This week has been a real mixed bag in the reading department. I started out with a book whose description was really exciting—A History of What Comes Next, by Sylvain Neuvel—only to end up with a did-not-finish (DNF) rating. I then started Beach Read, by Emily Henry, as some light relief, because my Kindle said I had read only 11 percent of it…only to realize partway through that everything was sounding quite familiar. And I finished up with a second book by an author where my first experience was excellent, only to realize that this was a different kind of story than I had expected.
The book by Sylvain Neuvel came highly hyped by many Goodreads folk. Having just finished 11-22-63 by Stephen King, it appealed to me as having a faintly similar premise: There were “people” (aliens) interfering with history to direct humankind to a particular path (in this case, leaving Earth for the stars). I am a big science fiction fan and, unlike some, don’t have a problem with hard science in my fiction. I am also a liker of alternate histories. This book includes science-heavy narrative, historical fiction, stuff about space exploration, a treatment of invisible minorities, mother-daughter relationships, and an intriguing take on aliens. It sounded perfect.
But…for me, at least, it was the most intriguing set-up with the most stultifyingly dull execution ever. The characters were one-dimensional, self-involved, and isolated amongst the true humans, so that you only got to know them through the conversations they had within their own minds. There was angst and personal insecurity (the protagonist is a teenager), a lot of violence, and not much in the way of story. The chain of mothers and daughters that culminates in this book with the 100th generation is relentless in pursuing their goal to send humans to the stars, but they have completely forgotten their origins, as have the other malevolent aliens who are sworn to stop them, so there is no interesting back story to be had, just the endless detailing of their day-to-day battle. Admittedly, I say all of this having read only 45 percent of the book, at which point I decided to cut my losses and give it a DNF. Goodreads people rave about some of the other books by this author, and maybe I will try one someday, but this one left me cold, tired, and impatient.
My experience with Beach Read was pretty funny; when I began it and started to get a feeling of déja vu, I chalked it up to having read books like it before. It wasn’t until a particular meet-cute scene that the light dawned and I realized I had read the book in its entirety about a year ago, and even reviewed it for the blog! I went ahead and finished the second read and enjoyed it this time around as well.
My third experience this week was The Mother-In-Law, by Sally Hepworth. I greatly enjoyed her book The Good Sister, particularly for the development of the character Fern, who really came to life on the page. That book, although billed as something of a thriller, turned out to be more of a family or domestic drama, although it had its tense moments at the resolution. With the description of this book, I was expecting more of a legitimate thriller, since the protagonist’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law ends in murder…but that doesn’t end up being the case.
The book is presented (mostly) from two points of view—the wife, Lucy, and her husband’s mother, Diana. It is told by both characters in an equal division between “past” and “present,” the specific time periods sometimes not being noted but at other times being given as a particular year in the life. Because of the set-up, I was expecting a creeping sense of unease about the mother-in-law, culminating in her death and whatever would happen in the aftermath; instead, what is presented is two women with different goals and outlooks who are the victims, in their relationship with one another, of “unmeeting wishes.” Lucy lost her mother early in life and wants nothing more than to bond with a mother figure for a fulfilling relationship, while Diana is a rather aloof and self-contained person, due to her own background in which rejection played a large part, and doesn’t care to engage with Lucy in this way. Lucy sees Diana as cold and uncaring, while Diana regards Lucy (when she thinks of her at all) as self-indulgent and overly emotional.
The supposed central piece of the book—the murder—doesn’t factor much into the rest of the story, and the pool of potential suspects is small enough that I had a good guess fairly early on, though it wasn’t enough of a certainty for me to stop wondering until it happened. I frankly found that whole thread distracting—the book was trying to be too many things at once. There was domestic drama, there were specific agendas it seemed the author wanted to highlight through her characters—and adding the murder into the mix seemed like the author was trying to turn the path of this family saga in a direction it wouldn’t naturally go. (And presenting it as a fait accompli up front took any pizzazz out of its potential as a plot point!) The result, for me, was that I was alternately enthralled and bored, and in the end would have liked more back story and more relationship details and less of the somewhat forced nature of the “thriller” aspect.
I don’t feel strongly enough about it to wish I hadn’t read The Mother-in-Law, but it was definitely not the experience I was either expecting or craving, based on either the book’s description or because of my reaction to her other novel. She is a good enough writer that I will go on to try others of her books, but perhaps without reading the misleading blurb next time!
I am a sucker for time travel stories—although I really hate it when they are poorly conceived and/or realized. Likewise, I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but have learned to be wary of embracing the countless Austen spinoffs and glorified fan fiction spawned by authors who don’t have the chops to write anything close to canon. (I don’t know which is worse—the juxtaposition of Pride and Prejudice with zombies, or the creation of an Austen theme park in which young women can act out their Regency-born fantasies.) So imagine my delight when I discovered a book that sends a couple of intrepid explorers back to 1815 to see if they can retrieve additional Austen materials and bring them up to the present day to delight literary scholars everywhere?
In The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn, Rachel and Liam are sent from their rather sterile and unsatisfying present—they live in a world that has experienced “the Die-off” (no more trees), and eat food created by 3-D printers—back to 1815 England. They have been immersed in history for months, properly clothed (albeit with only one outfit apiece), and furnished with what will be an inordinate amount of money for the time period (although it’s mostly counterfeit), and the opening to the past has dropped them in a field near a town called Leatherhead. Most important to their mission, they have been cautioned that they must interact as little as possible so as not to effect change while trying to achieve their mission, which paradoxically will require a particularly close acquaintance with their subject! They are cast as the Ravenwoods, brother and sister, recently arrived in London from Jamaica after having manumitted their slaves on the coffee plantation and sold up to make the move. This back story ensures that they have a ready explanation for small awkwardnesses in local custom, as well as their lack of acquaintance with anyone who could expose them as impostors.
Their mission is to cultivate sufficient intimacy with Jane Austen and her family so as to gain access to letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra, as well as to an unpublished manuscript that was previously thought to be incomplete—only three chapters exist in their time—but, it has been learned through the recent discovery of a letter from Jane Austen to a friend, was rather held back from publication because Jane thought it too revealing of her own personal family situation.
Apart from staying in character, which is particularly difficult for Rachel, since she is an independent single woman and a medical doctor in the present day, the challenges are enormous. They have about a year to become established enough in London to curry an acquaintance with Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, and then to win an introduction by him to his reclusive sister, whose books are not even published under her own name. It would be hard for Jane to imagine the extent of her fame and the reverence for her work held by scholars and commoners alike, a couple of centuries hence; almost as hard as it is for Rachel and Liam to restrain their enthusiasm and wonder at being a part of her close circle.
All sorts of things go awry, as they are wont to do in time travel adventures, given the necessity for lying through your teeth, sticking to appropriate behavior for the times, and knowing your specific place in society—whether it’s how familiar to be with your kitchen staff, or how much flirting you can venture without compromising your reputation. There are many surprising turns in this book, and with a year to accomplish their mission, the author was able to space them out nicely and make everything feel logical and/or inevitable.
I really enjoyed reading this and, unlike some books where you wish an editor had stepped in to cut a couple of hundred pages, I could have asked for more. There was adequate detail about everything, but absolutely no excess. I would have liked to know more about Liam, in particular, before the adventure began (the book is told from Rachel’s viewpoint), and also welcome would have been just a little bit more detail about the specifics of daily life in both past and future, and some explanation of why particular interactions turned so awkward. But over all, I have to applaud the author for pulling this story off so well—it had enough history, enough romance, enough intrigue, and never went overboard. If you have enjoyed the Outlander books, or Connie Willis’s multiple forays into time travel, I venture to say you will also get a huge kick out of The Jane Austen Project.
(One exception that I have to confess as a guilty pleasure in this oeuvre is Lost in Austen, a four-part British miniseries in which a P&P fan opens a hitherto unknown door from her bathroom into the Bennet household, trading places with Elizabeth, who steps into the present day, whereupon the door disappears and each is stuck in the other’s life. It’s hilariously well done. Jane Austen is spinning in her grave. Check it out.)
I am a big fan of science/speculative fiction writer Jo Walton, although I have found her offerings to be somewhat uneven between things I love and things I recognize as worthy while not personally caring for them. I was excited to discover that she had written an alternate history in which Great Britain negotiated its way out of World War II in return for a treaty with Hitler, who proceeded to conquer the European continent while sparing England across the Channel.
I thought Farthing was a new work, possibly designed to address the fascism and bigotry that have been revealing themselves these past few years in America; but after I got into it I discovered it had been published in 2006 and was, in fact, the first of a trilogy, the others being Ha’penny and Half a Crown.
I also found the book disappointing in some respects, but only because I had a particular expectation that it didn’t fulfill. I thought it was a full-on alternate history and would deal more specifically with the details of that world; instead, Walton used post-war Britain allied with Germany as a backdrop for a “locked-door” murder mystery novel reminiscent of Agatha Christie, which is not really what I wanted to read.
The details of the alternate history do matter to the story: Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the aristocrats of the “Farthing set” are gathered for a weekend retreat at the Eversley’s estate. Lucy, daughter of the house, is one of the invited guests, although her new husband, David Kahn, a Jewish banker, is less welcome. Lucy has “thrown herself away” by marrying him, and is tolerated, rather than welcomed, into her old social circle as a consequence. Neither of them really wished to come to the country that weekend, but Lucy’s mother imperiously summoned them, and David felt perhaps she was holding out an olive branch, although Lucy, being more familiar with her mother’s prejudices, knows that can’t be the case.
Soon the two can only wish they had resisted the invitation and stayed in town; Sir James Thirkie, a friend of her parents who is also the person who engineered the historic agreement with Hitler for peace, has been murdered sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, and some details of the murder look like they have been specifically engineered so it can be blamed on David Kahn.
Fortunately, the Scotland Yard inspector sent down to solve the case is less gullible than are the local police and sees the nature of the set-up; he doesn’t view Kahn as remotely likely in the role of murderer, but if he can’t see his way clear to accusing someone else, Kahn is likely to go down for it, as Jewish scapegoat on the scene. Inspector Carmichael does his level best to come up with a solution, but new details keep getting thrown at him that twist the mystery further this way and that until no one knows how it will end.
Although I recognized and appreciated both the set-up and the writing in Farthing, I felt somewhat dissatisfied after reading it. The mystery itself was not particularly intriguing, and the alternate history aspect left me wanting more world-building. I also wasn’t a big fan of the alternating point of view between first person (Lucy’s journal of the events) and third person (Inspector Carmichael’s investigation), although I did like both characters quite a bit. Character development is one of Walton’s strong suits, and she didn’t fail here, particularly as regards the inspector, whose ulterior motive for refusing to suspect David Kahn enriches the story.
It was strange to read the book from within the throes of the current political climate. I started the book two days before Election Day, and finished it a couple of days afterwards, and I did appreciate how the author asked the reader to consider the consequences of allowing fascist behavior to continue and grow. There is also a familiarity about the plight of the Jews in this book as compared with the history of black people in America; there are all these little bits of discrimination that each by themselves seem fairly innocuous (especially if you are not the party who is targeted by them) but taken collectively they are seen to intentionally omit, push out, reject, and deny full personhood.
I don’t think I am sufficiently enamored of this book to pursue reading the other two; but if you are a person who enjoys Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers mysteries and also appreciates good character development, witty dialogue, and an unexpected background for all of that, you might want to check out this trilogy.
My preference for Walton’s alternate history oeuvre is her three-book series that begins with The Just City. The Thessaly trilogy is based on the idea that the goddess Pallas Athene, curious as to its outcome, creates a society designed to follow the tenets of Plato’s Republic. She extracts 100 caregivers and 10,000 babies from various points in history (past, present, and future), puts them together on an island located in the distant past, and instructs the adults to raise the children strictly according to Plato to be their “best selves.” A few years into the experiment, she kidnaps and throws Sokrates into the mix, and then things get interesting.