The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow – the story of Austen’s Mary Bennet fully realised

 

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

 

Mary Bennet is the middle sister. In Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” she is the sister who is socially awkward, with her book of ‘extracts’ and her insistence on playing the piano at the Netherfield ball. In this book, Hadlow takes a character who is not much mentioned in the famous novel and creates a world and an explanation of each of her actions as recorded. It makes careful use of the well known characters from the novel, each appearing in the way they appeared. Thus there is the beautiful Jane, the clever and pretty Elizabeth, and most significantly the talkative, nervy and tactless Mrs Bennet. The setting of the shabby house, Longbourn, and the later houses where Mary will find herself are consistent with the original novel, and this book is rich in details of the background, furnishings and much else which will be familiar to Austen readers. This is a big book which proceeds at a slow pace, demonstrating Mary’s careful considering personality brilliantly. I found this an excellent long read.

 

The very first line of the book rather sums up Mary’s situation. “It is a sad fact of life that if a young woman is unlucky enough to come into the world without expectations, she had better do all she can to ensure she is born beautiful.” Mary realises as quite a small girl that she is not beautiful or witty, even pretty or confident when compared with her four sisters. This idea is reinforced by Mrs Bennet who does not spare Mary as a child, continually comparing her unfavourably to her sisters, and she carries on as Mary becomes an adult. In common with everyone else Mary knows about the entail that means when her father dies she and her sister will lose Longbourn to Mr Collins who Elizabeth will reject. When faced with the example of Charlotte Lucas who in her mid twenties is already considered to have missed her chance to marry and have a family, Mary moves on from the urge to please her father to the knowledge that if she does not marry, she will be left to manage on little money and probably in her mother’s company. She also wants to love and be loved  for herself, but as her story runs alongside the story of her sisters’ success in romance she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her chances of finding her own happy ever after. 

 

Mary’s attempts to examine her potential happiness in the absence of true love leads her to studying books of sermons and philosophy, and dressing in a quiet and sober way. As she comes into contact with people after the time of the original novel, her progress does not improve as others despair of her bookish ways, her spectacles, and her general quiet demeanour. She is vulnerable and uncertain, a legacy of her childhood, and several people reinforce her lack of self esteem.

 

This is a big book, which takes its time to work through the life of a young woman faced with the chances and choices of the time. The message of the book is concerned with the lack of opportunity for women in the period. The only option is marriage to a suitable man, but that is not always easy as Mary proves. This is a thoughtful and careful study of a woman with few options, and a brilliant well paced read those who enjoy historical fiction, especially that linked to Austen’s novels.     

 

As readers of this site will know, I am very fond of Austen sequels and novels about the books, though the quality varies. This is an excellent one which carefully creates a lot of sympathy for Mary, while producing a good and thought provoking novel in its own right. It is a long book, but provides a lot of good reading. It has been providing a lot of reading at the moment, and I am so glad I had bought a copy from Cognito Books in Hexham. They are still posting out books at the moment, so why not find out how you can order from them (or any other independent book shop).

Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone – Reality television, Essex and a murder investigation with a difference

Cherry Slice (A Cherry PI Mystery): Amazon.co.uk: Jennifer Stone ...

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Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone

 

This is a very contemporary novel, featuring reality tv shows, designer clothes and a lot about lesser known celebrities. The writing style is very fast and full of puns, most of which are linked to the locality of Essex. This is a comedy with a murder mystery, and the central character narrates her own story of following the trail of an already apparently solved murder. Cherry is certainly a memorable character at the centre of a community dominated by a high street full of unusual shops. She has a past; she was an investigative reporter for a local paper when she became a contestant on a reality television programme made by Expose, an Essex based channel. As she has questions based on a murder witnessed by thousands on live television, she has to visit some strange places and meet some even stranger people. This is not a subtle book, and has some very contemporary twists, but it combines comedy and basic humour to unusual effect. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

Cherry Hinton (possibly named after an area of Cambridge) was hounded out of her reporting job when she was discovered in a compromising position with a man on a reality show. Not that the scandal was a problem except to her mother, the wonderfully creation of Carol, the WI organiser with her network of friends and relations. It was discovered that Cherry was an undercover reporter trying to discover cheating on the show, and for that in an almost fantasy world of minor celebrity and constant reality television she has been condemned. She has taken over the running of her parents’ cake shop and introduced new cakes with names of places in Essex, including the local police detective, Jacob Stow, with whom she has history. Another local aquaintance, Kenny Thorpe, was very publicly murdered on yet another reality show, but his sister asks Cherry to investigate the seeming confession of “Fat Martin”, who has recently died. Thus Cherry plunges herself into an investigation which will mean her visiting nightclubs, and other dubious locations in order to find out the truth. She also has to maintain her cake making, with such treats as Southend Rock cakes, while dealing with the fallout from her notorious television exposure still a hot topic. 

 

This is a book which pulls few punches in terms of language, and indulges in some broad comedy. Stone has real skill in creating characters and settings that resonate with the reader; she makes some funny and probably accurate observations on the subject of minor celebrity and reality television. There is a lot of reality in this book as people are seen as desperate for fame and attention. Stone has certainly broken the mould for determined women private investigators in this lively, genuinely funny and engaging book. I found the character of her mother particularly memorable, with her misunderstanding of Cherry’s actions but her whole hearted support of her daughter’s progress. This book is the start of a series, and there is much more to come in terms of Cherry’s haphazard investigative skills and the puns like Cherry PI. 

 

This was a very different book to review, which made a nice change in many ways. I have some interesting books coming along to post about, so watch this space for more reviews ( I’ve published over fifty this year alone – there are over 700 in total on the site, which is plenty to be going on with!)

The Cornish Village School – Breaking the Rules by Kitty Wilson – a romantic comedy

The Cornish Village School - Breaking the Rules (Cornish Village ...

 

This book in a series of novels about a small village school set in a beautiful Cornish village has a certain charm and a lot of humour. Rosy Winter is the head of the school, but it is her life which happens outside school hours that is the focus of much of the action. The school is portrayed here as small enough that every child is known and valued as an individual, but like every small establishment of its type there is more than an implied threat. When Rosy gets a new next door neighbour she realises that her compartmentalised life is threatened; her self imposed rule of not letting a relationship get too serious, especially with someone in the village looks to be at risk. Is Matthew too good to be true after all? This romantic comedy never gets too serious despite Rosy’s problems, and the setting is glorious. There are some wonderful characters in this well written book which stands alone in a series featuring the Cornish Village School in Penmenna. 

 

Much of the humour from this book comes from Rosy’s discovery that her new neighbour, Matthew, is a very attractive man. After an initial misunderstanding Rosy discovers that Matthew has female company in the form of the perfect Angelina, and that she is resigned to maintaining her Rule of not dating anyone in the village or even Cornwall. Not that she is having much success with online dating, but resolves to treat Matthew as a friendly neighbour and begins to introduce him to the local community. She encounters the loathsome Edward Grant, who announces that Penmenna school is on his list to be amalgamated with others, meaning that the “Outstanding” school is due to be closed, and all the pupils bussed a great distance. Rosy realises that she has limited time to be worrying about her romantic life as she must get help to run the #SaveOurSchool campaign. As the formidable Marion is enlisted to raise awareness of the fight, Rosy gets dragged into the social life of the county. Meanwhile Matthew discovers that his relationship with Angelina is hard work and very demanding. He is also keen to set to work on his project for television, restoring and redesigning the gardens of a local big house. When he gets inspiration of how he can help the school’s campaign, he wants to improve his chances with Rosy, but he discovers that there are far more barriers than he imagined.

 

This is a light comedy in many ways, though Rosy has issues which are darker than her usual good temper would suggest. Rosy’s emotions are well described, especially her panics about her relationship with Matt.  Clothes, setting and humour are well realised, and I enjoyed this read immensely. There are some very good set pieces, including a date which Rosy endures, Matthew’s attitude to Angelina and his coping strategies, and Marion the rather frightening PTA chair in organisational mode. This is a vastly entertaining light comedy with a good range of characters, imaginative descriptions and romantic ideas.   

 

This is a book which well fulfils the need for a cheerful book in these strange times. There are at actually five books in this series, of which this is the first, and I have the next two ready to read. It is a book which is very different from some of the others which I am reviewing at the moment, but I think that makes it all the more interesting!

 

Mrs. Martell by Elizabeth Eliot – a Furrowed Middlebrow, Dean Street Press reprint

Mrs. Martell: Amazon.co.uk: Elizabeth Eliot: 9781912574636: Books

 

There are several “baddies” in very good novels, and Mrs Martell is one of those. Conniving with her eye on the main chance, the beautiful and determined Cathie is concerned with maintaining her appearance at all costs. She has dedicated her life to self improvement in order to get what she wants: money, position and a handsome husband. 

 

Elizabeth Eliot’s 1953 novel, recently reprinted by the excellent Dean Street Press in both paperback and ebook format, portrays a woman who will stop at very little to get what she wants. Her family, her friends and everyone else are all used to great effect so that she can win her prize. Not that she is above seizing opportunities where she can, as she always hopes to encounter a “tall handsome stranger of a suitable age” whenever she makes a journey. This book is not only a testament to the determination of a particular woman, but also the choices women make at various stages of their lives. It has been a pleasure to read and review this fascinating book.

 

The book opens with Mrs Martell contemplating a murder which has just taken place downstairs from her flat. Not that she is frightened, rather she is eager to take advantage of the situation in her own inimitable way. She is contemplating Edward, the wealthy husband of her cousin Laura, with whom she has established a relationship. She knows that her cousin is young and innocent, and sees an opportunity to become the lady of the house, “the beautiful Mrs Edward West”. Her entire life has been heading towards this point, starting with her manipulation of her mother and her aunt as a child. She was briefly married to a Maurice Martell, but he proved a social disappointment with no ambition to meet the ‘right’ people. When she inherits some money she becomes independent. Discovering a distant cousin, the younger Laura, and her husband Edward, she rapidly makes herself important to them both, and she advances her cause with the difficult to please Edward. Not that this prevents her from diversions along the route.

 

This book is so driven by some brilliantly drawn characters that it works well. The settings are also described in a way to be vivid; the flats, the houses and the other places in a country still marked by the Second World War. Mrs Martell is a wonderful creation, as she schemes and plots to get her own way. There is so much to recommend this depiction of a woman with such determination, as she schemes against those who trust her. Laura is a sympathetic character, young and unaware of her husband’s true opinion of her, lonely and unsure. Edward is a brusque character, with exacting standards. 

 

This book forms an fascinating commentary on the role of women of the time, but perhaps more interestingly the way a woman can be continually criticised and undermined.  It is a portrait of a society where women are not seen as free agents, except in the matter of their choice to marry, which in Laura’s case was taken at a very young age. She had lived a sheltered and limited life, and when compared to the knowing Mrs Martell, a very different woman. This is a very well chosen reprint from Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street press, and I recommend it for its insights, plot and characters.

 

This book is very different from yesterday’s reviewed choice! What will I attempt tomorrow, I wonder?

Highland Fling by Katie Fforde – an entertaining look at life in a Scottish community

Highland Fling: Amazon.co.uk: Katie Fforde: 9780099415558: Books

 

Jenny Porter is a virtual assistant who finds herself out of her depth in many ways. This novel, originally published in 2002, has been rereleased in a new cover and forms an ideal easy read for anyone. Jenny is a young woman who is less than keen on her boyfriend Henry, so decides that driving up to Scotland at the request of one of her clients to look at a failing mill is a good idea. Discovering that the locals are a mixed bunch, from the heavily pregnant Meggie to the fearsome Lady Dalmain, she soon discovers that her assignment involves more than a quick assessment of a small business. This novel has lasted well in terms of email being used in a limited way and some ideas of finding business opportunities, and the family relationships represent an interesting dynamic. This type of book has of course a strong romantic theme, but it is certainly not expected or straightforward. This is a book to revel in, with a large cast of well constructed characters who have ample opportunity to reveal their eccentricities and obsessions in a book which has a great deal of natural humour. The dialogue is witty and well observed, and is another source of humour. 

 

Jenny’s work has so far been conducted at a distance, and she has little idea of what this task really entails. Her journey is eventful; she pulls to a halt by a “tartan-painted mobile refreshment van, endearingly called ‘The Homely Haggis”. She then encounters a member of the family who currently runs the mill, as well as an irritable but attractive stranger. When she proceeds to the house more revelations occur as she encounters the fragile Felicity and the demanding widowed Lady Dalmain living in a freezing house stuffed with antiques. Philip, the son of the house, is elusive on the actual running of the business, and secrets soon emerge that explain some of the problems. When Jenny explores matters further, she discovers that only radical action can save the business, the family home and much more. Can she save everything as life gets more complicated?

 

This book has several set pieces such as a challenging dinner party, trip to London and even a visit to a highland games. The weather plays a part in Jenny’s project, and the terrain proves almost as challenging as the freezing house, the lively dogs, and the slightly dysfunctional family. The business plan that Jenny comes up with is far from logical, but owes much to the locality and people that she encounters. Not always the most realistic of tales, this is an appealing story with plenty of local colour and enormous entertainment value. Jenny is a successful character in many ways, Lady Dalmain truly terrifying in her imperious manner, and others work well in their allocated roles. This is a light read with much to recommend it, slightly dated but also very funny. Set in the winter, this is not a seasonal read but rather has many elements of the local weather, landscape and community to enliven it. This is a light read and a very entertaining one.     

 

At the moment it is tricky to concentrate on any one book, or even one type of book. My husband is therefore having to move piles of books around as I pick up and then put down some fairly weighty books, but at least he has managed to shelve some fiction today. How is everyone else coping with more reading time but some lack of concentration?    

The Duke’s Daughter by Angela Thirkell – Barsetshire’s Romantic Resolutions for many

The Duke's Daughter by Angela Thirkell

 

Barsetshire is recovering from the War in this 1951 novel in the series which delves into the lives of the gentry and minor aristocracy of a mythical English county. For those familiar with the books of Angela Thirkell, this late volume in the set of books featuring a number of families, friends and complicated connections is a welcome round up to many characters’ stories. However, those who are new to the books or have picked up this particular episode will be able to enjoy it for its own merits. I think that it is particularly strong on certain characters’ narrative; certainly Thirkell takes the opportunity to find and develop certain romances that have featured in past books, if only by hints and suggestions. The Duke’s Daughter of the title is Lady Cora, a naturally beautiful and capable young woman who has had to come to terms with her family’s relative poverty: as with several families in the area staying in the large ancestral home is difficult if not impossible, several individuals realise that theirs is the last generation to live in the large house. Moreover, some adult children are discovering that the single life is no longer enough. 

 

The recent War has left its mark on the area. Clothes, houses and gardens are shabby, petrol is still restricted and food is not plentiful in many homes. Despite this, events like the Archeological meeting still draws in the crowds of people having the same conversations as the previous years with the same people. There is much here about a boys’ school run by Phillip and Leslie, the latter being a war widow who has married the Headmaster. Cora herself has had sad losses; a brother and male friends who were possibly very special to her. There is Tom Grantly, whose war was testing and who has found difficulty in settling after returning from University, his time working with Martin and Emmy on one of the estates was abandoned as he moved onto a government job. His hatred of Geoffrey Harvey who is generally unpopular means that Tom is having a hard time, and is struggling with other aspects of his life. Cecil Waring has returned from War to his inheritance of a large house and much else. Clarissa is still missing her beloved grandmother Lady Emily, and is going through a difficult stage. Oliver Marling still admires Jessica Dean, and it is in this book that he discovers there may be other possibilities.

 

Anthony Trollope readers will notice names from his Barsetshire books of the families which still pop up in these books. This is a wonderful collection of people and their stories as they move together and apart, discover new things about each other and their homes, choose their jobs and occupations, cope with the daily challenges of lives on the land and in some of the schools and businesses. There are children and babies, new generations to discover. I really enjoyed this book, if only because towards the end there is an accounting for many characters. Some issues are resolved after several books, while there are references to characters who do not appear in this volume who have been important before or will be again. I think this book is a good accounting of the fates of many, while cleverly leaving other strands and characters still to be dealt with in later books. I believe this book can be read out of order and still enjoyed, but also works well as places and people are referred to that will please those who have encountered the other books, as even quite minor characters get their moments. It may be a more difficult to obtain book, but would repay the effort handsomely if copies can be tracked down.   

 

The above review is the latest in a series of reviews of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels. I still have about ten to review I believe, so it will keep me going for a while! If you wish to seethe others, just tap on Thirkell’s name in the Categories column. I am still aiming for a review a day over the foreseeable future, though there will be some very different books from the above, I hope to suggest some lighter reads (or at least newer books).

The Best Most Awful Job – Edited by Katherine May – Twenty writers on Motherhood

 

Twenty writers have been brought together to contribute to a book about motherhood. The project has led to twenty very different views, defined by each person’s experience of being a mother in many ways. What draws them together is the honesty that each writer displays in their contribution, some of which comes from a very difficult place. This is not the self congratulatory side of being a mother, basking in the glory of a perfect home, children and relationship. This is about the struggle to become a mother, to fulfil perceived expectations, to cope with the loneliness and the ineffectiveness of being a parent. It is about the shattered dreams and ideals, but also about the feeling of achievement, of deep joy, of fulfilment. The title is accurate in that this book reveals all the good and less good parts of being a parent, specifically a mother. This was a fascinating book to read and review.

 

This book contains a great variety of reactions to motherhood, ranging from attempts to get pregnant and maintain it, difficult births, post natal depression and the feeling of inadequacy in managing a baby from its earliest days. To an extent that much is predictable in a book about motherhood, the pain of losing a baby for example is well documented. Here the pain is expressed through the description of the search for a heartbeat at a scan, in an intense passage of writing . Post natal depression is a difficult reality to cope with, with no obvious end in sight, as well as the problems of diagnosis. There are the issues of single parenthood, the small problems of not being able to be in the sea with a child when there is no one to guard the valuables, moving into the problems of dating as a parent of a small child. The issues surrounding step parenthood is the subject of a well written piece, taking the long view of beginning with small children and how even a young child can be aggressive, through the gradual building up of trust so that grown up step children are in a good place. The discovery that “gendering” is difficult if not impossible is the subject of another honest piece. The well known poet and writer Hollie McNish provided a powerful piece which is brutally honest in its style. The lyrical piece from an adoptive parent is very moving, about the highs and lows of hoping and waiting for a child.

 

Throughout the book there is the strong feeling that the writer had believed that they were the only person struggling with balancing motherhood, relationships and a career; this book shows that even in the supposedly enlightened twenty first century people struggle to balance everything. This is a book that can be read in short bursts as well as a sustained session. I found it a varied and fascinating account of an important element of life for many people, and this book should be of interest to most. It makes important comments on the nature and feelings of those who “mother”, even if it is non traditional, and provides a valuable picture of contemporary motherhood brilliantly expressed by a range of writers. 

 

This book is a remarkable achievement, especially given the “Mothering Sunday” season. For many it was a different day, though thank goodness for high tech ways of communication. This is a strong read, and certainly there are some unexpected thoughts expressed.  I found it particularly enlightening.

I think some of us are looking around at shelves of books and wondering why it is proving hard to actually read them. I think that concentration is tricky at the moment, so I am still trying to read enough books for a post a day. Phew! Thank goodness for Netflix!