Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Whether it's from multiple readings of the book or casual watching of TV and film adaptations, most of us know Jane Austen's story of the Bennet family of Longbourn; of Mrs Bennet's desperate ploys to marry off her five daughters, of the happy-ever-after romances of elder sisters Jane and Elizabeth, and the wild, impetuous, embarrassing (totally teenage) behaviour of youngest sisters, Lydia.and Kitty. But what about the middle sister, Mary?

In any other family Mary Bennet would have been considered, if not pretty, at least attractive, but with four sisters - beautiful, witty, vivacious, or just younger -  she's overlooked by family, friends and, most importantly, any young men she meets as the dull, plain one. Snubbed, she turns to books for solace and improvement - not the fiction loved by her mother, but serious moral, philosophical  works - and in a vicious circle finds herself to be more of an oddity than ever

In The Other Bennet Sister, Janice Hadlow revisits the familiar events in Longbourn from a new perspective - that of 'middle' sister Mary. She's dismissed by her family as dull, boring, prim, She looks set for life as a spinster. But with her sisters married Mary gradually starts to come into her own. Mary is now 'allowed' a romance of her own - and even a choice of suitors; a young eligible gentleman who seems a perfect match and a tempting alternative who might just prove to be incredibly wrong for her.

There are a lot of Pride and Prejudice spin-off novels and films (and I'm a sucker for them) - some work, some don't. This definitely does. The setting remains Austen's Regency England, and for the most part Hadlow captures the style and feel of Austen's original work. Where it differs is in following marriages past the wedding ceremony, and in exploring the restricted options open to the un-married gentlewoman of limited means. In Austen's world it's taken as read that a young lady should marry, but not much thought is given to the alternative. As Charlotte Lucas outlines to Mary Bennet what the future of an 'old maid' looks like, we can see why she herself was so eager to grasp her chance of marrying, even when the prospective groom was Mr Collins.

I suspect few Austen fans would agree wholeheartedly in their interpretation of, say, Mr Bennet's attitude to his family, Mrs Bennet's obsession with marrying her daughters to the richest men available, or the hasty marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins, but an author taking these characters and giving them life beyond the original text has to pick an interpretation and stick to it - and it may not coincide with yours. Personally I felt Mr Bennet, and even Lizzie, were dealt with a little harshly - though, of course, I've previously only seen them from Lizzie's biased viewpoint - and a few words from Caroline Bingley throw the whole view of the Elizabeth/Darcy romance on its head, when she says that in feigning disinterest, Lizzie couldn't have played him better.

All in all this is an excellent addition to the works inspired by Pride and Prejudice. I loved it, and would definitely recommend unless you're an Austen purist.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - 
Mantle (Panmacmillan)

Genre - adu
lt fiction, Jane Austen 

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski

translated by David French

"After walking through a portal in the Tower of the Swallow, thus narrowly escaping death, the Witcher girl, Ciri, finds herself in a completely different world... a world of the Elves. She is trapped with no way out. Time does not seem to exist and there are no obvious borders or portals to cross back into her home world.
But this is Ciri, the child of prophecy, and she will not be defeated. She knows she must escape to finally rejoin the Witcher, Geralt, and his companions - and also to try to conquer her worst nightmare. Leo Bonhart, the man who chased, wounded and tortured Ciri, is still on her trail. And the world is still at war."


A long while ago (2015)  I read my first introduction to the world of The Witcher - Sword of Destiny - and really enjoyed it, and promised myself that I'd read more of the series, so a couple of years later when I saw The Lady of the Lake come up on Netgalley review site I grabbed it. Unfortunately the gap between reading the first book and the second was too long, and I couldn't remember characters clearly, their story-lines or how they related to each other, and so I abandoned the book.

Roll on a few more years, and Netflix have turned The Witcher into a tv series which I watched avidly over Christmas. Eight episodes wasn't enough for me, so I've returned to this neglected book. Now having a better grasp of The Witcher's world, I could comparatively easily slip back into it - I knew more about Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri, and how their stories fitted together, I'd realised that Jaskier of the Netflix series was called Dandelion in the books (it's a translation issue; Jaskier means 'buttercup' which wasn't considered quite right for the character). The Lady of the Lake doesn't however follow on from the tv series, in fact is the final book, so don't go reading it if you like a story to develop sequentially. I don't mind too much with an epic multi-book series; I like to know who lives happily ever after, that the bad guys get their comeuppance, and then go back and slowly read how it all came about. 

Another thing I'd become used to on the Netfix show was the story jumping about in time and in viewpoint. The publisher's blurb above puts the emphasis on Ciri's story, but while she's trying to escape from the Elves, Yennefer is being held captive elsewhere, and Geralt and his companions are passing the winter in the kingdom of Toussaint, and in some uncertain future time two sorceresses, Nimue and Condwiramurs, are trying to unravel Ciri's story through dreams. Somehow Sapkowski manages to juggle all these elements (and a few shorter-lived threads) and keep the story moving as a cohesive whole, heading towards a grand finale for the series.

There's a compelling mix of fantasy and folk tales, with complex characters who feel emotionally fleshed-out and 'real', and scenes like the doctors struggling to save lives on a battlefield that, bar their obvious use of sorcery, could fit neatly into any historical drama.

The world created by Sapkowski intrigued me when I first read Sword of Destiny, now I'd definitely like to explore it further.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Gollancz
Genre - Fantasy

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Call Me A Liar by Colette McBeth

Review by The Mole

I'm very late in picking this book up but fancied a change from what I'd been reading and the summary did sound worthwhile.

"You could say it started with vanity. We believed we were special. But the truth is we were simply vulnerable.

One of them is lying.
One of them is guilty.
No one is safe.

This is the chilling story of what happens when the idealism of youth turns toxic. Can it ever be justified to do bad things for the greater good?"

I worked in IT for many years and early on I had the reaction "NO!! It wouldn't be done like that!" but carried on and was thankful I had. The role of IT is merely a plot device to help with the scene setting, to establish the characters, and to set the ball in motion.

Each chapter is from one characters perspective and the voice is sometimes first person and sometimes third - sometimes going over how other people saw events, sometimes advancing the story line.

It builds to an ending that I certainly hadn't expected (and I cheated by skipping to the last page - I know, a capital crime!) and I was still taken by surprise by the ending. At times violent I found myself wanting to tell the characters "go on speak up!" but then realising that I saw what was happening to all of them while they were limited to their own experiences.

A great read that kept me page turning and one I'd certainly recommend to thriller and mystery readers.

Publisher: Headline
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Adult

Thursday, 23 January 2020

The False River by Nick Holdstock


I think somewhere within us, you could probably chart it back to childhood's fairy tales, there's an expectation that stories will have a happy ending. The hero or heroine may struggle through loss and hard times, but when they reach the final page their ending will be happy. Well, not here.  

In this collection of twelve short stories, Nick Holdstock brings us a glimpse of a world where it seems like if something can go wrong, it will. The characters struggle with loss, anger, ill health, or just the weight of day to day life, and circumstances thwarting their hopes of happiness. Somewhere, I felt, they'd all had a chance of a better life, but missed out.

The last story, The Curve of the Heavens, takes a step to the side, inviting the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, letting them see how the story is crafted, the characters moved around, good and bad luck distributed, and destiny decided by an omnipotent author. Here for once there's a happy ending of sorts, but my favourite was the preceding one, The Slope, about a young pianist determined to enjoy music (and, by extension, life) and leave the hard bits for another day.

Holdstock's prose is sparse. He writes as if watching his characters from a distance, uninvolved other than as an observer, but still building empathy for them in the reader.

I first read this book a few months ago but the overall mood seemed sad, and I wasn't in the right personal place for sad stories. Looking through the list of 'read but not reviewed' books I realised it had somehow slipped through and revisited it. I still found a lot of sadness, of life going pear-shaped, of missed opportunities, but this time, from a better personal position, I saw people still trying to hang onto hope despite everything. One of the characters describes them as "Broken people ill-treated by life who still cannot give up" - and I can't put it better.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Picks 2019

My reading/reviewing took a knock last year, and I haven't read anything like the number of books I usually would. As a result, I haven't gone for a full Top Ten of the year (also, you might note, I'm late posting this). Anyway, here we are, with some of my favourite books of 2019

Stillicide by Cynan Jones. Breath-catching, heart-wrenching, stunning - a series of self-contained but linked short stories set in a bleak, not-too distant, future where providing water to big cities requires military precision and armed guards. Although it's a long step from Jones' previous works set in rural Wales, there's the same precision and attention to detail, his ability to get inside a character's head and create living, breathing people is just the same.

The Sea Within Me by Sarah Dobbs. More dystopian sci-fi, this time in an England threatened by rising sea-levels and terrorists. In grim, beleaguered Newark by the Sea, the government is trialing a scheme to combat crime and fear which erases anything unpleasant from people's minds - a way to keep the population happy, or a form of mind control?

The 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' vibe continues with Bridget Collins' The Binding. A gripping tale of betrayal and hidden secrets set in a vaguely Victorian setting, unhappy memories are gathered by a form of magic, and bound into books. When Emmett is apprenticed as a bookbinder, he starts to uncover his own hidden memories - and his view of the world changes completely.

And The Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson Another collection of short stories, this time fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle to paint a portrait of the inhabitants of an Icelandic fishing village. At a cursory view they seem happy, respectable, comfortable in their life and ways, but behind the smiling faces heartache, betrayal and deceit lurk.

My last pick - Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield - is a bit of a cheat as I also included it in last year's 'best of' list; it was only available then as an e-book, now it's in 'proper' book form. It's an astounding piece of storycraft - a tale as much about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the frequently puzzling world, as it is about a girl rescued from the river one dark, stormy night.