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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Review: Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a biography, nor does it pretend to be, of Anne Bronte; it's a passionate, well-written defence of the oft-neglected third Bronte sister. Ellis argues that this Bronte was not the patient, sweet-natured mouse that she is often portrayed to be, but instead was a radical - daring to focus on reality where her sisters retreated into their respective fantasies.

Given that there's actually very little known facts about Anne's life, Ellis has to resort to lots of "perhaps" and "maybes" and infers a significant amount from Anne's works (including her letters) - meaning there's a lot of guess work. But, I think this makes for a far more interesting book that would otherwise be a slim volume that added nothing new to the much-told Bronte story.

What I didn't like is that she paints Charlotte Bronte to be the villain of Anne's life, who she accuses of dismissing her little sister as a wallflower and rubbishing her second book. I just don't think that's fair (I am biased; Jane Eyre is my favourite book of all time) because while Charlotte was highly critical of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she was also trying to defend her sisters from various critics and, as Ellis herself notes, was in a constant state of self-denial (ie. she had serious issues). . Plus, ultimately, Charlotte - however close she may or may not have been to her youngest sister - knew Anne far better than Ellis can possible do from letters and diaries etc.

Ultimately, this call to arms puts the spotlight firmly on a woman who had the misfortune to be a sister to not just one but two icons of 19th century literature. Undoubtedly, were if not for Emily and Charlotte, Anne would be recognised as an icon herself (even she hadn't died of TB aged 29). With this book, Ellis lets Anne stand on her own two feet rather than in the reflected glory of her better-known siblings.



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Friday, 18 August 2017

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall years ago, but decided to re-read it in preparation for reading Samantha Ellis' biographer of the somewhat neglected third Bronte sister Anne.

This powerful novel was ground-breaking in its time (a bit too ground-breaking - no-one liked it) charts the story of a woman forced to make difficult choices to protect her son. The dilemmas she faces make you realise how restricted women's lives were back in the 19th century. (Your job was basically to marry and produce offspring. If your marriage was horrific, you had very little choice but to make the best of it).

It does suffer by comparison with the novels of the better known Brontes as it lacks the passion of those works. That said, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a much more realistic account of what would happens if a Byronic hero looks your way and, certainly, the main character (and thus, Anne) would argue that passion is over rated.




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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: Star Struck

Star Struck Star Struck by Val McDermid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another easy read featuring the Private Eye Kate Brannigan. It really doesn't matter what the crime is about - you know that Kate will solve it without too much difficulty (particularly as she always seems able to rely on a crew of mates with various talents to help her).

There are only six books in this series (this being the last), which I think is probably a good thing. I struggled with the previous novel, Blue Genes (artistic license gone too far), and there's only so many times you read about a character's desire for vodka and pink grapefruit juice without getting a little fed up of it!

While I suspect McDermid's Tony & Carol series will be too grisly for me (they are significantly more violent than this series), I do want try some of her other series.

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Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having loved The long way to a small, angry planet, I was reluctant to read this "sequel" - though it directly follows the events of the first book, it concentrates on different characters - because I was worried it wouldn't be as good and, therefore, spoil the memory of the first. I needn't have worried.

It doesn't quite have the same magic of The long way, but nothing does the second time around. I still thought it was a well put together novel with good characters. Yes, you could accuse it - just as you could The long way - of being sentimental. Both have the core theme, after all, that family comes in all shapes and forms and is about who you connect to rather than you who you are genetically related to. But, it's no bad thing to focus on what life could be like if we just tried - particularly given the awful things that have been going on in the world of late.

There's apparently a third Wayfarers novel in the work and, this time, there'll be no reluctance on my part. I will be reading it as soon as it is published.

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Thursday, 13 July 2017

Review: The Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A disturbing view of what humans become should society break down - basically, they do whatever is needed to survive. I think what Wyndham does really well is not to be too judgmental about how people try to carry on after a catastrophe, weighing up the pros and cons of every approach.

Given that it's written in the 1950s, I expected the book to be a bit sexist (men in charge, rescuing women etc) but I was surprised at how well-rounded and competent the main female characters were portrayed to be. There's even a great speech, from a man obviously, about the need for women to step up to the plate and learn how to do the traditional male jobs (these days it would very much come under the category of mansplaining, but it's better than nothing).

What I really disliked is the notion that the majority of the population going blind (not a spoiler) would be a society-ending event. Yes, there would be panic and chaos initially but I think people would learn to adapt eventually and things would get vaguely back to normal. In fariness, as is pointed out later in the book, the whole killer plant thing doesn't help matters. But, ultimately it's suggesting that disability equals helplessness - which is a problematic view to say the least.

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Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is apparently now out of print (I had to buy my copy from an online second-hand bookshop; I was reading it for my book group) and it quickly becomes apparent why - it's really racist. Black people are referred to as "negroes" and are generally portrayed to be ignorant and childlike (with questionable morals). There's even one use of the "n" word. I know that this was written in less enlightened times (1929), but it makes for uncomfortable reading.

I am not sure if this is meant to be a children's book or an adult book that just happens to have children as the protagonists, but it certainly has dark themes. I'd certainly agree with the view that it's a precursor to Lord of the Flies (ie, what happens when usual social conventions are not enforced).

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review: Bedlam: London and Its Mad

Bedlam: London and Its Mad Bedlam: London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting review of how people with mental health problems have been managed over the centuries, with a focus on London's most infamous asylum - Bedlam. Depressingly (no pun intended), how well the "insane" were treated seemed to completely depend on who was in charge of the asylum at at the time. For every enlightened practitioner, an arrogant one seemed to follow. Today - I didn't actually realise it was still going - Bedlam (now Bethlem Royal Hospital) offers the best available care for people with mental health problems. But unfortunately, as is well documented, society's approach to mental health still leaves a lot to be desired.

I do feel a bit guilty about giving the book only three stars - I would give three and a half if I could. The writing falters at times (it occasionally reads like a lightweight newspaper feature rather than a history book) and there's certainly some waffle here and there. But, overall, I thought it was a good read.

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