Friday, July 31, 2009

More Jane! for the Jane Austen Purist

Jane Austen (1775-1817) only wrote six novels. We desperately wish she’d written six more. What’s an Austen reader to do after reading Pride and Prejudice for the tenth time? The trend is sequels to the novels and chick lit about the modern woman finding her own Mr. Darcy, but many Austen fans don’t want to go there. We like our pride, our prejudice, our sense, and our sensibility unembellished and untainted. So here’s a list of books that will appeal to the Jane Austen purist. After all, we must heed Darcy’s advice: “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. I, Chap. viii).

First and foremost—there is more Jane!

Lady Susan/ The Watsons/ Sanditon by Jane Austen , 2003, Penguin Classics, originally published 1871 (Fiction Classics/ Juvenile Works/ Romance)

The three minor works collected here are the closest we’ll ever get to another complete novel by Jane Austen. Lady Susan is a novella composed in the early 1790s at the same time as early versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. It’s a sassy little tale about Lady Susan, a dazzling young widow who wants her daughter to marry well and herself to marry even better. Her schemes and seductions unfold through letters that the characters write to each other. The Watsons is an unfinished fragment about Emma Watson, daughter of a poor curate who’s farther down on the social ladder than any other Austen heroine—maybe so far down that Austen couldn’t see a realistic way to raise her up, and possibly why the story was abandoned in 1804. Still, The Watsons showcases Austen’s originality. Austen was writing Sanditon at the time of her death in 1817. It begins with an overturned carriage, follows with several cheerful gossipy chapters about the histories of the characters, and ends just when the heroine finds herself involved in a romantic mystery. Several authors (Joan Aiken, Juliette Shapiro, Julia Barrett, and an anonymous "Other Lady") have tried completing The Watsons or Sanditon, but not one lives up to the promise contained in these small but tantalizing hints that Austen left behind.

Take a look at some of the books by contemporary authors that Austen read—and then made fun:

The Mysteries of Udulpho by Ann Radcliffe, 2001, Penguin Classics, originally published 1794 (Fiction Classics/ Mystery)

In Austen's Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moreland scares herself silly reading The Mysteries of Udulpho. It is the premiere Gothic novel by the premiere Gothic writer, Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823). Emily St. Aubert is a beautiful orphan, separated from her true love and held captive by her cruel uncle in a ruined castle. The writing is dramatic, the villain is despicable, and the charmingly naïve Emily spends most of the book in a dead faint. It’s no wonder Catherine got spooked, and it’s no wonder Jane couldn’t help poking a bit of fun at the extremes that Gothic goes to. Henry Tilney likes the book, and that should be good enough for us.

Evelina, or The History of A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Fanny Burney, 1998, Oxford World's Classics, originally published 1778 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

Evelina is beautiful, charming, and has a mysterious, romantic past. She’s exactly the kind of heroine that Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey is not. But just like Catherine, Evelina is an inexperienced girl who has to navigate the treacherous waters of Polite Society—including undesirable suitors, boorish relations, and misunderstandings galore—before she can achieve love and marriage. Northanger Abbey is as much a satire of this kind domestic tale as it is of the Gothic style, and Fanny Burney (1752-1840) has as much fun satirizing the society of her day as Austen does twenty-some years later.

Jane Austen was one of a growing number of female authors in the 18th and 19th centuries who were observing, writing about, and commenting on their own societies:

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth, 2009, Oxford World’s Classic, originally published 1801 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was only eight years older than Jane Austen, though she outlived Jane by thirty-two years. Their works both feature intelligent young women who have to overcome the obstacles of the marriage market—most notably uncouth friends and relations—before they can meet their matches and find their happy endings. Belinda is a charming and innocent young girl whose road to independence is hampered by an aristocratic lady with a secret, a dashing gentleman with a Creole background, and an eccentric suitor seeking the ideal wife. Edgeworth wrote a lively comedy that comments on the conventions of her society—and she does it every bit as well as Austen did.

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, 1998, Penguin Classics, originally published 1866 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

Born in 1827 and living well into the Victorian era (she died in 1897), Margaret Oliphant was of the generation after Austen’s. Miss Marjoribanks is a domestic novel about a young gentlewoman who is the queen of her little corner of the world. Much like Emma Woodhouse lords over Highbury in Emma, Lucilla Marjoribanks lords over Carlingford, determined to single-handedly raise the tone of society. But when Lucilla realizes she has fewer marriage prospects than she would like, she runs the risk of marrying the wrong man to save herself from spinsterhood. Lucilla’s story is a comic look at the rules that dictate society, and Lucilla (like Emma) is a wonderfully flawed and charming character.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, 2009, Oxford World Classics, originally published 1866 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

Our heroine in Elizabeth Gaskell's (1810-1865) final novel is young Molly Gibson, devoted daughter of a widowed country doctor. Our story begins when Molly’s ordinary life suddenly gets more interesting. First Molly meets the proud family of Squire Hamley. Then Molly’s father remarries, turning her world on end. Intelligent and interested even when somewhat overwhelmed, Molly becomes the confidant of her flighty new stepsister and the two Hamley sons. Molly’s sympathetic ear gets bent a little too far, and the pressure of keeping secrets starts to weigh on all our young lovers and gossipy neighbors. Jane Austen fans will see shades of the Fanny/ Edmund relationship from Mansfield Park, the Elinor/ Marianne relationship from Sense and Sensibility, and the Anne Elliot/ everyone else relationship from Persuasion. And like an Austen novel, the real charm of Wives and Daughters derives from the strength its young heroine. As memorable as any Elizabeth, Elinor, Anne or Emma, Molly Gibson is a lively, lovely, original character with a romance well worth reading.

Jane Austen’s novels only gained in popularity after her death, but the next biggest literary craze was the
Sensation novel of the Victorian era:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, 2008, Vintage Classics, originally published 1860 (Fiction Classics/ Mystery)

Sensation novels are domestic tales of romance, like Austen’s books, but they revel in the scandals that Austen was only able to hint at—madness, intrigue, coincidence, mistaken identity, even murder. The Woman in White is the tale of a poor drawing-master who meets a strange woman, clad in white, on the moonlit streets outside of London. He is soon plunged into the mystery surrounding this woman, especially when that same mystery touches the family of the woman he loves. Jane Austen would surely have been a strong defender and an avid fan of the sensational Sensation novel, which has much in common with the Gothic novels that she loved and read in her day. Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Ellen Wood make up the triumvirate of the best Victorian Sensation authors.

Post-Jane, authors have tended to express their adoration by writing sequels or modern versions of the novels. The following writers earn their comparison to Austen with their own stories, style, and wit:

Frederica by Georgette Heyer, 2009, Sourcebooks, originally published 1965 (Historical Fiction/ Romance)

Georgette Heyer was surely the ultimate Austen fan. By the time of her death in 1974 she had written over fifty books, most set in Regency England and featuring smart, genteel young women falling in love. Heyer was less interested in social commentary than Austen, but she sure loved the society. Her historical detail is impeccable, but if what you love most about Austen is the charming characters and sparkling romance, then Heyer is the author for you. Frederica is a good introduction to her work. The title character is a capable young woman who—at the age of 24—is too busy running her household of precocious younger siblings to be concerned with her own romantic fate. That just might change when Frederica entrusts her charming family to the care of the snobbish Lord Alverstroke.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, 2006, Penguin Classics, originally published 1952 (Fiction)

In 1977, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known authors to list “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was the only author named twice. Within two weeks, Pym’s career was reborn and she was acknowledged as a major writer. Excellent Women is one of her best-known works and has an opening line comparable to that of Pride and Prejudice: “ ‘Ah, you ladies! Always on the spot when there’s something happening!’ ” Mildred Lathbury is a witty, self-deprecating single woman inching past her prime in an unfashionable London neighborhood. Her quiet life of teas with the vicar and jumble sales at the church gets considerably more interesting with the arrival of exotic new neighbors. Pym’s comparison to Austen comes from her quirky characters and stylish storytelling.
If you just can’t help wondering about the dozens of Jane Austen sequels (and let’s face it, we are curious), this author has a sense of humor about taking on one of the masterpieces of English literature:

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues by Linda Berdoll, 2004, Sourcebooks (Historical Fiction/ Chick Lit/ Romance)

This is really the ultimate romance novel. Elizabeth is feisty, Mr. Darcy is dashing, and the book has a sense of humor about Austen’s language and writing style--and about sex scenes between two of the most beloved romantic leads in literature. Furthermore, Berdoll creates detailed characterizations of the new Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and adds new characters and plots to a new historical context. All this means that the book can really stand on its own, as its own story, even though it is a sequel to the events described in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Darcy are embarking on their greatest adventure--marriage. Elizabeth is balancing her independent spirit with her duties as mistress of Pemberley, Darcy gets involved with the war on France, and they just can’t keep their hands off each other. The story goes far beyond the original, making it a rollicking, hilarious, sexy romp through Jane Austen’s wild side. There’s an equally fun sequel to the sequel, Darcy and Elizabeth: Days and Nights at Pemberley (2006).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sci-Fi Meets the Classics

Strange and wonderful things happen when the antiquated etiquette, horse-drawn carriages, and time-tested conventions of classic literature meet the aliens, time machines, and alternate worlds of speculative fiction...

Jenna Starborn by
Sharon Shinn , 2002, Ace Trade Books (Science Fiction)

Jenna Starborn is Jane Eyre—in space. Author Sharon Shinn is an award-winning science fiction writer who transforms Charlotte Brönte's classic into a futuristic story with all the same mystery, romance, and suspense. The Gothic tale translates surprisingly well, and the space-age twists make it almost like reading Jane Eyre again for the first time. And yet, at the same time, readers are immersed in a completely new world. Jane becomes Jenna, Mr. Rochester becomes Mr. Ravensbrook, and Thornfield Manor becomes a mining post on a remote planet protected by an energy field. Shinn re-imagines Jane Eyre exceptionally well (fans of that story will love comparing the plot turns and characters) and still gives Jenna a unique voice and a story that is entirely her own.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by
Connie Willis , 1997, Bantam Books (Science Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Cats, rowboats, World War II air raids, and the niceties of Victorian etiquette are just some of the challenges that Ned Henry and Verity Kindle face in this award-willing novel—not to mention malfunctioning time machines, a lost antique called the bishop’s bird stump, and the restoration of the space-time continuum. Ned and Verity are students of time travel and history at Oxford in 2057. Ned’s assignment: go back in time and find a strangely-named antiquity so that a destroyed cathedral can be rebuilt with exact historical precision. Verity’s assignment: return the thing from the past that she should never have even been able to bring back with her. When their projects collide, delightful chaos ensues. Part sci-fi mystery, part comedy of manners, this is one of the most charming time travel concoctions out there. The title (among other things) is taken from Jerome K. Jerome's 1889 comedy about boating down the Thames, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).

The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel by
Jasper Fforde , 2001, Hodder & Stoughton Books (Fiction/ Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Mystery)

Great Britain, 1985. The Crimean War has dragged on for 130 years. England is practically a police state. Cloned dodo birds are the pet of choice. And not only is time travel possible, but a few lucky folks can go inside the world of fiction. One of these is lovesick war veteran and literary detective Thursday Next, generally stuck behind a desk sorting out Shakespeare forgeries or moonlighting with the department’s vampire-hunting division. But when a criminal mastermind starts kidnapping characters from their books, it’s up to our gal Thursday to save the day. Fforde begs, borrows, and steals from the classical works of literature to create a ridiculous comic and satirical world. This is a smart, witty, genre-busting series with heroine Thursday at the helm. There’s something for everyone is the Thursday Next series, and every book adds to the action, adventure, humor, mystery, and romance of the story that came before. Lost in a Good Book is the second title (featuring Miss Havisham, previously of Great Expectations), followed by The Well of Lost Plots , Something Rotten (where Hamlet is a character, along with wooly mammoths and Neanderthals), First Among Sequels, and One of Our Thursdays is Missing (due 2010).

Shadows Over Baker Street
, edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, 2003, Del Ray Books (Fiction/ Short Stories/ Mystery/ Horror)

“ ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’ ” “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulu waits dreaming.” A collection of short stories written by some of the top names in speculative fiction, Shadows Over Baker Street takes detective Sherlock Holmes and sets him in the macabre world of early twentieth century writer H.P. Lovecraft. We know Sherlock Holmes best as Arthur Conan Doyle's brainy Victorian detective who is so supreme at crime-solving that he’ll only accept the really impossible cases. And Lovecraft is a writer whose stories about the Cthulu mythos (a human-destroying monster from the deep) and the Necronomicon (an ancient book of forbidden rites and spells) seem expressly written to combine the words weird and horror. In Shadows Over Baker Street, these giants of literature meet and meld perfectly. Who better than Sherlock, Watson, and company to solve the mysteries of Lovecraft’s small-town mutants, ancient aliens, and dream monsters? The writers of this new batch of short stories--who include Poppy Z. Brite and Neil Gaiman---are clearly having an absolute ball bringing these two mythologies together. This clever blending of classics makes for a unique read that will thrill both horror and mystery fans alike.

The Looking Glass Wars by
Frank Beddor , 2006, Speak Books (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy)

Lewis Carroll got it all wrong, and Alice—or Alyss, as her name is really spelled—is not pleased. She was not a precocious girl who fell down a rabbit hole and had a silly dream. Wonderland is a real place and Alyss Heart is its rightful Queen. It is young Alyss’s destiny to confront her traitorous aunt Redd and reclaim her throne, but she’s stuck in Victorian England watching Lewis Carroll write a ridiculous little children’s story. Meanwhile, a loyal band of rebels fights in her name back in Wonderland. Many of the characters come straight out of Alice in Wonderland, but with some deliciously wicked twists of their own. The Mad Hatter of the chaotic tea party becomes Hatter Madigan, a stoic bodyguard for the Queen. The White Rabbit turns into an anagram for Bibwit Harte, Alyss’s long-suffering tutor. The Cheshire Cat is no longer a harmless grinning tabby but a ferocious assassin with razor-sharp claws. The Looking Glass Wars, in other words, is serious business. This first book of a planned trilogy is more than just a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland—it’s a richly detailed fantasy set in a fractured parallel world that’s run by the power of imagination. The second book, Seeing Redd, was published in 2007; the final installment is due in 2009.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by 
Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, 2009, Quirk Books (Fiction Classics/ Fantasy/ Horror/ Romance)

As our story opens, a mysterious plague is causing England’s dead to rise from the grave and hunt the flesh of the living. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, well-versed in both the feminine and the deadly arts, is content to slay legions of the undead and defend her family—until she meets the equally skilled but oh-so-arrogant Mr. Darcy. The classic text of Pride and Prejudice is intermingled with episodes of zombie mayhem. Mr. Darcy admires Elizabeth’s fine eyes at the Meryton Ball; zombies attack. Elizabeth tours the grounds at Pemberley; zombies attack. The more familiar you are with Pride and Prejudice, the bigger the kick (or chop, or bite, or beheading) you’ll get from this from this hilarious and ridiculous brawl, but the premise is outrageous enough to peak the curiosity of even the most anti-classics reader.  But be warned--Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has opened up a whole new can of worms, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (no joke) is set to be published in September 2009.

(P.S. You will enjoy these books even if you haven’t read the classics they’re based on!)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Booklists for Bookworms

My favorite assignments in library school, the assignments that I started working on weeks before they were due and kept right on tweaking long after I turned them in, were book talks and book lists. Books talks and book lists are discussions, either spoken or written, about a group of books. There are typically at least five titles in a book talk or a book list, accompanied by notes that give a brief plot outline and, more importantly, highlight the real appeal factors of the book. Books can be linked by subject, topic, theme, genre, character, audience—anything goes, absolutely anything. And that’s what makes them so much fun.

Since those assignments, I can’t stop making lists of books. It’s gotten to be something of an obsession, and I’ve found that if there’s one thing that compares to the joy of reading books, it’s the fun of writing about them. My lists consist of five to ten books that I’ve read (or, at the very least, books that I have on my shelves with every intention to read as soon as I’ve finished whatever book I’m reading right now). There’s a bias to my lists because they’re my lists—these are the books that I’ve read and liked and that reflect my reading tastes and interests. Making these lists has forced me to expand my reading boundaries, which is another reason I make them. Had I not had an idea to make a list about the blending of science fiction and classical literature, for example, I might never have discovered the hilarious
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

These are by no means professional book lists. I try not to repeat titles, but I can’t help adding my favorites to as many lists as possible. I figure that everyone reads for different reasons—if you’re not drawn to, say,
The Eyre Affair through the science fiction-classics list, you might like it the context of my mystery series list. I do have one rule: If you don’t like what you’re reading, put it down! There’s no rule that says you have to finish every book begin. You’ve got your whole life to read books—why waste time forcing yourself through hundreds of pages you dislike when you could be curled up with the book that becomes your new favorite? Please comment and critique my lists and add your own suggestions and recommendations.

So, without further ado, from Jane Austen read-alikes to science fiction classics to books about boats, books about boys, and even books about books, here are the lists that I cannot stop making.

Note:  I will list books by title and author.  I'll include the date and publishing house of a recent publication, and if the book was published more than twenty years ago, I'll provide the original publication date.  Keep in mind that most books exist in more than one edition (paperback and hard cover, for example) so don't limit yourself to the publication information that I've listed.  I'll also list a few of the genres and sub-genres that the book relates to.  

And remember your local library and your independent booksellers!