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
This 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
For 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
Finally, 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.
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.