“Pride And Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Several years ago, I hefted my way through Jane Eyre which, while turning out to be very much worth it, I described at the time as being the reading equivalent of “eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife”. I’ll stick with that analogy for this one. Pride and Prejudice, for all its fans, was to me like trying to eat a whole deer raw, antlers first, with a plastic picnic knife and one hand tied behind my back. Are you getting the impression I didn’t like it? You’d sort of be right, but not fully. Let me explain after the synopsis.

I’m sure you know the story. This is the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, intelligent second daughter of the Bennet clan, a young woman who is prime meat on the marriage market of Regency England. Her mother, the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, is distraught that none of her five daughters are yet married, and hopes they soon will be, as the money and estate can’t be passed down through the female line. At yet another ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, a brooding, unpleasant man who doesn’t seem capable of socialising in any normal way. The two of them turn against one another quite quickly.

But then Darcy reappears and admits that he loves Elizabeth, most ardently. Elizabeth rejects him, thinking him boorish and proud. He respectfully steps back and soon Elizabeth is caught up in the matrimonial dramas of her sisters. But then, upon visiting Darcy’s house of Pemberley, she meets those who know him better and she comes to think that maybe she’s been too hasty with her first impression. If only he could overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, they may yet make for a happy couple.

And if that’s not what happened, then I probably fell asleep for several pages along the way.

What did I like? Well, I didn’t think I much liked any of it while I was halfway through, but in talking to a friend about bits of it, I realised that I do enjoy both Mr and Mrs Bennet and their relationship. He loves and tolerates his wife for all her insecurities and issues as she worries herself silly about her daughters – at one point, when Elizabeth has turned down the proposal of Mr Collins, her mother doesn’t speak to her for a few weeks. I also really enjoy the linguistic sparring of Elizabeth and Darcy, but the scenes are few and far between, and they don’t match Beatrice and Benedick by any means. Elizabeth, nonetheless, is a feisty character, displaying traits that, for the time, may be considered unseemly for a young woman, such as running across country alone to attend to her ill sister, muddying her dress along the route.

However, my overarching feeling was, “Get on with it, you snobs!” as they all waffled on about who should marry who. I get that there are themes here on whether one should marry for love or money, but they sit slightly submerged between conversations about who’s travelling where, who will be attending each ball, and how much money everyone has. I can see how it was important at the time, and there are some moments that may have even appeared quite daring, such as the youngest daughter, Lydia, eloping against her family’s wishes, but I found little relevance to now, aside from the idea that we shouldn’t judge on first appearances, and that excessive pride is unattractive. I think I’m just underwhelmed because the language is so ornate it was like trying to find a golf ball in a thicket to pick out what was actually going on, and people had really built it up for me. Austen can write, I’m not doubting it, but she’s too florid for my tastes.

Also, at no point does Darcy get wet.

I’m not sorry I read it, I feel it has its place in the canon for a reason, and I’m not calling it a bad book by any means. But I do think it’s overrated, and I’m in no hurry to attend to an adaptation (it’s just been announced that ITV are doing a new one soon). However, the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sits on my desk, so I sense I’ll be returning to a twisted version of this world shortly. Something has to liven it up.

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“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“How To Find Love In A Bookshop” by Veronica Henry (2016)

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Where better place to look?

Where better place to look?

“He would never have believed it if you’d told him a year ago.”

There are few places quite as wonderful as a bookshop, from the enormous five-storey flagship branch of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, to the tiniest second-hand place in the sidestreets of Edinburgh. Hatchards, Daunt and its like are enormously influential places, so it’s no surprise that plenty of books exist about bookshops. Penelope Fitzgerald had a bittersweet bash, and Robin Sloan gave the environment a funny, fantastic airing. It’s Veronica Henry’s turn now, and she’s taken the magic of bookshops to a new level.

Emilia Nightingale has rushed back to England to be at the bedside of her father, Julius, who is dying. Her final promise to him is that she will return to the bookshop, Nightingale Books, that he has run for the last thirty years and keep it going in his memory. Unfortunately, she discovers that her father hasn’t had his eye on the ball, and the shop is losing money hand over fist. It might always have been full of people, but half the time they came in to chat with the charming and kind Julius, rather than buy anything. Emilia must decide whether to keep the shop open or sell off the property to the money-grabbing Ian Mendip who wants the land to expand his empire.

The small town, however, is full of residents who want the shop to stay, but few of them are quite what they seem. Sarah is the lady of the manor, looking forward to her daughter’s upcoming wedding and hiding a painful secret that she can’t tell anyone. Bea has moved to the countryside from London for a better life, but the monotony and boredom is driving her mad. Jackson has never read a book in his life, but now is determined to start so he can bond with his young son and prove to his ex that he’s capable of being a good father. June nurses heartbreak that is decades old. Thomasina is a chef crippled by shyness and desperate to talk to the cute guy at the cheese shop. And Dillon is contractually obliged to keep his place.

The fact that this book has so many characters does wonders for it. We learn enough about each of them to really feel for them and want them to find the happiness that they each seem to deserve. They’re not perfect, which makes them even more so. You learn to love these people despite their flaws. The stories weave together neatly and while Emilia is the central figure, she’s not the most interesting one, and the book soon spirals out from being her story to being the story of many. I love a book that reminds you that we’re all part of one another’s stories, and no one is going through this madness alone.

I only have issues with a couple of moments of characterisation. Thomasina is apparently shy, but this for the most part is an entirely informed quality, as every time we see her, she seems confident. Talking to a stranger in the bookshop and setting up a two-person restaurant in her own home are not the actions of a shy person. Indeed, the first major part she has in the book is reading at Julius’s memorial, a task that seems to immediately do away with the trait she’s most linked to. I’m also not totally sure how to feel about Jackson and his ex, Mia. Jackson supposedly was kicked out after becoming feckless and not helping out with their son, but later he’s shown to be paying maintenance without having been asked, and is desperate to take Mia back despite saying how much she’s changed. For such a nice guy, he can be a bit of a dick. He redeems himself by the end, though.

While it might just be because I’m a bit emotionally unstable at the moment anyway, I did shed a tear or two in the final chapter. As is only right in a book of this kind, there are happy endings all round, and they feel deserved. It’s a book that feels like a nap in front of the fire – warm, comfortable and familiar. As much as there is a lot of human love in the book, of all different kinds, it’s really a love letter to books and to bookshops. Books are so important, and anyone who doesn’t read them just hasn’t found the right one yet. Henry’s passion for the medium is highly pronounced.

A nice little addition is that every few chapters there’s a list of books recommended by one of the characters. Thomasina, for example, lists books about food, and Dillon gives us books with particularly notable servants. This is the kind of book that will only cause you to add further to your reading lists. Devour this book and give yourself some cheer.

“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts (2012)

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my-policeman“I considered starting with these words: I no longer want to kill you – because I really don’t – but then decided you would think this far too melodramatic.”

Despite America’s attempts to drag us back into the past, we’ve definitely come a long way in the last few decades. My latest read was set in Brighton, a city notable for its collection of the weird and wonderful, as well as seeming to always have been a haven for anyone who felt like they didn’t fit in. It was for this reason, according to many, that it became home to so many of the LGBT community. But Britain wasn’t always so tolerant, even in Brighton, and this book explores the city in the 1950s.

Teenager Marion has just met Tom, the older brother of her best friend and she is in love. His blond hair, his strong arms – he’s perfect. They meet again when they’re a little older, and he teaches her to swim in the sea, and she becomes convinced that they are going to get married and her love will be enough to propel them though a beautiful future.

Elsewhere, Patrick has just met Tom, a policeman with an interest in art and culture, which seems very unusual. Immediately smitten, Patrick teaches Tom more about these subjects, and the two begin meeting more regularly until it becomes clear that there is a little more than art appreciation on their minds. But this is the 1950s, and so it will be safer for Tom to marry Marion. Both blinded by their love for their policeman and prepared to ignore what’s right in front of them for a sniff of happiness, they must share him, but it all becomes too much one day, and something’s got to give.

The novel opens with the three characters now living together in 1999; although while Marion and Tom are still married, Patrick is a guest and being looked after by them after his second stroke. Half of the book is narrated by Marion, writing to Patrick about what really happened back when they were young, as she hopes he’ll be able to hear the truth before it’s too late. The other half is from Patrick’s point of view, as taken from his journal in the fifties where he is very cagey about naming his lover, referring to him as simply “my policeman”. Despite the perfectly good reason the two have for hating one another, they are curiously similar, and it’s interesting to read their opinions on one another, and see the way they describe the same events from different points of view.

The world is conjured up beautifully, a slightly sad and tragic world in both the fifties and the nineties. We are given constant reminders of how homosexuality was viewed during the middle of the century, with a vast range of opinions on show, much like today. Still, this isn’t nearly as jolly as back then a man could still be imprisoned for being a “sexual invert”. The struggles they go through are writ large and people rarely seem willing to jump to their defence, while Tom, who is perceived by most people to be straight, coasts through life feeling loved by one and all.

Personally, I don’t understand quite what they both see in Tom. They both seem far more attracted to him physically than to who is he, Marion in particular, and while he does seem rather a kind man in some ways, he’s still willing to marry a woman just to act as a cover for his affair with a man. It’s heartbreaking to see both Marion and Patrick suffer, especially Patrick who suffers more than most. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful story and full of emotional truths that can resonate with anyone who has had to lose the person they love to someone else.

Charming and cruel in equal measure.

“One Hundred Names” by Cecelia Ahern (2012)

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100 names“She was nicknamed The Graveyard.”

I’ve never much been a fan of the term “chick lit”. It seems disparaging, as if its trying to do down a whole genre of fiction. I’m also not going to defend it as a brilliant genre, but it definitely has its examples of good writing; Lisa Jewell and Alexandra Potter both do it very well. Cecelia Ahern became well-known when her debut novel, P.S. I Love You, stormed the charts and went on to become a successful film, but it always sounded too mushy for me. However, the blurb of this book intrigued me so I went for it and, frankly, I came out disappointed.

In this book, we meet Kitty Logan, a journalist whose professional and personal lives are falling apart around her. She has become embroiled in a scandal after accusing a school caretaker of sexually abusing two students live on national television. This was a scandal because she was wrong. Now with the court case over, she is trying to piece together her reputation once more. Constance Dubois, her friend and magazine editor, is dying of cancer, and she and Kitty talk about the stories she never got to run. Constance says there is one left, and she’ll pass it onto Kitty. If Kitty brings the envelope in Constance’s filing cabinet to the hospital, she’ll explain everything.

Kitty finds it but before she can make it back, Constance dies. Now the magazine wants to run a tribute and Kitty is determined to write this story for Constance. But inside the envelope there is no story – there is just a list of one hundred names. Kitty now has just over a week to track down everyone on the list, find out what Constance wanted to talk to them about, and save her reputation. Her journey introduces her to a strange assortment of characters, including a convicted prisoner who can hear prayers, a butterfly expert with a fear of people, and two very enthusiastic men with a pedalo.

Many of these sorts of books run to a formula and this one is no exception. Sure, some of the secondary characters are quite interesting but one of the most interesting of all is Constance who dies pretty soon into the novel. Kitty makes for a singularly unpleasant and unsympathetic protagonist. I get that we’re supposed to see her redemptive arc and how she’s struggling to bring herself to apologise to the man whose life she ruined, but frankly I didn’t care. Fictional or not, what she had done was beyond the pail, and I couldn’t bring myself to forgive her and consider her a decent person. For much of the novel, she’s also incredibly selfish, only apparently concerned about how her mistake has come to affect her own life, rather than the life of the man whose reputation she has dragged through the mud. Even when she reveals all about her hardships to an old college friend who is now a journalist too and promptly splashes her “exclusive story” across the tabloids is it hard to feel any real pity for her.

While I get that introducing the one hundred characters on Constance’s list would be a massive undertaking and require a book many times this size, I found the actual number to be a complete cop-out. Of those hundred, we meet six. Oh sure, they’re interesting – more interesting than Kitty – but it still seems like there was a lot more potential here that just doesn’t come into play.

At the end, everything ties up far too neatly, with happy endings for pretty much everyone, but there are a couple of plot points that just never seem to properly get resolved. This book could’ve been so much better, but it failed to live up to the hype and the execution of an otherwise pretty good concept is somewhat shoddy. Shame, really.

“The Last Girlfriend On Earth” by Simon Rich (2013)

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The-Last-Girlfriend-on-Earth

Dibs.

Heartbreak and failed romance form the bread and butter of fiction – practically always have done, and probably always will. Most people, unless they choose to spend their days under a rock or doing nothing but grinding on World of Warcraft, will eventually have their heartbroken by someone or other.

Simon Rich has taken this idea and run with it for thirty short stories about different aspects of love and, more specifically, the problems that arise from that word when things begin to go wrong. Like most anthologies, there are going to be some stories within that are better than others, and definitely there are some weak links in the chain here, but generally this is a very strong book from a great comic (Rich writes for Saturday Night Live). The stories are mostly told from a male point of view, and while some people may want to scream “Sexist!” at some of the ideas present, I think all of them, eventually, are supposed to show how ridiculous men are when it comes to their ideas of women. And, above everything else, the stories are all comedic and tongue-in-cheek.

I’ll pick out a couple of my favourite stories and discuss.

“Set Up” a great story about a chap in his thirties who, realising that all of his friends are getting married, asks them to set him up with someone which they delight in doing. Only, when it comes to meeting the girl, he discovers that she is a two foot six troll who usually lives under the Manhattan Bridge and doesn’t speak English. Concerned as he is, his friends apparently don’t understand the problem and become offended when he kicks her after she tries to bite his leg.

“The Adventure of the Spotted Tie” is about Holmes and Watson. While Holmes can tell with a glance that Watson has lost money at the dog track that day, he is completely unable to understand why a spotted tie would have appeared in the overnight bag of his girlfriend Alyssa. While Watson thinks it’s obvious, the great detective is stumped, theorising that someone must be trying to subvert the fabric tariff by smuggling clothes into the country.

“Wishes” has a woman come home to find her husband in talks with a genie, having used up forty-eight of his fifty wishes for sex, with the genie on hand to dole out some wise words about the nature of men.

“Unprotected” is, perhaps, the gem, and the first story in the collection. It is told from the point of view of a condom (yes, that’s right) who lives inside a wallet with his friends Learner Permit, Blockbuster Video, Visa and the dollars, who keep coming and going. It’s a brilliant creation, that character, who when told by MetroCard what his purpose in life is states, “I am too embarrassed to admit truth, which is that I thought I was a balloon.”

Alongside this fantastically naive condom, we also find Charles Darwin figuring out natural selection, a man getting maried to Mother Teresa, the Sex Aliens from Planet Sex, a hip-hop loving Cupid, modern day sirens, Santa Claus avoiding his “marriage of convenience” and, of course, the titular last girlfriend on Earth.

A great collection and worth a read for anyone who is or thinks they might be in love.