My Week in Books: 4th May

I’m excused for being two days late because it’s Bank Holiday weekend so everything’s out of whack. Plus I’m back in the land of no wifi which makes sorting out blog posts a little more challenging. On the plus side it makes reading a lot more productive. Without the whole of the internet to distract me all evening long I’ve got nothing to do but read. So this week I finished three books.

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NORTHANGER ABBEY by VAL McDERMID

In a nutshell: A modern retelling of Northanger Abbey which could be worse, but could be a lot better

Where did I finish it: On the number 52 bus

How long: Two days (it might not be good but it is easy to read)

Favourite quote: The deliriousness of deferred pleasure

Would I read again: Maybe if someone were holding a gun to my head

Why oh why do I keep doing this to myself?

Jane Austen should not be messed with. I learnt this the hard way reading Joanna Trollope’s bastardised version of Sense and Sensibility.

But a month later and I dive right back in to The Austen Project with Val McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey.

To give her her due it is a lot better than Joanna Trollope’s. The main thing in her favour was that she didn’t feel the need to stick quite so religiously to the plot. The whole narrative was moved from Bath to Edinburgh and I laughed out loud when I realised how she’d updated Catherine’s midnight ejection from Northanger Abbey for being too poor. That was a stroke of genius.

But that’s all I have to say in its favour. And I could go on and on about all the things I didn’t like. I will however limit myself to my three biggest annoyances.

First (and this was true for Sense and Sensibility too), enough with the shoehorning in of every mention of Facebook and Twitter possible – we get it, it’s in the 21st century, whoop-de-do – but do you have to ram it down our throats?

Secondly, the whole book feels a little like an adult trying to be ‘down with the kids.’ Like a teacher trying to rap. This gives us sentences such as ‘that’s just an example of how I am for my buds. If anyone dissed you, I would be all over their faces.’ What is that?!?! And text speak? Really? When was the last time anyone seriously used @ or l8r?

Thirdly, and again this goes for the whole project, why haven’t they changed the ages of the characters? In the 19th century by your early 20s you were considered a spinster but in this day and age people aren’t getting married until their 30s. I’d find it a whole lot easier to believe Bella and James getting engaged or Eleanor and Edward getting married if they weren’t still so young.

Jane Austen is wonderful and her books are still relevant today; a modern reader can get just as much enjoyment from Pride and Prejudice as someone did when it was first published. But I think it’s time for publishers to admit defeat with bringing her in to the 21st century. The characters might be applauded for their contemporariness but the situations are 19th century through and through. And they’re best left there.

THE HIVE by GILL HORNBY

In a nutshell: The Jane Austen Book Club meets Mean Girls, which a dash of Animal Farm

How long: Two days

Where I finished it: On the number 52 bus, my new favourite reading spot

Favourite quote: She did suffer so from catering anxiety

Would I read it again: I might read the committee meeting minutes again for the comic value but I doubt I’d read the whole book

I’m having a hard time forming an opinion on this one. The beginning promised so much. It was incredibly easy to get into and there were several occasions in the first few chapters where I was laughing out loud (which is unfortunate when I do so much reading in public places). It also had a hint of something meatier to it. Underneath the humour were the stirrings of a serious subject matter – a social commentary on the darker side of the life of a middle-class housewife.

By about a quarter of the way through though I was losing my patience. With every new page came a new character. The book could have been twice as long and still the lives of all those women wouldn’t have been satisfactorily wrapped up.

And despite the plethora of characters there wasn’t a single one who was likeable – Georgie was too righteous, Bubba too stupid, Melissa too perfect, Rachel too wrapped up in her own problems to listen to her daughter and I haven’t hated a character like I hated Bea since Aunt Norris. She had me literally punching the page in anger.

There was also a serious lack of overarching plot. I kept thinking I’d hit upon the key narrative – the bullying of Milo, the electing of Melissa as Queen Bee, the secret of Bea’s contempt for Rachel – but it all came to nothing.

I was also very confused by the random use of the word ‘lesbian’ throughout the book. The first time I came across it during a conversation about tea of all things (‘Who’s for tea? Coffee? Lesbian?’) I thought I was going crazy. Or the editor had had an accident with find + replace. By the second time it came up I started wondering if it was meant to be significant in a Freudian slip kind of way. But turns out that it’s a nickname for herbal tea. Who knew? This really could have done with some explanation.

Am I glad I read it? Sure. It’s not as if it required a serious commitment. Two days of my reading time spent on an easy to follow, occasionally humorous book. I can’t complain about that. Especially when it has such a pretty cover. But maybe that’s the thing about this book – pretty on the surface, but not really offering that much substance.

MORANTHOLOGY by CAITLIN MORAN

In a nutshell: A collection of her favourite columns; everything from euthanasia to Ghostbusters

How long: Three weeks ish off and on

Where I finished it: Sat in the garden being shunned by the cat

Favourite line: Please don’t make me pick just one

Would I read it again: When I’m having a reading slump it’s the perfect kind of book to just dip into

I love Caitlin Moran. Actual true love. I have yet to find anything she says that I disagree with. If you’re left-wing, pro-feminism with a slightly off-the-wall sense of humour then this is the book for you.

It strikes just the right balance between serious and superficial. One minute you’re reading about her lust for Benedict Cumberbatch the next it’s an article on the threat of global warming. She’s recounting a conversation about her husband’s lack of a pet name for her and you turn the page to find her defending the welfare state. But it never gets difficult to read. It’s all written in a way that you could believe she was just chatting to you in the living room. Well, not so much chatting as monologuing. I think if you’re in a room with Caitlin you might have a hard time getting a word in edge ways. Not that I’d want to interrupt her.

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