Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review






And here we have the original blueprint for many a chick lit novel. Girl meets man, girl doesn’t like man, girl is not sure if man likes her, man makes his attentions known and is rebuffed, girl decides she does like man after all and has to wait for the catalyst which brings girl and man together. Along the way, family and friends both help and hinder the eventual outcome. Sounds simple, yet when carried out with the subtlety, wit and craftsmanship of Jane Austen the whole thing reaches another level.

I re-read this to see if it was my favourite Austen novel. It isn’t. That is still “Emma” (I think although I may have to re-read this soon to confirm this). There the vivacity and machinations of the main character raise it up to a slightly higher plain. I am also a great fan of the “Gothic” influenced “Northanger Abbey”, her first novel (but only published posthumously) one of the greatest expositions on the power of books (especially on an impressionable mind). I recently had another go at “Mansfield Park”, which I felt like I virtually knew off by heart when I was at college, where I read it of necessity and found it all rather solid and indigestible. I did think age and experience would mellow my opinion but it still lacks the sparkle of her best. I think it’s because of Fanny Price, probably literature’s most passive character and the less than captivating love interest, Edward. “Persuasion” and “Sense And Sensibility” were read too long ago for me to carry out any comparison but I think they might not challenge the big three of which “Pride & Prejudice” is one.

It’s hard not to recall the BBC series when reading this and picturing Colin Firth as Darcy (I know quite a few of my readers would like to now picture Colin Firth) and Alison Steadman superb as the silly Mrs Bennet but I did feel that the Darcy in the novel does not have quite the presence that later visual interpretations have given him. (Controversial point) but Mrs Bennet is just as silly, daughter Elizabeth just as likeable and the sense of propriety just as important.


This novel probably has the greatest range of memorable characters, the pompous Mr Collins, who first makes a play for Elizabeth; her too laid-back father; the scheming Miss Bingley; the other sisters, especially the too ready to grow up youngest, Lydia and the pretty ghastly Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unlike the best of Dickens or the Brontes, I do not find myself hanging onto every word of the novel and my concentration does have the tendency to dip in and out, but when it’s good it is very good indeed. From Lydia’s disappearance onwards it does become more consistently engaging.  For me this is a book I am very happy to have sitting on my shelves, until the next time I decide to give it another go, but it just misses out on being an all-time favourite.


The Claudine Novels – Colette (1900-1903)- Female Fiction from a male point of view


And just to prove that the world has thankfully moved on let us consider the case of French writer Colette (1873-1954). Her husband locked her in her room until she completed “Claudine At School” (1900) whereupon he published it under his own name (as he did the follow-up) and basked in its success! With the unsurprising failure of this doomed marriage Colette reclaimed her work and followed up with other French classics including “Gigi” and “Cheri”. She was an author I knew very little about until I read these four novels, published separately in the early years of the twentieth century. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting with the Claudine Novels, because of the publication date I thought something straight-laced and moral with just perhaps a little smidgeon of French sauciness but they are surprisingly racy.

It’s fair to say that in “Claudine At School” not a great deal happens but it is written with such enthusiasm that it is totally winning. Claudine is a great feisty character who sparkles throughout. She is a dominant, prepossessing figure in her last year at school. She develops a crush on a new female teacher and arranges extra lessons but the Headmistress falls for the same teacher and their relationship is central to the novel. It may be more implied than explicitly stated in this book (so as not to frighten the horses, maybe) but such implicity is thrown out of the window in the later books. Claudine becomes prey for the lecherous school inspector and the eldest girls prepare for final examinations. The title might conjure up images of Enid Blyton but that’s about as far as that connection goes. It’s written with great relish throughout and a scandalous ending at a ball finishes this off nicely. This would certainly have raised eyebrows when it was first published over here. Antonia White’s translation is sublime.

The standard is maintained for the second of the books published the following year “Claudette in Paris” (1901) was also originally attributed to the husband. In her preface to this edition of the Collected novels Colette says, “The success of the Claudine books was for the period, very great. It inspired fashions, plays and beauty products.” Moving Claudine to Paris may have explained this marketing boost. Is this an early example of using a novel to sell non-book products? It begins with a move to the Capital with her father where our heroine becomes seriously ill with fever. It is a very backward-looking opening and you do need to be familiar with the characters of the first novel for it to mean very much. Once recovered, however, she takes Paris on board, visits her aunt and befriends her second cousin, Marcel, a gay character in love with a boy his father got expelled from school following a discovery of a love letter. She meets up again with the waif-like Luce from the first novel- then a downtrodden sister of the headmistress’ lover now an older man’s mistress and Claudine herself falls in love with Marcel’s father, her cousin Renaud. One of my main concerns in the first section of this book was that it had lost the joie-de-vivre which made its predecessor so enthralling but it does get it back in spades, although I do not think it is quite as good as “Claudine At School”. I loved the new characters, the memories of the old and Claudine’s zest for life.

It is in the third book “Claudine Married” (1902) where there is a greater drop in quality. Maybe times in France changed over these couple of years as what was ambiguous and subtle in the first books now becomes more explicit and clearly stated and Claudine definitely loses her spark. She falls for a female acquaintance of her husband, Renaud and begins an affair. The lover, Rezi, does not have the fully-fledged roundness of the characters introduced in the first two books and it seems as if Colette has tired of Marcel, who is all rather washed up in this and almost of Claudine herself. There’s a decidedly dodgy section where Claudine and her honeymooning husband revisit the old school and both are disturbingly predatory towards the boarders, almost egged on by the Headmistress!

The slip in standard continues with the last of the four “Claudine And Annie” (1903). The narration switches to Annie, an acquaintance of Claudine. When Annie’s childhood sweetheart husband goes off to South America she holidays with his sister and her husband and Claudine and Renaud visit the same place. There’s a moment of potential passion between the now-reformed Claudine and Annie and the latter begins to realise her doting husband is not quite what she thought he was. I very much missed Claudine as the narrator and although she is still a significant character, she is on the periphery with the overly-sensitive, migraine suffering Annie a disappointing substitute. This is an early example of a fictional series where there is a significant dip in quality but the first two are certainly worth reading and Colette has proved to be a fascinating new find as an author.


Claudine At School – fourstars

Claudine In Paris – fourstars

Claudine Married –threestars

Claudine And Annie – twostars


The novels are available separately but I read the Penguin Edition of “The Claudine Novels” translated by Antonia White which was first published in 1987.


I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith (1949) – Chick- Lit from a male point of view review


Once again, not explicitly chick-lit but for any fans of that genre this book is an absolute treat. It has simmered along for the last few years as a bit of a word of mouth classic. It is a book which readers recommend to the next generation, mothers recommend it to daughters. (I would like to think that fathers recommend it to sons!) It captivates whole families. It is time to recognise this book for what it is – one of the finest novels of the Twentieth Century.

I have only discovered it in recent years. Of course I knew who Dodie Smith was, writer of my much-loved copy of “101 Dalmatians”. I would spend hours looking at the classic pink cover of the Puffin edition, retelling the story from the film to myself over and over and yearning to be old enough to be able to tackle the book.    Once I deemed myself able to cope with the “difficult words” found a whole new level of enjoyment from what I got from Disney. img007

I didn’t know that Smith had a writing life beyond children’s books really until 2003 when the BBC produced a much publicised Big Read Top 100 books.  This was a list voted for by the public and there at number 82 was this book that I had never heard of. I had to seek it out and it was a revelation. It thoroughly deserved its Top 100 status. Since then, its reputation has continued to grow steadily. Also in 2003 a film version was released. It was very enjoyable but didn’t push the book into the British Classic status that I thought might be forthcoming from a film release.

The word for this book is “captivating”, especially the first half of the novel which is just a sheer joy. It is the tale of the Mortmain family, down on its uppers, making ends meet living in a castle which they can’t afford to upkeep. Father has been seduced by the romanticism of life in a castle without considering the practicalities and the family are paying the price. It is all seen through the eyes of seventeen year old Cassandra, one of the most delightful characters in fiction. There are some excellent set pieces (Cassandra being caught in the bath by American visitors and a trip to London to collect their dead aunt’s clothes are sections that stay with me). It’s heart-warming, funny and poignant and just so enjoyable.

I will admit that it is perhaps a novel of two halves and the standard, for me, drops in the second half once sister Rose has moved to London and Cassandra is left to her own devices, as there are less characters for the sheer exuberance of youth to bounce off. I cannot imagine that Dodie Smith ever wrote to this standard again, although I recently purchased one of her other books so (in time) I will get round to finding out but if you like any of the authors who write anything from chick-lit to female-oriented literary fiction, to Jane Austen, to male writers who focus on the dynamics between characters such as Armistead Maupin or Patrick Gale then this book should be on your reading list this summer.    fivestars

I Capture The Castle is published by Virago. It is a book which has had many front covers over the years in many editions. I very much like the cover I’ve chosen at the top of the page (different from the copy I read) but I’ll just sneak in one other version which may be best forgotten…………..


Passion For Life (2013) – Joan Collins – A Chick-lit from a Male Point of View Review


Okay, I know I’m pushing my boundaries a bit here by categorising this memoir as chick-lit but I have been thinking a bit recently about the novels of Joan Collins (prompted by a conversation on this blog) which I always had a sneaking affection for. I find sister Jackie’s novels somewhat over-blown but Joan (and I hoped she actually wrote her novels- I’m sure she did) seemed to perfectly capture the brittle world of celebrity and 80’s glamour. We didn’t call it “chick-lit” in the days when these were first published but they are more likely to attract a female readership.   I’ve just looked them up on Amazon and they are available on Kindle, but with my to-be-read pile slightly groaning at the moment they may have to wait some time for a re-read. The two I particularly remember are “Prime Time”(1988) and “Love And Desire And Hate” (1990) and there are certainly two I know I haven’t read “Star Quality” (2002) and “Misfortune’s Daughters” (2004). Anyway, those thoughts got me digging out Joan’s latest book “Passion For Life” (2013) which I was sent for  review purposes when it was first published.

I do think Joan Collins’ previous two autobiographies are probably up there amongst the best celebrity biogs. She has the knack of giving the reader exactly what is wanted – a perfect combination of fact, analysis, outrageousness and gossip and she’s had quite a life.  I read a library copy of “Past Imperfect” (1978) when it first came out when I was an impressionable teenager and had really read nothing like it. I remember renewing it quite a few times! At this point “Dynasty” was quite a few years away and Joan was best known to me as a guest star in TV programmes such as “Batman” and “Star Trek”. In 1978 the year she published “Past Imperfect”, a bit of a golden year for La Collins, she took the lead role in the film version of sister Jackie’s “The Stud”, began a series of much-loved Cinzano adverts with Leonard Rossiter and never looked back. Her career switched up a gear which would lead to her become a worldwide household name a few years later when the role of Alexis Carrington came along. The height of this renewed fame is covered in the aptly titled “Second Act” (1996) which I also thoroughly enjoyed.

With this third instalment of her life story and with the passing of the years, a slowing down of career and greater stability in married and family life Joan has opted for a more laid-back memoir approach, sorted in themes with a lot of pictures.  The reproduction of photos in this hardback edition is top quality and Joan writes in a clear, identifiable voice.   Fans could not really hope for more. By its very structure it obviously has less depth than the previous two autobiographies but it still gives me the same sense of guilty pleasure. threestars

“Passion For Life” was published in the UK in 2013 by Constable.


New Beginnings- Fern Britton (2011) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review


From TV presenter with odd rabbit puppet Gus Honeybun on TSW (essential viewing for a time when I was at college in Devon back in the early 80’s) to host of “The Big Allotment Challenge” in 2015 on BBC2, Fern Britton has had some television career! Not on our screens as much as when she was a daily fixture on “This Morning” she has found time to branch out into writing and this was the first fruits of her labour (I’m going to stop this now in case the allotment puns keep coming!) She has kept herself on familiar territory as the main character has to juggle a television career with the demands of her family.

When her husband dies suddenly TV journalist Christie Lynch finds herself having to give up her spot on the television consumer programme and after a period of time, with money running out she needs to return to television, firstly on a daytime female talk show, the Loose Women-ish “Tart Talk” (fab title Fern) where she meets a formidable agent Julia Keen who signs her up. Julia is a great character, a high profile no-nonsense woman who has been tainted by scandal and Christie soon realises that having her as her agent does have disadvantages. Christie also has to deal with child-care, a teenage daughter not over the death of her father, a younger son who has found his father substitute in an ideal romantic proposition for Christie. She herself becomes increasingly paranoid by the trappings of fame and the realisation that her agent might not be totally on her side.

This is a well-paced, very readable book which remains likeable throughout. Fern has blended fiction with her experiences of life in front of a TV camera and dealing with fame, the press, a career and family. She has done a good job. It all feels plausible, there’s just the right amount of gloss and it never becomes over-sensational.

With a book a year since this debut Fern has joined the roster of good quality writers of this type of fiction.

“New Beginnings” was published in the UK in 2011 by Harper  Collinsthreestars.


The Last Summer Of The Camperdowns – Elizabeth Kelly (2014) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review


I know it’s pushing it a bit describing Elizabeth Kelly’s novel as “Chick-Lit”, but it is more of female interest, so as I’m short of a review to go in this section this week I’m going to let it go.  Set in Summer 1972 in Cape Cod and told in flashback, this is the summer when twelve year old Riddle Camperdown’s life changed forever. She is an only child with an ex-movie star mother and a father running for election. What is expected to be a summer of horse-riding and election campaign events is disrupted by the return of an old flame of her mother’s and the disappearance of his teenage son. Elizabeth Kelly’s second novel is a well-told, involving tale, full of secrets and with considerable potential for reading group discussions.

I did enjoy this but the self-absorbed adult characters with their brittle put-downs and passion for one-upmanship became a little wearying. It distanced me from the unfolding events of the novel and from its impending sense of menace which is at times, very effectively conveyed. There has been much praise for this in the American press but I feel that over here we respond to a little more warmth in characterisation. Having said that, the tale Kelly tells will linger in my memory and this book is worth seeking out.   threestars


A slightly edited version of this review was written originally for the Newbooks website.


Footprints In The Sand – Sarah Challis (2006) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review


challisIf I was given the opportunity to go around a bookshop and select the book whose cover most said “this book is probably not for you” I might have come up with something like this. Beige and old-fashioned looking, with hints of the desert, a 1920/30s photo of a woman and a more off-putting decidedly 80’s looking photo of two young women certainly didn’t excite, but, luckily I had seen this book listed in a selection of must-read books and on this occasion I am very glad I did not judge the book by the cover because I would have missed out as I was thoroughly entertained by this. There is no doubt that it is aimed at a female readership but it did draw me in.

Two cousins are asked to scatter their recently-deceased great aunt’s ashes. The will stipulates Mali but the cousins do not know why. The girls, one a romantic adventurer, the other a cynical teacher recently dumped by her boyfriend head off for the desert. To reach their destination they will need to cross the desert on camel accompanied by representatives of the Tuareg people. It all becomes rather charming. Challis uses three narrative threads, the girls with their differing viewpoints and a friend of the aunt’s who knows but does not reveal the reasons for the last wishes. Challis has done extremely well in exploring the differences between the Brits and the Tuaregs. It all seems authentic and respectful and actually left me with quite a bit of a rosy glow.   fourstars

The Love Letter – Fiona Walker (2012)- A Chick-lit from a male point of view’s review.

heartimagesloveletterI thought I’d try something from one of the leading lights of the chick-lit genre. This is Fiona Walker’s 11th and it is a real doorstop of a book. First off, admiration, this is a comic novel and for a writer to sustain humour throughout a novel of this length is a great achievement. Walker has managed this by producing a tautly plotted tale. Slapstick and farcical situations a-plenty but there is also an intelligent almost in-joke humour of word-play and literary and cultural references which really does mean that with this broad scope of comedy there really is something for everyone in this novel. I am sure Walker (who I have not read before) has honed these skills in her previous ten books and so is able to produce a bit of a comic-writing masterclass in this one. There’s literary secrets, a festival in a country house and secret identities within a well-drawn Devon coastal setting. Although it often put a smile on my face I did not laugh out loud but the author’s stamina is to be applauded for keeping it all going over 660 pages. There were some memorable characterisations but I often have a problem with the lead female character in this type of novel and this was no exception. There’s a danger of the reader becoming frustrated with Allegra’s ineptitudes and incompetencies. For me this devalues the book a little. I know I’m not the target audience for this type of book but do women readers enjoy being driven mad by the actions of the main character? – I doubt it. Anyway in the three years that have passed since the publication of this novel Fiona Walker has put out another two novels. On the strength of this one I am sure I will give her output another go. Any suggestions? threestars

The Novels Of Tony Warren – A Chick-lit from a male point of view review


heartimagesTony Warren, in his early twenties began work on an idea which would revolutionise British television. His idea of a twice-weekly continuing drama featuring characters loosely based on those he knew from growing up on the streets of Manchester became Coronation Street. The first episode, scripted by Warren and performed live on ITV in 1960 is still consistently the best programme on television fifty-five years later. His initial set of characters including Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples, Annie Walker and Ken Barlow instantly engaged with the viewing public and have had a central role in British popular culture. He worked on scripts, with decreasing frequency until the late 70’s but very much remains a figurehead for the programme, its originator.

In the 1990’s Warren produced four novels which remain somewhat under-rated. Maybe at the time it was unclear how to market them. They are not quite the “bonkbuster” type novel, favoured by the likes of Jilly Cooper and the Collins sisters, Jackie and Joan (probably fading a little in popularity by the mid 90’s), not quite the warm saga and not quite chick-lit, although there are elements of all three genres.   I have recently re-read all four and think they deserve a wider twenty-first century audience. Here is my guide to the novels of Tony Warren…..

manchester The Lights Of Manchester (1991)

The title always brings a smile to my face. On publication it probably sat on the same bookshelves as books featuring glamorous locations such as Monte Carlo, Cannes and Monaco. Right from the title Tony is showing us he’s just on the right side of kitsch. There’s a delightful sense of chutzpah before even opening the book. My paperback copy, however, does possess one of the most pointless and inappropriate front covers I’ve seen. I can’t fathom out the marketing department which would okay this cover- maybe that’s the difference between the early 90’s and today. However, once the reader has got over the slight snigger at the title and ignored the cover, which would have done Warren no favours and embarked upon the book she (and with that cover it is most likely to have been “she”) would have discovered a very good example of the showbiz saga, spanning forty years in the lives of Sorrel Starkey (not Pat Phoenix) and Micky Grimshaw (not Tony Warren). The author himself feels the need to point this out in the introduction and it would be an easy assumption to make being the tale of the writer of a continuing television drama “Angel Dwellings” and its early sensational star. I do admit it has dated a little since it came out and this type of doorstep sized saga is not as popular as it once was but it is highly enjoyable throughout and Warren really does put his main character through the wringer. Yes, it is melodramatic at times and imbued with a British kitschness which Warren pulls off , intentionally or not with aplomb. There’s a raft of memorable characters, some of whom may have had real life parallels and the backstreet world of Irlam O’Th’ Height comes to feel as familiar to the reader as Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco.   fourstars

rainbow Foot Of The Rainbow (1993)

His second novel is not as good. It lacks the “Coronationstreetesque” sparkle of its predecessor and main character Rosie Tattersall is not a patch on the Pat Phoenix-ish Sorrell Starkey. Warren’s writing is actually very detailed and makes for a denser read than expected but quite a bit of it here is trivial. When the affluent Tattersall family splits, Rosie’s mother and twin brother head off to America whilst Rosie is housed with an ex-member of staff, Nora Hanky. It is set in the era of the British pop Invasion of the early 60’s so it’s no real surprise when Nora’s son Zav becomes an International Pop sensation- heralding from Irlam O’Th Height. Rosie sets her sights, however, on finding a man, preferably the one she once drew as her ideal man at Sunday School. Here lies for me the weak thread of the novel as I find the love story between her and the cartoon- made-real character totally unbelievable. There’s a move to Berkeley for the summer of love and drugs, family reunions and not-very well concealed family secrets. I hope I haven’t undersold this novel – it is enjoyable nonsense.                 threestarsbehindclosed Behind Closed Doors (1996)

Novel number three is his best. This is a rich, gossipy tale of three Manchester school children grouped together at the end of the war when they are labelled “misfits” on their first day at secondary school by the uniform outfitter. There’s Vanda Bell, the tubby girl with the tarot-reading grandmother. Vanda yearns for the stage and becomes a stripper. There’s pint-sized Joan Stone possesser of an over-vivid imagination and literary pretensions and tall, skinny Peter Bird, the child everyone knows is gay before he works it out himself. Solid characterisation in both main and supporting characters, good twists and a real sense of period spanning from the late 40’s to early 60’s make this a compelling and highly enjoyable read.

fourstarsfullsteam Full Steam Ahead (1998)

To date this is Tony Warren’s last novel and I’d rank it his third best. A transatlantic crossing on the QE2 is the setting and we catch up once again with Manchester’s Mickey Grimshaw and his best friend and star of “Angel Dwellings”, Sorrel Starkey. Mickey (not at all modelling Tony Warren) is now a novelist and Sorrel’s much loved husband had died. There’s concerns about her health and a shipboard romance but a new character is given a good share of the limelight here. She is also on the QE2 and also heralds from Irlam O’Th’ Height. Much is devoted to Dinah’s back story to explain why she is onboard and stalking another character familiar to Warrens’ readers. Rises to fortune, thwarted love ambitions and life-long loyalty to individuals are all areas Warren excels in writing about together with his warm characterisations. We get a few cameo walk-on parts from characters from the other books. It does feel a little bit “more of the same”, which is why I do not rank this amongst his best but he writes with a cosy familiarity which I do find very appealing.




Elegance – Kathleen Tessaro (2003)- A Chick-lit from a male point of view review

heartimageseleganceIn my review of Dan Brown’s “Inferno” I mentioned how I tended to use his “Da Vinci Code” as a measure for other books in the adventure genre. My chick-lit yardstick tends to be this, a classy and highly readable debut novel by the American born writer. It stands out from the pile because of Tessaro’s use of a clever device- a real life tome from the 1960’s on “Elegance” offering advice to women on how such a virtue could be achieved. Tessaro got permission to use this book centrally in her novel (and befriended the author). This provides a structure for her novel and it works extremely well. Main character Louise, living in 21st Century London decides to apply the “elegance” philosophy to her life. Things begin to change dramatically for her, from the loveless rut of her marriage, to her appearance, career etc. I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny but it did make me smile quite a lot. It reads extremely well and the A-Z format keeps the attention throughout. I warmed to the refreshingly literary feel. Tessaro now has five novels available for our delectation and she is certainly an author on my to-be-read again list.      fourstars