Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Thursday, 16 January 2014

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

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.

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.

Heat Wave

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

I am blaming @essers entirely for this one and the amount of brackets I use…

Last year, Essers wrote a review for Shiny Shelf about season one of Castle, starring Nathan Fillion.

Yes, that one.

So I watched Castle and enjoyed it. It’s not a serious, tough crime show. It’s pretty silly and built on the premise that millionaire crime writer Richard Castle (Fillion) is shadowing NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) for a new crime novel he’s planning.

Heat Wave
Richard Castle
(Hyperion books, 2010)

Heat is a no-nonsense NYPD detective working a murder case, shadowed by Jamerson Rook, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist.

Yes, they really did write a tie-in novel that is ‘written’ by the character in the show. Season 2 even has a two-parter built around that fact Heat Wave triggers a serial killer trying to get Beckett’s attention as “the real life Nikki Heat”. When one detective starts recounting the plot of the novel, Castle stops them finishing it with the word “spoilers”. Which, as I was about five chapters from the end of the tie-in novel, I’d been shouting at the screen.

This is where reviewing it gets complicated.

If I review it an actual crime novel, I’d say it was not great. The central murder mystery is good, but the writing is pure pulp. It’s workmanlike, the kind of thing that I’ve been tempted to throw out of a train’s window before now. (Did I ever actually review The Da Vinci Code here? It’s enough to know it nearly ended up on a railway embankment near Reading, right?)

But is that part of the meta-fictional games going on here? Is it meant to be a bad airport style novel because that’s what Rick Castle, character in Castle, would write? Is it spoofing millionaire crime writers? Especially given it has endorsements by the likes of James Patterson on it? (He’s in the show too, as a poker buddy of Castle’s.)

Oh, would you look at that. The publisher even maintains the fiction on their website, with an author profile of Richard Castle. He’s right next to Nigella. She’s not fictional, right?

In season two of the TV series, much is made of the sex between Heat and Rook because all the characters take it to indicate something is really happening between Beckett and Castle. They’ve got that whole Moonlighting thing going on…

This is where this book becomes fan service. Not that it’s a bad thing in this case. Shows built on Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST) struggle with the resolution of it. Look at season 4 of Moonlighting. But fans also want some action: there’ll be Castle fanfic (look it up yourself). This tie-in novel gives you a fictional character (Castle) writing a fictionalised version of himself (Rook) having sex with the fictionalised version (Heat) of the fictional character (Beckett). Do I need a diagram? It gives fans the satisfaction of resolving the UST without actually doing it and destroying a selling point of the show.

In short, as a fan of the tv series you will read this book as two layers. When you read about Heat and Rook, you’ll see Beckett and Castle. And it’s impossible to judge the book as anything other than a meta-fictional device. It exists – and all the cross-platform stuff like the author’s page etc exist – to keep fans engaged and amused.

Absolute kudos to Hyperion and Rick Castle’s “beta readers” (who I suspect are the real writers) for creating this.

(Oh, and Firefly fans? There’s a scene at the start of Castle season 2 episode 6 that made me spit out my beer with laughter.)

The Revenge of Moriarty

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Revenge of Moriarty
John Gardner
(Pan, 1975)

There are many ways to write Sherlockian fiction, as my shelves groaning with non-ACD books attest (and I have barely made a dent in the full array). Some stick with Watson’s voice. Some go for Holmes’ view on events. Some narrate it from the point of view of another character (e.g. the cabman in A Hansom for Holmes, or a housemaid in Erasing Sherlock). Gardner’s conceit is that the story is constructed from a combination of the decoded diaries of Professor Moriarty and accounts by the non-canonical Inspector Crow. Revenge is actually the sequel to The Return of Moriarty but as this was a charity shop find I wasn’t overly worried about reading it first.

There are also several ways to review non-ACD Holmes stories. If purporting to be by Watson, you tend to look at the plausibility of the narrator’s voice. You might read it with an eye to how the puzzle reveal fits with ACD’s. You might just look at how in or out of character the canonical characters are.

Or you might just read it and think “but this is a bit rubbish, and sexist to boot”.

The plot is not overly bad, and certainly no more slight than a lot of novels. Moriarty is a character I think of as a cipher anyway. Unlike Colonal Moran or Irene Adler, I’ve never seen Moriarty as more than a plot device, there to be Holmes’ foil. He’s more interesting in his absence. Gardner twists and squeezes and generally contorts Moriarty until he fits better with the idea of a, well, a Bond villain. His Moriarty is no thin but terrifying Professor of mathematics turned to crime, but a virile man of action who disguises himself as his older, dead, brother.

I mention Bond because Gardner also wrote various Bond novels after Fleming’s death. I can see why. Gardner’s characters see women as Fleming’s did: good for sex, or for ensnaring enemies using sex, for having babies and not a lot else. That’s what you expect in Bond. It’s not what you expect in Sherlockian fiction. Holmes’s marital advice to Crow – and who would go to Holmes for advice on women? – is to put his foot down, put his wife in her place and get her to start putting out again.

Of course, women aren’t a strong feature in ACD’s Sherlock Holmes stories. They are housekeepers, or ladies with problems that need solving. Even when Watson is married, his wife (or wives) is secondary to the batchelor life of Holmes. However, the women that appear – including Irene Adler – are not treated with contempt. Watson, the normal narrator, is a gentleman. Holmes may be dismissive, but he is not disparaging. In The Revenge of Moriarty, the narration seems to have an even lower view of women than the characters do.

That made this novel unpleasant enough in tone that, even if I thought the plot was cracking and the characters entertaining, I’d not recommend it to anyone.

Mrs de Winter

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Mrs. de Winter
Susan Hill
(Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd, 1993)

The first du Maurier I ever read was Jamaica Inn. The second was Frenchman’s Creek. The third? Rebecca. I can’t remember if I’d already seen the Hitchcock film by then (by the way, Joan Fontaine? Still not dead) but it seems highly likely I had given how much I love Hitchcock. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that du Maurier’s gothic romances were a mainstay in our house. Virago Modern classics have done a wonderful reprint of them all.

So when I spotted Mrs de Winter last year, I had to add it to my pile of published fanfiction. Or sanctioned follow-ups. Or meta-fiction. Or whatever you want to call them. Mrs de Winter is set a decade or so after Rebecca. The de Winters have spent it all abroad, travelling to avoid any unpleasantness (including, it seems, the second world war) but a family duty drags them unwillingly back to England.

There are many things these meta-novels need to achieve to be a success. The new author has to clearly understand the original’s style and tricks. Hill does. She ladens the opening pages with carefully observed descriptions of the Cornish countryside, scattering some dark birds amongst it to make the reader recall du Maurier’s The Birds. Rebecca opens with the famous line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”. Mrs de Winter starts with the de Winter’s return to Cornwall. Hill also ensures that the narrator remains nameless, defined solely by her relationship with her husband. She is always “Mrs de Winter”, denied her own identity.

Hill also understands that one of the key things that drives a reader through Rebecca is sheer frustration with the narrator. The second Mrs de Winter is so aggravatingly timid and passive that you want to grab her by her drab twinset and shake her into action. Maxim remains an equally annoying alpha male: silent, unemotional, stern. Their co-dependence is galling.

Yet you keep reading. I switched from reading a couple of chapters a night, to reading it whenever I got a chance. The chap’s attempts to talk to me whilst I had the book open were doomed. Even as you despair at the heroine’s inaction, you want to keep reading. You want her to have a happy ending. When she does finally take action, when she starts to build a stable future for herself, it goes diasterously wrong. Her solo trip to London reconnects her with the past they’ve been fleeing all this time, and it slowly, painfully crashes back into their new life. That’s another du Maurier trick – the slow, creeping build up to the heroine’s world suddenly overturning. It’s why she was such good source material for Hitchcock.

If you loved Rebecca, this works as a sequel. If you’ve never read Rebecca then you really should.

The Blind Assassin

Thursday, 16 October 2008

I have a trait, which may be very bad, of reading truly dreadful fiction when writing. Books so bad that I refuse to admit them into my LibraryThing catalogue. I mean awful tie-in fiction (and I mean really awful, not good stuff that gets called ‘Anji FAIL’ by fans) or 5-for-a-quid Regency bodice rippers (I once wrote a spoof Mary Sue Regency bodice ripper involving Vic’n'Bob* – thankfully, fanfiction.net did not exist then).  I’m not even sure why (the bad reading habit, not the Mary Sue) but I think it may be as my brain can switch off whilst reading, or reassure itself that at least I’m not that bad a writer. Afterwards, like someone emerging from a desert, I drink up ‘proper’ fiction that I had previously been unable to get through. So it was with this.

The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood
(Virago, 2001)

I knew I should enjoy it. Quite aside from it ticking all the boxes of fiction I like – stories within stories, unreliable first person narration, non-chronological storytelling, fictional factual reporting – I just stalled on around page 30 a couple of years ago. Friends had told me it was good, that it was ‘my sort of thing’, but I set it aside with a postcard marking my FAIL point. Unlike some books you abandon,  I knew I should read it: I just couldn’t.

Then, all done with writing an unreliable first person narration (involving vampires and kawaii blokes in suits), I grabbed it from the “you’ve started so you must finish” shelf and flung it in my bag for a long work trip. This time, I raced through it, finishing it halfway home a few days – and lots of eating out – later.  I’m glad I did, as it is exactly the sort of book I ought to have read and all those recommendations were right.  I liked the way the pieces of the story assemble to form a whole, and the slightly waspish narrator’s voice. I love that it is a novel, called The Blind Assassin, about someone writing a non-fiction account of someone writing a novel called The Blind Assassin. That kind of recursiveness, and reflection on the act of creation, is beautiful when done well – and Atwood does it well.

The main flaw I found – and it’s a classic which is as much about the reader as the writer – is that the ‘twists’ seemed obvious from about one third of the way in.  I did entertain doubts: was Atwood the writer double-bluffing, or was the writer within The Blind Assassin going to surprise her readers? How to Read a Novel talked about the intertextuality of fiction: had I ‘solved’ the puzzle merely because I have read so many novels within novels? Or because the sub-genre of “ooh, I’m using ‘genre’ tropes in ‘proper’ literature!” novels is never as smart as it thinks it is and any reader of PKD would have worked it out just as quickly (c.f. Time Traveller’s Wife)? Of course the twist is not the key theme of the book: storytelling in its various forms is. And there’s no denying The Blind Assassin is a good read, and a smart and enjoyable one, which explores that theme wonderfully. But overall, I’m glad I didn’t force myself to read it sooner as I’d be annoyed. After the desert, though, it was just the right sort of novel.


*based on this dreadfulness, and I had forgotten this brilliance.

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