Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters
Mallory Ortberg, popular writer for websites such as The Hairpin and The Toast, has expanded her ingenious “Texts From” series into a book. What if the various authors, poets, and characters you studied in school had the ability to text? Hamlet would probably be a whiny teenager who refuses to come out of his room for dinner. William Carlos Williams would be constantly bugging his wife to bring home more plums from the grocery store. And Mrs. Bennet certainly wouldn’t miss an opportunity to urge her daughters to snag rich husbands! From Achilles to Virginia Woolf, Wuthering Heights to Sweet Valley High, nothing is safe from Ortberg’s satirical (and often punctuation-less) eye.
It’s hard to review humor because it’s so subjective: You either think it’s funny or you don’t. I’m definitely a fan of Ortberg’s style — the texts from Jane Eyre had me ROLLING the first time I read them! — so I enjoyed this book. I definitely think it helps to be familiar with the source material; most of the literary references are to pretty famous works, but there are also sections on The Hunger Games and The Baby-Sitters Club, so it’s a rather random, eclectic mix. The biggest criticism I have about the book is that it’s kind of one-note. The premise is funny, but there’s really nothing more to it. Basically, I don’t think it’s a book that I’d need to read over and over again, but it would be a great gift for someone who loves literature!
N.B. I received an ARC of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The publication date, per Amazon, is November 4.
Lauren Willig, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla
In the autumn of 1806, a popular novel called The Convent of Orsino (written by none other than Miss Gwen!) has sparked a vampire craze in fashionable society. Rumors swirl around one man in particular — Lucien, Duke of Belliston — whose long absence from society is seen as evidence that he is a creature of the night. Practical, outspoken Sally Fitzhugh is determined to prove this rumor false, so she seeks out an acquaintance with the duke. For Lucien, the rumor escalates from inconvenient to dangerous when a young woman is murdered at a society ball, with what appear to be fang marks on her throat. Lucien and Sally quickly realize that someone is framing Lucien for the murder, so together they decide to find the real killer. Is it someone with a personal grudge against Lucien, or could the nefarious French spy known as the Black Tulip be at work again? The more time Lucien and Sally spend together, the more they are drawn to each other; but before they can be together, they must defeat a cunning killer.
This 11th novel in the Pink Carnation series once again combines romance, historical fiction, and a touch of intrigue for a very enjoyable read. I wasn’t totally enthused about the plot of this installment beforehand, since vampires aren’t really my thing, but fortunately they’re not a big part of the story. I also didn’t completely warm up to Lucien or Sally, both of whom seem like types rather than characters…Sally in particular just seems like a younger version of Miss Gwen. But there’s still an awful lot to enjoy in this book! I was pleasantly surprised by the resolution of the mystery, which is quite clever and hangs together well. And as always, I adore the light, tongue-in-cheek tone of the series; it doesn’t take itself too seriously and aims to be entertaining above all else. I should mention that the contemporary story takes some significant steps forward in this installment, with Eloise facing important decisions both personally and professionally. So I’m really looking forward to the next (and last!) Pink Carnation novel, which will finally tell the story of the Carnation herself!
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind (trans. Lucia Graves)
When Daniel Sempere is ten years old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. There he must choose one book that calls to him, and it will be his job to protect it forever. Daniel chooses a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, unaware that this simple decision will alter the entire course of his life. Daniel reads the book and loves it, so he tries to find other novels by Carax, only to discover that there are none. Someone is systematically destroying every copy of every book Julián Carax ever wrote, and he is calling himself Laín Coubert, one of Carax’s names for the devil. As Daniel comes of age in mid-20th-century Barcelona, he makes it his mission to discover who is destroying Carax’s books and why. His quest leads him to a long-buried secret involving friendship, passion, madness, and true love. But the more deeply Daniel digs into Carax’s mysterious background, the more he discovers parallels to his own life, and the more danger he finds himself in.
This is one of those books that just didn’t grab me, for some reason. I found myself able to put it down for days at a time, and when I finally did power through it, my mind kept wandering. But I don’t quite understand why, becasue I honestly liked a lot of things about this book! First of all, I’m now dying to visit Barcelona because of the vivid descriptions of its streets, neighborhoods, and restaurants. I also enjoyed the almost Dickensian depictions of the secondary characters, like this one:
His mouth was glued to a half-smoked cigar that seemed to grow out of his mustache. It was hard to tell whether he was asleep or awake, because he breathed like most people snore.
The plot is fairly melodramatic, but it’s undeniably interesting and full of event. Maybe I was a bit put off by the staggering number of coincidences connecting Daniel’s story to Carax’s, or maybe I didn’t like the portrayal of the female characters (who are basically nothing more than male fantasies). Ultimately, I just didn’t connect that much to the story or characters, so it was an effort for me to finish the book.
Sandy Hall, A Little Something Different
When Gabe and Lea meet in a creative writing class at their university, sparks begin to fly instantly. Everyone can see it, from the creative writing professor to their fellow students to the baristas at Starbucks — everyone, that is, except Gabe and Lea themselves. They’re both shy and a little awkward, and Gabe is dealing with some trauma from his past, so it’s unsurprising that they have a hard time interpreting each other’s mixed signals. Still, everyone else can see that they’re crazy about each other, and that’s why this novel is told from everyone else’s point of view. Parts of the story are variously told by Gabe’s brother, Lea’s roommate, the aforementioned baristas, a waitress at the local diner, and even a squirrel who lives on campus; in fact, the only characters who don’t address the reader directly are Lea and Gabe. Despite their mutual crush, will they ever be able to get together? And if not, how will their friends, acquaintances, and random observers cope with the disappointment?
This book is a sugary confection that I devoured in one sitting. At bottom it’s a classic boy-meets-girl story, but the various narrators provide an interesting twist on the tale. Overall, I was impressed with the author’s ability to switch between voices so skillfully. A couple characters were difficult for me to distinguish (particularly Gabe’s group of friends), but it was generally easy to keep everyone straight. (It doesn’t hurt that each new perspective is clearly marked with the character’s name and function, such as “Inga, Creative Writing Professor.”) I didn’t love every single perspective — the narratives from “squirrel” and “bench,” in particular, seemed unnecessary — but the author interview at the back of the book revealed that she had about twice as many narrators in the initial draft! So at least she cut back a little. :) I also found it interesting to tell a love story in this way, giving everyone a voice except the two main characters; it seems to reflect a voyeuristic element in our culture (reality TV, social media, etc.). Ultimately, this is an adorable little romance with a cute gimmick attached, and I really enjoyed it!
Karin Lowachee, The Gaslight Dogs
Sjenn is a member of the Aniw, a nation of hunter-gatherers that lives in the distant, icy North. She is also the ankago, or spirit walker, of her tribe: Through her Dog, the “little spirit” that lives in her body, she is able to communicate with her ancestors and relay their wisdom to her people. When she calls forth her Dog, her human body lies unconscious and unprotected, but her Dog form cannot be killed by human weapons. Because of this mysterious power, Sjenn is kidnapped by the Kabliw, a Southern race that has recently made contact with her people. General Fawle, a powerful military leader of the Kabliw, wants to learn more about Sjenn’s power so that he can harness it for his own ends. But his son, Captain Jarrett Fawle, wants nothing to do with the Aniw woman or her mysterious powers, which seem to him like demon magic. Despite Jarrett’s resistance, however, his fate soon becomes bound with Sjenn’s, as the two of them try to unlock the secrets of her Dog without letting its power get into the wrong hands.
I bought this book when it first came out in 2010, largely because of the interesting premise and setting. The world of the novel is a pretty clear parallel to European colonization of the New World; indeed, Sjenn and her people are explicitly based on the Inuit nation. I also thought the system of magic sounded interesting and different from anything I’d seen before. The book moves at a glacial pace (no pun intended), but the writing is lovely and unique, so I didn’t mind settling in for a slower read. I also found both Sjenn and Jarrett to be very interesting characters, although neither one was developed in a lot of depth. The book doesn’t technically end on a cliffhanger, but there is definitely a lot more to the story. So I would be really interested to read a sequel…except that a sequel doesn’t exist! Apparently the author didn’t have a multi-book contract, and I guess her publisher decided to pull the plug after the first book was released. As a result, I’m incredibly frustrated, because I think this story had a lot of potential as a series! But unfortunately, I don’t think the book stands very well on its own, so I’m not sure I would recommend it.
Jennifer Robson, Somewhere in France
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, known to friends and family as Lilly, has always felt stifled by her privileged upbringing. Though she’d like to go to university and embark on a career, it seems her only task in life will be to snare a rich, titled husband. Unfortunately, the only man to catch her eye is Robbie Frasier, a promising young surgeon whom her parents consider quite unsuitable. But with the outbreak of World War I, Lilly suddenly has access to a variety of new opportunities. Hoping to help with the war effort, she learns how to drive and eventually applies to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Meanwhile, she carries on a clandestine correspondence with Robbie, who is working in a field hospital in France. When she and her colleagues are offered a chance to transport injured soldiers from the front lines, Lilly jumps at the chance to be reunited with Robbie. But will the tragic violence of this war ultimately separate them forever?
I picked up this book because I wanted to read something set in World War I for the centennial, but I wasn’t in the mood for something incredibly dark or depressing. Unfortunately, this book goes too far in the other direction; it’s a light, pleasant romance, but the World War I setting is a mere backdrop. I don’t need to read about the horrors of war in graphic detail, but I do want to feel that the characters are in real danger, that they must struggle against real obstacles, and that the war has left some kind of mark on them. Instead, even the descriptions of what Robbie sees on his makeshift operating table are bland, evoking no emotional response whatsoever. Part of the problem is that Lilly and Robbie are both such clichés: she is the naive and enthusiastic upper-class heroine, while he is the overprotective self-made hero. I just didn’t really care about either character, so I wasn’t invested in their romance at all. I was more interested in the secondary characters, Lilly’s brother Edward and her friend Charlotte — I’d love to read the story of their romance! Overall, this book isn’t a bad read, but it is completely and utterly forgettable.
Jo Walton, Farthing
This novel is a murder mystery with a twist: what if a fascist English government had made a separate peace with Hitler? In the world of this book, it’s 1949, and war still rages between the Third Reich (which now encompasses all of Europe) and the Soviet Union, but England has managed to remain at peace. The “Farthing set,” who engineered the treaty with Hitler, have congregated at an English country estate, where Lucy (the daughter of the house) and her husband David are staying. Because David is Jewish, they both endure various snubs and cruelties from the other guests. Then a notable member of the Farthing set is murdered, and his corpse is decorated with Jewish symbols. Lucy is convinced that her husband has been framed, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard agrees. But as the English government becomes more totalitarian and anti-Semitic, both Lucy and Carmichael must make devastating choices that could allow the murderer to go free.
This book was unsettling, to say the least, and I have very conflicting feelings about it. Part of the story is told from Lucy’s perspective, and I really enjoyed her character and her narrative voice. I also think the book very skillfully depicts a nation’s slow slide into despotism; one of the most heartbreaking and effective parts of the book, for me, was David’s strong faith in England. Despite the hardships he endures, he is convinced that Jews will never be persecuted in England the way they are in the Reich…but of course, events in the book ultimately prove him wrong. On the negative side, the “mystery” element of the book is very underdeveloped. I also became irritated by the sheer number of secret, illicit, and/or adulterous relationships in the book; it seemed like EVERY character was involved, which strained my credulity. (Also, everyone seems to have really good “gaydar,” if you’ll pardon the expression!) Overall, I’m not sure the positives outweighed the negatives for me, and I’m still undecided about continuing with the series.
Stephanie Perkins, Isla and the Happily Ever After
Isla Martin has had a crush on Josh Wasserstein since their first year together at the School of the Americas in Paris. But because of his relationship with another girl and her own shyness, nothing has ever happened between them, and Isla is convinced nothing ever will. But then, the summer before their senior year, she bumps into Josh in a Manhattan cafe and actually finds the courage to talk to him. It soon becomes obvious that her crush isn’t as unrequited as she thought, and the two embark on a giddy, passionate relationship. But even the intensity of first love can’t blind Isla to the pitfalls ahead of them: Josh is an artistic slacker who might get kicked out of school despite his talent, while Isla is a bright girl who works hard but doesn’t know what to do after graduation. Can Isla and Josh stay together when everything, from geography to family issues to their own future paths, seems determined to keep them apart?
I’ve been waiting for this novel, the companion to Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door, for YEARS, and I was definitely not disappointed! This book really captures the feeling of being young and in love, with its dizzying highs, despairing lows, and all the accompanying drama. Isla is a sweet but spunky heroine, and I personally found her more relatable than Anna or Lola: she’s shy and has a rich interior life, but she has a little more trouble turning her dreams into reality. I like that this book highlights the differences between a crush and a real relationship; even though Isla gets to date the boy of her dreams, their relationship is far from perfect! This book is full of all the swoonworthy romantic moments you’d expect in a Perkins novel, though it’s certainly more explicit than Anna and Lola. The book is definitely geared to a teenage audience (unsurprisingly, since it’s YA), so I did occasionally feel like I was a bit too old for the story. But I still really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who wants a dramatic, romantic read!
Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
Jacob Jankowski is an old man in his 90s living out the remainder of his days in a nursing home. His children rarely come to visit, and he’s both lonely and frustrated by nursing home life. But when the circus comes to town one day, it triggers Jacob’s memories of his youth and the years he spent with the Benzini Brothers Greatest Show on Earth. In the 1930s, Jacob was a promising veterinary student who was about to join his father’s practice; but after his parents’ tragic death, the practice had to be sold to pay the family debts. Bereft and with nowhere to go, Jacob hopped a train that turned out to belong to a traveling circus; and because of his veterinary skills, the ruthless circus owner decided to keep him around. At the circus Jacob met a variety of new people, including a sarcastic dwarf, a mercurial animal trainer, and the trainer’s beautiful but trapped wife. Eventually his involvement with the circus would trigger a series of shocking and catastrophic events.
I remember that when this book first came out, a lot of my friends were raving about it, convinced that I’d absolutely love it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that experience…maybe I’m missing something, but this book just didn’t resonate with me. I really enjoyed the setting; circus life in Depression-era America was fascinating, and I liked the photos of real historical circuses that preceded each chapter. It’s truly amazing to think about the amount of work (and food!) it took to keep the circus going! But I wasn’t that nuts about the plot or characters in this book. The main story is the romance between Jacob and Marlena, a performer who is trapped in an unhappy marriage. But while her menacing husband is an interesting (albeit repulsive), larger-than-life character, Marlena herself seems very bland, with no defining qualities other than her beauty and her misery. I also didn’t find Jacob particularly interesting; he acts like a stock character rather than an individual. Overall, the book is worth reading if you’re interested in the setting, but in my opinion it doesn’t live up to the hype.
A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery
In the time-honored tradition of the classic British mystery, a house party goes terribly awry when one of the guests is murdered and the host disappears. Mark Ablett, owner of the Red House, enjoys collecting people around him, so the house party includes such diverse characters as his private secretary, a military man, an actress, and several idle young people. The party appears to be going well until Ablett learns that his brother, the black sheep of the family who had been living in Australia, will be visiting the Red House for an unspecified but sinister reason. When Robert is inevitably murdered, Mark is nowhere to be found. Is he the murderer, or did someone else in the house party do the deed? Young man-about-town Antony Gillingham just happens to arrive on the scene at a pivotal moment, so he decides to try his skill as an amateur detective; but ultimately he discovers that the solution to the mystery is far more tragic than amusing.
When I came across this book a few years ago, I was delighted to discover that the creator of Winnie the Pooh had written a mystery story! It follows many conventions of the classic Golden Age mystery — such as being “fair,” with all clues presented to the reader as the detective discovers them — but it turned out to be a bit darker and sadder than I was expecting. Tony discovers the murderer’s identity fairly early in the book, so the bulk of the mystery lies in discovering how and why the deed was done. And the thing is, I found the murderer very sympathetic! So I was disappointed that this character turned out to be the guilty party. Also, unlike many mysteries from this period, this book doesn’t contain much humor, nor are there any subplots to lighten the mood of suspense and doom. Tony’s sidekick provides a few funny moments, but otherwise the tone remains pretty dark. Finally, Tony’s character isn’t developed very much, which disappointed me; he seemed really interesting, and I would have liked to know more about his backstory. The book is still worth reading if you enjoy Golden Age mysteries, but I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite.