Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

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.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris — Reread Review, Easter Edition

Hollow eggs and animal figures are carefully split open and filled with [chocolates]. Nests of spun caramel with hard-shelled sugar eggs, each topped with a triumphantly plump chocolate hen; piebald rabbits heavy with gilded almonds stand in rows, ready to be wrapped and boxed; marzipan creatures march across the shelves. The smells of vanilla essence and cognac and caramelised apple and bitter chocolate fill the house.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris

Chocolat seems the perfect book to review before the Easter weekend. Not only will Joanne Harris’s delicious descriptions of the wares of La Celeste Praline whet one’s appetite for Sunday’s chocolate eggs, but the main plot of the book concerns Vianne’s Easter chocolate festival, and Father Reynaud’s outrage that it might diminish the religious significance of the holiday.

In the years since I last read Chocolat, I’d managed to forget almost everything except the two extremes of this story. From the beginning, Vianne’s story of the bells being blessed and carrying chocolate home to their bell towers, and, from the end, Father Reynaud’s temptation in the window of Vianne’s shop.

What I’d forgotten was Vianne’s magical abilities, which came as a pleasant surprise this time around. I find stories of genuine witchcraft in the real world appropriately spell-binding, perhaps because they allow me to believe in magic, even if only in the context of the book’s world. Vianne scrying in molten chocolate is just one example of Joanna Harris’s inventiveness in bringing together fortune-telling and cooking.

The sound was open, carefree; surprised, she brought her hand to her mouth as if to check that the laughter belonged to her.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris

The characters in Chocolat are lovingly captured. Though my favourites are all among Vianne’s friends, rather than her enemies, I can’t help but notice that Joanne Harris gives even the antagonists a complexity which, sometimes, makes them sympathetic. I love Joséphine, Roux, Vianne and Armande best, but Father Reynaud is fascinating, and I was never annoyed to be given a new chapter from his perspective.

I hadn’t realised that Chocolat had sequels, but I will eagerly add them to my to-read-list, along with everything else Joanne Harris has written.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E Pendziwol — Reread Review

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters is very much a story divided into halves. As well as a split between past and present, the book is also divided between two viewpoint characters. Each of those parts have weaknesses, but each also has at least one strength, which I suppose proves that all of them are necessary.

For example, Morgan’s relationship drama isn’t all that interesting. It had none of the raw emotion that books sometimes manage to capture. And yet, Morgan’s section near the end of the book when she’s recovering the water-logged journal is so captivating that I read it without even checking what page I was on.

My parents were in quiet conversation around the fire, and the moonlight made a window-shaped puddle of silver on our covers, Emily and I two tiny bumps beneath.

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, Jean Pendziwol

On the whole, I was most interesting in the story of Elizabeth and Emily’s childhoods. The tension in the scene where they discover a ship about to be wrecked is probably The Lightkeeper’s Daughters‘ best scene. The family drama and the impact that the past has on the present is a little predictable, especially as I’ve read several other lighthouse books that work on a similar premise.

That said, Jean Pendziwol draws the reader through the story, which feels well-paced. The prose is enjoyable, especially in those parts that I’ve already mentioned, and the characters are mostly interesting.

For a season, the place flourished. The shelves in the general store were stocked with dry goods and an assortment of penny candy, the beach at Surprise Lake on the edge of the community was raked and opened for swimming, and evenings saw the shoreline dotted with bonfires.

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, Jean Pendziwol

The setting is, of course, my favourite part of The Lightkeeper’s Daughters. I just love stories about lighthouses, especially ones that are still working. There’s a lovely sense of the community, especially during the summer months, which feels like something you don’t get any more. The fact that Elizabeth also clearly loved growing up at a lighthouse makes this particularly enjoyable to revisit.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Red House by Mark Haddon — Reread Review

Despite it’s fame, I’ve never actually read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so going in I had no idea what a book written by Mark Haddon would be like. It was a gift, too, not something I’d picked out myself. I think I can safely say that I haven’t read anything else quite like it.

The way the fields stopped halfway up the hill and gave way to gorse and bracken and screen, that darkness where the summit met the sky, Mordor and the Shire within fifty yards of one another.

The Red House, Mark Haddon

The style was the first thing I noticed. Mark Haddon jumps between different perspectives on every page, and quite often the characters’ inner monologue seems to be primarily listing details they can see. Some of which definitely went over my head. It took me a little while to sink into, but it’s not so literary that it’s off-putting.

She’d come on holiday expecting to be a spectator, to cook and help out and be good company while Richard got to know his family. But they were her family too, weren’t they, in the same way that Melissa was his family.

The Red House, Mark Haddon

The characters themselves are deep and intricate. Almost every one of them has a secret of some kind. And as they’re cooped up together on holding bringing two different families together, those secrets rub up against one another as much as their personalities do. None of them are particularly nice people – but, of course, that’s the point. There’d be no family drama if they could all get along!

The Red House is, truly, a slice of life story. You get one, time-limited glimpse into the lives and inner workings of all these people. Some of their conflicts are resolved by the end, but most are not. Which is true to life; everybody’s inner narrative doesn’t tie up in a nice neat bow all in the same week! Despite that, it’s satisfying and the ending doesn’t feel abrupt or unearned.

The style of prose is probably not for everyone, but I came to enjoy it after a very brief period of initial uncertainty.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen — new review

Reading the blurb on the back of The Lost Letters of William Woolf, I expected an interesting story about tracing the origins and intended recipients of the letters that get lost in the post. To be absolutely fair to Helen Cullen, what little there was of that was great! The girl who found some fossilised whale vomit and tried to send it to Royal Geological Society was a delight, and William reuniting a firefighter’s letter with the boy he rescued from a burning building was the highlight of the book. Sadly, none of that was the focus of the story.

When William discovers letters addressed simply to ‘My Great Love’ his work takes on new meaning. Written by a woman to a soulmate she hasn’t met yet, the missives stir William in ways he didn’t know were possible, and soon he begins to wonder: Could he be her great love?

The Lost Letters of William Woolf, Helen Cullen

It’s clear from the book’s cover that there’s going to be a romantic element to The Lost Letters of William Woolf. What absolutely isn’t made clear is that our protagonist, William, is already married. It was this key fact that made the book so different from what I expected. Instead of a whimsical, romantic epistolary novel, I got the story of a marriage in trouble. Worse still, I honestly didn’t like either member of the married couple. Nor was it at all clear whether I was supposed to root for William and Clare to get back together, or for William to find Winter, the writer of the letters. I spent a lot of time hoping that Winter was an elderly woman, because William assumes she is his age on absolutely no evidence, and I wanted to see him get his comeuppance.

“If she wasn’t monitoring his behaviour constantly, would he try harder without the scrutiny, or give up the ghost altogether?”

The Lost Letters of William Woolf, Helen Cullen

I struggle to imagine any ending to this book that could have satisfied me, because I found both William and Clare unsympathetic, and Winter is offstage for so much of the novel that it’s hard to get invested in her. The ending as written isn’t so much disappointing, then, as it just seems rushed. Suddenly it’s ‘a year and a day later’ and all the loose ends are tied up, with no indication of how this happened. There’s a little character development for Clare through the novel, but William’s arc seems confusing and ill thought-out.

Next, I’ll be reading A Gift from Woolworths by Elaine Everest.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Cherry Radford — New Review


This is the first Lighthouse Book I’ve reviewed for this blog, but not the first I’ve read, and I’m sorry to say this was something of a disappointment. Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall and The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E Pendziwol were both excellent, and I think I would’ve enjoyed them even had they not been about lighthouses. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Cherry Radford, on the other hand, I don’t think I would’ve picked up had it not been for the lighthouse connection. It sounded from the blurb like a fairly ordinary romance, and even featured the dreaded ‘secret from the past’ which I always assume will be something of a cliché.

Their friendship develops. So, she reads, did her father’s but shocking revelations cause Imogen to question whether she ever really knew him.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

The beginning of the book carried me along easily enough. I think this is the first time I’ve read a Lighthouse Book centred around a lighthouse in the UK, and also the first time the central lighthouse isn’t working. Imogen and her friend visit the lighthouses the same way I would, as a tourist attraction and holiday cottage, rather than being employed in the workings of the lighthouse. By the time I got to the middle of the book, though, I was definitely flagging. The language was fine, without being particularly noteworthy, and the story was a fairly generic romance. Even when, just past the middle of the book, everything started to happen, I still wasn’t that engaged.

Their friendship hangs in the air between their two separate lives, their paths don’t cross, there are no mutual friends to remind one of the other’s existence; at any time, their connection can disappear without consequence.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Cherry Radford

I almost think I should have been more invested in this book than I was. I’ve never had a twitter romance, but I do have friends I’ve made online, who I only know online and who I connect with over IM clients and websites. Imogen’s experience doesn’t reflect mine at all, though. In fact, Imogen and Santiago being separated by a country’s breadth caused remarkably little angst, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t just as easily have been living in the same town. The book certainly picked up when they were together. I enjoyed those early chapters of Imogen being in Spain more than most of the rest of the book. I was particularly amused that Imogen shared my feelings about Les Misérables.

They’ve moved on to the bit that always lets it down: the stupid love-at-first-sight between Marius and Cosette. […] Now they’re singing the ‘In my life’ duet — it’s very pretty of course, but then so are they.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Cherry Radford

The ending — and all the promised secret-related drama — seemed both contrived and rushed. I didn’t really get a sense that the characters had any strong feelings related to what they were discovering, it didn’t change anything about their lives. After reading The Thorn Birds, that was a bit of a disappointment. I suppose this was a much lighter, easier read, but it wasn’t very satisfying. I think if you like this kind of story, there are better examples out there — though, I admit, I’m only capable of recommending You’ve Got Mail as a comparison, because I haven’t read many books in this genre.

Next, I’ll be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Rating: 2 out of 5.