Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

lbPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one of the most beloved of classics, and has been filmed and televised again and again. In Longbourn, Jo Baker takes the reader downstairs among the meal preparations, the endless laundry, boot-polishing and bell-answering by the hard-working servants, much of it shown from the point of view of Sarah, a maid in the Bennett household.

The events of the original book seem like the tip of the iceberg as far as physical activity is concerned – Mrs Bennett’s anxious hanky-wringing, Mr Bennett’s library brooding, Jane and Elizabeth’s thoughtful chats and needlework, while gentlemen call and invitations are answered.

It all drives such an effort in keeping up appearances, the work of which falls to the small staff of Mr and Mrs Hill and two maids, one of whom, Polly, is just a child. Their working day seems to stretch forever, and the reader feels the pain of Sarah’s chilblains and her yearning to see something of the world.

When James Smith appears out of nowhere and is given the job of footman, Sarah is at first awkward around the young man who is put up in a room in the barn, but soon she appreciates the extra pair of hands. The arrival in the district of Mr Bingley (the single man in possession of a good fortune), introduces his glamorous footman, who brings messages.

Ptolomy is a mulatto brought out from the tropics where the Bingleys have a sugar plantation and plans a life of his own making. His arrival offers Sarah a whiff of opportunity, but when Mr Bingley goes back to London, his staff go too, leaving heartbreak at Longbourn above and below stairs.

Tension builds with the arrival of the regiment which causes a sensation in the town, especially for silly young Lydia Bennett. But James tends to vanish when the officers call and Sarah is disturbed by the flogging she witnesses at the garrison. Jo Baker fills out some of the background of the Napoleonic War, the harsh life of the common soldier, the reprisals for desertion – the contrast between officers and regulars echoing the class structure seen at Longbourn.

Jo Baker has obviously done her research because she has vividly recreated the period detail in a way that feels authentic. The story has so much emotional pull, particularly through the sympathy you feel for Sarah and James, I just flew through the pages and was sorry to reach the end. I had been meaning to read Longbourn for ages, but it was well worth the wait. This is undoubtedly my top read so far this year.

Quick Review: An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope

match.jpgTrollope’s latest novel begins where many stories end – with a proposal of marriage. Rose and Tyler have fallen in love in their sixties, and within a few short months recognise that in spite of previous marriages for both of them, they’ve never felt like this before. The problems begin when they tell their children they plan to marry.

Rose has an elder daughter, busy mum and doctor, Laura, who at first supports her mother’s decision – it’s her life, after all. But twins, Nat and Emmy are appalled. Their reaction is emotional and soon legal advice and prenups are being talked about. Then there’s Mallory, Tyler’s American actress daughter, who is enjoying having her father around for once, but now it looks like he’s going to abandon her again, to live in England. No wonder she finds it difficult to answer his calls. Continue reading “Quick Review: An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope”

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

clockFor those of you who, like me, have been reading Anne Tyler since the dawn of time, Clock Dance reads very true to form. It is the story of Willa Drake, a classic Tyler heroine – you probably know what I mean. She’s warm-hearted and smart but doesn’t get the chance to shine because of the people around her taking centre stage. Perhaps she’s avoiding being anything like her actress mother whose tempestuous moods made life difficult during her childhood.

Then there’s her marriage to business-school success story Derek, which interrupts Willa finishing her degree. He’s the alpha male type, so Willa settles into raising her two sons, who she loves desperately. She would love grandchildren, but they seem more and more unlikely – besides she hardly ever sees her sons. Continue reading “Clock Dance by Anne Tyler”

Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham

9781408888148If it was in any way possible to cross a novel by John Le Carré with one by Nancy Mitford, it might turn out a bit like this. MI5 and Me is an account of the author’s time working in the typing pool in the British secret service during the 1950s.

Bingham’s father (also the inspiration for Le Carré’s Smiley) was a distant man who didn’t talk about his work at home. When his daughter shows no talent for making anything of her life, he finds her a job at MI5 where he holds a senior position. At the time, the bureau is mostly concerned with communism, spying on what seem to be perfectly harmless people, breaking into their homes and planting bugs in their telephones. As well as creating endless paperwork – hence the typing pool. Continue reading “Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles

The Cazalet Chronicles is a kind of historical saga set in England around the years of World War Two. The great thing about it is that there is such a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads, that every time I read it there is more to discover. It follows the Cazalet family of three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, and their families – particularly daughters Polly, Louise and Clary – who each take up a chunk of the narrative. There’s also the unmarried sister/aunt, Villy, as well as elderly parents which provide a link with the past.  Howard published the Chronicles in the 1990s and they were massively successful, with a follow-up book, All Change, in 2013 about the same characters some years later.

What I really like about it: Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles”

Quick Review: The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

lakeIs The Dark Lake Aussie Noir, Chick Noir or something else? How easy it is to fall into the trap of seeing every book you read in the terminology of a marketing team. With its unreliable narrator (Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock), the murder of a beautiful young teacher and a small town in mid-summer creating a suitably claustrophobic setting, it seems to tick all the boxes for Chick Noir (Girl on a Train, etc.).

However Gemma is also a pretty good cop, working out of police HQ, taking endless witness statements and arguing with her crusty,  salt-of-the-earth boss, Jonesy. It’s just a pity that she’s having a clandestine affair with fellow DS Felix McKinnon while trying to keep the peace with Scott, her partner and the father of their son. This alone has Gemma on tenterhooks, while Christmas looms and the Australian heat makes everyone tetchy. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

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I used to read Margaret Atwood avidly at one time. She is undoubtedly one of the world’s literary greats, and books like The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1987, have found a new readership with its dystopian themes that are oddly resonant today.

But of all her books, it is Lady Oracle that I seem to come back to time and again. It’s heroine, Joan Foster, is a romance writer with a bunch of secrets and a life that regularly gets out of control. When she receives a blackmail threat, Joan reacts true to form by running away. She does this by staging her own death and flees to Italy. The novel pieces together her unhappy childhood; her affair with a Polish count who inspires her to write gothic romances; her marriage to Arthur who seems to be the opposite in so many ways to Paul. Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood”

Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans

 

The Wildflowers coverSometimes you just need an absorbing read that spirits you away to another place and time and connects with the emotions. Harriet Evans’ new book does just that, delving into the family secrets and tragic events that shape the lives of the Wilde family.

Anthony Wilde is the greatest stage actor of his day; his wife Althea has taken a pause from acting to raise her two children, eventually to become a success on television. They are the beautiful couple, with two beautiful children: precocious songbird Cordelia and her sensitive brother Ben(nedict). Every summer they arrive at the Bosky, the house built by Tony’s gambler grandfather, which nestles just above the sand dunes. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans”

Writing Tips: What’s in a Name?

name cloudSometimes you’re working on a novel, but don’t feel happy about a character’s name. Maybe it doesn’t ring true for the setting or the time that they were born. Then there are those awful realisations that a third of your characters have names that start with the letter H. Or what about those moments when you are deep within the story, and the writing is going well, when a minor character turns up and needs a name. For some reason having to suddenly decide what to call them throws you into a spin. What do you do? Continue reading “Writing Tips: What’s in a Name?”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

caseYes, I know they put Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels on television and the series was so memorable you can probably remember the broad shape of each plot. But even if you can remember the ending, as soon as you pick up one of the books – and let’s start with the first one: Case Histories – you know you are in for a really good time.

In case you’ve forgotten, Jackson Brodie is a private investigator living in Cambridge, a failed marriage behind him and trying to be a good father to a daughter he only sometimes sees. He’s middle-aged and smokes but fortunately keeps himself in shape because someone is out to kill him. On his books are a bunch of cold cases when two eccentric sisters ask him to look into what happened to their baby sister thirty years ago.

What I like about this book:

  • This is a really intricately plotted mystery interweaving a bunch of story threads so that you have to keep your wits about you.
  • The character of Brodie who is almost your classic troubled PI – the smoking and broken marriage are dead giveaways – but he’s just so much more interesting than that. Perhaps it’s because he comes from the North.
  • All the characters are interesting, have strong backstories and are richly rendered on the page.
  • Best of all, I love Atkinson’s writing. It shows that she has won the Man Booker a couple of times. She really crafts her prose and yet at the same time, it is lively and readable.
  • Stephen King said it was the best crime novel of the decade – and he could be right.