You see that? Those are hand-knit gloves with all ten fingers. That’s love, right there.
Pattern: made up by me to exactly fit K’s hands
Yarn: Trekking XXL Tweed colour 205
You see that? Those are hand-knit gloves with all ten fingers. That’s love, right there.
Pattern: made up by me to exactly fit K’s hands
Yarn: Trekking XXL Tweed colour 205
It’s 1953 and Donna Lane can’t wait to get out of her small Ohio town and head for the bright lights of New York city, where she plans to make clothes for theatres – there are just a couple things holding her back: graduating high school and taking care of her 10-year-old brother, Will.
A local cereal company is running a promotion, offering customers a real and authentic deed to one square inch of Alaskan land, in exchange for 10 box tops. Will is obsessed with acquiring – and visiting – his inch, a preoccupation which sends the siblings on a 4,000 mile journey into the northern wilderness.
I was captivated by the title of this book, and the cover. You may have noticed that I’m rather interested in caravans and the vintage van on the front of My One Square Inch of Alaska is absolutely charming. I requested a review copy, and Penguin, the publishers, kindly sent me one for free.
YA or not YA?
That is the question – and I can’t answer it. I don’t think this book is being marketed as YA, but the main character is 17 and this is definitely a coming-of-age novel. Plus, nothing happens which I would consider unsuitable for a young adult novel, so– it could be.
One Square Inch is a cupcakes and capri-pants version of the 1950s – I don’t mean that literally, there’s poverty (sort of), homosexuality, sadness and woe. But it’s also quite pretty, like the pictures of elegant factory girls off to make bombs, and some how the story went down without touching the sides. There are sad bits – there’s a piece which, when I saw it coming I thought would be very hard to read – and yet, it wasn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the characters – I was cheering them along the whole way – or the theme. The book just didn’t quite gel for me in some way – I think I just wanted more from it: more passion from someone in the book, less restraint from another, a clearer vision of the scenery on the 4,000 mile journey, a more surprising ending… This is perhaps why I think it would do well as YA; not that younger readers have lower standardsor can’t handle challenging books, but they tend to be less experienced, less cynical, less likely to have seen it before – and I sort of feel like I have seen this before.
A little more about that caravan
I’m not going to claim that I’m a caravan nerd – I’m enthusiastic, but that’s it – so I may be wrong when I say that I don’t think the cover shows the teardrop van described in the book. Not that it matters too much, it’s still an absolutely beautiful cover.
Having traveled with a van, I can tell you that Short elides a lot of the work which goes with one – her characters don’t even ever seem to unhitch, never mind set the steadies, spend half an hour doing a U-turn or accidentally wind up sleeping on a slope. Honestly, caravans aren’t as good for a quick getaway as you might think.
I don’t think these nitpicks are important, but it does capture a qualm about the book: at certain points, something didn’t quite ring true, and I’m not sure why. A couple of times it’s the way Donna reacts to something – particularly in the epilogue, which obviously I’m not going to get into – but sometimes it’s the locale. For me, it’s like watching Grease – the whole thing makes so much more sense when you look at it as a 1970s version of an idealized 1950s than when you’re comparing it directly with Roman Holiday. The nostalgic air, the rose-tinted spectacles, don’t hurt either Grease or One Square Inch and on the whole I think the book is gently charming. As I prefer to know what I’m going into, I’ll tell you: this is a modern book, set in a time the author never lived through. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
I can’t resist describing #36 Treasure Island as a swash-buckling, rip-roaring adventure. First published in 1881, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is available for free on Project Gutenberg and on Kindle.
Jim Hawkins, age about 11, lives with his parents at their inn. A retired, paranoid and drunken sailor turns up and demands lodging. After he dies, Jim finds a treasure map amongst his belongings, and the local squire plans a trip to recover the booty, taking Jim along as cabin boy.
The book is short and easy to read, mostly told from Jim’s perspective. It’s a children’s story – but a 19th century adventure, too, which means that people die a lot and get bits chopped off. I didn’t find it disturbing, but your mileage may vary.
Manly men doing manly things
Treasure Island features an almost entirely male cast – and yet, I don’t mind. It’s an old book, and at the time women didn’t often go to sea (although there were female pirates) also, the women in the book are treated fairly well – they’re minor characters, but competent: both run businesses while their husbands are absent, and seem to expect to keep on doing so indefinitely.
Jim’s mother has a brief speaking part, but isn’t seen again after they set off on their adventure. The other woman is also the only person of colour (that I noticed) in the book – she’s Long John Silver’s wife, and is mentioned only briefly as sharing the running of their tavern and taking it on entirely while he’s away, handling their affairs in Bristol entirely.
I don’t imagine for a moment that Stevenson’s opinions on race would have met modern standards, but it’s interesting that he has managed to portray – in just a couple lines – a competent black woman happily married (I think Silver’s comments suggested the union was happy, although the Squire says that her being a woman of colour is reason enough for Silver to go to sea, which is a strike against Stevenson) and running her own business, something modern TV shows and films seem to struggle with, and period dramas seem to think impossible.
Another oddity, compared to later more ‘progressive’ works, is that characters with disabilities play key roles, and while their disabilities may stop them from doing certain things, they’re not mocked for them or dismissed. Long John Silver, described as having one leg cut off close to the hip, is a very creditable, creepy villain, with his pure self-interest and ability to wriggle out of any situation, and uses his crutch as a weapon and a tool.
Seen it in the movies
I hadn’t read Treasure Island before, but the story is very familiar – we had a video the Storybook Classics version when I was young. I haven’t seen the film for at least a decade, probably 15 years, but I remembered it vividly – although I thought that Silver had an eyepatch (you can probably guess why from his scrunched up face in the picture) and that it was the other leg which was missing.
The film seemed very good at the time – I’m tempted to get a copy and rewatch it, now – and I remembered the vividly as I read the book. It seems to have been a faithful adaption. As I recall it, some of the minor characters were written out, the beginning tightened up, and the rest unrolled more or less as written – high body count and all.
All in all, I enjoyed Treasure Island. While I’ve been critical of many of the books from my childhood I’ve reread, this one made me soppily nostalgic. I won’t say it’s flawless but I do think it’s worth a look.
Courtney Milan is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. I reviewed Unraveled last year, which I think was the first book of hers I read. Since then, I’ve been trying to get hold of more of her books but it turns out that a lot of them aren’t available in the UK yet. They’re ebooks, they’re for sale on a dozen US sites, but as soon as you admit you’re a UK shopper they vanish out of your basket. It’s very frustrating.
So you can imagine I was pleased when I found The Duchess War on Amazon.co.uk for under £3 (as I write this it’s £2.49). I bought it upon the instant and have been saving it for a rainy day.
The Duchess War is a Victorian romance. It’s set, by my estimate, at roughly the same time as Dracula – trains and the telegraph are new, exciting and a little bit dangerous, and the industrial revolution is in full swing.
Minnie is a quiet, self-effacing spinster. She lives with her great-aunts on a precarious income and her only hopes are that she can marry someone who will take care of all three of them, keep her scandalous past a secret, and maybe do a little good along the way. Well, those aren’t quite all her hopes, but they’re all the ones she’ll admit to.
Enter Robert, Duke of Clermont. He’s in town with a a very different set of goals, but getting married isn’t high up his list – until he meets Minnie.
Romance and beyond
Milan’s novels are romances, but they’re not just about love. Love – as Jane Austen demonstrates over and over – isn’t enough to make a happy marriage, nor is it enough to make an enjoyable romance. Historical novels, especially, can get too focused on the love story to the point where they lose all sense of place and time – particularly if they’re not that well researched.
Courtney Milan avoids all these traps – The Duchess War has an interesting but plausible plot, and both characters have plenty of other things going on in their lives. She also conjures up a sense of place well, from details about industrial Leicester to the novelty of train travel. The story – which is clever and charming – is built on solid foundations.
Why do I recommend thee? Let me list the ways
A few of the things which made me squee at the book, hopefully devoid of context enough not to be spoilers.
Small things, perhaps, but I read a lot of romance novels and Milan’s novels are unusual in many small ways. It’s hard to capture – if you loved Joss Wheedon’s Firefly, it’s like that. Firefly was great because it was sort of straight up clever SF TV and yet more. What made it more than another Star Trek wannabe – the setting, the swearing, the characters, the cattle smuggling… – was hard to capture, so I kept telling people just watch it, OK?
Now, here we are again. Milan’s books are brilliant, just read them, OK? And if you want an even cheaper way into her worlds three of her books are just 49p each right now: The Governess Affair, A Kiss for Midwinter and Unlocked. Each is a complete story, short novel length (201, 126 and 181 pages respectively) and I’ve read and highly recommend all three.
In at #62 Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden isn’t a book I was looking forward to. I’ve had a strong negative review from a friend doing the challenge and a mixed review from Alex in Leeds. I also remember reading it ten or fifteen years ago and feeling cheated. It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it might be, but it’s not one I want to reread.
A girl with unusual eyes and a pretty face is born into a poor, unlucky family in Japan. Age nine she’s sold to a geisha-house in Kyoto, to be trained as a geisha. The novel tells the story of her life, from that day forward.
A big lie
There are a number of things which will make me stop reading a book, series or author, and fake biographies are high on my ‘hell no’ list. I’m happy with novels – I love novels, some of my best friends are novels – and lots of novels are first-person story-of-my-life deals. That’s fine. What I don’t like is being lied to and Memoirs starts with a big lie: the first chapter is titled ‘Translator’s Note’, and tells, very briefly, a story of a man half in love with a geisha, who has had the honour of sharing her story with the public.
As this is a novel, written in English by an American, there is no translator to this edition. The first time I read the book, I was about 16 and this just confused me. Now, it pisses me off: I know this is a novel, the author knows this is a novel. So what is this supposed to add, and at what cost? A less savvy reader, myself at 16 for example, may be confused by this note, or take it to mean that the story is true in ways it isn’t: that it was written by a woman, for example, or someone Japanese. They may – as I once did – ascribe more weight to the truth of the history than the book can actually support.
Moreover, Memoirs isn’t a very good memoir. Its focus is so tight that the novel unfolds as though the main character is experiencing it directly – although she entertains important men, generals, ministers and captains of industry, and has about fifty years of hindsight, her commentary on the wider situation in Japan and the world is frustratingly vapid. Most memoirs recognise that the audience won’t be familiar with the time and place, so while even pop stars will include helpful notes like ‘as Germany was bombing London we…’ or ‘it would be another five years before…’ Golden goes the other way, acting as though all his readers will immediately understand which bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, how long the effects of the Great Depression lasted in Japan, why Japan was interested in closer relations with Germany in the 1930s, what they were doing in Manchuria… it’s not all common knowledge, and even if it is, it’s nice to have it confirmed.
This leaves the story feeling rootless – as though it could be set in any era – and doesn’t help me trust the author. And when you’re writing about something which clearly isn’t your own experience, whether it’s history or SF, you need to earn the reader’s trust.
I think this is the crux of my problems with the book, on a meta level: I don’t trust Golden to be right, to be accurate, or to be telling a realistic story. And I have no way to check.
Not the story for me
On a textual level, the book didn’t grab me either. I found it hard to settle into it, for the reasons described, but also found the mix of levels of detail confusing. I suspect that Golden has done his best as there are detailed descriptions of many tangible artifacts like kimono, certain rooms in certain teahouses, jewellery and gifts – to the point where Alex in Leeds likens it to a clothes catalogue – which I suspect are things he’s actually seen, probably in museums or private collections. What’s missing is the sense of place – the things which are hard to get right if you weren’t there. The things which were unlikely but true, poor examples of time and place, like the fact it rarely snows in my part of Switzerland, and we never had a snow day.
The book is sensational and bland at once: the main character has a grand passion, an unwavering love from age 12 or so (which I find unlikely so it’s another strike against the novel in my book) which lasts at least twenty years. Everything she does revolves around this grand love, in a way which just seems so unnecessary. She’s trapped by this love almost as much as she is by the restrictive society she lives in and the slavery she’s been sold into.
Things which are unfamiliar and beautiful are intriguing – it’s one reason why geisha are interesting, both within Japan and abroad. But exotic is entirely a matter of perspective, as I’ve written about before, and to the geisha their lives should be normal. The book doesn’t manage to wear the culture comfortably, to my mind, and the story is perhaps too thin to carry the weight of showing off the culture that the author wants to do, and yet not thin enough to be invisible. I remember reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at school. Set in a Russian gulag, it describes a good day, maybe a really good day, in the life of one of the inmates. Nothing much happens – the plot is so thin as to be invisible – and the focus is very tight, yet it highlights the brutality of the system in a way a memoir might not.
By choosing an extraordinary life, Golden has made Memoirs about the plot, not the setting, and by focusing on the setting, not the plot, he’s done both a disservice. It might have been a more satisfying book if he’d told the story of Pumpkin, an entirely ordinary geisha, but as it stands, the book isn’t one I’d recommend. If you want a good story set in Japan, read something else, I quite like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and if you want to find out about geisha, read non-fiction – perhaps Geisha of Gion, which is actually the memoirs of a geisha, or Geisha by Liz Dalby, an American who trained as a geisha.
Lily’s Christmas break is not going how she planned: she’s bored and lonely. At her brother’s suggestion, she leaves a set of clues and dares in a red notebook in her favourite bookstore.
Dash finds the notebook, and sets his own challenges.
The story unfolds over the Christmas holidays, as the two teenagers share adventures and secrets – on paper. But can real life match up to the stories in the red notebook?
I requested a review copy of this book as I thought it would be fun to read. It looked really sweet – and it is. I enjoyed it and would look for other books by the same authors.
Sweet, like Christmas cookies
I liked both Dash and Lily, which is important to me for a romance. If I like one of the characters, the other one needs to be worthy of their affection, and if I don’t like either, well, who cares what happens, right?
But Dash and Lily are sweet but not in a saccharine way. It reminded me of watching my little brother date, or his friends – there’s that distance which means it’s all charming but not too serious (for me, that is).
However, I think if I’d read it when I was a teen, I’d have been wrapped up in it. Despite the title, it’s never clear what kind of happy ending you should expect – a love match is the most obvious, but friendship is possible too. And I liked that.
I’d also have wanted to move to New York – I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so being able to leave the house and go to the movies without either a 5km cycle ride to the train or begging my parents for a lift would have been a dream come true. New York at Christmas is just double plus yum.
How it was written
The authors have an interesting way of working: they each take a character and email each other chapters of the story, taking it in turns until it’s done. (And then edit the heck out of it, I imagine, but that’s not quite so unusual.)
This is described in the introduction to the book – or it is in the ARC, at least – so I knew about it before I began. As a result, I was on the look out. On the whole, I think it works. The two characters sound a little different, but not jarringly so. As someone who has played lots of writing games, I spotted a few places where I thought one author was deliberately setting up a situation so the other could do the big reveal (well, tiny reveal, usually) which would then push the next chapter along. An example (not from the book) would be one character finishing the chapter by saying ‘and here’s the thing you were looking for!’ so the next chapter can start with ‘I had always wanted a…’
It’s an unusual way of working but I think it’s fairly seamless. I’m not sure I would have noticed if I hadn’t been told – much like the two-artist illustrations in Double Act.
I’m not going to say that Dash and Lily was perfect, or that I’d read it again, necessarily, but it was absolutely charming and I’m seriously considering the other two books Cohn and Levithan have written together: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List.
I didn’t expect to like #75 Bridget Jones’s Diary as I didn’t have particularly fond memories from when I read it as a teenager. Worse, when I picked i up before Christmas, the opening pages annoyed me so much that I put it down and went back to Great Expectations (my bugbear, this book seems about a million pages of nothing much happening and Pip so needs a slap).
Trying not to leave all the unpleasant books until last, I decided to start it again in January, as the book starts and finishes with New Year’s celebrations. I picked it up again, reluctantly, and whizzed through it in two days – I don’t know if I’d recommend it unreservedly, but I can (now) see why people enjoy it.
All about Bridget
Like Pride and Prejudice, which Bridget is supposed to be based on or at least influenced by (there’s a guy called Mark Darcy, whom Bridget compares to Colin Firth’s wet-shirt version, and who was played by Colin Firth in the movie), this is a book about characters, not events. The diary is all told from Bridget’s perspective and, as with Adrian Mole, she’s something of an acquired taste. The voice used in her diary entries is so distinctive that I found myself narrating my life in that voice when I wasn’t reading it. It’s like having a radio jingle stuck in your head.
Partly because it’s a diary (plenty of white space around the entries) the book rattles along quickly. It’s a very well-edited diary, for all Bridget’s wailing she sometimes skips whole weeks and rarely repeats herself in the way actual diaries seem to.
As the novel opens and closes with Bridget thinking over her New Year’s resolutions, it’s a particularly interesting read at this time of year – at least, it is if you’re like me (and Bridget) and can’t resist the urge to solve all your problems with a long list.
A bad example
Like Adrian, I didn’t much like Bridget and don’t want to meet her. I quite often felt sorry for her – she’s stuck because she’s obsessed with finding a boyfriend. All her energies are put into recreating herself in a loveable form (dieting particularly) and the rest of her life is on hold until she does. It’s a shame, really, because she’s got brilliant, funny friends, a decent (by the sounds of it) flat in London, a job in publishing (publishing!) and enough money to binge on clothes and pay for an awful lot of drinks out. It’s like watching the characters in Friends complain about how small their flat is, honestly. Either that or the author just never did the math – but I reckon Bridget is spending upwards of £100 on booze alone in a typical week, never mind all the cigarettes, and apparently without putting herself into massive debt. When you’ve got a job in publishing this is basically the hallmark of success.
I realised, rereading the book, that I did take the story to heart – I read the book about ten years ago, and was rather horrified by Bridget’s life: it seems to be ruined by her constant dieting, complicated plots to get / keep / avoid men and the lies she tells in order to look clever. If nothing else, an added push to avoid these things (tempting though they are) has definitely made me happier. Bridget, you’re an excellent example of what not to do. I salute you.
I picked up All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith when it was on sale for £1.99 in December. I bought it somewhat misguidedly as I thought the three Austen novels covered in it were the three on the Big Read list. They weren’t, so I wound up reading an extra book, which I’m sure is a terrible thing.
All Roads Lead to Austen is a travel memoir with a twist. Smith teaches English Lit, including Austen’s work, at a California university and decided to spend a year’s sabbatical travelling around Latin American holding book groups on Austen novels. She wanted to:
I think it’s fair to put her aims in that order as while the book groups gave shape to her trip and allowed her to meet a lot of interesting people, they didn’t take up that much of the book.
Jane Austen’s works
As I was reading Smith’s book as part of a personal Austen challenge, I was a little disappointed by the shortage of Austen-related information in the book. I enjoyed reading the book group discussions, and they certainly brought up points which I hadn’t considered and vocalized things I’d half-noticed, but I wanted more out of it. Knowing that Smith was a PhD and (by her own description) serious Janeite, I was hoping for an in depth analysis of each novel somewhere in the book. That didn’t happen.
However, I think that the level of discussion would have been enough for most people – if I’d been reading Smith’s book without reading the source novels I would probably have struggled to remember all the details that are required for a deep textual analysis. So while I was disappointed, that’s probably only because my expectations were off-kilter: you shouldn’t have to read 3 other books to enjoy this one, and Smith has rightly written with that in mind.
Travel by book
Each book group discussion is just one part of Smith’s visit to a particular country, and I really enjoyed her travel writing because she’s so fixated on books. In every city she visited, Smith made sure she found at least one book store or flea market, talked to local people about books and asked them about local authors of note. And then she wrote it down.
While I may never visit the beautiful places she wrote about, I can read the authors she encountered. Her anecdotal style gave information about an author alongside a reaction from the person who recommended them and descriptions of her visit to their country. It’s an ideal combination for piquing my interest and I probably highlighted every author she mentioned with the intention of adding their work to my wishlist.
I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to any armchair travellers with a passion for books. It’s an odd mix, but if you think of it as Latin America on 10 Books A Day rather than All About Jane Austen then you won’t be disappointed.
One of the things I loved about the book were the beautiful illustrations marking each new country and chapter. They are absolutely charming and you can see some of them on Smith’s site as well as read an excerpt from the book and find out more about her project.
Back on the list and the last Austen novel in my mini-challenge, #40 Emma by Jane Austen is available for free on Project Gutenberg.
I hadn’t been looking forward to reading Emma – I’ve read it before, seen the films and all that and didn’t take to the main character. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and though I didn’t much care for Emma at the start, and didn’t love her at the end, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. Don’t expect me to reread it for another 15 years though – there are so many other books to enjoy.
Emma tells the story of Miss Emma Woodhouse. At 21 she’s as charming, accomplished and pretty as she needs to be. She’s the highest-ranking female in the village society, so she doesn’t need to do much to charm and is sure of always having a secure home – something which can’t be said for her contemporaries. The story follows about a year in the lives of Emma, her friend, Miss Harriet Smith, and her neighbour, Miss Jane Fairfax, as all three young women struggle to find a safe – and hopefully happy – place in the world.
Yes, it’s about marriage
As the novel makes clear, there aren’t a lot of choices for a gently born young woman of the time. One can live on an inherited fortune; depend on relatives; make a pittance as a governess; or marry. Honestly, if those were my choices, I would have married imprudently years before I met K. Not that I don’t love my family, but how else is one to get out the house?
Emma, fortunately, has her father’s household to run, visiting in the village and charity projects – but I can see why she might be a bit bored. When a she is introduced to Miss Smith, she takes her under her wing and immediately begins trying to find her a husband.
Class and social commentary
Perhaps just by showing her world as it was, Jane Austen can shock us like no one else. Miss Smith is the ‘natural daughter’ of unknown parents – that is to say, all that is known about her is that her parents weren’t married and someone cares enough to pay for her schooling at an indifferent school in a small village. It’s the school-owner’s responsibility to introduce Harriet to the local society and hopefully get her set up in some way.
The contrast with Emma’s secure, valued, high-status position is obvious and deliberate. I struggled to untangle the various social strata but the difference between Emma and Harriet is clear. The levels of society Emma can expect to reach through marriage are much higher than for Harriet, and Emma’s refusal to admit this fuels much of the drama in the novel.
The whole thing is really rather sad as Emma says – and knows and is right – that if Harriet marries a certain level of person, the best her teacher might have hoped for, then their friendship will have to end. While Emma can visit the homes of those a few rungs down to socialize or those at the bottom to offer charity, the vast middle is unavailable to her so Harriet would be swallowed up and vanish if she marries into it.
It’s a strange thought, but not an entirely alien one – I’m sure everyone has experienced the way friendships can drift apart when one person takes on a new role, gets a promotion at work which sets them apart, becomes a parent or moves away. And yet, with such limited society and so little to do, it seems a shame for either woman to give up a close and pleasant friendship simply because of who they’ve married.
The husbands aren’t bound by these problems, and whoever Miss Woodhouse marries, he will be perfectly able to continue meeting whomever he likes ‘for business’.
Now, I don’t say that Emma and Harriet are as close as Jane and Lizzy are in Pride and Prejudice, or that the era wouldn’t have allowed sisters to visit, under any circumstances, but it is A Real Shame, I think, no less because it’s probably being enacted in houses around the world, right this minute.