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Tracy Chevalier (ed.) – Reader, I Married Him

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There was every possibility of reading a book that day.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 282
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-15057-0
First Published: 7th April 2016
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2020
Rating: 4/5

For this anthology, twenty-one women writers, some very well known, others less known but no less great, come together to tell various short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular the famous line that comes towards the end.

This collection is pretty special. Not only are the stories on the same theme but on the same sub-theme, the same sentence. It’s true that many of them do not deal closely with the subject itself, but they do all revolve around it, just at different distances.

Reader, I Married Him explores the variety of ideas that accompany all our personal experiences of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester’s union – some look at it in terms of love, just love; some look at it in terms of the thoughts that have been explored in our more modern times of Rochester’s personality and the difficulties with his ‘woman in the attic’, as well as in terms of Jane’s beliefs in herself, and her experiences in childhood. Others look at it in terms of how it might play out today, others in a modern day context in general. Some look overseas, in countries Charlotte Brontë had possibly never heard of, and some look at same sex romances that would have been completely off the table.

The variety is, both by its nature and simply by fact, the best aspect of this book. You get enough stories about Jane Eyre and other characters from the novel to be satisfied with the literary context and classical exploration, and then there are also enough stories that are close enough, too, in that way, which means that the others – far more loosely based – become an excellent palette cleanser and are highly interesting in themselves. (Because, suffice to say, if you’re picking up this book, you’re either picking it up for Charlotte Brontë or for the authors.)

Chevalier’s compiling of the stories has been done well; the contributing editor has arranged them in such a way that even if you tire of any one particular story, you’re still very interested to read the next. And this is no mean feat when there are twenty-one to get through.

No surprise – there are plenty of standouts. Standouts for you, yourself, are necessarily going to depend on what aspect of the exploration intrigues you most, so this paragraph may be more subjective. Standouts in terms of this review include Kirsty Gunn’s Dangerous Dog, a very loosely-based story that centres on a woman who comes across a group of teenagers hurting a pit bull and tries to show them it’s not a horrible creature; Joanna Briscoe’s To Hold, where a woman marries three men for different reasons but loves Mary; the titular Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill, a fictional narrative concerning the marriage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (though they are not named as such); Francine Prose’s The Mirror, which looks at Jane’s story as a repeating pattern in Rochester’s house; Elif Shafak’s A Migrating Bird, loosely-based and concerning a young Muslim student who falls for an effective exchange student who, friends say, will return home; Patricia Park’s The China From Buenos Aires, incredibly loosely based but fantastic, a tale of a young Korean Argentinian woman who moves to America and misses home; Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me which is exactly what you would think it is; and Tracy Chevalier’s Dorset Gap, where a guy joins a literature student on a walk post-pub (public house) visit and tries to emulate her idea, of signing a book for passing ramblers, to poor effect.

Certainly a few of the above stories are better than the others in the paragraph but there isn’t a ‘bad’ one in the whole bunch; it’s simply the case that when you find the one or two that speak most strongly to you, be that in the literary context or otherwise, the others just can’t quite match up to them.

But that is to be expected; with the variety of debates on the various themes and topics in the original, some will speak more strongly to you than others. This is where the more average, more ‘plodding along’ periods of your reading will take place, when you want to be done with your current story so you can see what the next one is like. The book can also seem longer than it is because of the need to reset your expectations so often and so much, what with differences in closeness to Brontë’s work. Inevitably the work you have to do to understand them in context changes, too.

Reader, I Married Him does really need a reading of the source work behind it to get the most out of it; it doesn’t matter whether you read it once years ago or whether you’ve studied it over and over – you just need to have read it. And every reader will take away something different from it; interestingly, if we were to say that everyone’s opinions of the classic are branches of the same tree, then these stories and our opinions of them are further branches, from each of the first. It is effectively a secondary or tertiary source. And it’s a good one.

 
E C Fremantle – The Poison Bed + Podcast

On today’s podcast I’m joined by E C Fremantle (Elizabeth Fremantle) author of The Poison Bed; also Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason, Watch the Lady, and The Girl in the Glass Tower. We discuss changing pen names, a horrific murder case in the Stuart nobility, coping as a new mother in a one-of-a-kind situation, and the historical line between witchcraft and ‘simple’ superstition.

Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

The main episode page, which includes the full episode details, the transcript, and a question index, is here. The podcast is also available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and via RSS.


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In all senses of the phrase, do not take it lying down.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 403
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-92007-0
First Published: 14th June 2018
Date Reviewed: 26th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Frances Howard is in the Tower of London, accused on murder. She has confessed. Now, as she awaits trial, she tells her story to Nelly, the girl assigned to look after the baby. Also in the Tower is Frances’ husband, Robert Carr, charged for the same reason. He too tells his story, of a man who was once the King’s favourite. Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Or are they both doing the same thing?

The Poison Bed is a fictionalisation of a true event in history; Frances – a member of the family in a rivalry to be top dog at court – and her husband were brought to trial for the murder of a lower member of the nobility. Using facts wherever possible, bringing in likelihoods and possibilities where information is debated, and creating elements where there is less or no information, the novel pulls the history towards us in a way that makes the thoughts and reasonings of the time very understandable. The book has been described as a historical Gone Girl and it’s a very apt description – the atmosphere of thriller and the manipulative quality is similar, as is the structure.

The book begins with a sense of vagueness – if you don’t know what it’s about (and the blurb on the back is suitably vague) it can take a couple of chapters to get to grips with what’s going on. Some readers may find this difficult – certainly you might feel like a fish out of water – but it’s something to stick with; the confusion is very fitting and in keeping with the genre, and it primes you for the work you will want to do to get to the bottom of what’s happened and is happening – whilst Fremantle gives you all the information by the end, not leaving you wondering at all, you’ll want to do your own detective work on the fly.

The narrative voices may also take some getting used to. The book is formed of two narratives – Frances tells her story for a chapter, then we turn to Robert, and back again. Frances’ narrative is mostly in the third person but sometimes switches to first – the change is intentional, the extra thinking you do keeps the novel in that psychological zone – and Robert’s is in the first person. The characters also deal with their stories differently; both look to the past but Frances’ is more your usual flashback retelling whereas Robert’s sounds more present. Interestingly, for all that Robert appears to speak directly to the reader, he is more distanced than Frances. However, Fremantle’s use of the third person for Frances permits a highly informative look at her thoughts.

The strictness, as it were, of the narratives – this back and forth between only two characters – is one of the biggest strengths of the book. Constrained (or should that be condemned?) to spend your time with only two of the fair-sized cast of characters hones your focus and increases the darkness. Of the darkness it is almost absolute, with the novel situated in the Tower; despite the numerous time spent in sunnier locations during flashbacks and Robert’s storytelling, the despair of the Tower is ever-present. For her second book, Sisters Of Treason, Fremantle spent most of the novel’s pages in the Tower with the sisters of Lady Jane Grey, weaving a tale that was very dark and foreboding; with The Poison Bed the author has managed to take that further with the addition of the psychological thriller aspect and in this regard the book is absolutely stunning. Owing to the nature of it, the story isn’t always pacey, if you want to take breaks (you may well – these are not particularly pleasant characters) you can; rested assured the narrative will hold your attention even when it’s not speeding along. There is manipulation in the book and the list of those at the receiving end has your name on it.

Moving on to the historical concepts, Frances’ value to women at court as a palm reader begins the look at the balance between witchcraft and what was not considered witchcraft. You will most likely learn something new from this book on the subject, and various ideas under the umbrella subject are done so with aplomb. In regards to Robert Carr being a favourite of James I, Fremantle has looked at the potential of the intimacies in terms of sexual connotations. The novel also looks at the position of women in society not ‘just’ in terms of Frances’ place in it but in terms of business, and reputation both general and more specific to the time.

In terms of the historical event, it is a relief, after you’ve turned the last page, to leave the world The Poison Bed steeps you in. In every way beyond that – as a work of fiction, in the planning and storytelling, the attention to historical detail, its literary merit and overall value – the novel is fantastic. And it is most definitely worth the read.

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Susmita Bhattacharya – Table Manners

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It’s ready.

Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Pages: 168
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-63446-6
First Published: 28th September 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

A woman is irritated by the lady who keeps taking her brother’s wife’s time up with her tales of her abusive husband; a man becomes disturbed by the change in the public’s thoughts as to those of his religion; a couple goes on a trip to Venice before one of them is moved to a hospice.

Table Manners is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of food and meals. But as you might expect it’s not quite as simple as that; the food, a theme of varying degrees in each story, relates directly to human relationships and connections.

Bhattacharya’s collection is super. The writer’s basic concept is to take a person’s interest in food, or the fruit tree that is in a person’s life, or a single dinner, and relate it to an event of long-term happening in the character or characters’ lives where the presence, or lack, of other people has made or is making a mark. The collection is deceptive; after the first few stories you’d be forgiven for thinking that the work is brilliant, but on a small, quiet scale. Make no mistake – you’re simply consuming the appertiser. Once you’re a few stories in, the concepts do effectively leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, becoming shockingly excellent, and this continues for a good while enough that you realise the necessity of the quieter beginning. There are pauses to get your breath back, but the mainstay of the collection is the hard-hitting stuff, with some superb characterisation leading the way. There are a number of errors in the book but whilst they are noticeable, they do not detract from the whole.

The collection is international, with stories spanning a number of continents, showing the feelings and aspects of life as worldwide, as well as those more specific to a few places and the present day.

As to the standouts, three of them are noted above; a special mention must be made for the very first story, The Right Thing To Do, which is told by the sister-in-law of the person whose house the story takes place in, and begins with this:

I push the cup towards Mrs Dalal. As usual, she is crying, caressing her bruised arm. She barely looks up at me but takes a deep sip of the tea. My Bhabhi tilts her head slightly, indicating me to leave. I go back to the kitchen, already worrying about the rice that needs to be cooked before Dolly and Rana come home from school. Then there’s the fish to be cleaned and fried. And the clothes to be brought back freshly ironed from the istriwallah. The chapattis to be cooked. Why does Mrs Dalal turn up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times?

Others include Comfort Food, in which a wife in Singapore is happily making her favourite meal as she does every Friday whilst her husband is out entertaining business associates, only this evening he rings her to ask that she join him. It is an uncomfortable meeting for her. Letters Home shows the emotional journey of a man who emigrates from Bangladesh to Cardiff in our current political climate. And then there is Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, the story of a couple taking an end-of-life holiday during which they discuss difficult moments in their relationship.

Table Manners is beautifully written; careful language, a lot of heart. You’re likely old enough to decide for yourself when you get down from the table, and in this case, you’re going to want to wait until long after the conversation is over.

 
Nancy Bilyeau – The Blue

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Colour shades and shady practices.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 434
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44562-3
First Published: 3rd December 2018
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2019
Rating: 4/5

1700s London – Huguenot Genevieve Planché wants to train to be an artist, but that is not the done thing for women; she steals her grandfather’s invitation to an event hosted by William Hogarth, hoping to gain his support. Instead she meets Sir Gabriel Courtney, a man who seems open to her ideas; the next day he arrives at her home to talk to her and her grandfather and later presents her with a proposition – if she goes to work at Derby Porcelain (as her grandfather wishes) and spies for him to find out the formula of the latest shade of blue the factory are working on (which isn’t her grandfather’s plan) he will see that she gets to Venice where she’ll find people willing to train her in painting. It’s not the best thing Genevieve’s ever heard – she doesn’t want to work on porcelain full stop – but the promise for the future proves too irresistible.

The Blue is a thriller that looks at the extent people might go to in history in order to be ahead of the rest of the game. It also gives time to the Huguenot refugees (as Genevieve says, ‘refugee’ was a word coined in this period) and the political situation between England and France in the time of King George II/Louis XV.

Bilyeau’s attention to research, first highlighted in her Joanna Stafford trilogy, is alive and well in The Blue. The amount undertaken as well as the careful balancing of fact and fiction when fiction is needed for the story, is evident on the majority of pages. The use is careful too, with the detailing abundant yet never straying into info-dumping territory; when the characters discuss contemporary industry, it is always necessary to the story. You’ll learn a good amount about early western porcelain and the creative industry in general. (You just have to keep in mind the areas that are fiction – easily discovered thanks to the author note. Genevieve’s story itself is fictional but it’s woven around many different factual elements to the extent that the majority is true.)

Genevieve is a fair character for the fictional ride – she’s not always ‘strong’ per se, but it’s with good reason (she falls in love, whilst a spy). There are anachronisms involved, mostly in terms of Genevieve’s phrasing – she is the narrator – generally limited to times when the stakes are high.

For the most part the book is fast-paced; it slows down towards the middle when Genevieve starts to like her above-board work, gets used to Derby, and starts to question her role in Sir Gabriel’s plan, but the last third is as swift as an arrow and an absolute riot for it, the truths and lies flying quickly at you as the full extent of the espionage on all sides shows itself.

As well as the main story and the industrial history, Genevieve’s experience as a Huguenot and a close descendant of those who fled from France is given time. As well as the idea of the refugee and the basic history of the Huguenots, you also see the effective cycle of experience as Genevieve corrects those who would call her French, worries about what will happen if France wins the war, supports England wholeheartedly, and so forth. Her experience, her description and thoughts on it, echo in many ways present-day debates and stories of refugees and immigration which brings a nice comparison and particular historical look at the issue.

There are quite a number of proof-reading errors in the book which do detract, but given the research and storytelling, you may find that to be less of a problem than it might have been.

The Blue looks at how something so seemingly simple can create a commotion on an international scale, and it does this not only in the context of manufacture but of many other social and political concepts and issues of the time. It’s informative, and for all its many pages it flies by.

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Gabrielle Malcolm – There’s Something About Darcy

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The world has loved him ardently.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 197
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44556-2
First Published: 11th November 2019
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2019
Rating: 3/5

For over 200 years (since 1813), Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy has captured readers’ and audience’s hearts. Malcolm looks at the character’s popularity from those first readers to the present day.

Malcolm begins incredibly well. Her premise is intriguing – specific yet broad-reaching. She has chosen a casual style of writing that, whilst perhaps out of the norm, makes the book very accessible; for all it is studious, it’s anything but dry.

The first few chapters look into the basics, with some depth, of the interest in Darcy, the social and literary scene and expectations of Austen’s time, and the writer’s influences. Malcolm detours into accounts of people you might not normally associate as influences – theatre and fashion icons for example – and the ways Austen contributed to the literary culture beyond her work. Favourite authors are looked at, favourite books and their relevant aspects discussed with aplomb.

From here, Malcolm moves on to those who wrote after Austen. She looks at Charlotte Brontë’s response to reading Austen’s books and the way her own writing was different (and the way she thought she herself was different – Brontë did not like Austen at all). This is where the book is perhaps at its best, peppered with details. Less appealing are the comparisons between Darcy and later heroes and anti-heroes – for all Malcolm’s analysis, it’s difficult to see where she is coming from in comparing Darcy to Heathcliff and Dracula. The comparison with Mr Rochester is a more interesting debate.

Unfortunately, when the book moves on from the nineteenth century it loses its way. It does look at the genre of romance fiction as a whole through the passing of the centuries and the derision writers and readers find – this is excellent – but it quickly becomes waylaid by summaries of other books. Where Malcolm has chosen to look at Darcy fandom solely in derivative works, her research becomes bogged down by it. Beyond the look at TV and film adaptations, which holds interesting facts, you’d be forgiven for wondering when the regurgitation of book plots will end and the book will move on – the problem is it doesn’t. This said, the first half is well worth reading and fans of Austen will find new ideas of interest in it.

I received this book for review.

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