Monday, December 31, 2012

"Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon" by Jane Austen

I decided to round out my year of reading Jane Austen by reading her unfinished works too.  My mom gave me this collection for my birthday, and I managed to polish it off over the last couple of weeks.

I liked "Lady Susan" the least of these three -- it is finished, while the other two aren't, but I didn't like any of the characters, especially not Lady Susan herself, who is particularly disagreeable.  I enjoy the epistolary format as a whole, so that didn't bother me.  It concerns the selfish, wanton Lady Susan who spends the whole book trying to marry her daughter off to a rich, foolish man that her daughter despises. 

I liked "The Watsons" the best, for it had characters I genuinely cared about and wanted to get to know better.  It seemed to be following a plot line similar to Pride and Prejudice, with an unwealthy family's daughters catching the eye of men of more money and position.  We do at least know how that one would have turned out, thanks to Jane Austen telling her sister Cassandra her plans for the novel.

"Sanditon" reminded me more of Emma, with a whole host of hypochandriacal characters similar to Mr. Woodhouse.  It's not long enough for its heroine to really gain shape, and was the least satisfying read, since there's no record of how Jane Austen intended it to end.  Here's something funny:  for years, I thought the title was "Sandition" -- it wasn't until I started reading this book that I noticed it only has one 'i.'  Silly me. 

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Dec.30, 2012.)

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Jane and the Wandering Eye" by Stephanie Barron

This is the third Jane Austen Mystery, and I think I liked it a teensy bit better than the previous book, Jane and the Man of the Cloth. It had more of Lord Harold Trowbridge, the Gentleman Rogue who keeps joining the fictional Miss Austen in her adventures, and I'm becoming very fond of him.  Here, his nephew is accused of murder, and Jane and Lord Harold sort out the tangle of deceit and intrigue that obscures the truth.  I don't have much else to say about it, other than that I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Dec. 21, 2012.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"The Black Arrow" by Robert Louis Stevenson

I must confess that I have owned a copy of this book for nearly five years, but only now managed to read it. I'm not sure why, as I love the other three of Stevenson's books I've read (namely Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the somewhat clunky sequel to the latter, David Balfour, also called Catriona just to be confusing).  I guess I just haven't been in the mood for this sort of adventure novel until now.  Now, however, I'm deep in the throes of writing my first YA western, and it seems I wanted to read something exciting that young adults might enjoy, to help me figure out pacing and such.

So anyway, The Black Arrow:  A Tale of the Two Roses runs in the vein of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and things like that -- it's about a young man named Richard Shelton who learns that the man who became his guardian long ago when Richard's father died is actually the man who murdered said father.  This happens just when the Lancasters and Yorks are engaging in what's called the War of the Roses, battling with each other for England's throne, as was their wont.  Richard runs off and joins up with these guys known as the Fellowship of the Black Arrow who are sworn to kill off four evil men (Richard's ex-guardian included) and are headed up by none other than Richard's dead father's best friend.  But Richard doesn't care much for them, as they're involved in a bit too much thievery for his taste, so he runs off again and joins up with someone else, and falls in love, and has lots of adventures.  This was originally serialized, so it has that Dumas thing going on where we have a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter/installment, and lots of excitement throughout.  Anyway, Richard ends up fighting side-by-side with the future Richard III at one point. 

If you like rousing adventures where everyone says "ye" and "anon" and "by the Mass!" and "forsooth," this is quite fun.  I happen to like such things, so I quite liked this.  It's not of the same caliber as Kidnapped or Treasure Island (or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I expect, but I haven't read that yet), but it's quite enjoyable. I'm always trying to learn more about England's history, as it's all a bit fuzzy in my head, so this is helpful there too.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Dec 5, 2012.)

"Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen

How is it that I'd never read this before?  Okay, it's because I really knew absolutely nothing about it before this year, whereas I knew the general gist of Austen's other major works, thanks to movies or articles I'd read or whatever.  But Northanger Abbey slipped through the cracks.  In my great quest to read all of Austen's novels in one year (which I have now completed, yay me!), I saved this for last because it's always nice to read something new by a beloved author.  And also, I was a little worried I wouldn't care much for it, since if people don't talk about it much, it must not be all that great, right?


Okay, it's obviously not as magnificent as Pride and Prejudice, as thought-provoking as Sense and Sensibility, etc.  Instead, it is fun.  The whole novel revolves around one long joke about how the heroine, Miss Catherine Morland, can't possibly be the heroine of a novel.  Nothing exciting happens to her, she's not beautiful, her parents and family are all alive and healthy, she's not unhappy, no one kidnaps her, no royalty fall in love with her, she never meets up with a ghost... you get the idea.  What she does do is lead a sweet, ordinary life, fall in love with a nice man, get involved in a misunderstanding or two, and wind up happy. 

I laughed aloud over and over during this book, and I'm inclined to reread it already.  I love books that make me laugh aloud; they almost invariably become favorites of mine.  On that merit alone, Northanger Abbey would join Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion as my most favoritest Austen novels.  But this book also has very believable characters, the sorts that you could meet up with in real life.  No archetypes, no mysterious and wealthy strangers, no near-fatal illnesses.  Just people being people :-)  I found that especially endearing.  In fact, I believe Henry Tilney has supplanted Mr. Knightley as my second-favorite Austen hero.

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Catherine Morland visits Bath with some family friends and falls in love with Henry Tilney, a young minister with a lively sense of humor.

Particularly Good Bits:

"Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love."

"...for I will not adopt the ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"

"The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity."

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Nov. 24, 2012.)

"Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen

The first time I read Mansfield Park, I didn't like it much at all.  This time around, I liked it a good bit better, though it's still my least-favorite Jane Austen novel so far.  (I haven't read Northanger Abbey yet -- that's up next!)  This time, it helped that I'd just read a long discussion of this book, a conversation between A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre in the book Imagining Characters:  Six Conversations About Women Writers.  It helped me get a bit of perspective on the interplay between Fanny and the other characters, pointing out that while Fanny is extremely passive (which irritated me so much the first time through), she's also very observant, and much better at discerning a person's qualities and character than anyone else in the book.  I kept an eye out for instances of that when I read it this time, and found it much more interesting.

While I'm still frustrated with Fanny's overwhelming reticence, and have little sympathy with her "habits of ready submission," (p. 298) I've come to appreciate what I think Jane Austen was trying to say with this book.  It's a kind of morality play, really, full of archetypes more than realistic characters.  This book, to me, is a warning against excess -- each character pursues or possesses one character quality or flaw to such a degree that it unbalances them and makes them unable to be happy.  Henry Crawford is too proud of his own abilities to interest women, too attached to his own flirtatiousness.  Fanny Price has such low self-esteem that she believes herself to be unworthy of anyone's notice, affection, or interest except that of her elder brother, William.  Edmund Bertram is too fond of the idea of romantic love to listen to reason when applied to the object of his affections, Mary Crawford.  Mrs. Norris is so fond of being in charge that she not only runs her own life in the strictest manner possible, she alienates everyone around her by trying to run their lives too.  And so on, and so forth, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  The warning here, that if you lack what Edmund calls "the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire -- the knowledge of ourselves and our duty," (p384) you're going to wind up unhappy or annoying or both.

If you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where poor Fanny Price goes to live with her rich cousins, the Bertrams, and while growing up with them, falls in love with her cousin Edmund, possibly the most oblivious man ever written.

(Note:  It wasn't until about halfway through this reading that I realized that Filch's cat Mrs. Norris in the Harry Potter books is named after the Mrs. Norris in this book.  Also, both times I read this, I could clearly imagine Agnes Moorehead playing Mrs. Norris.  She would have been perfect -- too bad she never played the character.)

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Nov. 2, 2012.)

"From the Dust Returned" by Ray Bradbury

Ever since Ray Bradbury’s death earlier this year, I’ve been meaning to read one of his books that I’d never read before. Since I’d only read four of his books before this, I had a lot to choose from. But I never got around to getting one from the library until last week, when I spotted From the Dust Returned on a display of Halloween books. I’d been in the mood for something gently spooky to celebrate the holiday, and I thought Bradbury might fit my tastes well, since I’d enjoyed the other books of his I’d read. I was right.

When I say ‘gently spooky,’ I do mean gently — I can’t really handle anything scarier than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have a strong imagination, and horrific images can haunt my brain for years, so I take care what I read and watch. So you can believe me when I say that this is not a scary book. It’s not even particularly creepy, though all but one of the main characters are ghosts or vampires or other supernatural creatures. Instead, it is poignant and pensive, more concerned with raising your eyebrows than your hair.

The book revolves around a giant house that is home to The Family, a collection of not-dead-anymore persons. It is also home to one human boy, Timothy, adopted by the Family as a baby when they found him on their doorstep. As he grows older, it becomes Timothy’s task to write down the history and wisdom of The Family’s members. This book is really a collection of short stories held loosely together by the framework of Timothy learning his family’s background. Bradbury wrote the stories over a period of fifty years, and quite a few of them had been previously published in various magazines.

As usual, what I like best about Bradbury is the way he uses unusual characters and fantastical events to speak about very real and concrete themes. Among other things, this book explores the nature of family, the various ways two beings can relate to each other, and the many different types of love that exist in this world. But I would say it mostly deals with the way the modern world of gadgets and speed has replaced the old ways of life that had more room for thought and imagination.

If you’re looking for a short story to read aloud on Halloween — to a group of kids around a camp fire, for instance — you’ll find plenty of possibilities here.

Particularly Good Bits

"I have no name," he whispered.  "A thousand fogs have visited my family plot.  A thousand rains have drenched my tombstone.  The chisel marks were erased by mist and water and sun.  My name has vanished with the flowers and the grass and the marble dust." (page 96)

(Originally posted on Novel Book Ratings on Oct. 29, 2012.)

"Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon

This is a quirky, fun, inspiring little book.  I'm going to try to remember to read it whenever my muses are absent, my creative well has run dry, and I'm convinced I'll never write another coherent sentence -- much less an interesting one -- ever again.  It's a very quick read, with more than half of the 150ish pages containing very little text.  You could read it in one sitting, unless you have three small children.  Then it will probably take you a couple days, like it did me.

The subtitle of the book is "10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative," though I have to admit I'd read some of his tips elsewhere.  The main idea is that, like the writer of Ecclesiastes told us so long ago, there is nothing new under the sun.  Everyone is just reworking the same ideas in their own way.  And so Kleon suggests that you do things like make lists of who inspires you, then find ways to combine the ideas they give you into some new projects of your own. 

My favorite section is Chapter 3:  Write the Book You Want to Read.  It's very short, but it made me go, "Okay, yeah, I'm going to pay no attention to what's cool in fiction right now, I'm going to write the book I want to read."  Which is a western, because I love westerns, and who cares if they're what people are into right now, they're what I'm into, and I'm the one putting in all the work.  So there :-)

Anyway, you can buy this book for under $10.  If you want to know a bit more about it, go to the author's site here.  I totally recommend this book not just for writers, but for anyone doing creative work who needs a little boost now and then.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Oct. 28, 2012.)

"Jane Austen Made Me Do It" edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

A couple months ago, I started reading a blog called AustenProse, written by Laurel Ann Nattress.  As you might imagine from the title, a lot of the posts have to do with Jane Austen, and they're intelligent and informative, not to mention enjoyable, which is why I "followed" it after reading about three posts.  Last month, Ms. Nattress held a series of giveaways for this book, which she edited.  I was quite excited, as I'd already read a review of this book that made me want to read it, but I hadn't managed to get it from the library yet.  So I entered a couple of the giveaway drawings, and I won one!  How could this story end even more perfectly?  My copy (autographed, I might add, by Ms. Nattress) arrived just in time for me take it on our vacation.

I'm so glad it did, because these short stories provided a welcome break from the other two books I had along, a series of literary analyses of famous novels written by women and a history of the U.S. Marshals.  A little Austenian fiction was a treat between doses of the other two books.

Like every anthology of this sort, some of the stories pleased me more than others.  There are purely romantic stories, humorous stories, adventurous stories.  There are additional scenes for Austen's own books.  There are several ghost stories, two epistolary tales, and one dream.  Most of the stories take place either in the present or in Austen's own time, but one takes place in the 1960s.  You can go here for a complete list of the stories and a synopsis of each.  I'll just highlight a few I especially like.

"The Chase" by Carrie Bebris.  Hands-down my favorite story!  It chronicles an actual adventure of Jane Austen's brother, Frank, while he's captaining the H.M.S. Petterel and engaging Napoleon's naval forces.  It made me want to dust off my Patrick O'Brian books and Horatio Hornblower movies.

"When Only a Darcy Will Do" by Beth Patillo.  A university student tries to earn a bit of money leading her own tours of London's Jane Austen sites.  She encounters a man dressed in period clothes and calling himself Mr. Darcy, and her life will never be the same.  If all romance novels were like this story, I would read them.

"What Would Austen Do?" by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway.  A bored fifteen-year-old boy mistakenly signs up to learn how to dance Jane Austen-era dances.  He ends up meeting a girl, reading Austen's novels, and learning how to cope better with high school.  The notes at the end say the authors are considering expanding this into a novel, and I hope they do, because I want to read it.

"Nothing Less Than Fairy-land" by Monica Fairview.  Emma and George Knightley return from their honeymoon and begin moving his things into Hartfield, but Mr. Woodhouse makes it as difficult as you might imagine.  Emma comes up with a suitable and logical solution.  I probably liked this especially well because I finished reading Emma so recently, and because it gives a happy ending to a character I've always felt sorry for.

"Mr. Bennet Meets His Match" by Amanda Grange.  Mr. Bennet reminisces about his youth and why marrying Miss Jane Gardiner seemed like a good idea at the time.  Because I spent a great chunk of Pride and Prejudice wondering why on earth he married her, I found this story the most satisfying of all the new-scene stories.

Just like when I read A Study in Sherlock earlier this year, I'm inspired to seek out the works of several of these new-to-me authors and see how I like their other stories.  And because Stephanie Barron has a story included here ("Jane and the Gentleman Rogue"), I'm eager to read another of her Jane Austen Mysteries too.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Oct. 3, 2012.)

"Jane and the Man of the Cloth" by Stephanie Barron

At first, I was afraid I would be disappointed by this book.  For the first few chapters, it felt like the plot was too obvious -- clearly, the brusque, roguish Mr. Sidmouth was the smuggler everyone was talking about.  Then the plot seemed like it was going to follow a bit of Pride and Prejudice, with Captain Fielding playing Wickham to Mr. Sidmouth's Darcy.

But then, about 5 or 6 chapters in, all of that was clearly not the point at all anymore, and I got sucked in.  A Byronic hero, a bit of swash and buckle, and a plot so tangled I never did figure it out before I was supposed to -- I loved it!  Much more so than its predecessor, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor. That was fun, but this is delightful.

This fictional Jane Austen is presented as a resourceful, bold, and spirited woman of twenty-nine.  I should like to be friends with her, very much.  There are many footnotes that bring in things from the real Jane Austen's letters or the society she lived in, which makes this book sound dull (footnotes being the thing of college research papers, after all), but it's anything but dull.  Even if the main character wasn't supposed to be Jane Austen, I would still have enjoyed this book.

EDIT:  I forgot to add my favorite parts!  Here they be:

Particularly Good Bits

And so I cross the room to peer out at the unknown, stretching before me like all the days I have yet to live; and can discern nothing beyond my own wavering reflection in the window's glass.

The day broke quite stormy, as though all the seacoast mourned the Captain's passing; and the inmates if Wings cottage lay abed, hugging their dreams close against the rawness of the day.

Full many a midnight thought I have entertained with alacrity, only to reject it over my breakfast chocolate as excessively disordered.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Sep. 12, 2012.)

"Emma" by Jane Austen

Let me begin by admitting that Emma is not my favorite Austen book.  I think it makes me laugh just as much as Pride and Prejudice, if not more.  And Mr. Knightley is my third-favorite Austen hero, after Persuasion's Captain Wentworth and P&P's Mr. Darcy.  But I don't like Emma Woodhouse very well.  And since I have to want to be friends with most of a the characters in a book (or movie, or TV show), this is the main reason I don't like Emma all that well.

Why don't I like Emma Woodhouse?  Partly because she is vain and arrogant, as she herself admits toward the end:  "With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny."

But I think mostly I can't like her very well because she is so meddlesome.  If only Emma had left well enough alone, Harriet would have married Robert Martin when he proposed by letter.  And then, of course, the rest of the book wouldn't exist, but still.  She's also quite bossy, and I dislike bossy people.  Probably because I'm kind of bossy myself, or I can be, but it's something I try to overcome in myself, so I guess I expect other people to struggle against their own bossiness too.  Mr. Knightley, for example, is also bossy, but he becomes less so by the end of the book.

And yet, the 1996 film version of Emma is my favorite of all Austen movies.  Why?  Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still meddlesome and bossy.  Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam) is still gentlemanly and thoughtful. Harriet (Toni Collette) is still naive and sweet.  Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) is still officious and grating.  And Frank Churchill (Ewan MacGregor) is still duplicitous and teasing. 

But each one of those characters are somehow a bit more likable in the movie than in the book.  Emma has an uncertainty about her that keeps her for being quite so demanding.  Harriet has a look of intelligence that balances out her docile obedience to everything Emma says.  Mr. Elton... okay, he's not more likeable, he's still an ingratiating fortune-hunter.  Neither is Mr. Knightley, but only because he can't possibly be more likable, hee.  But Frank Churchill comes off as mischievous more than simply cheerful and heedless, which makes me like him better (despite Ewan MacGregor's terrible wig.  I swear it is actually pink cotton candy!)  I think the only character I like better in the book than the movie is Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson), who is more intelligent and less pathetic in the book.

So anyway, I like Emma better than Mansfield Park, but mostly because of Mr. Knightley and the movie version.

If you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Miss Emma Woodhouse plays matchmaker for her friend Harriet Smith, with disastrous results.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Sep. 4, 2012.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

Entertainment Weekly made this book sound poignant and intriguing, so I got it from the library.  They were right, but it seems I'm not at all in the mood for poignant these days.  Remember how This Side of Paradise depressed me?  So did The Age of Miracles.  Not as much, but it still planted a big cloud of gloom over my head for the few days it took me to read it.  If that sounds like a non-recommendation, it's not -- this book is original and lovely, it just was not at all what I wanted (or needed) to be reading right now.  Back before it took a lot of prayer, coffee, and chocolate to get me through the day in a cheerful fashion, I bet I'd have liked this book a lot more.

The Age of Miracles begins on the day that middle-schooler Julia and her parents learn, along with the rest of the world, that the earth's rotation is slowing down.  Known as The Slowing, this phenomenon at first doesn't seem to change things much -- days are a few minutes longer, at first.  Before long, though, those extra minutes are extra hours.  The government decides to stick with a twenty-four hour day, so that everyone can be on the same page about when things like school and work should happen.  Only not everyone likes that idea -- the "real timers" follow the sun's schedule instead, staying awake during the daylight and sleeping in the dark, even though those days stretch longer and longer. 

In the midst of all the global upheaval, Julia is also experiencing the ordinary upheaval of adolescence.  She likes a boy.  She doesn't understand her parents.  She wants to need to wear a bra.  She loses her best friend.  She tries to connect with her grandfather.  Life may be slowing down, but for her it is also speeding up.

Walker juggles the balance between global disruption and personal angst pretty deftly.  Neither one ever seems to be more important than the other.  And her concept of what would happen to the world feels very real -- animals and plants can't adapt, humans struggle to find solutions to problems like energy and food sources, and people argue and come to blows over changes they can't control.  In fact, the thing that gloomed me out is how real it felt -- I would sometimes look out my window and remind myself that the world wasn't actually slowing down and my life wasn't being disarranged, that was just in the novel.

If you like end-of-the-world-is-near books, or coming-of-age books, you'd probably dig this.  Me, I'm heading for the solace of yet another cheerful murder mystery.  I have three small children -- there's plenty of angst and strife in my real life, and I don't need more, even if it is fictional.

Particularly Good Bits:

Carlotta's long gray hair swung near her waist, a ghost, I suspected, of its younger and sexier self.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 20, 2012.)

"Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout

I love Nero Wolfe mysteries.  They are never less than a joy to read.  The dialog sparkles, the plots dazzle, the characters-of-the-day amuse, and the regular characters delight.  In other words, precisely what I needed to bring me out of the everything-is-meaningless-and-grasping-for-the-wind funk I was in after This Side of Paradise

I thought I'd read this one before, as it's in a Nero Wolfe omnibus I found in my parents' basement a couple weeks ago.  Surely I read that omnibus (two novels and a trio of short stories) back when I first discovered Rex Stout?  But I didn't actually remember any of it while reading, so maybe I just never actually cracked this book, always saving it for when I ran out of library books or something?  'Tis a puzzlement.

At any rate, this is a jolly good mystery.  Wolfe is the guest of honor at a meeting of a group of world-renowned chefs at a resort in West Virginia.  Which means he has to not only leave his Manhattan brownstone, he has travel on a train.  Overnight.  Poor Archie Goodwin -- if you've read any of these books or seen the TV series based on them, you know he's not along because he's expecting to have fun. 

But they do get to West Virginia with no actual mishaps, and once settled there, of course the murder and mayhem commence.  One of the chefs is killed, and several of the others had expressed their malice toward him before he died, including Wolfe's particular friend Marko Vukcic, whose ex-wife was married to the deceased.  Fortunately, there's a master sleuth and his trusty aide around to sort everything out. 

As a bonus, the recipes for a lot of the dishes described in this mystery are included in the back!  I've always wanted to try the dishes Fritz Brenner (Wolfe's resident cook) concocts, and The Nero Wolfe Cookbook is on my Christmas list, but until the day I get that, I might just try out one of the recipes included in this book.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 20, 2012.)

"This Side of Paradise" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Oh bother.  I'm afraid I didn't like this book very well at all.  Much of the writing was quite brilliant, of course, but it depressed me a great deal.  Not because it's sad, because it's not sad.  I mean, it's not sad like Old Yeller or Doctor Zhivago.  It's just that the character spends his young adulthood wandering around, trying to figure out who he is and what life is all about.  It's pretty well a perfect picture of the whole Lost Generation, which is what it was intended to be, but it got into my head and started making me wonder if I was doing anything with my own life.  And I know that I am doing worthwhile things, such as raising three children, being a loving wife, and even writing something to amuse other people now and then.  But sometimes I feel like I'm just coasting along, and this book really intensified that feeling.  So I'm glad I'm finished with it, and I've picked up a nice, cheerful murder mystery to wash the ennui out.

Particularly Good Bits:

The invitation to Miss Myra St. Claire's bobbing party spent the morning in his coat pocket, where it had an intense physical affair with a dusty piece of peanut brittle.

The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the last edge of twilight.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 9, 2012.)

"Sweet Dreams, Irene" by Jan Burke

Sweet Dreams, Irene is the second in Jan Burke’s series of mysteries starring intrepid newspaper reporter Irene Kelly. It begins with Irene reporting on the two men running for D.A. One candidate’s political machine accuses the other candidate’s son of being a Satanist. The boy comes to Irene to try to get his side of the story in the paper, insisting that rather than being a Satanist, he’s actually trying to get his best friend to leave a Wiccan coven. Before we know it, there are dead people, there are death threats, and then Irene winds up kidnapped. Even after she escapes (okay, sorry, that was spoily, but since there are a lot more Irene Kelly books after this, you know she didn’t stay kidnapped forever), Irene keeps having nightmares about her captivity. She expects this to put a strain on her relationship with Detective Frank Harriman, but the two of them are too busy finding out who’s behind all the murder and mayhem to stay apart for long.
This book was written in the mid-’90s, when Wicca was a hot new topic that would have raised a lot of eyebrows. Now it feels a little bit like the subject of witchcraft was included for shock value and timeliness, which makes the whole book feel a bit dated. However, the interpersonal relationships and the detective work more than make up for that.
Irene Kelly reminds me of Nancy Drew — she’s intelligent, feisty, loyal, and daring. She can get herself out of most jams, and when she can’t, her wonderful boyfriend can. Like Nancy’s Ned Nickerson, Frank Harriman is strong, handsome, athletic, and sympathetic. I look forward to reading more of this series, and am very glad to know there are almost a dozen of them so far.
(Originally published on Novel Book Ratingson Aug. 3, 2012.)

"Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor" by Stephanie Barron

It seems that my blog has had three themes of late:  The Avengers, mysteries, and Jane Austen.  Perhaps I am stuck in a three-rutted road.  At any rate, I have just finished reading, this very evening, a book that combines two of those themes.  Not, I fear, Jane Austen and The Avengers, which, however diverting, would be an unlikely pairing.  No, this book combines Jane Austen and murder mysteries.  It is, in fact, a mystery starring a fictionalized version of Jane Austen herself.

I know what you're thinking:  Absurd!  Travesty!  Sacrilege!

But it's not.  It is, to be precise, great fun.

Stephanie Barron sets up her story by saying that a family friend was excavating an old building and found a trunk of letters and journals that turned out to have belonged to Jane Austen herself.  (This is very like the way that Laurie R. King sets up her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, only in them, Russell has sent a trunk full of manuscripts and oddments to King.)  This book, then, is pieced together from journal entries and letters to Austen's family members.  It does involve historical parts of Austen's life, and also a treasure trove of details about life in Austen's time.

The story begins with Jane Austen visiting her friend Isobel, the new Countess of Scargrave, who married Frederick, Lord Scargrave, a scant three weeks previous.  Jane welcomes the opportunity to visit them upon their return from a honeymoon abroad, as she has only recently accepted and then rejected the hand of Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither (honestly his real name, silly as it may seem).  But Lord Scargrave falls ill and dies following a fancy ball thrown in Isobel's honor, and Isobel is suspected of his murder.  Convinced of her friend's innocence, Jane throws all her intelligence and knowledge of humankind into discerning the truth.

The beautiful thing is, Barron has caught the cadence of Austen's writing, her phrasing and word choices, the flavor of her dialog.  At times, one can almost believe this to be based on something Austen herself wrote.  There are some similarities in situation, character, or specific lines of writing that reflect Austen's novels, which to follow this imaginary timeline, would have been published a few years later.  

The author also included a number of footnotes that clarify things such as how the British justice system worked, medical practices of the day, and which characters were actual people in Jane Austen's real life.  These are especially useful for readers like myself, who enjoy Austen's work to no end, but aren't keen on researching life during the British Regency.  

I do have to say that I was occasionally frustrated by the fictional Austen's tendency to rehash a character's motives after already contemplating them earlier on, and a few of the character names (a butler named Cobblestone?) stretched disbelief a bit, but overall, I enjoyed this book.  I definitely want to read more of them -- Barron has written nearly a dozen now.  Find out more on her website, where she has some intriguing thoughts on Austen, mysteries, and the art of writing.

Here is my favorite passage, which made me laugh aloud when I first read it:
"Nay, Isobel," I protested, "do not cause yourself the trouble to search further.  I believe Lieutenant Hearst will amply serve my purpose.  He has good looks and charm without the slightest suggestion of better feeling, and he possesses not a penny he may call his own.  he shall do very well for a portionless clergyman's daughter.  We may expect him to ruin me and then depart for a noble death before Buonaparte's cannon, at which point I shall throw myself in the millpond and be renowned in wine and song.  Has Scargrave a millpond, Isobel?"
See?  Great fun :-)  For those who love both Jane Austen and a good mystery, this is a treat not to be missed.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 2, 2012.)

"The Jane Austen Book Club" by Karen Joy Fowler

I liked this book okay.  I didn't love it.  I didn't dislike it.  While I was reading it, it kept my attention very nicely, and I finished it in just a few days.  Basically, it's precisely what I'd consider a "beach book" -- something to read when you don't want to be distracted from real life too much.

The book club in the title is formed by five women and one man.  Jocelyn breeds dogs, is a bit of a control freak, and starts the club with an ulterior motive:  her best friend Sylvia's marriage is ending, and the other members suspect the club is supposed to distract Sylvia from her problems.  Sylvia's daughter Allegra is also going through a difficult breakup -- her girlfriend is, among other things, a liar -- and has just moved back home to be with her mom now that her dad is gone.  Prudie is a reasonably happily married woman who teaches high school French.  Bernadette is the quirkiest of the bunch -- she loves to talk, has given up looking in the mirror, and is the surest of just who she really is.  And Grigg is the lone male, a sort of lost puppy needing adoption.

The most interesting thing about this book, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's narrated by the group as a whole, which comments on each character in turn.  I can't remember seeing that done before, and it was original and attention-getting.  Each chapter focuses on a different character, tells part of their back story, tells part of what's going on currently in their lives, and then the group gathers to discuss a Jane Austen book.

There are some good insights into Austen's novels sprinkled throughout the book, and those might make this an easy way to get to know Austen's works if you've never read them and are trying to figure out which one you might like to start with.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 27, 2012.)

"Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

This book is considerably different than I'd remembered.  The basic plot was how I recalled, but I didn't remember anything about the middle section where Marianne got sick.  I also thought this book moved a little too slowly when I read it back in high school -- and I was the sort of high school girl who read Austen of her own free will, not because it was required reading.  Then, I got frustrated by Elinor and thought she should speak her mind more and not let others overbear her so much.

Imagine my surprise a few years later, when I took this quiz and came out Elinor Dashwood!  I took it again just now and got the same result, so I guess it's not a fluke.  And this time through, I understood Elinor much better.  She's quiet and thinks things through, but she's not really all that reticent.  She speaks her mind when she judges it is appropriate, and to the people she deems it correct to say such things too.  I especially liked her sympathetic befriending of Colonel Brandon.

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood fall in love with Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby.  Edward is described as everything correct and wonderful, but he and Elinor are both so proper that their regard for each other is barely evident.  Marianne, on the other hand, indulges her every emotion and tells everyone exactly what she thinks, and she and Willoughby allow their affections to run away with them.  Then Willoughby leaves, the next thing they know he's marrying another woman, and Marianne winds up in the depths of despair.  Elinor's Edward also turns out to have been previously engaged to another in secret.  And then there's Colonel Brandon, a retiring widower who falls in love with Marianne even though she thinks he's very boring.

You might say it's complicated :-)  My only quibble with it this time is that I wish Edward Ferrars got to be fleshed out more, as he's absent for most of the book, and we have little time to see just why Elinor should love him despite having lots of reasons why she should give up her attachment.  Oh well, not everyone can be Mr. Darcy!

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 21, 2012.)

"The Long Goodbye" by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler is my favorite author, and yet it's been ten years since I read any of his works.  Silly me!

I needed to take a book along on our vacation last month, but never got around to picking one until the morning we were going to leave.  I was in the mood for something a bit spicier than Jane Austen, so grabbed the first Chandler book I couldn't remember the plot to.  It was The Long Goodbye.

I lost count of how many times while reading this I exclaimed, "I love Raymond Chandler!"  Oh, how I love his writing.  But why?  Because it's so unexpected, so full of unusual-yet-perfect descriptions.  I blogged about his writing here many years ago, so I won't go into all that again.

In The Long Goodbye, gumshoe Phillip Marlowe befriends an alcoholic, down-and-out war hero named Terry Lennox.  Terry winds up in big trouble -- his philandering wife is dead, and of course everyone would suspect him.  Marlowe helps Terry across the border to Mexico.  And then he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out who really did kill the wife, why the whole case has been hushed up, and just what being a true friend entails.

Chandler's singing, swinging prose goes down easier than a gimlet with lime juice in a Hollywood bar.  I often have to stop reading to savor a line or phrase, lest they slide past me in my eagerness to find out what happens next.  If you want to add a mystery to your summer reading list, do yourself a favor and make it one of his.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 13, 2012.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

"Persuasion" by Jane Austen

The first time I read Persuasion, I liked it better than the other three Austen books I'd read at that time.  That was more than a decade ago, and this is the first time I've reread it.  The question I now face is:  why did I like it better than Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma?  It could be because I first read Persuasion while I was on my big Horatio Hornblower kick, and this book is full of naval officers.  It could be because this was the first Austen book I read after going to college, and I was just more ready for this level of writing.  It could even be because it's considerably shorter than the other three I'd read.

I think, in the end, that the reason I liked it best is that I identify more with this book's heroine, Anne Elliot, more than any of the others'.  I'm not as witty or bold as Elizabeth Bennett.  I'm not as unfailingly honorable as Elinor Dashwood (though I do see a lot of myself in her as well).  I'm not as inquisitive or self-fascinated (I hope) as Emma Woodhouse.  Like Anne Elliot, in my opinion, I am quiet, reserved, and loyal.  And that's probably why I still like this book a great deal, though now I think I might like Pride and Prejudice equally as well.

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Anne Elliott meets up with the man she was once engaged to, Captain Frederick Wentworth.  Eight years previous, she had been persuaded to break off their engagement, and had regretted that ever since.  Neither of them had ever fallen in love again, and this book charts the rekindling of their romance as they slowly ascertain each others' feelings and whether things could ever again be as they once were.

I do wish that this book lasted a little longer, as the very end seems a bit rushed.  The discussion between Capt. Wentworth and Anne is described, not written out as dialog, and I've always wondered if Jane Austen meant to flesh that part out more, but then was unable to.  Persuasion was published posthumously, so you never know.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 1, 2012.)

"Pirate King" by Laurie R. King

Pirate King is the latest in a series of mysteries set in the early 20th century and starring a detective named Mary Russell and her husband. You may have heard of her husband — his name is Sherlock Holmes.
I’ve been a Holmes fan since I was thirteen, and I’ve read a lot of “non-canon” stories about him (written by someone other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but none of them have presented the famous detective in all his complex allurement like these books by Laurie R. King. But unlike those other stories, these books don’t center on Sherlock Holmes — they center on his wife, Mary Russell. And before you throw arguments at me about Holmes being a lifelong bachelor, or a misogynist, or about Irene Adler being the only woman for him, let me assure you that these books deal with all those issues. Quite convincingly.
But anyway, I’d better tell you what this particular book is about instead of nattering on about the series as a whole. Pirate King finds Mary Russell going undercover as an assistant for a silent film production of a movie that shares the book’s title. Scotland Yard thinks someone in the film company is selling guns and drugs, and they want Russell to find out who. Things sail merrily along until the entire film crew gets kidnapped by pirates.
While Sherlock Holmes in absent from the first half of the book, he makes a welcome addition eventually. This is a bit of a departure from the usual tone of the series, being rather lighter than some of the more recent books, but it still has plenty of suspense and plot twists to keep a reader guessing. It’s also chock full of the period and location details Ms. King excels at, as well as lots of wonderful descriptions of making silent movies and traveling aboard a sailing ship.
If you’ve never read any of this series, but love either Sherlock Holmes or just mysteries set in the not-too-distant past, I highly recommend these books. Start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and see what you think. Ms. King also has written a series about a modern-day detective, and several stand-alone novels, but I vastly prefer this series. In fact, it’s my favorite series by a living author!

The next Russell/Holmes adventure is due out later in 2012.  Woo!

(Originally posted on Novel Book Ratingson Jun 15, 2012.)

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

Last summer, I bought a journal with Jane Austen quotes sprinkled throughout it.  It put me in such a mood to re-read Austen's novels that I went and bought a box set of all her completed novels.  In paperback, but they're trade paperbacks, not pocket ones, so good enough.  And then I never managed to start reading them.  But when I read P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley this year, I knew The Time Had Come to start my journey through Austenland.

I began with Pride and Prejudice.  Seemed logical, since I wanted to compare it to James' mystery.  I'd only read it once before, I think while I was in college and in love with the movie You've Got Mail, which references it.  I wasn't a big fan, and for years my favorite Austen novel had been Persuasion.  When I was in college, I watched the British version of P&P starring Colin Firth, and I did like the Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen version pretty well, as I mentioned here and here a few years ago.  But I didn't particularly love the story.

What was wrong with me?

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Elizabeth Bennet spends most of the book disliking Mr. Darcy because she finds him proud and cold.  Mr. Darcy spends most of the book trying to convince himself he shouldn't love Lizzy because her family is unsuitable.

What can I say about this book that hasn't already been said a hundred times, and said better than I ever can?  Not much.  I'm amazed by Austen's ability to make ordinary people so compelling.  I so admire her grasp of how details and small events build up to bring about important changes in hearts, minds, and lives.  And I'm intrigued by her ability to allow a book's events unfold slowly and yet keep me enthralled.

Also, I'm totally in love with Mr. Darcy now.  Just FYI.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jun 14, 2012.)

"Vanishing Act" by Thomas Perry

I completely loved Thomas Perry's story in A Study in Sherlock, so I decided to try out his books.  The first one I've read is Vanishing Act, the first in a series about a Native American named Jane Whitefield. Jane is a guide, but not the kind that takes you hunting for big game or leads you on a tour through a historic site. She guides people who are looking to leave their current self behind and become someone new.

The plot centers around an ex-cop named John Felker, who has been accused of embezzling and set up to take the fall for some unknown scheme. Jane helps him escape his pursuers and assume a new identity, just like she’s done for many other unfortunate people, from victims of abuse to targets of Mob violence. This time around, she also forms a relationship with the person she guides, something she has never done before.
But once Jane returns home, things begin to unravel. Felker was not at all who he seemed, and he has twisted Jane’s help to his own purposes, killing people she cares about in the process. Jane transforms from Guide to Hunter, stalking Felker into the wilderness to extract vengeance for his treachery and murders.
I found Vanishing Act to be a satisfying read on many levels. The characters are complex and believable, and I loved how Jane’s Native American heritage played an integral part of the story. I’ve long been fascinated by the culture and history of American Indians, and my favorite parts of this book were the places where Jane was most connected to her Seneca roots. I hope to read the next book in this series soon.
If you enjoy reading mysteries or thrillers because you like to see justice served, wrongs righted, and good triumphing over evil, you won’t be disappointed. But because Jane is not a law enforcement professional, the story does raise some questions about vigilante justice and revenge that I wish the author would have addressed.
(Originally posted on Novel Book Ratings on May 23, 2012.)

"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P. D. James

I had such hopes for this book.  I've read a couple things by P.D. James before, and they were thoroughly enjoyable.  Her nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction, is a lovely history of the genre, and introduced me to several authors I now like quite a lot.  I also really liked her mystery An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.  Since I'm an Austen fan, I was hoping this smash-up of Pride and Prejudice and mysteries would be great fun.  And at first, I was not disappointed.

Death Comes to Pemberley begins promisingly with a prologue about the Bennets of Longbourn, recounting in a thoroughly amusing style the events of the original book, then going on to recount what happened once Lizzy and Darcy (and Jane and Bingley) married.  I laughed aloud with delight several times during the prologue.  It's quite amusing and well worth reading.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book isn't.  It's not amusing and has two glaring flaws that kept me from enjoying it much.  Such a disappointment!

The plot involves the murder of Mr. Wickham's particular friend and fellow soldier, Denny.  I won't go into details in case you decide to read this yourself (and I'm not saying you shouldn't -- this isn't a bad book, I just didn't care for it myself).  No one witnesses the murder, but Wickham is suspected of it, and Darcy is left in the unhappy position of trying to defend this man he loathes from getting hanged for murder and disgracing the whole family. 

So far, that doesn't sound bad, right?  And it's not.  It's just not particularly good, either, thanks to the two flaws I mentioned.  First, we have to read the description of Darcy and his friends finding Wickham crouching over Denny's body too many times.  Twice would have been plenty -- once when it occurred, and then once when they had to recount the experience to the authorities.  Instead, they also discuss it amongst themselves, describe it several other times, and then tell it all over again at the trail.  By the time we got to the trial, I was so thoroughly tired of reading about it, I skipped quite a few paragraphs. 

The second flaw is that the main characters, Darcy in particular, play far too passive a role.  Clues fall into their hands instead of being discovered or deduced.  The identity of the actual murderer is revealed in a letter. A solution of what to do with Wickham and Lydia so they go away and stop bothering everyone is presented by a stranger.  In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Lizzy are not passive!  They are both actively trying to dislike each other as much as possible, until they discover they can't dislike each other, and then they actively go about trying to get together. 

The best I can say for this book is that it prompted me to pull out Pride and Prejudice and reread it.  More about that soon...

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on May 11, 2012.)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway

I've been a fan of Ernest Hemingway's writing for a decade now -- I actually first decided to read something by him because I went through a phase where I loved the movie City of Angels (1998).  Nicolas Cage's character recommends Hemingway to Meg Ryan's character because of how well he writes about food, and leaves A Moveable Feast on her nightstand.  The library didn't have that book, but they had The Sun Also Rises, and I picked that one because of the quote from Ecclesiastes at the beginning.  Ecclesiastes just happens to be one of my favorite books of the Bible, you see.  Anyway, I liked Hemingway's economical writing, and over the years, I've read all his short stories and several of his other novels.  But I'd never read For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is my brother's favorite Hemingway book (mine so far is A Moveable Feast).  So I decided it was high time to read it.

So I read it.  But I didn't like it much.  (Sorry, bro!)  In fact, I'd have to say it is my second-least-favorite Hemingway work.  (My least favorite is the unfinished Garden of Eden.)

It was just so bleak!  Unmitigatedly bleak.  There's an old joke I read in a Reader's Digest years ago about how different famous authors would answer the question of "Why did the chicken cross the road?"  I don't remember any of them anymore except the one for Hemingway, which was:  "To die.  In the rain.  Alone."  And I always kind of laughed about that, because for me, most of Hemingway isn't all that depressing.  Sure, a lot of his stories end sadly, in a sort of inevitable way, but none of the other things I've read by him have pounded Sadness!  Despair!  Pointless Death!  into the ground like this does.

If you have no idea what it's about, here's a quick recap:  An American volunteer named Robert Jordan, a volunteer in the Spanish republican army during the Spanish Civil War, gets sent to join this guerrilla band and blow up a bridge with their help.  He falls in love with a young girl named Maria, who was orphaned and raped by the opposing forces earlier in the war.  All the characters spend the whole time talking about how doomed the mission is and how they're all going to die.  And then most of them do die.  And not in a glorious, cathartic, serves-some-greater-purpose way like all the characters in Hamlet dying at the end.  Just in a bleak, pointless, inevitable-yet-preventable way.

Obviously, the point is that war is pointless and bleak and horrid.  I get that.  I just don't like the book.  Like I said the other day, I have to want to be friends with at least one character in a book (or movie, or TV show) to like it, and I didn't really want to be friends with anyone in this book.  I liked Pilar okay, the other female character, but not that much either.  So I spend the last half of the book thinking, "Oh, man, will this ever end?  I'm so tired of reading this!"  Because it was Hemingway, I did at least enjoy the writing, but not enough to make me like the book.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Apr. 13, 2012.)

"Bloodlines" and "Goodnight, Irene" by Jan Burke

As I mentioned earlier, reading A Study in Sherlock inspired me to try out some new mystery authors.  I started with Jan Burke.  Our local library has several of her books, but not the first one in her series about Irene Kelly, so I just grabbed the one with the most interesting title.  It was Bloodlines.

Bloodlines is the sort of sprawling, nuanced, intricately rambling treat I don't usually find when I read mysteries.  By the time I was fifty pages into it, I was firm friends with the two main characters of the first section, young Connor O'Connor and his mentor, newspaperman Jack Corrigan.  I need to blog about how important it is for me to become friends with characters sometime, but for now I'll just assure you that it's important.  And the faster I make friends, the better I generally like the book.  I love this book.  It takes place over five different decades, and about halfway through I realized it was kind of tying together several events in other books in the series.  Characters I grew to love would abruptly die off-page.  I grew to love other characters in their places.  The giant, seemingly rambly narrative came into focus, then charged ahead full-steam suddenly, then tied up in a most satisfactory -- but deliciously unexpected -- way.  Complete love! 

It concerned a bunch of characters who died and disappeared in the 1950s in a way that made me think of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels.  Also, there's a kidnapping.  And then nothing whatsoever happens with the case for decades, until someone unexpectedly unearths some new clues....  By the end, I was a confirmed Jan Burke fan and hungry for more.

So I got Goodnight, Irene, the first book in this series.  And it was quite good too, with a lovely love story and a complicated plot.  I didn't love it as much as Bloodlines, but that's okay, because it was a much earlier novel, and now I know that they improve as they go along, rather than unimproving or staying the same.  In this one, Irene Kelly's best friend gets blown up, and she helps solve the murder while doing some nice journalistic work as well.  Did I mention Irene Kelly is a newspaper reporter too?  Anyway, a perfectly good mystery, if not as delightful as Bloodlines.  Can't wait to read more!

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Apr. 11, 2012.)