Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Bennet Home Comes Alive

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It's become a cliche to love Jane Austen's books. Her oeuvre is so popular that it has inspired a vast amount of fan fiction, much of it crap. I've been a Janeite for about 15 years and have read all of Miss Austen's works (excepting her Juvenilia, which I'm saving for a rainy day). I've also picked up dozens of the fan novels in an effort to extend the stay in her world. I say "picked up" rather than read, because a great deal of the fanfic is insufferable and must be tossed after the first chapter.**

"Longbourn" is one of the exceptions. The simple description is that it is a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" from the servants' point of view. But it goes deeper than just a retelling -- Longbourn made the Bennet home come alive. For the first time in all of my readings of P&P, I felt as if I lived in the same house as Miss Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty, Lydia, Mary and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I know what time the housemaids got up to light the fires and draw the water. I know when the cook began preparing the dinner. I know how the linens got washed, and how muddy it was to walk to Meryton to get supplies. I even know a few secrets about the housekeeper that would have surprised Miss Austen.

And this is where the two novels diverge -- Jo Baker has created full characters out of the servants, who are almost invisible in P&P. The story is mostly told by Sarah, a housemaid who has been working at Longbourn since she was orphaned at age 6. The cook, Mrs. Hill, thinks of Sarah as family, and is worried what will happen to the staff if the estate is entailed away to Mr. Collins. I liked having the servant's perspective on this well-known plot line -- it was a good reminder of how many people were actually affected by Mr. Bennet's lack of a male heir.

The story picks up quickly when a new footman named James Smith is hired. Sarah thinks James has a secret and is determined to find out about his past. Meanwhile, her head is turned by a handsome servant who works for Mr. Bingley. Sarah, who reminded me a bit of the headstrong Jane Eyre, thinks that life should be something more than just emptying chamber pots every day and always washing other people's linens. If only someone would take notice of Sarah...

I should warn diehard P&P fans that if you're hoping to spend more time swooning over Mr. Darcy, you will be disappointed. Aside from Mr. Wickham, who likes to lurk around the servants and tries to seduce a young maid, the men from P&P are only on the periphery of this story. You'll see more of the Bennets as the servants interact with them, but the "downstairs" plot takes its own path.

Baker's prose is lovely, and I was enchanted with almost all of the book. My one criticism was that too much time was spent on James' back story, and I was anxious to return to Longbourn. But that is a mere quibble in an otherwise wonderful novel. Three cheers for Jo Baker for bringing the Bennet home to life!

**In addition to "Longbourn," my recommendations for the best Jane Austen fanfic are Pamela Aidan's "An Assembly Such as This" (part I of a trilogy), "Jane Fairfax" by Joan Aiken, and Amanda Grange's series of gentlemen's diaries, such as "Mr. Darcy's Diary," "Mr. Knightley's Diary," "Colonel Brandon's Diary," etc. I declare them charming and delightful reads.

Have Fun Storming the Memoir!

Still Foolin' Em by Billy Crystal
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Your reaction to this memoir will depend on how much you like Billy Crystal's comedy style. I'm meh about him, so I'm meh about this book. Other reviewers who adore him liked this book a lot more than I did.

Billy is now 65, which he will tell you over and over again, and several chapters are devoted to his shtick about getting old. There's nothing new here, except discovering that Billy has become a cranky old man, cursing about social media and teenagers and politics. Speaking of cursing, it was a bit shocking to hear Billy drop so many F-bombs. For decades now Billy has nurtured the persona of the sweet, goofy, schmaltzy, aw-shucks guy, and I was surprised to hear him swear so much.

Despite the F-bombs, Billy's comedy style remains firmly stuck in the 80s and 90s. Some of his jokes have punchlines that date back to then, and I rolled my eyes at the preciousness of it. He also relies heavily on Jewish humor — numerous tired quips are about how much Jews love food, and he ends several chapters with an exaggerated Oy! — plus there's a lot of baseball jokes. (Billy is a Yankees fan, which he will never let you forget.)

But I'm focusing too much on the negative. The parts I liked were the stories of how he got started in comedy and the behind-the-scenes anecdotes of his movies and TV shows. He talks about making "When Harry Met Sally," "City Slickers," "The Princess Bride," about hosting the Oscars and about visiting Russia for the comedy special "Midnight Train to Moscow." He also had good stories of his famous friends, such as Mickey Mantle, Sammy Davis Jr. and Muhammad Ali. One of Billy's early famous bits was his impression of Ali, and the two men became close, with Ali calling Billy "Little Brother" whenever they'd meet.

Billy also shared some nice family moments, such as the day his first daughter got married, and how much he likes being a grandfather. There were some emotional chapters, like when his dad died when Billy was 15, and how he later wrote those childhood memories into the Broadway show "700 Sundays."

I listened to this book on audio CD, and parts of it were performed in front of a live studio audience. Again, your reaction to this will depend on how much you like listening to Billy. He reprises all of his famous impressions, including Ali, Mantle, Sammy, Howard Cosell, "You look MAH-velous!" and the voice of Miracle Max. While I enjoyed most of the performance, at times I found it tedious and wished he would wrap it up already. Oy.

Robot for a Day! - Guest Post by the Bibliophibian

A while ago, Angry Robot held a Robot for a Day contest.  I didn't win but, luckily, I knew who did and she was kind enough to write up the experience.  Without further adieu, here is the Bibliophibian!

Once upon a time, or back in July anyway, Angry Robot posted a competition they were holding, in celebration of the company’s fourth birthday. Entering was simple: come up with three words to describe the company, and email them in. The prize was amazing (or I’m easily pleased): twelve books, either dead tree or on a Nook, and for the UK winner, a day at the Angry Robot office, learning about everything they do and getting some input into an acquisitions meeting, etc — all expenses paid. I sent in my three words (daring / quality / addictive) and forgot about it, expecting nothing.

You have probably already guessed that the UK winner was me, although I seem to have been the last to know. I actually found out from Dan of Shelf Inflicted, who sent me a GR message after seeing the post announcing the winners. I won’t give you a play by play of all the emails exchanged to get me there, but on 15th October, I made my way to Nottingham to meet the Angry Robot crew (guided by Lee Harris’ excellent directions, without which I would probably have taken one look at Nottingham and turned tail to run away).

If you don’t know much about the company, suffice it to say that they’re a mostly UK-based company who have a reputation for publishing different, daring, interesting stories in SF/F. They’ve also expanded with the Strange Chemistry (YA) and Exhibit A (crime) imprints. They put out an amazing number of books, and give the impression of being willing to take chances, even on debut authors. I am always willing to pick up something Angry Robot have put out: it may not be my cup of tea, in the end, but nonetheless they’re usually good stories, professionally edited, and an important factor for me, available DRM-free as ebooks.

Having found the place, I was introduced to everyone who was there — Marc Gascoigne, founder of Angry Robot; Lee Harris, senior editor; Amanda Rutter, editor of the Strange Chemistry books; and Leah Woods, intern. I proceeded to make an excellent impression by announcing, when asked if the office was as I expected, that it was quite like the pest control office I worked in once, only there were fewer pests and more books.

But really, it’s an ordinary office, except that it’s piled high with books, and decorated by print-outs of the cover art of upcoming books. Naturally, I felt right at home. They’d even set up an email account for me for the day, which I used to exchange mostly silly emails with various other members of the company (hi Emlyn! I had no trouble rebooting them all in the end…). And my partner, just so that I got the opportunity to email from a “work” address for once…

Anyway, I did actually do work, I promise. It isn’t all fun, games, and weird gifs of giraffes (thanks Leah).


The morning mostly consisted of me updating the website with quotes from reviews, while everyone else did what I presume was work. I did also get to play around with writing a blurb for Adam Christopher’s new book, Hang Wire. After that was the promised pub lunch, where I once more distinguished myself by ordering nachos and ending up with sour cream, salsa and guacamole all over my face. Everyone else was much more refined, though Amanda did nearly dip her sausage butty into her gin and tonic…

The most exciting part was, of course, still to come: the acquisitions meeting, attended by most of the Angry Robot staff (some in the room with us, some on the phone). There were three books under discussion, about which I can’t really say too much: what I found most interesting was seeing the pros and cons for each book being weighed up. I think a lot of people have ideas about how this process goes — a bunch of white males around a table deciding people’s future based on what will “sell”. Well, of course there was discussion of that, and whether it fit with the company’s existing books, but it really honestly did focus on the merits of the book in question. Stop being so cynical, everyone!

The lovely thing was when the book I most favoured was agreed upon by most of us and the decision to acquire it made. I don’t know if everyone else at the table (metaphorically) had this in mind as strongly as I did, but I couldn’t help but think of how the author would feel when their agent let them know. And I can’t wait to see their book come out. I think I can at least say that it looks to be very fun, with strong female characters. I will definitely talk more about it here when I can.

After that, Lee had to go and Leah started loading me up with books. I’d been pondering for days what twelve I’d pick, given the choice. Well, here’s some idea…
I ended up with a round fifty, plus an audiobook (Chris F. Holm’s The Wrong Goodbye, as I am an enormous fan — the copies you see in the image above are my dead tree copies, but I already had ebook copies!) and a bookmark, along with several Angry Robot carrier bags in which to carry them. With those and my backpack, I made it back to the station and travelled on home, where my dad met me on the platform with a long-suffering look…

My family, by the way, are now convinced that Angry Robot books should both employ and publish me. On learning that I don’t currently have any decent manuscript, my grandmother informed me I should just write one then.

Workin’ on it, Grandma. Working on it.

Ack-Ack Macaque

Ack-Ack MacaqueAck-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the year 2058, the most popular video game is Ack-Ack Macaque, a World War II simulation starring a macaque fighter pilot. When some young revolutionaries discover the artificial intelligence powering the game is self-aware, they attempt to rescue it, only to find out that it's powered by an elevated monkey. Meanwhile, someone is killing people from the Celeste labs that created Ack-Ack and Victoria Valois, herself rebuilt by Celeste, aims to find out why. But what does this have to do with an attempt on the King's life that has made him a vegetable?

Yeah, this book was really hard to write a teaser for. There's a ton of stuff going on in Ack-Ack Macaque. It's not nearly as frivolous as the title might make it seam. It's part cyberpunk thriller, part WWII pulp action, part alternate history. I mention alternate history since in this version of things, France and Norway joined the UK in the 1950's. Buddy Holly still died in a plane crash, though. And there are nuclear powered airships.

The book has multiple plot threads that eventually converge, that of Victoria and her dead husband trying to solve a mystery, and Prince Merovich and Julie trying to liberate the AI that turns out not to be so artificial after all.

Make no mistake, this is a pretty serious book even though Ack-Ack is hilarious. What's not to love about a cigar-chomping, one-eyed monkey that curses a lot? Nothing, that's what! Anyway, Victoria kicks a serious amount of ass without seeming overly powerful and I found the relationship between Merovich and Julie believable enough. I loved how Victoria rose up and took center stage. The villains' plot was a little out there but it's cyberpunk so that's bound to happen to some degree.

Once the conspiracy is brought to light, everything kicks into high gear. While the heroes took a beating, I wasn't fearing for any of their lives. That being said, it was still an entertaining read with a lot of great concepts and a cigar-chomping monkey. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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