The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

Published: 30th March 2009 (print)/10 September 2012 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Text Publishing/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 233/5 hours 56 minutes
Narrator: Deidre Rubenstein
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

Sydney in the late 1950s. On the second floor of the famous F.G. Goode department store, in Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks, the women in black are girding themselves for the Christmas rush. Lisa is the new Sales Assistant (Temporary). Across the floor and beyond the arch, she is about to meet the glamorous Continental refugee, Magda, guardian of the rose-pink cave of Model Gowns. With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence. The Women in Black is a classic.

This is a curious book. It was a decent read, the characters were all unique in their own way and yet have the wonderful conformity of the 1950s, and the era comes to life with St John’s words. I am caught between liking it and thinking it was just ok. Somewhere in the 2.5 star field because somehow I couldn’t give it a three.

If I stopped listening I found myself forgetting I was reading it at all. There was nothing in the story to get me back into it, and yet I didn’t hate it while I read it. I wasn’t bored per se, it’s just that nothing happens. I think it was the final third or even further when something happened that I finally got into it, and even then it’s not much. I think that was more the ending coming to a head so it felt conclusive.

This is a novel that is character driven, certainly more so than plot. I certainly have nothing against character driven novels, I think though that enjoyment comes from having characters that interest you so you want to read about their lives. I enjoyed Magda, and Lisa was endearing, but so few others piqued my interest. I felt two or three of these women took centre stage and felt more real than others which may have had something to do with it.

I did love the writing style. St John’s words are elegant and natural without being formal or unnecessarily complicated. The language puts you into this era and it separates the characters from one another with ease, almost so you don’t even notice it. This is emphasised by Rubenstein’s narration. Her use of voices and tone brought this story to life and highlighted St John’s beautiful words. There is slight humour but not enough to be a distraction, and the conversations are often humorous simply for their stark contrasts to modern times. This language was also why I enjoyed the ending. St John concludes this novel with style and it was a seamless ending that suited the characters she had created. There was a heartfelt sentimentality that gave extra meaning to all that had come before it, all through the characters she uses to bring this story together.

Oddly enough, I also found the obituary at the end of my audiobook quite enjoyable. I enjoyed listening about St John and her life from someone who knew her. It was interesting too because I learnt that the book was actually published in 1993. I was impressed because St John captures the language and the feel of the 50s remarkably well. It didn’t feel forced or over the top and there was class and charm in her words that she managed to recreate the era remarkably well.

I will be interested in the movie now (retitled Ladies in Black) because I would like to see how they portray this, if not for the story, but to see these wonderful cocktail frocks for myself.

You can purchase The Women in Black via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Angus and Robinson | Dymocks

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Published: October 1st 1998 (print) / 1 May 2017 (audio)Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Harper Perennial / Bolinda / BBC audio
Pages: 248 / 2 hours 32 minutes
Narrator: Eleanor Bron
Format:
 Audio
Genre: Fantasy
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Life moves at a leisurely pace in the tiny town of Wall—named after the imposing stone barrier which separates the town from a grassy meadow. Here, young Tristran Thorn has lost his heart to the beautiful Victoria Forester and for the coveted prize of her hand, Tristran vows to retrieve a fallen star and deliver it to his beloved. It is an oath that sends him over the ancient wall and into a world that is dangerous and strange beyond imagining…

I had watched the movie years before I even knew it was a book, and was glad enough time had passed that I didn’t remember it so I couldn’t compare the two. I listened to this as an audiobook too which was actually a full-cast dramatization from the BBC. That made it a really great experience, aside from the fact they get a bit too detailed and you have to listen to people talk while they’re eating and drinking which for me was super uncomfortable to listen to. The cast did a great job telling the story. It had great voice casting as well as accompanying soundtrack and sound effects. It was a little something extra than a normal audiobook experience.

One thing I found really interesting about this is that it felt like a short story, even though it was a full novel. The whole book had this duel sense to it, it had a simple premise but it felt full whilst reading it, and it felt substantial even when it wasn’t an overly busy plot.

Tristran is naïve in a way, he is in love which makes him idealistic. He doesn’t pick up on cues from Victoria about her lesser interest in him and he is determined to win her heart. On his quest to find the fallen star we see his good nature shine, and we become involved with his story and worry for his safety because there is no telling where this story might go. The unexpected and the cruel happen much like any fairytale story, but there is still a sense of good shining through.

The thing I love about magic is how the rules can be interpreted and how the regular rules of the universe don’t work. I loved the way Gaiman told this story, I loved how magic is used and how the rules of the magical world play out in the human one in different ways. There are twists and turns and for a simple find and recover story, there are intricate subplots happening that intertwine and connect, even when you don’t realise it. This is where Gaiman is good at his storytelling, creating a story that captivates you and pulls you in, without making it needlessly complicated or grand, yet still providing substance and beauty.

One thing which I both enjoyed and was a bit struck by, was the ending. It is great certainly, but it does end rather abruptly. You get a satisfactory ending for the story that’s told, but I feel like more could have been said just to round off the edges better instead of cutting it so sharply. But that may be the way of the fairy tale Gaiman was trying to tell.

When I finished I did sit down with the intention to rewatch the movie, but from the first instance I saw the differences I turned it off. Even if it was a decent adaptation, one of the things I loved most about the book was changed in the movie and I chose to preserve that memory instead. The way Gaiman uses magic was some of the best parts and when that didn’t translate I chose to not continue, though I’m sure it was a decent movie, it was more a personal choice than that it was a poor adaptation.

You can purchase Stardust via the following

Dymocks | Booktopia

Book Depository | QBD

Amazon | Amazon Aust

Fishpond | Wordery | Angus & Robertson