Well, that escalated quickly….

I’ve just checked. My last post was over four weeks ago and it seems like mere days. I mean, Christmas does odd things to your brain when you work in retail, but this was something else. I’ve decided to blame the late rush (where everyone was waiting until after the election to decide how much Christmas shopping to do) and the traditional festive cold (which hit on 20th December and is still lurking around and doing sealion impressions on a regular basis) for the lack of blogging effort. Luckily, it hasn’t put me off reading so I’ve a few books to round up on before I start with this year’s titles…

Death in the East – Abir Mukherjee

9781787300576This is the fourth book in Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham series set in India in the early years of the Twentieth century. Captain Wyndham is a officer in the Calcutta police but is currently on his way to a remote retreat in an effort to beat his addiction to opium. Part way through the (rather horrid) treatment he is able to meet the local (white) community and comes across a man from his own past who he believed to be dead: and knows to be a dangerous and brutal killer. Summoning his colleague, Sergeant Banerjee, the two have to fight to prove Wyndham’s suspicions, to overcome the community’s prejudices against the involvement of a native policemen and to prevent any kind of drug-related relapse.

This, and the others in the series, are great historical crime novels seen from an angle unfamiliar to most audiences. There are also tantalising glimpses of the simmering politics which will soon bring about the end of the Raj in India and, rather delightfully, plenty of humour. Although, having heard Abir Mukherjee, in conversation with A A Dhand at Bradford Literature Festival, this should come as no surprise at all….

The Other Bennet Sister – Janice Hadlow

9781509842025For a novel about a family of sisters it sometimes seems as if Pride and Prejudice isn’t much about actual sisterhood. Jane and Lizzy are close, although I always feel as if Elizabeth wishes Jane were a little more assertive, but Lydia would ride roughshod over any of the other girls for the attentions of a handsome officer and Kitty seems to do whatever her other sisters ask of her. And then there’s Mary: prim, plain and never afraid to tell others when they are in the wrong. Janice Hadlow’s book shows us much more of Mary’s story, before, during and after the events of Pride and Prejudice and, in the process, shows how female support, or the lack of it, can affect women.

The rather unpleasant Mary we know from Austen is seen to be the result of a childhood full of being brushed aside. The older and younger girls form natural pairings and are all attractive – Mary is told she is too plain and is rarely included in the others’ activities. Music is her only pleasure but, when her failing eyesight means she need to get glasses, this is used as another example of her lack of consideration for her mother’s nerves. Even in the Regency period, it seems, gentlemen don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses…Interestingly, although all the characters we meet (Bennets, Bingleys, Darcys, Collins and more) are recognisable we feel slightly differently about most of them. The older girls are too caught up in their own lives to notice Mary’s unhappiness, Charlotte Lucas is unashamedly mercenary and Mr Collins, of all people, becomes someone I felt a lot of sympathy for. In the second half of the book, post P&P and after the death of Mr Bennet we see Mary begin to take control of her own future. She cannot live with Jane – Miss Bingley is also there and as unpleasant as ever – or Elizabeth – the closeness of their relationship with each other and with Georgiana means that Mary is still an outsider so she goes to stay with the Gardiners in London. Here she is able to assess her life, work through her girlish mistakes and decide who she is going to be. In true Austen fashion there is also a romance but, more importantly for the modern reader, the emphasis is even more firmly on the main character growing to love herself.

The Tenth Muse – Catherine Chung

9781408709580Finally, another story of a young woman trying to find her place in the world but this time it is that of Katherine, a Chinese-American mathematician, who needs to fight against an academic field fraught with misogyny but then discovers that she also has to struggle to find her true identity. While my arithmetic is good the higher levels of maths are a bit of a mystery to me but this didn’t really matter – to be honest, women in almost any academic area suffer from similar problems – and it didn’t detract from the personal story. In a way, the struggle to discover her true parentage was an interesting parallel to the search for the solution to some of mathematics’ unsolved problems – a combination of inspiration, deduction and rediscovery of missed clues.

Like Mary Bennet Kat must not only discover who she is but learn to be happy with being that person. Unlike Mary we don’t already think we know who Kat is so we are able to make all the discoveries along with her. Both approaches are fascinating in their own way.

And next…

I don’t make new year resolutions – I’m not a fan of giving things up or giving myself restrictions – but I do intend to get back into a more regular pattern of posting reviews. Let’s see how that goes, shall we? But I do have some great books waiting so I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Jane

 

 

 

Last Christmas – Emma Thompson & Greg Wise

If you strip out the blurry Christmas party photos and cat videos my Facebook and Twitter feeds are, at the moment an almost perfectly balanced mix of horror and hope. I understand and sympathise with the anger and disappointment but I’m drawn more to the messages from people determined to keep trying to do good in the world (no matter what the world throws at them). In that light I thought I’d review a book which, for me, sums up the best parts of Christmas – warmth, hope and generosity.

9781529404227Last Christmas is a book published in conjunction with a film (also written by Thompson and Wise) but it is not a novelisation of that movie. Instead it is a collection of short pieces about what Christmas means to a variety of contributors – some of them household names, some everyday people who, at some point, found themselves in the worst possible places at the worst time of the year – and it is brimming with all the things we are often told are absent from the modern festive season. I loved the ones that made me smile – Thompson’s run through the last 23 years of her partner injuring himself through the medium of seasonal D.I.Y., Graham Norton’s depiction of what our household calls ‘Office Party Hell’ from the point of view of a newly arrived Irish waiter in a Covent Garden restaurant and Richard Ayoade being, well, Richard Ayoade – but there are also many more contemplative parts. For many, famous or not, Christmas can be a very difficult time: death, violence and conflict can strike at any time but when they come at a time when we are meant, no, expected, to be happy it can feel like the end of the world. Mental health often suffers under the pressure and we can end up believing that we hate those we love most. These stories, however, focus not only on the difficulties faced by the homeless, the suicidal or refugees but also on what helps them to rise above them. For some it is the memory of childhood and for others the promise they see in their own children: for many it is seeing the help that is willingly offered to those in need. We often hear that the true meaning of Christmas – the Christian message – is lost in a cloud of consumerism: reading this book I felt that is was merely hidden. There are many, many people out there offering help to the lost, the needy and to refugees – some are Christian, some Muslim, some have no religion at all. They all demonstrate, in my eyes, what this time of year should be about…

Jane

P.S. This is also the book which is my ‘Staff Pick’ for the Christmas season. I honestly feel that it would be a great gift for Mums, Dads, aunties, nannas, friends – lots of short pieces which don’t take long to read but will keep you thinking (and then make you want to give all your loved ones a big, big hug).

Things Can Only Get Better – David M Barnett

Okay, so today is a day which may not have worked out very well, politically speaking, for quite a few people. Which got me to wondering which book review could fit into the general mood of the day –  I wanted something uplifting, with a hint of hope, especially for the more left-leaning among us so the title of this book made the choice fairly obvious. The subject and themes in it also fitted in with what I wanted: hopefully it will give you something else to think about other than politics. Even for the winning side I can imagine the coverage is starting to get a tad repetitive by this point in the day…

46019524In a mining town, in the 1990s, Arthur Calderbank, an elderly man, is living in a run-down chapel in the middle of a graveyard. He has lived there ever since his beloved wife Molly died seven years previously and, although he wouldn’t want anyone to know, he takes comfort from being close to her grave and from chatting to her (and to many other churchyard residents). The only major problem in his life, beyond the usual niggles and pains of old age, is the mystery of who has been leaving flowers on his wife’s grave each year, on her birthday. One of the niggles takes the form of a group of teenagers – misfits who only seem to have their outsider status in common – who decide to form a band and also to help Arthur to uncover the identity of the mystery flower-giver. At the same time a group of local men offer to help Arthur save his home, which is destined for demolition to make room for a facility for asylum-seekers. The contrast between the self-interested motives of the men and the more genuine, if naive, ones of the youngsters is stark.

The story is a heart-warming one where the young people rise above the limited expectations of what they could be. Many of the main characters, including Arthur himself, learn to understand themselves and to forgive themselves for the mistakes of the past. It is also a stark look at communities, in the late 90s, which have been crushed by political neglect – at the schools’ careers talks which only offer jobs in factories unless you are one of the few better off children, the lack of state support for the elderly and the power of right-wing activists. While this doesn’t sound like much of a relief from modern politics there is a huge amount of hope in the story. The children are great characters, irrepressible and still just too young to accept failure, and Arthur’s story – his great love for Molly which transcends the discovery of a terrible secret – is truly moving. Curse you David M Barnett: you made me cry again…

Jane

Hundred – Heike Faller & Valerio Vidali

It is really difficult to be six years old. Although you don’t have many responsibilities (nobody checking if you voted….) you don’t have a lot of experience of life and it is often confusing. Get to your fifties and you then become the person in charge of all kinds of things – doing the laundry, eating healthily, making political decisions, helping six year olds to understand the world – but you do forget the joy you felt when you made discoveries as a child. How does it go? If youth knew; if age could do…

9780241400807Heike Faller, a magazine editor, wondered, when looking at a new-born niece, about all the things we learn through our lives. Some of these things are good – love, nature, beauty – and some – loss, broken relationships, stress – not so much. Obviously, everyone has different experiences so Faller decided to ask people of all ages and a wide range of backgrounds what they had learned in life and has then compiled the answers into a charming book (illustrated by Vidali, an Italian living in Berlin). As we work through from birth to old age we see that children’s lives are full of wonder and discovery (or should be), early adulthood is when we begin to learn who we really are and in middle age we often begin to appreciate the smaller things again (like a good night’s sleep or a really well-made cup of coffee). But, for me, it is the later years which have the most interest – probably because I am in need of the advice for my life to come. And the older generation doesn’t disappoint: they speak of losing those they love but also of the delights of continuing to learn and change.

This would be a lovely book to share between generations; a way for the young to consider what is to come in their lives and the old to recall what they have learned through life. Hopefully, all generations could learn to have more sympathy and insight for others by reading this book. And maybe, also, learn to appreciate what their future holds, whatever age they are.

Jane

How many days until Christmas? Let’s buckle in for an exciting ride….

Oh, my goodness. Its already December and it hardly seems 48 weeks since it was last here. There has been a lot which has happened over the year – some lovely holidays, quite a lot of politics (not always so lovely), a large amount of cake and, according to Goodreads, over a hundred books. This, if I’m still capable of doing arithmetic with Christmas looming, averages out at over two a week so I’m not surprised I haven’t managed to write blog posts on them all. Although I do feel a little guilty about it so I am going to try and fill in a few of the gaps over the next few weeks. My only worry is that if I find a book from January or February and decide to review it will I remember what happened or will I have to reread it?

Beardy ThursdaySo, what else will I be doing in the next few weeks? On the days I am working I will be doing my very best to help people get the books, gifts and toys they want to give to their friends and family. This is almost always great fun and very rewarding – some of the best ones are helping people find Secret Santa presents as there is nothing like a strict price limit to focus the mind. And I like to think that we’re helping keep a bit of plastic out of Santa’s sack if they choose a book. The shop (like most at this time of year) will run on goodwill and sugar (either chocolates or the remainder of the huge tub of sweeties we got in for Halloween) so be kind when you’re out shopping. We’ve worked long hours and lunch was two mince pies, a curly-wurly and half a packet of Love Hearts – the sugar-rush can make us a bit dizzy. On the days I’m not working I shall be doing what everyone else is – trying to finish my own shopping, wrapping and Christmas cards as well as get the house clean and ready for the big day. To be honest, this is the hardest bit for me – I rarely cook a roast dinner so I do get a little bit of performance anxiety. Luckily Rob and his Dad are very forgiving (so long as I don’t try and force Rob to eat sprouts…). I’d like to say I’ll also find time to run a couple of times a week (because chocolate) but I’m pretty rubbish at running in the cold and/or wet so I’ll have to burn all my calories at work.

Jane

P.S. The picture? Well, I do enjoy wearing my extensive range of festive t-shirts at this time of year but my personal highlight is during the final week when I also dig out the beard, hat and jingle bells. My colleagues love it…..

The Vanished Bride – Bella Ellis

Books which retell stories which are both well-known and beloved can be a problem. On one hand it is tempting to look further into the lives, loves and adventures of favourite characters and on the other, well, not every author can match the writing, plotting and characterisation skills of an Austen, a Dickens or any number of Brontës…I’ve read sequels to various Austen novels – some excellent and some best forgotten – and, of course, Michael Stewart has recently given us a dark yet plausible glimpse of Heathcliff’s missing years (which easily made up for a truly awful Brontë-based novel I failed to finish a few years ago) so I approached The Vanished Bride, the first in a series which gives us a glimpse of what Haworth’s most famous siblings got up to in between writing famous books, with some caution. Bella Ellis is a pen name adopted by Rowan Coleman for this series and I’ve read and enjoyed some of her previous books – which was a good sign – and I know that she has spoken at Brontë events at Bradford Literature Festival so I decided to dive on in.

45242737._SY475_It is the summer of 1845 and all four Brontë siblings are back at home – Branwell has had to leave his post as a tutor in disgrace and Anne had to resign from the same establishment, Emily is helping run the household and Charlotte is back from Belgium (and pining for Monsieur Heger, although she hates to admit it, even to herself). They face another search for work, or maybe somewhere they can set up a school, but in the meantime the girls spend their time worrying about their father’s health and Branwell’s drinking. When they hear of a mystery, a blood-soaked room and a missing woman, which is affecting an old school friend of Charlotte’s they cannot resist becoming involved. Their trip to Chester Grange to offer comfort to Tilly French, the old friend and nurse to the missing woman’s young children leads to them deciding to investigate what happened to Elizabeth Chester, the Vanished Bride.

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was nicely complicated but made perfect internal sense and dovetailed really well into the historical framework of the lives of the Brontës. The personality of each sibling was clearly defined and the interaction between them was great – Branwell’s overconfidence balanced by Anne’s firm principles, Charlotte’s hesitance by Emily’s brash approach to convention. And, while it was done with a light touch, I absolutely loved the way that many of the elements of the story are obviously* inspirations for the sisters’ future literary offerings – a governess in the midst of a mystery, abusive husbands, the wild moors themselves. We also see the girls starting to push against the social conventions which mean that women of their class are meant to do nothing more than marry, raise children and do ‘good works’ – an understated feminist message which doesn’t overwhelm the plot or the characters. Perfect for fans of either Haworth’s finest and/or crime of a cosy(ish) nature – I’m hoping this is the start of a good long series!

Jane

*Obvious to Brontë readers – if you have never read Jane Eyre, Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Wuthering Heights you may not get the hints but it won’t matter, the story is enough on its own…

 

The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern

There are some books out there which don’t so much have fans as groupies. I don’t mean this as an insult but as the best word I can think of to describe the overwhelming love which readers have for certain stories (and associated adaptations, fan-fiction, merchandise and general ephemera). Let’s face it, I’m a total Alice groupie and have the ever-spreading collection to prove it. Others feel the same way about Harry Potter, Jane Austen or the entire works of JRR Tolkien (all books I’ve enjoyed but couldn’t add to my personal groupie list because my house wouldn’t be big enough to cope). Add to that individual books which attract such passion, including Erin Morgenstern’s previous work The Night Circus*. The Starless Sea is a book which Morgenstern’s fans have been eagerly awaiting for eight years – I had been hearing a lot about it (because many of my fellow booksellers are among the author’s biggest fans) so decided to give it a try. I’m now a little conflicted because on the one hand I really loved it but on the other I’m now going to have to add The Night Circus to my mahoosive to-read pile.

45998898The Starless Sea is a novel which starts by introducing a number of stories: a pirate in a condemned cell, a subterranean world full of books which asks for great sacrifices from its acolytes, a young boy (in our world) who discovers a mysterious door but lacks the courage to see where it leads and a library book with no author and an unknown past. When the young boy, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, now a post-grad student in Emerging Media Studies, borrows the library book he is swept into the realm of the Starless Sea: a confusing place filled with books but also with cats, honey and secrets. As Zachary moves between the worlds beneath and above he meets many people – Mirabel, whose pink hair belies her kick-ass nature, Dorian, a barefoot mystery man, and the Keeper – as well as encountering dangers, friendships and heartbreak. And as the very world he finds himself in falls apart we discover whether a new world, built on love and stories, is possible.

I don’t suppose this book will suit everyone – what book does? The language is positively mystical in places and the way the narrative switches from the underworld of books to the stories contained with it is a bit confusing at times but I spent the whole time feeling like I was reading The Neverending Story retold for adults. And, if we are talking about books I could be a groupie for, this is a very good thing…

Jane

*I’d hang my head in shame because I haven’t read it but #somanybookssolittletime