The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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The Starless Sea reads like a book for book-lovers. Erin Morgenstern presents a secondary fantasy world, accessed through magical doors, full of stories and the people who protect them. More than one character explicitly references going through the wardrobe to reach Narnia, and the early sections of The Starless Sea filled me with that same longing to escape into a magical idyll. Of course, these other worlds are rarely perfectly peaceful, otherwise there’d be no conflict and no story. Erin Morgenstern does a good job of balancing the appeal with the danger. The Starless Sea has more bite than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but doesn’t tip over into brutal cynicism like The Magicians.

Endings are what give stories meaning.
I don’t know if I believe that. I think the whole story has meaning but I also think to have a whole story-shaped story it needs some sort of resolution. Not even a resolution, she appropriate place to leave it. A goodbye.
I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, on in story space.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

As befits a book about a magical world full of books, The Starless Sea also delves interestingly into metafictional discussions about what makes a story, and what makes a good story. The characters of The Starless Sea would make an interesting book club. Within Erin Morgenstern’s narrative, there are smaller stories-within-stories, none of which were recognisable as retellings, but most of which had an effective archetypal fairytale vibe. Unfortunately, the overarching plot doesn’t hang together quite as well. The story was hazy, never quite coming into focus, which made it difficult to build up (or understand) the stakes. Erin Morgenstern’s prose is so lovely that The Starless Sea was still enjoyable, but it didn’t have as much impact as it might have done if the narrative had set things up on a slightly firmer ground.

The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealised, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the true difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

A reread of The Starless Sea would be interesting, to see whether the stories-within-stories knit together with the main narrative to make the whole thing feel more grounded and immediate. If you like reading about reading (presumably you do, since you’ve read this…) it’s definitely one to add to your TBR!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen — Reread Review, Bookclub Too

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Despite taking a Jane Austen module at university, I was certain I hadn’t read Northanger Abbey. Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and found notes, in my own handwriting, all the way through! It’s never happened to me before that I have absolutely no memory of previously reading a book (though, I suppose the question is: how would I know? Spooky!). I can only assume that reading books for six modules, and reading several other Austens, Northanger Abbey didn’t have time to make much impression.

At length, however, having slipped one arm into her gown, her toilette seemed so nearly finished, that the impatience of her curiosity might safely be indulged.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Catherine Morland feels incredibly different from Jane Austen’s other heroines. She’s neither in total possession of herself like Elizabeth, Emma and Elinor nor giddily irresponsible like Marianne or Lydia. Instead, she’s guileless and a little socially awkward. Watching her thrown into Society in Bath will little in the way of helpful guidance from anyone on how to pick her friends and acquaintances was very relatable, despite the wealth of years since Jane Austen was writing.

Speaking of characters, General Tilney is an amazing villain. Not, as Catherine thinks, because he might have murdered his wife, but because the ways he breaches etiquette feel as outrageous today as they presumably did over two hundred years ago. Contrasted against her father and Isabella, Eleanor shines as friend worth making. As the romantic lead, Henry is… fine. He’s certainly no Mr Darcy. There are moments where his teasing of Catherine seems based in intelligence and affection, but then Austen also explicitly states that he only fell for her because she was interested in him, which is hardly the stuff of a great love story.

From that point on, it has been the novel’s fate to be read by successive generations who have not read the books to which its author and its characters make reference.

Introduction to Northanger Abbey, David Blair

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey particularly needs a good introduction, and David Blair does a decent job. Some sentences are a little wordy, but the main points are interesting and illuminate the text. The point he makes about Catherine’s taste for novels giving her a vocabulary to express her discomfort with General Tilney made a nice contrast to the usual perspective that Catherine is a young woman carried into foolishness by her overactive imagination.

Northanger Abbey‘s ending is a little abrupt. Austen never really dwells on what happens between the proposal and the wedding, but in this case, her quick summary and dismissal of Eleanor’s contribution to proceedings felt unearned. If that plot line had been brought up earlier, it would have been more satisfying, and it’s not as if the book is overlong as it is!

Despite enjoying Northanger Abbey more than I expected to, it doesn’t quite displace Emma as my current favourite Jane Austen novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village by Joanna Nell — New Review

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She’d somehow fallen between the genres. Everywhere she looked, people were defined, conformed to the conventions of their particular genre. Brian the educated, handsome widower; Jim the ageing Lothario; Celia the capable tomboy. Even Angie had never wavered from her man-eating temptress persona. It made them who they were: individual. Real people. Peggy did have her own identity, even if she didn’t like it. Overweight, self-doubting. She was a nondescript person, an elasticated waistband of a human being.

The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, Joanna Nell

As a title, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village gave the impression that this would be an ensemble of stories, featuring different women who were single for different reasons. And in a way, it was many stories in one, but they were all happening to the same main character. Peggy Smart is living, simultaneously, in a romance novel, a Bildungsroman, a family drama, a story about the importance of friendship and one of those novels where a secret from the past dominates events of the present. Joanna Nell is trying to cram an awful lot into one book, and it doesn’t entirely work.

For a start, some of those stories directly contradict each other: is The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village a romance, or a story about how friendship is more important than bagging a second love interest in later life? Trying to resolve both those plot lines leaves the ending feeling half-hearted and unsatisfying. Similarly, does Peggy Smart deserve independence from her family or does she want to reconcile with them? Again, Joanna Nell tries to let her protagonist have her (homemade) cake and eat it.

The three of them sat in silence, lost in their own memories of love and loss, oblivious to the impatience of modern life as it played out around them.

The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, Joanna Nell

There are hints in the first half of the novel at a secret from the past that’s going to dramatically explode all Peggy’s ideas about her life. Except… it doesn’t. She half-discovers the secret, half-forgets it and then, when all is finally revealed, she’s already over it. The drama of the moment comes from another source entirely, and even that is papered over to get to the end of the story.

If you want a later-in-life bildungsroman about romance and community among people in their retirement years, read Mr Doubler Begins Again, it’s heaps better.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — Revisit Review

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Like most Agatha Christie novels, I’ve listened to And Then There Were None a dozen times and know the solution of the mystery by heart. It was interesting to slow down and read it on paper, because different things jumped out at me.

Enveloped in an aura of righteousness and unyielding principles, Miss Brent sat in her crowded third-class carriage and triumphed over its discomfort and its heat.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s prose is clear and to-the-point, summing up all ten of her main characters in only a few words. The descriptions of Emily Brent and Anthony Marston were particularly effective, while on the other hand it’s easy to get ex-Inspector Blore and Philip Lombard mixed up in the early stages. Even knowing the ending, it’s interesting to watch the atmosphere of increasing dread play havoc on everyone’s anxieties.

“My point is that there can be no exceptions allowed on the score of character, position or probability. What we must now examine is the possibility of eliminating one or more persons on the facts. To put it simply, is there among us one or more persons who could not possibly have administered cyanide to [the first victim], or an overdose of sleeping draughts to [the second victim], and who had no opportunity of striking the blow that killed [the third victim]?”

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

One of the things which makes And Then There Were None a really clever mystery is the total lack of trustworthy sources. Every character is equally open to suspicion, and that means the reader can’t trust anything, not even murder mystery staples like time of death or who last saw the victim alive. And by the time solid alibis are established, the characters are all too psychologically wound up to recognise and act on it.

While And Then There Were None is widely recognised as one of Agatha Christie’s most unique offerings, it’s surprising to me that it’s so often recommended to people who haven’t read any others. The very fact that it’s not a detective story makes it a slightly odd place to begin. I’d advise new Christie readers to start with something a bit more traditional and work their way up to And Then There Were None once they’re familiar with the format!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett — New Review

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It’s always exciting to make another inroad into the vast universe of Discworld, especially one which falls into a new subcategory, as Going Postal did for me. The name Moist von Lipwig was familiar, but everything else about the character and his history came as a delightful surprise. As goals go, ‘rejuvenate the postal system’ doesn’t sound as though it will be all that absorbing and yet, as Moist applies his skills as a conman to the business of civil service, the story sweeps you along nicely. Had Going Postalbeen nothing but a series of escalating problems successfully solved, it would have been enjoyable. 

He felt the tingle he always felt when the game was afoot. Life should be made up of moments like this, he decided.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

Of course, things can’t be that simple: the conflict is well-paced, reminding me a little of The Once and Future Witches, though with a less dramatic emotional punch. Everything that Terry Pratchett sets up pays off, or else seems like fertile ground for future novels to explore. Going Postal’s prose is of the clear, unassuming kind that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the plot. The only rough part was a portion of dramatic irony, which I have an incredibly low tolerance for.

But what was happening now… this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse; used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal round it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this… thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

While it seems necessary to mention social commentary in any Discworld review, it’s not something which jumps out to me as a reviewer. This may be why I find Terry Pratchett’s novels enjoyable but not sparklingly magical. For any readers in a similar position: Going Postal is perfectly enjoyable without engaging with the deeper meaning! 

While I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading every Discworld novel, I do hope to eventually make the acquaintance of Samuel Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, so this won’t be the last time I read Terry Pratchett.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough — Reread Review

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I picked up The Thorn Birds four years ago because it was mentioned in The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club. I devoured it over the course of a week in a holiday cottage, and it packed an enormous emotional punch. I’ve been looking forward to rereading it ever since, which might seem odd because almost nothing nice happens in the entire 54-year span of the novel’s plot.

She knew her son well enough to be convinced that one word from her would bring him back, so she must not utter that word, ever. If the days were long and bitter with a sense of failure, she must bear it in silence.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds appeals to the part of me that signed up to take a module on Settler Identity: Fictions of Oz/Nz at university; it starts out as a story about coming to a new place and trying to make a life there. All the characters’ lives are limited in some way – by class, by money, by gender. It’s not even as if the characters band together to overcome these problems, because most of the relationships in the book are strained to some degree.

Away from Fee, her brothers, Luke, the unsparing, unthinking domination of her whole life, Meggie discovered pure leisure; a whole kaleidoscope of thought patterns wove and unwove novel designs in her mind. For the first time in her life she wasn’t keeping her conscious self absorbed in work thoughts of one description or another. Surprised, she realised that keeping physically busy is the most effective blockade against totally mental activity human beings can erect.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough makes these tragedies cathartic, rather than depressing. The characters and their emotions feel incredibly well-observed and realistic. The prose has just the right balance between descriptions, interior thoughts, action and dialogue. Specific scenes linger in the memory so that, on rereading, I found myself recalling them just before they happened and was able to see the foreshadowing which I missed when I didn’t know what was coming. Even though these events no longer came as a surprise, they were still able to bring on a storm of tears.

Reading this so close after Brideshead Revisited, it struck me that Colleen McCullough does a better job at making Catholicism understandable to someone who wasn’t brought up with it than Evelyn Waugh does, as well as offering a more sympathetic portrayal.

Though I’m not a reader who loves or goes looking for tragedy, The Thorn Birds is such an incredibly satisfying novel that I know I’ll return to it again and again.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu — New Review, Bookclub Too

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Interior Chinatown is unlike anything else I’ve read. The book is written as if it were a TV show, with exterior and interior shots and dialogue laid out in script format, but it’s also about a TV show and the lines between what’s ‘real’ in the universe of the book versus what’s only acting are never terribly clear. Charles Yu writes in the second person, which was much more palatable than the second person narrative in The Raven Tower.

Even if Older Brother were not actually a real person, he would still be the most important character in some yet-to-be-conceived story of Chinatown. Would still be real in everyone’s minds and hearts, the mythical Asian American Man, the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

Despite the confusion about what was happening, Interior Chinatown managed to maintain interest. The reflections on living as an Asian-American weren’t subject to the same uncertainly as the action of the plot; the descriptions of living in the SRO above the Golden Palace restaurant (or the film set of the restaurant…) were particularly memorable.

Your whole life you’ve wanted to be Kung Fu Guy, to be something you are not, and here is this person who is whatever she is at all times.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

The romance was sweet, though the rapid jumps in timeline meant it didn’t have as deep an emotional impact as it might otherwise have done. The biggest problem with Interior Chinatown was that it set the scene at one pace but then sped through the rest of the story so much faster that it felt disjointed.

It was a surprise to find Interior Chinatown listed as a comedy; the comedic tone didn’t come through, though that may be because Charles Yu was parodying a specifically American experience. The section which was supposed to be a children’s show was particularly surreal, so that may have been funny to people who found comedy in Geek Love.

Overall, Interior Chinatown probably merits a second read at some point in the future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery — Firm Favourite

Previous in the series: Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Avonlea has everything I love about Anne of Green Gables: the gorgeous descriptions, the endearing character moments, the most perfect slow-burn love story of all time. While reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books, I feel like Charlotta the Fourth: constantly watching Anne in the hopes that I might take on a little of her character if only I try hard enough. Even though I’m 34 and Anne’s only 17 in this novel, she’ll always feel like an aspirational figure of impossible enchantment. Some might find that cloying, but I simply get swept up in Anne’s spell the same way her most ardent admirers do.

Fortunately, some of the other characters are a little more down to earth. Before this reread, I’d entirely forgotten about Mr Harrison, but I love how he morphs from tirading bachelor to almost a kindred spirit in a matter of moments. I’d forgotten about Marilla adopting the twins, too, and this time around I felt quite bad for Dora. She’s constantly described as being incredibly obedient and yet she is so overlooked that adults describe her as monotonous and forgettable. She’s a child! As an overlooked orphan herself, it really feels as though Anne could have taken more of an interest.

But what is the use of being an independent old maid if you can’t be silly when you want to, and when it doesn’t hurt anybody?

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

Of course, Anne of Avonlea‘s true kindred spirits are Paul Irving and Miss Lavender Lewis — Echo Lodge with its fairy echoes is one of the most memorable settings on Prince Edward Island. I spent much of the book waiting with bated breath for Anne and Diana to finally stumble upon the little stone house. Miss Lavender inviting the girls to share the tea she prepared for pretend guests is up there among my favourite moments in the series.

As I said in my review of Anne of Green Gables, Gilbert Blythe continues to be literature’s most perfect romantic lead. His steadfast love for Anne, even before she is ready to realise it, never fails to make me feel emotional, and I know that Anne of the Island will have even more perfect moments of happiness for the pair of them.

“That’s a lovely idea, Diana,” said Anne enthusiastically. “Living so that you beautify your name. Even if it wasn’t beautiful to begin with… making it stand in people’s thoughts for something so lovely and pleasant that they never think of it by itself.”

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

No book is perfect, so I draw attention once again to the fact that Anne’s female friends her own age are, barring Diana Barry, fairly forgettable. Jane and Priscilla are different from one another, but I literally can’t remember a single thing either of them did in the previous novel, and by the time I start the next I doubt I’ll remember what distinguishes them. Diana makes up for it all, though, because her friendship with Anne is so beautifully encapsulated on the eve of her engagement. It was another moment that made me all misty-eyed.

“Another chapter in my life is closed,” said Anne aloud, as she locked her desk. She really felt very sad over it; but the romance in the idea of that ‘closed chapter’ did comfort her a little.

Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery

I love the whole Anne series so whole-heartedly that I literally hugged the book to my chest every evening after I finished reading. I can hardly wait to carry on inhabiting Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beautiful world.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal — New Review

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The premise of Unmarriageable appealed to me: Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan. Retellings of the same story are usually interesting, and while I’ve experienced a few modern takes of Pride and Prejudice, the Pakistani setting made this one stand out as something different. Soniah Kamal makes it work well in several ways: the urgency placed on getting the Binat sisters married, and the way their family’s reputation reflects on their eligibility feels much more at home here than it might in a British retelling.

We like reading and we have growing up abroad in common. We both grew up multi-cultural kids. We know no one person represents a group or a country in things good or bad. We know how to plant roots where there are none. We know that friends can be made anywhere regardless of race or religion. We know how to uproot. We know how to move on from memories, or at least not let memories bury us.

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable‘s characters are interesting, too. Alys and Darsee have a history of displacement in common with each other, and with me, which is something fresh bringing them together, as is their love of literature. It surprised me, at first, that Jane Austen actually exists in the novel, but it made sense. The criticism of Anne de Bourgh by her re-imagined character was a particularly nice touch. Soniah Kamal also takes the award for the grossest version of Mr Collins since the original, he actually made my skin crawl.

“You wait, Mummy,” Qitty said, “Bathool the fool is going to do something so unforgivable one day that my being fat will be nothing in comparison.”

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

In some places, Unmarriageable stuck too closely to the original. It was fairly obvious what was going to happen, with relatively few surprises, which made reading the book an experience in exasperated impatience. That said, there were some differences, mostly in the characters rather than the plot. And at one point, I genuinely questioned whether Alys Binat was going to end the book unmarried, which would certainly have been a twist!

Unfortunately, what really let Unmarriageable down was the prose; it was just terrible. Sentences rambled in a way that made me cringe almost as much as Farhat Kaleen. While I could understand what Soniah Kamal was getting at, there was no grace in it, and I kept being thrown out of the world by constructions like ‘she was beginning to believe that truly of what use was beauty without a brain that could plot’.

Usually, I say that characters are the most important part of a book for me, but Unmarriageable has taught me that prose quality is at least equally significant, if not more so.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — Reread Review

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But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Like Moab is My Washpot, Brideshead Revisited seemed wonderfully romantic to me when I read it at 23, having bought it because a boy I liked was reading it. Over ten years later, I remembered the relationship between Charles and Julia, but had forgotten that they were both married to other people, and that they don’t even get a happy ending. While I’d like to think this second reading was more objective, the truth is that it’s probably just as subjective, but in a different way.

While I found all the characters in Brideshead Revisited interesting, none of them struck me as particularly true to life. The whole book has the dreamy, unreal tone of a Neverland — where the characters never grow up, or at least where Charles’ perspective of them and his worldview never really changes. He’s always looking back on history through a particular lens, and the story ends where it began, so that each scene has the same kind of feeling.

”But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
”Can’t I?”
”I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
”Oh, yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
”But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
”But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Even with very little understanding of Catholicism, I found the theological discussions interesting. Like everything else, there’s a lot that goes unspoken, and I probably missed a great deal of context which would’ve helped me understand what the characters were struggling with. On the other hand, Charles is also an outsider to the Marchmains’ religion, and to some extent their social class, so maybe feeling a distance from it all is the intended effect.

Although I didn’t love the romance, or the characters, this time around, I still appreciated the prose, and found plot interesting, if rather sad.

Rating: 3 out of 5.