Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘fiction’

The Watsons by Jane Austen

 

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After reading The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn recently, I went to my book case to pull out my copy of Jane Austen’s The Watsons. Only a few chapters remain after the author abandoned the story. My copy contains an introduction and notes by Margaret Drabble of how Jane Austen intended the story to continue, as told to her sister Cassandra, then reported to her nieces many years later.

The Watsons starts with Emma Watson on her way to stay with neighbours to prepare for a ball. Emma is accompanied by her elder sister, Miss Watson, who is unable to attend the ball as she is to look after their invalid father. During the journey, Miss Watson gossips about the friends and neighbours who Emma can expect to meet at the ball, introducing us and Emma to them. These people are unknown to Emma as she has only recently returned to the neighbourhood, having lived with her aunt and uncle since she was a small child.

Emma was expected to have been her aunt and uncle’s heir, but after her uncle died her aunt unexpectedly remarried, and Emma returned to her own family home, with no further expectations. When Emma returns, she barely knows her own siblings.

At the ball, Emma won the heart of little Charles Blake, who came to dance with his sister (Miss Osborne) but was disappointed when she threw him over so she could dance with other men (who are adults and not related to her – understandable, but hard on little Charles). Emma asked Charles to dance and was noticed for her kindness as well as for her pretty face by the local suck-up, Mr Tom Musgrave, the high and mighty but socially inept Lord Osborne and Mr Howard, Charles’ gentlemanly tutor.

There was a little more to come after the ball, but the story was abandoned at around 17,000 words for reasons which are unknown, but guessed at. Some people think the story was too close to Jane Austen’s own story, while others suggest she was too miserable in Bath to continue, or to busy, or too lacking in privacy and time to write. Probably there are as many opinions as there are readers.

This may be arrogant of me but as a reader, I like to think I’m part of the story and have a say too! (shades of Lady Catherine de Bourgh?) but I think Jane Austen abandoned The Watsons partly because the story’s ending was too obvious to her. I am certain she would have had twists and turns coming up, but from the first few chapters seemed clear who the heroine, the villain and the hero were and what each of their trials would be.

The Watsons is fascinating though. The characters are interesting, some likeable and some not, due to Jane Austen’s knack of writing them so we know and recognise them for who they are in a few words.

 

 

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The Charmers by Elizabeth Adler

 

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I’m only reviewing The Charmers by Elizabeth Adler as a reminder to my future self that I didn’t enjoy this book, so not to go back for more from this author.

The Charmers is this author’s thirtieth book, so she obviously has a dedicated readership, and with glamourous titles like Meet Me in Venice, Sailing to Capri and It All Began in Monte Carlo, I’m not surprised.

In The Charmers, Mirabelle Matthews, a well-known author of suspense novels, inherits a villa in the South of France from her Aunt Jolly, who in turn inherited the property from Jerusha, the most well-known entertainer of her time. Driving to the Villa Romantica along the same road where Princess Grace of Monaco had the crash which ended her life, Mirabelle and a young woman she befriended on the train journey to France are run off the road by a mysterious motorcyclist. Mirabelle was driving a Maserati she inherited along with the rest of Aunt Jolly’s estate.

A charming and mysterious Russian known as ‘The Boss’ is at the bottom of this and other threats to Mirabelle’s life, because he wants her to sell him Villa Romantica so he can develop the land for profit. This isn’t a spoiler, because the story unfolds without any surprises.

I thought there were too many different view points for such a short novel, and that the story was told in a very choppy manner.

Some plot devices were too far-fetched for me to believe, including the story of a Titanic survivor who was pulled from the water with an undamaged Turner painting in his dinner jacket, although I happily went along with Mirabelle inheriting a beautiful estate in the south of France!

I also found a few grammatical errors which annoyed me. I’m not the best at grammar and am known for muddling up my tenses, but when I notice grammatical errors in a book, they must be bad!

There was a romantic interest and a mystery about why Mirabelle always wore gloves, but by the middle of the book I’d had enough, so I can’t tell you any more about either.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

 

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The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn has been on my list since reading Ami from Luv to Read’s review of this book, even though Ami said she did not love this story.

Brief Thoughts: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

I did enjoy the story though and thought the plot enormously clever.

The heroine of The Jane Austen Project is Rachel Katzman, a doctor and missionary from a future which is slightly different to the one I expect our world to have. Rachel is sent back in time to England in 1815 by a research organisation, The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, to befriend Jane Austen’s family, then Jane Austen herself. Rachel is tasked with bringing copies of Jane Austen’s lost letters to her sister Cassandra and a completed copy of The Watsons* with her when she returns to her own time. A colleague, Liam Finucane, is sent to 1815 with Rachel, to pose as her brother.

Rachel and Liam’s instructions are to avoid as much as possible making any changes to the world around them by their actions, however this proved impossible. Saving a young boy from his dangerous work as a chimney sweep had a ripple-effect, as did the influx of counterfeit money Rachel and Liam brought with them to 1815.

Rachel and Liam posed as wealthy West Indies planters who had inherited a coffee plantation before freeing their slaves. Their back story bought them acceptance with the Tilsons, actual friends and business partners of the Austen family.

Some parts of the plan went extraordinarily well. Liam managed to scrape an acquaintance with Henry Austen, who then met and showed great interest in Rachel (and in her bust and her fortune). The three formed a friendship which led to Rachel and Liam meeting and becoming friends with Jane Austen also. Liam, who is posed as a doctor since Rachel couldn’t use her skill, diagnosed and treated Henry’s illness under Rachel’s guidance. Rachel then secured an invitation to Chawton after saving Edward Knight’s daughter from choking using the Heimlich manoeuver, which had not yet been invented.

For me the jarring moments in The Jane Austen Story were to do with Rachel’s in-your-face sexuality, which seemed to me to be there for the shock value rather than what they added to the story. I much preferred reading about Rachel’s issues and irritations with being a powerless, undervalued member of society because she was a female in a time when that was the norm.

At other times, Rachel used sentences which were familiar because they were used by Jane Austen in her later books, such as when she commented that she loved a place no less for having suffered in it while speaking with Jane. I recognised this line from Persuasion which had not been written when this story took place, and felt irritated to think that Jane Austen needed to find her lines from a fictional time-travelling visitor. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story contained other references to Jane Austen’s works which I missed.

The ending was surprising, with one surprise so unexpected and shocking that I gasped aloud on the train while I was reading (then realised where I was and looked around to check if anyone had noticed. I don’t think anyone did). I also found the ending to be quite satisfying, for reasons you will have to learn for yourself by reading the book 🙂

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing and was surprised to learn this was a debut novel, with the story clearly and confidently told. I very much enjoyed meeting a version of Jane Austen as a character who I liked enormously.

I would have liked to have learned more about the world that Rachel and Liam had come from, as the differences to this ‘here and now’ and those in the story were intriguing.

On the whole, I recommend The Jane Austen Project to anyone who, like me, is a sucker for Jane Austen spin-offs and fan-fiction, however, after finishing this, I immediately went to my bookshelf and pulled out The Watsons and read the few chapters that Jane Austen left. I’ll review The Watsons soon.

* In The Jane Austen Project, the research organisation have in their possession a letter which suggests a completed copy of The Watsons exists. I can’t help wishing this were true…

 

 

 

Red Queen by H.M. Brown

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I read some of the short stories in Six Degrees by Australian author Honey Brown last year but didn’t finish as they were too explicitly sexual for my taste, but the writing was good and I was keen to find Red Queen because it is an end-of-world novel, a genre I love.

Red Queen starts with Rohan and Shannon, two Australian brothers living in their parent’s cabin in the bush after a flu-like virus has decimated much of the world’s human population. Their father was an end-of-the world-er (gotta love ’em) who built their hidden cabin to be self-sufficient, possibly around the time we all expected the world to end with the millennial bug. He also built massive bunkers and filled them with chocolate and wine and flour and sugar and baked beans in anticipation of just such an event, but sadly he and the boy’s mother died of the Red Queen virus before they could enjoy their foresight.

Rohan, at 38, is in charge. He is tough and angry and constantly annoyed with his younger brother Shannon, who is 23 and a day-dreamer who forgets to keep a look-out for intruders because he is playing his guitar. When someone sneaks into the cabin and starts stealing food, the brothers are terrified they might have been exposed to the virus.

When the intruder makes herself known to Rohan and Shannon she throws herself on their mercy, and the dynamics of the brother’s relationship changes. Denny adds a sexual element to the novel which was more interesting for the possessiveness and jealousy that arose than for the explicitly-described activities themselves.

Of course Rohan, Shannon and Denny aren’t the only survivors of the Red Queen virus and eventually their battle to survive takes an unexpected turn.

I wish the author had told me more about what happened in the cities when the Red Queen virus hit Australia, and more about the background of the virus, such as where did it come from and was anyone immune? I would also have liked a less predictable ending, but there were a few twists and turns which I didn’t see coming.

I have a cold now. I’m filled up with phlegm and can’t stop sneezing. Hopefully it’s only a strain of the Red Queen virus, because I don’t want the Man-Flu. I had the Man-Flu once and it was terrible. It felt like the end of the world…

 

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Kate Atkinson’s first book. I’m a fan of her writing, having read and loved Life After Life, A God in Ruins and When Will There Be Good News? My only hesitation initially was wondering if the author might have started slowly with this first book and improved with later books, but not so. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is terrific.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum tells the story of Ruby Lennox, who narrates her own life from the moment of conception as well as dipping into her extended family’s stories as footnotes at the end of each chapter. Ruby’s story and the footnotes flicks back and forward in time, so that sometimes the reader knows what is going to happen to a character before an event takes place. I found this technique to be enjoyable and unsettling, as was the story of Ruby’s conception;

“At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep – as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.”

Ruby was born in the 1940’s in England into an unhappy family, which makes me wonder if all families are dysfunctional in stories, as otherwise there wouldn’t be a story. Her parents are unable to hide their unhappiness with each other from their children, although they are able to keep some secrets. Some of the secrets, such as Ruby’s father’s girlfriends, are kept secret from Ruby’s mother, while there are secrets, hinted at earlier in the book, which Ruby keeps from herself. Other secrets about other family members, such as the whereabouts of Ruby’s great-grandmother which shouldn’t be known to Ruby, are somehow known to her and she tells these secret stories as footnotes to her own chapters. These rabbit-holes were fascinating and I would love to know some of these sorts of stories about my own ancestors. One of the stories was similar to that of the Teddy’s experience in A God in Ruins. I must check to see if it is the same story, told from the point of view of two different characters.

The story covers a large amount of time, from WW1 to WW2 and into the 1970’s, though some character’s actions are timeless;

“She pushes her hair back from her forehead in a centuries old genetic gesture of suffering. The life of a women is hard and she’ll be damned if anyone is going to rob her of her sainthood.

Sad but true, I recognised my own self in the excerpt above. I hate cleaning the bathroom so I like to make sure that everyone in the household recognises my efforts when I do so. Just call me a martyr and get on with it!

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is funny and clever and more than a little on the dark side. I loved it.

 

 

The Choke by Sofie Laguna

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Australian author Sofie Laguna knows how to pull on my heartstrings. The Eye of the Sheep, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award was excellent, but I think The Choke is even better.

The Choke is a place, a narrow spot on the Murray River which separates Victoria and New South Wales. Justine, The Choke‘s main character, lives with her Pop and his chooks on his three acres on the river.

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Justine will probably be the character from my reading this year who stays in my head forever. She is ten when the story starts and fourteen when it finishes, but this is not a book for children. The Choke is a book for adults, and much like The Eye of the Sheep, demands that we see children who are neglected and in danger and that we act on their behalf.

Justine’s Pop does the best he can for her, but he is physically and emotionally damaged from his time as a prisoner of war working on the Burma Railway. Justine’s father, Ray, is a charismatic, manipulative and dangerous man who comes and goes from Pop’s farm, usually turning up when he needs a refuge. Justine’s two older half-brothers live in town with their mother, who won’t even look at Justine as Ray left her for Justine’s mother. Justine’s mother is either dead or gone. Justine blames herself for her mother’s disappearance.

Justine is dyslexic and struggles at school, but none of her teachers or family notice. She just slides by, unnoticed. Justine has girl friends who occasionally comment that she is dirty or that she smells, but until she makes friends with a boy in her class who is also invisible because of his physical handicaps, has no one on her side. Justine and Michael’s friendship is a joy to both of them, and it was a joy to me too.

As Justine grew older she becomes more at risk, as a consequence of her father’s criminal activities and because she is completely unprotected by her all-male family, and also because of her own innocence. I felt furious with Justine’s Aunty Rita, who also comes and goes, as well as the other women in this book who must have seen and ignored the danger Justine was in.

The writing in The Choke is wonderful. Very Australian, and evocative of the time and place. My anxiety for Justine throughout this book was high, and I often felt uncomfortable and distressed as her story unfolded, but I was left with a feeling of hope for Justine’s future. I’m already looking forward to whatever Sofie Laguna dishes out next.

 

 

 

 

 

Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

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Here Be Dragons is a more serious story from Stella Gibbons, author of the delightful Cold Comfort Farm. Here Be Dragons is set in the 1950s. The main character is Nell Sely, who has recently moved to London with her parents after her father, a country vicar, lost his faith.

Luckily, Nell’s Aunt Peggy is a rich television star who houses the Sely’s in an apartment she owns and finds Nell a job as a typist. Nell meets her cousin John, Aunt Peggy’s pride and joy, and finds him to be a dirty, artistic Bohemian, who along with his artist friends, sponges off everyone he knows, parties hard and lives in squats, take lovers and looks down on people who abide by the rules of society.

Nell becomes infatuated with John but sees his grungy friends more clearly for what they are as she accompanies him around a succession of coffee shops, squats and dives, always looking for someone who will give him an opening into the art world.

Nell quits her boring job to become a waitress in a tea shop. She is aware that she will be looked down on for waitressing but her family need the money. After waitressing for a short while, Nell decides to save for her own tea shop. In her Aunt Peggy’s eyes, this ambition makes Nell into a cliché, but Nell knows her own mind.

Nell is a terrific heroine who is likeable, full of common sense and compassion, but I struggled to believe in her infatuation with her younger, grubby, selfish and manipulative cousin John. The plot had a few intrigues and there was a moral in there somewhere, but the story and characters just didn’t take my heart the way Cold Comfort Farm did.

A passage where the owner of the tea shop asks Nell to smell the cream to confirm it was good to serve for another day made me laugh and shudder all at once, and was typical of the humour throughout the book. The bohemian set were subtly exposed as selfish, pretentious twats, and certain other characters were delightful – here I’m thinking of Nell’s ‘managing’ friend Elizabeth, who is very like the wonderful Flora from Cold Comfort Farm. There were also horrid characters, including American Gardis, who is even more selfish and manipulative than John. Not surprisingly, John and Gardis hate each other.

I’ll continue to look out for more stories by Stella Gibbons, but will lower my expectations in future. There can only be one Cold Comfort Farm.

 

 

 

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