Wednesday, October 1, 2014


One month ago today, we published our September issue of Halfway Down the Stairs.  And I forgot to tell you.

As Paul Simon says:

“I know a man
He came from my home town
He wore his passion for his woman
Like a thorny crown
He said 'Dolores
I live in fear
My love for you's so overpowering
I'm afraid that I will disappear'” 

Check it out.  We've got some lovely writing on that site this quarter.

And if you're the writing sort, we have a deadline coming up on November 1, for our December issue, which is themed "Puzzle".  What does that theme mean to you?  Please show us.

potato peel pie?

For book club this month, we read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer. 

Once you get past the initial question... (potato peel pie?!) this is a lovely novel.  Written entirely as an epistolary novel, it manages to keep up a strong pace and introduce you to a motley crew of characters who are loveable and totally three-dimensional.

I've decided I love novels that are made of letters.  Daddy-Long-Legs, if you've read it, is similarly charming to this one.  They make for easy and natural reads, but while this one is fun and sweet it also manages to do justice to really serious things.  I'm not sure how the author did it!

The heroine is Juliet Ashton, a columnist in London, immediately post-WWII, who is promoting a novel.  She receives a letter out of the blue from a Channel Islander.  A secondhand book she once owned has fallen into his hands, and he writes to the address in the front cover telling her how much he has enjoyed the novel.  As they begin to exchange letters, she finds out more about an unusual society started by some of the residents of Guernsey during the Nazi occupation of their island during the Second World War.  Before long, Juliet is hooked - writing regularly to the members of the society, and well aware that she has tumbled upon the next big story that needs to be told.

The characters are lovely and the story has got everything.  Good, evil, things in between.  Love, misunderstandings, friendship, enmity.  Hope in humanity, sorrow in evil too great for words.  A new slant on WWII literature.  It's not Great Literature but it is delightful and thoughtful.  I read it in only several days because I enjoyed it so much.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

sight reading

Last time I read a novel by Daphne Kalotay, I raved about it.  So my expectations were set fairly high when I picked up her more recent novel recently.  It was published in 2013, but I'm going to call it a new release anyway.

Sight Reading is a novel about relationships, which happens to be set in Boston, USA, and in the context of the classical music scene.  It takes a journey through three separate periods in the characters' lives, slowly unravelling the ways in which they develop, pull apart and come together again.

Nicholas Elko is a talented conductor and composer who is going places.  He comes to Boston with his wife Hazel and their young daughter Jessica in 1987, to take up a new job in the conservatory.  He meets Remy, the young, determined violin student - and they overwhelm each other.  Suddenly, the Elko family is broken up.

The novel is a story of how these relationships adapt over time.  How does a family learn to cope with functioning as separate units?  With sharing custody and the love of a child?  How will Hazel come to terms with the change in her situation which was no fault of her own, and how will she function, forced to remain on acceptable terms with her ex-husband and his new wife for the sake of their child?  What happens when Nicholas and Remy become used to each other and all their flaws?  What happens when they face their own disappointments and failings?

It is also a story that is interwoven with creativity and people who are creative in different ways (but most particularly in music).  As Nicholas gains more and more critical and popular acclaim, he continues to work on his symphony which he knows will be a masterpiece but which never quite seems to become coherent.

In the end, this is a story that explores the complicated meaning of family and how it can expand and contract painfully, but ultimately beautifully.  It explores the way in which art gives voice to and reflects things that words cannot express.

Sight Reading is very well-written and readable, and the denouément comes strongly and smoothly just when it is necessary.  I normally find books with such sudden leaps in timing more difficult to read, but this moved along smoothly and masterfully.  I have to admit, however, that at times I skipped over passages, particularly descriptions of music that I had no way of hearing.

It was nice to see the author trying her hand at a story with less epic drama than her last novel (Russian Winter) but just as much human interest.  The characters were quite well-rounded and vivid, and the story was engrossing.  I liked how the perspectives changed, and you saw how different people misunderstood each other.

Something wasn't entirely there, however.  I wonder if the characters were all too talented and creative?  Is it really normal to only have friends that do interesting and magical things?  I suppose it might be that way if you work in a music conservatory, but it just felt like normal people were missing somewhere...  I also found myself wondering quite often where the story was going, and what the purpose of some of its elements were.  Sometimes this became clear, and yet sometimes it did not.

I do think this was a very good book.  I wouldn't rate it as highly as Russian Winter but that's not saying much, given that I gave Russian Winter my highest rating ever.  It's the kind of book that you won't regret reading, I would think, and it definitely gave me some thoughts to mull over.  I liked it very much.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

it's a long way down

I have been absent for a while - probably because I have not been reading particularly often, unless you count that we read Little Women for book club in June, and I found it overwhelmingly disappointing.  I had read it when I was a child - once - and had watched the movie - once - and couldn't remember much about it when we agreed it could be fun to read it again.  It was not.  What a painful book.  I have to admit I didn't actually finish because I just found myself thinking I could be spending my time in so many different, more valuable ways...

This month's book club selection was much better:

Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down.

I've actually read this one before, but knew that I would want to read it again.

I see that a movie has recently been released and I hope that it is good, but I suspect it will Hollywood-ize this to an extent that misses Nick Hornby's graceful and careful handling of difficult subject matter.  This novel is well and truly a comedic novel, but it grapples with suicide with more empathy and realism than anything else I have ever read - at least, it feels that way to me. 

Four strangers meet on a London rooftop on New Year's Eve, intending to throw themselves off.  This is the story of their unlikely friendship - a friendship based on the fact that they are the only people they know who understand what it's like not to want to live anymore.  Apart from that, they are alien to each other - poles apart.

The two main things I admire about this book are that:

  • Each of the main characters has a unique and distinctive voice, and the author inhabits them equally effectively.  It's not often that you see an author manage to narrate equally successfully through such different characters. 
    Even though I finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago, I still think of the characters and am absorbed in their stories.  I don't think of the mechanics of the prose or the plotline, but the characters are real to me.  That is what makes a good novel.
  • I don't think the novel sentimentalizes or sugar-coats the issues.  It doesn't do away with the realities facing each of the characters, or suggest that life is going to become, miraculously, easy.  Somehow, nonetheless, it demonstrates the possibility of hope.  I really think that Nick Hornby has done a service to humankind in writing it.  I hope that it has helped people.

Highly recommended.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Love in a Cold Climate

I have seen a movie version of this book already - it wasn't bad, and so when I saw this book in the cheap-as-chips Penguin edition I decided to get it.

It has been sitting on my bedside table for a few months now, waiting, but now I am on holiday - in a bach in a beachy location with plenty of time on my hands.  Due to Easter falling one week before Anzac Day, I've taken three days leave and have ten solid days away from work! ... Anyway, the point is, I have finally picked the book up and read it from cover to cover in less than 24 hours.

The story is narrated by Fanny, a cousin/friend and onlooker on several families. She has grown up with several other English girls of the upper classes, all of whom are falling in and out of love. Along comes the beautiful Polly, home from India with her father the Viceroy and her frightening mother, and she doesn't seem interested in falling in love.

I give it a solid three stars. It was a good read with some great characters and there were some moments of real satirical genius. I particularly liked Uncle Matthew and his memories of the Boer War:

"Four days in a bullock wagon," he used to tell us, "a hole as big as your fist in my stomach, and maggoty! Happiest time of my life. The only thing was one got rather tired of the taste of mutton after a bit, no beef in that campaign, you know."

Then there's the splendid and ridiculous Cecil:

"Won't you take off your spectacles?" said Lady Montdore. "I should like to see your eyes."
"Later, dear Lady Montdore, later. When my dreadful, paralysing shyness (a disease with me) has quite worn off."

I also really liked the way it ended - it was quite funny. But I won't give away any spoilers.

It wasn't the best book ever, all the same. Perhaps it was the writing - it was fine, but not excellent. And I guess the reputation this book has for social satire made me expect a sort of 20th century Austen but it's not quite as biting as I had hoped.

So, all in all, a good-ish book. 

Now - back to the holiday! I've got Katherine Mansfield's short stories sitting waiting for me....

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

the alchemist

It's Book Club this Friday.  We meet in a café, buy drinks, and talk about books.

On the basis of another member's recommendation, this month we've read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.  Hence this review.

I've got at least one good thing to say about it.  It's short.

Other than that, I'm going to have trouble being nice, because I found this one of the more painful books I've ever forced myself through.  The writer's sentimental and slightly vain introduction didn't help, but I tried to keep an open mind as I started reading the story...

I guess I can also be slightly positive in that the book wasn't difficult to read.  It wasn't well-written, but it was at least readable.  For a while, I was interested in what would happen to the main character, an unnamed 'boy' who starts as a shepherd in Spain and who travels across North Africa in pursuit of his "Personal Legend" (BLERGH).  I guess the first two thirds are slightly plot-driven and so more tolerable.

Then you get to the bit where the boy is communing with the desert and discovering the Soul of the World and listening to his heart and becoming friends with his heart and being congratulated by an alchemist for pursuing his Personal Legend and learning that it is we who nourish the Soul of the World, et cetera, et cetera.  I just can't write any more because it's too painful.  GAH.

The Alchemist is deeply depressing, as yet another example of a terrible book which has somehow made its author famous and rich.  One star from me - and that's being generous.

At least I've got out the worst of my spleen.  Now I have to work on being polite about the book on Friday.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

last ride

I have had an exceptionally busy few weeks.  And I have not been reading much, unfortunately.

But I did get a chance to watch an Australian film from 2009 called Last Ride, which was pretty much forced on me by a colleague who said he knows that I don't like being forced to read or watch things but that in this case the movie was so good that he was not giving me a choice.

Last Ride stars Hugo Weaving and a kid called Tom Russell, who play a father (Kev) and son (Chook).  There are a few other incidental characters here and there but the film is very much focused around this relationship.  The film is based on a book called 'The Last Ride', by Denise Young.

The film begins in the early hours of the morning, with Chook waking, in the car, somewhere in rural Australia.  He and his father are on the run.  It will take us some time to find out what from, and why.

It is a really beautiful movie - wonderfully filmed, well conceived, excellently acted, well paced and plotted.  It had all the best elements of fiction going for it, but it also gave me the impression that it was entirely real.  The two main actors (and indeed everyone else touched by the storyline) were really superb - nothing made me think 'what skill, what soulful acting' because I was far too busy being engrossed in their reality.  They were heart-breakingly three-dimensional and human.

Characterisation, in fact, is what makes this film sing.  No one is a monster, but everyone is flawed and broken.  In the midst of all this brokenness, relationships are fragile and yet resilient.  I suppose it is a tragic story.  I know that I couldn't sleep for hours after watching it, just lying in bed thinking about those characters.

I highly recommend this movie.  Normally I'm reluctant to watch "tragedies" because I feel manipulated by them.  In this case, there was nothing manipulative about the way this film was put together.  It's just a superb piece of story-telling which will stay with you for a long time.  Five stars from me.

If you need any further convincing - see Roger Ebert's review here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

what I did on my holidays (part the third)

On my final full day in England, I got up and drove to Winchester, Hampshire.

This is not my own photo, because for some reason I didn't take one from outside of the cathedral which is basically the central point of Winchester:

Image via Panoramio
 It didn't really look like that on the day, being December in the northern hemisphere, and in England no less - but it did look rather beautiful.  It happened to be a day of Christmas markets!

Christmas markets are a happy thing.

What I was really there to see, though, was the interior.

Winchester Cathedral
 In particular...

The slightly weird thing about visiting Jane Austen's grave is that it's just another slab in the floor which you're clearly not expected to refrain from walking over.  In this photo, you can even see the leg of one of the cathedral chairs placed artistically (or maybe not so artistically) over the gravestone.

Never mind.  Here was the gravestone, and I am thankful that it still exists, unlike so many of the things which used to prove she existed and now are gone forever.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think we are extremely lucky to have as much as this grave, because she certainly wasn't drastically famous when she died, and we probably owe our luck to the fact that she had a rich brother.

It wasn't until later that they installed a stained glass window for her in the same cathedral (of which I got no good photos), and this gold thing:

From Winchester, it was off to the tiny town of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life.  This house was a part of her rich brother's estate - he had been adopted by his aunt and uncle when he was small, as they could have no children of their own, and his own parents recognised it was a good opportunity for him.  In fact, his riches meant that Jane, her sister Cassandra and her mother did not have to have a drastic lifestyle change after the death of her father.

The Austen women and a family friend, also a single woman, lived in this red brick house in Chawton:

Jane used to sit in the parlour, writing at this very table, and hiding her sheets of paper under a blotter when people entered for visits:

This was the place she edited Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey before they were published.  This was the place she wrote Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

She and Cassandra shared a room upstairs, looking out over the back of the house:

It was absolutely lovely to visit this place.  They had a few items of real interest, like the writing desk, although most items were objects of a similar kind to what the Austen family might have had in their home.  Walking round someone's house, though, you get a sense of the way they lived, and can visualise their lifestyle in a new and interesting way...  I found it quite moving and I also found myself thinking extremely conceited thoughts like "We would have been best friends!"  Slightly wishful thinking but that was the direction my thoughts went in.

This really was a wonderful note to finish my time in England on.  (If I were being really honest I would admit that I actually finished my time in England in the nearby town of Basingstoke and then flew out of London Stansted, neither of which is in any way romantic or exciting, but I'm going to pretend I ceased to be in England when I left Chawton.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Would you like an adventure now...

... or shall we have our tea first?"

Is what Peter Pan said to Wendy, John and Michael.

And our latest (26th!!!) issue of Halfway Down the Stairs is out now, themed "Adventure".

 We really hope you like it.

If you are something of a wordsmith, you might like to consider submitting some work to us.  Submission guidelines are here.  Our next issue (June 2014) is themed "Possession" - should be interesting seeing what comes our way!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

novel or fanfiction?

I should have learnt my lesson last time I hunted down a continuation to Jane Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons.

And then Book Depository recommended this for me... Joan Aiken's 'completion' of Jane Austen's fragment: The Watsons & Emma Watson.  Of course I had to have it.

The last time I tried John Coates' continuation I was disappointed, even though it wasn't a bad book, simply because I loved the original fragment so much that it would be hard for anyone else to satisfactorily complete it.  But I wondered if maybe this would be better.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn't... not really.  Again, it wasn't a bad book.  It was fairly readable.  It was somewhat higher quality than most of the fanfiction I used to obsessively read.

But it certainly wasn't Jane Austen.

It would be asking a lot to expect that.  Nevertheless, it's sad.  I actually think the author here bit off more than she could chew - normally, with fanfiction, you can start a new story, featuring a new perspective, and so the comparison is not so transparent.  In this case, the reader has to read Jane Austen's unfinished text right at the beginning, and the new part needs to seamlessly flow on from that.  It did not.

The main problems:
  • Characterisation - The characters we had already met changed slightly, and subtly modernised.  New characters introduced into the story were pretty two-dimensional.
  • Odd and unnecessary plot twists - Aiken chose to kill off some critical characters - Jane Austen herself indicated to her sister that one character would have died if she had finished the book - but the others, I think, were completely unnecessary, and it just didn't feel like the sort of decision Austen would have made for the plot.
  • How the book ended - The ending raced to its conclusion in an oddly unsatisfying way.  I also think that the author should have paid slightly more attention to Austen's own intentions for the book.  I get that you have to do what works for the story as you actually write it, but the inspiration for this book did not belong to Joan Aiken, and yet she chose to send the book in a different direction than Austen said she would have.
  • Period detail overkill - The author was way too keen to include period detail, as if to say, "look, look, I've done my research!"  It was all detail that I can't see Austen getting into - she didn't need to include it because her readers would have understood.  I guess your opinion on this might differ based on your expectations of the book - I expected to see a "completion" of Jane Austen's manuscript, not a new book directed at modern readers.

Having said all that... the book's not bad.  It's a pretty good effort at fanfiction, in my opinion, as fanfiction attempts go.  But it's quite a big claim to make - that you are "completing" a Jane Austen novel - and I'm afraid I was consequently slightly more judgmental than I might otherwise have been.  Two stars from me.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

what I did on my holidays (part the second)

After visiting Bath, I had a non-Austen interlude in Bristol, visiting my old penpal and former fellow HDtS editor V. - which was lovely.  The last time we saw each other we were 11 years old!

Somewhere in Somerset

After two nights with V. and her husband M., I hired a little red ladybug-like car and set off on the next stage of my literary pilgrimage.  To be honest, the first stage of this next stage was not-so-literary - I was simply driving through Somerset, on the way to my ultimate literary destination, and stopping at Wells to see a pretty cathedral town.  And a pretty cathedral town it was:

After wandering round Wells and scoffing a Cornish pasty, I was on the move again - driving into Dorset on my way to the coastal town of Lyme Regis.

Lyme Regis
Lyme Regis is a gorgeous little seaside town on the Jurassic Coast of southern England, and it happens to be a place where the Austen family spent some holidays.  Jane Austen loved the place, and she ended up using it for the location of a pivotal part of Persuasion.  (Interestingly enough, I understand it's also the location for a Meryl Streep movie, the title of which I cannot remember...)

Even if I weren't a Jane Austen fan, I would have loved visiting this place.  Little English seaside towns have such an atmosphere, and this one is completely charming.

But it certainly added something, knowing that I was walking around a place that Jane Austen loved, and, especially as I approached the Cobb, visualising her characters taking the very same path as me.

The Cobb

The Cobb is a kind of breakwater to the west of the village which creates an artificial harbour - boats can be moored within it while the waves beat on the other side.  I had no idea until now just how old it is - the first written record is from 1328.

You can walk along the top, and risk getting splashed, or down out of the wind and seaspray.  I walked on the top, and I can understand now exactly why Louisa Musgrove started getting over-excited.

... as they drew near the Cobb, there was such a general wish to walk along it once more, all were so inclined, and Louisa soon grew so determined, that the difference of a quarter of an hour, it was found, would be no difference at all; so with all the kind leave-taking, and all the kind interchange of invitations and promises which may be imagined, they parted from Captain and Mrs. Harville at their own door, and still accompanied by Captain Benwick, who seemed to cling to them to the last, proceeded to make the proper adieus to the Cobb. ...

The steps of the Cobb
There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa: she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet made him less willing upon the present occasion; he did it, however. She was safely down, and instantly to shew her enjoyment, ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she smiled and said, "I am determined I will": he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless! There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death. The horror of that moment to all who stood around!

Captain Wentworth, who had caught her up, knelt with her in his arms, looking on her with a face as pallid as her own, in an agony of silence. "She is dead! she is dead!" screamed Mary, catching hold of her husband, and contributing with his own horror to make him immoveable; and in another moment, Henrietta, sinking under the conviction, lost her senses too, and would have fallen on the steps, but for Captain Benwick and Anne, who caught and supported her between them.

"Is there no one to help me?" were the first words which burst from Captain Wentworth, in a tone of despair, and as if all his own strength were gone. 

"Go to him, go to him," cried Anne, "for heaven's sake go to him. I can support her myself. Leave me, and go to him. Rub her hands, rub her temples; here are salts: take them, take them."

Captain Benwick obeyed, and Charles at the same moment disengaging himself from his wife, they were both with him; and Louisa was raised up and supported more firmly between them, and everything was done that Anne had prompted, but in vain; while Captain Wentworth, staggering against the wall for his support, exclaimed in the bitterest agony --
"Oh God! her father and mother!"
"A surgeon!" said Anne.

I couldn't stop smiling as I walked up and down the Cobb and particularly as I carefully made my way down the steps.  This is my happy place.

And that was the end of the second day of my pilgrimage.

Sort of.  I then drove to a tiny little place called Durweston, Blandford Forum, Dorset - which I think is just a wonderful series of names - and stayed the night in a thatched cottage.  I would name this day as one of the best days of my whole trip.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"rescuing" jane eyre

I have to confess that when I first saw this story on the BBC News website I was appalled.

"Is Jane Eyre a feminist icon?" the headline asked.  Then the text read 'The writer Beatrix Campbell praised the new production for aiming to "rescue" the book from becoming "a late 20th century Fifty Shades of Grey" in which "a poor girl meets a rich brute and falls for him".'

I was totally appalled because I couldn't believe anyone would try to "rescue" the book or question the feminist significance of it.

Then I listened to the podcast and realised I had got muddled - it's actually about rescuing Jane Eyre from the MODERN interpretation of the book, which emphasises the passionate love story over  Jane's character, grit and resilience.  Instead, the play they are talking about is a life story, not a love story - like the book.

Have a listen.  It's good stuff.

It reminds me of an article I read on Jane Eyre the film, by a certain male film critic who decided the film adaptation supported his idea that Jane Eyre is no feminist role model.  Interesting, given the comments above.

Anyway, what I remember about the article is not this critic's nebulous reasoning.  It's a comment that someone wrote underneath it which I've always been quite pleased by.  I think pleased because someone else had put into words my own feelings about the book, feelings that I had never expressed half as well.  Jane Eyre is a novel that tends to bring out different reactions in everybody who reads it, and so it's rare to find that someone else feels the same way.  You may feel completely differently and be disappointed or slightly sceptical about the below, but here is the comment:

Thursday, February 13, 2014

what I did on my holidays (part the first)

Pulteney Bridge

I did a lot of things on my holidays.  They were six weeks long and I visited Europe, in fact.  But one of my favourite things of all was my Jane Austen pilgrimage.

Part 1 of the pilgrimage was in Bath, England, where Jane Austen spent some years of her life and where parts of her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are set.  It happens to be somewhere she hated to live - it is said that she fainted when she learned that her parents were leaving the family parsonage in Steventon, Hampshire, and taking Jane and her sister Cassandra to live in Bath.  When she wrote Northanger Abbey as a younger woman the bright lights were still an exciting prospect for her, but by the time she wrote Persuasion as an older woman she had well and truly tired of Bath and what I understand she considered to be its shallowness.  While she lived there, she found herself unable to write successfully at all.  It was not until she left Bath and moved to the small village of Chawton, onto her brother's estate, that her most productive era began.

There is a bit of a Jane Austen industry in Bath - it is home to the Jane Austen Centre, and its heyday was Georgian, so it really does look the part.  I even found a free audio tour online, with a complementary map, to take you around "Jane Austen's Bath".  In fact, it's a collection of places that are directly relevant to Jane Austen and her novels, and then a bundle of other places that just look like Regency fiction (or may have been scenes in different movie adaptations).

Having said that, despite all the Georgian England overtones, I wandered into a random café at one point, sat down and realised I was sitting next to a Rolling Stone (Ronnie Wood, to be precise, looking slightly out of place).  Luckily, at 27 years old, I'm not young enough to interest him, but for those out there who may not be fans of Jane Austen, there are other reasons to visit Bath.

Anyway - back to the tour - I will take you through a few of its moments.

The Pump Room
First up, the Pump Room.  I have to admit I only popped my head in here because it was a particularly beautiful tearoom/café (maitre d', live pianist, crisp linen and all that) and I didn't feel like paying to eat more food and having to mind my manners instead of pulling my book out and leaning on my elbows on the table.  But while I hovered at the entrance, I took a deep breath, assessed the room, blotted out all the modern-day tourists and elderly couples drinking tea and eating scones - and imagined women in Empire-waisted dresses - circulating.  It was a successful imagining.

Laura Place
I got quite excited when I arrived at Laura Place - a square which was very desirable in early 19th century England - and which I imagine is probably still pretty desirable today.  "Our cousins the Dalrymples" lived there: that is, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and the Honourable Miss Carteret of Persuasion, the noble, rich but meaningless cousins courted by Anne Elliot's father and sister.

Jane Austen's noble residence
Soon after walking a little further down Great Pulteney Street, I turned onto Sydney Place, which is a little more plebeian than Laura Place and Great Pulteney Street, and happens to be where Jane Austen resided while in Bath - until her father sadly died, and her family could no longer afford to live there.

Like any great site in Europe, it was covered in scaffolding.  (I can only assume it is due to its greatness and to my tendency for bad luck?)
Royal Crescent
Royal Crescent bears no real connection with Jane Austen except that it is a very lovely and reasonably regal-looking street which appears in a number of Austen adaptations for the screen.  I'm okay with that - it was definitely worth seeing.

Shortly before arriving at Royal Crescent, I walked down:

Gravel Walk
'Gravel Walk.'  As I walked I listened to the audioguide, and this is where I really felt the audio was a great idea.  It was quite an experience to listen to the following as I walked - the happy reconciliation  of two loved, deserving characters in my favourite book:

Soon words enough had passed between them to decide their direction towards the comparatively quiet and retired gravel walk, where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed, and prepare for it all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow. There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting. And there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers, flirting girls, nor nurserymaids and children, they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgments, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest. All the little variations of the last week were gone through; and of yesterday and to-day there could scarcely be an end.

Gravel Walk must be a very different place than it was then, but it's still there, and it was a lovely feeling to me to know that Jane Austen had wandered along the same walk, and sent her own characters there for such a moment in their lives.

  • The Jane Austen Centre - It's really set up for people who just looooove Mr Darcy and his wet shirt.  I'm not knocking the shirt.  I just wanted to learn something.  I did, however, buy a cool graphic novel version of Pride and Prejudice in the shop.
  • The Assembly Rooms - They were closed for a function.  Whaaaat?!  I had been really looking forward to wandering around pretending to be Catherine Morland.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

a necklace of souls

If I had been blogging in March 2013, I would have told you that my clever big sister's first novel, A Necklace of Souls, was being published - hurrah!  So instead, here I am 11 months later, making up lost time.

Rachel was the winner of the Storylines Tessa Duder Award for YA Fiction in 2012, which set things in motion for A Necklace of Souls to be published by HarperCollins.  It's the story of Dana, a kick-ass princess and heir to the magical Necklace of Souls, which protects her hidden kingdom from mysterious and evil foes but which exacts a terrible price on its Guardian.  Dana must come to terms with the threats to her parents' kingdom and arm herself (literally and magically) to fight this evil.  But she must also come to terms with the personal price she herself will have to pay.

A Necklace of Souls is also the story of Will, a plague-survivor and refugee in the hidden Kingdom of the Rose, who comes across the princess, becomes friends with her, and ends up fighting alongside her.  As Rachel said to the Otago Daily Times: ''What I wanted to do with Necklace was to have protagonists of both sexes who interacted at an equal level; who were both equally developed characters.''

Rachel talked to Smackfiction about the novel and its inspiration:
"I began writing Necklace after having a dream of a girl fighting in a forest. She was wearing dark clothes and fighting with swords and the light cut across her face so she seemed entangled in grey and green. Her opponents wore capes that flared around them like wings and sometimes they almost seemed to fly through the trees. They fought silently; it seemed I was watching them through a window.  I wanted to find out more about her, why she was there, how she learnt to fight… so I wrote the story."

It feels weird to review one's own sister's novel... so I'm not going to go there, although I can say that I loved the book.  What I will do is direct you to a few reviews, as they all seem to be universally glowing.  For example:

My Best Friends Are Books thinks:
"Last year’s very deserving winner [of the Tessa Duder Award] was Rachel Stedman.  I’m extremely glad she won because her book, A Necklace of Souls is a brilliant fantasy that left me awestruck. ...
"A Necklace of Souls is gripping, dark fantasy that sweeps you up takes you on a wild ride.  It has reignited my love of fantasy stories. ...
"A Necklace of Souls is a story that will stay with me for a long time and I hope that there is more of Dana and Will’s story to come.  I think that A Necklace of Souls can stand proudly beside the likes of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, and Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina as a great fantasy story for teens and adults alike.  Everybody should go out and buy a copy for NZ Book Month and support this wonderful New Zealand author."

Reviewers for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand think:
"In A Necklace of Souls Ms Stedman has created a believable world peopled with sympathetic characters that are true to their motivations. She does not over play the magic nor rely on coincidence.
"This was a book that pleads for a sequel as there is obviously more of the story to tell."

Fangtastic thought:
"A Necklace of Souls is the debut novel from RL Stedman, and it’s excellent.
Small confession: I’m always terribly nervous reading books from local authors, or authors I know; there’s that absolute terror of how to say you detested their writing, so my relief at finding even one positive thing to comment on is profound. Thankfully local Dunedin author RL Stedman had me hooked from the first page."

Kiwifamilies thinks:
"I’ve read a lot of fantasy so sometimes it feels repetitive, but this book avoids many of the clichés of the genre. Rather than spoon feeding you every detail you’re required to think for yourself and interpret what isn’t said. This is particularly true of the magic in the book, enough detail is supplied to understand what’s happening without slowing the story down."

I'll leave it there... but I think you'll find that if you google more reviews it'll be hard to find anything but good words!

You can buy A Necklace of Souls at a variety of websites and stores... see Rachel's website, here, for some links - towards the bottom of the page.

You're welcome. :)

Monday, February 10, 2014

mad about the boy

I'm behind the times, reviewing the new Bridget Jones novel in February 2014 - but that can't be helped.  Here is my review.

It's been quite a long time since I read the first two Bridget Jones books, and I'd kind of forgotten what to expect when I picked up the new one.  I'm quite glad it worked that way - it was fun getting to know Bridget Jones again, in this, the new Helen Fielding novel.

I hope I'm not bursting anyone's bubble when I say right from the beginning that it is a widowed Bridget that we meet this time round.  Helen Fielding let us know that before the novel even came out, and although at the time I gasped and said "How could she?" I am glad she at least let us know or it would have been a terrible surprise.

She's still the illogically charming Bridget we (at least I) grew to love in the other books.  All the same, she's different... Widowed for about five or six years, in her late 40s (or early 50s?) with two small children, she's still somewhat scatty and adorably clueless at times, but she's responsible for two human lives - all by herself, overwhelmed but determined to 'Keep Buggering On'.  I would be lying if I didn't admit that I blubbed my way through much of the book.  Bridget has always been a character you invest in, root for, and this novel just builds on that.

Happily, Fielding has not got rid of ALL the old characters along with Mark Darcy.  It's great to see some of the old crowd - Daniel Cleaver, for example - in a different setting.  It's also wonderful to see a whole bunch of new larger-than-life characters in Bridget's new stage of life, e.g. Bridget's children, the school mums, teachers, nannies, et cetera.  I think this is what Fielding's really good at - a sort of social satire that is so true and so revealing but somehow also warm about people in general and all our eccentricities.  I also think she really hit the nail on the head exploring the theme of grief.

The plot is a little predictable, I guess - but it was skilfully orchestrated, and in this genre I think that's okay.  I enjoyed it, and it brought me satisfaction to see Bridget triumph over sadness and loneliness (and I don't think that is a spoiler - the book was never going to end sadly, it started too sadly, and you can't possibly tell me you thought it would not be a happy ending).

In the end, I thought this was a really lovely book.  I got quite wound up in it, and enjoyed every minute, even the sad bits.  It was a pleasure to read and I think that's a beautiful thing.  So I am giving it four stars.  Thank you, Helen Fielding!

P.S. The book did seem a little more explicit than they used to be, so be warned if that's a problem for you.

Friday, February 7, 2014

the return of the blogger

I am back... and, I think, sort of kind of committed to seriously starting to blog again.

The last couple of years I have been so WOUND UP in my job that I couldn't bring myself to blog. I couldn't even bring myself to read, which made it difficult to write a blog about reading.

I had the privilege of taking almost six weeks off work and travelling to Europe over Christmas and the New Year.  Besides getting to be in Europe, almost six weeks away became an opportunity to reassess things, and I have decided that I am not happy with the idea of:

- giving up reading
- giving up writing about reading
- giving up writing, or only writing if it's the soulless function-driven communications of a policy advisor writing to politicians and bureaucrats.

Dammit, I want to have fun again.

So this year is a year of change.  I am slowly learning to say NO more.  It also helps that late last year my friends and I started a book club.  We are firmly resolved to read only books that are fun - i.e., not only to be read because we think they will be good for us.  It has been a successful practice so far.  And having six weeks to travel, thereby sitting in a progression of trains, planes and transit lounges, is a real boost when it comes to re-developing a thirst for literature.

I feel like I have lost my ability to write creatively.  I used to have a nose for stories and I have lost it entirely.  But I suspect that if I start properly reading again - and properly writing about reading - I may just regain my confidence too.

So hello, blogosphere.  I am back (I hope).  I think I will be here regularly - how often that is, I'm not sure.  But I feel optimistic that this blog is not over yet.