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Saturday 25 June 2011

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Bronte

I first read ‘Jane Eyre’ as a fourteen year old looking for a rollicking gothic adventure story. I can remember the excitement of turning the pages, desperate to find out the ghastly secret of Thornfield Hall. Each evening, for a week or so, I took myself into our chilly front room, drew the curtains, stuck the gas fire on and lay on the sofa, immersed in the narrative. What hideousness lurked in the attic, threatening Jane and the very fabric of the house itself? Oh my God, a secret wife? Really? Wow. When the revelation came it did not disappoint. But alas, Jane herself did. I couldn’t believe she would be so Victorian in her reaction. I wanted her to stick around, not run away; boot Bertha off the premises and then live in glorious sin, stuff convention. I just didn’t get the heroine at all.

The next time I read the novel I was a loved-up eighteen, and all I cared about this time through was the romance element. The way Jane and Edward’s affair was played out at top pitch made it, I decided, so real . This was proper love: pain and frustration and telepathy and characters starving in hedgerows and buildings burning down. Still I couldn’t fathom why Jane allowed cold piety to get in the way of a passion that surely transcended everything else. Love made its own laws. A life of bliss was hers for the taking, and yet she turned away and chose instead the stony path of righteousness. Fool.

It wasn’t till I got to university I began to see 'Jane Eyre' as a feminist text. Suddenly the penny dropped: Jane wasn’t simply being perverse and playing the martyr. Edward asking her to live as his mistress was actually deeply insulting. Just because Jane was lowly and poor didn’t mean she should jump at a chance to play the kept woman. Would he have dared make the same offer to the rich and well-connected Blanche Ingram? Of course not. He treats Jane as he does because he knows he can get away with it. Flashing his cash only makes the proposition shabbier. So on this read, when Jane says “I care for myself,” I was cheering. It’s a turning point. She steps out alone and practically penniless into the world, but soon manages to find herself friends, family, accommodation and a decent career, and later on even has the confidence to turn down the attentions of a second emotional blackmailer in the form of St John Rivers.

Then there’s the spiritual journey Jane makes. Right from the beginning of the story, Jane is surrounded by hypocrites and bullies. She has to work hard to sift true belief out of the confused moral messages crossing and re-crossing around her. All through her childhood she struggles to deal both with personal bad fortune and her own anger management issues. So by the time I was an adult, the central thread of the novel for me had really become an exploration of the ways we can balance our need for humility against the need to stand up for ourselves: how to convert natural human resentment at the trials of life into something more positive, fruitful and stoical. Christianity is the frame in which the narrative is set. The novel ends not with “Reader, I married him”, but with St John Rivers’ cheerful acceptance of his approaching death, and the anticipation of heaven.

At other times, 'Jane Eyre' has been for me a story about power struggles within relationships; about ways we cope with loneliness and poor body-image; about the unfairness of the class system. My latest read reminded me it’s a novel which includes disability issues. Because my own husband was seriously injured in a road accident last year, I really felt Rochester’s vulnerability in those final few pages, and sympathised with the difficult line Jane was left to tread as his parner.

And I know I’ll come back again to the story and read it through a different filter, at which point I’ve no doubt it will have another new message for me. In the meantime, Bear up! and Respect yourself! will do me just fine.

Reviewed by Kate Long

Kate Long is the bestselling author of 'The Bad Mother's Handbook', 'Swallowing Grandma', 'Queen Mum', 'The Daughter Game' and 'Mothers And Daughters'. Her new novel 'All About My Mothers' is due to be released by Simon and Schuster in Spring 2012. You can find out more about Kate on her website and you can read my interview with Kate about her writing in this month's Writers' Forum magazine.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Hurry Up And Wait

By Isabel Ashdown

In ‘Hurry Up And Wait’ Isabel Ashdown has produced a perfectly pitched trip back to the mid-eighties.

The story of Sarah Ribbons, and her coming of age in 1985 and 1986, is illustrated beautifully with the sights, sounds and feelings of the time. For those of us who shared the experience of growing up in these times the atmosphere is absolutely spot-on.

Isabel Ashdown has captured every heartbeat of the uncertainty and excitement of growing up. Duplicitous friendships, awakening sexuality and the trials of school and exams are all depicted as Sarah’s story unfolds.

Sarah is a deeply empathetic character from the start. No reader could fail to be moved by the situations she finds herself in as she exposes her heart to the possibilities of love and the dangers of betrayal for the first time.

The characters around her are also real and boldly drawn. I particularly liked Sarah’s father; charming but utterly self-absorbed.

The storyline starts at a school reunion taking place twenty years later. Through this section the secrets of the past are finally revealed and Sarah’s story finds its resolution. Anyone who has ever attended a reunion with ambivalent feelings in their heart will identify strongly with this section.

I really enjoyed Isabel Ashdown’s first novel, ‘Glasshopper’ but, if anything, would have to say ‘Hurry Up And Wait' is even better. I loved everything about it.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

‘Hurry Up And Wait’ is published by Myriad Editions and I am grateful to them for the review copy.

You can read my review of ‘Glasshopper’ here, and you can see Isabel’s website (complete with Eighties Hall Of Fame/Shame) here.

Saturday 18 June 2011

The Sign Of Four

By Arthur Conan Doyle

This, the second of the Sherlock Holmes adventures (and the second of the four full-length novels), has always been one of my favourite books and remains my favourite Holmes story. Holmes's first appearance in A Study in Scarlet had not been a commercial success and Conan Doyle had no immediate plans for any more Holmes cases.

This all changed when he was invited to dinner at London's Langham Hotel in 1889 by Joseph Marshall Stoddart - the editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. The U.S. magazine was looking to launch itself in Britain and was seeking British based writers to contribute to its pages. At the Langham dinner Conan Doyle was brought into contact, for the first time, with Oscar Wilde and both men accepted commissions to write London based stories featuring murders.

Wilde went away and penned The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, and Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four.

The book gives you everything. Two heroes, a lady in distress, romance, a missing treasure, a one-legged villain, a clumsy policeman, a murder and a back-story set in colonial India. It is for all these reasons that this story is the most filmed Holmes adventure after The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is also notable for its work in fleshing out the character of Holmes. It gives him a little more humanity and explicitly introduces his drug use which was only suspected by Watson in the first story.

Conan Doyle also writes a commendable female character in the form of Mary Morstan - Holmes's client and the object of Watson's affections. From the first she is presented as a strong woman who knows her own mind rather than the hysterical stereotype so often portrayed by male writers of the period. This reflected Conan Doyle's real opinion of women in general. He was ahead of his time in his attitude towards them and later fought for reform of divorce laws although he did, bizarrely, disapprove of the idea of women's suffrage.

This aside, the book is well worth the read. It is fun, never drags and shows Sherlock Holmes at his flawed best.

Reviewed by Alistair Duncan

Alistair Duncan is an expert on Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle. You can read his blog here.

He has written a number of books on the subject and you can find out more, and order a copy here.

Thanks very much to Alistair for sharing his thoughts on such a classic book with us.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

The Ghost Of Lily Painter

By Caitlin Davies

'The Ghost Of Lily Painter' is a richly plotted story that covers many generations and has action set over more than a century. It follows the tale of Annie Sweet, who moves into a new house and becomes intrigued by the story of a previous inhabitant – Lily Painter – and determined to find out more about her.

The narrative moves between the voices of Annie Sweet, Lily Painter and Inspector William George who lived in the house at the same time as Lily. Later in the book, a fourth voice joins them and delivers some beautifully set-up surprises. The four voices all tell their stories in a different way, and a way that is distinctively theirs.

Caitlin Davies uses threads of historical fact to enhance the story. She explores the activities of baby farmers in Edwardian London to great effect, and blends fact and fiction into a satisfactory whole.

Both the present day story of Annie and the historical story of Lily are emotional and touched with pain. When we first meet Annie she’s dealing with marital breakdown, the fallout of this for her daughter, and a dog that seems set on destroying everything in her path. Lily’s story ultimately takes her into even more painful situations.

Everything about this novel is just right. The characters are believable and sympathetic, the descriptive writing is beautiful and the evocation of the different historical periods is spot on.

I think this is a book I’m going to be reflecting on long after finishing it.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

‘The Ghost Of Lily Painter’ is published by Hutchinson/Random House and I am grateful to them for the review copy.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Phoenix Rising

by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

I really loved this book! When I first heard about this book about two months before it was released I watched the release date hoping it would release earlier than the date scheduled. But, alas, I had to wait until the scheduled release date and it was well worth the wait. It opened with a bang, pretty much literally! It was full of excitement and exciting characters. Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are an exciting team and it was not only fun to watch them relate but a good time watching their exploits.

'Phoenix Rising' is a great addition to the Steampunk genre. It was good to see the chemistry between the characters with their diverse backgrounds. I hope to learn more about where they all come from and how they came to be the way they are now. Wellington Books is the best kept secret the Ministry does not even know it has to offer! Sophia is seriously a great nemesis for Eliza, especially given the information that Wellington provides during the apex of the story. These are just a few examples of how the players were well developed. For example, describing the expressions and mannerisms of Wellington when he had Eliza pushed into his world - priceless!

I'm happy to see that we will have more coming from the dynamic duo and mysteries left in play with Dr. Sound, Campbell and Sussex. Oh, and do not let me forget the awesome cover!

Reviewed by Lady Techie