This is what happens when you run out of new Jane Austen to read

I’ve been dipping back into Jane Austen the last week or so. I stumbled on a ‘sequel’ to Sense & Sensibility by Joan Aiken — a favorite author from my childhood — so I jumped on it. And of course, reading Eliza’s Daughter, made me question my memory of events in S&S, so I had to re-read that. Then I was deep in, so I wanted to read Persuasion (mostly because it’s the one I don’t own of the Austen books I like best — those being Emma, S&S, P&P and Persuasion. Northanger Abbey is okay but lighter, and Mansfield Park I don’t like much at all).

So anyway, I went to pick up Persuasion at the library (no need to put this on hold, every location has multiple copies of all things Austen, and Persuasion being less popular, it was indeed there on the shelf waiting for me). And… right next to it was something called A Visit to Highbury, a ‘different perspective’ of the events in Emma by the great great grand-niece of Ms. Austen. There’s another one after it, Later Days at Highbury.

Sequels done by someone other than the original author are always iffy. And sequels written 200 years after the original, even iffier. Sequels of fantastically popular, iconic, still-in-print works — well, that’s taking a risk of a whole other magnitude. Purists will despise you, fans might mock you, and haters will crush you. These two novels took very different attitudes toward their source material, and the results are very different indeed.

Joan Aiken is a pretty popular author. She wrote Nightbirds on Nantucket, Black Hearts in Battersea, and dozens of other children’s books. I own those two plus The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — three related books (and there are many more, apparently, that were not in my local library as a child). She wrote more than 100 books in her 79 years on the planet.  This is no upstart trying to get a bump from the Austen obsessions of the rest of us. I was excited to read this one.

sense and sensibility eliza's daughter jane austen joan aikenAiken’s book is a first-person novel from the perspective of Eliza’s daughter, Eliza’s daughter, also named Eliza. That would be Eliza — first love of Colonel Brandon — her daughter, Eliza — child of the unknown father who seduced Eliza in her marital misery – and her daughter, Eliza — daughter of scapegrace Willoughby, first love of Marianne.  Got that? It was a bit of a struggle, I kept losing track of which generation we were on. For instance, when this Eliza (and we never see the others) says she’d never seen Colonel Brandon, I had to go to S&S and check the story, because I was sure he said he’d seen her often — but that was her mother, not her.

Aiken has no qualms writing a very different future for the principal characters of S&S — we see Elinor, Edward Ferrars, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood, as well as brief glimpses of Lucy Steele Ferrars and her husband, Robert. Edward is bitter and stoic, Marianne is unfeeling and selfish, Mrs. Dashwood has lost her mind, and only Elinor comes off as a decent person — but she’s miserable. This is NOT the future we wished for them! And the Interwebs is quite full of people telling Austen fans to avoid this book at all costs. I saw none of that chatter before I picked it up, and I was sorry to see Aiken’s complete lack of faith in these characters’ futures. I wonder why she even wrote a book that dealt with them, since she seemed to dislike them excessively? Maybe she wanted us all to know how she felt about them.

Eliza’s story is compellingly readable and rings true as a real person and a real life in almost every instance. Actually, it all rings true (because who actually reveals everything about themselves?), but a few choices made by the author rendered the whole book less satisfying.

First the good: Eliza is scrappy and no-nonsense, kind and generous to a fault. She rescues a baby from her wet nurse’s neglect, refuses to gossip to make her school life easier, overcomes the negligence of her guardian (Brandon does not come off well, and the blame is placed on Marianne), escapes from would-be rapists, and rescues Elinor from starvation and fever. The plot is one damned thing after another for this poor girl from the wrong side of the sheets. But she never gives up, and rarely complains.

The bad: this ‘never complains’ part is part of the problem. Her sexual abuse as a child (by her tutor) isn’t even mentioned until she’s an adult — not even hinted at properly. And the book ends (seriously, the last paragraph) with her revealing that she’s PREGNANT, when there has been no hint of any kind of sexual encounter occurring in the previous decade or more. WHAT?! This is what sent me to the internet, wondering if there was a sequel/interview/close reading somewhere that could tell me what the heck was going on here. I found nothing but vitriol aimed at Aiken for her treatment of beloved Austen heroines and heroes.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written, exactly. If that sentence had been left out, I would have closed it happy — even with the character assassination. I can ignore Aiken’s opinion of the future Dashwoods, et. al., this book would have been a fine book unaffiliated with any Austen characters at all. But why make a poor attempt to dress up the ending by 1) revealing a pregnancy we have no investment in, and 2) making every reader doubt their reading of the whole book? Seems a poor choice for an otherwise accomplished text.

joan austen-leigh Emma A visit to highbury Mrs. Goddard
The original title was Mrs. Goddard, Mistress of a School. I bet they changed it for us American Austen noobs.

A Visit to Highbury is a VERY DIFFERENT voyage into the world of Austen. Joan Austen-Leigh (hey, both authors are named Joan… just noticed that) makes a point of saying in the introduction that she puts not a single word in the mouths of Austen’s speaking characters in Emma, adheres strictly to the timeline and details of that novel, and only makes up things about the silent characters in Emma (notably Mrs. Goddard, mistress of the school where Harriet Smith lives). The story is told in a series of letters between Mrs. Goddard and her sister in London. Mrs. Pinkney is newly widowed, remarried and lonely for people, so her sister sends her gossipy letters (almost wrote ‘emails’ right there) about the fine folks in Highbury. Mrs. Goddard’s opinions and descriptions of Emma and her friends and family mirror exactly what Austen wrote in Emma, so purists can read it with no qualms.

The book is thoroughly enjoyable. I read it in one go, not putting it down until it was done (it is only 180 small pages). The events taking place in letters written and then received and responded to create a kind of constant cliffhanger situation as we wait for the other to respond, answer questions and clear up confusion. Of course, there is more going on in their lives than what happens in Emma — will Mrs. Pinkney ever be happy with her husband. Are those poor girls at the school in London really being mistreated? Lots of new plot that in no way alters what we know and love about Highbury and its residents, but it adds some background and a new list of events and characters to love (some quite similar to other Austen creations, including the obligatory visit to Bath, Naval officers, illegitimate children and apothecaries for everyone). I look forward to the sequel.

I think there is room for some middle ground between the two approaches to (what amounts to) Austen fan fiction.  Aiken makes you despair of every picking up another one, and Austen-Leigh treats the characters as demigods not be to besmirched by her unworthy hands.

jane austen P D James Death comes to pemberely Pride and prejudice
BBC is making a mini-series out of this right now.

I think the best Austen fan-fic I read was Death Comes to Pemberley, what could properly be called a sequel to Pride and Prejudice by P.D. James, a popular author of crime fiction.* The events take place a few years after the end of P&P, when Lizzie’s wild sister, Lydia and her ne’er-do-well husband, Wickham, arrive at Pemberley. The book is a murder mystery totally in keeping with the characters of P&P, and a great read. James clearly loved those characters, but wasn’t afraid to shake things up a bit.

I can’t imagine taking on the challenge of writing in Austen’s world — I’d be more likely to take the ‘inspired by but no way I’m actually calling my character Elizabeth Bennet’ route, done by tons of writers (my most recent favorite, the speculative fiction books of Mary Robinette Kowal). You get points for bravery, but be prepared for the firing squad.

*I also read a collection of short fiction ‘inspired’ by Austen’s work (Jane Austen Made Me Do It), an uneven collection that none-the-less contained some real gems.

Are You Reading That Book Again?!

I have several friends/family members who are baffled by my habit of re-reading my favorite books. But I’m baffled by their bafflement. Doesn’t everyone revisit their book-character friends? Don’t they miss them?

I imagine that I first re-read books because I had a limited supply. My house always had books in it, but there weren’t hundreds. We made frequent trips to the library (thank goodness) but the end of one book did not always coincide with an influx of new reading material. And a time during which there is no book-in-progress is a predicament not to be borne.  As a result, I read every book that was in my house — sappy autobiographies of accident and cancer victims (Mom), mindless teen-girl fiction, Laura Ingalls Wilder , and Nancy Drew mysteries (older sister).

And when nothing else appealed to me, I went back to the books I had loved enough to acquire or been lucky enough to receive as gifts. The Chronicles of Narnia box set was (and still is) a cherished gift when I was 11 or 12. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon/fire lizard books were chosen as free ‘Reading is Fundamental’ books, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet was permanently borrowed from the junior high library (sorry, Mrs. Hartner!). Lucy will once again discover that the scary wizard is really a kind old man, and Eustace will learn from being turned into a dragon. Menolly will escape from the thread, and find a place where she can be herself and thrive (and even fall in love). Meg & Charles Wallace will again blow my mind with a vision of the world as malleable and open to the will of every one of us.

Swiftly Tilting Planet Madeleine L'Engle
I’m sure that winged unicorn on the cover was one of the reasons I picked this book up

But this doesn’t really explain why a woman with disposable cash and full access to one of the best libraries in the country still reads books she’s already read. Stories in which she has already discovered the surprises, admired the prose and pondered the lesson.

Why do I re-read them?

  • Because I’ve forgotten some minor detail of the plot and cannot rest.
  • Because my particular sad/angry/happy/wistful/etc. mood requires a book to match, and [insert book title here] matches that mood exactly
  • Because the book in question blew my mind wide open in a new and unexpected way, and I want to experience that again — and likely go deeper in, where there are more new things to ponder.
  • Because, once again, the end of one book did not coincide with an influx of new material. Or the available new material does not fit the current reading mood.
  • Because the series is 15 freakin’ books long and I don’t exactly remember everything from Book One (first read in 1992), which will impair my ability to fully enjoy Book 15 the way I want/need/deserve to.
A Memory of Light Robert Jordan Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time
  • Because the series is (currently) five books long, the new one is expected next month, and I can’t wait so I re-read Book Four. Or maybe books One through Four.
  • Because the series is 15 books long, and reading Book 16 reminds you how much you love those books/characters/plotlines, so you start over at Book One.
  • Because my current book brought a previous book to mind, along with the urge to read that book.
  • Because the book I just finished blew my mind wide open in a new and unexpected way, and I need time to sit with those new ideas — but since a time during which there is no book-in-progress is a predicament not to be borne, it is safer to re-read a book which I know won’t interfere with this pondering.
  • Because that book broke my heart/gave me a new attitude/made me want to run away to Hawaii and I want to feel that again.


I’m sure there are dozens of other reasons why I reread the books I love, but this is the hit list (or possibly the top ten – hey, there really are ten of them!).

Where do you stand on the read once/ read over-and-over spectrum? Why? Hit me.

Binjas – FTW!

I’m sure I’ve mentioned China Miéville before – here, in fact – a new speculative fiction love for me. Since picking up The Scar, I’ve read Perdido Street Station, Looking for Jake (short stories) and now Un Lun Dun. And The Kraken is sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to finish Middlemarch.

Un Lun Dun (UnLondon) is an ‘other-London’ in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland,  Neverwhere (and various other stories, none of which I can recall right now) where there’s a whole other city/place below/between/just-out-of-reach of the real city, where freaks or aliens or whatever live, and everything is just a bit different than the city most people live in.

Miéville grabs with glee this license to mess with the world.  He is a meticulous world-builder, and never misses an opportunity to add a bit of crazy fun to every situation the intrepid heroes are faced with. He gives us things like upside down cars that are used as boats (which are called ‘car’ but with the word upside-down on the page, it sounds something like ‘rack,’ but the best way to pronounce is ‘turn your head upside-down, then say car’), trash is alive (and can be pets), librarians are explorers, houses are made from defunct technology, and giraffes are the scariest animals.  And – my personal favorite – the binjas.  Seriously. Trash cans (bins in the UK) which are actually ninjas. They keep their weapons inside their cans and have the perfect camouflage. Binjas. Freaking. Awesome. The illustrations are also done by Miéville, quite the talented guy.

Miéville wrote this book aimed at a YA audience, so – at least in the beginning – it doesn’t have much depth. But stick with it, it will be worth your while. There’s  a video interview (which you can see here, sexy & smart – woohoo) where he talks about the book -why and how and stuff.  This book interrogates the quest model so common in sci-fi books (whether for kids or adults) and pokes some fun at it as well. The best thing about this book? It’s fun.  He’s clearly having a blast writing it, and it is fun to read it.

If you love sci-fi/fantasy books, and you’re looking for a light read that isn’t boring and lame – or you’re looking for a way to ease into the dark craziness of Miéville – read this next.

What I Read in May – Part Uno

Yes, I know. It’s July – practically August – and I’m just getting to What I Read in May. But it is still July, and I intend to get June done before August as well. And maybe if I just do a little blurb on each of these books, I can stop feeling so behind (or not).

I’ve broken May into two parts – Neil Gaiman and Not Neil Gaiman. I’ll give you the Not while I’m finishing up the other.  Even a short blurb on 16 books was getting a bit long, and some turned out to be not-so-short.

The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek. Discussed here. Loved it.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Discussed here. Liked it a lot. Can’t really see Julia Roberts playing her, but that’s cool. Glad I read it already.

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull. I like to encourage kids to read, so when my friend’s son was excited about this book and wanted me to read it, I gave it a shot. Unfortunately, some children’s books are great books that happen to be read by children (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia) and some are just children’s books. I got bored pretty quickly, so I didn’t finish it. Turns out, the boy didn’t finish it either! Guess he was more excited talking about it that actually reading it.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris. I read this one because a) I loved the movie and b) I have since liked everything else I’ve read by Harris and c) I wanted to be able to speak intelligently about the book, not just the film. The book is a little different in tone and detail from the film (the romance is less prominent in the book, the Comte and Vienne both more nuanced) but I felt like the film was a faithful representation of the story here.  Love Harris.

Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Hilary & Steven Rose. I read an article/editorial in the New York Times (I think) by Hilary Rose, and that’s where I heard about this book. It is really aimed at scientists in the fields of Psychology, Sociology and Biology, so it was a big of a slog at times. Their purpose was to refute the recent trend to discuss evolutionary psychology as a science, when really what’s being talked about most is more of a simplistic metaphor to help explain behavior. What is useful as a heuristic is being presented as scientifically-based – and the scientists in this book would like those people to knock it off. Much of it was interesting, but I didn’t retain much.

Alabaster by Caitlan R Kiernan. Discussed here. Loved this one.

Cemetery Road by Gar Anthony Haywood. This is a book I picked up at the PLA convention (same source as The Lonely Polygamist). I’ll confess – I mostly picked it up because I met the author briefly, and he was nice and very attractive. The book is a suspense/detective kind of thing. I started off not terribly impressed – and then realized it was 5am and I’d finished it. A short, fast read, in which the main character knows more than he’s telling us as he tries to figure out the strange death of a childhood friend. I was never bored, and I bore easily. In my notes, I called it ‘deceptively seductive.’

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. A great book about how ignoring painful truths is (duh) counter-productive. This one will get its own post. No really, I’m not just saying that.

Father of the Rain by Lily King. I reviewed this book for BookBrowse, loved it. Similar to The Summer We Fell Apart, it is the story of a charismatic, alcoholic father from the viewpoint of his 11-year-old daughter. It follows her until she’s an adult with a family of her own, as she tries to rid herself of the pain and learn new ways to trust people. The writing is fabulous, the details ring true, and I just wanted to reach into the book and give that girl a hug.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming and Between, Georgia, both by Joshilyn Jackson. Both of these I listened to as audiobooks.  I found Jackson last year at my sister’s house – she had gods of Alabama, and then I found Between, Georgia on a sale rack. Jackson has a clear voice and a talent for description that makes her characters vibrant, interesting and convincingly human. I listened to The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, on a road trip a few months ago and was even more impressed with this third novel – and the audiobooks are read by the author, who is a great reader. All three books take place in modern-day southern United States, with a female protagonist that feels like a neighbor you’d like to be friends with. All three focus on the pains and joys of families with skeletons in the closet that just won’t stop rattling. I’ve got her new one, Backseat Saints, on hold at the library.

There was much to love this month – which is probably why I got through 16 (well, 15 ¼)  books, some of them pretty long. Up next, Neil Gaiman in May, then What I Read in June. Stay tuned.