confronted with having to truly become an adult when both, her mother and her daughter need her), there is more to them than meets the eye, and they all grow and evolve during the novel, having to confront some painful truths in the process. I liked Rita and Sylvia from the beginning, even though I don’t have much in common with either of them, and felt sorry for Hera. Although the events and the story require a degree of suspension of disbelief greater than in other novels, the characters, their emotions, and their reactions are understandable and feel real within the remit of the story, and it would be difficult to read it and not feel for them.

I loved the style that offers a good mix of descriptive writing (especially vivid when dealing with the setting of the story, the forest, Devon, and the terrarium) and more symbolic and lyrical writing when dealing with the emotions and the state of mind of the characters. At times, we can almost physically share in their experiences, hear the noises in the woods, or smell the sea breeze. This is not a rushed story, and although the action and the plot move along at a reasonable pace, there is enough time to stop to contemplate and marvel at a fern, the feel of a baby’s skin, or the music from a guitar. This is not a frantic thriller but a rather precious story, and it won’t suit people looking for constant action and a fast pace. I’ve read some reviews where readers complained about feeling confused by the dual time lines and the different narrators, although I didn’t find it confusing as each chapter is clearly marked and labelled (both with mention of the time and the character whose point of view we are reading). I recommend anybody thinking about reading the book to check a sample first, to see if it is a good fit for their taste.

The ending… I’m going to avoid spoilers, as usual, but I liked the way everything comes together and fits in. Did I work out what was going on? Some of the revelations happen quite early, but some of the details don’t come to light until much later, and the author is masterful in the way she drops clues that we might miss and obscures/hides information until the right moment. I guessed some of the points, others I only realised quite close to the actual ending, but, in any case, I loved how it all came together, like in a fairy tale, only even better.

This is a novel for readers who don’t mind letting their imagination fly and who are not looking for a totally realistic novel based on fact. With wonderful characters, magnificent settings, many elements that will make readers think of fairy tales, and a Gothic feel, this is a great novel, and an author whose work I look forward to reading again in the near future.

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text 2020-04-03 01:14
I'm not sure why I'm doing this

I haven't written anything creative in weeks.  BookLikes has pissed me off, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and Forgotten Magic has just languished.  I know where it's going, and I just haven't been able to find the enthusiasm for it.

 

What prompted me today to pick up another old book idea is beyond my understanding.  I'm not sure where I'm going with it, but so far this afternoon I've written 1532 words.

 

There's a history, however, that maybe needs to be explained.

 

I wrote my first adult novel when I was 15.  It's not very good.  I don't think I had any idea at all what a character arc was, and I didn't know a whole lot about plotting, but it did have a beginning, middle, and end.  And a murder mystery.  And a romance.  And some sex.  The writing style -- the voice, if you will -- is recognizably mine.  Yes, I still have it, or at least most of it.  A few odd pages are missing.  The total is about 115,000 words.

 

There were certain elements of the story that continued to appeal to me through the years, but I never really had enough ambition to try to rework it into something reasonably coherent.  I knew it would need major editing, a virtual overhaul from start to finish.  But there were those few elements that held some promise.

 

I've come to recognize that those elements I'm most attracted to are the gothic ones.  A rural, isolated setting.  An abandoned house.  A death that's not quite explained.  People who aren't quite what they seem to be. 

 

So this afternoon, for whatever reason, I picked up some of those idea, along with the original title that I always kind of liked, and started to put . . . something . . . together.

 

 






A Party of Ghosts


Chapter One

The circumstances of my departure from Tamarack Lake were common knowledge.  The reasons for my return were far less obvious, and I intended to keep them to myself as long as possible.  In fact, if I had had my way, no one would ever have known I'd come back and no one would ever know I'd left again . . . for good.
    One radio station after another warned of the blizzard heading for northern Wisconsin.  The first flurries began shortly after noon that Saturday of Thanksgiving week-end, but the temperature remained well below freezing and a strong, gusty breeze out of the west kept the road swept clear and dry as I made my way steadily north.  The back roads carried far less traffic and allowed me to drive slower, with far less urgency and anxiety than if I'd taken the major highways.  All of this was familiar territory, so familiar I felt as if I could have driven with my eyes closed.
    My eyes hardly blinked, however.  Despite my reluctance to return to the tiny community where I'd been born, raised, and lived almost every day of the first fifteen years of my life, I couldn't resist the flow of memories.  As small as Tamarack Lake was, there were other wide spots on the road that didn't even merit a name on the map, clusters of four or five houses, maybe a gas station and a little country store or a church with a tiny cemetery.  I didn't need roadside signs to tell me when I passed through Woodkey Junction, Corinth Chapel, Lomax Corners.  Some places had changed.  Argo Springs now boasted a flashy RV park, mostly vacant this time of the year, and it looked like the old wooden church at Varseyville had suffered a fire and not been repaired.  Most of these minuscule places, however, appeared to have been frozen in time for two decades.
    I could have sped through them, but I didn't.  There were few signs of life, though I did see Christmas lights already strung across the fronts of a few houses, and a battered old pick-up truck was waiting to turn out of a driveway after I passed.  The few cars I saw had their headlights on as the flurries grew heavier and the cloud cover brought darkness earlier.
    That darkness couldn't come too soon.  The closer I got to Tamarack Lake, the more I wanted nightfall.  It was an irrational desire, but still a very real one.  I knew no one would take note of my vehicle as anything out of the ordinary, and it was even less likely that anyone in town would recognize me as the driver.  But though I reached the edge of town – Tamarack Lake had no outskirts as such – long before sunset, the leading edge of the blizzard had arrived and obscured anyone's vision almost as completely as dark would have.
    I paid more attention driving through town than I had on the country roads.  The pavement was still dry, not slick, but I knew people would be hurrying to get to shelter before the body of the storm hit.  To all intents and purposes, I was one of them.  I knew ahead of time that a new shopping center had been built at the far end of town where I could have stocked up on supplies, but I had done my shopping hours ago, so I sped past the bright lights of Tamarack Centre and entered the deepening gloom of the countryside once again.
    My SUV with its New Jersey license plates had never been on these roads, and I had never actually driven on them, but those ancient memories guided my hands as I steered unerringly down one twisting road after another.  Where the woods closed in, the snow and wind lessened, but the dark intensified.  A right turn, a right turn, then a left.  Past the long row of mailboxes on the right, past the gated driveway to the left.  Around a curve, down a hill.  There were no lights here, no holiday decorations.  Now and then I caught a glimpse of a lake through the trees, the water steely grey like the sky, but rough with whitecaps.  I drove by instinct.
    In broad daylight, the driveway might have been mistaken for a side road, but now it was all but invisible.  I slowed and put on my blinker out of habit, though I hadn't seen a single car or truck since leaving the main road through town.  Then I turned, and the crunch of gravel under the tires altered my entire perception.  More twists and turns, and twice I saw shadows at the edge of the headlight beams that might have been deer in the woods that crowded close upon the driveway.  
    Then the trees opened up and I drove into the fading light.  
    Once, years ago, there had been a sign welcoming guests to the Timbercrest Lodge, but all that remained now were two broken upright posts, one maybe five feet high, the other twice that.  Just beyond the sign, the gravel expanded into a crude parking lot large enough to accommodate maybe a dozen cars.  And at the far edge of the parking area, a flagstone path led to the main lodge building.
    I parked but did not turn off the engine.  I knew it would be bitter cold walking to the lodge, and I was naturally reluctant to leave the comfort of the car.  More important at that moment, however, was my need to make a first visual inspection.
    The dashboard clock read 3:30, so sunset and full dark were still more than an hour away even with the storm clouds.  The front elevation of the two-story log building faced the lake, a wide veranda on the ground floor sheltered by the balcony of the second floor.  All the windows were dark, soulless, but from what I could tell in the illumination from the headlights, none of the glass had been broken.  The white-painted wicker furniture with its bright cushions was gone, but that was expected.  Also missing were the terra cotta planters from which zinnias and marigolds and petunias and pansies had spilled all summer.  
    Other than that, the place didn't seem to have changed in twenty years.
    I cut the engine, plunging the vista before me into a grey fog of overcast, wind, and snow.  Slowly, as my eyes adjusted to the weaker light, I made out the shadowy bulk of the building against the slightly lighter sky behind it.  The woods that had been cleared to build the lodge had not begun to encroach on the clearing, at least not yet.
    With the keys in my hand, I took a deep breath and braced myself for the blast of cold.  I knew it would cut through me, through the heavy parka I had worn even while driving in a heated car, through the heavy wool slacks and calf-high boots.  Without a hat, my hair took the full force of the wind, long strands blowing up and around, into my face and away from it.  I blinked the icy flakes of snow from my eyes, then tucked my head down and slammed the car door shut.  There was no reason to lock it, not yet.
    Another deep breath, involuntarily pulling frigid air into my lungs.  I took the first step on the gravel, feeling the uneven stones through the soles of my boots.  I had forgotten my gloves, so I shoved my hands into my pockets, only to have the keys catch on the edge and almost get jerked from my fingers.  Clutching at the cold metal, I leaned into the wind and picked up my pace, onto the flagstones where snow was filling in the spaces between them, then up the half dozen wide wooden steps to the porch.  By then my fingers were nearly numb from the cold, my eyes nearly blinded by the wind and snow.  
    But I managed to fit the right key into the lock and turn it with an audible click.  The heavy door swung inward, and I followed it into the much deeper darkness.  There was no warmth here, only a shelter from the wind, a respite from the snow.  I pushed the door closed, shutting out the weather, though the sound of the wind in the pines and around the corners of the building still hummed in my ears.  
    I stood in the dark and the cold and the almost silence long enough to recover from that brief assault.  Tensed muscles relaxed a little, and the heart I hadn't known was racing gradually slowed.  I switched the icy keys from my right hand to my left and brushed the tangled hair from my face so I could see without obstruction.
    Despite the lack of bright light, I could tell nothing had changed.  Nothing of substance anyway.  The great gathering room with its massive stone fireplace and hand-built furniture and terrifying bearskin rug was exactly the same as it had been on the night I killed my sister.
    
   

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review 2020-03-23 11:22
Bone China
Bone China - Laura Purcell

by Laura Purcell

 

This started out with two of my personal cardinal sins: a list of characters, something I always skip past because it's meaningless until they have context in the story, and present tense writing. Having said that, the first chapter was very effective that way and would have made a great prologue. Dickens used to write the occasional present tense chapter to put immediacy into a segment of a story, but it doesn't work to do a whole book in present tense.

 

It starts out with a woman running from something, riding in an old time coach and wearing a dress that gives the impression of a lady, when she is not. An accident leads to her helping an injured man, remonstrating with herself for drawing attention so that people will remember her.

 

This is where I'm glad I skipped the character list. Learning who this woman is and what she's running from gives me a reason to continue! She has had some form of medical training, which makes her stand out as a woman healer in an older era when such things were uncommon.

 

We get a flashback of her history that explains where the dress came from and that her mother was a midwife. This is told in past tense and I found myself very interested in her story. A lot is put into her psychological make-up and motivations to develop a clear picture of the character.

 

There's a strong element of Cornish Pixie lore (though it should be Piskies there) to add a creepy element. The story behind the delicate blue and white china comes out by the end and the significance becomes clear.

 

I have mixed feelings about the end, but the story as a whole did keep my attention and had just that hint of Horror to make it fit firmly in the Gothic category.

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review 2020-03-19 22:00
COLERIDGE by Tom Deady
Coleridge - Kathleen W. Deady

COLERIDGE is a gothic story as beautifully written as the cover is beautiful to look at!

 

Zadie and Delia meet at an auction of an old, dilapidated home. They get to talking and before they know it, they've formed a partnership and decided to rehab the place. Somewhere along the way they fall in love.  As their work came to a close, however, Zadie seemed more and more preoccupied and Delia worried that Zadie had found someone else. That's not what was wrong, though. On top of that, Zadie didn't live to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Soon thereafter, a stranger shows up at Delia's shop claiming to be Zadie's father. Is he really Zadie's dad? What does he want with Delia? You'll have to read this to find out!

 

The characters of Delia and Zadie were wonderful. Their fondness soon turned to something more as their work on the house continued and all of that seemed to progress naturally. I could feel Delia's grief and pain later on because this portion was so well written.

 

I can't talk more about the mystery involved here with Coleridge, (the house), without giving too much away. I was fascinated with the history of it and by the time the tale of the house unfolded, I wanted, no - I NEEDED...more. More about the house, more about Coleridge, (also the name of the original owner/builder), more about...pretty much everything! I'm not sure if this was meant to be a series or a trilogy or something? I really hope it is, because as I said, I need MORE!

 

I loved this tale overall, I just felt a little let down by how it all wrapped up. 

 

Recommended!

 

*Thanks to Silver Shamrock Publishing and Tom Deady for the e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest feedback. Also, I've met Tom Deady a few times and he's the nicest guy ever, and his wife is a sweetheart too.*

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-03-13 20:12
A. S. Byatt's Possession - Great, but not perfect
Possession - A.S. Byatt

I first read this book around 20 years ago, and I loved it then.  Reading it now, and knowing the ending, I enjoyed it even more.

 

But . . . .

 

It wasn't as perfect this time around as the first.  The diminution of my enjoyment wasn't due to knowing the ending but rather to knowing more -- much more -- about late 20th century literary criticism, especially late 20th century feminist literary criticism.

 

My undergraduate degree is in Women's Studies.  I had just gone back to college in 1998, and bought this book in the fall of that year or the spring of 1999.  At that point, I knew only enough about fem lit crit to be dangerous, but not enough to understand a lot of the nuances in Possession.

 

The writing is magnificent, and the plot intriguing.    Major spoilers ahead.

 

Scholar Roland Michell discovers a hitherto unknown draft of a letter by [fictitious] Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to an unknown woman.  Michell's research leads him to believe the letter was intended to go to another [fictitious] Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte.  Roland enlists the aid of Maud Bailey, another scholar of Victorian poets whose specialty is LaMotte.  They embark on a quest to find out if Ash and LaMotte had any connection, literary or otherwise.

 

Their first major discovery is a cache of letters between the two Victorians, letters that establish a connection and hint very strongly at an affair.  But they have no conclusive evidence, so now the quest takes on another aspect.

(spoiler show)

 

Despite their best efforts at secrecy, they can't keep all their knowledge from the outside world, particularly the very close world of scholars whose specialties are Ash and LaMotte.

 

Mortimer Cropper is the very wealthy, very arrogant American who keeps buying up everything related to Ash he can get his hands on, legally or otherwise, to stash in his precious Stant Collection at [fictitious] Robert Dale Owen University in Harmony City, New Mexico.  (For some fun, see https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Trivia/Possession)

 

Leonora Stern is another American, flamboyant, blatantly sexual, but sincerely interested in Christabel LaMotte.  Stern is more or less friends with Maud Bailey.

 

Beatrice Nest is a kind of pathetic, put-upon, insecure creature, who jealously guards her speciality, which is the diary of Randolph Ash's wife, Ellen.  Nest has been editing the diary/diaries her entire academic career.  She's nowhere near done.

 

Fergus Wolff is the handsome, sexy scholar who is a kind of rival, kind of friend to Roland.  Wolff once had an affair with Maud Bailey; she withdrew emotionally afterward.

 

James Blackadder is Roland's boss.  Blackadder is a foremost authority on Randolph Henry Ash in England; he just wishes he had Cropper's money to acquire all the goodies and keep them on their native soil.

 

Val (I've forgotten her last name!) is Roland's long-time girlfriend, flatmate, fuck buddy, and financial support, since he doesn't make much as a part-time tutor and researcher.  They sort of love each other, but they sort of don't, but both of them have a sense of obligation to each other.

 

Those are the main characters, and there are a few others who play important roles.

 

Most authors can give their various characters distinctive voices and personalities, but Byatt has taken it one gigantic step further.  She has included scads and scads of [fictitious] source material: Ash's poetry, LaMotte's poetry, their letters, Ellen Ash's diary, Blanche Glover's suicide note, LaMotte's cousin's diary (though not in the original French), excerpts from Cropper's published works, excerpts from discarded drafts of Blackadder's academic work, and more.

 

As Roland and Maud make one discovery after another, taking protective possession of their new-found knowledge, this reader was usually half a step ahead of them, sometimes more. 

 

Once you know that Ash and LaMotte had an affair and broke it off suddely, then apparently never had any contact again for almost 30 years, and there's no obvious explanation, well, the obvious presumption is . . . obvious.  So the nystery of why LaMotte left England to spend approximately a year with cousins in Brittany is hardly a mystery:  She was pregnant.

(spoiler show)

 

Despite their best attempts at secrecy, Roland and Maud know that they and their discoveries going to be . . . discovered.  Sure enough, Mortimer Cropper is hot on their trail in his big black Mercedes and his fat wad of cash.

 

And that's where Possession lost its perfect rating.

 

There are references to a box that Ellen Ash buried with Randolph, a box that may contain documents relative to the "mystery" of Randolph and Christabel.  The box wasn't opened when Ellen herself was buried a few years later, but now Cropper wants to know what's in it.  He petitions to have the grave opened, but there are legal difficulties, so he arranges to dig up the grave, in a remote country churchyard, in dead (pun intended) of night and steal the box.  He utilizes Randolph Henry Ash's heir (via another branch of the family, as Randolph and Ellen had no children) to provide some dubious legal cover.

 

And that's what I meant by the resemblance to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  All these main characters, and a few minor ones, converge on the country churchyard.  Cropper is foiled, the box is recovered and opened, and a few more secrets are revealed.

 

But it seemed so silly.  It seemed there could have been a more believable method of obtaining the box than anyone thinking they could dig up an almost 100-year-old grave, remove the box, then put everything back the way it was and no one would notice.  It was just too eye-rollingly dumb.

 

There was another reason why I just can't give this book a perfect rating: Byatt too often broke the fourth wall and did it too clumsily.

 

It's one thing to have an omniscient third-person viewpoint.  It's another thing entirely for the third-person narrator to even indirectly address the reader.  "But So-and-so didn't know that yet and wouldn't learn the truth for some time to come."  That sort of thing.  There were only a couple instances, but they were a couple too many.  Byatt had created this almost flawless world of Victorian literature and culture and history as well as its 20th century scholars, then destroyed it with these odd little stage asides.

 

The worst, however, was

 

 

After most of the important revelations have been made, there's one more:  Ellen Ash's apparent abhorrence of sex.  This information is revealed only to the reader, not to any of the other characters.  Both Ash and his wife took this secret with them to their graves and left no evidence of it.  I'm not sure why Byatt included it; it added nothing substantive to the story.  If it was justification for Ash's physical affair with LaMotte, it didn't work, at least not for me.  He continued, even during and after the affair, to profess his love for his wife.  Did it matter that she was "frigid"?  Could not her failure to conceive have been sufficient motivation for him?  Could not just human longing and attraction have been enough?

 

I saw in Byatt's depiction of Ellen's revulsion a reflection of the John Ruskin and Euphemia Gray marriage, which ended somewhat differently, in that they had the marriage annulled and Effie went on to a happy and rewarding -- eight children -- marriage with John Everett Millais.  What I didn't see was the necessity for it.  Had the information been revealed to Maud and Roland, it would have made a big difference.  Keeping it only for the reader created a distance from the text that make me uncomfortable.

 

(spoiler show)

Possession is a terrific novel, definitely worthy of the 1990 Booker Prize.  But it's not an easy novel to fully appreciate.

 

According to Wikipedia --

 

A. S. Byatt, in part, wrote Possession in response to John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). In an essay in Byatt's nonfiction book, On Histories and Stories, she wrote:

Fowles has said that the nineteenth-century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first-person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the world of the text.

 

While her intention may have been to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the text, I found it just the opposite.  It reminded me even more firmly that I as a reader was completely outside the text, outside the action, outside the characters' whose stories were being told -- Randolph and Christabel, Roland and Maud.

 

Also for that reason, I took exception to the plot point that Ash never knew of Christabel's child.

 

Ellen knew -- because Christabel's companion and unconfirmed lover Blanche Glover had told her so.  And Christabel herself had given Ellen a letter to give to Ash with all the particulars, though Ellen never did so.  The one encounter between Ash and LaMotte after the affair and after the child's birth -- at a seance that Ash disrupted -- revealed to him that there had been a child, though not whether it still lived or not. 

 

The final scene of the book

is an encounter between Ash and the child herself, though supposedly he does not know who she is.  But he claims he knows her mother, and he knows very well where he is.  So he asks for a lock of her hair, which she then braids and gives him to put in his watch.  Her hair, like Christabel's and like Maud Bailey's, is distinctive, so distinctive that Ash must have known.

(spoiler show)

 

Though it's already been established that Maud Bailey is herself the descendant of that child, the assumption remains that Ash himself never knew.

 

I think he did.

 

 

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