23 July 2012

Austen-inspired Books that Don't Suck

Jane would probably not approve of my language there, but oh well.  Her six completed novels and various unfinished works have spawned legions of adaptations, sequels, reimaginings, and, indirectly I suppose, positive reams of Regency romance novels (but that's not her fault).  Being a committed fan (perhaps that should be a fan who should be committed...) - I have a complete leatherbound edition, a Folio Society volume of her letters, and a Jane Austen action figure, if that tells you anything -  I poke rather cautiously at new works that purport to link to her canon (though I generally steer clear of those endless mash-ups and continuations, which seem to me to be glorified fan-fiction, with one notable exception {keep reading}) - and here are the ones that have passed my personal test.

Jane Austen Mysteries - Stephanie Barron

Two of my favourite things combine in this series, namely Jane herself and cozy mysteries.  For whatever reason, I like real characters put into fictional situations quite a lot better than continuations, and there are certainly enough twists and turns in these to keep most anyone entertained (plus a love interest for our heroine, which I like even though I know it's made up).  I believe there are fully eleven of these now, fitted into the gaps in her correspondence (caused both by being in close proximity to whomever she might have been writing to {namely, her mother and sister} and by the destruction of many of her letters after her death).  Do read them in order, they make much more sense that way; this first one is set at the home of the Count and Countess of Scargrave, and when the former dies and the latter is accused, well, what's a lady to do?

Cassandra and Jane - Jill Pitkeathly

In an interesting twist, this novel is told from the viewpoint of Cassandra Austen, in an attempt to illuminate some of the mystery surrounding Jane's life, specifically her love life.  Cassandra Austen's fiancĂ© died of a fever in the Caribbean; Jane ended her only known engagement the day after she accepted the proposal, and both women remained unmarried their whole lives, despite the brilliant matches of the heroines in the world of her novels.  If you've seen the movie Becoming Jane, some of the material will be familiar, but it's reasonably well done, if not earthshatteringly so.  Also, it's told from the viewpoint of the end of Cassandra's life, when Jane has already been dead for decades, so it's almost like a double-nostalgia - the character's for her youth, and the reader (and probably author) for the time period.

Austenland - Shannon Hale

Having read and greatly enjoyed Hale's YA fiction (the Books of Bayern series, as well as my favourite of her books, Book of a Thousand Days), I immediately pounced on this one when the ARC landed in our break room.  Using the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice as a jumping-off point (see below), Hale envisions a kind of "Austen camp" for grown-ups, which I would certainly attend if I 1) had the money and 2) it actually existed.  Hell, if they make a movie I might kill someone to be an extra.  Anyway, 30-something New Yorker Jane Hayes is bequeathed a trip to Pembrook Park by a great-aunt who noticed that she was spending perhaps a bit too much time mooning over Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy.  So off she goes to England for a month of - come to think of it, it's really quite a long-term LARP; strange thought.  Her trials and tribulations (confiscated cell phone, corsets, etc.) and day-to-day life in a made-up Regency household are tremendous fun; so are her behind-the-scenes meetings with a basketball-obsessed gardener and her attempts to figure out how much is real and how much is simply the actors, well, acting.  Lots of fun to be had here (also, Hale is one of the nicest authors I've had the pleasure of meeting and so I make a special effort to point out her books.  You know, like now.), and there's a sequel of sorts, Midnight in Austenland, if you need more after this one.

Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding

If there are any 20+ females who haven't read these two books yet, for pete's sake go do it so you can be in on the joke. Bridget battles her weight, her singleness, her parents, you name it, in addition to coining some phrases that I know I still use ("smug marrieds" comes to mind here...).  The Austen tie-ins aren't subtle - there really is a fellow called Mr. Darcy (although he's Mark here, not Fitzwilliam {and in a fabulous bit of casting, he's played by, no surprise, Colin Firth in the film version}), she works at Pemberley Press, and there are numerous other references scattered throughout.  Again, not exactly a serious read, but definitely a cultural phenomenon (if perhaps slightly dated now) - it was one of the few works of popular fiction on that "How many have you read?" list of 100 books that circulated all over Facebook 2 or 3 years ago; hell, it was even one of the titles that got a snazzy new cover (that's it there on the right) when Penguin was rereleasing stuff like Cold Comfort Farm and Voltaire a few years back.

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen - Syrie James

Another imagined romance, but such a nice one that I was sucked right into this novel (which, by the way, seems to be a bit of an anomaly for this author; she did a Bronte as well, then fell into the paranormal swamp, apparently).  After the death of her father, Jane (as well as her mother and sister) are rather at loose ends; while they're being bounced about, a Mr. Ashford enters the picture, who encourages Jane in her writing and gets her to revise Sense & Sensibility (which really was her first published novel) in preparation for submitting it for publication.  Since this purports to be her own diary, recently discovered, an "editor" has been through it adding footnotes - the editor's name, Mary I. Jesse, should look strangely familiar (I LOVE footnotes, especially goofy ones). The tone is quite good in this one as well, a close match to Austen's own.  Plus the cover's pretty and it looks a lot like my volume of her actual letters. :-)

For Darkness Shows the Stars - Diana Peterfreund

I discovered this author first through her killer unicorn series (which I also recommend, by the way); in this post-apocalyptic reimagining of Persuasion, genetic experimentation went horribly wrong sometime in the past, leaving only the religious group known as the Luddites, who would take no part in it, mentally sound.  Those affected by the experimentation are known as the Reduced, who are intellectually subnormal (it has just occurred to me this minute that they may be based on George Austen, Jane's brother...); however, in the past generation or two, Reduced couples have sometimes produced perfectly normal children, the intellectual equals (or possibly superiors...) of the Luddite overclass.  Kai is one of these; born the same day as the younger daughter of the Luddite landowners, Elliot North (yep, Elliot's a girl... Anne Elliot in the original, if you'll recall), they grow up together despite the difference in their circumstances, and their childhood letters are scattered through the novel as flashbacks to their earlier friendship.  When Kai leaves to seek his fortune elsewhere, he asks Elliot to go with him, but she feels responsible for her family; though she's the youngest, her profligate father and silly sister are not suited for running the estate (sound familiar?).  When they are forced to rent out part of their property to a party of explorers, Elliot is amazed to discover that the Captain Malakai Wentforth (see how it ties in now?) she has heard so much about is none other than her old friend - but can they regain what they'd lost?  The world-building is fantastic, the writing is lovely, and even if you don't already know and love Persuasion, this stands easily on its own as one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I've read in years.

Death Comes to Pemberley - P. D. James

This is the only "sequel" I've read, and I admit it, the name on the cover helped a lot, as I've been a fan of P. D. James since I was a college kid buying discount mass-market paperbacks at the tiny bookstore near campus.  Since she's got 50 years of previous publications backing her up, I don't see her use of Austen's characters as a piggybacking glorified fan-fiction in hope of boosting sales, but rather as an homage to one great writer from another.  (If you think I'm indirectly slamming that OTHER dual-initialed James, well... you're right.)  It is, of course, great fun to spend some time with those two most amiable couples, the Darcys and the Bingleys, but the focus is mainly on Wickham, with most of the action being from the viewpoint of Mr. Darcy.  This unfortunately means that we don't see quite as much of Elizabeth, but James also manages to avoid the sickly-sweet "perfect marriage" that has kept me from ever reading any of the other so-called sequels.  There are a couple of sly nods to Emma and Persuasion, an engagingly twisty murder mystery (of course), and if it's not as deep as some of James's other work, well, sometimes that doesn't matter. 

I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend - Cora Harrison

Don't we all wish?  The fictional Jenny Cooper (based on a real person, though), a cousin to the large Austen clan, takes centre stage in this YA novel, which purports to be her diary this time.  (It occurs to me that, now that about 90% of all written communication is in digital format, future biographers are not going to have much fun with notable figures of this era...)  In contrast to the adult Jane depicted in the above-mentioned imaginings, here she's only 15, so direct references to her works are concerned with the body now known as her Juvenilia; there are plenty of hints toward the mature novels as well, with an unpleasant pair of schoolmates called Maria and Julia Bertram, a wealthy Miss King, and rather a lot of harping on "possessed of a good fortune" being some of the more obvious ones.  Not quite as good at sticking to period language as the adult offerings, it's still a fun read; scenes with Jane's disabled brother George are particularly sweet.

I think I'll stop there for now and continue my personal Austen binge on the film adaptations (I have rather a lot of knitting to get through, and it's awfully hard to knit and read at the same time).   I really should have been born two hundred years earlier...