Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

The premise for this novel is that Jane Austen kept a personal journal which was found in an Navy chest, bricked into the attic of her house at Chawton, a lovely idea, but one which sadly remains within the realms of fiction!
The story describes the time from when Austen's father decides to retire to Bath through to when Sense and Sensibility was published.  This covers the period sometimes described as the "missing years" when Jane is in her late twenties to early thirties.  There's no evidence of personal letters of this time and although she had completed first drafts of three novels, her writing seems to have gone quiet.  The premise the book takes is that her family (mainly Cassandra) destroy all evidence to protect the parties involved at that time from scandal.
After the death of their father, Jane and her sister Cassandra along with their mother are at the mercy of their brothers to provide a home for them; what follows is a unsettled and rather miserable time being shunted between houses, taking up child care and family duties.  To cheer her up, Jane is taken on a visit to Lyme by her brother Henry, where they meet Frederick Ashworth, the wealthy son of a baronet who owns the Pembroke estate in Derbyshire.  Although their time together is cut short and despite various misadventures and misunderstandings their relationship develops.  The Austen women are also offered the chance to live at Chawton, which becomes a happier and settled place for them all to live and allows Jane to take up her writing again.

Now I know that the purists will loathe this book and in some respects I can understand why.  It creates a romantic heroine from Austen and seems to buy into the idea that a spinster with no "love" experience could have possibly created the masterpieces that she did.  It jarred a little that many of the set pieces within Austen's novels e.g. Mr Collin's marriage proposal to Lizzie were flagrantly recreated throughout the book and it also draws very heavily upon her characters to create the fictional and padded out "real" people throughout.  I find it difficult to understand why it's necessary to give the impression that Austen didn't develop her own characterisations but lazily borrowed from people she met and knew and their conversations.
However, despite these reservations, I'll readily admit that once I got over my "issues", I admired the research that had clearly gone into this novel.  I should confess to enjoying the many "Austenesque" follow ups and differing points of view novels of varying quality that are out there as a bit of easy reading fun, so I read it in the manner I think Syrie James meant it to be approached - light entertainment.
The characterisation of Jane didn't offend me, and the relationship with Cassandra, although probably a bit too modern in tone, was fine.  Frederick Ashworth was suitably well mannered and highly connected to be the hero and love interest - a sort of amalgam of Darcy (with the big house!), Edward (for the romantic entanglements) and Mr Knightly (for being an all round good type, with a sense of humour!) which was just right for the book.
So if you're a pure Janite, you'll probably hate it, but for a bit of light fun, which is instantly forgettable - enjoy!

Calling Romeo by Alexandra Potter

Juliet lives with her boyfriend Will and over time things have become a bit dull.  After Will left his well paid job, flashy car and designer suits to set up a garden design business with his friend, he has gradually settled into a smelly, bobbly fleece and nights in with a chicken jalfrzi, dozing in front of the telly. The final straw for Juliet is when he forgets a long planned Valentine Day's meal and leaves her alone and mud splattered on Oxford Street.  Her chance meeting with Sykes; gorgeous, half Italian ad man puts romance back into her life and reminds her of what she's been missing.  Despite the warnings of her brash American friend, Trudy, Juliet can't stop herself being drawn in by a loved up weekend in Verona with her new admirer.

Okay, it's chick-lit, but in my opinion, not the best but to be fair, it was published nine years ago, and it suffers slightly due to this.  It seems really cliched at times and has everything thrown in it, including bitchy female boss, brutally honest BF, down to earth northern family, masked ball, unexpected pregnancy...need I go on? But, I've read a few of Alexandra Potter's more recent books and although I enjoyed them a little more, I always finish them feeling a bit disappointed.
I think my main issue with this particular book is that I didn't like Juliet (at all, ever!) she's whiny and self-absorbed and I personally believe in light fluffy books as this is, your heroine should be more honest than Juliet is and not start an affair whilst still in a relationship.  Skyes wasn't convincing as either romantic lead or love-rat and Will is far too one dimensional to be remotely interesting.  Even Verona got a duff deal and was made to sound uninteresting.
To sum up - this was passed on by a friend and if I'd read it when first published, I might have enjoyed it more, but don't bother now - read something more current.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Roses by Leila Meacham

A huge family epic, which starts when our heroine is ill, aged and sitting in her lawyers office! It sooo reminded me of the Barbara Taylor Bradford et al TV mini series my mum was addicted to years ago!!  Funnily enough, I've never managed to get beyond page 40 of any BTB novel, but I flounced through this in just over a day.
It tells the story of the three founding families of Howbutker in Texas; the Tolivers are cotton farmers, the DuMonts are upmarket shop owners and the Warwicks are timber merchants.  They have a long standing pact which involves sending red and white roses to seek and give forgiveness. (It's a major theme through the book, obviously with the title, but I never really thought it was necessary!) Anyway, in 1916, pretty but headstrong, sixteen year old Mary Toliver inherits Somerset from her father over her mother and elder brother.  Her family are understandably miffed and it goes downhill from there.  Mary gives her life and happiness to save the plantation and her decisions impact on future generations. 
Scaling several wars, many deaths and love affairs it is a fabulous holiday read, suspend your disbelief and just wallow in the whole saga and you'll love it! 
On a more picky note, I actually found myself disliking virtually every female character, (except Sassie) and saved my special vitriol for Rachel (boo, hiss!!) even when the author tried to redeem her! I thought the male protagonists where far more sympathetic, particularly Percy and I would have liked stronger characterisation of Ollie to avoid him simply being a plot device. It doesn't deserve the comparisons to Gone with the Wind that are used on the cover, either.
However, I still think it's a great beach read, even if the 600+ pages will be heavy in your suitcase!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith

Anyone who follows this series, and this is eleventh book, will know exactly what they're getting and there's not a lot I can add to my earlier review.  Another gentle and mildly moralistic stroll through Precious Ramotswe's investigations, where her assistant Mma Makutsi still awaits her marriage to Phuti, but a terrible accident and his possessive No 1 Aunty gets in the way until the fabulous and slightly scary, Mma Potokwani triumphs again!!  A cosy, quick read that makes the world seems a nicer place and it's acknowledged that "you do not change people by shouting at them"!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Here Come the Girls by Milly Johnson

This is Milly Johnson doing what she does best - a fabulously entertaining holiday read!  I've read all her previous books, but have never managed to write one up on here, so I'm putting that straight, right now!
It's not deep and it won't change your life (unless it encourages you to be a cruise convert!) but it's well written and engaging and whilst I'm having a heavy time at work, this was brilliant light relief.
Roz, Olive, Ven and Frankie were best friends at secondary school in Barnsley, dreaming of brilliant careers, huge salaries, big families and a fancy cruise for their fortieth birthday.  Unfortunately, twenty five years later, real life hasn't turned out that way.  Ven loses her job and her husband rips off half her inheritance.  Olive is an unpaid skivvy for her scrounging husband and useless family.  Roz has become bitter and unable to trust people after being let down by her unfaithful husband and had a huge falling out with Frankie, who on the surface seems to be the only one doing alright.  Just before her fortieth birthday, Ven wins a fabulous all expenses paid cruise and drags her friends along...can a luxury cruise fix all their problems?  Is this top class chick-lit?  Of course, it will!
There's not a lot else to add.  Okay, there were no surprises and like all readers I sussed the "issues" and exactly where it was all going, but that doesn't detract from an enjoyable, escapist read!

The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

Lady Julia and her fabulously dark and brooding husband in their fifth installment - yay!!  It's no secret, that I've loved this series and I think this is one of the best.

Julia and Brisbane have returned to set up home in London, after their extended honeymoon and murderous diversion in India, covered in the last novel.  Brisbane returns to his work as an investigator and Julia is desperately trying to show her worth as a genuine partner, but also dabbles in gunpowder and photography! Julia's very proper brother, Bellmont, who despite disapproving of her husband, asks him to secretly investigate Madame Seraphine, the resident medium of the Ghost Club.  Julia becomes drawn into the case after following her husband to protect him and a couple of untimely deaths unravel a heap of sinister secrets that leads them into personal danger.

As in the previous novels there is a fine balance of humour and drama.  The March family are a brilliant creation and have the potential to fill many more books.  I love Lord March's ongoing disagreements with Auld Lachy, the hermit; " I reminded him, one ought never to hire a hermit without proper references."
Julia remains pretty much the same, she's clever and beautiful, but also vain, bloody minded and a bit of a liability.  So who cares if she's a twenty-first century woman transported via a crinoline into Victorian times, it works for me.   Brisbane remains a favourite hero amongst my most recent reads, fitting the strong, handsome, flawed type that I favour!  The gradual disclosure of Brisbane's past, including the sojourn into the gypsy camp, is enthralling, Raybourn is gradually revealling just enough information to keep the flow, but there's obviously a lot more to come!  Yes, it still feels a bit Amelia Peabody-ish at times, but that's bound to happen where there's a strong Victorian female lead getting into danger.  I just hope a Sethos type character doesn't make an appearance, because that would kill it for me!
This is the first of the series that I've given the full five stars to, and although it isn't perfect, it was such a brilliant romp, I read it in a day and I wish there was an immediate follow up.  I feel that the main characters are now well established and the introduction of Sir Morgan Fielding has also opened up further opportunities for Nicholas and Julia to delve into more complicated situations, so I'm really looking forward to Book 6.