My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

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I thought I would spend Easter with My Cousin Rachel in anticipation of the UK release of the film adaptation on 9th June. I am certainly keen to see how this novel transfers to the screen because, on the page, it is a consummate psychological thriller that plays expertly with the device of the unreliable narrator.

That narrator is Philip Ashley, a young man who, after being orphaned as an infant, is raised by his much older cousin Ambrose. What this situation gifts Ambrose is some kind of bachelor idyll: he has the ‘son’ and heir without having to marry. A situation that suits Ambrose perfectly since he believes women make “mischief in a household” and, consequently, “[employs] only menservants” (du Maurier, p. 9).

Despite only being in his early 40s, Ambrose’s health is failing. He thus takes to spending his winters in Italy. It is during one such sojourn that Ambrose meets and marries Rachel, a distant cousin. After a brief period of bliss, Ambrose’s health begins to deteriorate rapidly. Before he dies, his letters home to Philip heavily imply that Rachel is poisoning him.

When the widowed Rachel eventually arrives in England, Philip is determined to exact revenge. However, he becomes increasingly infatuated with her.

This is not a novel of action, but it remains tense, gripping and atmospheric throughout. Perspectives constantly shift. Is Rachel an innocent widow or a scheming adulteress? Can we really trust Philip or has his view of Rachel been coloured by his lack of female contact?

But perhaps, in a novel that is so much concerned with gender relations, the main question the narrative raises is who or what is the real killer – Rachel or misogyny?

Absorbing from the get-go, My Cousin Rachel also has, to my mind, probably the best closing line I’ve ever read – one that will made me question everything I’d just read and want to start from the beginning to see what I’d missed.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

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Well, my New Year’s resolution to post at least once a week lasted longer than I predicted it would, but – alas – it didn’t last. There are reasons, however.

The first is that I am in the process of buying my first house – an exciting and often all-consuming endeavour.

The second is that I have spent a large portion of 2017 in a bit of a reading slump.

The third is that I have been reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which weighs in at over 1300 pages.

There is a strong connection between reasons two and three. I have never been much of a fan of pre-20th century fiction and have read very little of it. However, after a bit of contemplation, I attributed this year’s reading malaise to the fact that my tastes were changing. I had resolved to pick up as many of 2017’s enticing new releases as I could but  kept on finding that – in the majority of cases – “The Must Read Novel of the Year” was, for me at least, a “Really Could Have Managed Without Reading this Novel Any Year”. With the odd exception, modern fiction was leaving me uninspired and underwhelmed. Whilst some of these novels may well have been uninspiring and underwhelming, I still felt that there was a whiff of “it’s not you, it’s me” going on; that what I thought I had wanted to read wasn’t what I wanted to read any more.

My instincts were telling me to reverse my now stale reading habits and see what happened. So post-20th century became pre-20th century. Books strictly under 500 pages became lengthier tomes. This latter move I made because I felt I had become more enamoured with finishing books – and racking up a nice Goodreads total – than with actually enjoying them.

And so I turned to The Count of Monte Cristo as a tale with which I was already familiar and intrigued by. To cut a long story short, I am glad that Alexandre Dumas didn’t because I enjoyed (almost) every word.

The key to my enjoyment, I think, was spending some time (at least 70 seconds) researching (on Google) the best translation to go for. I cannot compare his translation to others – or to the original text – but I thought that Robin Buss’s work was impeccable. The prose was sharp and uncluttered but steered clear of clunky ‘over-modernisation’ whilst remaining lively and readable. There is some searingly insightful writing here, along with some vivid imagery that ensures this narrative becomes more than a tale of adventure and intrigue:

The heart breaks when it has swelled too much in the warm breath of hope, then finds itself enclosed in cold reality.

There is the odd slow patch, but for the most part the novel moves at quite a pace. What really thrilled me about the story was how it seems to anticipate the superhero genre. There is more than a whiff of Bruce Wayne about Edmond Dantes who, swearing revenge on the three men whose actions led to him being thrown into prison without trial as an innocent 19-year old, reinvents himself as the mysterious Count – a man whose great wealth endows him with a power that at times seems superhuman:

‘And now’, said the stranger, ‘farewell, goodness, humanity, gratitude … Farewell all those feelings that nourish and illuminate the heart! I have taken the place of Providence to reward the good; now let the avenging God make way for me to punish the wrongdoer.’

The Count is a captivating character and he is ably supported by a cast of younger characters who get caught up in his revenge plot, but whose various troubles and romantic entanglements generate excitement of their own. There are also plenty of moments of such incredible dramatic intensity that make even the most dramatically intense of soap opera cliff hangers seem shrug-inducingly dull. Dumas uses his narrative, based on a true story of wrongful conviction, to entertain but also to criticise a corrupt social system and to reflect on the nature of revenge: is there a point at which the punishment the Count deals his enemies renders him more cruel than they ever were? As 16th century tragedies often considered, can the avenger exact revenge without compromising themselves?

This gripping novel turned out to be just the tonic to perk up what had been a rather unsatisfactory reading year for me up to that point. And my taste for big old books hasn’t waned: I am currently reading War and Peace whilst trying to develop a firm opinion on the kind of carpet I like. I may be some time …

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

“On a boat like this … everyone is running away from something.” (p. 65)

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Miserably, I have been in a bit of a reading slump for most of the year. Not the kind of slump where I’ve been unable to read for extended periods; the kind where I’m ploughing on but very few books are truly engaging me. I have a feeling that my tastes have changed a little of late and that my TBR pile needs to be updated to reflect this. Something I shall investigate further …

Anyway, as soon I read a brief synopsis of A Dangerous Crossing I knew it would be The One. The One to shed some (albeit) temporary light on my currently rather dingy reading life.

And I wasn’t wrong, even though it turned out that this wasn’t quite the book I was expecting.

A Dangerous Crossing is billed as a mystery novel, as a cross between Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Whilst I can see some similarities to the latter, any comparison to Christie is terribly misleading. I think it’s a marketing ploy to hook readers – and I can’t deny that it worked because it certainly reeled me in. But it could backfire terribly with readers expecting a Golden Age-style mystery and becoming disengaged with this rich piece of fiction.

 A Dangerous Crossing is less a mystery than it is a stunning work of historical fiction. It opens in the summer of 1939 and follows former maid and waitress Lily Shepherd on her five-week journey across the ocean to a new life – albeit one still involving domestic servitude – in Australia.

The novel crackles with tension. It opens with Lily’s ship, the Orontes, docking in Australia. A woman is led off the ship, under arrest. We thus begin our journey with Lily knowing that, by the time she arrives at her destination, two people will have died on board the ship and Europe will be at war.

So there is a mystery here: who is the woman in the fox fur stole who we see under arrest in the Prologue? Most of the women we encounter throughout the novel wear said stole at some point so there is an intense kind of a Pass the Parcel going on, particularly in the latter stages. Whose shoulders will the stole be draped around when the ‘music’ stops? The waiting is tense and the answer doesn’t disappoint …

But the mystery isn’t the central focus. What Rachel Rhys does centre the novel around, and skilfully evokes, is the idea of the ship as a liminal space. The characters find themselves between their old lives and their new beginnings, neither the people they were back home or yet the people they will become. Moreover, the whole world is suspended between peace and war:

All over the ship there is the strangest sense of being in limbo between what is real and what isn’t, between the departure and the arrival, between the threat of war and whatever comes next. (p. 320)

More gripping than the underlying mystery are Lily’s relationships with her fellow passengers: the Jewish refugee Maria, the fascist George Price, the scandalous upper class American couple Max and Eliza Campbell and the middle class brother and sister Helena and Edward Fletcher, who becomes Lily’s love interest.

Lily quickly realises that, on board the ship, the class boundaries that rigidly governed her life back home have been broken down as all society merges as one on the Orontes:

Such a blurring of lines here – the guests dancing with the staff. But then again, is it any more strange than her being here, with the sort of people to whom she used to serve tea, whose houses she once cleaned. (p. 131)

Clear-eyed and level-headed, Lily realises that this situation, this brief sip of a life of luxury, will be temporary: “she will go back to her world and they will go back to theirs and life will be once again divided into its correct boxes” (p. 315).

But what the novel seems to ask is ‘does this necessarily have to be the case?’ Could these social boundaries be permanently surmounted once the passengers reach their destination and build their lives anew? Do they have to once again be divided into ‘master’ and ‘servant’? Doe sthe war really have to make them ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’? In short, do these “correct boxes” have to be a part of this new existence or could the characters start again without them? It is this – not ‘who is the lady in the fox fur stole?’ – that is the central question in A Dangerous Crossing.

This is a beautifully written and evocative novel. It is by turns tense and tender and always wonderfully atmospheric, as we follow Lily to Australia via Gibraltar and Egypt. And because it has a clear message about unity and understanding those we perceive as ‘different’ to us, A Dangerous Crossing seems highly relevant to the times too.

Laura by Vera Caspary

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Published in 1942, Laura has all the ingredients of a classic forties’ noir.

It has atmosphere in abundance: the majority of the action seems to take place during dramatic thunderstorms or torrential downpours.

It has a gripping central mystery with a beautiful ‘femme fatale’ at its heart. Laura Hunt, a New York advertising executive, is found shot dead on her own doorstep, her face obliterated by the blast.

It has a cynical detective with a well-hidden heart of gold (Detective Mark McPherson).

And it has the whip smart, wisecracking dialogue one has come to expect of the genre:

Bony hands gripped the table.

‘Let’s have another drink.’

I suggested Courvoisier.

‘You order. I can’t pronounce it.’ (Caspary, 1942)

These elements alone would make this novel a must read. But, for me, Laura has a little something extra and that’s a discussion of gender politics that is still relevant today.

In Laura Hunt, we have a heroine who struggles to balance a burgeoning career with her personal life. Described as having ‘a man’s job and a man’s worries’, Laura’s status rankles with her fiancé Shelby Carpenter in particular:

‘When I went to work for Rose, Rowe and Sanders, I made thirty-five dollars a week. She was getting a hundred and seventy-five.’ He hesitated, the colour of his cheeks brightened to the tones of an overripe peach. ‘Not that I resented her success. She was so clever that I was awed and respectful. And I wanted her to make as much as she could; believe that Mr McPherson. But it’s hard on a man’s pride. I was brought up to think of women … differently.’ (Caspary 1942)

That these themes still – sadly – resonate today makes this gripping, atmospheric thriller even more fascinating. Definitely one that should be more widely read.

The Heart of Blade Duology by Sherry Thomas

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Ying-ying and Leighton are the stars of My Beautiful Enemy, the ‘main course’ of Sherry Thomas’s Heart of Blade duology. We first meet them – long before they meet each other – in the prequel, The Hidden Blade.

Set in the late 19th century, this novel examines how the couple’s childhood experiences shape them. In Peking, we see Ying-ying take centre stage in a wuxia narrative: a traditional Chinese tale that typically follows martial artists of almost superhuman abilities. In Ying-ying’s case, her life changes irrevocably when her nanny turns out to be one such martial arts hero and takes her as a pupil. Well. That would have livened up Mary Poppins. Meanwhile, back in England, we watch in horror as Leighton Atwood’s wicked uncle destroys his childhood before pursuing him to China, where Leighton escapes in search of a beloved family friend.

I would have appreciated a greater sense of an origin story here: more on Ying-ying’s training would have been good as she seems to go from 0 to 60 rather quickly. That said, The Hidden Blade is tremendous fun: fist-pumpingly feminist with a great cast of supporting characters and an utterly breath-taking action sequence at the end.

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Although it is meant to be ‘the main event’ as it were, My Beautiful Enemy disappoints in comparison. We catch up with Ying-ying (now known as Catherine Blade) and Leighton just as they reconnect, eight years after their last meeting. This encounter is rather awkward because Catherine had thought she’d killed Leighton after their love affair soured and he betrayed her. It’s such a pain when that happens at formal functions.

Thomas’s writing is top notch throughout both novels, and My Beautiful Enemy certainly has its fun moments – none more fun than this:

She lowered into a crouch, then leaped up atop the table, balanced upon an upside-down teacup. (My Beautiful Enemy, p. 189)

Yes, you read that correctly. Ying-ying executes a perfect handstand on a teacup. That’s certainly how I like to conclude breakfast.

Dining table gymnastics aside, this novel is often rather dull. We spend most of the prequel dying for Ying-ying and Leighton to meet but their romance seems oddly bloodless in the end. Additionally, the finale of My Beautiful Enemy is incredibly weak. I am talking Scooby Doo levels of silliness and subtlety.

All in all, these are well-written novels that skilfully evoke both period and place and boast a fantastic heroine. The prequel is by far the stronger book, however, with the main event being married by a limp and unconvincing romance.

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen by Alison Weir

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The True Queen is the first in a projected six-book series focusing on each of Henry VIII’s wives. A well-trodden path indeed. However, Alison Weir, also a well-known historian, promises to examine new evidence and to consider this oft-fictionalised period from different angles.

In actual fact, I didn’t find much that was new in this volume. What I did find, though, is that the level of detail Weir includes here is so great that she frequently manages to be illuminating anyway. This is a potted, fictionalised biography of Katherine from her arrival in England in 1501 to her death in 1536. The novel is so throughly researched that Weir is able to fully realise events and flesh out characters that other fictional accounts have often just skipped over. Moreover, the way she chooses to depict Katherine’s marriages to the doomed Prince Arthur and to Henry feels very convincing.

As he opened the door to leave, she found she could no longer control her emotions and broke down completely, emitting great, tearing sobs that sounded like an animal in pain. All those years together, all the love that had been between them, the children they had conceived and lost, the joys, the sorrow, the things they had shared … They had been one flesh, and now Henry wanted to break them asunder and end it all. It was more than she could bear.

I particularly admired the fact that Weir didn’t impose 21st century values on Katherine in a bid to make her more relatable to contemporary readers. Katherine is very much a woman of the 16th century here, but we feel sympathy for her plight regardless.

That said, Weir’s prose can be dry and overly simplistic and her skills as a novelist are middling at best, something apparent in her rather emotionless depiction of Thomas More’s demise. She edges towards psychological realism at times, but too often the novel drags and feels like one of those stilted, lightly dramatised TV documentaries.

I would say that there’s just enough here to make the novel worth reading. But The True Queen doesn’t add a huge amount to existing knowledge and understanding of its subject. The second novel in the series, focusing of course on Anne Boleyn, is scheduled for release on May 18th. I’m certainly interested to see what insights Weir can bring to this topic, given that there are more fictional accounts of Anne than of Katherine.

Margot and Me by Juno Dawson

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This is the first Juno Dawson book I’ve read and, really, where on earth have I been?! Margot and Me is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, gripping, warm and wise.

Our narrator is 15-year-old Fliss. We meet her just as she and her mum, who is recovering from cancer, are making the temporary move from London to Wales. They’re staying with Fliss’s grandmother, Margot, who isn’t exactly the warm and fuzzy type. As sparks fly between the generations, Fliss decides that she hates her cold-hearted grandmother.

However, when Fliss stumbles across Margot’s teenage diary, kept during the Second World War, she gets an unexpected insight into the events that shaped the older woman, and unearths family secrets into the bargain:

OK, I have to look or I’ll explode with curiosity. Margot at sixteen! I can hardly imagine it: some people just come out of the womb aged forty and she’s one of them. I’ll read just a tiny bit.

From this point, the novel switches between the two narratives: Margot’s wartime experiences, which are vividly rendered, and Fliss’s (often belly laugh-inducing) responses, interspersed with her experiences getting to grips with life at a new school. The voices of both Margot and Fliss are incredibly authentic and both narratives are equally involving.

Dawson’s writing is both funny and insightful. Her portrayal of serious illness is refreshingly unsentimental and unflinching. Along with Fliss and Margot, there is an endearing cast of supporting characters and Dawson’s depiction of Fliss’s burgeoning friendships is both hilarious and moving.

Fliss’s narrative is set in the late nineties, when I myself was a teenager. This brought the added bonus of a blissful bubble of nostalgia, evoking memories of things I hadn’t thought of for years (Vanilla Kisses Impulse! Kappa Slappers (I confess, I was one!)! Party of Five! Pop out hairbrushes from the Body Shop! Fido Dido ring binders! Virgin Megastore! Freddie Prince Jr.! Helen Daniels and her tragic demise!).

Margot and Me was one of the books that I felt I had lived rather than read. I will issue a weepie warning, though, but there is plenty of wit and warmth to make up for it.