Review: Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

61816951With her satire on Anglo-Irish landlords in Castle Rackrent (1800), Maria Edgeworth pioneered the regional novel and inspired Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814). Politically risky, stylistically innovative, and wonderfully entertaining, the novel changes the focus of conflict in Ireland from religion to class, and boldly predicts the rise of the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie.

I can see why this book is so important in the history of women writers and political satire, however, I just found it quite a boring book. At least it’s a short boring book. There was little to interest the modern reader, and Thady Quirk was really not the most interesting of unreliable narrators.

Maria Edgeworth herself is a very interesting woman, and one whose works I would like to explore with more detail, in the vague hopes that it will be more interesting than this novella. Her writing really hasn’t translated well to modern life, and I think someone who was not familiar with the practice of rack renting and the absentee landlord system in place in Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries would find this book completely boggling without further context.

Thady tells his story with quite a dull narrative voice, though there are parts where he is comically thick. The story of his son’s rise to riches is pretty implausible, though I kind of felt like he was one of the more reasonable characters, since he didn’t seem like a total idiot… money snatching and devious, but not as thick or cruel as others.

Regardless, I was glad to get this book over with, which didn’t take too long, since it’s only around 100 pages long, with extensive footnotes. I felt like there could have been magic there, but it fell pretty flat in comparison to less heavy handed satires of society at the time.

2/5 stars.

Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

25666052As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel–the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.

This is one of those books that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go until you’re staying up way past your bedtime just so you can keep reading it.

I started reading this, feeling I needed a break after reading quite a few tough books in a row, and wanting something a bit fun and interesting. I’ve been obsessed with the Titanic ever since I first learnt about it way back when I was little. My little brother and I would pore over great big books about it, read any kids books featuring the disaster, watched all the documentaries and went to see several exhibitions on the ship. I visited the Titanic museum in Belfast and cried, buying my brother all the merchandise and books I could carry; if you’re ever in Belfast and have even a smidgeon of interest in it, I thoroughly recommend the museum!

Anyway, this book was going to be mine once I saw it on the ARC shelf and work, and it did not disappoint me at all.

I was instantly grabbed by the reporter, Steadman’s, introduction, which captivated me and dragged me straight into early 20th century Venezuela, and then Boston. I enjoyed his point of view immensely, though I wish it hadn’t been the sole POV through the whole 2nd portion of the novel. I enjoyed the switching between him and members of the crew of the Californian, who were experiencing the disaster on the water, whilst Steadman unearthed it from the offices of Cunard shipping.

Lord, the enigmatic captain of the Californian, remained a very difficult person to understand. I still don’t really understand why he acted the way he did that night, but that’s the point. His actions were thoroughly reprehensible, despite his suave exterior. You never see the disaster from his point of view, but only that of the people around him. He’s the destabilising feature of the novel as much as the wreck of the Titanic is.

The final section is told from the fictional perspective of Titanic passengers during the disaster. I do like how it is brought into the story, though in some ways I feel it could have been woven through it before a final reveal. Regardless, I was moved to tears and lay there contemplating the ending for hours… needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night!

This book should be released in March or April, depending on your region, and I really do recommend getting your hands on it. I am really glad I took the chance and read it, because it would have been a shame to have it laying there unread any longer!

5/5 stars and a different Leo… because this is Titanic, not Gatsby!

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Thank you to Penguin Australia for the ARC. This review is entirely my own opinion and is in no way affected by the fact that this is a review copy.

Review: Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovich

9970042It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher—and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom—if it exists at all—is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and—as of now—deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah—that’s going to go well.

I’ve had a self imposed, almost year long, break from the PC Grant series, but I’ve let myself have a quick binge of the books over the last week or so!

Rivers of London was one of my favourite books in 2015, and while Moon Over Soho was good, it didn’t live up to its predecessor. However, Whispers Underground did not disappoint one bit!

I love everything to do with London, and I’m fascinated by the famous London Underground. Whilst it was a terrifying experience in peak hour, I found it far more interesting and easy to use than my own rail system in Sydney! The Underground has much to offer the imagination in real life… ghost stories, major accidents, secret tunnels, closed off stations and much much more. Aaronovich adds some even more freaky things in there in this book, and god damn, I loved every word.

Peter Grant is your typical bloke… he’s a beer swilling copper, but he also does magic. His amazing partner in law enforcement, Lesley May, is still recovering from the trauma of Rivers of London, but she’s absolutely kick arse and I adore her.

I know many people have a problem with Peter’s take on the women he meets, and as a feminist… I don’t see it. Sure, he looks at women and thinks they’re hot. So what? Every guy does it. Hell, lots of girls do it too. It’s a basic human reaction to seeing an attractive person, and you’re seeing this all through the eyes of an average man. He doesn’t treat women with disrespect, he thinks the world of Lesley and never attempts to “go there” with her, even when he would freaking love to.

I laughed out loud frequently throughout the book, read out bits to anyone who would listen and even went back to read over my favourite sections again. There’s a bit where Peter is trapped in the Underground with the ghosts of the many people who have died there, and it sent chills down my spine whilst reading it late at night!

I love all the references to geek culture throughout the series, and they sent me into fits of giggles on the regular. So many Lord of the Rings quotes! It’s partly why Peter is one of my favourite modern literary characters- so sassy, so geeky and doesn’t take shit from anyone. Except maybe Lesley, but most of the time he deserves it.

The actual crime itself is riveting, and draws in the FBI and a high profile US Senator. There is also the overarching problem of the Faceless Man who started causing problems in Rivers of London, and there is a very intense chase through a deep sewer. Nightingale is as hilarious and badass as ever, and I was pleased to see a fair amount of Molly, the resident creepy housekeeper, involved in this book.

I think this is definitely on par with Rivers of London, and is a book I’m bound to read again! I immediately bought Broken Homes and I’m hoping it’s as awesome as this was!

 

5/5 Stars

Review: Eavedropping on Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Leslie Adkins

21216297A cultural snapshot of everyday life in the world of Jane Austen

Jane Austen, arguably the greatest novelist of the English language, wrote brilliantly about the gentry and aristocracy of two centuries ago in her accounts of young women looking for love. Jane Austen’s England explores the customs and culture of the real England of her everyday existence depicted in her classic novels as well as those by Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Drawing upon a rich array of contemporary sources, including many previously unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and personal letters, Roy and Lesley Adkins vividly portray the daily lives of ordinary people, discussing topics as diverse as birth, marriage,  religion, sexual practices, hygiene, highwaymen, and superstitions.

From chores like fetching water to healing with  medicinal leeches, from selling wives in the marketplace to buying smuggled gin, from the hardships faced by young boys and girls in the mines to the familiar sight of corpses swinging on gibbets, Jane Austen’s England offers an authoritative and gripping account that is sometimes humorous, often shocking, but always entertaining.

If you’re interested in the 18th Century, I’d totally recommend this book to you. I was surprised by how accessible and fun this history book was, though I felt like it’s titular connection to Jane Austen was somewhat lacking.

Jane Austen is mentioned every so often, though not as much as other 18th century diarists and writers, who were fascinating in their own right. It covers a great many topics, which made for varied and interesting reading, which I’ll probably go back and learn more about some of the sections in the future. I’m planning on reading my way through the 18th-20th century, through both history and literature, in preparation for my PhD. I feel like I’m missing quite a lot of background knowledge and want to find out more about the literary interests and influences of certain authors. Jane Austen, Fanny Burney and George Eliot are frequently mentioned as influences, so learning about their lives and time period is imperative.

I’ve already found that reading Evelina has been helped by the knowledge gleaned from this book! From parts of dress to places and activities, I understand more of the cultural references in the book. I see that as quite a success!

I feel like the Napoleonic wars could have been further covered in this, though I believe the authors have another book out about it. They actually say that it is an extremely important event in this period, but don’t go on to elaborate much further, other than to talk briefly about the (terrible) behaviour of those in the army and navy. I was shocked to discover that Navy “press gangs” could conscript people to become sailors simply by seeing them in the street or sitting in their house and dragging them down to the docks, with no warning, and often never to be seen again!

Other than that very minor quibble, I found this book astounding and really enjoyable. I didn’t feel it bogged down in details too often and it moved along at a good pace. It was a perfect cultural introduction to a period of history so well known, but so little understood. The past truly is another country, because they really did do things differently there!

5 stars

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Review: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

5290266The storyline of Miss Buncle’s Book (1934) is a simple one: Barbara Buncle, who is unmarried and perhaps in her late 30s, lives in a small village and writes a novel about it in order to try and supplement her meagre income.

 

For the first third of the book, I enjoyed it and found it charming, but easily forgettable. I dropped it for many weeks, almost forgetting that I hadn’t finished it, until on Christmas night I found myself lacking a book to read. Kindle at the ready, I took myself off to bed to read for a while. That “while” ended up being several hours, at which point the party I was avoiding ended, and I finally went to sleep. The next night, I again found myself up until 4 o’clock in the depths of finishing this book!

It was the perfect book for a laid back, Christmassy mood. No one wants to be slogging through the Russian greats when all your belly can do is grumble for another serving of ham and you’re pouring yourself your third Baileys (which for me is about 2.5 too many!) The premise is simple, the characters are funny and the story charming.

Miss Buncle is a rather quiet heroine, whom nobody suspects could possibly be clever enough to write a novel, let alone one so astute that could rock a little town to its core. She’s a smart cookie, and watches the townspeople with a keen eye. They have absolutely no idea that what they’re doing is feeding her content for her next book by acting like complete fools in regard to the first one, the aptly named Disturber of the Peace.

The leader of the band of naysayers is Mrs Featherstone-Hogg, a woman so caricatured that she manages to be exactly relatable to someone you know. She’s in the realm of the perpetually outraged. She literally wants the author of Disturber of the Peace to be horse whipped once she gets her hands on them. Obviously, this is the main antagonist of the novel, though she has her willing sidekicks ready to leap on the person who so truthfully depicted them in all their glory… or in some cases, evil.

Stevenson manages to touch on three rather interesting and important themes; domestic abuse, lesbianism, education and spinsterhood. There is a lesbian couple in this book, skirted around and never stated outright, but they are there, and they are sympathetically rendered by all. Women’s education is touched upon, as several women who could have been intensely clever are left without an education because of their father, or family’s, patriarchal opinion that smart women are an abhorration. There is a woman who is pitied by the more sensitive women in the community, who is married to a man who treats her and her children with disdain at best. She literally goes to ask a friend what to do because he was nice to her at breakfast. Her children are described as “mice”, who are timid and tiptoe around their house, and are unable to relate to other children. She also deals with the perils of spinsterhood, the lack of money that it can entail, and how women feel it is better to have a mediocre husband than none at all.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a light read that touches on some heavy topics with grace. It was laugh out loud funny at several points, and I’m definitely going to be keeping it for future comfort reading!

 

4/5 stars

The London Fog in Literature

I stumbled across this article in The Guardian about how the dramatic fogs that used to plague London have seeped not only into literature, but also our collective imaginations.

Being a complete British literature nut, particularly for things set in London, I can think of several books straight away that involved the fogs; most recently, Sarah Water’s Affinity captured the fog in a way that made me feel like I could see it swirling around me. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth also has a scene in which the fog makes an appearance and further complicates a hazardous delivery.

Having never experienced a proper London pea souper, all I can say is that the one fog in London that I have experienced was bad enough, and that was just a very dense regular one. The yellow or black fogs must have been terrifying, and I can definitely see how they have become so important in scene setting in literature.

The most vivid depiction of the great fogs of London, I think, is in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.

“…The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea…”

Can you think of more? Have you ever experienced a proper fog in London? Let me know!

Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell’s compassionate, richly dramatic novel features one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction, Margaret Hale. It shows how, forced to move from the country to an industrial town, she develops a passionate sense of social justice, and a turbulent relationship with mill-owner John Thornton.

I have seen the BBC Mini series several times, but for some reason had not tackled the book yet. I guess that I was slightly worried that it wouldn’t measure up to how much I love the series, and would thus disappoint me. I was entirely wrong. This book made me run the gamut of emotions, including a spell of hysterical sobs which made my partner think I’d had some kind of awful news delivered to me!

I loved Margaret Hale, for all her sass and fortitude. She definitely had balls, and wasn’t afraid to tell people where they were wrong. I did become annoyed with her by the end, as she really did make life far more difficult for herself and others the was strictly necessary… I wanted to shake her and say “Come on! Just TELL them!”

Thornton was far mellower than the Prince Broody McBroodypants that Richard Armitage portrays him as in the screen adaptation, and I can see why they made the change. He obviously has his major flaws, but mostly he makes Margaret look a bit bitchy, when you really think about it. Neither of them gave the other a chance though. I found their romance really quite sweet, and liked how Gaskell gave us both sides of the story.

Mostly, I found the contrasts between the South and Milton to be fascinating, and loved how Gaskell slowly makes Margaret understand that farm life isn’t all haystacks and baby alpacas. It was a tough life for farm labourers in the 19th century, and Margaret shows at first an idyllic wilful blindness to what is placed before her, simply because she finds country life so charming. Watching her development from naïve young girl to a much wiser woman was great.

I wish that I hadn’t left reading this for so long… It’s probably going to be in my top reads of 2015 and has influenced how I have read other 9th century women’s fiction (I read The Three Miss Kings immediately afterwards and saw many parallels) as well as how I look back at other novels I’ve read in the past. I’ve seen several critiques of the novel and disagree with most of the criticisms levelled at it, particularly those that believe the book to be a simple mimicry of other writer’s work. Of course, it is similar to others, but I wouldn’t call it mimicry, as every writer has their influences, and it probably didn’t help that Dickens himself edited the work!

North and South is a wonderful, thought provoking novel that isn’t afraid to tread on a few toes. I did find the preaching sections a bit tiresome, but they are an important part of the novel. The gender and sexual politics running throughout the novel are fascinating and give the novel a good dollop of tension, which is very much needed in a novel like this. It’s also far sexier than it is given credit for, with a healthy streak of sexual tension running through the novel.

I wished the ending was a bit more drawn out, ie. I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of the romance. It was cut off very abruptly, which bothered me somewhat… The book is over 500 pages, so surely we should be rewarded for sticking through all that love/hate stuff and get some kisses! I have no idea what Gaskell had to cut out to fit into Dickens’ word limits, but she was suitably annoyed at having to cut her story short, and that is possibly why it is how it is, even with the re-editing to put in missing sections not published in the initial serials.

Overall, this was a 4.5 star read for me, losing half a star only because of the ending feeling so rushed. It takes a very special book to make you truly forget the world around you… Especially when that world involves a noisy television and people trying to talk to you!

4.5/5 stars

Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando ‘The longest and most charming love letter in literature’, playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women. Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.

Because I’m a gossip and a sneak, I’ve always been rather interested in Virginia Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Two big names in literature and society, two strong women, two LGBT women masquerading as straight in a world that wouldn’t like them much if they knew the truth… what’s not to be interested in? That’s why when this gender bending, time jumping novel got assigned to me at university this year, I was pretty excited. I thought, “hey, here’s a Woolf I can really sink my teeth into. This sounds awesome!”

Alas… no. I found it to seem too smug and self-congratulatory, I found the casual racism jarring (though, it is Woolf, I should probably be used to it by now) and it just overall felt wrong. Maybe I’ve just read too much Woolf this year. Maybe I just really find some of her thoughts quite unacceptable. Maybe it’s just my love/hate relationship with Virginia shining through. I prefer her critical work, like A Room of One’s Own and The Common Reader, which I recently read, to her fiction. In these books, she has a fire in her. I don’t see it as much in her fiction.

Orlando is split into two sections- his time as a male and her time as a female. I found the transitioning period the most interesting, when she was learning what it is to be a women- what she must forgo, what is suddenly unacceptable, what her clothes will do to her ability to be free. This was the most fascinating part of the novel, and I think Woolf nailed it.

[She found herself] dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she stride through the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw. The plumed hat tossed on the breeze. The thin shoes were quickly soaked and mud-caked. Her muscles had lost their pliancy. She became nervous lest there should be robbers behind the wainscot and afraid, for the first time in her life, of ghosts in the corridors.

Orlando doesn’t weaken as a woman, but the reality of what she must fear now, as opposed to her time as a man, renders her jumpy. The thought of a robber, who previously offered no threat but to the purse, now becomes a sexual menace. The ghosts that wander the hallways are now the people she knew when she was a young man, since she has an unnamed and undiscussed ability to continue living through the centuries. This isn’t submission- it’s self preservation.

The novel opens with Orlando hitting the shrunken head of a black man with a stick, and personally, I found this decapitated piñata image, with its racial overtones, pretty foul. To open a novel like that put a bad taste in my mouth and really didn’t help me to want to like Orlando. The race stuff continues with his experiences with a Russian princess, and then during his time in Turkey. I know Woolf herself was quite racist and classist, making it a bit of a challenge for me to get along with her as a personality, but this is the worst of it that I’ve seen in her fiction. Satire or not, I found it distasteful and cheap, well below her ability as a writer.

I also felt like the narration was a bit smarmy and self congratulatory, like “Oh, I’ve written a clever novel, look at me!” Sackville-West’s son calls it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” but I just don’t see it. Yes, she does some very clever things with time, literature and the way that gender is written, and there’s some pretty awesome moments, but something just felt awry in the narration. It turned what could have been a 4-5 star read to me into a 2.5-3 star, and that’s pretty disappointing.

So in all, Mrs Dalloway is still winning as my favourite Woolf novel, closely followed by Between the Acts. I still have quite a few on my shelves and on my Kindle to get through, which will be either a slog or revelatory- who knows!

2.75/5 stars

Review: Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a brilliantly observed comic novel, as funny and fresh today as when it was first written. It’s not easy being a Provincial Lady in Devonshire in the 1920s, juggling a grumpy husband, mischievous children and a host of domestic dilemmas – from rice mould to a petulant cook. But this Provincial Lady will not be defeated; not by wayward flower bulbs, not by unexpected houseguests, not even by the Blitz. She will continue to preside over the W.I., endure rain-drenched family picnics and succeed as a published author, all the while tending to her strawberries.

This is such a charming novel.

I hadn’t heard of E.M. Delafield before, but she came up several times over the course of a week, so I thought I should probably check her out, as the novel sounded like something I’d definitely enjoy.

I got this on my Kindle, and was pretty happy that the price was super low, but the formatting was atrocious. There were spelling errors, line spacing issues, and the biography at the beginning was pulled from Wikipedia, despite it supposedly being a Penguin Modern Classic edition… right. Maybe Penguin’s classics department got lazy. Who needs formatting anyway? But I digress…

Besides that, and an extremely abrupt beginning (I actually had to get a friend to check their copy to see if mine started in the right place! Already knew by page one that the file was dodgy!) the book was really lovely.

The Provincial Lady is someone I’d really like to be friends with- she feels like she doesn’t quite belong in the city literati lifestyle of her best friend, Rose, but she also doesn’t quite belong in her provincial life in Cornwall. She’s never really read the right books or has the right dress, plus she’s got a bit of a shopping addiction. She also doesn’t really feel like her family is quite right- they’re never as clever or well behaved as the fashionable people’s children. Her husband is boring, rude and bad tempered, making her life just that much better… and don’t even get her started on the neighbours.

The diary format is well executed and classy, with loads of funny asides and moments. I really enjoyed the whole thing, so was a bit disappointed that it was so short…but at least there’s sequels to enjoy!

4/5