Tag Archives: fiction

To the Sea

New Zealand crime thriller about family secrets

Content warning: family violence, coercive control, physical abuse, sexual assault, disability, trauma

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley. The eBook cover is of a woman in a long black dress standing on grassy sand dunes before a sea and stormy sky.

“To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley is a crime thriller novel about Ana and her family who live on a coastal New Zealand property they call Iluka. At 18 years old, all Ana has ever known is the house, pine plantation and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In her family, everyone has a role to play: Ana and her mother Anahita manage the housework, her grandfather Hurley builds furniture, her uncle Dylan looks after the land and her aunt Marina organises artist retreats to supplement the family’s otherwise self-sufficient existence. Everything they need is at Iluka and there is no reason for Ana to ever leave. However, when she meets a man on the beach one day who seems to know who she is, and photographer Nikau on an artist retreat takes an interest in her family, Ana begins to ask herself questions like why she has no father. As the narrative shifts between Ana and her mother Anahita 20 years earlier, the answers to Ana’s questions grow more and more deadly.

This was a dark and tense book that showed how insidious and entrenched gender roles and violence can become in a family. Crutchley juxtaposes the sinister events of the books against an beautiful if unforgiving landscape, and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the harsh coastline. It is a bit strange to write this, but there was considerable creativity in cruel ‘punishments’ meted out by Ana’s grandfather and some of the scenes feel etched into my memory. At the heart of this story is control, and as the book progresses it is gradually revealed why Hurley and, by extension, Anahita, are so obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in Iluka. This book is an excellent reminder of how two siblings who grow up in the same family can have radically different experiences. The different ways that Dylan and Anahita relate to their father highlights the diversity in how abuse and control can play out, even under the same roof. Crutchley prompts to the reader to think about the meaning of safety and how far is too far to keep a family ‘safe’.

Although overall this is a strong novel, there were some parts that did not feel as strong as others. Some of Ana and Anahita’s chapters probably weren’t necessary to the plot and could have been pared back to quicken the pace of the book. I also thought that some of the peripheral characters like Nikau felt a bit less developed. While I appreciate we were getting the story largely through Ana’s eyes, I think some of the later events would have felt more significant if the characters were more fleshed out. There was also a reveal at one point about a character’s identity which I had guessed way, way earlier in the book and I wasn’t sure that story arc added much either (except perhaps to reinforce the idea that people are awful and the outside world should be shut out completely).

A tense and well-written book that explores in depths the dynamics of an insular family.

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Where the Crawdads Sing

Novel about social isolation and finding your place

Content warning: child neglect, family violence, sexual violence

This book had generated quite a bit of hype following its release and I had a few people recommend it to me. The audiobook met my parameters (not too long) and after making a deal with my husband last year to go running 3 times a week, I have had plenty of opportunity to listen to audiobooks. Around the time I bought this audiobook, I stumbled across this rather damning 2019 article that (in addition to containing spoilers about the book) revisits some historic claims about the author’s ex-husband and his son while working as conservationists in Africa.

Image is of “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. The audiobook cover is of a person paddling a kayak on water between two dark trees below a big, apricot sky.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens and narrated by Cassandra Campbell is a historical novel about a young girl called Kya who grows up in marshlands in North Carolina in the 1950s. The novel alternates between Kya’s early life and a murder investigation nearly 20 years later. When she is 6 years old, Kya’s mother leaves her and her siblings to the care of her abusive father. One by one her siblings leave, until it is just Kya and her old man together in the shack on the edge of the marsh. For a time, the two of them begin to form a bond and her father quits drinking and takes an interest in teaching her how to fish in his boat. However, when a letter arrives that illiterate Kya is unable to read, things change for the worse and soon Kya is all alone in the marsh. As the years pass, her few interactions with the people of the nearby town Barkley Cove are cruel and exclusionary, and soon she realises that she can only rely on herself. However, when her brother’s old friend Tate strikes up a friendship with her, she is unsure whether she will be able to open her heart and trust someone again. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, local police investigate the suspected murder of local star footballer Chase.

This is a compelling book full of the pain and loneliness of a young girl abandoned by her family, and the delicate hope she has that someone might be able to love her. Kya’s repeated rejection by her parents, her siblings, her town and her lovers is heartrending. Owens counteracts Kya’s extreme isolation with the solace she draws from the natural environment around her and the very few friendships she cultivates among the locals. I’m not sure if there is a word for nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced (if there is, please comment!) but there is something quite compelling to me reading about natural sciences in the mid-20th century. I think perhaps the romanticism of going to remote places to observe the world around you and contribute to the knowledge of humanity. Anyway, Owens certainly captures the salve the wilderness can be to the modern world. I also really enjoyed Campbell’s narration. There were elements of her style that actually reminded me of Moira Rose from the TV series “Schitt’s Creek“; something about the vowels and the clipped enunciation.

However, there were a lot of elements of this book that I found either trite or unrealistic. One of them was Kya learning to read. I think having read books like “A Fortunate Life“, and reading the far more realistic depiction of illiteracy in “Unsettled Ground“, I wasn’t quite sold on Kya taking to reading and writing so quickly being taught by Tate. Absolutely people can improve and gain literacy as teenagers and adults, but it is not the breeze that Owens makes it out to be and I cannot recommend enough the SBS TV series “Lost for Words“. I also found the murder mystery/court trial portion of the book far less engaging than Kya’s experiences growing up, and I found myself tuning out until the story jumped back in time. I also wasn’t sure about the Jumpin’ narrative arc: Kya’s friendship with the African-American owner of a petrol store (gas station for American readers). It just felt very tropey to me, and like a lot of these types of stories, Jumpin’ seemed to just be there as a plot device to solve problems for Kya in a very one-sided friendship.

A listenable story with lots of points of interest, but with some parts that were either dull, questionable or both.

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Sula

Literary novella about friendship between two African American girls

Content warning: encouraging suicide, trauma

At the end of last year, I was deep into my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this book was in my pile. I can’t quite work out where it came from. A second-hand bookstore? The Lifeline Book Fair? Borrowed? It doesn’t have any prices on it to give any hints. I’m wondering if perhaps it just arrived in my street library one day. Anyway, I have read a few books by this author, and this one won the 1993 Novel Prize for Literature, so I was keen to check it out.

Image is of "Sula" by Toni Morrison. The paperback book is resting against perforated metal behind a charred piece of wood. The cover is white with a handful of red fabric petals and a pair of scissors.

“Sula” by Toni Morrison is a novella about two African American girls called Sula and Nel who grow up together in a poor black neighbourhood called The Bottom in Ohio, USA. Although inseparable, Sula and Nel have vastly different home lives. Sula lives with her sensual mother Hannah and magnetic grandmother Eva, with a stream of men, boarders and children coming through the house. Nel, on the other hand, has a much more straight-laced upbringing with her mother Helene who was in turn raised by her strict Catholic grandmother. The book starts in 1919 with each chapter a subsequent year, with sometimes one year passing and sometimes several, until 1965.

This is a deeply complex and at times almost surreal book with incredibly strong feminist themes. Morrison explores the intense and fraught relationships that develop between mothers and daughters, between grandmothers and granddaughters and between friends. I really liked how she tested the different types of love with betrayals, resentments and blame on both sides. Sula and Nel’s different approaches to men and relationships proves almost fatal to their friendship and it takes time and understanding before what was lost can even begin to be reconciled. The book has an interesting perspective because despite being set in America and The Bottom developing as a community in the wake of emancipation, the only mention of white America is at the very beginning of the story. Morrison provides some historical context to the segregated community and opens the novella by describing plans to turn the neighbourhood into a golf course.

I found that Eva and Shadrack were the two most fascinating characters, and despite their respective disabilities and trauma serve as the truthtellers of this story. A provocative character with lapses of indecency and his introduction of National Suicide Day which encourages rather than prevents suicide, WWI veteren Shadrack is nevertheless tolerated and accepted by The Bottom. He provides an interesting counterpoint to the main story as well as a unique lens through which to observe Sula who later becomes a similar type of outcast. Eva also appears to see right through Sula and Nel, and despite her own very idiosyncratic life and questionable decisions, passes easy on those around her. She is especially scathing of bystander apathy and those who “watch”. She proves that on the other hand, there is nothing she isn’t willing to do for herself, her home and her children – even if her ethics appear somewhat misguided.

An intricate novella with some very unique characters that still feels fresh nearly 40 years after publication.

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Desperate Spring

Novel about Algerian women navigating life in a newly liberated nation

Content warning: suicide, family violence, sexual harassment, gender inequality, miscarriage, mental illness

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time back. I always like to browse the world literature section because it’s an ongoing goal of mine to read books by authors all around the world. This is the first book I’ve read by an Algerian author. As I was choosing books from my shelf last year for my Short Stack Reading Challenge, this one caught my eye and into the pile it went.

Image is of "Desperate Spring" by Fettouma Touati and translated by Ros Schwartz. The paperback book is resting behind a navy and white scarf. There is a very small blue and white tajine in the foreground. The cover is of a troubled looking young woman sitting at an outside table drinking coffee in a busy urban environment.

“Desperate Spring” by Fettouma Touati and translated by Ros Schwartz is about a number of Algerian women from different generations all connected by family and marriage. In the wake of the Algerian war of liberation, the traumas of past conflict and the tensions of the present create a challenging time for young women who must navigate traditional social values and their ambitions for education and independence. Faced with the choice between pursuing education and the cost of social acceptance, or accepting a marriage proposal and sacrificing independence and in many cases physical safety, the story follows the lives of these young women and how gender inequality undermines all their decisions.

This was a fascinating and heart-breaking book about a difficult era. I really liked Touati’s use of different sisters and cousins to explore and compare the consequences of their choices. When the opportunity arises for Fatiha to pursue further education, she eagerly seizes it, ignoring the pushback from her family in an attempt to distance herself from the horror inflicted by her traumatised father. However, she finds herself adrift and alone in a society not yet ready for independent women and unable to escape the pain of her past. Her cousin Yasmina also doggedly pursues her dreams of becoming a doctor, but her more stable upbringing and concession to tradition creates space for a little more happiness than her cousin. Yasmin’s sister Fatma, after completing some education, decides to marry rather than continuing her studies but her seemingly gentle young husband proves to be as entitled and violent as many other young men. Their cousin Malika, who grew up in Europe with more social freedom but with an extremely controlling mother, struggles to find her place in the world but is bolstered by the connection she makes with her cousins back in Algeria.

An intricate and unflinching book, and although in many ways it filled me with sadness and empathy for these women in impossible situations, this was an excellent introduction to Algerian literature.

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Love & Virtue

Novel about friendship, sex and betrayal living in a university residential college

Content warning: sexual violence, relationship power imbalance, possible suicide

I have been doing significantly more running recently, so I have been getting through audiobooks a little more quickly than usual. I have seen this book being recommended and when I saw it was available as an audiobook, I got a copy without even finding out what it was about.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “Love & Virtue” by Diana Reid. The cover is of a two-headed pink and red dove, designed like a crest, against a forest green background. The dove has a sword and six love hearts on its chest, and above the heads floats a pink love heart with an eye in the centre.

“Love & Virtue” by Diana Reid and narrated by Emma Leonard is a novel set in a university residential college in Sydney. Scholarship student Michaela arrives in Sydney for her first year of university to live at the women-only Fairfax College. From Canberra, Michaela is a little set apart from her much wealthier friends from Sydney private schools. However, she throws herself into O-Week and campus drinking culture and soon makes friends with confident and opinionated Eve who lives in the room next door. They party together and have deep conversations about things like philosophy, misogyny and privilege. However, when their friendship is shattered by betrayals on both sides, Michaela finds herself having to reckon with the events of the past year and the harsh reality of campus life.

This is a fresh and authentic exposé of what it is like in the microcosm of a residential college in prestigious Australian university. Nearly 15 years ago I moved into a residential college myself and I was surprised at how much of the ritual and culture (except, of course, the ubiquitousness of social media now) still rings true. Drawing on her own experiences as a recent graduate, Reid’s story realistically explores the brittle friendships that form in these environments and the competitiveness and elitism among students. Toxic cultures on university campuses has been increasingly the subject of media storms with my alma mater (an elitist term right there) no exception. In her book, Reid explores the events that lead up to Fairfax’s own media storm and how the stripping of Michaela’s agency is almost worse than the trauma she can barely remember. The reader is asked to consider the morality of writing and publishing a story that is not your own, and the inevitable loss of control associated with either remaining anonymous or coming forward in a #MeToo moment.

At the same time, Reid explores the taboo of a student/professor relationship; slowly wearing away the gloss and power of an older man until what is left is just a man, banal in his mediocrity. I liked that Michaela was not a perfect character. She makes some ethically questionable decisions herself in both her studies and her relationship, and Reid captures the complexity of an 18 year old oscillating between extreme youth and mature intelligence very well. Leonard’s narration initially had a bit of a newsreader vibe to it but after only a chapter or two she found her stride and I found her very compelling with a bit of wry humour to her voice.

While I related a lot to Michaela’s shock of an essay mark in the 60s after coming from high school, I didn’t find the parts of the book about her studies, her quest for constructive feedback and her conversations about philosophy with other characters as interesting. I completely understand that the author was drawing on her own studies, but whereas the conversations with Eve about privilege were dissected internally by Michaela as either extremely insightful or downright hypocritical, the musings on philosophy did not really serve to move the plot or character development in the same way and felt more contrived. I found myself tuning out during Michaela’s conversations with the professor, and while her early conversations admitting her ignorance were believable, her intellectual sparring only a matter of weeks or months later seemed less so.

I think the pacing was not quite there either. Michaela puts an enormous amount of significance on a handful of individual events and courses, and seems to have an equally enormous amount of spare time where not a great deal was happening. I felt like either the sense that university is a blur of classes, working, studying, partying and meeting people could have been better captured, or a lot of the long conversations that weren’t contributing much to the overall plot could have been cut back.

I am enjoying reading books about ambition at all costs, and I thought that this book captured modern campus culture, what it means to be a victim and the spectrum of privilege well.

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Blue-Skinned Gods

Novel set in India about a boy believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu

Content warning: suicide, family violence

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “Blue-Skinned Gods” by SJ Sindu. The eBook cover is blue with stylised lips, nose, eyes and eyebrows in gold.

“Blue-Skinned Gods” by SJ Sindu is a novel about a young boy called Kalki who lives in an ashram with his parents and his aunt, uncle and cousin Lakshman who is also his best friend. Kalki was born with blue skin and his father trains him as a spiritual healer. People come from far and wide to receive blessings from Kalki, believing he is the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. To prove his divinity, Kalki must past three tests. However, as Lakshman begins to doubt his authenticity, and his home life begins to deteriorate, Kalki finds himself asking whether he is truly a god, and if he isn’t, then who is he?

This was a fascinating book about power, belief and control in the context of a family. Sindu takes the real phenomenon of children with facial differences and genetic diversity being worshipped as gods by their communities and explores what the reality of such a life might be like. This is at times a very challenging book thematically, because the power Kalki’s father (‘Ayya’) has over the household is almost unshakeable. Sindu provides a realistic insight into how family violence can gradually escalate, how dangerous coercive control and emotional abuse can be and how difficult it can be to escape. Tied into this is the ashram itself as not only a place for locals to pay respects and seek blessings from Kalki as Vishnu’s avatar, but as a commercial spiritual retreat attracting international visitors and generating income as a result.

Kalki is an innocent, open-hearted character who, despite living in such a restrictive environment, demonstrates a huge capacity to love and accept people for who they are. Sindu introduces lots of diverse characters including the lovely Kalyani, a transgender girl, and later the many types of people Kalki meets in New York. I really liked how Sindu explores Kalki’s sexuality without ever pinning him down to a single label. Kalki’s relative innocence and lack of worldliness leaves him vulnerable to exploitation, and his attempts to understand more about his identity and make sense of his past are underwhelming as a result. Going back to Sindu’s focus on spirituality, I really liked that she examines the human desire to believe in different contexts and how tied belief can be to a tangible personality. Without giving too much away, one of my favourite parts of the book was Sindu turning an adoption stereotype on its head.

While I liked almost everything about this book, I think the ending was the only part where I felt a little let down. For almost the entire book, Sindu had left the reader with a measure of uncertainty about Kalki’s identity, and I think I would have found a slightly more ambiguous ending more satisfying.

A creative and surprising story that tackles some difficult issues and challenges preconceptions about identity, faith and family.

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Unsettled Ground

Family drama novel about parents, poverty and isolation

Content warning: themes of control, parental death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. This is actually the second book I have read by this author and I was looking forward to it.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller. The cover is a collection of colour flowers and fruit against a black background that on closer inspection appear to be wilting and rotting.

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller is a novel about twins Jeanie and Julius who unusually, at age 51, still live at home with their mother Dot in a small rural cottage in England. However when their mother suddenly dies, Dot’s carefully balanced, hand to mouth existence begins to crumble around them. The twins begin to realise just exactly how many secrets their mother was keeping from them, and how much she was keeping them from the rest of the world.

This is a disquieting novel that really resonated with me. When I was 18 years old, I lived in the West Midlands in the UK for about 6 months with relatives in a rural area, and Fuller really captured that village setting perfectly. Fuller unpacks in an incredibly realistic way how unnavigable society is for people who are disadvantaged, and examines in close detail the practicalities of life without access to a car, running water or electricity. I thought that Fuller handled writing about literacy difficulties especially well, and watching the recent TV documentary “Lost for Words” shortly afterwards helped me see just how accurately Fuller captured the stigma around lack of literacy but also the workarounds people develop to get by. The other thing I really liked about this book is the relentlessness of the life administration, even and especially in death, and how Dot doing everything for her children really left them unequipped to cope. Fuller pushes this scenario to its extreme, exploring each individual vulnerability to its limit while still remaining well within the realm of possibility.

While the setup for this book was extremely engaging, I’m not sure that in the end it landed. Fuller tiptoes around Dot’s character, and while I appreciate leaving some things to the imagination, there is never really much speculation about why she limited her children’s interaction with the outside world so much. Throughout the book, Jeanie and Julius learn more about their mother’s personal life through those closest to her, but never really why she had absolute control over the way the home was run and made absolutely no contingency plans whatsoever. Of course I accept that this happens all the time in real life, but in many ways Dot was the most interesting character in the book and we got only the faintest spectre. I also appreciate that people fall between the cracks, and it is hard to know what truly goes on in someone’s home. That being said, none of Dot’s friends seemed to think it was particularly strange that her two adult children in their 50s lived at home with her and had next to no life skills whatsoever.

Fuller proves again that she is a master of exploring the intricate and disturbing minutiae of an isolated life and if the ending is not full of drama, the journey certainly is.

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The White Tiger

Novel about ambition and inequality set in India

Content warning: graphic death

This book was a Man Booker Prize winner and I picked up a copy ages ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. I actually tried to start reading it a while ago but wasn’t quite in the right headspace, so put it back on my shelf where it sat for even longer waiting its turn. Sat, until, I saw a trailer for the new Netflix adaptation. There’s nothing like a film adaptation to motivate me to read a book, and I was pretty confident this was going to be good.

Image is of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. The paperback book is sitting in front of a redbrick wall next to a crystal tumbler and a small bottle of rum. Above the objects embedded into the wall is a small gold figure of the Hindu god Ganesh. The cover is white with large stylised writing in black and red and letter Is dotted with orange tiger eyes, with an image of an orange car striped liked a tiger.

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is a novel set in India about a young man known as Balram who gets a job as a driver for a wealthy family. Structured as a series of dictated letters recorded over a number of late nights, Balram, a successful entrepreneur, decides to write to a Chinese Premier who is visiting Bangalore about how he rose from poverty to success. Of key importance is how Balram secured a job driving for the young heir Mr Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam, and it quickly becomes clear that Balram’s path to fortune had some morally suspect hurdles.

This is an incredibly clever book with an utterly charming protagonist. Balram has a keen natural intelligence, only limited by his experiences and education, and his commentary about business and politics is an excellent example of dramatic irony being used to comedic effect. However, Adiga’s novel is also a piercing commentary on the inequality caused initially by colonialism and cemented by corruption. His use of metaphor describing roosters in a cage never rising up against their masters who slaughter their friends was chilling, and even more so every time Balram’s grandmother writes to him demanding he marry and promising to make him a chicken curry (which Balram pointedly refuses). There was also an interesting queer subtext to this book that is only ever hinted at (like Balram referring to his former boss Ashok as his “ex”) and for anyone interested, Fernando Sanchez wrote a detailed essay about this subject.

However, alongside all the levity in this book comes some very challenging topics. Adiga does not romanticise poverty, and there are some very difficult scenes in this book including each of the deaths of Balram’s parents. When Balram moves to Delhi with Ashok and Pinky Madam, the living conditions of drivers are shocking, and almost as disheartening as Balram’s realisation that his life is likely never going to improve. A large theme of this book is betrayal, and in this context, Adiga challenges the reader to consider the morality of Balram’s ultimate actions, and whether they can truly be justified.

Regardless of how brilliant this book was, there were some elements that I felt could have been done without. Apart from Pinky Madam’s rather minor role, there are not a lot of women in this book and the way Balram and other drivers speak about women was grotesque. I felt that the film, while remaining faithful to the book, smoothed out some of these rougher edges and gave Pinky Madam a much larger role. It also made the excellent choice of casting a woman in the role of the politician known as the Great Socialist.

A bold and innovative take on the rags to riches theme that has been adapted into an equally excellent film.

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Gulliver’s Wife

Historical fiction inspired by “Gulliver’s Travels” from the perspective of his wife

2020 was a tough year for authors with new releases and unfortunately this was another book that missed out on its due publicity. I first heard about this author through her amazing cookie art. She is also a really lovely person and sent me a gorgeous note and gift when my wedding was postponed last year. It’s a beautifully designed book with bronze foil and I was really excited to read it.

Image is of “Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater. The paperback book is resting in a bed of purple irises. The cover design is of dark red orchid-like flowers and greenery and a small brown bird with bronze foil around the edges.

“Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater is a historical fiction novel that asks the question: while Lemuel Gulliver sailed around exploring previously uncontacted lands as depicted in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels“, what did his family do without him? Moreover, it asks what did his family do when he comes home after years of being missing, presumed dead, telling stories of tiny people? Set in London, UK, in 1702, this book follows his wife Mary and his daughter Bess as they navigate the change his return brings to their home’s dynamic, the financial impact his presence has on their lives and their increasingly strained relationship with each other.

This is a meticulously researched book about life as a woman in 1700s England. Using the tension between Mary’s lack of individual rights as an apparent widow and the family’s increasing economic needs as a framework, Chater explores what options are available for a woman of Mary’s background and station, and how they are further limited when her husband resumes his position as head of the household. Choosing midwifery as Mary’s career was a really clever choice: one of the few roles for women with minimal male influence. I thought that the interaction between midwives, surgeons and the church was really interesting as well as the lenses through which decisions are made about who was best placed to handle the work of delivering babies. Mary is a fully rounded character with hobbies (gardening), a love interest (not her husband) and

One of the most powerful elements of this book was the mother-daughter relationship. With utmost sensitivity, Chater teases out the complexities of the way Mary and Bess relate to each other, and how they are at once too close and too distant. Bess idolises her father, and I thought that there were some interesting questions posed about whose responsibility it was to disabuse her of reverence. Should Mary have been more frank with her and risk further teenage derision, or should Bess have been more realistic and let go of her childish ideas about her father’s promises? I really liked the way their relationship evolved over time and how space was made for a new type of respect. Alice, the family’s sole domestic worker, is a great counterbalance to the tension between the two as well as having her own complex family background.

One ever-present challenge for historical fiction is being as true as possible to the era while while still writing for a modern audience. I think that for the most part, Mary’s tolerance for others and openness in relation to social issues is done really well. A career as a midwife creates more room for Mary to be exposed to a variety of different circumstances and creates a bit of distance from an otherwise very religious, patriarchal society. However, there were a couple of situations in which I thought Mary was perhaps a little too understanding for a person of her time.

A creative take on a classic novel. Unlike other works of historical fiction that have used classics as inspiration, I think that this novel has a very clear purpose and prompts the reader to consider what life may have been like for the people literary heroes left behind.

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Emma

Classic Jane Austen romance novel

Content warning: child grooming

I have read some, but not all, of Austen. I saw the trailer for this adaptation that came out last year and it looked fun. I can’t remember exactly when but I picked up a copy of the book from the Lifeline Book Fair, it was sitting on my shelf, and since I like to read books before I watch the movie, I thought I’d better get to it.

Image is of “Emma” by Jane Austen. The paperback book is resting in the corner of a wicker basket that also has a green teapot, scones, a purple and white napkin, a purple Jane Austen’s House Museum bookmark, a bundle of lavender and a small bowl of plum jam.

“Emma” by Jane Austen is a romance novel whose eponymous heroine Miss Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy young woman who lives with her eccentric hypochondriac father in a large home in the bustling English village of Highbury. With her mother dead and her sister married and moved out, when Emma’s old governess Miss Taylor marries as well, Emma finds herself the undisputed mistress of the house and in need of entertainment. Buoyed by the success of matchmaking Miss Taylor with the eminently suitable Mr Weston, Emma turns her sights to other potential matches. She befriends a pretty young girl of unknown parentage and decides to orchestrate a match with the energetic vicar Mr Elton. Ignoring the warnings of family friend Mr Knightly, the older brother of her sister’s husband, Emma’s plans begin to go awry when it becomes quite clear that people, including herself, will follow their own hearts.

This is a clever novel with a likeable protagonist who is as flawed and human as she is beautiful and wealthy. Emma’s unique position as the mistress of Hartfield with a father who is reluctant go out or get involved in anything affords her a considerable amount of freedom compared to other women during the same era. I really liked how Austen tempered Emma by making her good at piano yet envious of her sometime rival Jane, and mostly kind but a little cruel towards Jane’s warm-hearted but a little overbearing aunt Miss Bates. Emma undergoes significant character development and there are some fun twists in the story.

This book was written just over 200 years ago, so it is unsurprising that there are some elements that don’t really stack up against today’s standards. This may be a slight spoiler but I think the most obvious example of this is the age difference between Emma and her ultimate love interest. The suggestion that he has been waiting since she was a young girl to grow up sufficiently did have a bit of a grooming vibe to it even if nothing untoward happens. Even though some of Emma’s views about class are tested by the other characters, and there is some sympathy for characters who have fallen somewhat in station, this is ultimately a story about a stratified society and people marrying appropriately for their class.

However, I think probably the most difficult thing about this book is that it is, unfortunately, quite a slow story. The romance is a very quiet burn, the characters aren’t all that colourful and it was a bit of a slog in the end. I quite enjoyed the adaptation because it brought a bit of colour and drama to the story, even though it too was a little slow.

An interesting and character-driven novel that admittedly took a bit of work to get through.

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