ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Imitation, they say, is the greatest form of flattery. And so the decision by Harper Collins to commission well known modern authors to rewrite six of Jane Austen's novels would seem to be a winner. On looking at reviews of the first three modernised novels - Emma, Sense and Sensibility,  and Northanger Abbey, this would appear to not be the case. Mixed reviews probably an understatement. This one, however, which in case you hadn't figured it out by the title, is Pride and Prejudice revisited, and is a marvellous read, overall favourably reviewed too by the good and the great of the book review world.

The P and P story is so well known, having made it to TV and film in many different versions, that we all have in our mind's eye how we visualise the characters to be. So naturally, we are constantly going to be making comparisons with the original story, and all the remakes since. But that is half of the fun of reading this - comparing and contrasting. Like being with an old friend who has modified and been modified over the years.

A number of things are different however. Firstly the setting. Not England at all,  but present day Cincinnati, Ohio where the author comes from. Mr and Mrs Bennet live in a nice suburb, in a very large inherited family home, with the three younger daughters - Mary, Kitty and Lydia. Mary is doing yet another on line degree; Kitty and Lydia as self obsessed and mischievous as they were 200 years ago.  Liz and Jane are 38 and 40 respectively, have successful careers and live in New York, Liz hopelessly in love with modern day rat Jasper Wickes, and single Jane going through a donor insemmination process. The Bennets' dire financial situation only comes to light when Liz and Jane return to Cincinnati after their father has open heart surgery. Next door to the Bennets live, surprise, the Lucas's and Charlotte of course. Mr Collins turns up in the form of a 'cousin' and IT nerd from Silicone Valley. Darcy and Bingley naturally, being the most desired men in the piece, have been recreated as surgeons who have taken up important positions at the local hospital. Chip Bingley made an interesting decision  a year or two before the story begins to go on the reality TV show 'Eligible' -  you guessed it - 'The Bachelor' renamed. Such a clever little plot device.

Aaah, the search for true love takes a many and varied form indeed. Even though the time difference is 200 years, the story is as timeless as ever. Reality TV, sperm donors, Cross Fit, friends with benefits, yoga, transgender, racism and bigotry, insect infestations - all the bits and pieces that are part of the modern chaotic world we live in are all here. The author is very clever with how she has kept the core story, and yet changed, tweaked and shifted that story into a very relevant, modern and easily relatable novel. The dialogue does not sparkle as much as Jane Austen's, at times I did have trouble finding the chemistry between Liz (I kept calling her Lizzie, such a nicer name) and Darcy, some of the plot developments were insane, but in the end I didn't really care. Because it is all such an entertainment, such a romp, and so delicious to escape into. Oh and one more thing, you must, absolutely must, read it with a glass of wine in hand. It is just that much better!


Fellside is a prison, a correctional facility for women to be precise, where three thousand women 'form a community committed to a practical ideal of rehabilitation'. Sounds idyllic. Not. A women's prison is not a place that many people get to see the inside of, but we sure get plenty of insight from programmes like Bad Girls, Orange is the New Black, and Wentworth. Really tough women, young and old, fighting to survive. Fellside is no different.

There have been a number of best selling novels in the last few years which have as their central premise a young woman who has suffered memory loss. Jess Moulson is yet another young woman in the unfortunate position of having her life dramatically affected by amnesia. The story opens with Jess regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, handcuffed to the bed, being treated for serious burns, smoke inhalation. Gradually she remembers that she was involved in a fire in her flat that led to the death of a ten year old boy who lived in the flat upstairs. Jess is a drug addict and has vague recollection that she set the fire for reasons that she can't quite recall. By page 25 she has been found guilty of murder, the subject of the most awful press coverage, and sentenced to Fellside. Her court appointed lawyer is doubtful that the full and factual story has come out but can't get Jess to see sense, her guilt at the death of young Alex completely overwhelming her.

So life in prison begins. Not a bed of roses. Now, I am not a fan of supernatural or fantasy fiction, I really just do not get it. But very cleverly the author who, under a pen name has written for Marvel comics and writes his own graphic fiction, introduces what can only be called a ghost character - a young boy who comes to Jess in her sleep, in her dreams, taking her with him to his world. She is convinced this is the spirit of Alex, and gradually realises that he is helping her to see what really happened the night of the fire. And so the mystery of Alex's death begins to be solved.

But it is definitely creepy, weird and unsettling. At the same time as Jess is moving between the real world and the spirit world, she has to adapt to prison life in all its ruthlessness, cruelty, bent prison officers, and survival of the fittest code. It is pretty grim. What was interesting and did help to soften the brutality was the back stories of the prisoners and how they came to be in Fellside, including Jess's own story. As awful as they all are, terrible things happened to the women that led them to prison, so it is hardly surprising the terror continues.

At nearly 500 pages, already one can see that there is lot going on in this novel. It is tricky to define what sort of novel it is - a psychological thriller?  murder mystery? supernatural? fantasy? horror? At times it does wobble, and for me, I did lose my way with all the wanderings Jess and Alex's spirit do in the pursuit of justice. But living in such a prison environment, wouldn't you too want to escape to inside your head?

If you get past all the spooky action, then this is actually quite a riveting story. Life in the prison is graphically depicted, all the characters are very well drawn with great depth, there are lots of twists in the plot and surprises. And in the end, justice is served.

BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande

 This book is the third written by Boston based surgeon about medical matters close to heart - the ethics and morality of what modern day medical practice is all about. He is also a staff writer for The New York Times and a professor at Harvard. It is a rare person who can take the scary science of medicine, humanise and demystify for us ignorant saps what really drives doctors and surgeons in their high pressure, high stakes work.

Three certainties in life - birth, death, and taxes.  We don't remember our births, and nothing really of the first two years of life. Taxes, well, we know all about them, and nothing we can do about those. Death and with it getting old - we don't want to face all that ickiness, losing our memories, eyesight, hearing, mobility, senility, bodily functions. And what about disease and sickness? All far too scary. And who wants to go and live in a rest home - visions of old people shrivelled up in wheelchairs, sitting zombie like in front of tele, dinner at 5pm. Is this what our active, interesting and stimulating lives have been reduced to? And is getting old, and the process of dying something we can have some control of, something we can do about?

Well, we can't prevent it happening, but we can certainly make it easier for ourselves and our families, which is the author's focus in this book. As a doctor, he has been trained in the physical care of the elderly. But his experiences in dealing with elderly people, including his own grandmother and father, have shown him that good care is about so much more than prescribing medication, four walls and three meals a day. He identifies the three enemies of successfully managing old age - boredom, loneliness and helplessness. Any of these three have an immediate negative impact on one's quality of life. We already know this of course as it may affect us when we aren't elderly. But up until recently the options available for elderly care have been fairly limited - primarily rest/nursing homes - where these three afflictions have plenty of opportunity to flourish. So he advocates for community based care, retirement villages, pets both furry and feathered, and being active for as long as possible.

He then addresses terminal illness and the process of dying - not nearly as awful as one might think. Again, it is all about helping people maintain their dignity, giving them control over how their pain and illness is to be managed, having those 'conversations' that none of us want to have with our own selves, let alone with others we care about.

There is plenty of the personal memoir in this book, not only in his writing about patients and families he has dealt with, but also his own family. Which for the ignorant reader is really quite wonderful. Not only is the doctor showing how human he is too, just like the rest of us, but with enormous grace and humility is showing us how we can make old age different, better, happier, more productive. Compulsory reading for everyone, I loved it so much I bought my own copy.