Thursday, 2 April 2015

Books: March Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid" Jane Austen

A varied selection this month, albeit quite a small one, including both the lowest and the joint highest rated books of my Fifty Two Books in Fifty Two Weeks challenge so far.

36. Jacqueline Winspear, Pardonable Lies. 3/5.
The third of Masie's forays into crime solving see her embracing an unusual task - proving that her client's son did actually die in the war. Undaunted, she delves in to the case, and the novel sees her exploring France, revisiting her own past and experiences along the way. 
I struggled a bit with this one, having enjoyed the first two. I found some of Masie's characterisation a bit laborious - and her reactions not quite in keeping with the fiesty and self aware woman introduced to us in the first two, although the reintroduction of an old friend provided a contrast from the doom and gloom of wartime memories. I also found the conclusion way too convenient, to the point of irritating. I'd guessed part of it (it was obvious from the start), but the remainder slotted into place too conveniently for me. Maybe I'm just getting cynical and dark in my tastes. 

37. Val McDiarmud, Northanger Abbey. 1/5.
I debated whether to go with the maxim of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" but I'm worried that you'll be intreagued and decide to give this a go. For the love of all things literary - don't. It is a strong contender for the worst book I've ever read (slash listened to as an audiobook). We see our heroine, Catherine Moreland, transplanted into modern day Edinburgh during the festival. Gone are the balls and awkward social situations, in are ceilidhs and unpleasant bankers. 
The main issue I had with it, aside from the cringeworthy descriptions of the city I love (what's with the constant street and theatre name drops?) was the complete lack of awareness of the original Austen and why it is a masterpiece. Instead of a pastiche on the gothic and romantic tales of the late 18th century, McDiarmud has given us a teenage romance and references to Twilight. The subtleties around the pressure on young women to "marry well" to avoid destitution later in life are lost, replaced with gold diggers and snobs. 
My suspicion is that Northanger Abbey just doesn't translate into modern culture - that's probably why it's not been reinvented as Clueless (Emma) or Bridget Jones (Pride and Prejudice) - but I suspect part of it was the author selection. I ploughed on with it, expectinf it to take a dark and sinister turn, but was disappointed. Such a shame. A lesson in avoiding pastiches of a pastiche.

38. Holly Smale, Geek Girl. 4/5.
had absolutely no idea what Geek Girl was about until I downloaded it and started reading - it popped up as a suggestion on the local library's online books website as one that I might enjoy, so I thought I'd give it a go. I'm glad I did. 
Geek Girl introduces us to 15 year old Harriet, a self proclaimed geek. After being persuaded by a friend to go along to The Clothes Show Live (side note: yes they're still going, and yes teenage girls still go in the hope of being "spotted" a la Erin or someone else), Harriet ends up getting herself, somewhat awkwardly, signed to a modelling agency. 
As a quiet girl with very little confidence, badly bullied at school, Harriet sees this as Her Big Chance to start afresh and carve a new identity for herself, but in typical young adult novel style, it doesn't all go to plan.
Now, the likelihood of me picking this up and deciding to read it would normally be pretty slim. It doesn't tick any of the categories of any book I'd normally go for, but it's good to read out of your comfort zone every now and then. I enjoyed the escapism, the "moral story" was well handled, and it was great to have a teenage female lead who was funny, clever and incredibly likeable. It certainly made a change from the books I remember hating as a teenager. 

39. Iona Grey, Letters to the Lost. 5/5.
This month's choice for the Curtis Brown Book Group was a spot on choice for me after the first couple which weren't quite my cup of tea. 
In 2011, Jess is running from her abusive boyfriend. Desperate to find someone where to hide when she has nowhere to go, she breaks into an abandoned house and stumbles across a letter from an elderly man in America who has never forgotten the girl he fell in love with during the Second World War. And so our story begins - a complex but beautifully written double tale. On the one hand, we have Jess, struggling to rebuild her life, and on the other - Stella, a young woman in a semi-arranged marriage at the start of war. 
I'm not usually a fan of multi time frames narratives, but this works incredibly well. I think the key is that nothing is rushed. It's an incredibly long book - but in a good way. Our six main characters are slowly introduced and very well written - each has a realistic personality and their flaws are explained, so nothing seems particularly out of character. Grey tackles so many issues in a subtle way - poverty, homelessness, mental health and domestic abuse - but at no point does it feel like any of the issues are laboured, they're just part of the story.
It's really hard to review Letters To The Lost without giving too much away. We know from the start that Stella and Dan's relationship is doomed, but their story is still beautifully written, and it's an unusually uplifting book. Be warned - I'm hard hearted and cried twice (one in a brimming eyes way, once in an ugly way where I had to put it down to blow my nose), but I think that's testament to the story and how well written the characters are. 


  1. Oh that last one sounds fascinating. And I hate Northanger Abbey (it is my least favourite Austen - mostly because I hate gothic novels in all their forms) but I think that novel sounds like it has lost the characteristics that I found redeeming and others love. Why would someone do that? Why?

    I still think you would love Holder of the World by Bharati Mukherjee even though it is a bit of a retelling of The Scarlet Letter (which I am not fond of) and while on retellings of classics, if you have read Jane Eyre and have not read Wide Sargasso Sea I really recommend it.

    1. I'd really recommend Letters to the Lost - I loved it.
      I've not read many retellings - and not read the originals of Scarlet Letter or Jane Eyre (was really put off JE by how much of an arse Rochester was in the TV version!).

  2. Aagh - my whole comment just got eaten! Grrr. Anyway, I was saying I totally agree with you on both Northanger Abbey and Letters to the Lost. The girls I teach often tell me that Geek Girl is worth a read but having an actual adult recommend it to me makes me think I might pick up a copy next time I'm in the library.

    1. So annoying when that happens with comments.
      Glad it wasn't just me with Northanger Abbey! Geek Girl wasn't a brain stretch or anything but I was heartened by the morals in it, to be honest!

  3. Ooooh, Letters to the Lost sounds like just my sort of thing - I've pre-ordered it for my Kindle. I really enjoyed some of Kate Morton's who tends to use a similar sounding structure.

    I will NOT be wasting my time in that Northanger Abbey one - it sounds terrible!