Archive: Emma

I originally posted this review on 31 December 2014 on What Kim Read Next (Blogspot) and have reposted it here.

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Emma by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by Borough Press on 6 November 2014
Pages: 361
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Sometimes it takes time to discover who you really are. And for Emma Woodhouse the journey is only just beginning. After graduating, Emma returns home to Norfolk, where she plans to set up a design business. But that summer, as Emma begins to match-make various friends and neighbours, some important lessons about life and relationships await her…

Jane Austen’s Emma is a finely crafted novel. Clues are carefully woven throughout the story, so that the astute reader can pick up on the mystery of the novel. McCall Smith’s Emma lacks the finesse of the original. I had really high hopes for The Austen Project, but after reading Val McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey and McCall Smith’s take on Emma, I think that it’s safe to say that this project is not for me. There really is no author like Austen, and these retellings are quite weak. Maybe I’ve been especially hard on this one because Emma Woodhouse is my favourite Austen heroine, but I was immensely disappointed with McCall Smith’s offering.

In order to modernise an adaptation, you need to follow the general plot of the original, while making changes that both update it to a modern setting and make sense within the original narrative. It’s what made Clueless such a great modernisation of Emma and Bridget Jones’s Diary an interesting take on Pride and Prejudice.

The original Emma is an incredibly sheltered young woman, who is wealthier and therefore social superior than almost every individual in Highbury. She has no equal in Highbury, and literally befriends Harriet so she would have somebody to walk with. This Emma is unlikeable, selfish and nasty. It’s kind of implied that the only reason Emma befriends Harriet is because she is overwhelmed by her beauty… to the point that Emma wonders if she is gay. The original Emma was upfront with Harriet about Elton’s proposal and takes her share of the blame – this Emma spins a web of lies in order to come out completely blameless. Emma is also supposed to be clueless in regards to Elton’s true character, only realising the littleness of his character after his proposal – but here, Emma is completely aware of it the entire time! Similarly, my favourite part of the original Emma is the mystery surrounding Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill – this is similarly downplayed. Frank Churchill is an overgrown child, Jane Fairfax, while accomplished, has none of the goodness of the original, and both manage to be unlikeable in the little page-time they have.

Harriet is even thicker than the original, so I was very surprised when [SPOILER ALERT!] she managed to hide the fact that she’d been dating Robert Martin the entire time from Emma. Knightley barely features in the book, which makes one wonder when Emma had time to fall in love with the man. Their interactions are reduced to Knightley chatting to Emma on his way out the door. The original Miss Taylor was Emma’s friend and mother figure as well as governess, this Miss Taylor is entirely responsible for Emma’s disgusting personality.

The first quarter of the book is filled with descriptions of Emma’s early life, which means that the first quarter of the book is more tedious than the rest. It does nothing to advance the plot, nor provide any real insight into Emma’s character, except to add to the perception that she’s a horrible human being. This novel is about half as long as the original, but it took me twice as long to read, and the entire time I was checking how many pages I had until the end. If you want to get into Austen, read her novels. The Austen Project is just a very pale imitation.

★★☆☆☆

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
Published by HarperCollins Australia on the 1st June 2017
Pages:
400
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

I didn’t really know anything about this book going into it. I picked it up on a whim, and am so thankful I did! It is easily one of my favourite releases of the year.  Eleanor Oliphant is the kind of character who stays with you long after you’ve finished the book.

On the surface, this book is a very funny novel about a socially inept 29 year-old woman. Eleanor Oliphant truly is socially inept, in a way that puts my socially awkward self to shame. It is painful to watch Eleanor interact with those around her, if only because of the resulting scorn and her absolute cluelessness to it.

“I purchased it in a charity shop some years ago, and it has a photograph of a moon-faced man. He is wearing a brown leather blouson. Along the top, in strange yellow font, it says ‘Top Gear’. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.”

Honeyman deftly handles the difficult task of making sure that the reader is never laughing at Eleanor’s social ineptness itself, but the situations that she finds herself because of it. One of my favourite moments was Eleanor getting a bikini wax and then berating the poor beautician because Eleanor didn’t realise just how much was going to be waxed (or how painful it would be). I truly felt for Eleanor – whether it was overhearing her work colleagues speculating on her private life, watching her fall in love with the idea of a person, or her dealing with those moments with Mummy. Her relationship with her mother is really one of the most interesting parts of the book – the dynamics of the relationship are off from the start (I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so won’t go into much detail), but you really get the feeling that it is an emotionally and mentally abusive relationship, with Mummy holding all the power.

I think anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will identify with Eleanor. Eleanor may do some reprehensible things, she may (unintentionally) make others feel uncomfortable, but she is never an unsympathetic character. Even as she grows throughout the novel, her characterisation is always consistent. While this book is definitely Eleanor’s story, there are are a host of other characters who are wonderfully drawn, and just feel like people. The fantastic characterisation is really what drew me into this story.

I took a star off for the ending – I felt like it really came out of nowhere and was kind of a plot twist for the sake of a plot twist. However, this is a really assured debut novel, and I cannot wait to see what Honeyman does next.

Recommended if you like: The Rosie Project, Wonder

★☆

Review: Foreign Soil

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Foreign Soil
by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Published by Hachette Australia on the 29th April 2014
Pages: 285
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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In Melbourne’s western suburbs, in a dilapidated block of flats overhanging the rattling Footscray train-lines, a young black mother is working on a collection of stories. The book is called Foreign Soil. Inside its covers, a desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way. The young mother keeps writing, the rejection letters keep arriving…

I don’t often read collections of short stories – I like to get really invested in a story, and I find it easier to do so with a full-length novel – but I really loved Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, and thought I’d check out this collection. I’m glad I did, because this book is an absolute gem. The stories are character-driven and well-paced.

You’ll forgive me if my review seems unbalanced – I know I should focus on the collection as a whole (as you would a volume of poetry), but there are some stories that stick out in my mind more than others, and I do want to gush about them because I walked away from them with a heavy heart (in the best way possible). I think great literature is literature that makes you think, and Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil has definitely done that.

Australian media isn’t exactly known for its diversity and inclusiveness – Beneba Clarke has mentioned before that winning the Victorian Premiere’s Unpublished Manuscript Award was instrumental in her securing a publisher, if that’s any indication (given the quality of the short stories, I can only imagine the reason why it got rejected so many times was a fear that audiences wouldn’t connect to characters of colour) – so I appreciated that Beneba Clarke gave a voice to people who aren’t often heard.

One thing that is obvious is Beneba Clarke’s abilities (and experience) as a slam poet. She relies on cadences of the voice to tell her stories, and this comes across more effectively in some stories than others (as to be expected). For instance, I struggled quite a bit with the story Big Islan, which was written entirely in Jamaican patois. I struggled to connect with the stories that were accent-heavy, and I didn’t feel that narrating in an accent added to the story (Big Islan, David), given that Beneba Clarke has such a knack for dialogue that that alone gave me such a strong sense of place. Given that the stories followed characters living in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Mississippi, Jamaica and the Sudan (to name a few), this was no easy feat. Nevertheless, I appreciated what Beneba Clarke was trying to do with this device.

My favourite stories were Shu Yi, The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa, and Aviation (which, I understand, is a new addition to the edition I purchased), although Beneba Clarke has an ability to create stories around characters you seemingly have nothing in common with, and make you care about them desperately (and given that the longest story in this collection is around 50 pages… again, no easy feat). The only story in the collection that is even remotely autobiographical is The Sukiyaki Book Club, which references earlier stories in the collection and seemed to document Beneba Clarke’s own struggles in getting published.

Much like The Hate Race, it will be impossible to walk away unaffected by Foreign Soil. With a voice unlike any other, Beneba Clarke is an author who makes me excited for the future of Australian publishing.

★★★★☆

Review: The Fifth Letter

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The Fifth Letter
by Nicola Moriarty
Published by HarperCollins Australia on the 20th February 2017
Pages: 319
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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How do you know if your friends actually like you? Joni, Deb, Eden and Trina try to catch up once a year for some days away together. Now in their thirties, commitments have pulled them in different directions, and the closeness they once enjoyed growing up seems increasingly elusive. This year, determined to revive their intimacy, they each share a secret in an anonymous letter to be read out during the holiday. But instead of bringing them closer, the revelations seem to drive them apart. Then a fifth letter is discovered, venting long-held grudges, and it seems that one of the women is in serious danger. But who was the author? And which of them should be worried? The Fifth Letter examines the bonds of women’s friendship groups, and the loyalty and honesty they demand, along with letting go of relationships that once seemed essential but are now outgrown.

I’m a huge fan of the Moriarty sisters (Nicola is the younger sister of Liane and Jaclyn), and I was so excited to see that Nicola was publishing another book. She has a really distinctive voice that has a certain quirkiness to it. The Fifth Letter is an easy read – I finished it in an afternoon – although it has darker undertones that give it more of an edge than your average chick lit novel (I hate to compare to one of her sisters, but think Liane’s Big Little Lies, although not as extreme). This could’ve so easily entered psychological thriller territory (and I’m a little disappointed it didn’t).

We get the story as a flashback, with Joni recounting the story to a priest, and present day. I’m not sure how I felt about the talks with the priest – I personally would’ve preferred the story without them, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Moriarty’s writing. Moriarty skillfully weaves her story, surprising you with a new twist every few chapters. Each character’s secret is played close to the chest and when the final reveal comes, everything makes sense. Unfortunately, I found the identity of the fifth letter-writer and her reasons for doing so quite far-fetched, and probably the most unbelievable element of the plot.

I would’ve liked to see a little more character development – Deb, Eden and Trina didn’t feel as fleshed out as Joni did. That said, there was a really nice relationship between the four of them, one that anyone who has had a friendship that has lasted a lifetime would relate to. I related to Joni and her attempts to keep her friendship with her high school group alive, because balancing adulthood with maintaining relationships isn’t always the easiest thing in the world – life gets in the way. As can be expected in a book about female relationships, there was a lot of gossip and drama, but it felt realistic and true to character. I do think the dialogue alternated between being a little wooden and a bit cheesy – this isn’t something that Moriarty had a problem with in previous novels, so I was a bit surprised by it.

All in all, this one’s a great summer read – it’s light and easy, and one you’d probably enjoy lying on the beach.

★★★☆☆

Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.

Review: Eligible

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Eligible (The Austen Project #4) by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published by The Borough Press on the 21st April 2016
Pages: 514
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Liz and Jane are good daughters. They’ve come home to suburban Cincinnati to get their mother to stop feeding their father steak as he recovers from heart surgery. With five sisters under the same roof, old patterns return fast. Soon enough they are being berated for their single status and it really is too much to bear. That is, until the Lucas family’s BBQ throws them in the way of some eligible single men…

Here’s the thing about Jane Austen: people are so busy talking about how much she contributed to English literature and holding up her books as examples of Great Literary Works, that they forget that Austen spent a lot of her time poking fun at others and her books were intended to be parodies of the social conventions of her time. Pride and Prejudice comments on social class, and largely mocks the idea of marriage as some kind of game. I’m probably going to have my Austenite card revoked for saying this, but in this sense Eligible is a great adaptation of the original.

Easily the best book to come out of The Austen Project, Sittenfeld has avoided the mistakes made by other authors in the series (Val McDermid – Northanger Abbey, Joanna Trollope – Sense and Sensibility and Alexander McCall Smith – Emma), by updating Austen’s novel so that it works in a modern context, and still retaining the original spirit of the characters (sorry, but what’s with your Emma Woodhouse, McCall Smith? I’m still offended – yes, offended – by that retelling).

In this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Liz and Jane Bennet are single thirty-somethings that have returned home to help out their family after their father’s heart attack. All five of the Bennet sisters have been updated wonderfully. They are adults and, with the exception of Jane and Liz, are still living at home and doing absolutely nothing with their lives. All are true to the original – I have a soft spot for Mary Bennet (probably because I spent five months of my life being her) and tend to argue that she got an unfair rap, but even I couldn’t help but giggle at Sittenfeld’s Mary.

It always strikes me how hard it must be to write Liz(zy) – she’s judgemental, but cannot come across as hypocritical or a bossy know-it-all. She’s intelligent, but constantly misjudges those around her. She manages to find the humour in almost every situation – she’s kind of like wonder woman. Toss in the fact that she is one of the most beloved character in English literature, and there must be an enormous amount of pressure on your shoulders. Sittenfeld did an admirable job in creating a modern Liz, although I did feel there was something lacking in Liz and Darcy’s romance.

Mr & Mrs Bennet have been drawn beautifully – Mrs Bennet is everything I imagined a 21st-century version of her behaving: she’s racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-feminist and constantly waxing on the importance of social propriety and is casually cruel to her family (all the while being completely oblivious). Mr Bennet retains his signature dry wit (and neglectful parenting style).

Sittenfeld includes her own social commentary – not just limited to televised love stories, but also weaving in identity politics (race, gender) into the mix. It was refreshing to see a transgender character, even if I did think the handling of it was a little clunky.

A few little complaints (teensy, tiny ones!):

  • As a result of the updated setting and moving the story to the US – Cincinnati, to be exact – the humour is a lot cruder and more in your face than I was expecting it to be.
  • I will never be a fan of the short chapters- you know, the ones that are a page or two long? This book had a few, and it annoyed me no end.

Also, there were a lot of filler scenes and Sittenfeld would often go off on unnecessary tangents. This book could’ve been a lot shorter, although Sittenfeld has a distinctive voice and her work has this readability factor, so even though this book was 500+ pages long, it felt more like 300.

All in all, a wonderful nod to Pride and Prejudice and probably the saving grace of the Austen Project.

★★★☆☆

Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.

 

 

Review: Jane Steele

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Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Headline Review on the 22nd March 2016
Pages: 432
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?

This book is easily one of the most over-hyped books I’ve read all year. After being promised that it was one of the best retellings of Jane Eyre ever published, I was let down a few pages in when Jane Steele started referencing Jane Eyre and I realised that this was actually just published fan fiction – you know, when the authors begin inserting themselves in their stories? It was a bit like that.

Regardless, it was a compelling read. Jane Steele has such a present voice, and is driven by her desire for vengeance. Despite it being increasingly clear that Jane is a bit cray-cray, Faye somehow manages to convince the reader that the crimes that Jane commits are completely warranted and her victims deserved to die. Attempted rapists, husbands who abuse their wives, religious hypocrites – the world that Jane lives in is filled with horrible people, and it is possible to understand her motivations.

The second third of the book where Jane is at boarding school and later moves to London is probably the high point of the book. Honestly, it was filled with such misery and mistreatment that it made me angry while reading, and I always appreciate a book that can elicit that kind of emotional response in me. There were also some great female friendships (hurrah for females supporting one another), and Jane ran around behaving kind of like I expected Celaena Sardothien to behave (should the infamous assassin ever actually kill anyone, ever).

Once Jane returned to her childhood home and settled into life with Mr Thornfield, the pacing of the novel slowed right down and I found my attention wandering while reading. The romance was okay – it wasn’t instalove, Jane and Mr Thornfield accepted each other warts and all, and they became better people because of the other’s influence – but I picked up the book because I was intrigued by the “Jane Eyre if Jane was a serial killer” hook, so it didn’t really do anything for me. Also, Thornfield didn’t have half as much personality as Rochester, so the story really lagged.

The ending was so much weaker than the beginning, so it’s hard for me to form a coherent opinion on it. I couldn’t even tell you if I would recommend it to a friend – is it possible to recommend the first half?

 ★★★☆☆

Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.

Review: Lost and Found

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Lost and Found by Brooke Davis
Published by Hachette Australia on the 24th June 2014
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Millie Bird is a seven-year-old girl who always wears red wellington boots to match her red, curly hair. But one day, Millie’s mum leaves her alone beneath the Ginormous Women’s underwear rack in a department store, and doesn’t come back.

Agatha Pantha is an eighty-two-year-old woman who hasn’t left her home since her husband died. Instead, she fills the silence by yelling at passers-by, watching loud static on TV, and maintaining a strict daily schedule. Until the day Agatha spies a little girl across the street.

Karl the Touch Typist is eighty-seven years old and once typed love letters with his fingers on to his wife’s skin. He sits in a nursing home, knowing that somehow he must find a way for life to begin again. In a moment of clarity and joy, he escapes.

Together, Millie, Agatha and Karl set out to find Millie’s mum. Along the way, they will discover that the young can be wise, that old age is not the same as death, and that breaking the rules once in a while might just be the key to a happy life.

This review is long overdue! Seriously, it’s been sitting in my drafts for over a month (I actually forgot it was sitting there…). This book is quirky and humorous, and a best-seller that has already had much said about it, so I don’t know if I can really bring anything new to the table.

At face value, Lost and Found is the story of seven-year-old Millie Bird, who has been abandoned by her mother at a shopping centre and enlists Karl the Touch Typist, a nursing home escapee, and Agatha Pantha, her reclusive, cranky neighbour, to help her find her.

Although there is a universality to the themes explored in the book – death, abandonment, companionship, love – Davis cleverly looks at each of these and how they relate to each individual character; while these themes are equally relevant to each character, it is executed through circumstances and personal histories.

I particularly loved the chapters from Millie’s point of view. Davis is quite good at getting inside a child’s mind and looking at life from a child’s perspective – this is true not only of Millie, but also of her friend Jeremy (aka Captain Everything). Millie’s yearning for her mother felt earnest, heartfelt, and authentic. It broke my heart whenever Millie left a note for her mum telling her where to find her. It was, in all honesty, the little things that made this book for me, whether it be Millie’s notes, Karl’s letters to his dead wife, or Agatha’s routine. Characterisation is where Davis truly succeeds, making up for the over-the-top and almost slapstick situations the characters find themselves in.

I did find the ending quite abrupt, and although it was a somewhat-satisfying conclusion, I would’ve liked information about Millie’s mum. I also found the play on Agatha Pantha quite irritating after awhile (for those who are unaware, Agathapanthus is a flowering plant that is largely considered to be a weed in Australia). It seemed heavy-handed in an otherwise delicate book.

★★★☆☆

Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.

 

Review: The Nightingale

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Published by Pan Macmillan on 24th November 2015
Pages: 440
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Despite their differences, sisters Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. But when the Second World War strikes, Antoine is sent off to fight and Vianne finds herself isolated so Isabelle is sent by their father to help her.

As the war progresses, the sisters’ relationship and strength is tested. With life changing in unbelievably horrific ways, Vianne and Isabelle will find themselves facing frightening situations and responding in ways they never thought possible as bravery and resistance take different forms in each of their actions.

Vivid and exquisite in its illumination of a time and place that was filled with atrocities, but also humanity and strength, Kristin Hannah’s novel will provoke thought and discussion that will have readers talking long after they finish reading.

I didn’t really know what to expect going into The Nightingale. From its blurb, I suspected it would be a romance set during World War II – The Bronze Horseman, French Edition. And honestly, it has been sitting on my bedside table for the last five or six months because of my suspicions.

Although there are elements of a romance to this book, it is so much more than that. It is often assumed that war is all about men, and we forget about those on the home front. The Nightingale is about the unsung heroes of our history books, the women of WWII. It is about the Nazi occupation of France, and the women who fought to survive. It is about women who wish they could fight for their country, and women who secretly do. It is about the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters who were left behind and forgotten.

The book focuses on two sisters who have two very different ways of survival. Vianne, the elder of the two, has a husband who is imprisoned in a Nazi war camp and a Nazi soldier billeting in her home. She frustrates her sister, Isabelle, with her compliance. Isabelle is brash and bold, and does not understand why Vianne is so reluctant to rebel against the Nazis. In all honesty, I found Isabelle to be quite a frustrating character, but also one who you can’t help but become invested in. She has a brilliant character arc, and the growth she displays is astonishing. Isabelle is loosely based on Andrée de Jongh, who risked her life to save countless American and British serviceman escape from Nazi-occupied France and Belgium.

Hannah’s writing is vivid and evocative, conjuring up the horrifying nature of war without being overtly graphic. You can feel Vianne’s hunger, desperation, guilt and terror. When Isabelle joins a rebel group, and no point do you feel that the stakes aren’t high enough for her. The relationships between characters are well-developed and I found myself becoming really emotionally invested in them.

If I had one complaint, it would be this: plausibility is often sacrificed in the name of ‘keeping the reader on the edge of their seat’. For example, Vianne’s Jewish neighbour is told that Nazis will arrive at her house and take her away. In the space of two hours, she is able to acquire false identity papers, and then when trying to cross a peaceful checkpoint, the German guard inexplicably machine guns everyone down (taking special care to shoot the woman’s nine year old daughter).

Also, Hannah is quite obviously done her research into the Nazi occupation of France, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of it could’ve been edited out. A lot of the story took place in a rural village, yet it seemed overrun with the Gestapo, SS, and German soldiers as if it were the Nazis’ headquarters. I don’t doubt that there were some kind of German authority running French villages, but there would’ve been a difference between the number of soldiers stationed in a village, and the number of soldiers stationed in Paris. German resources were not infinite.

I did suspect the plot twist at the end, but I still found it genuinely moving and I think that Hannah managed it well. If you’re looking for a book with a cast of three-dimensional female characters from all walks of life, then I would highly recommend you pick up this book. If you’re a historical romance fan, please keep in mind that romance does take a bit of a back seat in this one – it’s there, just in the background.

★★★★☆

Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.

Review: I’ll See You in Paris

256638101 I’ll See You in Paris by Michelle Gable
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on the 9th February 2016
Pages: 400
Format: Ebook
Source: ARC
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After losing her fiancé in the Vietnam War, nineteen-year-old Laurel Haley takes a job in England, hoping the distance will mend her shattered heart. Laurel expects the pain might lessen but does not foresee the beguiling man she meets or that they’ll go to Paris, where the city’s magic will take over and alter everything Laurel believes about love.

Thirty years later, Laurel’s daughter Annie is newly engaged and an old question resurfaces: who is Annie’s father and what happened to him? Laurel has always been vague about the details and Annie’s told herself it doesn’t matter. But with her impending marriage, Annie has to know everything. Why won’t Laurel tell her the truth?

The key to unlocking Laurel’s secrets starts with a mysterious book about an infamous woman known as the Duchess of Marlborough. Annie’s quest to understand the Duchess, and therefore her own history, takes her from a charming hamlet in the English countryside, to a decaying estate kept behind barbed wire, and ultimately to Paris where answers will be found at last.

I finished this book a few weeks ago, left it a week to mull over my thoughts, realised I didn’t know how I felt about this book, decided to re-read it and I still don’t know how I feel about this book. I think it was a good idea, it could’ve just been better executed. There was so much going on, yet it felt like nothing was happening. The writing felt a little clumsy and flat, and the main characters didn’t really have any personality.

I’ll See You in Paris has two different time frames – the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, and would often change, without warning, between the two. I didn’t really feel this added anything to the book – except for perhaps some clumsy parallels between mother and daughter – and would’ve thought a more linear structure would’ve worked better (or even if Annie’s parts had bookended – no pun intended – Pru’s).

This book and I, we struggled. I’m usually a fairly focused reader, but I found my attention drifting while reading. The scenes seemed to drag along and sometimes without adding anything to the story – I didn’t really need the emails to/from Annie’s fiance, for example, and some of the interviews between Win and Mrs. Spencer dragged on far too long and felt indulgent – and I felt like nothing was really happening. It was fairly obvious how the story was going to pan out – I guessed who Pru and Win were in the ‘2001’ parts of the book fairly quickly. I also felt the book ended somewhat abruptly, and wish there was some kind of closure – perhaps an epilogue.

The characters lack any real personality . While Win is, on occasion, charming and Mrs. Spencer is always good for a laugh, although isn’t very likeable, for the most part, these characters don’t seem to act because they are forced to by circumstance. Ultimately, I didn’t really feel anything for any of the characters because they were one dimensional, and that’s probably the nicest thing I can say about any of them.

If I had to say something positive about the book, the last maybe 20% of the book is quite suspenseful – while certain suspicions are confirmed, there’s actually quite an interesting backstory for Laurel revealed, and this was, without a doubt, my favourite part of the book. Despite my complaints about the writing, there is also some nice prose in there if you look for it.

Not necessarily a bad read, but I felt like it was quite clumsy for start to finish, and could’ve done better. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right book for me, and others will enjoy it more! 

★★☆☆☆

Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.

 

Review: Shtum

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Shtum by Jem Lester
Published by Orion on the 7th April 2016
Pages: 368
Format: Ebook
Source: ARC
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Powerful, darkly funny and heart-breaking, Shtum is a story about fathers and sons, autism, and dysfunctional relationships. Ben Jewell has hit breaking point. His ten-year-old son Jonah has severe autism and Ben and his wife, Emma, are struggling to cope.

When Ben and Emma fake a separation – a strategic decision to further Jonah’s case in an upcoming tribunal – Ben and Jonah move in with Georg, Ben’s elderly father. In a small house in North London, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together.

I requested this book on NetGalley because I found the premise intriguing, and while I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would, I found it enjoyable and think it will be a resounding success for Lester.

Shtum is a book about the relationship between fathers and sons – and their inability to communicate with one another. In the case of Ben and Jonah, they are literally unable to communicate because Jonah’s autism means he is unable to speak; Ben and Georg don’t seem to speak about anything of importance. While it was clear that Ben loved his son and would go to great lengths for him, I found the relationship between Georg and Jonah to be poignant and more touching. The level of patience and care that Georg displayed towards Jonah was heart-warming, and the stories he tells the uninterested Jonah (and his reasoning behind telling him) about his family will surprise you.

In all honesty, I found it difficult to connect to Ben. Lester hasn’t shied away from creating a flawed, complex character, and while it makes Shtum a more believable story, I’m not sure it make it a better story. It’s possible to forgive Ben for his faults, but he wasn’t exactly a character I enjoyed spending four hundred-odd pages with. Ben’s problems are understandable – it cannot be easy caring for a child with autism. Ben struggles with the competing demands of Jonah and the family business, so Georg is handed the responsibility of caring for Jonah and the family business is left in the hands of its only employee (besides Ben) while Ben heads to the pub. Ben resents Georg for not being more open with him, but isn’t open with Georg; he’s angry at his (absent) wife, Emma, for wanting out of their relationship. Ben seems intent on creating more problems for himself, to the point it becomes wearisome and you stop hoping he’ll win and start wondering when he’s going to stop sabotaging himself.

Where there was too much of Ben, there was perhaps not enough of the female characters. I’m fine with this being a book about men and their relationships with one another – I expected this from the premise going in. But the female characters were one-dimensional and flat; seemingly used as either pretty ornaments or excuses for Ben’s awful behaviour. Emma is depicted as selfish and cold-hearted for leaving Ben and Jonah (although does get a little redemption arc towards the end);Ben’s mother as an alcoholic who cared little for her husband and son. I probably would have had more sympathy for Ben over the breakdown of his marriage had I a bit more insight into the early days of their relationship, but all we saw was a self-absorbed alcoholic and a woman desperate to be a mother. Ben came across as selfish, hypocritical, rude and drunk (I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree…), so I’m not sure why Jonah’s twenty-something teacher would flirt with Ben (or spend her personal time helping him care for Jonah), or why a blind date would show any interest in him.

Despite my complaints about Shtum, there is still much to love about it. Lester is able to make a novel touching with being overly-sentimental; he writes about serious subject matter while still being able to add a comedic touch when needed. This book ended on such a beautiful note that I finished it crying – and given that I spent a lot of the book being frustrated with Ben, I think it says a lot about Lester’s writing.

★★★☆☆

Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.