Monday, 28 January 2013

A truth universally acknowledged

Two hundred years ago this week, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) was published. In the intervening years this classic has gone on to be a one of the most popular and enduring novels in English literature. Film and television adaptations, spin-off novels and sequels have helped to keep this story at the top of lists of popular fiction for many years. But Ms Austen's novel is still beloved after so many years because the story tells a familiar tale of romance, marriage and social mobility through wonderfully drawn characters.

The opening line of the book sets the scene: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife'. The search for such a man is a prime concern for Mrs Bennett, as she and her husband have five daughters and no sons. The eldest daughter Jane is beautiful and kind, next is Elizabeth with her quick wit and intelligence. Then there are Kitty, Lydia and Mary, each with their own personality traits.

Mr Bingley, a handsome young bachelor, has taken up residence at nearby Netherfield Park, and he sets his sights on the lovely Jane when they meet at a ball held in his honour. Bingley's best friend, Mr Darcy of Pemberley, is unimpressed by the local talent at the ball and is seen as condescending by the Bennett sisters. The pairing has begun, with Bingley and Jane as the romantic lovebirds, and Darcy and Elizabeth as the couple who dislike each other and are yet drawn together.

Along the way some of the most delightfully crafted characters in English literature are presented to add sub-plots and drama. Among them are my favourites: the pompous and condescending Bennett heir, Mr Collins; Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy's aunt, who is disrespectful of the lower classes and confronts Elizabeth in a wonderful scene; practical Charlotte Lucas who is fearful of spinsterhood and burdening her family so choses a loveless marriage; and, the dastardly George Wickham, Darcy's childhood friend, who infiltrates the Bennett family nearly causing great scandal.

Pride and Prejudice is a novel I have returned to every few years since my teens. Each time I find new ways to enjoy it and my admiration of Austen grows. Many people will only know of Pride and Prejudice through its various adaptations. In the 1940 film version Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier took on the lead roles. More recently it was Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden (2005). For me, the best is the BBC six-part mini-series version (1995) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth - as it has so many wonderful performances and the series length allows time for all of the sub-plots to play out fully.

The novel has also been the subject of hundreds of sequels and spinoffs. Many of these are regency romance novels exploring the lives of Darcy and Elizabeth, the Bingleys and other characters, after the events of Pride and Prejudice take place. Then there is the re-imagining of the story with zombies thrown in for added adventure in Steven Hockensmith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2010).

The only 'sequel' I have read is the sequel with a crime/mystery twist in Death Comes to Pemberley (2011) by PD James. However there are other books that cleverly use the story as a springboard such as Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) by Helen Fielding about a single woman in London with many modern parallels to Pride and Prejudice, which is  delightfully funny and well worth a read.

After 200 years the story of Lizzie Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy remains as current and fresh as ever. In honour of the anniversary, perhaps it is time to read Pride and Prejudice again...

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them

A Clash of Kings (1999) is the second book in George R. R. Martin’s epic ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, following on from Game of Thrones (1996).  

Civil War has broken out in Westeros. Lord Eddard Stark’s eldest son Robb has declared himself ‘King in the North’ and seeks to avenge his father and reclaim his sisters by going to war with the house of Lannister/Baratheon. The vile boy King Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne but rules in name only - taking his queues from his mother Queen Cersei and his uncle Tyrion, now Hand of the King. Meanwhile, former King Robert Baratheon’s brothers, Stannis and Renly, have both claimed the Iron Throne for themselves and are heading to wage war on King’s Landing.

Like its predecessor, the story is told from the perspective of various characters. At Winterfell crippled Bran Stark is puzzled by wolf dreams. Beyond the Wall Jon Snow of the Night’s Watch searches for his uncle and fends off wildlings. In Kings Landing, Sansa Stark tries to remain in brutal Joffrey’s good favour while plotting escape. Tyrion Lannister prepares for war. Meanwhile Catelyn Stark journeys across Westeros as an envoy of her son Robb, and resourceful Arya Stark tries to make her way back to Winterfell. Self-obsessed Theon Greyjoy seeks his father’s favour by claiming territory for himself. Meanwhile, across the narrow sea Daenerys Targaryen tends to her dragons and tries to muster a force that can take back her crown.

There were some new characters in this book that I really enjoyed. Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight in the service of Stannis Baratheon, brings a fresh perspective to the action. Brienne of Tarth is also fascinating addition, as a female knight in the service of Lord Renly and later Catelyn Stark. Each character is believable and moves the story along.

Martin has achieved something incredible in balancing so many characters, locations and subplots in an 800+ page novel. Overall I found this book exciting and could not wait to get back to it whenever I had a spare moment to read. Some characters I found less interesting than others (Bran, Daenerys) but for the most part I looked forward to returning to my favourites (Tyrion, Theon) to see how they were progressing. If I have one criticism it is that I have spent so much time in Westeros that I haven’t had time for other reading…  My only problem now is weaning myself off this series, as I desperately want to start A Storm of Swords (2000) but need to get a few other books read first!

A Clash of Kings was the basis for the second season of HBO's Game of Thrones. It is an amazing adaptation of the books and I am looking forward to season three starting in March 2013.

My review of Game of Thrones is also available on this blog. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

New year, new list

I am a sucker for book lists. Every time a list is published of the best books of the year, or the books you must read, award shortlists, or even bestseller lists - I analyse my own reading against the list to contrast and compare. These lists frequently point me in the direction of books that have been in my 'to be read' pile for way too long. But more often they introduce me to new authors that I have not tried - making my pile even higher!

Over the Christmas holidays I perused the 'Best books of 2012' lists to compile a reading list for 2013.  The Washington Post list cites: Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Bring up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel, Broken Harbor by Tana French and Canada by Richard Ford.

The New York Times list notes all of the above (except Broken Harbor) and adds many more that I would like to read including: Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro, HHhH by Laurent Binet, Home by Toni Morrison, A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, In One Person by John Irving, NW by Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, and so many more.

The Guardian list of course mentions 2012 releases by Hillary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan and Richard Ford, but includes other books I want to read such as Skagboys by Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling's Casual Vacancy. The Guardian also has a list of books recommended by other writers which  include some weird and wonderful offerings of both fiction and non-fiction.

Over the holidays I had a chance to reflect on my own reading over the past year. It was a mixed bag. I read and blogged considerably less than I normally do largely because I spent most of the year travelling around the world.  In 2012 I read classics (Steinbeck's East of Eden), prize winning literature (Anna Funder's All that I am, Paul Harding's Tinkers), childhood favourites (Tolkien's The Hobbit), guilty pleasures (Evanovich's Explosive Eighteen, Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series), popular young adult fiction (The Hunger Games trilogy), non-fiction (Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man and the compelling  Spirit Level) and my current obsession (George RR Martin Song of Fire and Ice series) - and a handful of others here and there. Perhaps a better indicator of the quality of my reading is that I didn't read the Fifty Shades... series!

So now it is 2013 and it is time to plan out my reading for the year. I am almost finished George RR Martin's A Clash of Kings (book two) and while I am tempted to immediately jump in and read the next book in the series, A Storm of Swords, I need to leave Westeros behind for a while and try some others. Although, with the third season of Game of Thrones starting in March, chances are I will be sucked back in!

Almost every list recommends the Hillary Mantel Booker prize winner Bring up the Bodies (2012) - which I have on my e-reader but haven't started because I haven't read Wolf Hall (2009). So while both are on my 2013 reading list I will definitely read Wolf Hall and will likely start it once I have finished Clash of Kings.

I have also started reading Christopher Hitchen's Mortality (2012) which is a collection of his essays about his terminal cancer. He is probably my favourite writer and I have read many of these writings in his Vanity Fair column, but the collection itself is incredible.
For Christmas I received The Slap (2008) by Christos Tsiolkas which tells the tale of a suburban barbeque where a man slaps a three year old child that is not his own. I have wanted to read it for a long time, and I have avoided seeing the television series so that I could enjoy the book - so I am looking forward to jumping into this one.

I also received Henry Handel Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom (1910) which I have long wanted to read. An Australian classic, this novel tells the story of Laura, a clever country girl who is sent to a boarding school in Melbourne when she is twelve. In 1978 Bruce Beresford directed a film version of the tale and I received a copy of the DVD for Christmas as well, so I hope to read the book soon too.

Some books I added to my pile include Canada by Richard Ford, Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro,  Home by Toni Morrison, and Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich.  Plus I need to save room for some not-yet-published titles that I am eagerly awaiting. These include Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam (August 2013), Mary Roach's Gulp (April 2013), Therese Anne Fowler's Z - A novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (March 2013), JM Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus (April 2013) Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountain's Echoed (May 2013), the new Bridget Jones book by Helen Fielding (October 2013).

There are also some non-fiction books I want to squeeze in such as Maya Angelou's Mom and Me and Mom (April 2013), David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (October 2013). I just hope I have more time to read this year!

One more thing on lists: A great series of audio playlists are included on the NPR website looking at the best books across various genres for those, like me, who can't get enough of book lists!