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.

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.

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.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Skylarking is my second-favourite of my lighthouse books, and I’ve been looking forward to rereading it. I remember enjoying the atmosphere, and being pleased that the plot wasn’t about falsifying the identity of a child, since that was what The Lightkeeper’s Daughters and The Light Between Oceans had in common.

Unfortunately, reading Skylarking a second time, the one thing I vividly remembered from my previous read was the climax of the story. Knowing what was coming robbed the novel of some of its power and I found the whole plot somewhat underwhelming.

Knowing that he wanted nothing from me, no outburst or tears or thanks, I could just sit and let the humiliation find its place amongst all the rest of me.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

At just over 200 pages, Sklyarking doesn’t deeply explore any of its themes, character or setting. Kate Mildenhall tells the story from Kate’s perspective; she and Albert are the characters who most vividly come to life, but even so, I didn’t feel any of Kate’s emotions had particular impact. The lighthouse and the life of a lighthouse keeper is mentioned, but not delved into. There are a few very shallow mentions of Australian Aboriginal people, which left me wondering what the point of including them was.

I still see it sometimes, in my dreams, my mind’s eye. I see it but not quite as it was, and I wonder what other imaginings I have mixed up with the truth of the past.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

The prose is fine, but without the mystery of wondering what happened to carry me forward through it, it wasn’t more than that. I don’t mean to be harsh: this is an enjoyable read the first time, but it doesn’t hold up to repeated readings as well as some other books.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki — New Review

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A Tale for the Time Being was a birthday or Christmas present many years, and at least one address, ago. It was chosen for me, not something I picked up myself, and so I had no expectations. The blurb gave very little away, but the book was shortlisted for the Man Book Prize, and I always try to read the books people give me (…eventually).

When I actually started reading, A Tale for the Time Being didn’t captivate me immediately. Nao’s schoolgirl philosophical ramblings weren’t particularly charming and it was hard to get a grip on where the story was going. It wasn’t until Ruth decided to try reading Nao’s diary ‘in real time’ (one of Nao’s entries for each of Ruth’s days) that I started to get interested, though the plot was still murky.

The post office was like the village well. People lingered there, and it was where you went if you needed information.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

The structure, going back and forth between Nao’s story and Ruth researching Nao’s story, worked surprisingly well, and I liked the conceit of Ruth’s footnotes explaining Nao’s specifically Japanese references. I did find the Appendices a bit troublesome, because I think I missed the instruction to go read some of them, but they also weren’t that engaging to read, even though the information was relevant.

Like The Gallows Pole, A Tale for the Time Being ended up being much darker than I anticipated, though I found Ruth Ozeki’s descriptions more visceral and thus more disturbing. It wasn’t an easy read, and the uncertain line between reality and fiction added its own sense of confusion, which made the magical elements less delightful than they might have been.

After the temple, Dad would walk me to school and we’d talk about stuff. I don’t remember exactly what, and it didn’t matter: the important thing was that we were being polite and not saying all the things that were making us unhappy, which was the only way we knew how to love each other.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

This is the second book I’ve reviewed to heavily feature meditation techniques; the sections of A Tale for the Time Being that Nao spent in her grandmother’s temple were what I most enjoyed reading. (And I did appreciate that Ruth also tried sitting zazen but kept falling asleep.)

A Tale for the Time Being was an interesting book, and I think I’ll keep hold of it for at least a little while, but I don’t know if it’s a book I’d want to return to often.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Iris & Ruby by Rosie Thomas — Reread Review

Memory is not a recipe of a shopping list. Memory is the scent of clear water at an oasis, the brush of lips on naked skin, a plangent chord. I cannot capture these things and dictate them to another person. I am a doctor, not a poet.

Iris & Ruby, Rosie Thomas

Iris & Ruby has been on my bookshelf for over a decade. I’ve read it once before, at a time in my life when I had a lot more space for books, and so didn’t need to worry about whether they deserved a place on my ‘keeper’ shelf of not. To be honest, I reread Iris & Ruby thinking that, after this, I would donate it and make space for a new book. Except… then I enjoyed it a lot more than I remember enjoying it.

I told him about growing up as a diplomat’s daughter, shuttled between embassies around the world with loving but distant parents who insisted, when the time came, that boarding school back home was best for me and that homesickness — for a home I couldn’t quite locate — was to be overcome by people like us, never yielded to.

Iris & Ruby, Rosie Thomas

The premise of Iris & Ruby is nothing particularly special. It starts out very much in the same way as The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, and other multi-generational twining narratives, to the extent that Ruby’s entrance to the narrative reminded me immediately of Morgan’s. The plot is fairly predictable, though it’s still satisfying to see Ruby’s relationships with various family members develop. As the daughter of a ‘travelling family’, it was recognise Iris as a fellow daughter-of-diplomats. It’s a character type I haven’t encountered too often in fiction. That, alone, might be reason enough to earn Iris & Ruby a place on my keeper shelf.

I enjoyed Rosie Thomas’s descriptions of Egypt, and how she varied them depending on the character’s state of mind and progress through the plot. I even added Khan el-Khalili bazaar as a ‘place to visit’ on my new list of described places to see in real life.

Both the beginning and the ending of Iris & Ruby could have been stronger, but the middle was solidly enjoyable. I don’t think I’ll need to return to it anytime soon, but I’ll keep it on my shelf for at least a little while longer.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Arctic Curry Club by Dani Redd — New Review

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I picked up The Arctic Curry Club because my dad’s street has a ‘curry club’ and I was amused by the coincidence. From the blurb, I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of book I would be getting, or whether I would like it, but the snowy arctic setting of Longyearbyen in Norway made it seem like an appropriately wintery read for this time of year.

There had been dark days, but she had cared for me too. Cared for me so much I could still feel it, decades after her death and thousands of miles from India.

The Arctic Curry Club, Dani Redd

It took some time for me to get invested in Maya. At first, her negativity created a barrier, making it difficult to sympathise with the hardships she was going through. The sudden journey to India, taking us away from the main plot and into a family mystery subplot that I could probably have done without was also pretty jarring.

For my whole life I had been looking for home. Perhaps I had to keep moving forward in order to find it.

The Arctic Curry Club, Dani Redd

But then Maya returned to the arctic and her life started to change in really compelling ways. I love character development, and Maya’s really kicked off around this point. Suddenly, I was reading chapter after chapter, ignoring my page goal for the day to keep uncovering Maya’s story. Dani Redd continued to include the history subplot, which never fully engaged my interest, but it did tie up with the main plot at the end in a way I could appreciate.

I thought about sending this to my dad, purely because of the coincidence with the name, but in the end I decided it wasn’t really his kind of book. Besides, I wasn’t willing to part with it, which is surely an indication of just how Dani Redd managed to turn things around.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid — Reread Review

Annie John was exactly the kind of book I was looking for when I signed up to take a module on Caribbean fiction. It’s not hard to see what called to me about a character growing up on a Caribbean island, all while studying a British curriculum. That experience of reciting ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ but never having seen a daffodil was something I could definitely relate to. It’s not an experience many of my friends have had, so even seeing it reflected in fiction was exciting to me, both in my twenties and now.

The piano teacher, a shrivelled-up old spinster from Lancashire, England, soon asked me not to come back, since I seemed unable to resist eating from the bowl of plums she had placed on the piano purely for decoration.

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

You could say that not very much happens in Annie John, but I was never bored. It felt like a different kind of coming-of-age story, one that reminded me of Spinning Straw into Gold. (Reading Annie John through the lens of pubescent transformation would almost certainly be interesting!) I found Annie’s desperation for change particularly effective, in this post-lockdown world and yet, for all that, I didn’t feel her emotions as strongly as I have in some other books. Maybe the very similarities between parts of our lives made the differences seem much more divisive.

My father could hardly get a few words out of his mouth before she was a jellyfish of laughter.

Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid

I’m finding these books I first read at university quite difficult to review. There’s a sense, I think, that I still don’t fully understand them because they have so many different layers. I want to keep coming back to them with more experience, more literary awareness, and that makes me feel as though I can’t comprehensively review them. Like Song of Solomon, Annie John will definitely go back on the shelf to be reread as my older and wiser future self.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Previous in the series: Little Women.

Finally, I get to revisit the March family. I was particularly excited to reread Little Men because all I remember about reading it the first time was a confusion of boys’ names. Like the younger siblings in What Katy Did, I struggled to remember which name was attached to which personality, and which children were related, friends, or connected to which others and which adult. I’m glad to say that, this time around, I managed to keep much better track!

Given my marked preference for character development, it will be unsurprising that I most loved the characters who went on a definite journey: Dan, Nat and Jack. The other children — Demi and Daisy and Stuffy and Nan — are all interesting or amusing enough, but they don’t stand out to me the way in quite the same way. And yet, as much as I like characters who learn and grow, what I really appreciated about Little Men was all the hints at continuity. Jo is still the same Jo we left at the end of Little Women, the one who loves to exclaim and romp with Laurie and write down stories. Mr and Mrs March are still the wise presence that they’ve always been.

He seldom spoke of his loss, but Aunt Jo often heard a stifled sobbing in the little bed at night; and when she went to comfort him, all his cry was, “I want my Father! oh, I want my father!” for the tie between the two had been a very tender one, and the child’s heart bled when it was broken.”

Little Men, Louisa May Alcott

Though I don’t love Little Men as much as Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s writing can still make me tear up. I was particularly touched, this time around, by Nat’s story and all the descriptions of music and singing, especially as I’ve just been back to choir for the first time in eighteen months. It really is a joy to be able to sing with people and not worry about bothering my neighbours or being criticised for sounding ‘weird’ when I’m singing the harmony rather than the tune.

They chose a song he knew; and after one or two false starts they got going, and violin, flute, and piano led a chorus of boyish voices that made the old roof ring again.

Little Men, Louisa May Alcott

It feels weird to review Little Men now, knowing that the stories continue in Jo’s Boys. It definitely feels as though something is missing, which hopefully will be delivered when I reread that final volume. I think, compared to Little Women, Little Men is a little more shallow, as it would almost have to be, with its much larger cast of main characters. Still, it was nice to dip back into Louisa May Alcott’s writing, and I look forward to doing so again before too long.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Next in the series: Jo’s Boys.