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‘Mansfield Revisited’ by Joan Aiken ***

In Mansfield Revisited, a novel which was first published in 1984, prolific author Joan Aiken has presented a sequel to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  Aiken writes in her introduction that she decided to write this book – one of the six sequels which she penned for each of Austen’s novels – out of ‘love and admiration’.  She goes on to say that she found herself ‘filled with an overmastering wish to find out what happened’ to the characters whom she had come to love.

‘Mansfield Revisited’ by Joan Aiken (Jonathan Cape)

The blurb of the novel is intriguing: “After the sad demise of Sir Thomas, Edmund Bertram and his new wife Fanny must sail to the West Indies to oversee the family’s affairs.  Back at Mansfield Park, Fanny’s younger sister Susan is left at the helm…  Yet the news of Henry and Mary Crawford’s return to Mansfield heralds the greatest storm yet”.

Aiken describes the way in which she has tried to work out the story of the sequel ‘by a mixture of imagination and common sense’.  Fanny and Edmund are now the parents of a ‘remarkably pretty little girl’, Mary, and a baby boy named William.  For some reason which appears to be rather inexplicable to the modern reader, baby William is taken along to the West Indies, but three-year-old Mary is left at home.

Throughout, it feels as though Aiken has adopted Austen’s tone and narrative style well.  Her dialogue wonderfully echoes that which can be found within the original novel.  The period setting has been well evoked.  The definite strength of the book as far as I am concerned is the continuation of Austen’s voice.  If it were read back to back with the original, I imagine that one book would seamlessly blend into the other, creating a coherent whole of sorts.

This does have a drawback, however.  It feels as though, by echoing Austen’s style so well, Aiken has put little of her own individual stamp onto the book.  Whilst it is clear that she is a great mimic, we do not get any real sense of her own writing.

Mansfield Revisited, as any reader of Austen’s novels would come to expect, is a very familial story.  The entirety is thicker in terms of dialogue and character development than in its plot.  The story moves on well and is believable throughout.  The novel is delightfully of the period in question, and is certain to hold appeal for all of those who so enjoyed Austen’s original.

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Abandoned Books

Sadly, these Abandoned Books posts are becoming more and more frequent, as I begin novels which look wonderful but which I am so disappointed by that I cannot bear to continue reading.  The two books which I have recently started and read rather a lot of, but which I’ve not finished, are The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale and Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

'The Goose Girl' by Shannon Hale

‘The Goose Girl’ by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl had been on my wishlist for such a long time, and when I finally got my hands on a Kindle copy, and I was eager to begin.  I loved the fairytale structure of the novel, which was present from the very first page.  I did feel that it sadly dissipated after a while however, and when this happened, the entire story just fell apart for me.  It seemed as though I was constantly distanced from the characters, and as a result I was rather detached from the storyline as it unfolded.  I know that this is a much loved book for many people, but I really struggled to get into it.  If it had been a paperback copy which I’d read, I would have undoubtedly used Nancy Pearl’s fifty-page-rule which I stick to, and given up by that point.  As it was, I struggled through about half of it before I realised that it wasn’t going to appeal to me any more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
I did not even know of this book’s existence until I found myself randomly browsing through Netgalley.  I began it almost immediately because I very much enjoyed Setterfield’s debut, the marvellously Gothic The Thirteenth Tale, but I surprisingly did not make it to the end of the story.  The prologue – in which three young boys watch as their friend, William Bellman, kills a rook resting in a faraway tree – was relatively intriguing, but I found it to be another of those novels which slips into boredom and stolid prose as soon as the main body of text begins.  There was very little beauty or intrigue in the writing, as I remember there being in The Thirteenth Tale.  Despite this, I carried on reading because the novel is marketed as a ghost story (a genre which I am rather partial to), but I found that it did not pick up, even when I had read over a third of it.  Bellman and Black, in this reviewer’s eyes, is dull, underwhelming and ultimately disappointing.

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‘Last Train to Istanbul’ by Ayse Kulin **

Last Train to Istanbul, translated by John W. Baker, was originally published in Kulin’s native Turkey in 2002. The novel begins in Ankara in 1941, with a married couple, Macit and Sabiha. The former often works late, seeing his job as his one priority in life, and the latter is exasperated because of his attitude, which was surely a common one at the time. Macit is rather unfeeling, certainly, and thinks of his wife in rather unkind terms: ‘She had chosen the wrong time to have a nervous breakdown. How on earth could he find the time to care for her when he was inundated with work?’ Sabiha’s sister, ostracised from the family, is living in France with her Jewish husband, against the backdrop of Nazism.

The social context of the period which the characters live within is set out in the first chapter: ‘They were living in very unsettled times… If Turkey chose the losing side, Russia would make her pay dearly where the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles were concerned. This nightmare had been ongoing for two years’.

I am unsure as to whether the general emotion which should fill a book like this one was lost in Baker’s translation, or whether the original novel has the same feel to it, but the telling is rather matter-of-fact: ‘Sabiha was very unhappy… From the beginning, her daughter had been a disappointment, as she had expected a son; her husband was only interested in his work; her parents were perpetually ill…’. This, a paragraph which should surely be powerful, seems rather void of emotion to me. Even descriptions of death and suffering lack emotion of any kind, and have no real depth to them. The language which has been used does not quite fit with the story at times. I cannot really imagine someone in Istanbul in 1933 saying ‘Nope’, ‘Now it’s becoming boring’ or ‘For God’s sake’ so often.

The storyline is relatively interesting, but I don’t feel as though it has been executed all that well. The relationships between characters are underdeveloped, as are the characters themselves. The prose is rather repetitive with regard to the details which it reveals, and at points of drama and crisis, it reads in the same plodding way. The sense of place is also lacking throughout.

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‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’ by Jerry Brotton **

‘A map is simultaneously both a physical object and a graphic document, and it is both written and visual; you cannot understand a map without writing, but a map without a visual element is simply a collection of place names.

Jerry Brotton, the author of ‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’, is ‘a leading expert in the history of maps and Renaissance cartography’. His introduction is an informative one, which tells of the world’s first known map, as well as the progression of cartography on a worldwide scale: ‘the Babylonian world map represents the first known attempt to map the whole known world, [but] it is a relatively late example of human mapmaking’.

‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’, Brotton has set out to take a series of ‘maps from cultures and moments in world history’ and to examine ‘the creative processes through which they tried to resolve the problems faced by their makers, from perception and abstraction to scale, perspective, orientation and projection’. This is an interesting idea, which takes us from the ancient to the modern. In this way, maps from Ancient Greece and 12th century Sicily lead to an exploration of Google Earth, and what it means for the future of cartography.

The history of cartography which Brotton sets out is very interesting. He says, ‘The earliest known examples of prehistoric art showing the landscape in plan are inscribed on rock or clay and predate the Babylonian world map by more than 25,000 years; they stretch back to the upper Palaeolithic period of 30,000 BC.’ He also sets out the origins of the words used for ‘map’ in several languages, and the disparities in the concept of the world internationally, both in terms of our physical earth, and our cultures.

So, why have you given this a two star review?, I hear you ask. Whilst the general idea of the book is an incredibly interesting one which appealed to me greatly, the entirety is rather too long, and it feels very repetitive after a while. The prose is rather turgid at times too, and in this way, it does not quite live up to its marvellous sounding premise.

There are also rather a lot of problems with Netgalley’s Kindle version of this book. The layout is not great, and the reader has to trawl through an awful lot of pages of figures at the outset before the beginning of the text is even reached. The main body of text is not linked to any kind of contents page, and there are also no text provided to the figures. Footnotes are included in the main body of text, but again are not linked to. This means that you can go for many pages without knowing what the footnote relates to, or whether the information which it gives is relevant to the rest of the chapter which you have just read in order to get there. The spacing and paragraphs are often messy and distract from the text. Some of the figures – most of them, in fact – are missing, and so there is no physical representation of the maps which Brotton describes. I imagine that this would be far more interesting and user-friendly in its physical copy, but as an eBook, it just doesn’t work.