Friday, 21 November 2014

Review: Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

I, along with I suspect the majority of all English Literature graduates, am well versed in all things Jane Austen. Admittedly I'm not her biggest fan (some of her books I love, others not so much), but when I heard about The Austen Project - the idea of popular authors updating her work and setting it in the 21st century - I was intrigued. I enjoyed Val McDermid's interpretation of Northanger Abbey (my review of which can be found here), and so I was eager to see what the next installment in the series would bring. Sense and Sensibility isn't one of my favourite Austen novels, but I did see an excellent stage adaptation of it this summer by Chapterhouse Theatre Company which reignited my interest in it. Despite her impressive back catalogue, I hadn't read any of Trollope's work before, so I had no preconceptions of what to expect from her.

Of course I knew exactly what to expect from the plot, which made it very easy to follow, almost too easy. The county estates, the huge houses and the awkward dinner parties were all the same. Minus the cars, converse and mobile phones and I might as well have been reading the original novel - and I had to keep reminding myself to picture it in today's setting.

That said, the story is well written, as are the characters. I especially liked Bill Brandon, but I'm afraid I have the same issues with the male suitors in this novel as I had in the original. Brandon -however lovely he may be - is too old for Marianne, and I can't help but find his obsession with her a little creepy. Edward, in short, has no backbone, and I don't think he is actually worthy of Ellie. He is honour bound to his adolescent promise to marry Lucy Steele, and rather than telling her the truth about his feelings for Ellie he is actually prepared to go through with the wedding. I mean, seriously!? Then turning up and finally declaring your love to Eleanor only because Lucy decided to marry your brother instead. If I were Ellie I'd certainly have made him stew for a while instead of jumping straight into his arms that's for sure! As for Willoughby, I didn't like his treatment of Marianne one bit. I know I'm not supposed to, but as a hopeless romantic like Marianne myself I actually had some pity for him in the original, and I believe that he sincerely loved her. I can't help but feel that his seduction of Marianne was taken a little too far in this version - there's a big jump between giving a man a lock of your hair and giving him your virginity!

Of course, being faithful to the plot means that Trollope had no say in her character's fates or flaws, so this criticism is by no means directed at her, it's more just me being cynical!

My favourite character, and the one who translated best was easily Margaret-the stroppy socially conscious teenager forever plugged into her iPod just works brilliantly - and I want her treehouse!

Trollope says in an author interview included in my edition of the book that 'Jane Austen's pre-occupations - romance, money and class - are timeless' and this is definitely true. However she also says that the characters and narrative translate 'seamlessly' to 2013, and on this point I have to disagree. Societies principles may have stayed the same, but their outlook on life has changed. Women are a lot more empowered (demonstrated to a degree by Ellie in this novel), and people are a lot more open on their thoughts and feelings. In the end though, as Trollope concludes 'the desire to be loveable, and popular, and fancied is as old and enduring as humanity is itself.'

I am now eagerly awaiting the chance to read Alexander McCall Smith's update of Emma. Again I only know a little of his work, and Emma is possibly my favourite Austen novel next to the mighty Pride and Prejudice, so I can't wait to see his take on it!

3/5 stars: A well written and enjoyable addition to The Austen Project, but although the characters translate well to the 21st century, the plot just doesn't work for me.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Review: The Chestnut Tree by Jo Thomas

When Ellie Russet leaves home and her restaurant in the wake of disaster to housesit in the Kent countryside, the last thing she wants to do is cook for a living - ever again.

Ellie's new neighbour, Daniel Fender, is struggling to make ends meet as a furniture maker. Could the answer to his problems lie in the chestnut orchard at the bottom of the garden?

Only Ellie can help Daniel unlock the delicious secret that will bring them the fresh starts they need. And as autumn approaches, romance will blossom amid the glowing embers of the chestnut fire...

I started this story as soon as I finished The Oyster Catcher, also by Jo Thomas. The themes in both are very similar: outsider girl meets outsider boy and they try to integrate into the local community. Being from a tiny village myself I can completely relate- we too have a few 'blow-ins' from towns and cities; some happily throw themselves into village life whilst others we barely see! Suspicion of newcomers is therefore entirely natural in small knit communities, an idea apparent in both of Thomas's stories.

The Chestnut Tree is a cute short story, a perfect read for a chilly autumn day. It is wonderfully descriptive, and you can see and hear the crisp autumn leaves as if you are walking through the chestnut woods yourself. Ellie is sweet, Daniel is adorable, and yet again Jo's use of animals as characters really made me smile.

5/5 stars: I will definitely be on the lookout for more from Jo Thomas in the future!

*It was a lovely surprise to receive a copy of this book alongside my review copy of The Oyster Catcher, cheers bookbridgr!*

Review: The Oyster Catcher by Jo Thomas

Dooleybridge, County Galway. Population: 482 (or thereabouts). The last place Fiona Clutterbuck expects to end up, alone, on her wedding night.
But after the words 'I do' have barely left her mouth, that's exactly where she is - with only her sequined shoes and a crashed camper van for company.
One thing is certain: Fi can't go back. So when the opportunity arises to work for Sean Thornton, the local oyster farmer, she jumps at the chance. Now Fi must navigate suspicious locals, jealous rivals and a wild, unpredictable boss if she's to find a new life, and love, on the Irish coast. And nothing - not even a chronic fear of water - is going to hold her back.
Join Fi on her romantic, unpredictable adventure as she learns the rules of the ocean - and picks up a few pearls of Irish wisdom along the way...

As I have mentioned in previous posts I had got myself into a bit of a rut with chick-lit; I'd read so many that even the not so predictable ones had become predictable. However I had heard so many good things about The Oyster Catcher that I just couldn't resist.

What makes this novel different is its setting. Galway sounds absolutely stunning, and the weather is so well described that you can feel the wind and the rain as Fi and Sean battle the elements.

The Irish small-town community theme reminded me very much of the film Leap Year, which is by no means a bad thing. Indeed, comparisons can also be drawn between the film's lead male, the gruff but gorgeous Declan O'Callaghan and Sean Thornton, the novel's infuriating but loveable male protagonist. Both are struggling to pay the bills and keep their businesses above water, and both unexpectedly find their lives invaded by strong willed women who change them for the better.

I live in a small village myself - one so small it makes Dooleybridge sound like a city! It has one pub and one church, and so I could completely relate to Fi's fear of the local gossip - nothing stays secret for long in places like this! All of the local characters each had their own quirky personality and all brought something to the plot. No matter how reluctant they were to help Fi at first, you got a sense that they really loved their home town and the sense of community spirit had been rebuilt by the novel's end. Fi herself was a brilliant character too, she was brave and determined, and inspiring in her ability to make the most of a bad situation and build a new life for herself. She had her fair share of cringey moments - as do all chick-lit heroines - and her first misunderstanding with Sean about his 'hooker' I found a tad unbelievable, but maybe I'm just more well versed in boat terminology than I thought!

Nancy, the villain of the piece, was detestable from the start, and I was practically yelling at Sean to get rid of her by the end. The novel's 'baddies' may be a bit stereotypical - creepy loan shark and ruthless businesswoman - but this only makes you side completely with the townsfolk and will them to succeed.

Another lovely touch to the book was the animals, who were characters in themselves. Grace the Great Dane and Freddie and Mercury the mischievous donkeys to name but a few all made me smile every time they were mentioned, and made Sean all the more fanciable in my eyes- everyone loves an animal lover.

5/5 stars: I can completely see why this novel took off like it did. A beautiful setting and a gorgeous hero. A novel full of humour and heart. I look forward to reading more from Jo Thomas in the future!

*I received a review copy of this book from bookbridgr in exchange for a review*