Posted by: billpurdue | June 8, 2014

Bringing Jane Austen up to date

Take the Jane Austen classic “Northanger Abbey” and bring it right up to date with a Scottish flavour. This is what Val McDermid has done with Jane Austen’s book as her contribution to the Austen Project. The aim of the project is for six of Jane Austen’s novels to be given the 21st Century treatment. The first was Joanna Trollope’s version of “Sense and Sensibility” and two more are on the way: “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice”, but the authors haven’t been announced, according to the website at any rate.


If you know the plot of the original Northanger Abbey, it’s roughly the same for the Val McDermid version, except that Edinburgh should be substituted for Bath, the names have been changed in some cases and instead of letters they send texts to each other. Briefly it’s all about Catherine Morland (Cat for short) from rural Dorset who is invited by her neighbours to spend a few weeks with them at the Edinburgh Festival. Whilst there she meets Henry Tilney and makes friends with Bella Thorpe, who has a rather obnoxious brother, John. Cat falls for Henry and is invited to spend a week or two with his family at Northanger Abbey. Being a great fan of vampire novels, Cat begins to think that the Tilney family might be vampires (it’s always dull weather when she sees them, there’s no mobile signal at Northanger, they seem to eat little and there seems to be some mystery surrounding the death of the mother) and once at the Abbey she decides to do a bit of investigation of her own, only to be found out and landed in an embarrassing situation.


First of all, this is no typical McDermid novel. I was uneasy about the story, hoping that the plot would suddenly turn away from the expected course of events. It reads like a sort of ‘Famous Five’ story for adults. I wasn’t hoping for bad language – far from it, but it did seem at times that it should have been billed as a young adult novel. I’m probably mistaken, but it seemed like a thinly disguised advert for the delights of the Edinburgh Festival and the Scottish Borders countryside. Anyway, I read it to the end, but I don’t think I’ll try any of the other novels in the Austen Project.


By the way, the latest Val Mcdermid novel in the series featuring psychological profiler Tony Hill and former DCI Carol Jordan is “Cross and Burn” and is available in paperback. She has also written her first book for children: “My Granny is a Pirate”.


For the love of pianos


If you can’t play the piano (like me), then this next book might make you wish you could. Either that or it might make you want to visit Paris sometime soon. “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank” by Thad Carhart tells the story of how the author, living in Paris during the last decade of the 20th century, gained admittance to the secretive world of the atelier, where Luc, the owner of the business, repaired and sold pianos. Not having played the piano for some years, the experience reawakens the author’s love of pianos, both in playing them and finding out about the different types and manufacturers.


Described by the TLS as “an atmospheric and absorbing journey to an older way of life” and by the Express on Sunday as “a thoughtful exploration of the twin delights of the piano and Parisian life”, this is a book where the author describes how he first gets to know Luc and is allowed to wander around the shop and to take his time in finding the right piano to buy. He writes about how pianos work, their history (it was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori by the way), taking piano lessons both as a child and as an adult, about the piano tuner who works best in the mornings as he gets drunk after lunch – and more.

It’s a very atmospheric kind of book. I won’t call it a novel, as it is fact rather than fiction, but it really needs to be read as a novel. It all depends on what you expect from a book like this – if you want a definite beginning, middle and an ending, then you could be disappointed. If on the other hand, you want to get an idea of the atmosphere of the Left Bank and the world of the local piano repairer (and salesman) in the suburbs of Paris, then this might be for you.


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