My laptop has arrived! And, what's more, it seems to be working. So I'm back regular blogging, but before I bring you up to speed on the things I've read this year, we still have to hear about The Carbon Copy (also know as Colin) and his favourite read of 2008 - and the whole family circle is complete! Despite having quite a different taste in books from me, I think you'll find his choice rather at home here... over to Colin:
2008 may well have been the first year in which I read more non-fiction than fiction, and of those non-fiction books I read, William Hague's biography of William Wilberforce stands out – this, unsurprisingly, as much a testament to the wonders of Wilberforce's life as to Hague's writing style.
Indeed, it is some time since I was blown away by a work of fiction – which is sad – and a number of the 'classics' have left me relatively unmoved. But there is always safe ground in Jane Austen, and I'm perpetually surprised by how few of her books I have read, especially considering there were only six to speak of. I pushed myself up to four this year, by reading Northanger Abbey.
If I can have a complaint about Austen, it's that she doesn't stray far from template: boy meets girl. Boy and girl face insurmountable boundaries. Boy and girl dance. Boy and girl marry. And I hope I'm not spoiling the story too much when I tell you that Northanger Abbey sticks pretty much to the script, with the same healthy doses of pleasant-looking baddies and unpleasant-looking goodies that you'll find in any of Austen's other novels. Well, with the possible exceptions of Persuasion and Mansfield Park, which I've yet to read.
But Northanger Abbey is marked out by being a satire on the gothic novel, with haunted bedrooms and mysterious doors scattered about the place. How pertinent a satire this is, I cannot really say – the gothic novel is not my bag – but I have to admit I could have done without it. Essentially, the satire is limited to a couple of rather heavy-handed chapters that the novel would flow rather better without.
The satire aside, this is an excellently observed love story of the quality you would expect from Austen. I believe some have criticised the Austen men as being slightly two-dimensional: if they have, they are wrong. There is nothing so admirable as an Austen hero, and I think I speak for the vast majority of men when I say that I would like to see something of myself in Mr Tilney. He is not especially complicated, but he is loving, thoughtful and honourable. Male or female, I defy anyone not to root for Tilney and Catherine to get together.
Speaking of whom, Catherine Morland, despite being no one's idea of a heroine, manages the peculiar Austen trick of being an all-round nice girl without making you want to vomit, and without being 'feisty' (urgh). The supporting cast could generally be plucked from other novels (Mrs Allen owes something to Mrs Bennet, Mr Tilney Sr is not unlike Mr Woodhouse, you could be forgiven for confusing Isabella with Mrs Elton, and so on) but the characters are strong nonetheless.
All in all, I have not been shaken in the idea that Austen's novels are rather formulaic; however, when you've practically invented the formula and do it better than anyone else can, I say stick to the formula.