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Horace Walpole – The Castle Of Otranto

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J K Rowling would like the moving pictures.

Publisher: N/A (I read Project Gutenberg’s edition)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1764
Date Reviewed: 1st September 2015
Rating: 3/5

In the Medieval period Manfred, Prince of Otranto, arranges a marriage between his sickly son, Conrad, and the lady Isabella. On the day, Conrad is killed by a giant helmet, leaving Manfred with no heir, and an heir he must have if his line is to continue ruling and the prophecy that Otranto be returned to its rightful owner overruled. But Manfred’s new plan of marrying Isabella himself is to be upset by the arrival of a peasant and a ghost or two.

The Castle Of Otranto is a novella in the style of Shakespeare. It’s prose but high in drama; its value lies mostly in its Shakespearian context.

This is because there’s really not much to The Castle Of Otranto and albeit that this was the first gothic book ever written, it pales in comparison to most others. There are paranormal elements, not scary enough likely even for readers of the time, and these elements are never explained, they just happen and Walpole finishes his tale without explaining the whys and hows. The book is incredibly dramatic, there are info-dumps, and the story is minor. Not all that much happens, at least in the context of what we’d call action today, or even what Austen would call action, and a lot of the dialogue is composed of rambling.

What does work, then, is the imitation of Shakespeare. The Castle Of Otranto is to all intents and purposes a prose version of a Shakespeare play if Shakespeare had written about a man called Manfred who wants to keep his castle. The style is very Elizabethan – the first edition had Walpole pretending he was simply the translator of an old text – and the drama far more akin to Shakespeare than any fainting ladies of the Georgian period. The dialogue is full of thys and forsooths… actually it may not include a forsooth, but that word is a good one to use because I think everyone can imagine the period commonly associated with it.

The value of Walpole’s work lies in theatre – this book would make a great performance on the stage of the Globe. Otherwise, however, there is not much to be taken from it; I’d recommend it only to those with a prior interest who want to study drama and/or 1700s literature. There are veiled references to Henry VIII, there’s silliness, and there are many convenient relationships that have most certainly been planned. This book is contrived; it’s meant to be.

The Castle Of Otranto is fun but wearing. Read it if you love The Bard, pass on it otherwise.

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R J Gould – A Street Café Named Desire

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Marlon Brando’s over for coffee.

Publisher: Accent Press
Pages: 291
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-783-75257-7
First Published: 22nd December 2014
Date Reviewed: 17th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

When his wife Jane springs a divorce request on him, David is lost, but not for long. The school reunion he attended, at which he realised bullies will always be bullies and people change beyond recognition, led him to meet Bridget for the first/second time and they got along rather well.

A Street Café Named Desire is an oft-funny book, and a romance told from a male perspective, that has a lot going for it but doesn’t quite reach its potential.

Gould has a way of writing that can pull you in when you’re sitting somewhere noisy. His writing style is comfortable, the humour a mix of straight-forward and subtle – guaranteed to put a smile on your face – and the characters steeped in reality. David is very British, just an average chap trying to live his life which he was doing well until his narcissistic wife told him she was having an affair. He may not be the most thrilling of people but that’s part of the point – he shouldn’t have to be – and regardless, he’s very likeable.

The humour is all British and, if you’re British or know a lot about the Isles, you’ll ‘get’ it. Mishaps, children old enough to know what’s going on, orange paint that isn’t orange actually. The humour is never forced, it rolls out naturally.

The first half of the book is super. The plotting is good, the characterisation works well, and the way Gould has written the children is just great. Rachel in particular isn’t ready to let her mother get away with running off with a friend; in many ways Rachel takes on what David ‘should’ have been doing, getting angry on both her own and her father’s behalf and refusing to see her mother. It is a good part of the story because it shows both the difference between David’s relatively passive behaviour and his daughter’s assertiveness, whilst also delving into the teenager’s hurt and therefore the way the wronged parent has to comfort others whilst they themselves are in pain.

Bridget, too, is a fine character, and matches David’s contentedness with vividly-coloured passion. The attraction between them is something Gould shows brilliantly and Bridget’s no-nonsense responses to David’s worries read as true.

The issue, then, comes in the second half. Whereas the first half is rather excellent, the second half is full of info-dumps and minor, two-line, characters who are given lengthy backgrounds. It slows the story, which gets lost in amongst the detailing, and gives you a lot of information about people and situations there is no need to know anything about. Secondary characters, too, have sections given to them that don’t have much or any baring on the plot at hand.

A Street Café Named Desire is fun, true to life, and promising. It’s a fair read, and worth it, but needed more editing.

I received this book for review from the author, who I’ve met.

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Angela Thirkell – The Brandons

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One could have a nice rest if they would all just go away…

Publisher: Virago
Pages: 380
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08970-3
First Published: 1939
Date Reviewed: 23rd July 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Mrs Lavinia Brandon, a youngish widow, finds people very difficult. Most everyone adores her to the point that they won’t leave her alone in peace to wonder about what she’s going to wear to dinner. It’s all very tiring and she really would rather not have to listen to readings and upsets and so on. When her aunt-by-marriage asks Lavinia and her children to visit – so that she can assess their suitability for inheritance over another relation she’s never met – they go grudgingly. No one wants the old house. Francis prefers live as usual, Delia loves learning about death. And out of the woodwork comes Mr Grant, the fabled relation, to adore Lavinia. It’s going to be a sadly eventful summer.

The Brandons is a very funny novel, set in the fictional county of Barsetshire created by Anthony Trollope, that has a bit of a plot but is all about the characters. There are many characters to keep track of, but keep track of them you do because Thirkell makes every one memorable in their own way and makes a point of giving them all ample opportunities to make you laugh or sigh. The author gives you some leeway to make up your own mind but this is a book in which the writer decides who you’re going to like and makes it so; she has full control of her characters. This may signal a problem in other books, but here it’s magnificent.

To be sure you’ll be wondering whether anything you’re reading about is going to go anywhere but you get used to it pretty quickly. The threads that are tied at the end are the only ones there were to tie to begin with and Thirkell never pretends it will be any different. You’re here for the ride.

Speaking of rides (there is a fairground in the book), it’s a good thing to know that this book, whilst not outdated, is very set in its time. Beyond the problematic words – words that have since gained a sexual connotation that in Thirkell’s time were quite innocent (there’s actually an entire paragraph that out of context reads as explicit!) – there are words and concepts used that we’ve since confined to history. There are illegitimate children and ‘children of shame’ who are termed as such many times because it was an issue as far as the 1930s were concerned. (Thirkell reserves comment on this point: due to her style of writing one cannot ascertain whether she is speaking personally or simply in terms of the people she has created.) There is the use of ‘half-caste’ which, whilst not used with disdain for the people it describes, is prevalent. So normal a word is it to Thirkell that she even uses it to describe a dog.

So this book definitely has to be read in context. And it’s a hilariously funny book with a fair amount of black humour. Delia’s obsession with death and disease; Mrs Brandon’s disinterest that’s obvious only to a few; Mrs Grant’s constant referencing of Italy, which is so superior to the England she left; Amelia (Miss) Brandon’s thought that idling is awful, so said as she sits in bed as she has for weeks for no real reason. The book practically begs quotation, so here we are, each block a different extract:

“But I would certainly have come to the funeral,” Miss Brandon continued, ” had it not been my Day in Bed. I take one day a week in bed, an excellent plan at my age. Later I shall take two days, and probably spend the last years of my life entirely in bed. My grandfather, my mother and my elder half-sister were all bed-ridden for the last ten years of their lives and all lived to be over ninety.”

“I have only just thought of it!” Mrs Morland suddenly exclaimed in her impressive voice, pushing her hair and her hat widely back from her forehead with both hands. “We are all widows!”
“So we are,” said Mrs Brandon, looking round distractedly as if she might see a few more somewhere, “but not what I would call widows.”
“I suppose,” said Mrs Morland, “the longer one is a widow, the less one is a widow. Or is it that one just has it in one or else one hasn’t?”

Mrs Grant said Hilary must get his hair cut and there was a delightful old custom in Calabria by which young men and maidens spent the night under a tree on the night of the full moon and drew lots with the bristles of a hog who had died a natural death, and whoever drew the longest bristle died in childbirth within the year.

As for the prose, it is good. There are places that read awkwardly, grammar-wise, and a few places wherein the editor may have been out for tea and scones at the time and more interested in those than the text (issues that would be picked up by today’s editors) but on the whole it’s easy, comfortable, and welcoming.

Everything is pretty simple and laid out in the open, in fact the only thing that may leave you wondering is Mrs Brandon herself. In reading this book you can rest assured that the only real thinking you may have to do will revolve around Mrs Brandon’s interest or lack there of, and even that won’t take long. This is a book for a lazy day, a book during which you just want to pick up your embroidery, relax, and have a laugh; the book is a manifestation, of sorts, of what Mrs Brandon hopes for, indeed if she could just read this book and do nothing else she’d be in her element.

The Brandons is one book in a saga but it stands by itself. It lets you enjoy the simpler things, life as it was some decades ago. It’s just a good, solid, read that asks for little and offers little, and yet provides in spades.

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Helen Lederer – Losing It

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The romp that’s partly set in a swamp.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 457
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-26764-5
First Published: 12th February 2015
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Millie is in dire straits. She’s got debts to pay off (bailiffs waiting), her daughter is in Papua New Guinea researching periods, and her worries are causing her to add to the weight she already carries about her body. Desperate for money, she agrees to her boss’s proposal of a weight loss pill trial (good for their magazine) and begins a journey that will take her literally miles.

Losing It is Lederer’s highly comedic first novel. It’s all about the situation and the humour but there’s also pause for thought on the impossible demands people place on others.

Millie is desperate, and for this reader at least, the story runs quickly, not unlike Millie once she manages to get her personal trainer under control. Whether you will read it this way cannot be said, but it felt rather appropriate. A lot of the humour is silly – jokes about Papua New Guinea should not be taken seriously and there is the sense that such humour should be viewed in the context of Millie’s mind.

Millie is a very likeable character who is understandably finding it hard to cope with the demands. The daughter who wants her to fly around the globe right this moment because she needs her hair tongs; the editor holding her hostage to weight loss; the too helpful neighbour who wants to join her in the tantric workshop. In an intentionally bizarre world, Millie pulls through. The story may be over the top but Millie is a realistic character. She’s someone any reader will be able to relate to.

The weight loss isn’t easy. The impossible goals set by the zealous diet pill company and the constant lowering of payments mean that whilst Millie often goes to great lengths to loose, and does meet some goals, she understandably fails at times. Lederer shows well the way pressure can impede progress, the way one has to do things for the right reasons. In a book that’s all about the laughter, there is much to be found about empathy.

Losing It takes the weight loss industry, invisible gastric bands, soups no one should be eating, and has fun. It goes to the extreme in a way that allows you to read about a serious subject without feeling at a loss (pun unintended) and has a lot of appeal. Take it with a pinch of salt (more food than Millie’s allowed) and enjoy the journey (better your armchair than three aeroplanes and a dodgy car).

Set aside the carrot sticks and opt instead for this book. The diet pill company would be proud.

Keeping my promise to tell you what was in the bag I received at the party, I can say that the item was a box of ‘pleasure enhancer’ pills for women.

I received this book for review from the author and publisher.

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Eloisa James – An Affair Before Christmas

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An affair to remember, because it is between a husband and his wife.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 386
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-24554-1
First Published: 2007
Date Reviewed: 20th November 2013
Rating: 4/5

Poppy and the Duke of Fletcher have been married for four years. They started their wedded life in love, and they may still be in love, but the marriage has gone sour. Does Poppy love him? – Fletcher does not know. Certainly she hates having to be intimate with him. With Poppy’s mother ruling her daughter’s head, and a society that expects a man to be unfaithful, it’s going to be a difficult journey if there is to be no divorce.

An Affair Before Christmas is the second book in James’s hilarious duchess series that sees the continuation of the many couples’ lives in the background whilst focusing on the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher.

James’s characters are, once again, magnificent. It is true that these Georgian nobles might indeed scandalise even the most scandalous of real-life Georgians, but it is rather obvious from the start that James’s work isn’t your standard historical romance. The ladies and gentlemen do everything you ‘expect’ them to do, and then go and behave particularly ahead of their time in a way that isn’t quite unbelievable, but is certainly a whole lot more entertaining than reality. Once in a while the entire plot will get a little too silly, but again, that is half the fun. Make no mistake – the covers may suggest a lot of sex and nudity, and that’s really quite correct, but it is far from the main takeaway of the book.

Whereas Roberta of Desperate Duchesses had her own mind but was rather naïve, Poppy’s naivety is similar yet vastly different. In Poppy there is a budding scientist just waiting to be allowed into university, which of course will never happen; a woman who if she can just separate her mother’s thoughts from her own, will be quite the popular person. She may be silly, but she’s endearing all the same.

The Duke of Fletcher isn’t far behind, indeed he is only slightly less well drawn than Poppy simply because as a man in a male-led society he already has an advantage. The cautious reader will love Fletch, the handsome duke who could have anyone he chooses but is not interested in being unfaithful, and the way his success in his career is aided by Poppy, even though she actually has little knowledge, is particularly appealing for the modern reader. Make no mistake – James writes for the modern reader, no matter how obvious that may sound.

The writing is great, and befitting of the time, if not quite historical. There are a few errors, modern American terms that could be categorised as certain English dialects but not ones that are relevant to the characters, but they are used more often in the narration rather than in dialogue.

The themes are both historical and eternal – it is less likely today that a woman would know nothing of the pleasures to be had during sex, but it is all too common for communication to break down in a marriage. Poppy’s mother is both the Georgian matriarch would believes a woman should obey her husband, and an example of the eternal stereotype of the interfering mother-in-law. All these clauses come together to form the bulk of the content.

However the themes do take their toll on the narrative. The romance in this book, the active love between the characters (as opposed to the feelings themselves), does not start until the book is nearing its end. The miscommunication is there throughout, and Poppy’s first (bad) ideas of how to deal with her husband dominate the book, leaving very little time for the couple once they come to realise what went wrong. Of course it is lovely (and predictable, which is why this reviewer isn’t worried about spoilers) that the book ends with the happy couple, but when so much time later on is taken up by the secondary characters it is hard not to wonder why the book was marketed as Poppy and Fletch’s story. This ultimately means that sex ends up taking what’s left of that short space of time which, while expected, does mean the resolution is even shorter. That said, given the reason for the estrangement, perhaps it makes sense – it’s just that it doesn’t particularly make for a great story structure.

Beyond the mother’s rule, which, yes, does seem strange given the four years, there is as aspect of Poppy’s lack of desire that may irritate the reader, and the pun here is most definitely intended – Poppy suffers an allergy that renders a lot of her lack silly. But it does depend on the reader. If you can believe the miscommunication would extend to Poppy’s silence over it you may be okay, likewise if you view James’s decision as one concerned with comedic value. Otherwise it may just render the book too over the top, the pun here not intended, to continue.

It should be noted that whilst Christmas is specified on the cover, the book isn’t confined to the holiday season. While it may seem better when read beside a tree, there is enough of the story based in summer to make it an option at any time of year. The book could be read as a standalone, but the reader will appreciate it much more if it’s read in sequence.

An Affair Before Christmas isn’t quite as strong as the first book, but it is well worth the read. The characterisation is brilliant, the comedy is laugh-out-loud, and it’s good to have the same background setting written about from another angle. The secondary stories mean that you’re looking forward to the next book very early on, which in this case isn’t a bad thing.

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