Monthly Archives: February 2013

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Linda Berdoll

Title: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice ContinuedMrDarcy
Author: Linda Berdoll
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 465 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read: Re-Read, though it had been so long that it might as well have been new
Rating: 3 stars

A quick glance at this book on GoodReads or Amazon will quickly reveal a rather vitriolic hate for it among many readers, voicing objections that are not wholly without foundation — but which I don’t necessarily share, either. I first read this book and its sequel ages ago, and honestly, barely remembered the details of them. I’ve recently had my interest in P&P spinoffs prickled, however, by the truly excellent Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which I intend to review once the series has ended). With that on my brain, I first re-read Pride and Prejudice itself, and then turned to Berdoll’s inventive sequels for further fulfillment.

I will confess from the start that, while I enjoy those of Austen’s works I have read, I am not a fanatic, nor have I completed her canon. As such, I suspect I am far less protective of the characters than other readers would be, and so the liberties that Berdoll takes with the characters don’t trouble me as much. I can empathize, however. I suspect those readers feel the same way about this book that I feel about the Pink Carnation series. For those readers, I suggest some other Austen derivatives which I found less engaging, but which they may find less offensive. I think these things are a very definite case of Your Mileage May Vary.

Berdoll sets out in this book to continue the story of Darcy and Elizabeth past the chastity of the altar. Happily, the couple well-matched in intellect and temperament find themselves likewise equals in passion. Berdoll devotes many pages to their exploration of “connubial bliss” — admittedly in a somewhat odd mixture of explicit details and coy evasions. Their honeymoon period is long indeed, with the couple seemingly unable to keep their hands off of each other. Beyond the bedroom, we follow the Darcys through the first few years of their marriage, and as much as Elizabeth has to adjust being mistress of an estate as grand as Pemberley, Darcy also has to adjust to sharing his life with someone. It’s fun to watch them negotiate that out, particularly given some of the wrenches Berdoll throws in their way. Much as they might wish to stay in their cozy privacy, there is a whole lot of world out there, ready and anxious to insert itself into the Darcys’ lives.

I think a lot of other reviewers, their heads spinning from the sauciness, miss some of the other things Berdoll attempts which are really quite notable. She doesn’t only address Austen’s lack of sexual experience; she also addresses Austen’s lack of social experience outside of her own sphere. However good a social satirist Austen was for her own class, her books don’t treat much with, well, anyone else. What she knew was the country gentry, and so that is what she portrays. Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife remembers that life in London was none so pleasant for those without funds or titles. It remembers that the Napoleonic Wars happened (an omission I always found particularly curious in Austen’s works, considering how much energy she does expend on officers and regiments). It remembers that infant mortality was high, as was maternal mortality; that disease and accidents could strike swiftly. It remembers that upper-class society at the time had no expectation that husbands would remain faithful to their wives.

Now, notice that I do say that these inclusions were “attempts” — I think Berdoll misses the mark sometimes, veering from historical authenticity into near-lurid melodrama and never quite finding the right balance — but even so, I think it admirable to give Austen’s work a mindful dose of reality. Darcy and Elizabeth have to weather all manner of tragedy, and if it is at times overwrought, it also gives the book a little more depth and nuance than you would find in a typical historical romance.

Berdoll also expands not only on other characters from Austen’s canon, but also on some new faces as well — and many of them characters from outside the Darcys’ social class. We get more insight into Georgiana, whom Berdoll eventually invests with the spirit to break free of her brother’s well-meant but undoubtably patriarchal dominance, into Colonel Fitzwilliam, always feeling a bit of a loose end, into Lydia’s unhappy marriage and into Jane’s domesticity. We also meet Pemberley’s housekeeper, Darcy’s valet, and various women from Darcy’s past. Berdoll will occasionally break off from the main narrative for a chapter in order to explore those characters. This is a writing style that I know not all readers will favor, but it’s one I like. I’m less concerned with a straightforward plot than I am explorations of characters, and so it doesn’t trouble me in the slightest to have a chapter that veers from the narrative to tell us the background of Elizabeth’s maidservant, of a French courtesan, or of a misbegotten stable boy. I like the diversions. They give more of a sense of a complete world.

One very valid complaint levelled at Berdoll is that she is over-enamoured of her thesaurus, and I confess the truth of it. She props up her narrative with an abundance of polysyllabic words and on contorted euphemisms for various body parts and functions. Even that didn’t bother me so much, though. It seemed far more heavy-handed in the first part of the book, and either I just got accustomed to it or it became more moderate as the book went on. I also think that, coming to this immediately after re-reading Pride and Prejudice itself, I was better armed to appreciate what Berdoll was attempting to do. The style is somewhere between a tribute to and a gentle mockery of Austen’s own (if you’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, think of it as similar to that, only not quite as adeptly handled). With that in mind, I can forgive the verbosity to an extent. Plus, well, I like words. I tend towards the effusive (my mother, I suspect, would say “affected”) in my own speech and writing, so Berdoll’s style rarely rubs me the wrong way. There were only a few occasions where a sentence was so burdened that it irritated me; the rest of the time, I chose to relax and let the consciously antiquated diction wash over me.

All in all, I think this book comes down to a matter of taste — which leaves me unable to make a particularly good recommendation one way or the other. It will not be for everyone, and I don’t know that I would argue that it’s a good book even for those readers who will not take offence at Berdoll’s liberties. There are definitely flaws both in the aim and the execution. I found it entertaining, however. For a nearly 500-page book, it still moves quickly, and the characters are, if not totally in line with what Austen may have imagined or faithful to what her devotees would wish, still reasonably extrapolated from those origins. I suppose the best I can do is suggest that, if you think the book would interest you, read the first few pages on Amazon. From that, you should be able to determine whether the style will infuriate or amuse you.

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The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Title: The Thirteenth TaleThirteenthTale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 406 pages
Genre: Gothic fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I am in the unusual position of thinking that a book was exceptionally well-written and compelling, and yet still not liking it very much.

The Thirteenth Tale is a modern Gothic tale, very much in the vein of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, The Woman in White — and Setterfield is not only consciously aware of it, but calls attention to it throughout the novel. Her heroine, Margaret, is steeped in these books, but also in obscure biographies. She works at her father’s used book store and has never, it seems, really had to do much of anything; her father occasionally trades in priceless literary artifacts, and that sustains her family while the shop is just a side project. She is introverted to the point of being something of a recluse, and she is haunted by her dead twin — a twin who did not survive much past birth. Her mother could never emotionally connect to her because of this (something I’ll expound on later).

Margaret is surprised to receive a summons to write the biography of the notoriously private but fabulously successful writer Vida Winter, whom the narrative posits as a modern-day Dickens, voice of England in a new century. Winter has stalwartly refused all previous attempts at biography, but she knows she’s dying and she chooses Margaret (for reasons that become clear as the book goes on) to document her life. Margaret is suspicious at first, knowing that Winter could easily play her and fob another falsity off on her, so she asks for verifiable details. She gets a few, including Winter’s real name – Adeline March. And then Winter starts telling her story.

It’s compelling, dark, twisted, and thoroughly saturated with death. It begins with death — her grandmother’s, leading to her grandfather’s withdrawal from society. Their children, Charlie and Isabelle, grow up almost entirely without supervision; Charlie becomes obsessed with Isabelle. She goes along with him, teases him, but eventually runs off and marries another man — only to return with twins not much later, announcing that her brief husband is dead. The twins, indiscriminately named Emmeline and Adeline, have Charlie’s colouring. Draw your own conclusions. The twins grow up even more feral than Charlie and Isabelle did, speaking in their own language. Adeline is brutally destructive and without empathy; Emmeline is soft, weak-willed, controlled by her sister, and captivated by stories. The cook and gardener do little to influence them; a governess briefly instills a bit of order but is driven away by scandal. That’s the inner story. The outer story is also saturated with death. Winter is dying, Margaret cares more about dead people than she does about the living, someone else she meets was abandoned as a child and everyone he knows seems to be dead — themes of death and loss just permeate the entire book.

And that is what made it really difficult for me to enjoy. It was just too morbid. I am, by nature, far more sanguine. I mean, it certainly isn’t that I mind death in a story, but throughout The Thirteenth Tale, it just seems as though everyone is luxuriating in death, utterly steeped in it and not particularly willing to be otherwise. Margaret, for example, keenly feels the lack of her mother’s attention — though Margaret must be at least thirty years old by now, she’s never formed another social network, so that has remained a powerful influence on her. And I can’t forgive her mother for that neglect. I can’t even imagine what a devastating loss it must be, to lose a child — but I must also think that, when it’s a child you lose at birth and never know, and when there is another child there who needs you, then it must be a recoverable loss. I cannot fathom nor can I excuse that sort of neglect. But Margaret has never shown any inclination not to be ruled by it or by her dead twin’s ghost, either — rather she ensconces herself in the loss, and that is a point of view I also cannot see from.

I also can’t figure out when the book is set, and that just drives me up the wall. I know it’s intentional — the reader’s guide at the back of the book indicates as much. But I just can’t stand it. It distracts me throughout the entire book. Margaret’s part of the story, the “present day” as far as the narrative is concerned, could be anywhere from the 1950s to the advent of the Internet. When a character is mentioned as having gone to war, there’s no indication of which war. The family is so removed from society and untouched by world events that there’s no indication of what decade the story begins in. The twins could be growing up anywhere from Victoria’s last few decades to the 1930s, knowing only that sixty years have passed between the close of that story and when Vida Winter seeks out Margaret. I couldn’t pin it down, because Setterfield deliberately didn’t want me to, and that frustrated me immensely.

But for all of that, The Thirteenth Tale really is well written. Like I said, I found it compelling even as I disliked it, and the technical proficiency is quite high. Winter’s pronouns as she tells the tale of the twins are particularly well-handled, and the weaving of frame narrative and the meat and bones of the story is deft. The twist at the end was unexpected, but still managed to tie up all the loose ends. Setterfield also deals rather smartly with the idea of unreliable narrators — Margaret wonders throughout the whole book if Winter is being completely honest with her, but, of course, we as readers can never know either way, since the book is written from Margaret’s point-of-view, and we don’t know if she’s being honest with us, either. It’s an interesting angle from which to approach storytelling, and Setterfield makes a nice job of it.

So, on the whole, I can’t recommend this book quite as full-throatedly as I have some others — I just know that others may find far more enjoyment in it than I did. If you like Gothic novels, then, by all means, delve into this one.

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Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Title: Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1)EtiquetteEspionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I was super-excited to get my hands on Ms. Carriger’s latest novel, her first foray into YA fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and I’m so glad that she’s decided to continue on in this world even though she wrapped that series up. Etiquette & Espionage did not disappoint me.

Sophronia, a fourteen-year-old youngest daughter in the 1850s, is unusual. She climbs dumbwaiters and gets herself into terrible fixes and is generally an embarrassment to her family, a socially-aspirant gentry . Little does her mother know that when she packs Sophronia off to finishing school, she’s actually giving the girl just what she needs. Her unusual new circumstances first become apparent when she chats with Dimity, also headed to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and her brother Pillover, destined for Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. As Dimity chatters cheerfully about evil geniuses, covert recruits, Picklemen, and Custard Pots of Iniquity, Sophronia begins to suspect something is odd. When her carriage is attacked by flywaymen, their escort goes into unconvincing hysterics, and Sophronia has to take command of the horses and rescue them all, her suspicions are rather confirmed.

It turns out that Sophronia has landed at a school designed not only to turn her into a lady but to turn her lethal as well. Or, rather, the Academy has landed at her — for it’s a floating school, suspended from enormous balloons. A werewolf named Captain Niall (!) serves as ship-to-ground transport and teaches combat, a vampire covers history and deportment, mechanical staff patrol the hallways as prefects, the students learn poisons and manipulation alongside powders and manners, and the headmistress has no idea that any of it is going on. Sophronia begins to settle in at the Academy and into an easy friendship with Dimity, though she has more trouble with the others in her dormitory. Sidhaeg (!) is prickly and recalcitrant, Agatha a shy wallflower, Preshea a snob, and Monique is none other than their escort, demoted back to debut rank for refusing to give up the whereabouts of the mysterious “prototype” which the flywaymen were after. Sophronia and Monique do not get on at all, and their rivalry drives much of the action in the book. Sophronia also uses her climbing abilities to sneak into the restricted areas, where she makes friends with the sooties who keep the ship running, including Soap, a London-born boy of African descent (and props to Carriger for including a non-white character in an English historical novel!). Sophronia, never having seen a black person before, is startled by him at first but gets over it quickly. The two become friends, and Soap introduced her to Vieve (!), niece to Professor Beatrice Lefoux (!) and a budding inventor. As the plot progresses, Sophronia finds them tremendously useful in her various schemes and maneuvers.

I felt as though the story bobbled a bit at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. There’s a stretch where the sense of character isn’t particularly strong. It is interesting to have a leading character who is so introverted and private, but it also damages the narrative a bit, at least for me. When the POV character is not particularly reflective or emotive, I (a consummate extrovert) find it harder to engage with her. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to Sophronia, and sometimes her actions seemed very abrupt because there had been little build-up to them. I admire that Sophronia is such a practical and plain-dealing heroine, but I could’ve used a larger window into her soul.

The other problem that I had was that when Sophronia first arrives at the floating school, she has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no one will tell her. Maddeningly, nothing gets explained for a very long time. After a while, this starts to frustrate me as a reader — and I recognise that not everyone may feel this way. It’s a valid literary trope and one frequently used in YA, but I personally struggle with it. I hate being left totally in the dark. It tends to make me rush, hoping I’ll get to the explanation, but then I end up having to go back and re-read chapters in case I missed something. I understand delaying gratification and teasing the reader, but some information in this book gets played a little too close to the chest.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, and I’m hoping we’ll get more information on them in future installments — I want to know why this extraordinary pair of schools exists. Right now, the answer seems to be “just because.” I find that unsatisfying. What need does England have for an elite cadre of female assassins and a coterie of admittedly evil geniuses? What role in society are they fulfilling? For what purpose? If the Headmistress has no idea what’s going on, who does? Who drives this whole thing? Who founded it? For what reasons? I love Carriger’s world-building, but I wish we’d gotten just a little bit more on this front at the outset.

I did think, though, that I saw a glimmer of potential for change in the school’s directives, one that I hope we’ll see expanded in future books in the series. Right now, the school seems quite competitive, designed to set these ladies against each other. Sophronia, though, sees more benefit in bringing her cohorts together, drawing on their disparate skills to achieve a communal goal. I would like to see that theme develop further. So much popular opinion, especially when it comes to teenage girls, likes to promote their potential for cattiness, sniping, and backstabbing; I would love to see more YA fiction promoting healthier ideas on what they’re capable of.

The second half of the book improves greatly, though, as a few things do finally get explained and as more action enters the narrative in the final act. Sophronia deduces that Monique must have hidden the prototype at Sophronia’s family home while collecting her, and so she determines to retrieve it with the help of her friends (and new pet, mechanimal dog Bumbersnoot). Sophronia’s skills really get to shine here, and the sense of action and excitement is wonderful fun.

For anyone who wondered why I (!)ed a few times in this review, it’s because there are several connections in Etiquette & Espionage to the Parasol Protectorate series. This book is set some twenty-odd years before that series begins, so there’s a lot of potential for crossover cameos. Even the MacGuffin of the book, the prototype, is a component of technology that becomes crucial by the time of the Protectorate series. Carriger also takes a few moments to poke fun at the steampunk world in general, through a clique of boys at Pillover’s school, the Pistons, who sew gears to their clothing for no reason but fashion, smudge their eyes with kohl, and like to crash parties and spike the punch. It’s a good-natured and, let’s face it, well-deserved ribbing.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with Etiquette & Espionage. There were a few bumps that kept it from perfection, in my opinion, but — that’s true of the first couple Harry Potter books as well. For a first foray into YA fiction, Carriger’s done a lovely job. I absolutely devoured this first installment, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

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What Happens in London, by Julia Quinn

Title: What Happens in LondonWhatHappensinLondon
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 372 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 3 stars. Ish.

I feel like I liked this book better when I first read it, although sometimes just the sheer excitement of having a new JQ novel can do that to me. On revisiting — well, I don’t hate it. I actually like half of the premise quite a bit. But the other half is odd and silly and never pans out properly, the whole thing takes quite a while to get going, and then when it does get going, the last act sort of comes out of nowhere.

I do like the characters, and they’re probably the reason this book gets even a middling rating. Sir Harry Valentine is a son from a troubled home who escaped his embarrassing drunk of a father and his emotionally deadened mother by going into the army. Thanks to a ferocious Russian grandmother, he’s quite proficient in languages besides his own, which made him valuable to King and Country. Even with the wars over, he continues to work for the War Office, mostly translating documents — and somehow these circumstances lead to rumours swirling around him possibly having murdered his fiance? It’s very odd, because nothing ever explains how those rumours came about, nor why Olivia becomes so fixated on them that she feels compelled to spy on him after he moves in next-door. The eventual confrontation over that is the part of it that comes to nothing — it just sort of feels like an odd plot device that belonged somewhere else. The better part of the story involves Harry feeling the need to protect Olivia from the attentions of a visiting Russian prince, Alexei, whom the War Office has asked him to keep an eye on. Except even there there’s a bit of a muddle, because the potentially dark and serious plotline gets totally derailed by ludicrous literature. Harry bizarrely ends up reading Mrs. Butterworth and the Mad Baron to the Prince, and then his cousin Sebastian and younger brother Edward start up a staged reading, and it all goes distinctly odd from there.

All of these details and plotlines and detours sort of get in the way of Harry and Olivia’s love story, though. Which is a shame, because they’re both pretty interesting characters. Olivia is forthright but charming; Harry is observant and snarky. Each is a lot of fun, individually. But they sort of go from outright disliking each other to serious involvement in rather a hurry, and while I’m perfectly willing to believe in love stories that move at lightning pace, I need to at least feel it happening — and I couldn’t, here, and I think it’s because of all the other clutter in the book. The story elements never quite fit together in the right way. It’s as though they’re all jostling for attention, and as a result, anything deeper gets totally lost.

In the last forty pages of the book, Olivia gets kidnapped by the Russian ambassador — a villain who I don’t think ever even gets a name, which should give you a good impression of his general importance to the plotline. This could have been better done. We needed some hints beforehand, beyond the vagueness of Harry’s instructions to watch the Prince. He’s not much of a convincing red herring, especially since there’s nothing really to red herring for. The ambassador just wants his cousin to fork over some cash. That’s it. That’s all. Despite having a hero in the War Office and introducing all sorts of exciting foreign elements, JQ doesn’t really do anything with them. There’s no espionage, no scheming, no sinister plots. Olivia just gets kidnapped out of the blue, and I found it quite odd and jarring.

So, on the whole, this was a pleasant enough read, but it never really came together in a way that I found satisfying. Not one of JQ’s worst, but not one of her best, either.

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