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Eloisa James – This Duchess Of Mine

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Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62682-1
First Published: 26th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 15th October 2018
Rating: 3/5

The Beaumont line needs an heir and Jemma wants her husband to be by her side. Knowing she’s not getting any younger and seeing her friends happily paired up, Jemma looks at getting close to Elijah through a few rounds of flirtation; she knows he won’t be wooed in the regular fashion and might take better to being flirted with by someone else. Meanwhile, Elijah has discovered it’s high time he made an effort to be with his wife; nine years of a long-distance marriage to the woman he loves, and a hapless cousin for an heir, mean he’s looking to change things.

This Duchess Of Mine is the fifth and penultimate book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series, and focuses on the ‘leading’ couple of the group of friends.

This book isn’t as strong as the others. The romance isn’t particularly well-written or plotted and there are a lot of conveniences and devices used. Nor is the editing as good, in fact it seems the book is suffering from the ‘author knows best’ or ‘editor won’t touch famous author’s work’ idea that goes along with further works – whereas James’ prose and use of language in general has previously been very good, This Duchess Of Mine is full of contemporary American English that doesn’t match its 1700s England setting.

The romance takes its time; when it finally does get there, it’s rather too cute and perfect. There’s a major lack of chemistry between the pair, meaning that the flirtation and subsequent sex scenes don’t really work – you would expect to feel the love between the characters but that’s difficult.

However – and I realise I’m going back and forth between positive and negative points here – the devices James’ uses are interesting in their historical context. There’s not a ton of focus on them of course, but the information about what appear to be the Roman Baths in Bath, and the inclusion of Dr Withering, a real person who worked on cures for heart conditions using foxgloves, are good. (The Roman Baths are, during the course of the book, provided with funding to restore/develop them further, which fits enough with the time period in which they were truly developed – the 1800s – to say it’s a plausible plot point.)

In terms of the book in general, the best parts are the chess games and the secondary plot of Villiers’ plight at finding a wife, the necessary set-up to his own book which follows.

Perhaps it’s the lack of previous characters – Jemma and Elijah have played a role in everyone else’s lives but here only Villiers walks onto the stage. And perhaps that was something the author wanted in particular – few friends this time, after all the time Jemma has spent with others – but it doesn’t feel the same, especially when so much that occurs in this book has already occurred. (Jemma and Elijah’s story has been in place for a while and by the point of this book really ought to have been quick.) Perhaps, too, it’s the sheer lack of comedy compared to the other books. There are many reasons it doesn’t work.

Read it if you’ve read the others and want to complete the series, but you could easily skip this book in favour of moving straight to #6. Or at least skip the epilogue, which moves several decades forward in time and is at odds with the here-and-now mode of the rest of the saga.

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Colm Tóibín – Brooklyn

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of… or pressed upon.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 250
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-04174-2
First Published: 5th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 4th October 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

Ireland in the 1950s and Eilis, recently having left school, is living with her mum and sister. There aren’t many jobs available but she manages to get Sunday work at a grocers her mother dislikes. She’s happy with life as it is, but one day her mother and sister start talking to her about sending her to New York where there are lots of opportunities. She goes, reluctantly, and begins a new life, but it’s hard forgetting home when you didn’t want to leave it.

Brooklyn is the acclaimed novel by Tóibín that looks at a young person’s emigration away from all she knows. Shorter than some, it offers some interesting descriptions, circumstances, and knowledge, but never really ‘goes’ anywhere despite the literal journey Eilis makes.

What’s good in this book is the use of time period and situation. Tóibín brings the era to life masterfully, writing descriptions that provide enough for you to create a good image in your head of the way things look, both the location and the people. He doesn’t describe everything – most readers will know the basics about the 50s after all, given its ‘vintage’ status – but it is more than enough.

There is also the social angle, which is only a minor feature but means that parts of the book are compelling; the regular life occurrences such as dances and movie nights, but also the racism between immigrants, and the changes that came with allowing black people to move in previously white-only spaces. Tóibín does not spend long on these, and more’s the pity, because they’re the highlight.

The storytelling in itself is fair. Language is generally good. Reasons for character decisions, whilst not often reasonable in terms of what we’d think now or what the reader themselves might do, are accounted for.

However the novel falls down a few levels when it comes to characterisation. A number of the secondary characters, in part, for certain, due to their role as secondary characters, are developed a fair amount – developed as much as they are needed to be. But Eilis is largely vague. She is very passive and easily replaceable.

The problem here is that Eilis never makes decisions for herself, something that becomes incredibly apparent during the last section of the book wherein she lets a lot of people walk all over her, keeps secrets, and goes along with things that she ought to consider ludicrous. It is difficult to talk about without giving away a small piece of information that may or may not be considered a spoiler – included in this book is Eilis’ return journey to Ireland. She’s not intending to return for good, having a specific reason for going back for a short time, as many people would have (hence why it’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal it).

Although Eilis had been making ‘decisions’ based on what other people were pushing her to do before this, her lack of agency in the last section is particularly frustrating and unfortunately, whilst you’d expect Tóibín to do something about it at the end, to show Eilis coming into her own, he does not. Whether or not that was something he purposefully excluded to create a discussion is hard to say; it’s fair to say Eilis’ sister had good reason for putting Eilis on the boat, and that Eilis is and likely always was the victim of emotional manipulation, but whilst Tóibín allows you to see this, somewhat, he does nothing to change Eilis’ situation. And whilst that in itself is not bad, because it can be hard for someone in her position to find herself, there needed to be something from Tóibín, even if just a direct, single line, on why Eilis is so passive. It might have helped account for the strange turns Eilis’ ‘choices’ take and definitely would have given the story a bit of action.

Therefore you have a book with wonderful world-building and writing, a book that you won’t want to put down, but ultimately there is no real story here except of constant indecision and pressure, and a sudden and completely unsatisfactory ending. Again, perhaps this is something the author was actively looking to achieve, because it certainly creates a reaction, but that doesn’t help make Brooklyn any better.

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Hiromi Kawakami – The Nakano Thrift Shop

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Neither something old, nor something new.

Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-846-27600-2
First Published: 1st April 2005; 4th August 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 31st August 2018
Rating: 3/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudogu Nakano Shoten – Nakano Antique Shop)
Translated by: Allison Markin Powell

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop; named after its somewhat peculiar owner, the shop sells second-hand items, but not, as the owner would want to point out, antiques. Every day brings new customers, new items, and stilted conversations; the owner often starts a conversation with the end of a sentence – ‘you know what I mean?’ As the months go by, Hitomi finds herself interested in her very quiet co-worker, Takeo, and becomes interested in the life of Mr Nakano’s artistic sister, Masayo.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a novel formed of short stories about the day to day workings of a shop in the context of the workers’ lives. Referred to by many as a ‘slice of life’ novel, the storytelling is done via a first person narrative.

There isn’t all that much storytelling – in the normal sense – here. The narrative is most often very simple, sometimes verging on boring, although there are a handful of poignant moments wherein the theme of a chapter/short story melds into an aspect of a character’s life. (Each chapter concerns an item from the shop or a food, so, for example, in the chapter ‘Apple’, two characters converse vaguely – dialogue is used sparingly, with a lot of detail left to the reader to fill in – discussing a type of apple, the way it is too tart for the shop owner. Later, after this has been related, one of the speakers finds it too tart herself.)

It’s in these emotional moments that the book is very good, the emotions adding more substance. The pity is it’s only for seconds at a time; it becomes the primary method of character development which means development is sparse and the narrative doesn’t go anywhere significant.

The translation is very western, with ideas and idioms changed to ones that work in English; Markin Powell’s method is more about the feeling behind the words than a literal translation. There are times when the western elements become too much – very modern western-centric grammar, for example – but it’s generally well done. Markin Powell has used italics and description as sparingly as Kawakami uses words so anyone who knows a bit about Japanese popular culture or those happy to research as they go along (this book won’t work as well without it) will find this enjoyable. The times when the description is too long or the occasional repetitions are down to Kawakami.

The reason to read this book (in translation) is to get a sense of Kawakami and modern popular Japanese literature in general. There’s very little to take away beyond that and for a short book it can be a slog to get through, the character development as sparse as the text and taking too long to begin.

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Dorthe Nors – Karate Chop

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Spooky coincidences and horrific happenings.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 82
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27432-2
First Published: 25th September 2008 in Danish; 4th February 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Danish
Original title: Kantslag (Side Stroke)
Translated by: Martin Aitken

In this collection of very short stories (some have called it flash fiction) a person left alone by a potentially mysterious boyfriend watches and remembers a documentary about a missing person who left their wife; a grown-up remembers the stories about his grandmother told to them by their mother and aunt – two children brought up by an abusive parent; and a psychologist looks at her bruises and wonders about the way she gets into bad relationships when she well knows the warning signs.

Karate Chop is a thin book of vignettes about realisations of the self and aspects of society. Told in simple prose, the author’s style is one of subtlety – with her writing set somewhere between the almost vague and small shock, Nors’ collection delivers some poignant endings, some horrible endings, and others that are ambiguous.

These endings result in a book that can at times confuse you. Because some of the stories are easy enough to see through – well, easy enough once you’ve worked out the right amount of thinking you must do – the ones that are a lot less opaque can seem not so successful. It can be hard to decipher whether the more vague pieces are like that on purpose – leaning ever more towards subtlety – or just objectively miss the mark. It could be due to the length – no matter how literary the endings, the shortness of the stories means it can be a bit too easy to forget what came before. Make no mistake – there is something to take away from all the stories – but some will fade from memory a lot quicker than others.

The simplicity of Nors’ prose has been translated well; doubtless some changes have been made to aid the reader not familiar with Denmark but if they have they are hard to see. The text flows well and the translation reads as faithful both to the takeaway of the stories and the phrasing.

Highlights of the collection include Mutual Destruction, in which a man watches a neighbour who has previously ‘helped’ him put animals to sleep when they were ill – where is the man’s family? The Winter Garden looks at the moment children start to realise their parents might just be average; Flight looks at a woman who is close to realising what went wrong in her relationship but incapable of seeing it; and the aforementioned story about the tales of the narrator’s grandmother, Grandmother, Mother, And Aunt Ellen, is exceptional.

Karate Chop delivers more than one punch in the reading experience – the title may refer to a particular story but it could equally have been used for a few others. It is a great little collection that takes less time to read than it does to finish thinking about it.

I received this book for review.

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Shan Sa – Empress

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Reigning for ten thousand years. It may indeed seem that long…

Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-14787-6
First Published: 2003; 2006 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Impératrice (Empress)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Wu Ze Tian, as she would become known to history, begins life as the child of a privileged mother and a well-known but commoner father. After spending some years in a convent she is recommended to the Imperial City; a man who once aided her has found her a position as a royal concubine. Ze Tian finds no favour with her husband, the Emperor, but her ability as a horsewoman attracts the attention of his son who comes to desire her. She agrees to be his wife and thus starts a controversial era wherein for the first and only time a woman will rule China as Emperor.

Empress is an epic, fictionalised, account of Empress Wu’s life from her time in the womb and beyond her death. It’s the sort of book to read if the history intrigues you but you want to begin your lessons slowly.

Sa’s character is a difficult one. In Ze Tian you have a woman who was pulled from her life and put in a position that was both a source of envy and a horrible prospect – to be a concubine or wife was a high position in society, but most of the thousands of women kept in the City for the Emperor’s enjoyment would spend their days waiting for acknowledgement in vain. But you also have a woman who, once she gained power, was incredibly ruthless. Sa has balanced it all exceptionally well. For the most part the kindness of Ze Tian is kept to her early years – admittedly a lot shorter, page wise, than her reign – and her tyrannical decisions to said later reign. Sa does allow for moments of goodness and kind thoughts during Ze Tian’s time as emperor, but considering there is little chance at this point of your feeling any sympathy for the monarch, the author keeps it in the region of self-absorption and reflection. Sometimes this reflection just makes the horror worse, but one senses Sa just had to shrug her shoulders.

Ze Tian made a lot of positive changes in her time, even if many were later reverted. She set up a system wherein the regular person could state a grievance that would be listened to, she adjusted exams for hopeful scholars so that commoners could have a shot at governmental roles. She was a role model for women. Sa gives her what positivity she can but is realistic about the tyranny. Of course there’s always the thought in the background, which Sa addresses in the first person narrative – how much of the punishment Ze Tian metes out is due to any evil versus how much does she deem crucial to the success of her status? The narrative revolves around Ze Tian’s thoughts, everything that happens is couched in its relevance to her, how it impacts her, so, again, Sa ensures you’re getting as objective a picture as you can, at least as far as the limits of first-person go. (The book is limited by this narrative choice.)

Jousting with the graphic violence for Most Gratuitous Aspect is the sex. There’s no getting away from sex in this book; the women in the Inner Court had no choice and neither do you – there’s a lot of it, in various guises, sometimes because it’s a reflection of the facts and sometimes because – unfortunately – it seems Sa has run out of ideas. What’s interesting is that you eventually become numb to the idea of incest and old women having sex with consenting-but-under-pressure-to-do-so teenagers because it’s just so prevalent; and it’s interesting that you become numb because there’s a great possibly that that’s something Sa is wanting you to feel – the conquests were acceptable in the situation and so by becoming attuned, study-wise, to it yourself, you stop feeling so nauseated by it and start to see the societal concepts behind it.

The writing is very poetic. The translation reads well and it certainly matches the poetic nature of historical Chinese writings and artwork enough that you can assume it a faithful version. In terms of the writing’s impact on one’s reading, however, the book is very slow and can be a bit too flowery – sometimes it seems as though Sa is exploiting poetry in order to make her story longer than it should be. There is also a lot of info-dumping, Sa likes to go into meticulous, few-pages-long detail about events that could be summarised in a paragraph, and friends supposedly of many years pop up without you having heard of them before. It’s difficult to remember who anyone is in this book, the repetition makes everything so similar. No one is as important as Ze Tian and it shows.

And this is where we come to the main problem with the book – after a point, about two thirds of the way through, once Ze Tian is firmly ensconced on her throne, the novel becomes a series of repetitions. Ze Tian will worry about getting older; someone will suggest another is out to steal the throne; said accused person is condemned to death; Ze Tian is sad because she liked them; someone turns up in the royal bedroom to help the monarch remain young and energetic; that person is taken away; a pilgrimage or other journey happens; Ze Tian dreams of gods and her goodness… over and over again. Undoubtedly there was boredom to the routine of life at court and in the tedious nature of every action, every breath, having to adhere to etiquette… perhaps it is to show that tedium, and the slow decline of the body, but it’s overdone.

You’re never going to feel sorry for Ze Tian. You’re not going to like her and quite frankly it’s a relief to get out of her head. But if you can deal with the ennui I’ve mentioned, or if you’re happy to skip those sections, you might want to flick through Empress. Ze Tian’s reign was an important one, and if you’re at all interested in history your interest will be improved by knowing about her.

Or you could look for articles on the Internet and be just as, if not better, informed.

But I became a symbol of a corrupt woman… Novelists invented a life of debauchery for me, attributing their own fantasies to me.

This may be ironic.

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