Genius of Jane Austen – Paula Byrne

I’ve always been a bookworm. I had to be chased out into the playground when all I really wanted to do was read (I was sometimes found hiding under the tables…) when I was at primary school. I absolutely love the fact that I am fortunate enough to be offered the chance to read lots of new books but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish the pace of publishing would slow down a bit. I miss the days when I could take the time to re-read some of my old favourites – Lord of the Rings, Enchanted April or, the ones I used to read about every other year on average, the novels of Jane Austen.

9780008225650Jane Austen is one of those authors whose works are familiar to a large proportion of the population. They come up on many an English Literature curriculum, are widely read for pleasure and, interestingly, are often adapted for film and tv. I’ve even managed to get Rob to watch some of these adaptations (although he does refer to Sense and Sensibility as ‘the one where she sobs into her harpsichord…’) which is a bit of an achievement. These adaptations are the focus of the latter part of Paula Byrne’s book (itself an expanded reissue of an earlier, 2003, book on Austen and theatre) and I was reminded of both books and the films themselves.  Not just the BBC series or the Hollywood films but also the homages – to be honest it has been a few years since I read Emma but I reckon I watched Clueless sometime in the last six months…

The main part of the book looks at Austen’s relationship with the theatre – one I’d sum up as both knowledgable and warm. Because I have never had to study any of the books (not since my English ‘O’ level in 1981) I wasn’t aware of a school of critical thought which assumed that Austen disapproved of theatre – I was actually surprised to hear this since, like Byrne, my reading of the books themselves always suggested that she enjoyed this form of entertainment. The additional research done by Byrne, an Austen scholar, backs up her opinion – letters are full of mention of trips to theatres in London, Bath and other towns. I avoided reading critical works when possible at University – if they’d all been this readable and convincing I would probably have read more!

Jane

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession – Alison Weir

There are some times in life when you suddenly find yourself doing something that, not so long ago, you would never have believed possible. For example, I recently joined a running club. Yes. An actual running club – I even actually go out most weeks and run with them. The me from a few years ago who used to get out of breath running for a bus is absolutely gobsmacked so it is perfectly okay for you to express astonishment. To be fair, I’m mostly surprised that I’ve given up a couple of hours of reading time each week (not to mention a lie-in on any Saturday I’m off work) but, so far, it has been worth it. Slightly achy legs, the occasional soaking and only one major set of bruises is a fair return for all the fresh air, country views and second breakfasts eaten after a parkrun. It is probably not immediately obvious how this preamble about running fits in with Alison Weir’s second volume in the series of six historical novels about the wives of Henry VIII but bear with me…

30231546The first volume – on Katherine of Aragon – looked at the role of women in general and Queens in particular. Henry’s first queen is sure that she must live up to those roles but Anne Boleyn, his second, is, we have always been told, a rebel who wants to overthrow this system. This novel gives us Anne’s view of the world: her childhood, her family relationships and her girlhood in the courts of Renaissance Europe. Here she is enthralled by female monarchs who think in a new way, who feel that women have greater roles to play than just wives and mothers, who value women’s independence, intelligence and opinions. Most importantly she is told, by the women she respects at court that, above all, a woman’s most important quality is her virginity.

This is not the story of Anne Boleyn which I expected. Cleverly, Weir doesn’t give us the obvious – Anne as seductress or Anne as pawn in parental plan – but a highly original view of a much written-about woman. Once again, her knowledge of her subject and meticulous research has led her to a highly original, if fictional, version of events. There is overlap with Katherine’s story, of course, and what has been particularly interesting for me has been the  fluctuating character of Henry himself. The courtly lover, the tyrannical husband, the statesman and the would-be head of a dynasty are all there but, at the heart of it all is a man afraid that he will never have a son to inherit the kingdom he rules. Like me with running Anne, according to Weir, didn’t set out to become a queen – but when she did accept this as her role (had queen-ness thrust upon her as it were) she tried to do the best she could. I feel the same way about running (but hope that it all ends better in my case). I am also now looking forward to the Jane Seymour novel – I think Weir may even make her interesting for me…

Jane

 

How to Eat Better – James Wong

Next to books I guess I like food best. There are a lot of foodstuffs I’m not keen on – tripe isn’t going to happen and I don’t see the point of sweetcorn – but on the whole I enjoy my food. As a younger woman I seemed to be able to eat and drink as I pleased without making much difference to my weight or size but time (and probably hormones) have put paid to that. These days I try to eat more healthily (and sustainably), with lots of fruit and veg and take more exercise – let’s face it, I need to live as long as I can because authors just keep on writing books I need to read. So, when I was at an Orion publishing do earlier this year – meeting authors, eating canapes of possible healthiness and sipping the odd glass of mineral water* – I did grab quite eagerly at the new book by James Wong.

eat betterThis isn’t a book about faddy diets, self-denial or shaming anyone’s food choices. What it is about is making the healthiest choices on everyday ingredients, making little improvements and being better informed on the facts about health. Some of it I was aware of – we’ve been on brown rice and wholemeal pasta for quite a while now thanks to Weight-Watchers Pro-points – but other bits were new information. Who’d have guessed that there was so much nutritional difference between a Golden Delicious and a Braeburn apple? Or that I’d unconsciously always been drawn to the healthier variety? There are plenty of interesting looking recipes – so you know what to actually do with that ultra-healthy purple-fleshed sweet potato – and beverages are not neglected. While not encouraging too much indulgence at least Wong mentions some health benefits of some wines and beers (when used in moderation of course). Again I’m slightly smug that my favoured wines (Syrah, Merlot, Pinotage…) are on the better end of the scale.

The science behind Wong’s claims is clearly explained – the man is a Kew-trained botanist so knows what he’s talking about here – and I never felt like I was being preached to. If a food is healthiest frozen or microwaved then Wong lets us know. Processed foods are not the enemy and organic isn’t necessarily healthier (or affordable for many). This is a book which is practical and realistic in trying to improve health through diet – choosing smaller mushrooms and redder peppers isn’t going to make me live forever but it can help me be just a little bit healthier, with little effort, and may even save me a few pennies. Win win I think!

Jane

*Okay, I lied about the mineral water but I’m sure they were serving a nice, polyphenol-charged, Merlot…

Don’t Be a Dick, Pete – Stuart Heritage

Families are…complicated. The hardest bit seems to be that no sooner have you worked out what all your relationships are with your parents, siblings and other family members as a child when, suddenly, you are an adult yourself. All those relationships change, subtly, as you gradually become older, get responsible jobs, vote, marry, leave home, become parents. You become responsible for others – work colleagues and clients, partners and offspring – and one day you may end up becoming the person who has to look after a parent. Yep, families are complicated and getting older can be scary. But, now I have read Stuart Heritage’s account of his childhood, family and forays into adulthood, I realise they can also be blooming hilarious.

Heritage tells the story of how he moves back to his hometown, Ashford, in Kent when he and his wife have their first child. They consider lots of places (because, let’s face it, almost anywhere is better value for money than living in London…) but finally have to admit that Ashford is their best option. We meet Heritage’s parents (in dramatic circumstances, when their house catches fire), his wife and son and, most importantly, his younger brother – the foul-mouthed, grumpy and almost unhealthily single-minded Pete. Stu is, in his own words, the perfect son: Pete is quite possible the worst son in the history of offspring. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that and, as the book progresses you realise that Pete has a lot of good qualities (although it would take a brave man – or a brother – to go on a stag night with him). By the end you feel that both brothers have moved on and become proper adults. Assuming proper adults love wrestling, competing in Iron Man races and shouting ‘tiddies’ with no warning of course…

This book is utterly hilarious and as full of profanities as a football terrace full of white-van drivers. It turns out that Stu isn’t the perfect son he reckons he is and Pete is a better one than you’d think but they are brothers and, even when they can’t agree on anything, they love each other.

Jane

P.S. In our house we have one rule. DBAD. Or Don’t Be A Dick. This book is so funny that I am going to forgive both brothers for breaking the rule…

 

Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.

Jane

 

 

Lost for Words – Stephanie Butland

The best books (and films, tv, songs, whatever) are often the ones you can connect with. The ones where you understand what the characters are going through because you’ve been there. I mean, maybe not quite in the same way – I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice but I don’t live in Regency England and I’ve never been proposed to by Mr Darcy: but I have experienced the cut and thrust of family life and none of us are immune to judging people based on first impressions. I do enjoy books which seem to be totally beyond my own world but, in the middle of the dystopias and post-apocalypses I love, the part of the story I really want to read is human experience – the reaction of people like me to situations totally unlike anything I’ve ever been through.

519GIZDH5EL._SY346_The main character in Lost for Words, Loveday Cardew, is nothing like me. She’s tattooed, uncomfortable in social situations, writes poetry and spent most of her childhood in care but she is very much like me because she is a bookseller. A real bookseller. Not just someone who works in a bookshop – she’s the real thing. It is a bit self-indulgent but I absolutely loved the parts of this book where the bookshop, its customers and Loveday’s feeling for books are described. I may even have done the odd little fist-pump and shouted out ‘yesssss!’ with a sense of total understanding. However, I would imagine that you don’t need to be a bookseller to sympathise with Loveday’s position.  She is trying her hardest to live a quiet life: she works in a second-hand bookshop in York (where I lived for 3 years in my student days), has a reasonably good relationship with her eccentric boss and tries to avoid much contact with almost everyone else. She feels she is not worth other people’s effort, unless they are looking for an obscure or hard to find book, and she certainly is not looking for love.

This was an unusual bit of chick-lit. Yes, it was about a young woman and her relationships but it was about quite a lot more. It looks at Loveday’s difficult past and her gradual acceptance of her future: she is a central character in a chick-lit novel that we could all find something in common with if we are honest – awkward, often grumpy and unreasonable. I really liked her. If you like something more than just romance in your chick-lit then maybe Loveday’s story is one for you.

Jane

Don’t Let Go – Michel Bussi (translated by Sam Taylor)

I’ve got pretty simple tastes in tv most of the time*. I can take or leave reality shows, talent shows or real-life medical stuff. I’ll watch some sport and soaps (but if I miss them I’m not that bothered) but will almost always enjoy stuff on science, history and gardening. And then there are the programmes I really enjoy and will happily watch over and over again – Big Bang Theory and really cheesy detective shows. Not intellectual police dramas – I’ve watched things like Wallender but I’d rather read the books – but pure escapist cheese. The kind of series where you have one eye on the plot and the other on the lovely countryside – Midsomer Murders (known as ‘Murder Most reassuring’ in our house) or Death in Paradise (or ‘Murder Most Tropical’, inevitably). Bliss. Obviously with books I like a bit more variety (and, in my head, I can have whatever landscape I like) but sometimes these two areas overlap a touch.

9781474601788Michel Bussi’s previous two books (in English translation) have been set in Paris (and the snow-capped Jura mountains) and Giverny but this one ranges further afield to the island of Réunion. Still part of France but also very exotic to those used to the mainland – and certainly not immune to the ravages of drugs, revenge and murder. This was certainly less pre-watershed friendly than Death in Paradise and the darker side of life on a tropical paradise (built on slavery and colonialism…) is brought vividly to life. A couple and their young daughter are, it seems, enjoying their stay on Réunion until the wife, Liane Bellion, disappears from their hotel room. At first it seems to be a classic ‘locked-room’ mystery but soon evidence seems to point to Liane’s husband Martial – he goes on the run with his young daughter: the actions, it would seem, of a guilty man.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – Martial has a secret to hide but we gradually come to realise that murder is probably not in his repertoire. It is quite refreshing not to be working through the usual psychological thriller routine of an unreliable narrator – we see the story from the point of view of Martial, Liane and their daughter but also from that of two police officers involved in the case. These varied voices show us the truth about not only Liane’s disappearance and Martial’s past but also about life of the island – the relationships between the varied ethnic groups and the undercurrents of racism, poverty and violence which tourists rarely see.

If you enjoy crime fiction with a side order of exotic scenery, a convoluted plot and interesting characters then give this (and Bussi’s other books) a try. Any urge to drink rum while reading is your own problem…..

Jane

*I’m also, possibly, the last person left who watches about 95% of their tv in real time. If I’m not home to watch it I probably never will – I’ve too many books to read to be doing with catch-up….