Review: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: the last man in the world, by Abigail Reynolds

I generally avoid chic-lit when I can. I find it too predictable, too idealistic and often flavorless. When I do pick up chic-lit, it's usually in the form of a Jane Austen "sequel" or a variation on the original novels. Pamela Aidan wrote my favorites of these - her Mr. Darcy, Gentleman trilogy which takes place over the course of Pride & Prejudice. Abigail Reynolds has penned a number of non-sequential Pride and Prejudice variations, each picking a spot in which the story could have changed, but inevitably bringing Elizabeth and Darcy together.


Review: Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd

Murder at Mansfield Park: A NovelI had anticipated this latest Austen adaptation to be a bit like The Matters at Mansfield, by Carrie Bebris. I expected quite a bit of pastiche, mixed with an Austenesque preservation of the characters, even amounting to reverently mounting them on a pedestal of Jane Austen's own personality. The fact is, the pastiche is there in full force - you get almost word-for-word passages from each of Austen's novels throughout the text, along with an undeniable nod at Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre towards the later chapters. But the character preservation is gone, tossed out the window - we've kept the old wooden chess board, but the original pieces have gone missing - we've got to make do with what plastic pieces we can find.

The characters are all present, but they have different pasts, different presents, entirely different characteristics and, to top it all off, our heroine is not Jane Austen's pale, sickly, first-cousin-loving weakling Fanny Price, but her incorrigible Mary Crawford (who, in Ms. Shepherd's hands, takes on a very odd amalgamation of characteristics, making her at once Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett and Elinor Dashwood!) It's a very strange feeling to have the characters alter as they do, here.

As its own novel (though there is a bit too much allusion for my taste) it stands pretty well. And though it bears the characters and even quotations of Jane Austen, it heavily relies on Charlotte Brontë's mood, structure, and even certain particular characters themselves. The end result, however, is not disappointing in the least. It's a pretty quick read, in part due to the inherent mystery of which character takes on which identity in the crosshairs of Ms. Shepherd's and Jane Austen's understanding.

Most interesting is Ms. Shepherd's take on Fanny Price. She sets the story up for us, almost in the reverse of the original characters' fortunes. Fanny's mother marries the best out of all the three sisters, instead of shaming her family by marrying an eventually-destitute sea captain. Fanny is an only child (instead of being the eldest girl out of 7 children...or 18 kids, whatever it was) who upon her parents' and grandparents' untimely demise (didn't happen in the original), is now an heiress, needing to be raised by her only living relatives, the Bertrams (and Mrs. Norris, of course).

Instead of being tossed about like a servant waif, she is exalted, afforded 2 ladies maids, given the best of everything, and - most importantly - put up with...desired, even. Ms. Shepherd's take on this new personality is haughty and really a mix of Maria Bertram, Emma Woodhouse and Caroline Bingley - not an attractive picture....like a very young Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but a picture, nonetheless, that allows us to buy into Ms. Shepherd's version of the plot.

I really enjoyed it. If only Jane Austen's Fanny Price had been more like Ms. Shepherd's version of Mary Crawford, perhaps then she would not be so ill-appreciated. Ah, well. Enjoy.


“On Friday 18th inst. Died, in this city, Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev. George Austen, rector of Steventon , in the county and authoress of Emma, Mansfield park, pride and prejudice and sense and Sensibility.”
Salisbury and Winchester Journal,
July 1817


Review: Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

" 'Isn't it odd how much fatter a book gets when you've read it several times?' Mo had said when, on Meggie's last birthday, they were looking at all her dear old books again. 'A if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells...and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower...both strange and familiar.'"    - Inkspell, Chapter 5

And, indeed, I left my heart in Inkspell. So wrapped up in this book, was I, that I stopped comparing it mentally with your Peter Pans and your Neverending Stories the way I did the last one. Even though, in retrospect, there's a certain hint of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid," but I didn't realize that one of the last 3 or 4 chapters where Elinor takes her signed copy of Anderson's fairy tales out of its glass case. And I weeped. Not then, but before then, when the ultimate sacrifice is made and I realized what it meant...then I wept (standing against the door of the subway car, halfway into the Bronx, because god forbid a girl should get a seat every now and then). 

This book was very different from its predecessor because so much of the world was yet to be discovered. In Inkheart, the action took place in the world we all know. The character who had stepped into it had done so unwillingly and, so, felt alien. But here, in Inkspell, the characters who should remain at home go abroad willingly (some more than others) and those with whom we associate best are now alien in this new country. 

Funke has a gift of imagination that I envy. I love the way her story unravels. But in gifting us this brand new world, she has made home feel strange. I felt like Elinor needn't be involved anymore. The flashes back to home were distracting more than anything. I also felt as if the plot proceeded with the knowledge that a third book was coming. Does that make sense? I wanted there to be more about Violante and I wanted the real Cosimo to reappear, having been lost somewhere in our own world. I wanted the explanation for the Bluejay's "existence" to be that Balbulus or the Prince of Sighs' minstrel was a silvertongue, bringing things into being. And I found Orpheus to be a glob of scum hacked onto the beautiful pages. I see that he's going to be potentially instrumental in Inkdeath. I get that. But I wish we hadn't had to meet him before all of this. 

As for he who gave up his life - I don't want them to bring him back! In this, his death is heroic and loving and beautiful. But the other characters want him back too much. I have a feeling we'll be seeing him again, but I don't think I'm going to like it. I'm going to take some time to digest for a while before picking up Inkdeath. I think I need some time away from the ferocious beauty of the Inkworld.


Review: Skeleton Man, by Joseph Bruchac

Recommended for ages 10 and up, Bruchac’s story is quite chilling. The young female protagonist, Molly, wakes up one day to find that her parents are missing. When the police are finally notified, a man Molly has never seen, nor heard of, comes to take care of her. He claims to be an uncle of her father’s but Molly is suspicious.

She recalls a legend told by her father’s Native American tribe of a carnivorous man who so loved the taste of flesh that he roasted all of his own, becoming a “skeleton man” and then devoured the flesh of his relatives as well. Molly’s imagination goes wild at the thought and she believes this new relative to have a similar appetite. The legend Bruchac refers to is pretty creepy to begin with, but when the clues start to add up to something more human and more sinister, you start wondering what kind of kids’ book this is.

However, what could resemble something uncomfortably adult is downplayed by the presence of Molly’s dreams which echo the original legend and which, in the end, save her from the nightmare of reality and help her recover her parents. It’s a quick read, and the dramatic build-up is great. I loved having a female protagonist (I’m so used to 10-year-old boys getting into this mischief!) and I appreciated the lessons taught in bravery, ingenuity and autonomy. A great book for young readers who don’t mind the fearsome challenge of human monsters with human motives.


Review: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

This is one of my favorite books of all time. It's rare for me to have that opinion when I've only read the book once...so I re-read it, just to make sure my claim wasn't unfounded. I first read it in 2001 as part of my summer reading.

When I picked up the text nine years later, I felt as if I had never put it down. The same moments stuck with me and, since my emotional maturity has evolved over the last nine years, they stuck hard.

I still hold that chapter three of this novel (which, for those of you who don't know it, details a land turtle's journey across the road) is the most brilliant, poignant, graphic, and wonderful naturalistic passage in all of twentieth-century literature. In less than two pages, it offers a shining parabolic metaphor for the entirety of the novel.

The other bit that sticks with me the strongest is the very end. I don't want to give anything away for those who haven't read it, but the end makes me cry. Not a sad cry, not even a happy cry. But a cathartic empathetic cry. So much is unresolved at the end, and yet in that final moment, there is completion. Steinbeck's secret, laced in the text, is finally brought to fruition.  

"The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust."