Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Thursday, 16 January 2014

My Christmas pile always brings much reading. Here it is:
Bookpile

First off the pile, so fast I’d read three chapters by Christmas lunchtime, was Longbourn by Jo Baker. This tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Sarah, the head housemaid.

Except, wonderfully, it doesn’t. This tells the story of Sarah, and of her romances and follies, and the mistakes others make around her. That she happens to be a maid at Longbourn and subject to the whims and fancies of the Bennett girls is merely her lot in life.

Baker doesn’t attempt to copy Austen’s style, which made me instantly delighted. Her protagonists are different people, with a different way of speaking and thinking, so Sarah’s voice is – as it should be – totally different. The novel reminded me of both Wide Sargasso Sea, with its inversion of authorial focus, and the work of Sarah Waters, in the voice the author takes.

Of course, it helps if you know Pride and Prejudice. Unlike Death Comes to Pemberley, none of Austen’s characters are twisted to fit the narrative. Instead we get a different side to them. Mr Bennett loses some of the sympathy he normally gets, and Mrs Bennett gains some. Darcy becomes a force of nature and Wickham, well, none of the servants trust him.

Structurally, it’s split into three volumes, echoing the structure of early novels. I did feel the third volume, which goes into flashbacks by multiple characters, started rather more weakly than the other two but the narrative drive returns when we return to Sarah’s perspective.

This is a novel about choices, or lack of them. About making the best of your lot in life, or of throwing aside the rules. Of risking everything for romantic ideas rather or securing your future. It’s the perfect reflection of Austen’s novel and I recommend it.

Holmes and the Indelicate Widow – new fiction

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

I still squeak with delight about this: I’ve written a Sherlock Holmes short story.

Holmes and the Indelicate Widow, will be published in The Encounters of Sherlock Holmes, edited by George Mann and published by Titan Books in February 2013. Other authors in the collection include Paul Magrs, James Lovegrove, Mark Hodder and Kelly Hale.

 

 

 
I’ve always been a fan of Sherlockian fiction. I find it delightful that there is so much of it, and that it is a whole world where people – fans – play with the tropes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Sherlock is the most extreme example, with dizzingly fast nods to the canon that swirl around as fast as Dave Arnold’s eastern-European inspired score. And within the web of references, any genre, style and viewpoint is permitted. I’ve read books of the stuff – there’s some reviews on here.

So when George Mann asked me if I had any ideas for a Sherlock short story the main issue was not just blurting out a dozen pitches in a big excited mess. Instead I pitched three, and Holmes and the Indelicate Widow was the one I was asked to write. Holmes investigates strange goings-on with the Necropolis Railway, bringing both him and Watson face-to-face with the Victorian way of death.

I used to go past the Brookwood Cemetery when I used the Waterloo line into south London. I’d walk past the remaining facade of the Necropolis Railway’s buildings hard by Waterloo station. The idea – that bodies would be transported to their final resting places by train – is so wonderfully Victorian. It combines that period’s ability to apply industrial concepts to human needs, along with the fetishised middle-class ideas about respectability and conspicuous displays of status.

I read several books for research, especially ones around how London dealt – or didn’t deal – with its dead. I suspect I get quick service in a Pizza Express near the British Museum now due to sitting there reading such grim material when staying in London for work. I also read a proper railway history book, of the kind that my father would be proud to see me going through. There were three classes of funeral service available, matching the three classes of railway travel.

For some reason, the Necropolis Railway never flourished, never made the returns it had promised the London and South West Railway it would make and, when its London station was bombed in World World 2, it never ran again. All that is left is the facade on the street and its faded promise of a discrete service.

To find out what Holmes – the rational scientist – and Watson – the emotive doctor – make of the Necropolis, you can buy The Encounters of Sherlock Holmes from all sorts of places.

The Rampage of Haruhi Suzimiya

Monday, 30 April 2012

A quick note on this for any new blog readers: Haruhi Suzimiya is a Japanese schoolgirl unaware of her ability to alter reality. She runs a school club, the SOS Brigade, whose members are secretly dedicated to preventing her unconscious desires rewriting the world.

The Rampage of Haruhi Suzimiya
Nagaru Tanigawa
(Little Brown, 2011)

The next volume of Haruhi Suzimiya short stories is a mixed bag.

The first story, Endless Eight, made me groan. Anyone who has watched season 2 of the anime will understand the fear at “Summer’s almost over…”. Thankfully, the short story doesn’t have the same structure and was a lot more enjoyable than I expected. The big problem was with my own over-awareness of the plot. Suzimiya wants to have a fun-filled summer holiday, and the rest of the SOS brigade have to make it happen.

The next story, Day of Sagittarius 3, was my least favourite. I struggle to engage with stories that involve descriptions of battles – either actual ones or cyberfights – and this was no different. There’s too little emotional content, and too much dry description.

The final story, Snowy Mountain Syndrome, is exactly what I want in Haruhi. Mirroring their summer expedition to a Remote Island, the Brigade go to a ski lodge and get caught in a blizzard. This story delighted for several reasons, one of which is that it was the only one not yet adapted into anime. It was the most playful, and saucy, and made me remember why I started reading Haruhi to start with.

Notes on a Scandal

Thursday, 26 April 2012

When I was tidying up last week I found this overlooked book that should have been in the review roundup.

Notes on a Scandal
Zoe Heller
(Penguin, 2004)

A teacher, Barbara Covett, gets drawn in when a colleague, Sheba Hart, is accused of having sex with a pupil.

This novella is in the first person singular, and is delightfully creepy. The waspish comments of the narrator, a frustrated history teacher approaching retirement, are entertainingly prim. The range of teachers at an inner city comprehensive are recognizable stereotypes that she precisely lampoons.

As the plot unfurls, Barbara’s obsession with ‘protecting’ Sheba becomes more unhealthy than Sheba’s madness in having an affair with a pupil. Her desperate desire for a special friend mirrors that of the teenage girls she teaches, although she would never demean herself with such a comparison. The hints of a backstory, involving a private school in Scotland and a previous scandal that meant Barbara had to move to a North London comprehensive, evoke The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In another echo, Sheba doesn’t realise who betrays her.

The prose is crisp, sharply capturing a neat, waspish and thoroughly nasty mind. It makes you collude with Barbara by drawing you in with wit and humour at the start. So when the cracks start, the disgust you feel is all the stronger for having liked her.

Thoroughly recommended.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Saturday, 24 March 2012

I’m going to break my word limit here. Just warning you. I actually got my rant down in January but wordpress ate it. So now I’m trying again. With frequent ‘save draft’ clicks.

Death Comes to Pemberley
PD James
(faber & faber, 2011)

You can totally see the logic that meant someone gave this to me at Christmas. It’s three of my favorite things in one bundle: Pride and Prejudice, crime and “non-canonical fiction”. I really need a better term for it than that but “professionally published material making use of another’s fictional universe” is a mouthful. And Mark Lawson’s “literary continuation” deliberately seeks to exclude the wilder, less legal, edges of the field. Whatever you call it, I’ve shelves of it.

‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is a sequel to ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Elizabeth Darcy (formerly Bennet) is preparing to host the annual Pemberley ball when a body is discovered in the grounds. Darcy, one of the local magistrates, has to investigate and suspicion quickly falls on his childhood friend – and adult rival – George Wickham.

As in Emma Tennant’s Pemberley, characters are made to undergo radicial personality changes in order to enable the author’s desired plot. You can accept Lady Catherine de Bourgh softening her attitude towards Elizabeth once there are (male) heirs at Pemberley. But one of the other characters from the original is so distorted to enable him to play a role that I was thrown out of the narrative.

Not that I’d got particularly into it. An entire chapter at the start is given over to recapping the plot of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. It was the only section of the book that raised a smile, in fact, by being the only bit to capture some of Austen’s sly spirit and tone. But P&P is hardly an obscure text, and the whole book is sold on being a P&P novel. It seems either gratuitous to do an unrequired recap, or egotistical to assume a reader has bought the book on the author’s name alone.

There’s 137 books riffing on ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Yes, really. It’s an industry that rivals that of non-canonical Holmes. There is, in other words, a massive audience for P&P fiction.

So how does it read as a crime novel, if you set aside the P&P elements? It’s an alright, but rather dry, procedural. Mention of the police early on confused me, as I wasn’t sure there was a police force – at least in rural England – in 1803. And so we progress through the arrest, the trial etc., and the resolution. The crime is solved not through Darcy having unusual perceptions and being a proto-detective, but through confessions. That’s not the sort of crime novel I find satisfying, and there wasn’t enough puzzle to play with as a reader.

By trying to sit on two stools, this novel falls down instead.

Slaves of New York

Monday, 9 January 2012

A series of interconnected stories of life and sex in the city, predating Bushnell by a decade.

Slaves of New York
Tama Janowitz
(Picador, 1987)

I tried to read this short story collection before, but put it down as the first one seemed to be trying too hard. All “look at me, talking about dicks!”. Whatever. On a second attempt, I realized this was a set of stories about dreams and realities in New York. The recurring characters are, for the most part, now recognizable as hipsters: urban artists, bands who never quite break through, etc.

Jewelry designer Eleanor recurs the most. She’s a small-town Pollyanna, desperate to believe she and her boyfriend are on the cusp of success. She’s just so…wet. Though the description of her work at the end made me think of this stuff by Margaux Lange (hattip to Kelly Hale). Are we meant to read her as deluded? Or does the upbeat end of her story mean she is really going somewhere?

Janowitz’s jagged, brusque prose sometimes seems like her characters: pushing so hard to be edgy that it becomes all style and no substance. It’s a style that suits short stories, but can make them disengaging. The collection’s seems laid out to reinforce that.


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