Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

The new way to watch telly

Following on from my (relatively) recent post, where I rounded up things I’d been enjoying, here’s more information about some of the web-series I’ve seen, and my thoughts on them.

Since The Lizzie Bennet Diaries came to an end I’ve investigated several more similar series.  Some I haven’t really got into.  Some I’ve persevered with despite their failure to live up to early promise.  I’ve just finished watching Pemberley Digital‘s latest venture, Frankenstein M.D. and was inexplicably disappointed, since they were only being faithful to the original (or, at least, I think they were, I’ve only read the Ladybird version and that bothered me enough – not in a scary way, just a sad way – that I never wanted to read the real thing).  One thing’s for sure, LBD has set the bar very high for other attempts!

The ones I’ve really enjoyed this year are Nothing Much To Do,  an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing set in a modern-day New Zealand high school, and Classic Alice.  NMTD interested me as the original play is one of my favourite Shakespeare works – I’ve been in it, studied it for A-level and seen about 6 or so different productions.  The series has finished now (I think – a couple more little episodes have popped up since I thought it had ended) but of course all the episodes are still there, and there’s a playlist which helpfully presents them in the correct order.  What’s great about it, apart from the fact that the updating process has been really well thought through, is that it was broadcast on several different channels to represent the various points of view of the characters (who weren’t always watching each other’s videos), and to highlight the accidental way in which Dogberry and Verges become involved in unravelling the plot (and I adored their homage to Sherlock, including kazoo theme music).  The makers (The Candle Wasters) have promised a follow-up, Lovely Little Losers (loosely based on Love’s Labours Lost), in due course, so I’ll be looking forward to that.

Classic Alice isn’t an updating of a book as such, but centres around a creative writing student who decides to live her life according to the decisions made by characters in various classic plots, following each through to its conclusion before embarking on the next.  Her friend Andrew who is studying media (or something) is filming her for a project and he also gets involved in the stories, as does Alice’s roommate Cara, and a range of other characters.  So far they have worked through Crime and PunishmentPygmalionThe ButterflyMacbeth and The Wind in the Willows but cleverly the plot created by their responses to each of these is ongoing and continues to develop despite each book’s coming to an end.

I’m not great at following the transmedia bits of the shows on Twitter, Tumblr and the like (what is Tumblr even for?), so I’m sure I’m not getting the full benefits, but the Facebook pages tend to link to the most significant tweets, etc, so I’m not missing anything important, and my main interest is the updating and presentation of the stories.

One more that’s just getting going is In Earnest, a version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The first episode is DULL, but give it a chance because it’s warming up OK and the actor who plays Algy is especially good. This is one I think would benefit from the multi-channel approach – having everything broadcast on one channel is convenient to find, but doesn’t really make sense within their universe – and it seems a lot less “real” and more of a performance than some of the others, but is nonetheless engaging and entertaining.

My final pick, for the time being, is A Mid-Semester Night’s Dream.  I can’t work out how much I like this, it’s a strange beast – set on a modern-day college campus but performed in the original text (with modifications), and with fairies?  It does at least show that there are other ways of approaching an update of a classic, and I’m waiting to see how it pans out.  I’m definitely impressed by some of the clever updates to the text, however, my favourite for now being:

PUCK: I go, I go: look how I go;
Swifter than arrow from Katniss’s bow.

 

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Death Comes To Pemberley: BBC 2013 series (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: December)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200So, it’s the last day of 2013 and time for my final review as part of the Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge. As you’ll see from my original plan, I had various different ideas about what I’d review for this challenge over the year, some of which have come to fruition and some have not, largely owing to the difficulty of getting hold of some of the books (they were unavailable at the library and some belt-tightening in the family finances prevented me from buying them). However, other opportunities have presented themselves at just the right time, and this final review is of one of those.

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James was published in 2011, an imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice. If all had gone according to plan, I’d have read it in January of this year with my reading group, but I knew early on that I wouldn’t be able to make the date chosen for the meeting and chose to catch up on some other reading rather than read the book I was not going to be discussing. So it was that I approached this BBC adaptation fresh to the plot as well as the casting and production, meaning that there will be no reflections on how the series stands up against the book. By all means get in touch and let me know what you thought, if you’re in a position to do a comparison.

Several years have passed since Lizzy married Darcy and they are now the parents of a small son and live a happy family life at Pemberley. Preparations are underway for a large party and a ball (it’s going to be so big they don’t have room for all their guests to sleep at Pemberley) and the Darcys’ main concern is over the two suitors for the hand of Georgiana – one of whom she likes a lot more than the other. I thought this part was acted really well and the humour of the resentment between the two gentlemen was brought out to great effect.

Suddenly, however, things change. Lydia Wickham – who was travelling with her husband to Pemberley uninvited as a “surprise” for them all – arrives in hysterics because Wickham is missing and she heard shots in the woods. On investigation it turns out Captain Denny is dead and it seems highly likely that Wickham is the murderer.

As well as following the development of the case, the story focuses on its impact on the household at Pemberley and in particular Darcy’s relationships with his wife and sister. I felt that the existing characters – by which I mean those whom we know from Pride and Prejudice – were developed in a believable way, especially Wickham as the incorrigible rogue motivated alternately by the pursuit of his own pleasure or the desperate attempts to cover over his mistakes, whose past was now coming back to bite him as nobody believes in his innocence.

We were given more of an insight into his relationship with Lydia and in particular her decision to turn a blind eye when it came to his extra-marital dalliances.

The new characters introduced by PD James fitted well into the setting and there was nothing much which struck me as confusing or at odds with Austen’s world. However at one point during the trial I did question the behaviour of the judge in his refusal to allow Wickham’s lawyer to raise objections – I couldn’t work out whether he was biased in favour of the prosecution, or if those kinds of interruptions just weren’t permitted in Austen’s day. But it was puzzling, whatever the reason!

The plot strands were enjoyably woven together as the story progressed and it all finished in a most satisfactory manner with a last-minute revelation and the inevitable race against the clock to resolve matters.

All in all I really enjoyed this three-part production (which surprised me, as several people I know hadn’t liked the book). My main disappointments were that Colonel Fitzwilliam was dropped rather suddenly from the story and did not appear in the final summary of “what happened next” to everyone, and that Lady Catherine de Bourgh only featured very briefly. Everyone in my family thought that we’d have liked to see a lot more of her, played as she was by the excellent Penelope Keith in a very effective yet understated way with not too much of the Lady Bracknell about her (anyone who’s planning any adaptations of P&P in the future would do well to bear her in mind for the part!).

So that’s my year of reviews finished. I’ve really enjoyed it and read a few things I wouldn’t have otherwise so it’s been fun and enlightening.

I wish you a Happy New Year with minutes to spare (in the UK at any rate!) – see you all next year!

Thankful for

Champagne!

Time with family

The chance to see some friends today after years of being unable to meet up

Being able to make plans for the future

All my gratitudes from 2013. What a year it’s been.

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Longbourn by Jo Baker: audio edition read by Emma Fielding (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: November)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200Once again I’m blogging this review in the nick of time – tomorrow is the last day of November and I’ll be out all day anyway.

I’ve had Longbourn downloaded to my phone for some time and finally got to listen to the bulk of it whilst driving to and from my sister’s in the North West at the beginning of last week. In the little car I’d hired there was nowhere to plug my phone into, so I had to rely on its own speakers and the volume turned up as high as possible to compete with the sound of the engine and variable road surface, but I discovered in the end that I could hear it quite well if I had it in my lap, and only had to pull over a couple of times when, frustratingly, the Audible app froze and needed restarting (it’s a very elderly iPhone which I’ve somewhat overloaded and occasionally it protests and requires kind words and soothing taps to placate it).

Anyway – for those who haven’t heard of it, Jo Baker’s Longbourn is a novel which takes place over roughly the same time period as Pride and Prejudice (with a flashback to some years before, and a continuation at the end), but is told from the point of view of the servants who work in the Bennets’ house. Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, at least, will be known to the readers of Pride and Prejudice (and certainly to the viewers of the BBC television adaptation, thanks to Alison Steadman’s frequent screeching of her name!). Alongside her, the staff comprises her husband Mr Hill and housemaids Sarah and Polly. A manservant, James, joins them early on the story, and readers also meet some of the staff of Netherfield and Pemberley at times.

The story piques the reader’s interest from the outset – who is the fleeting figure Sarah glimpses in the road outside the estate, whilst she’s hanging out the washing? Why is Mrs Hill shouting at Mr Bennet in his library – and how does she have the nerve? As Sarah goes about her daily business of laundry, cleaning, cooking and dressing the young ladies of the house, not to mention the seemingly endless washing up, she’s aware that there might be more to life than what she’s experienced so far. With vague memories of her life before she came to Longbourn and ideas from the books she borrows from the Bennet family, she wonders if she should be content with her lot in life. The new arrivals at Netherfield bring more upheavals and romantic notions and Sarah begins to question who she is, and who she wants to be. Meanwhile Mrs Hill and James are both struggling with secrets from their past which affect their hopes for the future, and the Bennet family’s concerns about their future security when Mr Collins inherits their home are echoed by the staff, whose own future is in jeopardy if they fail to impress him during his visit.

As the events of Pride and Prejudice progress, observed in part by the servants (although sometimes with their own take on things, such as the occasion on which Jane falls ill at Netherfield and it is proclaimed in the kitchen to be “just a cold” that she would soon be over), they have as much impact, in a different way, on the lives of Sarah, James, Polly and the Hills as on Elizabeth, Jane and their family. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler, however, to say that ultimately all the loose ends are tied up in a very satisfying – if at times unexpected – way.

On the whole I really enjoyed this book. It’s very long – quite a commitment, as it mimics the traditional three volumes popular in Regency times, and covers a long period of time – but for me that makes it more of a worthwhile read (or listen, in my case). I found the insights into life in service at the time fascinating and enlightening, and a vivid contrast to the world portrayed in Pride and Prejudice – I’d never thought, for instance, despite the fact that it’s pretty obvious when you consider it, that whilst the girls are dancing and enjoying themselves (or being snubbed and offended) at balls and assemblies, the drivers who brought them and who will take them home are sitting outside waiting in the cold, unless a kindly housekeeper invites them inside for a while. Elizabeth’s petticoats, famously three inches deep in mud, need to be cleaned and perfectly white again for the next wearing, however much scrubbing and soaking and bleeding chill-blains that entails. There was a lot of local colour, sometimes in the form of swearwords (which took me by surprise at first, when the language and style is similar to that of Austen herself, but as time went on felt more natural to the characters), and sometimes in rather bald references to differences between then and now, which I found rather jarring. For example, in a passage describing Sarah dressing Elizabeth, there’s a reference to the “musky down” revealed when Elizabeth lifts her arms (I think those were the words – that’s the difficulty with audiobooks, it’s harder to quote from them reliably), which felt almost as unnecessary as if Baker had written “in those days, of course, women didn’t shave their armpits”. As it was so common, it would hardly have been remarkable to Sarah (from whose point of view the story is being told at the time), and therefore really not worth mentioning.

Those moments aside, however, there wasn’t much that I disliked about the book. As I mentioned, there were a few surprises about some of the characters which I found interesting, but not necessarily in a negative way. I’m not sure how I feel about the development of Mr Bennet’s character, as I thought it was a real departure from what we see in Pride and Prejudice – not impossible, but in Longbourn he seems rather spiteful and hard at times, rather than merely weak and acquiescent. I really loved the way Baker allows Wickham’s true colours to be revealed amongst the staff, whilst not for a moment making him into a pantomime baddie, but a charming, confusing, complex man who wants it all without having to lift a finger for any of it. And it was good to see Mr Darcy taking his proper place as a man of whom little, if anything, is seen until the later moments of the book!

I haven’t much to say about Emma Fielding’s narration, which I think is in itself an endorsement – it was never intrusive, her character voices and accents were helpful to the understanding of the story and her gentle narrative tones were easy to listen to. Altogether, it was a very different experience from the previous audiobook I reviewed here.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone, particularly lovers of historical fiction and Austen-lovers who’d like to consider more of what was going on below stairs and out in the gardens and fields (and battlefields), whilst Austen’s heroines are closeted in their relatively safe little worlds. I’ll also be looking out for more of Jo Baker’s novels to read myself.

Finally I’d like to thank Jane of What Jane Read Next for reminding me that this book was in existence, since I’d meant to read it when I first heard about it (pre-publication) and then completely forgotten about it until I read her review. This was one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on, and a useful way to pass two long and tedious car journeys.

For my next (and final) review, I’d really like to cover the BBC TV adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley which is scheduled to be broadcast in three episodes over the coming Christmas period. However, I’m not sure if this will be contained within December or whether it will spill over to January, in which case it wouldn’t qualify! No doubt I’ll discover more when the Christmas issue of Radio Times comes out shortly. I haven’t read PD James’ novel, so it will be fresh to me, but the cast looks like a good one and I can particularly imagine Jenna Coleman (of Doctor Who fame) making a wonderful Lydia Bennet.

Thankful for…

  • Some time with my sister and her family last week, and the opportunity to visit the care home where my Gran now lives.
  • A lovely friend who has taught me to crochet
  • Christmas preparations coming apace, including being very close to finishing my Christmas shopping (just a few stocking bits to get now)
  • Really uplifting choir rehearsals, preparing for next week’s performance of Handel’s Messiah
  • A couple of days spent with the Butterfly whilst she’s been off school with a bad cold
  • The prospect of advent’s being almost upon us, and two new books (this one and this one)
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Doctors Austen week, 2013 BBC series (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: October)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200Wow, this was confusing!  First I read that there’s a whole week of Austen-related specials on Doctors.  I watch two of them (Austenland: Part 1 and 2) and judge by the preview of the supposed third episode (Charlotte’s Web) that it has nothing to do with Austen and that in fact it was just a two-part special.  Before I get round to reviewing it, we find a letter in the following week’s Radio Times discussing the Austen-inspired episodes on “14-18 October” and realise that I need to watch the rest after all.  In fact, it turns out that there are six in all – seven, if you count the episode in which the main, stand-alone story hasn’t anything to do with Austen (that I could spot) but the ongoing story arc does – spilling over into the start of the following week.

Doctors

For a summary of the series as a whole, see my previous post.

The background to the specials is that there is to be a Jane Austen exhibition held somewhere in the locality, which one of the regular cast is encouraging others to attend.  Also ongoing seems to be a sponsored read they are taking part in to raise money for charity.  Some of the characters who have never read any Austen are being sponsored to get through one book, but must pay the money themselves if they fail in the attempt.

Plot summaries and comments

Austenland: Part 1 and 2

The two Austenland episodes (nothing to do with Shannon Hale’s novel of the same title) seemed distinct from the rest of the series, except for a few references to the sponsored read and a shot of the poster advertising the launch of the exhibition.  The story concerned a girl in her late teens or early twenties who had been the victim of a mugging some time before and was now selectively mute, choosing to carry around a computer tablet on which to write any communication.  She was shown with her head in an Austen novel from the outset.  I felt that the design of her costume was very clever as she looked quite Regency in style whilst wearing modern day clothing – a long dress with a high waist and a cropped denim jacket with a very Spencer jacket look to it.  Unfortunately this was about the only thing I did like, and to be honest if I hadn’t decided to review the episodes (and that I wouldn’t have time left this month to listen to the audio version of Longbourn) I’d have stopped watching after the first one.  The girl, whose name is Lizzie, visits the the GP for a reason that now escapes me, although it can’t be connected to her trauma problem as the doctor quizzes her about why she hasn’t been attending her counselling appointments.  The girl becomes even less communicative but it’s clear she doesn’t want to belong to our world, but to retreat into the society of Austen’s novels.  She falls suddenly unconscious and begins to dream a strange version of Pride and Prejudice in which she is Lizzy Bennet and other characters from the book are played by characters she has met around the surgery.  She has clearly developed a crush on one of the doctors and casts him in the role of Darcy, whilst a practice nurse plays Lydia (the only other sister present) and a receptionist plays Mrs Bennet.  Before long Mr Collins appears on the scene (played by one of the nicest doctors – I felt a bit sorry that he had to have such a ghastly part but he did it very well!), along with – inexplicably – Frank Churchill and General Tilney.  Despite her confusion over where these characters have come from, she’s enjoying herself and goes out, only to find herself at the picnic scene from Emma.  Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates are there, and Lizzie insults Miss Bates in the way Emma does.  Embarrassed, she leaves the party and finds Mr Darcy, who scolds her.  She returns to the house and discovers she’s now at Northanger and must endure a terrifying night during a storm.  From then on things deteriorate further – she’s discomfited by Mr Collins’ lecherous looks as he proposes and won’t take no for an answer, she’s alarmed by the violence Darcy shows when he rescues Lydia from a gypsy and she’s horrified when she discovers Darcy and Caroline Bingley in a passionate embrace in the gardens.  Everything is going wrong, and she’s confused because it’s a world of her own creation.  The doctor finally succeeds in wakening her and she is now able to speak.  She agrees to return to her appointments to help herself reintegrate into real life, but by the time she has got through the very busy reception area she’s obviously having second thoughts and as she leaves she spots a man who’ll make a perfect Captain Wentworth…

I really wasn’t sure what to make of those two episodes.  There didn’t seem to be any clear message in them and it looked rather like the cast had all had the chance to pick an Austen character they wanted to be and a story had been woven around that.  I thought they all did very well in their characters but the whole thing didn’t hang together very well, the doctors were unable to help the patient and the status quo was restored by the end of the episodes.

Charlotte’s Web

The other episodes focused on one book each.  Charlotte’s Web was a modern take on the story of Charlotte Lucas.  I think I found this the most interesting.  It investigated the idea of marrying for money and security, but the main difference was that the modern-day Charlotte seemed to be doing this out of laziness and a disinclination to work, rather than the need for protection that a Regency woman would have had.  However, it examined the effects on her other relationships, including with a close male friend who obviously has feelings for her, and raised the question over whether, like Austen’s Charlotte, she would sacrifice as much as she gained in the marriage.

Northanger Bungalow(!)

This covered the story of Catriona Morbrook, a teenager living with her recently separated mother, and obsessed with horror films and zombies.  She becomes convinced that the previous occupant of her home had murdered his wife.  Whilst searching the loft for evidence she believes she sees her own mother who has now become a zombie.  It turns out to be a type of epilepsy, but whilst it was a good way of updating the story, I was unimpressed with the hallucinations and the very casual treatment of apparent mental illness (similar to the Austenland episodes).

Gemma

This episode was a reworking of Emma in which a young girl from a council estate becomes frustrated that she can’t be as in control of her friends’ lives and events around her as she would like.  It turns out that this is her reaction to the discovery that she has rheumatoid arthritis and her fear that this will stop her dancing, which she wants to pursue as a career.  I quite liked this story apart from its rather laboured use of signs such as “Hartfield Estate” and “Randalls Park”, in case we couldn’t work out the connection!

Remission

This was the story of a man who’s celebrating his five years clear of cancer.  As he arrives at the health centre to invite the staff to his party he bumps into his former boyfriend, who disappeared overseas during his illness with little explanation.  The staff work together to uncover the cause of the split (the mother of the recovered cancer patient who had in fact given the impression in an email that her son was dead!) and reunite the pair.  Although this was a little predictable at times, it was probably the best updating of one of the stories and I also liked the title, which was enough to give a clue to the source novel but also describe the focus of the medical storyline.

Background story

Running throughout the latter four episodes, and continuing into the subsequent, non-Austen, episodes, was the ongoing story of a mother and daughter who were opening a beauty salon locally.  It quickly became clear that this was a Pride and Prejudice idea, the twist being that the mother was both Mrs Bennet and Jane.  They turn up at the health centre to register and Gloria, the mother, quickly becomes convinced that Kevin, a young GP, will be the perfect partner for her daughter Sigourney.  Sigourney, however, is unconvinced that she’s in need of a man and has a low opinion of the medical profession.  Gloria falls for an older doctor, Heston, who’s quite flattered by her attentions, but Kevin convinces him Gloria’s a gold-digger and he’d be better off steering clear.  At the launch of the Jane Austen exhibition Kevin becomes keener on Sigourney and “rescues” her from the attentions of her landlord who’s also the security guard at the health centre (in fact, this was one of the most poorly attended launches I’ve ever seen, since everbody there, but for Gloria and Sigourney, was a staff member of the health centre!)  Next day, Barry the security guard turns up at the salon to mend a leak and takes the opportunity to impart some information about Kevin’s past (it’s all true – I knew just enough about the history of the programme to know that! – but slanted to make Kevin look bad).  Kevin turns up later and tries to ask Sigourney out, but she throws it all in his face, along with the accusation that he split up Heston and her mum.  Before he can leave, the leak – which Barry had repaired badly so he’d have to come back again – bursts and Kevin comes to the rescue.  He defends himself against Barry’s rumours and then storms off.  Later, however, he encourages Heston to think again about Gloria and finally Sigourney turns up in the health centre car park and kisses Kevin.

Conclusions

My thoughts on the short series are that the on-going story was well thought through, although I’d imagine the more familiar you are with the series and the characters, the more you would get out of it.  There was another storyline in which Emma, a doctor, and Howard, the practice manager, were seen separately on several occasions reading Persuasion for the sponsored read, usually with the other’s voice heard as a voice-over reading the passage from the book.  I assume they have had a previous relationship a long time ago but I don’t know this as the last time I watched it, Emma had not yet arrived.  If I were a regular viewer, no doubt those scenes would be more meaningful to me.

I didn’t feel that the individual stories worked very well, however.  Because there was no time to develop the guest characters, a very broad-brush approach had to be used in order to establish their personality as well as make the link between the episode and the source book.  This led to the issues I’ve already highlighted surrounding mental illness, along with the fact that everything felt rushed and forced.  And why no Mansfield Park or Sense and Sensibility episode?

Overall I was disappointed; when I was still a regular viewer I saw a short series of Shakespeare-themed episodes which were much better constructed.  The stories were developed over several days, making them more believable and involving, and nobody had to dress up in period costume! In addition, much of the action took place on location in Stratford-on-Avon itself, which made it seem more of a special event.  A shame the Austen season didn’t achieve as much.

My November review will definitely be of Jo Baker’s Longbourn (audiobook).

Thankful for…

  • An enjoyable (if brief) trip to Kent to visit friends and relatives
  • Surviving the storm whilst we were there, with no damage to property or person
  • Ann Voskamp’s recent series on Missing Jesus, which I’ve found encouraging reading
  • The chance to spend time with my parents, who arrive today
  • The decisions over the Bookworm’s high school applications finally completed
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Heads up for my next review

As I explained in my September review post, my intention was to review the audio book of Jo Baker’s Longbourn for my October selection in the Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge. However, I discovered last week that the BBC daytime medical soap Doctors is running a week of Austen-related specials and I’ve decided to watch and review them, for a different angle, and defer Longbourn to November.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Doctors is based around a GP surgery in the fictional West Midlands town of Letherbridge. The staff (medical and admin) are the recurring cast and their patients are usually one-off or short-term characters. You can read more about it on the Wikipedia page. I used to watch it regularly but these days I only do so occasionally if I’m ill or if I read that someone famous is making a guest appearance. They’ve done themed weeks like this in the past, including a very good Shakespeare week that I managed to catch. I thought that this week’s episodes might each focus on one novel, starting with Pride and Prejudice, but having seen today’s I’ve realised it isn’t going to be like that so I’ll have to watch all five episodes before I review.

The purpose of this advance notice is to bring it to the attention of anyone else who might like to watch it, because by the time I post the review, today’s episode will be close to being removed. I know some of you are in other countries where Doctors might be running behind the UK, or not screened at all, but if you are able to access BBC iPlayer from where you are, you can find the first episode here. The episodes are available for a week, so today’s will disappear next Monday night.

Today’s episode both intrigued and confused me, and I’m interested to find out more. In the meantime, I’m trying not to become distracted by what may or may not have happened to the long-standing characters since last I saw them!

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Lions and Liquorice by Kate Fenton (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: September)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200It is a truth universally acknowledged – at least according to certain shiny magazines – that a single actress in possession of fortune, fame and more work than she can handle, must be in want of something.  Otherwise life wouldn’t be fair, would it?  And when that actress has reached the age of twenty-nine, it seems reasonable to assume that she might be in want of a husband.  Babies, even.  In fact, it would be nice to think she’s secretly yearning for some plain, routine domesticity of the kind experienced by us ordinary mortals who read such magazines.

This is the modern twist on the opening of Pride and Prejudice, which forms the not-quite-opening (there’s a prologue and a quotation first!) of Lions and Liquorice, Kate Fenton’s modern twist on the novel itself.

Despite the light, rom-com feel of this book, I found it extremely clever.  I knew from the start that it was a version of P&P in which all the genders were reversed, but picking it up to read at a time when I was exhausted and under the weather, I decided I didn’t have the energy to be on the look out for parallels all the way through – I’d just read it, and see what I thought.  Well, I didn’t have to be on the look out, because they were all there – not in a blindingly obvious, in-your-face-can-you-see-what-I’ve-done-here sort of way, but popping up and surprising me in every chapter.  Well, often after I’d finished the chapter and gone onto the next one, and then suddenly thought “oh yes! ha!” (I did say I was tired!)

Now, at this point I’m going to have to deviate from my stated aims regarding spoilers (you can read about them in this post), because I absolutely can’t continue to review this book without discussing the structure, and that means I have to talk about the content.  You’ll see what I mean if you read on – I’m not going to tell you everything that happens, but if you’d like to read this book and come to it fresh then I’ll bid you farewell now and welcome you back for my next post in October!  If you do read it, please pop back and see if you agree with my comments!

So, the book begins with the prologue – a phone conversation between author Nick Llewellyn Bevan and his ex-wife Caro.  She’s needling him about his recent lack of success and his current writer’s block.  He mentions that he’s about to appear on an arts programme alongside a bestselling romantic novelist who’s now publishing a book of tips for those interested in following in her footsteps.  Anyone could write that kind of trash, though, he remarks, to which his ex responds that if that’s true, she’s amazed more people don’t, given the money it makes…

Episode One begins by looking at by introducing various characters – Candia Bingham (the actress described in the opening paragraph), Bernard and Sarah Nuttall, proprietors of the Red Lion pub, their son Christopher, Nick (known, in the Yorkshire village where they all live, as Llew) and his friend John, a widower, who lives in a converted outbuilding of Llew’s house.  Mary Dance, Roderick Chatterton and Patrick Mather.  Candia, Roddy and Patrick are starring in a new production of Pride and Prejudice which is being filmed in the local area and directed by Mary.   The arrival of the cast and crew in the village gives Llew the idea of writing a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, and the events which follow provide him with plenty of fodder for his story.  The characters all meet up at a cricket club disco in the village and, to everyone’s amazement, John is singled out to dance by the lovely Candia while Llew, who sees Mary as a potential contact who might help him get one of his novels filmed or televised, finds himself snubbed and described as “halfway presentable”.  Time passes, John and Candia become inseparable and Llew and Mary begin to form a friendship.  However, Mary, keen to impress upon Candia the need to stop relying on her looks and work harder at furthering her career, is horrified to hear that her young friend plans to move John down to London when they leave Maltstone.

A sub-plot begins to develop surrounding the freehold to the Red Lion, which until recently was held by Bernard’s elderly uncle.  It was always expected that it would pass to the Nuttalls on his death, until he unexpectedly remarried, aged 72, and then died, leaving the pub to his recent bride Irene (pronounce Irenee).  As Nick is sitting writing one day, the doorbell rings and there stands Irene herself.  She’s looking for John but has come to the other house by mistake.

At this point, for few minutes, I became totally confused.  The narrative stops half way through a word, there’s a gap in the page and then the text begins again with another ring of the doorbell.  This time it’s Caro, who becomes confused when he tells her it was supposed to be the Reverend Collins at the door.  Caro discovers and reads the half-written manuscript of his modern-day Pride and Prejudice and it becomes clear that the previous 100 pages of the book were, in fact, that manuscript.  I’m not sure if the reader is intended to understand that in advance (looking back for the purposes of this review, I realise that there is half a page in which he’s described as Nick, not Llew, and contemplating the next scene, so it’s possible I was just being a bit dim) but it certainly took me by surprise!

Episode Two covers “real life”, which means all the surnames are changed – it’s a bit confusing for the reader at times, but no more so than for poor old Nick who even struggles on occasion to remember that they are real people and not characters he’s invented!  Most of the events in his story really have happened, as he explains to Caro, although Bernard and Sarah own their own freehold and their son Chris actually belongs to Nick and Caro!  The film party leaves Maltstone and a devastated John is abandoned by Candia, who heads off to New York.  The story progresses loosely along the lines of Pride and Prejudice, with Nick visiting his friend Charlie (the real husband of Irene, who is every inch the female Collins!) whilst in Llandudno for an arts festival.  He meets Mary again and their relationship progresses, despite negative stories he’s heard of her from her former employee Sasha, but when he hears that Mary was responsible for the end of John’s relationship with Candia he’s furious and walks out on her.

In Episode Three, Nick receives a letter of explanation from Mary.  His agent, George, mistakes his misery since returning from Wales as upset over Caro’s imminent remarriage, and arranges for him to accompany George and his wife on a trip to America, ostensibly for networking purposes.  Nick searches for Candia in New York and eventually tracks her down at a party held by Mary’s father.  Life begins to imitate art ever more seriously as Candia immediately asks after John (despite Roddy’s attempts to steer her away) and Nick and Mary are reconciled over the phone, only to discover before they can be reunited that Christopher has gone missing and Nick has to return to the UK to search for him.  This parallel to Lydia’s crisis in Austen’s original novel was very well-conceived, I thought, and accurately portrayed the sense of panic experienced by parents when a child disappears.

If you know P&P, you’ll be able to guess how things turn out, although the finer details are slightly different.  I really enjoyed this novel – there’s plenty of comedy and enough twists to keep the reader’s interest, even one as familiar with P&P as I am!  I thought that the story within a story element worked very well (despite my initial confusion) and demonstrated that sometimes real life is more exciting even than anything we can imagine.  There’s a lot of knowing references to Nick’s writing and its relationship with the events taking place, which I found entertaining, and the structure overall worked really well.  Altogether, I think this book was better than I expected – I felt I would enjoy it, but I had anticipated a “re-write” of a Jane Austen novel to be more predictable and have less of its own plot.

There’s an interesting story behind the writing of this novel which you can read on Kate Fenton’s website here.  The only thing the website didn’t tell me was why the title was changed for the US market to Vanity and Vexation.  Lions and Liquorice has a somewhat tenuous connection to the plot (in case you’re wondering – Mary found the location for the Pride and Prejudice shoot when she was researching for a film about liquorice making which is a local industry; Llew is Welsh for lion – there you go!), but I don’t think the ideas of vanity and vexation are any more representative.

For October I intend to review the audio book of Longbourn by Jo Baker, which I’ve heard a lot about and am looking forward to.

UPDATE: In fact I shall be reviewing Longbourn for November, as for October I watched a short Austen-inspired “season” on the BBC daytime soap Doctors.

Thankful for…


A smooth(ish) start to the school term

A lovely coffee morning on Friday, which raised £25 for Macmillan Cancer Support and was a good time catching up with friends

The reappearance of a missing schoolbook which has caused much stress

Progress in looking for a secondary school for the Bookworm (to start September 2014)

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Georgiana Darcy’s Diary by Anna Elliott (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: August)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200It’s not often I get the chance to read a whole book in one sitting these days, but on Friday, after a busy morning and lunchtime entertaining friends who dropped in on their way further south, I found myself feeling a little under the weather and Southern Daddy offered to entertain the girls whilst I had a quiet rest (to be honest, I don’t know how much entertaining he did – they’re fairly self-sufficient so I suspect he sneaked off somewhere to fine-tune the sermon he was preparing for Sunday morning!).  I decided to use the time to make a start on Anna Elliott’s Georgiana Darcy’s Diary, which has been hanging around on my phone’s Kindle app for over 6 months now whilst I somehow keep finding other things to do, and ended up reading the whole way through before I was called upon to read a bedtime story!

I think I was a bit nervous of reading another tribute set in a contemporary time to Pride and Prejudice after my dislike of Darcy’s Story – you’ll see that everything since then has been an updated version in one way or another.  However, I very quickly got into this and I enjoyed it very much.

The story is told in diary form, as the title would suggest, and begins in April 1814, just over a year after the events of P&P come to an end (admittedly there are no dates in P&P itself, but Georgiana states that that amount of time has elapsed since Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth).  It’s a light and easy read and concerns itself with the events over the course of five weeks or so, during a houseparty at Pemberley.  Peace has been declared, Darcy and Elizabeth are still enjoying married life, Caroline Bingley is still bitter and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is still attempting to dominate everyone around her.  “Aunt Catherine” has invited several eligible young (and less young) gentlemen to stay in the hopes of marrying off the 18-year-old Georgiana to one or other of them, and she’s not particularly bothered which one.  In the meantime, Georgiana is already in love and attempts, in turn, to avoid the attentions of some of her suitors, to force herself to fall for another, to forget the true object of her affections and to encourage her cousin Anne (daughter of Lady Catherine) to enjoy life a little more.

To add to the intrigue, there’s the arrival of a French aristocrat, recently restored to some of the fortune he left behind in his homeland and in search of an English estate to settle in, the young granddaughter of a local couple who is staying in the area and intending not to return home until she’s “engaged, at the very least” and the mystery of a missing necklace which creates conflict throughout the household.  The action culminates in a ball which is given in Georgiana’s honour at Lady Catherine’s insistence, and several matters come to head that even leading to a satisfying conclusion.

I felt that Elliott captured the spirit of a teenage girl’s diary very well, focusing on the typical romantic and somewhat self-centred concerns, and using the device cleverly to give background to the story by having the girl imagine that, although this is a personal diary, it might at some future time be discovered by “members of a future generation [who] will come across it one day in a musty old trunk and waste countless hours trying to puzzle out who everyone is.”  This means that the book can be read on its own, as well as being a sequel to P&P, since all the characters are described and explained.  The book also contains some line drawings which are referred to as Georgiana’s sketches, which I found interesting and quite natural for a diary.

At the same time the narrative shows Georgiana’s character developing, so that she’s able to overcome her shyness (without ever becoming too bold or rude) and develop more of a genuine concern for others which will enable her to become a respectable and sensitive woman.  There are several strands of dramatic irony, in which Georgiana herself is too innocent to interpret events which the reader will have no problem understanding, and whilst the eventual outcome is predictable, that doesn’t prevent the story from being enjoyable and there are still plenty of surprises in store along the way!

This is an enjoyable and undemanding sequel to Pride & Prejudice and I’d recommend it to those who enjoy Regency romance.  I can’t vouch for the authenticity of all the references and turns of phrase, but there was very little which felt uncomfortably out of place (the only phrase which springs to mind is smart aleck, which feels more modern – a google search reveals that its earliest known use was in the 1860s, so it is a little anachronistic, but not as much as I’d thought!).  If you have an e-reader or a Kindle app, the Kindle edition is available free.  I’m not sure I’m as keen to read the next in the series, however, partly because it’s priced at £3.08 and I generally try to stick to cheap or free Kindle editions, but mainly because it seems to be set at Waterloo and that doesn’t appeal as much.  One of the reasons I enjoy reading Austen’s novels, I think, is the small social microcosm they focus on, with no reference to anything particularly political or martial.  I am still stuck in the middle of Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army because of its inclusion of precise military detail so I’m not that excited about reading anything else set at Waterloo just yet!

My September choice for the challenge will be Lions and Liquorice by Kate Fenton.  I’ve never read any of her novels but I’m looking forward to being introduced to a new writer and, hopefully, a new seam of fiction to mine in my future spare moments!

Thankful for…

Time with many different friends over the Bank Holiday weekend (and our anniversary weekend – all anniversaries should be on a Bank Holiday Friday!)

The on-going beautiful weather which continues to astound and delight us

A surprisingly easy trip to town to buy school shoes yesterday – the Bookworm got shoes and trainers for less than half price each, the Butterfly was miraculously fitted with a pair of Clarks, meaning no trip to the expensive shop where they sell European shoes for people with tiny feet this year, it was all over in half an hour and we celebrated afterwards with milkshakes and waffles at a lovely 50s American-style diner we’ve “discovered” recently

The prospect of meeting a new friend tomorrow

The pleasure of spending time playing the piano, which I’ve neglected recently

Great news about the start of a new season at choir

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Do you know your tables?

A long time ago, before the concern over the appearance of our resting face, the fascination with how to treat introverts and even the quizzes revealing which Disney princess/Jane Austen heroine/Hogwarts house we were, the trend du jour was to ascertain our learning style.  There are three main categories that people fall into: visual learners, who are most receptive to information when it is presented in written or pictorial form; auditory learners, who best remember what they’ve heard; and kinaesthetic learners, who benefit from using movement, touch and texture when studying.  Most of us use a bit of everything, but there’s probably one you can identify as your main strength.

I’m most definitely an auditory learner.  I remember things much better if I hear them spoken or say them out loud to myself – especially with numbers, which I often confuse when I see them written down (bizarrely I always confuse the same pairs, because to me, certain numbers look like one another).  At university I once gave a friend the wrong date for a ball we were planning to attend together, because I’d only seen it written on a poster.  Thankfully, I realised my mistake in time to pass on the correct information, which was pretty lucky for me, as the friend in question was Southern Daddy and the occasion was the evening on which we decided we were actually more than just friends!

It’s useful to be aware of your own learning style, but all the more important to be aware that others may not share it, especially if you are involved in any form of teaching!  When I’m leading Bible studies (both for adults and children, at different times), I have to remember the importance of using visual information and interactive methods as well as just speaking.  We have a small whiteboard which we use at our ladies’ Bible study group – the hardest part for me is deciding what I should write on it that might be helpful to others!

I’ve been reminded of learning styles on a couple of occasions recently because of the issue of Times Tables.  I’m not an especially political person and, I’m afraid, pay less attention than I probably should to the news, but I read a few weeks ago on a blog that one of the planned changes to the school curriculum (which are pretty much a constant thing just at the moment) is to encourage children to return to chanting tables.  This has caused something of an outcry amongst teachers, along with maths experts such as Carol Vorderman, who don’t believe this is a helpful or effective way to learn them.  My first response was to wonder why they are all so against the method, since to my mind constant repetition is the best way to learn anything.

Then I realised I’d answered my own question: to my mind.  My auditorily-focused mind, which relishes hearing the spoken word, takes in sounds other people don’t notice, learns all the lyrics to a song by the third time through.  I learned my tables by reciting them, out loud, repeatedly, until they were stuck in my head.  (The last one to stick was 8×7=56 which I recently found out is recognised as the most difficult one).  But I’m told that auditory learners are in the minority, so it’s not surprising that teachers are concerned that this method won’t benefit their students.  Clearly what’s required is a bit of everything, so that each learning style is accommodated and all the children find something helpful to them (and, by the way, I don’t think I’ve just revealed anything especially groundbreaking there, if they trusted consulted teachers more they’d discover loads of little gems like that one).

All this has coincided with the Butterfly’s transition from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2 this coming September (for those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s what used to be called “going into the Juniors” – her year group will be turning 8 during the school year and work has a tendency to become noticeably more difficult) and the expectation that she will learn most, if not all, her tables over the coming months.  This proved more than a little difficult with her sister, who preferred to perform the calculations in her head rather than learn the answers.  Whilst mental arithmetic is a useful skill and one in which the Bookworm is very proficient, what’s required in tables-learning – whether you like it or not – is an instant recall of the answer.

So, in an effort to avoid the stress and misery which came with our last journey through Year 3 Tables Homework, I’ve been researching a variety of fun and interesting ways to learn them.  I started with a bit of googling, which threw up some ideas of games and websites.  Carol Vorderman’s site, The Maths Factor, offers a variety of courses aimed at children of different ages (primary school level).  It covers all kinds of numeracy work, including tables, but although I agreed with Vorderman’s overall approach (understanding patterns, working through tables spoken and written, aiming towards an instant recall of the individual responses and not just an ability to recite the table as a whole) when I read about it, the courses on the site are expensive and a big investment if you’re not sure your child will take to it.

I canvassed opinion via Facebook and discovered some other, much cheaper, resources from friends who are teachers or parents (or both!), including Teaching Tables which has various different free games, some of which work on learning and performing the calculations, including looking at the patterns, whilst others focus on the speed element.  Both the girls love Table Mountain, in which you have to answer a series of questions correctly in order to propel a climber to the top of the mountain (and successful participants get the fun of watching him slide down the other side!). Another teacher-recommended site is Education City, which caters for both schools and families.  However, membership is payable, and although a free 10-day trial is available we decided not to register as we were about to go on holiday and wouldn’t be able to use it (we may still try it!)

With the holiday in mind I wanted something portable to keep things ticking over (we didn’t do much but I feel it was better than nothing!), and took up another parent’s recommendation in the form of the Squeebles Times Tables 2 app from Key Stage Fun.  It’s available for iPhone, iPad and Android and cost me £1.49, but I think it will be well worth it.  As with Teaching Tables there are various tables-related activities and participation earns equipment for a just-for-fun game called Bubbleball.  When a stage or level of the tables activities has been completed, a Squeeble is rescued from imprisonment at the hands of the Maths Monster!  The games are customisable in the PIN-protected parents’ zone, e.g. at the moment I have removed the harder tables that we’re not working on and it’s easy to switch these back on again once we’re up to that.

I’m fairly sure that both my daughters are auditory learners like myself, so I wanted to find something we could listen to – particularly in the car – which might reinforce the learning almost subliminally.  To achieve this, the songs would have to be a) clear, b) fun and c) acceptable for parents to listen to several times over.  There are dozens of CDs and downloads of tables songs, and many of the samples I listened to were performed in unusual voices (singing cats, etc) which made the content unclear.  In the end, after a lot of review-reading, I plumped for what has possibly been my best decision in years: Professor Mathmo and the Voyage to the Times Tables.  This is written and performed by Giles Hayter, who conveniently happens to be a musician, artist, composer… and maths teacher.  On listening to this CD, my children have proclaimed him “The Colin of Maths” which, as you’ll agree if you’re a Colin fan, is no half-hearted accolade!  I have to agree that his approach is appealing, catchy and parent-friendly (no irritating squeaky voices… oh, OK, one irritating squeaky voice – but it’s for one line only and it’s actually very funny!).  The CD was £7.99 and over our two-week holiday we’ve probably listened to it over twenty times.  The songs are cheerful and clear – easier tables such as 2s, 5s, 10s, are sung as they stand, whilst the more difficult ones have rhyming lines as an aide-memoire – sometimes a whole line in between, sometimes just a little comment to tie together a section, such as:

One eleven is eleven

Two elevens is* twenty-two

Three elevens is thirty-three

And four is forty-four – who knew?

*Yes, it should be “are”, but as Southern Daddy pointed out, he’s a maths teacher, not an English teacher…

The girls have picked these songs up quickly and sing along to them whenever the CD is playing, as well as sometimes when it’s not.  I think this will be a winning move in the war on Tables Homework!  My only criticism would be that more could have been made of the “voyage to the times tables” concept.  There’s a booklet included which shows the answers in each table on a different page (in a random order), and the listener is encouraged to point to the numbers as the song plays (the idea obviously being to get quick enough at remembering the answers to be able to do this in time).  The numbers are represented by alien characters that Mathmo and his sidekick Walter meet, and I thought that there might be more of a story on the CD about the intergalactic voyage and goings-on on each planet.  A missed opportunity?  Perhaps, but at least there’s nothing to detract from the task in hand.

Still keen to use a more structured approach as well, I bought Carol Vorderman’s Times Tables Book, published by Dorling Kindersley.  As someone who’s worked with educational literature and seen a lot of it – good and bad – I’m a long-standing fan of Dorling Kindersley’s contributions, and was further reassured by the fact that this book uses Vorderman’s approach (detailed above) and that it has only good reviews on Amazon.  We’ve not gone far into it yet as we chose not to take that on holiday, but it seems helpful and informative, whilst colourful and imaginative enough not to come across as boring to children.

Altogether, my approach to the whole Tables journey is now a lot more positive, which can only be helpful to the process!

So, what about you?  What’s your learning style? What helps you take things in? Do you have any resources to add to my list of recommendations?

And do you know your tables?

Thankful for…

A really refreshing holiday with beautiful weather and many good memories

Some great times with extended family

A tidy, peaceful house to come home to (still reaping the benefits from Susan‘s planner!)

A couple of weeks to get ready for back-to-school

The prospect of a long anniversary weekend approaching

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Love, Lies and Lizzie by Rosie Rushton: audio edition read by Kate Byers (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: July)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200So, the school term is finally over and summer holidays have begun.  For Southern Daddy and myself, along with several others at our church, the first week of the summer holiday is always Holiday Club week, where 75+ primary school children descend on the church building, 5 hours a day for a week and we entertain them with songs, games, crafts and drama, as well as teaching them about Jesus and the crucial difference he makes to our lives.  It’s exhausting but ultimately feels very rewarding and it’s lovely to get to know the children so well, and especially to see them coming back year after year and seeing them grow (in their understanding as well as their height!).  The teaching is a challenge in many ways as most of the children aren’t familiar with the Bible passages and explaining them at holiday club is very different from teaching Sunday School or a Bible time with our own children, but the unexpected ideas and questions which cropped up helped us to examine the way we explained our faith to them and make sure we were really clear.

One of the things I was especially thankful for was that throughout the week I didn’t suffer from any migraines.  Not that I feel I’m indispensible, but I know what a complication it would have been for the co-leaders in my group, especially when having to decipher the notes I’d made for my teaching times!  So I was very glad to be able to be there all week and not struggling at any point and wishing I could go home.

When I’m suffering the best course of action (after appropriate medication has been administered) is to lie down in a darkened room, and to help me relax and pass the time I enjoy listening to audio books.  It can take me a long time to get through one as it generally relaxes me enough to fall asleep, meaning I have to find my place again when I wake up, but they’re very useful when I’m not able to read.  Recently I listened to a recording of Love, Lies and Lizzie, an updated version of Pride and Prejudice written for the YA market by Rosie Rushton and read by Kate Byers (Chivers audiobooks).

I had high hopes for Love, Lies and Lizzie, as I’d already enjoyed reading three of Rosie Rushton’s Jane Austen in the 21st Century series: Secret Schemes and Daring Dreams (her version of Emma), The Secrets of Love (Sense and Sensibility) and Summer of Secrets (Northanger Abbey).  She’s adept at translating the situations into a modern-day setting, using modern communications technology to good advantage, and also applying them to teenage characters (which works well with many of the elements of Austen’s novels, such as the amount of spare time the characters have, the absence of a work life or any real responsibility, etc).

What I found, on listening to the recording, was that my responses to the book and to the reading were very different.  Kate Byers, the reader, is an actor, producer and communications coach (although I’m not familiar with her work in any of these spheres) and has recorded several audiobooks spanning various genres.  Sadly, I was not impressed with her work on this recording.  I didn’t find her reading to be that clear, her emphasis in certain sentences was off the mark, making it difficult to understand what she was saying, and the voices she adopted for the various characters were nowhere near wide-ranging enough to provide the necessary distinction.  Now, I read to one or both of my daughters every night, and I know that Doing The Voices isn’t at all easy.  It’s not bad if you can make each character come from a different region or country (although on one famous occasion I got half way through The Gruffalo and couldn’t remember what voice I’d used for the Fox, much to the disgust of the pair of two-year-olds who made up my audience!), but an obligation to voice a whole group of characters from the same social and geographical background can present a challenge.  Nonetheless, there are things you can do to provide distinction.  (For one thing, ensuring that men have lower voices than women is a fairly fundamental requirement, and Byers didn’t always manage to achieve this).

Despite the presentation, however, I found that I enjoyed Rushton’s story.  I felt that she took rather too long to set up the scenario, although that was at the same time as I was contending with the confusing character voices (and I did fall asleep during the early part) so it could have been that which made it more irritating.  But once it properly got going, the plot flowed quite well. I loved the way she had expanded the range of travel to suit the modern setting, so that the equivalent of the Hunsford/Rosings visit became a work placement in France, and the (kind of) Pemberley equivalent is India.  Pride and Prejudice is a well-populated novel so the author had done well to find parallels for all the characters, from the arriviste Mrs Bennet and the eco-warrior Mary (now Meredith) to the pompous hospitality intern (Drew) Collins and the ultimate bad boy George Wickham.

One of the challenges of a modern-day Pride and Prejudice is obviously going to be Lydia’s scandal.  Obviously, in the present day, a teenage girl running away with an older and unreliable man is cause for concern, but even though Lydia is under age, there would be nothing like the resultant scandal that would have ensued in Austen’s day, and which was only partially averted by Lydia’s marriage to Wickham.  Rosie Rushton has here managed to find a treatment of the situation which is believable and fits well with Darcy’s testimony of his experiences the previous year.  What intrigues me, however, is the way in which both this book and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries chose to provide redemption for Lydia, rather than making her the incorrigable character she is in Austen’s original, where she’s left to lie in the bed she’s made for herself.  I’m not saying I don’t like it, I’m just not sure about its being so different.  Is it, perhaps, just too difficult to find a modern parallel which fits well enough for Lydia to continue to be the unapologetically spoilt, silly, selfish girl she always was, rather than emerging chastened and wiser from her experiences?  I certainly don’t have the answers – it’s just something I’ve observed.

A couple of things I didn’t like were the unnecessary changing of names – why does Charlotte Lucas have to be Emily?  And why James Darcy?  It’s not as if Charlotte and William, Will even, are less popular names amongst young people – and the fact that, having taken a while to get started, the book ended in quite a rush – I was expecting it to go on for much longer and in the end Lizzy’s two trips (to Hunsford and to Derbyshire) were rolled into one to save on time.  Lady Catherine (Katrina) de Bourgh made very little impression on me as a character, which feels wrong, given her presence in P&P which overshadows much of the book, despite her comparatively small number of appearances.

All-in-all, however, I enjoyed the story and feel I’d have enjoyed it still more, had I read the book rather than listening to the recording.  I’d really like to read the other two in the series (yes, I’ll even give the one based on Mansfield Park a try!), but I don’t think I’ll take the risk with the audio versions!

August’s pick for the challenge will most likely be Georgiana Darcy’s Diary by Anna Elliott as I’ve had it on my phone for months now!

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Thankful for…

  • The AMAZING weather we’ve been having
  • A really wonderful Holiday Club week
  • Keeping free of migraines for all of last week
  • Our holiday plans (which had to undergo a rather dramatic change very recently but are still lots to look forward to!)
  • A chance to relax with my girls now
  • The prospect of seeing my parents next week
  • My new vacuum cleaner, which arrives tomorrow
  • A really sweet friend who turned up with crocheted toys for the girls this morning
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Austenland by Shannon Hale/Lost in Austen, 2008 ITV series (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: May/June)

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200Well, hello again, after almost two months of struggling through colds and other bugs (not all mine, although it sometimes felt that way!) and generally not having time to do an awful lot besides keep the essentials ticking over!  In view of the fact that I’m now a month behind on my Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge posts, I thought I’d do a sort of two-in-one this month, with a review of two Pride and Prejudice spin-offs set in modern times.  They don’t actually have that much in common, story-wise, but by chance I ended up reading/watching both this month and as they both concern a young woman thrust into the Regency world I thought I’d review both and possibly compare and contrast a bit.

“I’m not hung up about Darcy. I do not sit at home with the pause button on Colin Firth in clingy pants, okay? I love the love story. I love Elizabeth. I love the manners and language and the courtesy. It’s become part of who I am and what I want. I’m saying that I have standards.”

So speaks Amanda Price, at the start of ITV’s 2008 series, Lost in Austen.  She’s a single-ish, twenty-something resident of modern-day Hammersmith, who loves to immerse herself in Austen’s novels and feels as a result that she can expect more from her romantic future than her lacklustre relationship with Michael, who seems to love beer and bikes more than he loves her.

Her claim not to be hung up about Darcy is not something that could be echoed by Jane Hayes, protagonist of Shannon Hale’s novel Austenland.  She’s similar to Amanda in some ways, but slightly older and lives in New York.  Although she’s read almost all of Austen’s novels (with the exception of Northanger Abbey – “of course” says the narrative, which, as one forum contributor put it, “lets you know she’s one of Those People”!), her real obsession is the 1995 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  She has watched it countless times and has become caught up in the love story, which has had detrimental repercussions on her own love life to the extent that she has decided to give up on relationships altogether rather than settle for anything less than Firth’s Darcy.  An elderly relative, who dies shortly after discovering Jane’s obsession, bequeaths her a curious legacy in the form of a Regency-themed holiday in an English stately home, where actors are employed to enhance the visitors’ experience.  Jane goes along intending to lay her obsessions to rest but finds it difficult to “play along”, especially when some of the other visitors’ attempts at authenticity leave a lot to be desired.  She cannot fully immerse herself in the experience but constantly wonders, for example, what purpose each of the actors is serving (whether a particular gentleman has been brought in “for” someone in particular, etc) and whether she is being sidelined because she’s been told by the very strict and disapproving holiday manager that she’s not their usual type of guest.

Surreal as this may be for her, it’s nothing compared to the shock Lost in Austen‘s Amanda receives when, one day, she discovers Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom, and learns that a small door in the wall (which seems just to cover up some pipework) is a kind of portal between Amanda’s world and Elizabeth’s.  On going to investigate, Amanda finds herself trapped on the Pride and Prejudice side and must explain her presence in the Bennet house (she’s a friend of Elizabeth’s), along with Elizabeth’s absence (she has gone to stay at Amanda’s house in Hammersmith whilst she writes a book).  Unfortunately, Amanda finds she has arrived just at the beginning of the novel’s events and, try as she might, she’s unable to prevent them from going off course from time to time.  She finds the whole situation quite stressful and initially responds to this in a very 21st century way, for example getting drunk at the Meryton Assembly and snogging Mr Bingley who comes out to check on her and who subsequently becomes infatuated with her.  Small mistakes set off a chain of unintended events and, just as everything seems to have got hopelessly out of hand, she finds herself unexpectedly back in modern times and realises she must find Elizabeth so that everything can be rectified.  In the meantime, however, both Amanda and Elizabeth have acclimatised to their new surroundings and find it more difficult than Amanda had envisaged to return to normal.

My responses

I found Austenland very difficult to get into, which came as a disappointment because I’d heard great things about it and I know it’s about to be released as a film featuring some actors I really love, so I wanted to like it.   The main problem was that I really didn’t like the character of Jane.  I’m all for escapism in the form of books, films, or whatever takes your fancy, but I have little sympathy for anyone who allows it to take over their life – especially to the extent of giving up on relationships because they’re not fulfilling the standards set by the fantasy.  I also found the first half or so rather disjointed and confusing, although I later wondered whether that might be intentional to some extent, to reflect Jane’s own state of mind.  My other problem was with the unconvincing portrayal of an English character.  I don’t want to come across as all snobbish and exacting, but it just sounded so wrong!  Now, it’s complicated because many of the characters in the book aren’t all they seem, and this one was no exception, so you might say in Hale’s defence that it could be deliberate.  But I don’t really buy that – even with that in mind, it just didn’t convince.  It was made more grating by the fact that the author had chosen to include another character who tried to be English and failed miserably.  If you’re going to poke fun at that sort of person, you need to be confident you know what English people are, and are not, likely to say and do, and this didn’t really seem to be the case in Austenland.

Anyway, for the sake of knowing I was going to review the book, I persevered and eventually settled into the flow of the story (as Jane settled into her surroundings, which was what prompted me to wonder if it was deliberate!) and actually quite enjoyed the end.  I did like the accounts of Jane’s relationship history interspersed throughout the book, which was a clever approach and tied in neatly as the book drew to a close.  There were some surprises towards the end which cheered me up, just when I thought I knew what was going to happen.  I never really warmed to Jane herself though (maybe I just couldn’t get past her aversion to Northanger Abbey!) and I’d be unlikely to bother with any more in the Austenland series.

Lost in Austen seems to me a much more entertaining approach to twisting a story.  The sudden and surprising way in which Amanda finds herself in Longbourn and the Pride and Prejudice world means that the audience is swept along with the storyline, and despite lacking some of the freshness it had had when I first watched it, it still held plenty of surprises in the small details I’d forgotten.  The dialogue is witty (and in some places, laugh-out-loud – Darcy in particular is given some hilarious lines) and the way the story persists in going off course, despite Amanda’s efforts to salvage the situation, is lots of fun.  However, Amanda’s early insistence that her interest in the novel is more than superficial meant that I felt extremely let down by her decision to ask Darcy to jump into his lake (despite the comedy value in seeing him standing in a much smaller and more ornamental pond than in the BBC version) and I didn’t really think it fitted with the overall story of her dawning realisation about where she truly belonged.

My favourite part by far was the final episode, there are some wonderful comic occurrences involving Lydia’s elopement (not at all the way it turns out in the book!) and in particular Darcy’s assessments of modern-day London.  I also enjoyed the way in which the writers had played with the back story so that not everyone turned out to be what they’re portrayed in the novel – particularly George Wickham, who’s full of surprises!  What’s really interesting, for an Austen fan, is the way little elements from other novels sneak into the storyline.  Obviously Amanda is referred to as Miss Price throughout the series, which brings echoes of Mansfield Park, but there are other moments too, such as when Amanda berates Darcy for his snobbery and uses Mr Knightley’s “badly done”, and when a rumour circulates that Amanda has exaggerated the extent (and source) of her fortune and is turned out by the Bennets in a very similar way to Catherine Morland’s experience at the hands of General Tilney.

Lost in Austen is currently available on Lovefilm Instant in the UK, as well as DVD, and I’d recommend it as an interesting and lighthearted watch if you haven’t already seen it.  It features some long-established British actors such as Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston and Lindsay Duncan, as well as some who have gone on to make more of a name for themselves in the past five years, like Jemima Rooper, Gemma Arterton and Tom Riley.  Guy Henry (whom I first saw in a play in Stratford when I was an A-level student, and whom I generally love to bits) is marvellously vile as Mr Collins (but, like the BBC P&P, far, far too old!) and Ruby Bentall (who has since turned up in Lark Rise and The Paradise and who, it turns out, is the daughter of the wonderful Janine Duvitski) makes a refreshing change to the usually unlikable character of Mary.

For my July review I’ll probably either be discussing Georgiana Darcy’s Diary or the audiobook version of Love, Lies and Lizzie, because I have both of those already and can just get onto them.  If something crops up, however, I may change my mind – both of the titles I’ve reviewed this time turned up completely unexpectedly but seemed like too good an opportunity to miss!

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Thankful for…

Keeping going through a long period of minor illnesses

A lovely weekend last week with our church family, plus the Boy and the Baby and their mum

Some answers to prayer regarding my grandmother who was struggling to care for herself and now has the support she needs

Repairs to our leaky roof!

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