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Mavis Cheek – Dog Days

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Separating for the kid.

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1990
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Pat is leaving Gordon, buying a new home, getting a dog for her daughter who has said if they must lose Daddy she wants a dog, and starting life afresh. She should have done it years ago – she should have never married him. Love isn’t on the cards; Pat has no intentions of another relationship, she’s just looking forward to being herself again.

Dog Days is at once a light and easy-going story, and an honest look at the breakdown of a marriage, a person’s resurfacing after divorce into the person they used to be. At times very blunt, Cheek’s book is one that delves into things that are difficult to talk about whilst nevertheless remaining breezy. The Times has said ‘Mavis Cheek seems to have cracked the conundrum of how to write decent novels with popular appeal’, and that’s a good way to sum it up.

Rachel gave me my pass through life. She was, anyway, the only reason I was in this situation.

Cheek is open about the problems that can come with having children – whilst it’s obvious to the reader and to Pat herself that Rachel’s birth did not exactly change Gordon (more that it allowed her to see who he was), it was in having Rachel that Pat felt bound to her then boyfriend and so an accidental pregnancy led to her life going quite a different way than planned. Gordon was not the one for Pat – he’s stingy, having plenty of money but never treating his wife nor his daughter, and only cares about himself. He turns on the charm when he wants to manipulate his daughter to get what he wants.

But equally, as much as Cheek is honest about the affect of children and the way a person should think beforehand as to whether they truly do want to be a parent, she is open about how much happiness they can bring. Rachel doesn’t cause Pat to be exuberant, it’s more a case that Rachel’s intelligence continues to baffle her mother, in a good way, and the girl, older than her years it seems to her mother, is a good companion. Whilst Pat would not have stayed with Gordon if it weren’t for Rachel, nevertheless Rachel is obviously a good factor in Pat’s life.

More than children, Cheek just speaks of relationships. When asked by her solicitor, Pat struggles to find a tidy reason for getting a divorce; this is where Cheek’s exploration of resentment and sadness comes in. Pat can’t sum up her reason in a sentence. She can’t say she was abused, or that Gordon cheated, and so begins a long, excellent, section wherein she narrates various episodes in her life that show why she wants to leave her husband. Cheek shows how it isn’t always cut and dried, and that listing reasons doesn’t always work.

Amongst this exploration is some humour. It’s the sort of easy joviality that keeps the pace steady and the pages turning on the occasions when what you’re reading about is quite bleak. A lot of it revolves around Pat’s distaste for dogs and her slow journey towards becoming a dog person:

Eventually, with considerable effort on my part, we selected the weakest and wettest of mongrels in the pound. Rachel wanted the racy little cross between a Jack Russell and a something (a very something), but it had far too many of Gordon’s traits for my liking. Small and wiry with bright snapping eyes; a prominent, urgent profile and – I could sense – totally selfish motives behind its cocky, winning ways. I had lived with one like that for too long in its human form to burden myself with another, albeit four-legged and linked to me in animal slavery. Whereas the wet-looking mongrel had not an ounce of spunk left in it.

Brian, the dog of the title, doesn’t really do much, he’s no Scooby Do or Lassie – the title is more about the time itself, those days. Brian’s the subtle presence, there for Rachel, there for Pat once she thaws a bit towards him, and a menace once or twice when Pat’s too sure he’s the right dull dog for her.

The main thing to bare in mind is Pat’s illogical misunderstanding which spans a good few chapters. There comes a point when Pat mistakes someone for being in a relationship and it gets a bit grating because it’s blatantly obvious that they aren’t and therefore comes across as a lengthening device. Once cleared up, Pat notes it should have occurred to her, but that doesn’t atone for the frustration.

This aside, Dog Days is a funny, half-escapist, half-brutal-with-good-reason read. It’s honest, it’s realistic, and yet its status as an easy page-turning book never wavers.

I received this book for review on behalf of the publisher.

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Elizabeth Gaskell – Cranford

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No man’s land, gender form.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1851-1853
Date Reviewed: 8th April 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Our narrator – whose name we will learn in time (this is no Du Maurier) – takes trips to the town of Cranford periodically and informs us of the goings on. Most of the residents are women – men tend to disappear – and a certain propriety functions. You’ve people like Deborah – faithful to the works of Samuel Johnson – and you’ve the richest woman, Mrs Jamieson, who struggles somewhat to retain feelings of wealth in a town where money never grows on trees.

Cranford is a novella, one of three that looks at the fictional town; it deals with many different subjects. Akin to a long-running soap opera in terms of its lack of action and overall excitement, the book is more an escape and ripe for pleasant Sunday afternoons.

This said there are two ‘sides’ to Cranford. Certainly the surface dressing and the majority of the content is frivolous – we could well imagine people in Gaskell’s time sitting down to the most recent chapter (the work was first published as a serial) but there is a second side akin to Gaskell’s work in North And South. It may take a while for the side – the social commentary – to become apparent but to put it simply, the book includes a small-scale study of poverty. One can assume Gaskell was wanting more contemplation for her readers, in fact one could assume she was wanting to say something without jeopardising their interest – she looks at poverty in general and how other people work to help each other, whilst simultaneously never implying anyone lacks money. Needless to say the book can be read in a variety of ways; Gaskell seems to want you take away what you will.

Away from this there’s little to comment on in depth. The book is all about its humour – every now and then you may laugh out loud but the emphasis is on subtlety. Here, again, Gaskell doesn’t want to alienate her serial readers – the characters are women and that’s great, but we’ll have some fun at the expense of them on occasion. The male characters, likely deliberately, are all good guys, men that can match the women in wit and personality and thus stay in town.

The writing is strictly okay; you can see why, perhaps, Gaskell is not considered on a level with her friends Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens, but it does the job.

That this review is so short should clue you in to what you can expect from Cranford – fun, yes, and escapism, but a lot of average moments and a sense of convenience. Reading the book is like watching Neighbours, just without the divorces and deaths. It’s something to read whilst you’re deciding what to read.

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Eloisa James – When The Duke Returns

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When baring your knees would result in people thinking you were Tarzan.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: ???
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-24560-2
First Published: 25th November 2008
Date Reviewed: 14th October 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

…So the Duke of Cosway turned up to Lord Strange’s party and bundled Isidore away. Now he’s back, however, and looking worse for wear with his un-Georgian way of dressing and general indifference to social mores, Isidore’s not sure she wants him. Simeon agrees with her that an annulment is best, but there are things to see to in the meantime, namely the stench in his house due to his parents’ lack of care. As Isidore comes to see, Simeon’s not bad looking for his lack of wigs and hair powder, and as Simeon comes to see, Isidore may not be the docile wife he was expecting but he likes her all the same.

When The Duke Returns is the fourth book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series and continues straight on from the previous, Duchess By Night.

This is a good book, on par with the rest if not the best, pardon the rhyme, though it isn’t quite as funny. After a while of thinking I realised it’s meant to be funny, but the subplot of the sewage pipes leaking all over the house leans more on the side of icky. It’s true the start of this series saw cow pat discus, but that was simply silly and not so literally wretched.

The characters, however, are fair as I’ll be repeating later on. Isidore is a fun heroine if misguided and silly, and Simeon, whose first name I’m using regardless of the fact his society says it’s not correct, is a breath of fresh air, somewhat literally, in a world where all heroes up to now have been clad in breeches. His liking for simple clothes means he’s a bit more modern and understandable in the context of our present day. The rest of the characters, the heroes and heroines of the other books ensure we’ve something of a soap opera on our hands and round it off with a wig on top. (The secondary plot here, the lead-in for book five, is Jemma and Elijah. As such there is quite a bit of time spent on them and sidekick Villiers.) The servants also get their time, in particular butler Honeydew whose not-quite-subtle attempt to get his master and mistress sharing a bed affords a smile.

I’d like to address the views of Buddhism and the ‘exotic’ here as I expect some will wonder about what reads as offensive – James writes in context, placing the sorts of views people had in the 1700s into her fiction so the characters are racist and prejudice on occasion as befits their period.

The relationship is average but the sex scenes are well written – comparable to the previous book. The writing on the whole is excellent, a couple of info-dumps aside, and as always you can trust that most of the background context is factual with some artistic license thrown in for good comedic measure.

But the pattern established early on in the series is very noticeable here. Indeed the characters leap off the page, the sex occurs after a fair period of courting, the history is good to read and the books are hilariously funny – but all stories suffer from a lack of conflict when it comes to the conflict – a conflict-less conflict, if you will. The couples argue over… well, this is my point. They argue over nothing at all really, and it’s most pronounced here in When The Duke Returns. Isidore is angry because she wants more say, Simeon changes from being pretty free and easy to wanting some control in domestic affairs, but neither convinces. Yes, they clash a bit and get angry over things as every couple does, but the question of divorce seems more an author convenience, a ploy to keep the book going. They have sex, say it’s not working, talk of divorce, and the cycle begins again.

Ultimately the book is a good read with a pinch of ‘get to the point already’ where the previously fun Isidore becomes annoying and the previously interesting Simeon becomes insipid. The ending is fun but too silly and wrapped up as quickly as Simeon gets wrapped up in Isidore’s skirts.

When The Duke Returns is an okay addition to the series and the sex is certainly steamy, but the format is wearing.

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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
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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