Raphael Selbourne’s Beauty is captivating. I loved this novel and resented all interruptions, particularly during the last 100 pages or so.
Set in Wolverhampton, a city in central England, Beauty tells the story of Beauty, a young, abused Bengali Muslim woman, trapped in a miserable and threatening family. Beauty’s gradual understanding of the non-Muslim world and her personal transformation beginwhen she is forced to participate in job training in order to preserve her state benefits. Suddenly thrust into a new, confusing environment while still being pummeled at home is confusing and frightening, but Beauty takes note of the outside world and ultimately opts to take some risk. Two confused and immature English men show up to help her at this time of great crisis in her life. Other strangers are not so kind, and then there deeply flawed people who nonetheless step up to the plate.
That’s the premise of those wonderful novel. There are characters with unsuspected depth and courage, and there are some dreadful people on the other end of the spectrum. Their interactions set a fine and highly interesting pace for this book. At the center is Beauty, a damaged young woman raised to fear and condemn everything outside her family’s milieu. But, under immense pressure, she observes everything through increasingly interested eyes. The process is fascinating. Selbourne has created a unique character and a very rich story.
I had forgotten how wonderful Barbara Pym is! Quartet in Autumn, oddly enough, seems to have been a comeback novel after Pym had gone unpublished for 15 years. Whatever the back story, Quartet in Autumn reveals and then weaves together the lives of four oldish co-workers as they face the uncertainties of retirement, financial difficulties and uncertain health. Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman at first seem as uneventful and unremarkable as their names, but Pym carefully introduces bits and pieces of their past and present lives. This is not an elderly rom-com, but it is the story of four idiosyncratic older adults who live on their own and who don’t appear to have much excitement in their lives. They know each other and their foibles through working together, and a loyalty develops among them. As it happens they are not entirely on their own. The way they help each other and try to understand each other makes for a warm, thoughtful book.
I am so glad I read it, and I highly recommend it!
I loved Janet Flanders’ A Murder of Magpies, a clever mystery set up London’s publishing world. Samantha (“Sam”) Clair is a marvelous protagonist. Sam is an established, somewhat jaded middle-aged editor with few illusions about her authors. Because she is a woman, middle-aged, competent and unflashy….. Well you can imagine how she is frequently treated and ignored. When a friend goes missing, Sam she proceeds with curiosity and the help of her equally accomplished and exasperating mother and a rumpled detective. Sam’s reactions feel so very human and she looks at things just a little differently because of her own experiences and intellect. The London setting and the politics of the publishing and fashion worlds supply additional substance to this fun mystery. Janet Flanders is clever, funny and charming, and deftly inserts sly feminist touches.
This is the kind of mystery I particularly like. It has great characters with unexpected depth, courage and talents. The settings are interesting, as is the plot. As it happens, the fact that A Murder of Magpies is a mystery is less inportant than the characters and how they interact with each other and their environments. This is a fun, decidedly non-noir story, and I recommend it.
Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane — Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times. I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book. Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day. Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times. Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living. They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes. Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well. Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different. She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence. Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.
I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments.
S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain. Plague Land has an unwilling hero. Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith. When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.
In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death
The wonderfully insightful review I had written of Denise Mina’s outstanding Garnethill has somehow vanished. I’m sure it is my fault; I probably pushed the wrong button somewhere.
Anyway, this is a great and unusual murder mystery set in a seedy, struggling Glasgow. This was Denise Mina’s first novel, and it was also the first book in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen O’Donnell is compelling protagonist. Maureen has had a tough life, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better when her married lover is found murdered. She is worried for herself and her brother and starts getting curious. She doesn’t really know how to investigate a crime, but she keeps poking around and thinking it through. This is one of those great books where a very flawed and undisciplined character is thrust into a dangerous situation and thrives! I rooted for Maureen O’Donnell every step of the way. Her good heart, her curiosity and her previously untapped intelligence and good heart make her a stellar heroine. There was enough hanging at the end of the book to suggest that the other two books in the Garnethill trilogy will be equally compelling.
Samantha Ellis is a playwright, journalist and avid reader of novels featuring intriguing women protagonists. It is a fine book that discusses Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Predjudice, Gone with the Wind, Valley of the Dolls, Franny and Zooey, and a host of other classics;and that is the feast we have been given here. Ellis, the British born daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees, populates her book, How to Be a Heroine – Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, with an energetic roster of literary heroines. Some, like Elizabeth Bennet, are pretty much completely wonderful without being annoying about it. Others, like Scarlett O’Hara, are pretty reprehensible but their boldness and determination still take your breath away. Many are insecure and of course most of them have been dealt a bad hand in life. Ellis does a masterful job of looking at all these girls and women and their stories as she describes her own efforts to break free of a confining family and learn to be bold. Ellis’s views change as she grows and makes her own way. Indeed her defense of Mrs. Bennet as an inherently practical woman has considerable merit, although I will always have a soft spot for Mr. Bennet. In any event, Ellis increasingly loses patience with the “good girls” and is more inspired by the brave and the bold, even if they are self-centered and obnoxious and their behavior is outrageous.
This book made me wish I had read certain classics, such as Anne of Green Gables. I don’t think I’ll read up on Scheherazade, but Ellis’s evaluation is intriguing. Ellis’s discussion of all these powerfully drawn heroines also gave me pause in some cases — perhaps my initial readings were too glib. It is definitely time to reread a few of these great books and to try at least a few of them for the first time.
Most importantly How to Be a Heroine reminded me how important it was for me to be able to read about strong women and their stories. They inspired me and caused me to think outside the confines of my own life. Feminism didn’t just happen — millions of us were inspired by reading about strong girls and women who dared to be brave and rescue themselves. Hopefully How to Be a Heroine will give you the same powerful memories of your own reading adventures and obsessions.
In the 1930’s, the English novelist D.E. Stevenson wrote a warm, funny book about village life. The millieau of Miss Buncle’s Book is familiar to readers of E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels and the genre of village mysteries. There is no murder here, but the village is faced with the mystery of who wrote a novel that describes the village and some of its more prominent citizens all too clearly. Stevenson empathizes with the undisclosed author and her genteel poverty. The books’s humor largely lies with the reactions of some of the more self-absorbed and pretentious members of the community to their inclusion in the book. Their outrage is hilarious. There is an undeniably warm and cozy quality to this book, but it also has an interesting and sometimes surprising plot line and a brilliant take on how people perceive themselves and others. I recommend this book as a satisfying and clever read.