Jane Austen: A Life by Carol Shields

31678“In one of his judgements brother Henry was far too moderate. Jane Austen’s works, he prophesied, would eventually be “placed on the same shelf as the works f a D’Arblay and an Edgeworth.” How far from the mark he was. Not only would she outdistance those all-but-forgotten names, but she would also find herself comfortably on the same shelf and in the good and steady company of Chaucer and Shakespeare.” (pg. 84)

Despite my intense love of Jane Austen’s novels, I had never read a biography about her life. I knew that not much was known, mostly just bits and pieces of information put together from various family correspondences. Sure, we know where she was born, where she lived, and when she died, but we don’t know much about her personality – her hopes and dreams – who she was as a human being and woman of regency England. Understanding how limited the sources were, I was always weary of picking up a supposed biography, fearing the whole thing would merely be fiction masquerading as a life. Shields defies all my fears and has written one of my favorite books of the year!

This volume is tiny at less than 200 pages and the Penguin edition is a glorious apple green. Definitely a book worth collecting for your shelves! As far as the writing is concerned, the reader is in capable hands with Shields. I felt a since of kinship between Austen’s prose and Shields’s. Shields manages to update her language for modern readers, but the same quick wit and clever turns of phrase are still recognizable. Nothing here is fiction, although parts are obviously being surmised through educational intreptations of Austen’s novels and letters. Shields generously informs the reader when the facts are a little shaky, but does a superb job of providing supporting evidence of all her claims. For this, I was most thankful.

I’d recommend this biography to anyone who adores Austen. But, perhaps more importantly, I’d recommend this book to any reader who isn’t familiar with Austen’s novels or who has had a hard time loving them. Shields does a magnificent job of searching through the famous stories and their equally famous heriones to help bring readers a better understanding, not just of Jane, but the works themselves. Every time I turned a new page, I desparately desired to pick up all 6 of her novels for a reread, armed with new insights I couldn’t wait to put to the test! Nothing in this small tribute to Jane Austen is a disappointment.

Shields also suggests several other biographies to read for which I am eternally thankful. This way I know which ones are a must read and which aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on! I’m thinking of making 2013 an Austen intensive year. January will see a reread of Persuasion! So excited.

Advertisements

Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

7719245More YA! I think I’m sort of addicted or maybe just enjoying short, fluffy reads during this holiday season. I’ve seen lots of positive reviews for this series claiming that Evie is a fun protagonist and that the paranormal creatures are far more original than other similar novels. I do have a paranormal weakness, so it was only a matter of time until I read Paranormalcy. Plus, the cover is absolutely gorgeous. Normally I don’t approve of the overdone pretty girls posing, but this cover actually relates to the story and the colors are magnificent.

Evie works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency. Orphaned, the Agency took her in when it became apparent that Evie wasn’t your average, everyday human. She has the ability to see through paranormal glamour. No creature can hide from her – vampires, fairies, hags…you name it. Very handy in a containment facility! At 16, she’s beginning to get a little claustrophobic, cloistered away in the Agency’s facilities and unable to lead the normal life of a teenage girl. Her best friend is a mermaid who can’t leave her tank. All this changes when a new-to-her paranormal teenage boy, Lend, breaks into the compound around the same time that paranormals begin being slaughtered by some unknown menace  Soon, Lend and Evie are on a mission to save the innocents, uncover the truth about the Agency, and free Evie from her prison-like home and perhaps even herself.

I gotta say, White has managed to create a very unique paranormal world in the midst of so many overdone paranormal tropes in the YA genre. The supernatural creatures you’ve come to know and understand are all there, but there’s also a slew of new creations that are fascinating and highly imaginative. Even your run-of-the-mill vampires are made more interesting by getting back to their dangerous roots and not being quite the sex gods literature has decided they should be. I appreciated this on so many levels.

Evie, as our protagonist, was also well done. She’s often whiny and immature which makes sense for a girl locked away from the world. Conversely, she’s also wise, witty, and older than her years since she’s been deprived of a normal childhood. I mean, she’s been bagging and tagging scary creatures since she was 8. This mixture of young and old in Evie’s voice comes off naturally and realistically. White truly understands her heroine and isn’t afraid to paint her as a flawed, strong-willed girl. Kudos, Ms. White.

The overall story was probably the weakest link. Paranormals in trouble, Evie has to save the day, and so on – not terribly original or unpredictable, but a fun ride nonetheless. You’ll turn the pages quickly which is all this sort of novel needs to accomplish anyway. We aren’t reading Paranormalcy to change our lives or learn something brilliant about the world around us. We just want to be entertained and the book manages this task fairly well.

The love interest, Lend, is well written. He’s a very unique supernatural being and his relationship with Evie is believable. They seem like normal high school students entering into their first relationship. Their chemistry is more cute than sexy, but nothing wrong with that. As for her ex, a fiesty fairy named Reth, I loved him so much for all his manipulative, slightly evil, and very sensual characterization. I never knew if we were supposed to love him or loathe him, but I sided on love. I think he’d be a very intriguing character going forward.

As for the end, White has managed to write a YA novel that doesn’t have a cliffhanger!!! This feat alone amazes me, but also has a rather large pitfall. I absolutely don’t feel the need to continue on with the series. Nothing has compelled me to soldier on alongside Evie and Lend. So as much as I complain about cliffhangers and unresolved questions, I do see their purpose in a series. When things get wrapped up, you put the characters away and tend to forget about the remaining novels too quickly. Perhaps the follow-ups, Supernaturally and Endlessly have gorgeous covers as well. Is that enough reason to buy them? Or maybe just to see what kind of evilly delicious trouble Reth can get into? We shall see!

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

8664353I love narrative non-fiction; I really do. Throw in anything related to WWII and normally I’m sold. But Laura Hillenbrand also wrote Seabiscuit which is about a horse. Horses, I do not love. I recognize their beauty, but they bore me to death. For some reason and despite the overwhelming number of people to recommend Unbroken, I avoided this novel written by the lady who wrote an entire novel about a horse. I was afraid.

Color me stupid. What an utterly ridiculous excuse not to read this novel which turned out to be one of the best books I read in 2012 (that post is coming soon!). Hillenbrand is a genius and Louie Zamperini’s story is breathtaking. The things that man accomplished and survived – from celebrated Olympic athlete to WWII bombardier and Japanese POW, I could not believe how richly his life unfolded. But even more than these amazing feats, I enjoyed his ‘aftermath’ story the most. It wasn’t nearly as flashy, but hit home on such a deeply emotional layer than I can only tell you that Hillenbrand is, in fact, a narrative non-fiction goddess.

I really don’t know what else to say that won’t just end up being a gushy mess all over this post. You must go read this yourself if you haven’t yet. Throughout the narrative are pictures, bits of historical data, and fascinating sideways plots (I’ll always remember you, Lost) come together flawlessly to create not only Louie’s story, but the story of an entire generation. I love that Hillenbrand, while focused on Louie, also gives much deserved attention to the important people in Louie’s life and other brave men and women who have stories that probably will never grace the pages of their own bestseller.

I really can’t find one single, solitary criticism. By the end of Louie’s story I was grinning like a mad fool – especially at the picture of him skateboarding in his 70s or 80s. Mr. Zamperini, you are a true American classic and Ms. Hillenbrand, I’d pick you over all others to pen my own biography. I’d even allow you to include a horse or two.

Pssssst…should I read Seabiscuit? Someone convince me in the comments. It won’t take much.

Litwits December Meetup: The Violets of March by Sarah Jio

9724798I’ve seen Sarah Jio receive a lot of love in the blogging community and was excited to read this novel with my book club ladies. Unfortunately, the book did not live up to the hype for me or most of the other Litwits.

The members who found the book enjoyable liked the ease factor of the reading experience – there was nothing heavy or deeply layered. Instead, this book was great for ‘bubble bath’ reading which was exactly where I read each and every word! Jio also has a wonderful sense of place. The island where the story takes place was so vivid. I wanted to walk those beaches. I, personally, also appreciated having some kick ass older female characters.

But mostly, the story fell flat. We felt that the plot was contrived with a soap opera-ish vibe. Everyone hated that all the characters conveniently had changed their names over the years to help hide the mystery. Emily called the whole thing ‘lazy’. I can’t say I disagree with her. The ending seemed a let down for most as well. Silly, predictable, and eye-rollingly simple. The mystery really wasn’t that thrilling, nor that mysterious. I think it had a potential Jio never lived up to.

Some ladies claimed that the blurbs and synopsis were very misleading – that the book was less mystery, more romance. If they’d had better warning going in, they might have enjoyed the story more instead of expecting something completely different. Others didn’t find Emily’s reaction to her divorce very believable – especially the immediate two love interests. The parallelism between Emily’s modern story and Esther’s historical story was also a bit beyond everyone’s belief.

While we didn’t find Jio’s debut stunning or particularly well written, many Litwits claimed they’d be willing to try another of Jio’s novels now that they know better what to expect. I’m also tempted to give her another go since so many bloggers enjoy her. Are we just crazy? Let me know if you think her other two books are any better in the comments!

In addition to our book discussion, we also did a gift swap where everyone bought a gift ($10 or less) that in some way related to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas! We had a ton of fun with this without breaking the bank and highly recommend to anyone looking for something festive. The Litwits – we are awesome!

In The Woods by Tana French

237209I borrowed this book from my sister about a year ago with the best of intentions to read it as soon as I could. A year later, I made it happen! And now I want all of French’s other novels ASAP. Such a fun literary mystery reading experience.

I’m sure everyone knows what In The Woods is about by now, but I’ll give a little recap for those who might need one. Basically, in 1984 three children in a Dublin, Ireland suburb are playing in some nearby woods when they don’t return home for dinner. When their parents form a search group, only one of the children (Adam Ryan) is discovered, grasping a tree, blood-filled shoes (not his), and with absolutely no memory of what transpired. The other two children are never found and no one knows what happened to them. Flashforward 20 years and Adam Ryan is all grown up – going by his middle name, Robert, and now a detective on the murder squad. He still doesn’t remember what happened when he was 12 and has spent his life hiding his identity until another 12 year old is found murdered in those same woods. Mystery ensues.

French’s novel is not your typical murder mystery in that the writing is so lush and filled with vivid imagery. The plot, while excellent, wasn’t the only driving element of the story as in so many mass marketed mystery tales. Besides the whodunnit, French weaves a beautiful story centered around Rob and his partner, Cassie, their relationship, and how it’s deeply affected by this particular case they are working. I loved Cassie so much and enjoyed Rob as well – especially as they struggled with the age old question of whether or not men and women can just be close friends without involving emotions and sex.

As for the mystery, I think French did an amazing job plotting the story and creating the perfect pacing. I honestly have a hard time believing this is her debut novel. Before reading, many warned me about how disappointing the ending would be. And no, the ending isn’t happily-ever-after and answers aren’t always found, but that’s life and how the events unfolded felt sincere. So if you are looking for a Hollywood ending, you won’t find it here. Perhaps going in with the warning helped me temper my expectations. At the same time, I do feel a wee-bit frustrated at some of the things we don’t discover, but that frustration didn’t ruin my experience.

I’d also add that the killer was fairly obvious very early on, but I don’t think French meant for it not to be. I think the psychological journey the novel takes in trying to understand the why and the details is far more intriguing than merely who.

I’ve heard the other three novels in this series are even better so I can’t wait to get my hands on copies. For those who have read them all, which is your favorite? Anything you’d like to warn me about going forward? I’m intrigued that the second book is from Cassie’s point-of-view, but excited since I really did like her as the female lead.

 

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

6567017Will Grayson, Will Grayson is only my second run in with John Green and my first with David Levithan.  I’ve been rec’d this book so many times that it’s shameful how long it has sat on my shelves neglected.  To be honest, I’m trying to space my John Green reading experiences out a bit since I’ve heard he writes the exact same characters over and over again.  He does them well, though, so I’m willing to overlook the redundancy.

In this particular story, Green and Levithan alternate chapters.  Each author writes from the perspective of one Will Grayson – yes, there are two (hence the title).  Basically, two high school students from the Chicagoland area meet randomly in a porn shop one night and discover they share the same name.  Their lives become intertwined through their mutual friendship with Tiny Cooper, a very large and very gay teen writing a musical based on his life.

This novel was a decent YA read and probably on my top 5 favorite YA reads for 2012.  I much preferred John Green’s Will Grayson which shocked me, especially considering the two characters are not wildly different.  At times, the only way I could tell them apart was that Levithan chose to write in all lowercase.  Levithan’s Will just was so dark, depressed, and hard to grasp as a well-rounded character.  I do appreciate his look into a kid struggling with clinical depression, especially a young man.  We don’t often get that perspective.  Also, Levithan’s Will made me laugh out loud several times.  Yay for the sarcasm!

What worked for Will Grayson, Will Grayson was, in fact, not a Will Grayson at all, but a Tiny Cooper.  I loved Tiny’s character and all the ways he met and didn’t meet gay stereotypes.  He shines throughout the entire novel, even in his cheesiest moment of triumph when his musical is finally staged.  He was also a beacon of shining light, humor, and hope which added a much needed brightness to the seriously negative natures of the two Graysons.

As you might have expected from the simple summary, there isn’t much plot in this story.  Definitely character driven which I find missing in YA literature in general.  In that respect, Green and Levithan both exceed in transcending the genre and writing a book about the young human spirit and real life challenges young adults face day-in and day-out.  They write characters that kids can see themselves in and can learn from.  And we adults can learn to understand the teenagers of today and how better to communicate with them – and even our own young selves.

My only problem was the incredible silliness of the end.  Not so much the musical itself, but the crowd’s reaction and the scheme Levithan’s Will Grayson manages to pull off.  Way over the top and completely unbelievable which didn’t seem appropriate for a novel so grounded in reality and honesty.  Not enough to dissuade me from liking the book overall, nor enough to keep me from recommending it to you fine folks!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

6065182I purchased this book last December or maybe this past January (bad memory) on a whim from bn.com when they were having one of those super end-of-year sales.  It’s a gorgeous brand new hardback, signed edition that cost only $3.  How does such amazingness happen?  Anyway, I’ve watched so many bloggers read and write wonderful things about this novel over the year that I knew I couldn’t end 2012 a Sarah Waters virgin.

The Little Stranger is about an old crumbling mansion and the family that is falling to pieces with it. Mesmerized by Hundreds Hall (the previously mentioned mansion) since childhood, county doctor Faraday begins to insinuate himself into the grand ol’ home and the Ayres family when spooky, unexplained phenomena start to occur.  And that’s all you’re getting!

Waters’s novel is not plot driven and is really meant to be read slowly and savored.  Her prose is lush and lingering.  Reading The Little Stranger is almost like watching a really immersive 3-D film – you feel as if you are literally walking the deteriorating halls of Hundreds, hearing the random knocks and pattering footsteps, and shivering against the windy drafts seeking harbor from the unkempt gardens.  It’s these small hints that add such layered atmosphere and a creepy foreshadowing of certain doom.  Waters has become another novelist I’m sure I’ll never get enough of.

Dr. Faraday, along with the Ayres family (Mrs. Ayres, Caroline, and Roderick) weren’t incredibly likable, but I don’t think the story would have worked any other way.  Feeling that disconnect from the people inhabiting the story left me successfully out-of-balance, adding to the sort of foreign uneasiness of any well done ghost story.  By the novel’s end, I really believe I hated Dr. Faraday more than anyone else and had decided he was far from a reliable narrator.  I have my sincere suspicions about his guilt/blame in the whole fiasco.

Speaking of the end, it’s not entirely satisfying for many readers because you never fully know what happens and there’s lots of room left for debate about who ‘the little stranger’ was all along or even if such a creature existed.  These sorts of open endings intrigue me, however, and I love sitting back for the following few days trying to wrap my brain around all the possibilities.  I like interacting with literature in that way.  It’s a wonder I don’t read more mystery novels.

As a ghost story, The Little Stranger manages decent success especially if you prefer your ghosts without any serious spook factor.  Only once or twice did I fear reading the next few lines (damn those key holes!) and had no problems turning the pages at night in the house all alone.  Instead, I just felt a great sense of longing and decay – a sadness.  Not a bad thing by any means because Waters totally transcends the haunted house genre – delving much more deeply into themes of yearning, holding on to the past, the social class system of 1940s Britain, and the nature of entitlement.

A great book to curl up with during cold, wintry nights!