Friday, 2 December 2016

Emma (The Austen Project no. 3) by Alexander McCall Smith

Publication date: 4th June 2015
Published by: The Borough Press
Genre: Contemporary Romance

My Synopsis
Emma Woodhouse lives in the tight-knit English country village of Highbury. The daughter of a 'gentleman farmer', she is rich, clever and not particularly interested in the pursuit of romantic love - or at least not for herself.  Her older sister has left home and moved to London and her former - wait for it - governess (yes, I did say governess), Anne Taylor, continues to live in the stately home  Emma grew up in with her overly cautious and worrisome father, while she attends university.  After graduating, she returns to Highbury with a plan to start her own business - but not right away since, If you are Emma Woodhouse, employment is not something you need to rush into.

Having nothing particular to do with her time, Emma's return creates mayhem as she interferes in the lives of her friends and neighbours, in what she tells herself are selfless attempts to make their lives better.  The hapless victims include the impressionable Harriet Smith, a teaching assistant at an English language school for foreign teenagers, Anne Fairfax, a young musician who lives with her poverty-stricken aunt and great-aunt, and Frank, the son of Mr George Weston, a neighbour in the village.  Frank has spent most of his life in Australia and has come to Highbury with a plan - one that gets derailed thanks to Miss Woodhouse.  She also works her magic on the not-so-hapless Philip Elton, the local vicar.  The only person who seems immune to Emma's meddling is her next door neighbour, George Knightly.  It becomes apparent that Emma needs a firm hand, or at least bringing down a peg or two,  for her own good.  Perhaps George is the person to do just that....

My Review:
This is the 3rd book released by the Austen Project, which invites carefully selected (well established and respected) authors to write a modern version of each of Jane Austen's novels.  That this particular novel is a modern retelling is debatable, however, since the original story has not been altered that much.  For me, the only thing modern about it is the setting, which is exactly 200 years after the original publication.  The result of this is fundamental flaws and niggling plot holes that, understandably, could not be avoided. (Some of these are alluded to in my synopsis.)  I don't think this is by accident as the approach enhances comedy value - which I think is what McCall Smith was aiming for.  My solution to its unfeasibility was to acknowledge that it is not just a work of fiction but complete fantasy that required me to suspend me disbelief and, in doing so, allowed me to focus more on what is great about it - and there is a lot that is great about this book.

Having this story in a contemporary setting does feel a bit 'chick-lit' like*.  That said, it is the kind of chick-lit that most novels of that kind can only aspire to. The character development is particularly good, because the reader does get more backstory and therefore more of an insight into the characters than the original.  Not only the principal ones like Emma, and Knightly but pretty much all of them.  This added another dimension to the novel (both versions).  As I mentioned before, it is also told with great humour.  There are many laugh-out-loud moments that made it such an enjoyable read for me.  Mr Woodhouse, in particular, is a character of comedic value.  You get the impression that McCall Smith is poking fun at these upper-class folk - but in a nice way.  We also see their humane side, Mr Knightly, in particular, comes across as a kind and thoughtful person who loves his village and genuinely cares about the people who live there, regardless of their situation.

I am a fan of Jane Austen but whenever I read her books, I always think about what it would have been like for my ancestors in those days.  Being a descendent of slaves kept by the British in the West Indies, I cringe at the frivilous lives of these people who benefited so greatly from the extreme suffering of others.  Jane Austen is conveniently blind to this fact, whereas McCall Smith is not.  The lovely Mr Knightly brings this up in a conversation with Mr Woodhouse - a conversation that is played out in a way that I have heard many times myself.  Very nicely done indeed!

Emma is not a likeable character - she wasn't in 1816 and she isn't in 2016.  The problem with Emma is that (a) she has too much time on her hands, (b) she had never experienced hardship and is completely out of touch with the lives of those who do and (c) she is an intelligent person who needs intellectual stimulation - a way to put that overactive mind of hers to (good) use - and is not getting it.  In 1816 her opportunities would have been very limited.  Going to university or running a business would not have been an option, so it is easier to make allowances for the original character, compared to the modern one.  Her predicament is a lethal cocktail that many of the characters in the book fall victim to.  You will more than likely get irritated with her.  You may even become infuriated with her.

I like flawed characters because they make a story interesting.  She is not all bad and she is self-aware; she recognises that her behaviour is questionable - but then she convinces herself it's okay. She does grow up and learn her lesson but, what I really liked was that she remained the same (flawed) person throughout.

Emma is, in my view, Jane Austen's second best novel (after Pride and Prejudice) and this version goes some way of demonstrating what a great story it is.


*Then again, I am convinced that chick-lit has evolved from the Jane Austen novel, since the sub-genre kick-started following the publication of Bridget Jones's Diary, a novel inspired by Pride & Prejudice. 

More Austen Project reviews

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no. 1) - Coming Soon

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermit (no. 2)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (no. 4)




Friday, 25 November 2016

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey


Publication date: 26 April 2011
Publisher: Penguin
Audio version - 2014 Audible Inc.
Duration 12 hrs and 38 mins

Publication synopsis
An unforgettable love story, brimming with passion and politics, set over fifty years in Trinidad – a place at times enchanting, and at times highly dangerous . . .

When George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from England as young newlyweds, they have with them just a couple of suitcases and Sabine's prized green bicycle. Their intention is to stay for not more than three years, but George falls in love with the island. Sabine, however, is ill at ease with the racial segregation and unrest in her new home, and takes solace in the freedom of her green bicycle.

George and Sabine become more entangled in their life on the island – in all its passion and betrayals – and Sabine's bicycle takes her places she wouldn't otherwise go. One day George make a discovery that forces him to realise the extent of the secrets between them, and is seized by an urgent, desperate need to prove his love for her – with tragic consequences.


My Review - Caution may contain spoilers

The novel is in two parts.  The first part is set in 2006.  George and Sabine have lived in Trinidad for 50 years and are in their 70s.  They are a wealthy white minority couple living among a predominantly *non-white population. The son of their house keeper has been badly beaten by the police and, both outraged by this, they try to do what they can to help.  

The second part of the book goes back 50 years to the time when George and Sabine first arrived in Trinidad.  They are enthusiastic and excited about their prospects.  However, as reality sets in, Sabine realises that living in a strange country far away from home isn't the paradise she thought it would be.  This is not a problem for George as he has a full time high profile job to keep him busy and, unlike back in England, he is now a 'big fish'.   The longer they stay the more George loves it and the less Sabine does.  Sabine becomes angry and resentful as she fails to convince George to leave., which results in the slow and steady decline of their marriage. 

This is happening at a time when the country is undergoing major change; a time of political unrest when colonial rule on the island is under threat and the birth of the republic is looming.  This is being sparked by the people taking notice of the lectures being given by Dr Eric Williams, the charismatic young Oxford educated Trinidadian, who speaks to them about the possibility of a better way of life.  He becomes a political activist and later on becomes the much-loved leader (Prime Minister) of the republic.  One day while he addresses a crowd in the square in the heart of Port-of-Spain, Sabine is passing by on her bicycle.  She stops and listens and, despite the talk being about ending British rule, she finds she is captivated and moved by him.  This leads to an obsession that causes her to write Eric Williams a series of letters, revealing her inner thoughts and feelings.  She continues to write to him for decades (until his death in 1981).  She only posts the first one and keeps all the others hidden away in boxes.

So, what is this book about?  It is a complex love story that spans the decades.  It is not an obvious love story because the focus is on betrayal and resentment.  Sabine has to compete not so much with other women who may have gained her husbands affection, but rather with a nation that has.  She is convinced that she hates Trinidad because she loves George unconditionally and she believes he loves the island more than he loves her (since he is not prepared to leave for her sake, and back in those days a woman could not just up and leave her husband without serious consequences).  Neither George nor Sabine communicate their feelings, and so truth and understanding is absent for most of their marriage. 

The act of letter writing to Dr Williams was Sabine's form of (self) therapy.  She would vent her anger and frustration by writing her feelings down and it felt more meaningful to her to address them to this charismatic man who inspired the very nation she resents.  The truth only comes out decades later when George accidentally comes across the letters.  When he reads them they have a profound effect on him.  He is full of remorse and wants nothing more than to make up for the pain he has inflicted.  Roffey is perceptive in her depiction of how people mellow and change (even become sentimental) with old age.

Sabine is an interesting and complex character.  She is also an unreliable narrator.  Her portrayal of Trinidad is, let's say, selective  She is too self-absorbed to take notice of what is beyond the little bubble of a world she lives in.  Like many self-absorbed types, she sees herself as a victim.  All the while others around her suffer much worse, while she is oblivious.  I found it difficult to feel much empathy for her.  Her heart is in the right place, however.  Over the years she develops a fondness of 'the help' and is quite devoted to them in later years.  Although forever resentful, she comes to love the island as much as George - it becomes home.  Eric Williams's charisma takes effect and she is completely charmed by him.  In later years, after his death, like many, she becomes disillusioned as the country bears no resemblance to the ideals he talked about.

 My verdict:  This story is well worth reading.  I listened to the audio version but I regret it. I would have been better off with the novel because I was irritated by the narration.  I winced whenever there was dialogue involving Trinidadian characters.  I understand that it is a difficult accent to do, but the narrator didn't even come close.  Instead it was a really bad attempt at a Jamaican accent, which was distracting and rendered the story less convincing.    


*I say 'non-white' because Trinidad is a racially diverse country with an almost equal ratio of Afro-Caribbean and Indian-Caribbean people.  There are also people of Chinese, Spanish and Syrian descent (lets not forget those who are the products of the mixing of all these races).  Sabine, in her unreliable way,  only focuses on an Afro-Caribbean majority vs a white minority.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Published by: Nan A Talese
Publication date: 13 September 2016

Publisher's synopsis: 
Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse but John's not here. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month old resident of Trudy's womb.

Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world's master storytellers



 My Review

I was excited about this novel for 2 reasons:
  1. Ian EcEwan's previous novel, The Children Act, was so brilliant.
  2. The premise of Nutshell suggested promise.
So, when it came out I got hold of a copy tout de suite. 

On reading, I wasn't sure about it at the beginning.  The reason for this was because the narrator is a highly intelligent and sophisticated foetus, which felt unnatural and uncomfortable. To me this nameless character who I will refer to as 'Baby', came across as precocious - which was annoying.  I had to stop reading and have a conversation with myself - one that consisted of me explaining that I am going about this all wrong.  I need to suspend my disbelief and not think on this unborn child as ordinary, but extraordinary and completely self-aware.  With a new frame of mind I went back to the book and my annoyance disappeared.

Throughout her pregnancy, we learn that Trudy has spent a lot of her time listening to BBC radio 4 and informative podcasts about a multitude of topical subjects.  Baby has been able to hear and absorb all the information being broadcast and has learned much about the world in this way.  Baby spends it's time listening, contemplating and philosophising about the world it is yet to enter.  Baby also hears all the conversations going on in close proximity and discovers that its mother is having an affair.  Baby is more intelligent than your average adult (me, for instance, which may have been my initial problem), and notably more so than any of the adults in the book.  It forms its conclusions about them: unconditional love for its mother - despite her treacherous ways, and utter contempt for Claude, the man Trudy is cheating on Baby's father with, who Baby idolises, since father represents security and hope.

As this rather dark story unfolds, more revelations hit this infant, each an increasingly shocking blow.  The effects are quite traumatic and Baby becomes melancholy and (aided by secondary consumption of alcohol via the placenta) mawkish, as a result.  I found myself empathising with this infant, particularly with the desperate sense of helplessness to change what is going on and what is to come.

On the surface Nutshell may be a classic murder story but I saw something more, i.e., a reflection of current world events, as McEwan holds a mirror up to humanity.  I feel as though Baby represents members of the population who are discovering the meaning (and reality) of political change in the western world and finding themselves, shocked, horrified and in a state of helplessness, melancholia and, yes, mawkishness.

Nutshell did not disappoint.  It is both brilliant and insightful and, therefore, a novel I cannot recommend highly enough.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project no. 2) by Val McDermid

Publication date: 15th April 2014
Published by:  Grove press
Genre: Contemporary Romance (YA)

My Synopsis

Cat Morland is a 17-year-old home-schooled vicar's daughter from the Piddle Valley in Dorset on the South West Coast of England.  Cat has lived a sheltered life and spends much of her time reading vampire romance and other moderately scary books for teenagers.  She receives the chance to leave the confines of the Piddle Valley for the first time by her neighbours, the Allens, a childless couple who are friends of her parents, when they invite her to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with them.

In Edinburgh, Cat becomes acquainted and makes friends with Bella Thorpe and Ellie Tilney, girls her own age.  She experiences romance for the first time when she develops strong feelings for Ellie's older brother, Henry, while being pursued by Bella's crass and annoying older brother, Johnny.

As the Fringe is about to draw to a close, she receives an unexpected invitation to join Ellie at her home in Northanger Abbey.  As well as seeing this as an opportunity to spend more time with her new friend - and more to the point her new friend's brother, Cat also likes the idea of visiting a real gothic abbey of the type she loves to read about in her novels.  She begins to draw parallels between the characters of her much loved books and the lifestyle of the Tilney family; but do the facts really resemble those in fiction?

My Review

Val McDemid has followed the plot of Jane Austen's original to the letter, even lifting certain passages and conversations from it throughout.  It has been brought into the 21st century, however, in that horses become cars, carriages become buses, hand-written letters become texts and emails, etc. The setting has changed as most of the story takes place in Edinburgh, rather than Bath.  Scenarios have also been adapted, e.g. Henry is a trainee barrister instead of a clergyman.

In my view, this modern version reads better than the original for two reasons.
  1. Making it about a teenager's obsession with YA fantasy novels such as Twilight and having the main character's imagination run away with her as a result works better than the original, which is a parody of early gothic romance - one that did not work well for me.
  2. The original Catherine Morland is very naive.  She comes across as an annoying simpleton and the original Henry Tilney sometimes comes across condescending towards her. (Presumably this was Austen having a pop at gothic romance novelists and how they portrayed their characters in her eyes.).  McDermid has revised the character of Cat to naive but not simple-minded, and when her version of Henry makes the condescending remarks, he does so ironically.
What the modern version has not achieved is a well-developed romance between the 'hero' (Henry) and the 'heroine' (Cat).  It is very clear from the start that the original character of Henry Tilney is attracted to Catherine, and that attraction soon develops into love.  He is cautious and subtle in his execution, but he is definitely wooing her throughout the story.  Despite coming across rather patriarchal, he manages to demonstrate charm, a good sense of humour and an ability to be flirtatious in his pursuit of her.  The modern character lacks all of these qualities and the exchanges between them come across as nothing more than a teenage girl 'crushing' on an older guy who is simply making time for his sister's friend.  This modern Henry, as a character, is also problematic because he is 26 going on 46. (Only an older British upper-class man would wear raspberry corduory trousers!)  Also, his aversion to teenage slang is granddad-like.  I felt there was a missed opportunity to play this out as a parody for comedy value (i.e. if this had been acknowledged and Cat had compared him to Twilight's Edward Cullen, who has the unaging body of a 17-year old with the experience and wisdom of being around for over a century).  If there had been romantic exchanges between them I suspect it would have come across borderline creepy.  There is just nothing alluring about Henry, so it's hard to see why the 17 year-old Cat would find him so.  When he finally does expresses his true feelings, it is not convincing. The conflict of the plot was (and had to be) revised to bring it into the 21st century, but it just did not work for me.

This book is an average read.  In fairness to McDermid, she was restricted by the original source material, which is, lets say, not Austen's best work; the plot is insipid and Catherine is irritating.  McDermid has done a good job of improving it.


More Austen Project reviews

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no. 1) - Coming Soon

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (no. 3) - Coming Soon

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (no. 4)


Friday, 4 November 2016

Crime Fiction: Sophie Hannah's Little Face (Culver Valley series, Book 1)

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 26 August 2006

The Spilling CID, (Criminal Investigation Department of the British Police Force - I had to look it up!), is set in fictional Culver Valley North England.  It centres around 2 main characters, DS - Detective Sergeant - Charlie Zailer and DC - Detective Constable - Simon Waterhouse.

The first book in the series alternates between the first person perspective of the victim of a crime, Alice Fancourt, and the third person perspective, when it focuses on DC Simon Waterhouse.  Alice contacts the police and reports that, while she was away from home, her new born baby was kidnapped and swapped for another.  She was only away for a few hours and on her return, she finds the front door open, her husband asleep and another person's baby lying where her daughter, Florence, should be. This baby has the same blue eyes and milk spots on its nose as Florence.  Alice can't quite say how she knows it is not Florence - except to say this baby has 'a different face'.  Her husband thinks she is losing her mind, since he (says he) believes Florence and the baby known as 'Little Face' are the same person.  Simon is in the area when it is called in and agrees to go to the house to investigate...

The crime in this story reads like a classic detective mystery.  I am the kind of reader who is constantly trying to second guess a plot and unravel what is going on, so this book presented a challenge for me.  There were a few 'red herrings' and I was kept in the dark all the way through.  I found myself getting frustrated, as a result, and so, if I am honest, it was not a particularly enjoyable read.  It felt like the plot did not make sense.  There is a fair amount of complexity in this crime, which is part of the reason it is challenging to work out.  However, a lot did fall into place after the big reveal at the end - just as a crime mystery should.  Unfortunately, the red herrings made no sense at that point and the story felt contrived. 

The book also introduces the plain-clothes police officers and provides some backstory for the main characters, Simon and his boss Charlie (Charlotte Zailer).  We learn that the relationship between them is a complicated one (of the unrequited love kind - something that is revealed too early in the novel to be a spoiler), resulting in tension between the two of them and some awkward moments in the workplace.  Let's say there is blurring between the line of the personal and the professional.  Charlie can't seem to keep her feelings separate on the job and the end result is rather mortifying for her.  In some ways the dynamics between the characters are realistic, demonstrating perceptiveness on the part of the author.  For example, the way Simon's feelings of emasculation and self-doubt get in the way of his relationship with Charlie. He knows how she feels but he thinks she sees him as a 'work in progress.'

I would recommend this series to crime fiction lovers who enjoy classic mysteries in a modern setting.  Bear in mind that there is also a fair amount of focus on the personal relationships of the police officers - which some may find rather soap opera like (which may or may not be your kind of thing).

The Culver Valley series is addictive reading.  I've already picked up a copy and read book 2, Hurting Distance, and I find myself reaching for book 3.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Back Soon!

Sooz Book Reviews will be back next Friday
(4th November).
 
Yay!


Saturday, 3 September 2016

Downtime

Sooz Book Reviews is on a break,
 but there will be more reviews later in the year.