I Read Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN

LongbournI’m almost scared to write another gushing review: what is happening that I can’t discern anything negative in my last five reads, stellar all?!

Jo Baker’s Longbourn, the story of Pride and Prejudice‘s barely-glimpsed servants, manages to stay true to Austen’s romance and create a world, characters, and stories running parallel to the original and yet wholly unique. It is quite the achievement, both homage and uniquely itself, beautifully written and with only, at most, one forgiveably faltering section.

One of Longbourn‘s greatest strengths is its rich characterization of servitude’s silent shadows: Mrs. and Mr. Hill, the two housemaids, Sarah and Polly, and footman, James Smith, how their lives intertwine in profound and interesting ways, how fully-formed their stories are, for example, the as lovely-if-quieter romance between Sarah and James as the ones occurring “upstairs”. I also loved how Baker made Wickham more villainous than he appears in P&P, but in keeping with what we learn about him via Austen. Ultimately, however, it is in the richness, the tragedy and joy, of the servants’ inner lives and relationships that the novel’s strengths lie.     (more…)

I Read Mick Herron’s SLOW HORSES (Slough House #1)

Slow_HorsesGah, this was good; I devoured it in a two days. After the first chapter, I promptly ordered the series. I am a sucker for good writing: clever, adept, no gimmicks, nothing *shudders* lyrical, clean, direct, and sarcastically witty, “noir-ish” dialogue. Herron’s writing is all of these things and equal to it is his deft hand at characterization and pacing, no sagging middles, or info-dumps. Everything unfolds in steady detail, BUT Herron also does something de rigueur in crime/thriller/spook fiction: no matter how seedy, rough, or disreputable his spies are, they have a moral core, battered but apparent “when the chips are down”. (I can see from review-blurbs, Herron is likened to Greene and LeCarré; frankly, I find their books a slog, but didn’t have that response to Herron.) 

Speaking of disreputable, the spooks who people Herron’s world are disgraced and exiled, who didn’t cover themselves in glory for “crimes of drugs and drunkenness and lechery; of politics and betrayal; of unhappiness and doubt; and of…unforgivable carelessness” (15). At their head, in the home of the exiles, in Finsbury’s “Slough House”, “an administrative oubliette where, alongside a pre-digital overflow of paperwork, a post-useful crew of misfits can be stored and left to gather dust,” (16) Jackson Lamb reigns, an overweight, lumbering slob with reserves of sly cleverness, sudden bursts of physical prowess, and a sharp, sarcastic tongue. What we learn is that like his “misfits,” at core, he possesses some, if not spark, glowing ember of moral rectitude. Like Diogenes, with similar unsavory personal-hygiene habits, the greatest cynic is the greatest moralist, disappointed in the world, expecting and finding the worst in humanity, but not in himself, and in Lamb’s case, his disgraced team.      (more…)

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Tove Ditlevsen’s THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS

Trouble_HappinessFrom listening to Tove Ditlevsen’s short story collection, translated by Michael Favala Goldman and narrated by Stine Wintlev, I can safely conclude the trouble with happiness is it’s elusive and unlikely. Certainly, the characters in these stories make conventional choices about achieving happiness, marriage, children, a modest income, simple, easy, no? No, says Ditlevsen, and she’s right, these choices aren’t simple, aren’t likely to offer bliss and satisfaction; except Ditlevsen, it’s not “unlikely” she’d attach to the likelihood, it’s that they lead to disappointment, a sense of uneasy drift through life, a constant feeling of listless depression, which permeates her world and the people in it. (more…)

“Not waving, but drowning…”, Stevie Smith said it best…

It’s been ages, dear friends and readers, since I wrote a blog-post. I played with the idea of shutting down the blog entirely. Life has been dealing lemons and I had a hard time making lemonade: nothing utterly shattering, just the slow erosion of my house and caring for an aging parent. Add a full-time demanding job and the spinster’s lot to carry it all and the result is not much reading and certainly no blog-posting. None of that is going to change any time in the near-future, so I thought a tiny post with a paltry number of books and even fewer thoughts about them was better than continued silence. So, here it goes. I read two whole books since April: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast and a more disparate reaction to two books I haven’t had in ages. (more…)

A Singular Thought on a Garbled Novel…Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN

Station_ElevenIt was fascinating reading St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven after Sarah Moss’s The Fell, to compare a writer with much talent, little purpose, and lack of control over her material with one of equal talent, clear purpose, and control of her material.

If you’re not familiar with Station Eleven, its plot is one great big jumble of narrative threads with a large cast of characters. I think the GR blurb does the best job of describing it:

Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lake region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

This makes it sound way better than it actually was. I’m not sure they’re “risking everything for art and humanity,” or surviving the way travelling players did in the late middle ages (not sure about the history there), grubby, as much sacrificing for art as eking out a living. As for “suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding,” I’ll give Mandel this: she sure can write and kept my interest for the most part. As the novel went on and I couldn’t see the point of it, her conceit did wear. (more…)

Garbled Thoughts About Sarah Moss’s THE FELL

Th_FellI don’t know how wise it is to write while gob-smacked by a book, but I’m doing it anyway. Sarah Moss. The Fell. My first pandemic lockdown novel. I’m not sure I liked it as much as I did because it’s great, or because I think we’re starved to have some articulated understanding of what we’ve experienced. (Only time will tell, so I’ll have to revisit The Fell when my year-end review comes ’round.) Or maybe I was engrossed and in awe of Moss’s novel? novella? (it’s really quite short) because I’m skittish around litfic, with its dreaded poshy reviewers’ “lyrical” epithet (tells me to stay far, far away). I adore narratives of ideas, meaty with meaning and demanding thought over feeling; hence, not a fan of lyrical…please, no description. No wonder I enjoyed Moss as much as I did and no wonder I’m ordering her entire back-list because now, I have to read all the Mosses. 

So. The Fell. Lockdown 2020 in England’s Peak District: the “fell,” backdrop to the characters’ lives, at least until one of them enters it and another follows. Rob, whom we meet in the first chapter, a divorced dad with an angry, snarky daughter upset when he leaves on a call. Is he a doctor? Moss doesn’t tell, not yet. Sixteen-year-old Matt who lives with single mother Kate, in precarious financial circumstances; their neighbour, Alice, a comfortably-off widow with breast cancer. Sounds mundane and it is: the circumstances of the characters’ lives. They’re in lock-down: Alice hasn’t left her house in weeks; Matt and Kate help out with groceries and meds, but now Kate has to isolate because she came into contact with someone with covid. Kate can’t stand being “locked up”, even for the requisite weeks; she suffers and, stupidly sets off at dusk to walk the fell…it’s empty anyway, she won’t come into contact with anyone. Alice sees her leave. Kate tumbles and is badly injured. Night approaches and her position is, at best, precarious; at worst, fatal. That’s it, them’s the “happenings”. What drives the narrative (and I was so anxious reading it, hold-my-breath anxious) are the characters’ inner worlds.  (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Richard Osman’s THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB (Thursday Murder Club #1)

Thurs_Murder_ClubOsman’s The Thursday Murder Club was brought to my attention by Caroline Crampton during an episode of her SHEDUNNIT podcast (which, if you don’t follow, is marvellous). I’d seen it knocking around and obviously being enjoyed by many and Crampton’s recommendation made me pull it out of the gargantuan TBR.

From the back-cover blurb:

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved murders. But when a brutal killing takes place on their very doorstep, the Thursday Murder Club find themselves in the middle of their first live case. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?

Not surprisingly, the blurb gets most of it right, but doesn’t quite represent the mystery novel’s originality, or complexity terribly well. Blurbs sell; they’re not there for the picky reviewer. In any case, there’s a hint of blurb cutsiness to the octogenarians that doesn’t do them justice. And for that, I liked Osman all the more. (more…)

Commentary on Betty MacDonald’s THE PLAGUE AND I

The_Plague_and_II would’ve been intrigued by Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I on the basis of its title alone (thanks to our ongoing “plague”), but what convinced me to read it is a Backlisted episode. I love the way Mitchinson and Miller talk about books and I love their guests and I tend to run out and get whatever they’re reading, or read, with the exception of their latest episode; no matter how much I love Sarah Churchwell, I cannot read Thomas Pynchon ever again #traumatizedbyGravity’sRainbow.

I enjoyed MacDonald’s The Plague and I; it gave me many chuckles, but I wish it could have been revelatory, more than what it was, more given the promise of its magnificent writing. The fun of The Plague and I was in MacDonald’s voice: her satiric observations of human personalities and self-deprecating persona. There’s not much to “what happened?” in The Plague and I: MacDonald received a tuberculosis diagnosis and subsequently spent nine months in a sanatorium, the arena wherein she exercised her inimitable humour.
(more…)

Review: Deanna Raybourn’s AN IMPOSSIBLE IMPOSTER (Veronica Speedwell #7)

An_Impossible_ImposterAh, Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell #7, what a thorough joy I had of it! Its pacing was perfect, my beloved Veronica and Stoker were as larger-than-life as ever, both familiar and exhibiting interesting growth, and containing a mystery less cut-and-dry for them than usual, with all manner of messy feelings along with the resolution. And, ugh and love-it, a cliff-hanger of an ending: mystery solved, but our beloveds’ personal lives…well, let’s just say there needs be way more untangling than mere whodunnit.

Recently returned from their latest adventure in the fictional kingdom of Alpenwald, Stoker and Veronica are barely ensconced in the cataloguing employ of Lord Rosemorran before they’re summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, the head of Special Branch, Scotland Yard, for a personal favour. He asks Stoker and Veronica to travel to a Dartmoor estate, Hathaway Hall, in aid of his god-daughter, Euphemia. The Hathaway heir, RIP Jonathan, died in the Krakatoa explosion years ago and the estate passed to the second-born son, Charles, who, with his nouveau-riche wife, Mary, are running the hall with an iron hand for improvement and return from neglect. Recently, a remarkable development: Jonathan has returned, most definitely undead. But is he Jonathan Hathaway, or an imposter? This is Sir Hugo’s request of Stoker and Veronica, to find out…especially because Veronica knew Jonathan Hathaway from her pre-Stoker adventuring. This appearance out of Veronica’s past precipitates heart-ache and a Veronica-Stoker reckoning. (more…)