Friday, 10 February 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

I haven't actually been neglecting my blog - it's just that this is the first book I've finished since September! I heard PD James on BBC Radio 4 talking about her attempt to write a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and for some reason my heart didn't sink - well, not too far. I absolutely love P&P.  I re-read it at least once a year, and like lots of Jane Austen's die-hard fans I resent any attempt to write in her style or interfere with her characters. I haven't even got to the end of any other Austen sequel I've tried before, and yet, for some reason, even though I've never read a PD James book before, I thought this one might be worth a try. At least it was written by an established and respected author, and the idea of setting a crime novel at Pemberley was intriguing.

So did I enjoy it? Well, yes. It was very well written (miles and miles better than any Austen sequel I've previously attempted to read), with some beautiful descriptions of the landscape around Pemberley. The setting was convincingly 19th Century without feeling like a pastiche and the story was, if not gripping, fairly absorbing.

That said, was it a good sequel? Well, not really. PD James did everything Jane Austen's fans would have wanted, up to a point - she satisfied our hunger to know what happened to our favourite characters and she put them into interesting situations without taking liberties with the characters. But, in trying not to meddle too much with Austen's creations, she sucked the life out of them. Elizabeth lost all her wit, and the humour and lively conversation that made Pride and Prejudice so readable was completely lacking. I did like James' style - it just didn't feel like an Austen sequel.

It is interesting that although James seems to have struggled to bring Austen's characters to life, she succeeded brilliantly with her settings. She has created a wonderful back-story for Pemberley and the Darcy family, including a really poignant little story about Mr Darcy's great-grandfather, which goes a long way to explaining Darcy's pride and his obsession with duty to his family. In many ways, Pemberley feels more like the hero of the book than Mr Darcy.

And as for the crime part, I'm probably not the best judge. With the exception of Agatha Christie I don't read much crime at all. I liked the concept of a murder bringing potential scandal to Pemberley, and it was inevitable that Wickham would be caught up in it somehow. Maybe because I haven't read much crime fiction I really couldn't guess who the murderer was. However, I was very disappointed with the eventual solution, which felt incredible contrived and utterly unconvincing. The writing style made me want to read more PD James, but the plotting has put me off rather. I did, however, love some ironic references to the present-day legal system (Mr Darcy and his friends regard it as inconceivable that a foreign court could ever try English cases) and to modern forensic science.

In the end, I'm glad I read Death Comes to Pemberley. I did enjoy most of it, and loved parts. It just didn't feel quite right, and that's not really PD James' fault. Only Jane Austen could write Jane Austen novels, so her fans shouldn't really be disappointed that no one else, even an author as respected as PD James, can match her style. As a Jane Austen fan I was happy to read this very respectable attempt to continue the story of Darcy and Elizabeth; however if you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice I don’t think you’d find that the book stands up well on its own.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Secret Letters at Trebizon

Two blog posts in less than 24 hours? Surely not? Well, in the interests of full disclosure, this was a very short book. And I'm meant to be revising for an exam, which actually means that I'm spending most of my time re-reading the books of my youth for comfort.
Secret Letters at Trebizon is the thirteenth book in Anne Digby's wonderful Trebizon series - stories about a girls' boarding school set on the Cornish coast and written between the 1970s and 1990s. As a child I adored school stories of any era (who am I kidding? I still do) and Trebizon was one of my favourites because it was set in the present day so I could actually imagine going to school there myself!

I never managed to collect all the Trebizon books when I was young so I was thrilled to see that Fidra books have republished two of the later ones. To be honest, these weren't Digby's best books. Some of the language is rather stilted and the plots are somewhat contrived but I don't care. Trebizon, sitting practically on the beach in Cornwall where the girls can surf after lessons, and run by enlightened staff that don't mind the girls having boyfriends from the boys' school down the road, is definitely the school I'd have wanted to attend.

In this novel Rebecca and her friends are revising for their GCSE exams, which I kind of hoped might inspire me to get on with my own revision - but sadly not. Still, it was lovely to re-read a book I loved so much as a child, especially in the beautiful edition that Fidra books have produced.

(By the way, I have finished A Spot of Bother and will be reviewing it soon. I can't decide what to read next in my book chain - any suggestions would be welcome!).

The Help

It's taken me a while to get around to putting my thoughts about this book in writing, mainly because I'm still not sure what I really think. This is the debut novel of an American author, and somehow it entirely passed me by in the process of becoming everyone else's must-read book of 2010. Fortunately a friend mentioned it to me and sang its praises so highly that I went straight out and bought it. On the whole, I'm glad I did.

I don't think I can describe the book's setting better than the blurb of the Penguin edition: a world "where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver." The Help tells the story of Aibileen, a black maid who has raised sixteen white children, and is currently raising her seventeenth for a white family who won't allow her to use their bathroom in case they catch "black diseases" from her. Her best friend is Minny, who speaks her mind to her employers too freely to avoid being sacked every few months. The narrative is taken up alternately by Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter, a young white woman who, alone amongst her social circle, sees the injustice of a world in which black people are treated as second class citizens.

The driving plot of the novel concerns Skeeter's efforts to write a book exposing the lives of the black "help". Aibileen and Minny, first reluctantly, and then increasingly enthusiastically, tell their stories and encourage other black maids to do the same. The incredible danger that these women put themselves and their families into by even agreeing to meet Skeeter is really well depicted, with Stockett managing to inject some real suspense into some of these scenes.

However, even though Skeeter's story takes up most of the action, for me the real heroine of the book is Aibileen. She is one of the most likeable characters I have encountered in a while, and I found her story heart-breaking. She is currently looking after Mae Mobley, the toddler daughter of a woman who doesn't seem to be particularly interested in her child. Aibileen becomes Mae Mobley's mother figure. She teaches her right from wrong. She teaches her self-worth and self-esteem. She even, at risk of her job, teaches her that the colour of a person's skin matters much less than whether they are a good person. She loves Mae Mobley almost as if she were her own child, and yet the reader senses that, in the end, Aibileen's teachings will be over-ridden by the ingrained values of the white society in which Mae Mobley is being brought up. Like all Aibileen's previous charges, one day Mae Mobley will cease to be "colour-blind" and Aibileen will move on to the next family and the next child.

I loved the way in which Stockett has given all three narrators a really distinctive voice. Aibileen and Minny both speak in the same dialect, but you could flip the book open to any page and know which of the two of them was speaking. I don't know how authentic their dialect is but I was surprised to find how easily I was able to settle into reading it.

The Help tells the story of a world I was unfamiliar with. Occasionally it touches on real people and real events that I recognised but on the whole I knew little and had thought less about what it might be like to be a black person living in the southern United States in the years before the civil rights movement got underway. Stockett is a white author (who, according to her afterword, grew up in a family that employed a black maid) and I really appreciated her attempt to get under the skin of women whose lives she could never have experienced first-hand. On the whole, I thought the characters of Aibileen and Minny were incredibly vivid and in fact, far more convincing than that of Skeeter, a woman whose life experiences must be far closer to Stockett's own.

I did have some issues with the book. I felt that Stockett struggled with the tone she wanted to adopt, tackling some very serious subjects but settling for a light and, at times, humorous style that didn't always gel with her subject matter. She has a habit of broaching the subject of a really shocking event (the most memorable being the beating and blinding of a black man by a group of white men) but pulling back from it just as it all starts to become a bit too serious.

I also felt rather cheated by several of the characters. Her characterisation of the three narrators was so good that I felt that she could have fleshed out some of the other characters rather more. The villain of the piece is Hilly Holbrook, the social centrepiece of the town, who is initally quite an intriguing character but who ends up being so unbelievably horrible that I lost interest in her. The male characters are also, without exception, rather one-dimensional.

I did enjoy The Help. It was an easy read (perhaps rather too easy, given the subject matter) and introduced me to Aibileen, one of my favourite characters of any book I've read in months. However I felt that Stockett ended the book having only half-finished her job. She could have explored her themes more deeply than she did, and she seemed rather to give up at the end, which I found a little unsatisfying. I wonder whether she will be a bit braver in her next novel, and look forward to reading it to find out.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

It turns out I'm a very bad blogger. One book I struggle to get into and I give up. Not this one, I hasten to add - I loved this one! It's the next one in the chain that I'm struggling with - but that's no excuse for not telling you about this wonderful novel.

I chose The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time because the title is a direct quote from Sherlock Holmes in the first story of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. The "curious incident" in this case is witnessed by fifteen-year-old Christopher, who finds his neighbour's dog murdered one night. This is the most unusual murder mystery I have ever read, as not only is the murder victim a dog, but the detective is a boy who appears to have Asperger's syndrome (although this is never explicitly stated).

Christopher loves routines, maths and lists. He takes everything at face value and doesn't really understand the concept of joking, sarcasm or lying. He also struggles to understand the complexity of other people's emotions - to him things are good (prime numbers, programmes about space and Sherlock Holmes mysteries) or bad (yellow or brown things and being touched). In essence, the book is less a detective story than a character study of a complex boy who sees the world very differently from his readers.

The real genius of this book is that it is written from the perspective of a child on the autistic spectrum. As far as I know, this has never been done before, but Mark Haddon manages to draw an incredibly plausible picture of what goes on in Christopher's mind. According to several interviews with him he has never worked with autistic children, and in fact did not particularly intend the label of Asperger's to be attached to Christopher. Speaking as someone who has worked with many children with similar conditions I find this extraordinary. Christopher's behaviours ring absolutely true to me. His descriptions of how he feels when his routines are broken, when someone gets too close to him or when he doesn't understand the world around him are incredibly intense and make me feel I understand these children far more than I did before I read the book.

There have been plenty of novels written about children with autistic spectrum disorders, usually from the perspective of the parents or of an impartial narrator. Had this book been written from one of these perspectives I feel it would have lost a huge part of what makes it so special. I felt almost privileged to be allowed to inhabit Christopher's mind for a little while. He reminded me how important it is to be able to take pleasure in the simple things in life. He likes the quiet. He loves things that form a pattern and make sense. He likes to lie on his back on the grass, look up at the stars, and pretend that he is the only person in the world.

In many ways Curious is an uplifting and beautiful book. It's also so, so sad. Christopher is looked after by his father, and through Christopher's words it becomes obvious that, although he loves him and is fiercely protective of him, his father is also intensely frustrated by his son. For me the saddest part of the book is when Christopher becomes terrified that his Dad is going to hurt him. He can't understand the concept of love, and so he doesn't understand how much his Dad loves him.

I really, really can't begin to describe how wonderful this book is. I love all the tiny details that add to its richness (Christopher names all his chapters after prime numbers and adds an appendix which shows his working of a complicated maths problem - just because). But mostly I love the way Haddon was able to help me inhabit the mind of such a fascinating and complex character. This book is an incredible achievement. Please read it.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Well, you can't beat a bit of Sherlock Holmes, can you? These stories about this quintessentially English eccentric must probably have a place on most bookshelves - at least in Britain. I chose this book because it includes The Final Problem - the story in which Sherlock Holmes finally meets his match at the hands of the evil Professor Moriarty. I had never actually read this story, but of course I knew of it, and the final scene in The Coronation seemed to be something of a homage to it.

I don't usually enjoy collections of short stories - I find it frustrating for a story to end just as I'm starting to get into it. I've had a really busy week though, so it was actually great to be able to dip into the book for a few minutes and read a whole story. As expected, I found that the format didn't really work for me - once I'd got to the end of one of the stories I didn't have as much incentive to pick the book up again as I would have done if I'd been in the middle of an exciting novel.

I hadn’t read a Sherlock Holmes story since I was a teenager, and as I progressed through the stories I began to realise how naive my youthful preconceptions of the detective and Doctor Watson were.  In my head they were a stereotypical duo of the infallible detective and his likeable but bumbling assistant, but this turned out not to be the case at all. Holmes is in fact a very complicated man with more vices than virtues and, as Watson (the narrator) is often at pains to point out he isn't always entirely successful in his investigations. In several of the stories the mystery is solved in spite of, rather than because of, Holmes' interference. Watson also surprised me. He certainly gave very little help to Holmes in his investigations but, unlike Ziukin in The Coronation, neither did he get in Holmes' way or try to take it upon himself to get involved in the action. He also came across as an extremely sensible and supportive friend, although maybe a little too accepting of Holmes' eccentric behaviours and dour moods.

I liked the variety of the mysteries in the book - they are not all crimes. Some are very simple domestic or relationship problems although they all had fairly improbable solutions. My main problem with the book, however, was that the reader was rarely given the chance to solve the mystery before Holmes did.  I suppose it's difficult in a short story to provide the reader with all the clues and red herrings that would be possible in a full-length novel, but time-and-time again, at the denouement, I would be exasperated by the amount of information Holmes had at his fingertips that the reader had not been given access to. Maybe I'm unusual, but my favourite thing about detective stories is getting to play detective myself. On the rare occasion that I work out who the culprit is I'm always so proud of myself, and so I felt rather cheated in most of these stories.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Final Problem, which surely contains one of the most famous scenes in English literature - even people who haven't read it have heard of it. I'm really glad that I've finally read it for myself. What I hadn't realised was that Watson didn't witness the final events at first hand - his narrative is based on a reconstruction of the likely events based on the evidence left at the scene. This makes for really powerful narrative - both Watson and the reader are forced to imagine what might have happened to Holmes and Moriarty, which somehow makes the scene far more vivid than if it had been recounted in detail.  The end of the book really is desolating - I felt so sorry for poor Doctor Watson. In his typically reserved English style he makes very little of his own emotions but beneath the understatement it is easy to see that his life will never be the same again.  I'm glad Conan Doyle at least had the decency to marry him off.

One tiny thing - I really, really don't like the cover of this edition. I just don't get it. It looks like it should be on the front of a collection of ghost stories.  Very unattractive.

On the whole I did enjoy this book and I'm glad I've finally read it. Holmes and Watson are both fascinating people to spend a bit of time with, and even when the detective element of the stories didn't quite do it for me, the character study of Sherlock Holmes was always fun to read.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Coronation

I had never heard of Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin mysteries until I went hunting on the internet for another book narrated by a butler. The series is massively poplar in Russia (think Harry Potter and you'll be close) and has been translated into English by Andrew Bromfield. The Coronation is the seventh book in the series.

Erast Fandorin is a celebrated detective who seems to be more in the mould of Sherlock Holmes than Hercule Poirot. After a rather slow start, Fandorin first appears in the book as a stranger who saves one of the Tsar's cousins from kidnap, but unfortunately allows another cousin to be kidnapped instead. It soon becomes clear that the kidnap has happened on the orders of Fandorin's arch-enemy, the Moriarty-esque Dr Lind - a baddy with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. The ransom demanded is a diamond without which the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II cannot take place. Fandorin is employed to attempt to retireve the child without handing over the diamond - the loss of which would apparently bring more shame and distress to the royal family than the kidnap and death of its youngest member.

The book's narrator is Afenasii Ziukin, butler to one of the Tsar's uncles. I can see why authors find it a useful device to use a servant as narrator - by their nature they are present at most of the action but are able to comment on it dispassionately. However Ziukin gets himself involved in the action, taking it upon himself to try to investigate the case and carry out several daring missions of his own - most of which end in disaster or with the need to be bailed out by Fandorin. Every detective must have a bumbling sidekick and Ziukin is certainly Fandorin's.

I suppose it's always going to be difficult jumping into a series halfway through - in fact it's something I don't usually do. The Coronation does, in fact, work fairly well as a stand-alone book, but I probably missed out by not knowing any of Fandorin's back story. I think I was supposed to like and trust Fandorin from the beginning, but in common with Ziukin, I had never met him before and consequently didn't warm to him very much. In a way this didn't really matter, as Fandorin is less the protagonist of the book than Ziukin himself, and I did very much like the butler's character.

I can only assume that Akunin has read The Remains of the Day and I wouldn't be surprised if this book was an intentional homage to Ishiguro. Like Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Ziukin is pompous, obsessed with the idea of dignity and utterly blind to the attentions of his female colleague. He is, however, brave (to the point of stupidity) and flawed enough to appear human. Very few of the rest of the characters made much of an impression on me. To be honest I had a hard time differentiating one from another, especially as they tend to be referred to variously by their given name and patronymic, or their surname. Working out who was who was sometimes a challenge.

One element of the book that I really liked was its basis in Russian history. The coronation of the title is that of Tsar Nicholas II and Akunin makes use of several events of the time, including the Khodynka tragedy, in which over a thousand people died in a stampede at the coronation festivities. Akunin obviously knows his period well and pays minute attention to historical detail which makes the book really fascinating and entertaining reading.

On the whole though, I found the book rather difficult reading. I struggled to get into it, and even when the action began I just wasn't gripped or convinced enough by the story to care too much about what happened. Most of the action sequences verged on the farcical, which made the book a fun read but not one that I was able to get too emotionally involved in.  Having said that, I loved the plot twist at the end, which I absolutely hadn't seen coming and which finally gripped me - just a little too late.

I can't say that The Coronation has turned me into another of Akunin's many fans, but I feel a bit bad dismissing a book that comes so late in the series. At some point I'll probably give a Fandorin book another go and see if the detective or his author can change my mind.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Remains of the Day

I could have spent ages coming up with a really profound and meaningful choice to start the chain with, but in fact I chose Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day for no better reason than - because it was there. Not that I'm in any way comparing it to Everest - in fact it's not a challenging read at all. I think this is because Ishiguro's prose is so beautifully and naturally written that I was very rarely aware of the author or his words - the story and the descriptions just flowed into my head from the paper.

Having said that, when I took the time to think about the narrator's voice, it was really fascinating. The novel is narrated in the first person by Stevens, a butler in a large English country house in the interwar period. At first glance he is a stereotypical butler - dignified (an important theme in the book), calm, and somewhat pompous. It is only as the book goes on that the reader begins to see that beneath the costume of his dignified exterior is a man as insecure and full of regret as anyone else. Eventually he comes to realise how much he has lost out on through maintaining such an emotionless facade, and it is a heartbreaking moment. I feel that Ishiguro's skill really lies in his ability to rouse the reader's sympathy for a man who on the surface seems so devoid of character, and who never intentionally reveals a glimpse of his underlying emotions. In the end, it is what Stevens doesn't say that reveals the most about him.

The book mainly takes the form of the ageing Stevens' recollections of his years of service to Lord Darlington and his relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. As he drives across the English countryside, his narrative of the events of his driving holiday is interspersed with memories which, it seems, he is unable to suppress. In essence, because of the two time frames of the book, the story has two climaxes, one of which involves his memories of Lord Darlington and his dangerous manipulation of the current affairs of the age. The other, towards which the book is obviously building from the beginning, is a short meeting with Miss Kenton, now married and moved away. Whether either of these endings is entirely satisfying is something I can't decide on - they are certainly both sources of regret for Stevens.

I loved this book. The beautiful prose, the subtle characterisation and the wonderful descriptions of the English countryside have made me a big fan of Ishiguro's writing. I just wish I could decide how hopeful I feel the end of the book is. As someone who loves a happy ending I'm trying to see it that way, but actually the more I think about the closing two or three paragraphs, the more unbearably sad I find them. This is a book that's going to stay with me for a long time.