Monthly Archives: April 2012

Year of 52 Books #7: Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale

****

 

Let me just get this out of the way to begin with: My friend Tracy (name changed) would probably hate this book.

Let me back up a bit.

Shannon Hale’s Austenland* is one of my go-to favorites for frothy and sweet but not stupid reading. I love Jane Austen, I love Shannon Hale, I love Colin Firth, I love romance and happy endings. I think Austenland was the first book I actually bought for my Kindle (mostly I just loaded up on freebies); I loved it enough to want to buy it again to have easy access to it all the time. It’s basically a one-long-sitting read and cheers me up every time. I even had my book club read it after we’d finished all the Jane Austen books, and it was enjoyed, even if not all of them loved it like I do.

Fast forward a few months from that book club meeting. I’m sitting at work one afternoon with my friend K, who is also in the book club, and our friend Tracy walks in. Without preamble, she declares to the room, “Have you ever read Austenland? Don’t. Worst book ever.”

This isn’t the only book we emphatically disagree on. She loves Eragon. She hates Jane Eyre. I think her main complaint with Austenland is that it *SPOILER ALERT* ended happily. (I sometimes wonder if she also hates puppies and sunshine. Not really. And I love her dearly. But that Jane Eyre thing makes me worry sometimes.)

Anyway. Midnight in Austenland is the, well, not really sequel, but follow-up to Austenland. It takes place in the same setting—a fictional resort in England where rich women pay fabulous amounts of money to have an immersive Jane Austen vacation experience, complete with handsome actors in breeches whose job is to make the guests feel enchanting—but most of the characters (with a few sparkling exceptions) are different. While Austenland took its inspiration more from Pride and Prejudice, with healthy doses of Persuasion and Mansfield Park thrown in, Midnight is most closely allied with Northanger Abbey. It’s basically Shannon Hale’s nod to the Gothic novel and is more of a mystery novel than a romance, although it also *SPOILER ALERT* ends happily. (Sorry, Tracy.)

This book features Charlotte, a successful entrepreneur who discovered Jane Austen’s books after her husband left her for a woman named Justice. (Yes, really.) Her two children are spending a few weeks with their father during the summer and she decides to take her first vacation in years. A casual mention of Jane Austen to her travel agent ends up with Charlotte booking a two-week stay at Pembrook Park. Once there, she begins to lose track of what is real and what is only make-believe, and she must decide whether she actually has uncovered a sinister mystery or if it is only part of the entertainment.

I love Shannon Hale’s voice and the way her books make you feel like a member of a cool little club with the narrator’s sly comments and the inner monologue her characters carry on. She is witty and intelligent and obviously having a whole lot of fun writing these books. But I also enjoy these books because although they are firmly planted in the “just-for-fun” category, they’re actually well written and smart. There’s substance going on; they’re not just cotton candy. They’re well researched and stand on their own rather than being mere derivative fanfic. They’re definitely more frothy than most of her other books, so if you’re coming to these books expecting the beautiful literary prose tone of, say, The Goose Girl, you might be disappointed. But the writing is still excellent and well-crafted and the humor is great, and the characters are ones that you wouldn’t mind curling up and spending an afternoon with.

I’d recommend reading Austenland first, just because I love it and it gives you a bit of perspective on some of the events of Midnight in Austenland, but Midnight can stand on its own quite easily if you haven’t read Austenland (or, you know, if you trust Tracy’s judgment more than mine or if you hate happiness and butterflies). Four stars.

 

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, there are actually many books on which Tracy and I agree; I’d be willing to bet that in most instances trusting her judgment wouldn’t be all that different from trusting mine. 

 

*Brief synopsis of Austenland for those who are interested: Jane Hayes is a thirtysomething with a string of bad relationships and an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth. Compared to Darcy, real men just don’t stack up. When Jane’s great-aunt dies and leaves her an all-expenses-paid vacation to Pembrook Park, a Jane-Austen-themed resort, Jane decides that maybe this will be the best way to kick her Darcy fixation for good.

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Year of 52 Books #6: The Princess Bride

Yes, I’m back, for those of you keeping track. The cross-country move went well but the dust is still settling so I’ll be playing catch-up for a bit, but I should be posting more frequently now. So, without further ado, I give you book number six in my year of 52 books:

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

*****

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

So begins one of my favorite books, The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. This book has been a source of both happiness and confusion to me since I was a young child.

I should explain. As you may have caught on, I’m a bit of a movie geek. Yeah. I’m the one who can rattle off actor resumes and Bacon scores faster than IMDb. If you don’t understand a comment I just made, there’s about a 75% chance that it’s a quote from a movie (and an 80% chance in that case that it’s a movie you’ve never heard of, let alone seen). I, like my father before me, stay until the end of the movie in the theater, not to see if there are any extra scenes, but to read the credits. (The advent of extra scenes, however, has really helped to convince the people with and around us not to bug us to leave early. True story: my parents were once asked to leave a movie theater. They had gone to a late showing of the Disney classic Alice in Wonderland—the real one, not that Tim Burton nonsense—and were the last people left in the theater because my dad was watching the credits. The cleaning staff just wanted to go home so they asked my parents to leave.)

But I digress.

The Princess Bride was one of the first movies I remember seeing in the theater. There was an old dollar theater near our house called The Arcade, and that’s where I remember seeing such movies as The Rescuers, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp (I chose to see that for my birthday movie, probably when I was three or four, and the projector broke), The Little Mermaid and, of course, The Princess Bride. I loved that movie. When it came out on VHS my aunt got it, whereupon she was the most-requested babysitter at our house in spite of the fact that she lived nearly an hour away. One of the best days of my young life was when The Princess Bride had  its network TV broadcast premiere and my dad recorded it so that now we had our own family copy (the downside was that this was the copy I was most familiar with growing up and so I was surprised when I went to college and got my own copy of the movie and there were parts in there I didn’t recognize because the TV version had been edited to run in the time allotted. I made up for it, though, and three years later actually became the campus champion of Princess Bride trivia. No, I am not kidding. My prize: a Princess Bride frisbee full of gummy worms, which the event organizers called “shrieking eels.” The reason I chose that prize was because I already had a copy of the movie, the book and the soundtrack, which is not surprising when you consider how I wound up knowing all that trivia in the first place).

But (coming back to the aforementioned confusion) my mom had raised a question when I was little that had always made me wonder. In the movie, when the grandfather starts reading, he says, “The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern. Chapter One.” But in the credits, my mom pointed out that  it says it’s based on William Goldman’s book. Which is the real author?

The real author, of course, is William Goldman. But his book is ostensibly “the good parts version”—that is, he’s writing it as though he’s abridging S. Morgenstern’s longer book, just keeping the good parts and getting rid of all the boring political satire that Morgenstern supposedly stuffed into it. But it’s done well enough that when I first read this book in the sixth grade (no, this isn’t a children’s book), I really did think there was an unabridged version floating around out there. I’m not sure how long it took me to figure out the truth, but much longer than it probably should have. (I’m guessing somewhere around my junior year of high school is when I finally accepted the fact that I would never get to read the hat-packing scenes. It’s kind of like learning about Santa.)

But coming to the book itself—it is simply wonderful. The movie, excellent as it is, doesn’t half do it justice. I still, to this day, am disappointed while reading the passages from the Zoo of Death because they’re not in the movie and it would have been so cool to see them! And then I remember that I don’t like seeing pictures or video or real life of snakes or spiders and think, well, okay, the Pit of Despair will do. But I still use the Zoo of Death passages as great examples of suspense and good writing in classes. I also love how much more back story you get with the characters (young Inigo listening to Domingo and Yeste in particular gives me the giggles), and I have to say that it’s much, much easier to understand the dialogue in the movie’s swordfight scene once you’ve read the book.

William Goldman is an excellent writer in every sense. You’re probably familiar with his work even if you don’t realize it—he’s an amazing and successful screenwriter as well. Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Misery, Maverick, and of course The Princess Bride. But this book is a marvel of creation and of construction. Everything fits seamlessly together, especially the way he uses the frame story of the abridgment and his father first reading the book to him when he was sick as a child to actually help tell the story. Writers should study this book to see how a master crafts a story.

It’s come to the point where I don’t know for sure which I’ve done more, read the book or watch the movie. But it had been a long time since my last re-read (I know because I found a ticket stub to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban tucked inside my copy when I opened it), and I needed something familiar, comforting and lighthearted-but-not-stupid after the emotional wringer that was Wintergirls. The Princess Bride did the trick very nicely, like a long conversation with an old friend, the kind where you both end up laughing so hard you can barely breathe.

All I can say is, if you have never read this book, please do yourself a favor and pick up a copy as soon as possible. It is one of the most well-crafted novels I have ever read, and it’s entertaining and witty on top of it, which, really, is everything a book ought to be. Five stars.

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