Books I Read in March

It’s the start of another month and time for another literary round-up of the books I’ve read recently. In March, I read one non-fiction title and three novels. Let’s start with the non-fiction book: a biography of Jane Austen by historian Lucy Worsley.

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. At just forty-one, she died tragically young. The cause of her death is unknown, but some scholars have suggested Addison’s or Hodgkin’s disease. However, some new research recently came to light — it’s possible that Jane was unintentionally poisoned by arsenic, a popular ingredient in Georgian medicine.

Worsley’s book, Jane Austen at Home, is one of the publications timed to commemorate her death. I’m an Austen fan and I’ve read several well-researched biographies (Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin is one of the best), so I was already familiar with the facts of Austen’s life. However, Worsley has taken these facts, along with historical context, letters and info from other sources, and woven them into a highly enjoyable book.

After I finished reading, I felt like I knew Jane Austen much better than before. There’s always going to be a certain amount of mystery about her life, especially as her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her private letters after Jane’s death. Worsley avoids speculating too much, while also suggesting ways for the reader to interpret the events of Jane’s life.

When you think of Jane Austen, images of grand country houses, sprawling parkland and wealthy young men probably come to mind. But Austen wasn’t rich, and her books are set in a world which she could not fully access — she was looking from the outside in. As an unmarried woman, she was forced to rely on a small allowance from her father and, later, from her brothers. Money was a source of concern and after her father’s death, she was dependent on her wealthier brothers to provide her with a home.

I found parts of the book quite moving. She wrote six of the finest novels in the English language, but much of her time outside writing was spent on day-to-day housekeeping. As she wrote in one of her letters to Cassandra: “Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb

She needed space to write and be creative, but she didn’t even have a room of her own. As Worsley points out, it’s lucky for us that she never married. Otherwise, she would have almost certainly produced babies rather than books.Despite having to rely so much on her family, Austen comes across as being an independent spirit (as much as a woman could be independent in the 1800s), who was entertaining, witty and perceptive. Whether you’re a dedicated Austen fan like me or someone who only knows a little about her, I’d recommend Worsley’s biography as an insightful and enjoyable read — 4/5.

My next three reads were fiction, and they all have very different settings: Korea and Japan, modern-day America, and Soviet Russia.

One of them was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — I received a free digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for honest feedback. It’s an epic saga, set in Korea and Japan, which spans eight decades and four generations of the same family.

It begins with Sunja, a young girl who becomes pregnant by a yakuza — a Japanese gangster. When a Christian minister, Isak, offers to marry her, he saves her from being a societal outcast as a unmarried mother and takes her to start a new life in Japan.

The historical context was eye-opening for me, as I didn’t realize that Korea was under Japanese occupation from 1910 until 1945 or how badly the Korean people were treated in Japan at that time. Many were forced to live in segregated areas and were viewed as second-class citizens.

At almost 500 pages, Pachinko is certainly an epic read. I don’t mind long books if they hold my attention all the way through, but with this one, I felt a stronger emotional connection with Sunja and the characters at the beginning of the story. Later on, around two thirds of the way through, the plot became rushed and some chapters/sections ended abruptly.

Without including any spoilers, I felt that some of the characters’ actions weren’t fully explored towards the end.  I was also surprised that major world events which happened during the time of the novel — two world wars, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — were barely mentioned at all. I don’t think it will be one of my stand-out reads of 2017, but it was a worthwhile read — 3.5/5

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny was my next March read. I received an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review. It’s a sweet, funny novel with delightful characters who made me laugh out loud. The plot focuses on a married couple, Graham and Audra, and their son.

Audra is Graham’s second wife and her personality is a polar opposite from his first wife, Elspeth. Elspeth, a lawyer, is sophisticated, quiet and introverted while Audra is a social butterfly who thinks nothing of inviting strangers for dinner and delights in making friends with anyone.

Standard Deviation is a light, easy read. Its strength lies in the vividness of the characters and Heiny’s gift for writing entertaining, perceptive observations and dialogue — 4/5

My last March read — The Patriots by Sana Krasikov — took me to Soviet-era Russia. The publishing house Granta Books sent me a copy to review, and I’m planning on publishing a longer post about it next week. It’s a compelling novel which follows the life of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman growing up in 1930s Brooklyn.

Florence knows that she doesn’t want her life to be confined by her family’s expectations, and she leaves New York to embark on a career working in Moscow. But she soon becomes entangled in Communist Russia, and her American citizenship can’t protect her.

“Florence could feel a constriction in her chest…She had been foolish enough to hope that whatever she was walking into would affect no one but herself. Now the truth was catching up with her at the speed of her galloping heartbeat…Now they had summoned her. And they knew everything.”

Decades later, her son Julian visits Moscow and finds that his mother’s KGB file has been opened to the public. In this file, he finds out the truth and the events that his mother was always reluctant to speak about.

The Patriots alternates between Florence and Julian’s perspectives, between decades and across two different continents. Krasikov’s writing is well-researched and detailed, building up a picture of the characters’ motivations for their actions and also the historical setting of the book. An excellent read — 5/5.

What did you read in March? Do you like the sound of any of the books in this post?

Books I Read in February

Like last month, I only read two full books in February, although I’m a good portion of the way through two other books which I’m reading at the moment. The pace of my reading has slowed, and I usually only fit a few chapters in during an evening. We’ll see if this ‘two books a month’ average continues through the year. I hope not, as there is so much that I want to read and I’ll fall behind!

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Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks was my first February read. It’s a slim novel which looks at the past of a retired doctor, Robert Hendricks. The book moves between his present-day life as a retired doctor in the 1980s, his experiences in the trenches of World War II and, later, his work as a psychiatrist in the 1960s.

The plot is hinged on a letter that our protagonist receives from a mysterious stranger, retired neurosurgeon Alexander Pereira, who invites him to a small island on the south coast of France. There, Hendricks confronts aspects of his past, and his father’s suffering in the First World War. The traumas of the twentieth century are never far from the surface. Continue reading

Reading in translation: getting a global perspective

Gaining insight into other cultures and perspectives is one of the things I most enjoy about reading. And, of course, books can be therapeutic too. Susan Chira’s recent New York Times article, In Trying Times, the Balm of Jane Austen, rings true.

Returning to old favourites and the reassuring stability of the classics can be just what you need when times are tough, so it isn’t surprising that bibliotherapy is growing in popularity. After all, many of us need some sort of escapism when the world seems to be getting more turbulent by the day.

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A Very Literary Christmas – Part I

This week marked the 240th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth. She was born on December 16 1775, on a snowy day in the southern English county of Hampshire.

Her birthday isn’t the only Austen-related anniversary this month — JA’s novel Emma was published in December 200 years ago. As Christmas is fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to explore how Jane Austen would have celebrated the festive season.

Jane Austen lived during the Georgian era of British history, which I wrote about here during my Between the Pages series. A Georgian Christmas would have some recognizable similarities with popular Christmas traditions today, but equally there were aspects that are different to modern eyes.

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A “Between the Pages” Announcement

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As part of my Between the Pages book blog series, I blogged about the lives, historical periods and creative works of two great authors: Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. I’d planned to continue the series until the end of the year as it was great fun to research these authors and write posts for you all to enjoy.

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Books I Read in September

It’s the third day of October already — how did that happen?! In September, I read four books — a varied mix. I enjoyed two of my September reads a lot, but I’d classify the other two as so-so: okay but not great.

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith 

This book is part of the Austen Project: six contemporary authors who are retelling Jane Austen’s novels in modern settings. In 2013, I wrote a blog post with a critical viewpoint about these updated versions: Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work? This post was in response to the first publication of the Austen Project: a rewritten version of Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. Despite enjoying the novel as a quick, light read, I still have mixed feelings about ‘updating’ classic literature.

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Between the Pages: Quotes from Jane Austen

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Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday, plus occasional bonus posts.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.


We made it! This post marks the end of the first month of my Between the Pages blog series. We had a whistle-stop tour of Jane Austen’s life, the Georgian era and social customs of the time (with a bonus post about dresses and dancing), and her creative works.

I had fun being creative with this post. The fourth post in this series features a few select quotes from each Between the Pages author that we discuss throughout the month. Rather than simply assembling some quotes, I wanted to include a visual element as well.

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Between the Pages — Jane Austen’s Writing

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Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday, plus occasional bonus posts.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.


During her lifetime, Jane Austen wrote six full-length novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. 

She started writing when she was in her early teens and her juvenilia consists of short stories, poems and comic plays. Her early writing is quite different to her novels; it is full of extravagant characters and slapstick events. Between 1793 – 1795, Jane wrote Lady Susan, a novel told in letters about a seductive widow who hunts for husbands for herself and her daughter.

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Between the Pages bonus post: Dresses and Dancing

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I enjoy watching the styles, sets and scenery of Jane Austen’s novels portrayed on screen and learning about the fashions of the period. Seeing as my last post only covered a very small amount of contextual material for this month’s featured author, why not indulge in a Between the Pages bonus post?

Clothes and fashions change all the time, although I do wonder whether fashions today are becoming less defined. In a few decades’ time, when historians look back on decades in the early 2000s, what will the defining fashions be?

Each decade in the 20th century has a standout fashion. The 1920s had flapper dresses and the rise of Coco Chanel; beautifully feminine bias-cut dresses were popular in the ’30s; the wartime years in the 1940s saw practical fashions, with red lipstick and pincurls to add a touch of glamour; and Dior’s New Look was launched near the end of the decade, leading into the full-skirted ’50s.

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Between the Pages — Jane Austen’s Era

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Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.

Jane Austen lived from 1775 – 1817, a period in British history which is known as the Georgian era. The Georgian period lasted from 1714 – 1837 and it includes the Regency period from 1792 – 1837, after which the Victorian era began. In this post, I am curious about exploring this era and the impact of Jane Austen’s times on her writing.

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