Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Previous in the series: Little Men.

Despite my best efforts to keep track of who was who in Little Men, I opened Jo’s Boys to a bewildering array of names. The events of the book were enough that I eventually figured out Tom, Stuffy and Josie, but I had to resort to Google to remind me of Jack, Dolly, Ned, Dick and Billy. Obviously, a school the size of Plumfield needs to be well peopled, but Louisa May Alcott may have tried to spread the attention too thinly between all these boys, as only some of them are sufficiently memorable.

‘I never can forget this — I hope it’s cured me; if it hasn’t, I am afraid I ain’t worth saving,’ answered Ted, pulling his own hair as the only way of expressing his deep remorse.
‘Yes, you are, my dear; I felt just so at fifteen when Amy was nearly drowned, and Marmee helped me as I’ll help you.’

Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

As usual with Louisa May Alcott’s writing, it’s the characters who develop over the course of the novel that really stand out. In this case: Nat, Dan, Ted and Josie. Dan’s story is particularly heartbreaking, and while the ending is probably realistic, it feels like less than he deserved, especially in comparison to almost everyone else’s most-cherished desires coming true. That said, the relationship between Dan and Mrs Jo is enviable to the very last and is the greatest triumph of both these sequels.

A few quiet weeks followed, during which Dan chafed at the delay; and when at length word came that his credentials were ready, he was eager to be off, to forget a vain love in hard work, and live for others, since he might not for himself.

Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

Other romances are less doomed than poor Dan’s, and while they’re all sweet enough, Louisa May Alcott did a good job of balancing them out with Nan. Her refusal to bow to heteronormative pressure to find a husband is not only explicit and explicitly praised, she also gets the chance to monologue on the subject of why she doesn’t want a husband.

The March sisters and Laurie continue to delight. Mrs Meg’s mingled horror and admiration that her daughter inherited her flair for dramatics and wants to make a career of it was particularly enjoyable, as was her relationship with her older children becoming adults. The only fly in the ointment comes at the end, when the narrator expresses a desire to call up an earthquake to end the series. It feels like Louisa May Alcott’s way of saying she’s tired of these characters, which somewhat tarnishes a reader’s enjoyment of them.

Similarly, there’s a section early in the novel where Mrs Jo has to deal with autograph-hunters and the effects of her own celebrity. For anyone who has read a biography of Louisa May Alcott (or the annotations in Little Women), this section feels a little too lazily drawn from life. Overall, there’s a sense that the narrator (who is probably the author) doesn’t really want to be writing this book at all, which might make the reader for guilty for enjoying it.

As a long time fan, I came away from Jo’s Boys with mixed feelings, but I definitely want to read more of Louisa May Alcott’s work and see what she did with characters other than the March family.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

In addition to being a book club book, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was recommended on a list of queer heist novels. I’m glad I read it for book club, and not as a fan of heists, because it’s really not what I want from that description. There are bandits, yes, and (debatably) stolen treasure and negotiations, but little of this is the result of forethought or organisation.

If the first bandit was a porcelain vase, this one was an everyday clay vessel, suitable for holding water or budu or rice wine, as the occasion demanded.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, Zen Cho

Putting aside heist-y expectations, Zen Cho’s world-building is lovely. The religious Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water has a great name, and the details about the goddess and her followers are spread through the story, building up a background which feels significant and convincing. Without giving anything away, the religion-specific compliments and treasures were a really nice touch.

Zen Cho’s pacing worked well, until the very end, which felt a little abrupt. While there had been hints about the relationships between different characters, these didn’t really have enough time to build before they were suddenly impacting the plot in surprisingly big ways. To a reader used to enjoying novellas, this might not be a problem, but in comparison to a full-length novel it felt somewhat light. While the prose of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water didn’t stand out, it was pleasant enough, and a longer novel would be enjoyable.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Love and Other Four-letter Words by Carolyn Mackler — Reread Review

Cover: thestorygraph.com

I remembered liking Love and Other Four-letter Words as a teen, but didn’t recall any details of the plot. If I had, I might not have picked a story about a young person rocked by their parents separation so soon after reviewing The Suitcase Kid. While the circumstances are similar, Love and Other Four-letter Words is a more mature, more rounded story, as befits Carolyn Mackler writing for an older audience. That said, the themes of friendship (both old and new) certainly recalled Best Friend Next Door.

As we unlaced our sneakers and waded into Cayuga Lake, a motorboat whipped by, towing a small boy on an oversized yellow inner tube. The kid, both hands gripping the plastic handles, had a frantic expression on his face as his pleas to stop were swallowed by the rumble of the horsepower. The spotter was consumed with smearing on sunblock, the driver consumed with bikini-clad women capsizing a Sunfish. Which left the boy with two options: to catapult himself into murky waters, or to get dragged along, completely out of his control, until the powers-that-be decided to terminate his joyride. He chose the latter.

I kept revisiting that image over the next few weeks, as I watched my life being disassembled, one familiarity at a time.

Love and Other Four-letter Words, Carolyn Mackler

Sammie Davis was immediately sympathetic as a main character, her entire life changing around her and out of her control. Adult readers can see the places where she makes mistakes in how she handles things, but they are realistic errors given her age, and they build up to a satisfying emotional conclusion. Carolyn Mackler writes Sammie’s friends and family like real people, who all have their own lives going on, even when those lives aren’t particularly centred in the narrative.

The romance felt realistic, with all of that teenage held-breath excitement, without stealing focus from the rest of the story. There isn’t space for Sammie’s love interest to get a whole lot of personality, but he has enough for a book which is only about the very, very early stages of their relationship, and it’s nice that Sammie’s friendship with Phoebe gets more attention and feels like it has more of an impact on her life. Friendship is important and, as an author, Carolyn Mackler really seems to get that.

Love and Other Four-Letter Words is probably the reason I keep reading and rereading novels by Carolyn Mackler. None of the others quite live up to this level, yet, but I still have more to go so maybe I’ll discover another favourite.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org
Cover: thestorygraph.com

When book club nominated a book with a lighthouse on the cover, obviously I had to vote for it! The Lamplighters actually has two covers, both with lighthouses, but which give wildly different ideas of what the book is going to be like, so I was curious to see which one would prove more accurate.

A fifty-metre column of heroic Victorian engineering, the Maiden looms palely magnificent against the horizon, a stoic bastion of seafarers’ safety.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Like most of the lighthouse books on this blog, The Lamplighters is historical fiction, set when lighthouses were still manned rather than automatic, but it’s more recent than most, only going back to the 1970s. What also sets it apart is that it’s about a tower lighthouse, jutting directly out of the sea, where there isn’t space for keepers to bring their wives and families with them. Perhaps that was why it was difficult to keep the threads of the marriages straight. Arthur-and-Helen and Bill-and-Jenny merged into such a shapeless muddle that I had to make a note in my reading notebook which I referred back to every time there was a chapter from one of the wives’ perspectives.

Even after finishing The Lamplighters, it’s not entirely clear what happened in a couple of of the plots. Emma Stonex was clearly keeping information back from her readers, raising questions which you’d hope would be answered by the conclusion to the story. Except, several of them weren’t. Maybe it was intentional, because real life rarely offers neatly-wrapped solutions to every question, but in a novel billing itself as a mystery, it was more frustrating than thought-provoking.

The truth is that women are important to each other. More important than the men, and that isn’t what you’ll want to hear because this book, like all your others, is about the men, isn’t it? Men are interested in men.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Those plots which did feel complete were enjoyable, particularly the stories of those left behind: Jenny, Helen and the novelist Dan Sharp. (Michelle, despite being the most distinct of the female characters, sadly got a bit abandoned.) Bill’s storyline could have been more effectively handled, because the bare bones of it were interesting.

There was certainly a lot going on in The Lamplighters, arguably too much because no single plot or detail really got the attention and weight that it deserved. Maybe a less complex structure would’ve delivered the story with more impact. While I’ll be keeping this for lighthouse reasons, I won’t necessarily be running out to buy more books by Emma Stonex, unless one catches my interest or comes highly recommended.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

The Suitcase Kid might have been the first Jacqueline Wilson book I ever read; I think I picked it up to fill one of those post-sleepover mornings at a neighbours house when I was the first to wake up. I didn’t have my own copy, so it wasn’t one of the books I could revisit and I’d forgotten almost everything except the basic premise and the inclusion of a Sylvanian Families toy, of which I was envious even as a child. (Not of the toy itself, so much, as of the specialness. Despite priding myself on my imagination, I never had a special toy, let alone one that I believe was real and treated as an imaginary friend.)

I saw another hole in the tree. There was a small doll-size doormat at the edge with WELCOME in very tiny cross-stitch. I peeped past the mat and there was my own darling radish stretched out happily on her own little wooden sofa, her head propped on a blue velvet cushion.

The Suitcase Kid, Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson’s plot is simple enough, but charming. Reading children’s books, it’s often much easier to see the structure of a story than in more complicated works. In this case, Andy is sad about her family circumstances, and Jacqueline Wilson slowly introduces things which help her adapt to her new situation until she feels happy again, with a small crisis just before the resolution. It’s not ground-breaking, but the details are delightful, especially all Radish’s adventures, and Nick Sharratt’s illustrations of them.

And I get to live in my mum’s house one week and my dad’s house the next. It’s as easy as ABC. I don’t think.

The Suitcase Kid, Jacqueline Wilson

Even for someone who’s never been in Andy’s situation, her character felt relatable. While her step-siblings aren’t given vast amounts of page time, they felt more-or-less real, especially Katie and Graham. Zen and Crystal, by contrast, aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they could have been. The theme of finding a new home, and getting used to a new family situation, is definitely relatable outside the specific circumstances of divorce, and the way Jacqueline Wilson tied that to the arrival of new infant siblings was particularly effective.

The Suitcase Kid was a very welcome change of pace, and I’ll definitely be holding onto my copy now that I have one of my very own!

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

At some point, I must have read a review of A Brief History of Seven Killings which intrigued me enough to buy the book, but I no longer remember it. A brief look online didn’t provide much in the way of clues as to why I thought this would be enjoyable. The historical context of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley was completely unfamiliar, and the phrase ‘crack wars in New York City’ not exactly promising for an entertaining read.

When a father turn away from him son, he can’t act shock when the son don’t know him no more.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

Marlon James’ style feels intentional; each character has a different voice, using ‘the Singer’ instead of Bob Marley’s name elevates him to a mythic figure and the stream-of-consciousness changes to reflect the emotional and mental states of his characters. Unfortunately, going in with no prior knowledge of events combined with vast array of narrators and the overload of detail made it difficult to pick out which people and events would prove to be important. The narrative is hard work for an uninformed reader, especially the middle section where the chapters are long enough to feel exhausting.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is also, as is to be expected, incredibly violent. As well as the advertised assassination and drug wars, there’s a lot of background violence, both sexual and otherwise, which certainly didn’t lighten the emotional load any. The Gallows Pole was similarly violent, but A Brief History of Seven Killings had none of that poetic prose to ease the relentlessly miserable experience almost all of the characters were having.

He’ll talk about it all the time but sideways like an Aesop fable, or a riddle and rhyme. He can shape and mold it and make it Greek, his word, not mine. I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about with that Greek shit. But that don’t mean he want anybody to say it back to him. Something happen when somebody tell you something about yourself even if you already know.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

What Marlon James did well was ratchet up the tension, especially just prior to the assassination attempt, but also before other explosive events. Even with no knowledge of what was coming, it was obvious that something was about to go down, which was emotionally engaging.

A reader who picked up A Brief History of Seven Killings because the blurb or real-life history sounded intriguing would probably enjoy it, this book just wasn’t for me, and I blame that more on whatever I read that interested me in it more than I blame it on the book itself.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet — Revisit Review

Cover: bookshop.org

According to the back of my copy of Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet was ‘the most successful writer in France by the end of the nineteenth century’, and yet, before coming across this edition in a second-hand book shop, I’d never heard of him. The introduction promised an author who prioritised story over character development which ought to be, if nothing else, an interesting change of pace from the books I usually review.

Yet it is said that at Christmas every year a supernatural light hovers among these ruins, and that peasants, going to Mass and the midnight supper in the church since built below, see this ghost of a chapel lit with invisible candles which burn in the open air even in wind and snow.

The Three Low Masses, Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet

Looking down the list of chapters, Letters from My Windmill presents a real mix of different types of stories which are effective in different ways. The Three Low Masses has a really evocative ending, which can be so difficult to pull off in short fiction, while The Fable of the Man with the Golden Brain is almost disturbing once the implications of the metaphor sink in. In contrast, The Lighthouse of Les Sanguinaires didn’t really go anywhere, and was one of the least successful stories in the collection.

And how good it was, after one of these lyrical escapades, to come back to the windmill, to lie full-length on the grass of the platform, and dream of the book I would write one day, telling about it all, a book into which I would put all those songs, still singing in my head, all that bright laughter, all those enchanting legends; and in it I would reflect the light of that vibrant sun and the scent of those sun-parched hills, and I would write it as if it had been written in my ruin with its dead sails.

Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet

Despite the introduction, what really stood out were Daudet’s descriptions, whether they were of Provence or the Balearic Islands. Monsier Senguin’s Goat and The Oranges really showcased Daudet’s ability to paint a picture of the natural world, while The Agony of La Sémillante demonstrated that he could turn the same skill toward stories of human interest. Though Letters from My Windmill deals with both triumph and tragedy, the overall feeling is one of whimsical satisfaction.

It’s worth mentioning that one story, At Milianah, contained some really ugly antisemitism which detracted from the otherwise pleasant mood of the entire collection. Despite that, I’m definitely curious to check out what Daudet does with a longer narrative, especially since the introduction made it seem like the themes would be ones that particularly resonate with me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

Cover: bookshop.org

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

Cover: bookshop.org

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

Cover: bookshop.org

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.