Tag Archives: Jane Austen

19, 20, 21: Thursday Next, Destined, and Jane Austen Education

19. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

*****

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I truly think that there is no more brilliant writer working today than Jasper Fforde when it comes to the sheer magic, creativity and genius of building alternate worlds and dimensions and realities. (If that’s not high praise, tell me higher and I’ll use it.) That being said, I still haven’t made it all the way through the Thursday Next series (this is book #2 and this was the first time I’d read it). I think probably it’s because I know there is only so much Thursday Next in the world and I want to savor it all, and have the joy of anticipation in looking forward to reading more.

For those who don’t know about Thursday Next, she is a detective working for the SpecOps police force in an alternate dimension-type universe where there are such things as Literary Police, the Crimean War is still going strong (well, at the time of the books, which take place in the mid-1980s of this particular universe), people go to Rocky Horror Picture Show-type productions of Shakespeare plays (audience participation galore), and rogue Baconians go door-to-door to try and convince people that Francis Bacon was the REAL author of Shakespeare’s plays. Time travel is possible (there’s a whole police division called the Chronoguard) and with the right inventions you can actually step into the printed word and meet literary characters. This ability comes into play in this book as Thursday joins JurisFiction, the intra-literary police force (her mentor is Miss Havisham, yes that one), and starts learning the ropes to solve literary crimes.

To say this book and this series was completely lovely and brilliant and amazing just doesn’t quite cover it. Trust me, just start reading the Thursday Next books for yourself if you haven’t already done so (Book One is The Eyre Affair). Five stars.

 

20. Destined, by Aprilynne Pike

*****

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I started reading Aprilynne Pike’s Wings series last year, just as book three came out, in the mistaken belief that it was a trilogy and I wouldn’t have to wait months for the resolution of any evil cliff-hangers. Hah. It became clear to me about 5 pages from the end when things reeeeeeeaaaaalllly weren’t winding up fast enough that I’d been mistaken and yes, book three ended on one of the most evil cliffhangers I’ve seen since Catching Fire.

I’ve talked elsewhere about my feelings on Twilight, but I’ll sum up here by saying that, yes, I do love the Twilight books like I love cotton candy: it’s sweet, it’s fluffy, it reminds you of dates at the amusement park with your high school crush, and it’s not something you should eat all the time or you’ll get sick. Also, the main character bugged the crap out of me until book four when she finally became interesting to herself and therefore to me.

So when I say that the Wings series is kind of what Twilight would have been like if the main character were strong and assertive and solved problems and could take care of herself and had other things going on in her life besides an all-consuming love for a boy, that’s a compliment. Laurel is everything I wished Bella was and more. The mythology that Pike has created for this world is fascinating, the prose is fluid and clear, and yes, the boys in the inevitable YA love triangle are both amazing. (Although I really wish I could figure out how to pronounce “Tamani.”)

So much for the series as a whole. Destined was the best capstone to a series that I’ve read in a long, long time. I can’t imagine a more perfect way for this story to wrap up. The action of the book takes place mostly in a 24-hour period immediately following the evil cliffhanger from book 3 but never feels drawn-out or clunky; you’re turning pages as fast as possible to see what happens and how on earth can they possibly get out of this horrible mess? But everything works out just as it should. Nothing feels forced or contrived; nor does it feel like Pike wimped out or pulled any punches. And the epilogue, oh my goodness. I may cry gratuitously at movies and Taylor Swift songs (that’s a whole ‘nother story), but it takes a lot for a book to make me cry. So when I say that I cried at the epilogue—not ugly Bridge to Terebithia tears or wrenching middle-of-Hunger-Games tears, but cathartic tears and those tears you get when everything is just filled with a sense of rightness—that’s high praise.

Even if you think you’re sick of the whole YA paranormal romance type of series, I suggest you check out the Wings books. They’re a prime example of the genre done right. I’m looking forward to finding out what else Pike has up her sleeve in her career; this series is a most auspicious beginning. Five stars.

 

21. A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz

****

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I really enjoyed seeing Jane Austen from the perspective of a male grad student skeptic and how he came to learn to love Austen, as well as learning life lessons from her books. His takeaway lessons from the novels were not the same as mine in a lot of cases (and a few points he brought up I don’t think I quite agree with), but in some other cases he put something so brilliantly that it was what I hadn’t realized I’d been thinking all along. His comparison between the writing voices of Austen and Joyce, for example, nailed exactly what I’ve thought about the two styles for quite some time.

Deresiewicz’s writing style is friendly and comfortable but also very smart, and I thought the personal anecdotes and relations he made between his life and how he came to Austen were quite interesting. I don’t know if this book will convert any non-believers (which seems to be at least part of the point he’s writing from), but it’s worth picking up if you are even a casual appreciator of Jane Austen. Four stars.

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Year of 52 Books #9: Persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen

*****

Side note: I love this cover and wish I had a copy of this version. What a perfect image for this book!

When people ask what my favorite book or movie is, I usually can’t give them a simple answer. It’s like choosing a favorite child (even though I only have the one), I say. I love so many books; you can’t possibly ask me to name just one favorite! I hem and haw and list five or ten books on my rotating favorites list.

But I’m going to admit, here and now, that I really do have one single favorite book, and that it’s Persuasion.

I’ve been thinking over this review for a few weeks now and have been having much more difficulty writing it than might be expected, given that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book and that I love nearly everything about it. But it’s important to me that I properly articulate why this book means so much to me.

It surprises me sometimes that more people don’t know about Persuasion. Everyone knows and loves Pride and Prejudice, which is kind of the sparkly diamond necklace of the Austen canon: beautiful and dazzling and obviously worthwhile. Persuasion is more of the tiny gold band, plain and sweet and perfect, fitted to the hand from long wear and love. Most people also know about Sense and Sensibility and Emma, mainly because they know Emma Thompson or Kate Winslet or Gwyneth Paltrow. Not as many people know Amanda Root, which means that not as many people know Anne Elliot, which is a true shame.

This book, to me, provides much more than “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” It is the book above all others that I know I can go to at any time and in any mood and come away feeling whole and happy, enlightened and enlivened.

It may sound silly to wax so poetic about what many would view as a typical chick-flick-Austen-love-story: poor boy meets well-to-do girl, they get engaged, she is persuaded by (probably snobby) friends that it would be better for him if she broke off the engagement, he gets upset and leaves to make a great career for himself in the Navy, she stays home and never marries. So far, so Nicholas Sparks.

Their paths do not cross again for eight years, which time has served to confirm Anne’s belief that Captain Frederick Wentworth was her ideal match, and to solidify Captain Wentworth’s anger at the woman he loved but who had not, as he believed, loved him well enough to keep him. He turns up in the neighborhood to visit his sister and to look for a wife—any woman but Anne Elliot.

Things work out, as they tend to do in Austen novels, but in a real and moving way that flows perfectly, leaving you with a sense that all is as it should be. No grand coincidences or deus ex machinas here. Anne and Captain Wentworth are drawn back together because there is no other way the world can possibly be; they are meant for each other.

But, for me, this is not primarily a love story.

I will admit that my love of love stories certainly doesn’t diminish my pleasure in this book, and that my sentimental heart beats wildly along with Anne’s through the more suspenseful and sweet portions of the story. But it’s not the romance that keeps me coming back to revisit this book every year or six months.

Ultimately, this is a story about hope. Hope that things can be mended, that mistakes can be made right. Hope that life can be good and worthwhile even if you have family troubles or heartbreak or other problems. And yes, the hope that lost love can return.

I think that’s why the basic Persuasion-style plot line—love is thwarted for a long time but eventually triumphs—is so popular and sees so many iterations. One of the more recent ones I can think of is the delightful movie Letters to Juliet. The ostensible main story line about a perky young journalist (Amanda Seyfried) looking to get her big break and her sparring with the grandson of a woman she’s writing about is cute enough, your standard chick-flick fare. But the secondary story about the grandmother, played by the inimitable Vanessa Redgrave, is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Simply enough, this grandmother comes back to Italy after fifty years to find the boy she fell in love with as a girl and tell him that she’s sorry she didn’t meet him to run away together like she’d promised. She’s not necessarily looking for a grand reunion, romance, the works. She just wants to tell a person who was important to her that she’s sorry she let him down.

Of course things work out, just as they do in Persuasion. But if things never worked out, how would we be able to hope? If we had no memory of light, no hope that it would return, how would we bear the darkness? If we didn’t think that things could be mended, why would we ever try to make them right?

Anne, for all the dreary stretch of years clouded by regret, the dearth of real friendship and companionship in her life and the pain of suspense that she faces, still manages to keep hope and life and quiet joy alive, even when things look bleakest. That is her triumph. Even if Captain Wentworth had married Louisa, Anne would have kept that hope in life. The fact that things DO work out is just the icing on the cake.

And that is why this is my favorite book.

Well, that and the fact that Captain Wentworth can write one heck of a letter.

Five stars.

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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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