Review of Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley

by P. D. James

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. 291 pages.
Starred Review

When I heard that a stellar and distinguished British mystery writer was going to tackle a mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, I knew I had to read it! I’ve read a lot of Jane Austen knock-offs and love them (see the Austenalia category), but not all the authors were ones I’ve heard of before.

I will confess that I’d never read a P. D. James book before this one. I’d long meant to, and saw a movie based on Children of Men, but have never quite gotten around to it. Still, I was surprised when I liked the Pride and Prejudice sequel aspects of this book more than I did the mystery.

Before I criticize, let me say that I loved reading this book. It was a delight, and I recommend it to all other Jane Austen fans. I’m going to point out some ways it wasn’t perfect, but it was still very very good and tremendously enjoyable. So please keep that in mind!

I do think I liked it more than Carrie Bebris’s Jane Austen sequels. In those, I didn’t really appreciate the paranormal element she brought in, and P. D. James did a better job imitating Jane Austen’s style. (Though I thoroughly enjoyed Carrie Bebris’s books as well.)

I admit I was delighted with her choice of victim and suspect. P. D. James brings back most of the important characters from Pride and Prejudice. The Prologue nicely sets the stage, and fits absolutely well with what Jane Austen said at the end of her book about how her characters’ lives continued.

A couple things I would have liked to be different:

Preparations for a ball at Pemberley are interrupted by a murder. Shucks. It would have been fun to get to read about a ball at Pemberley.

Georgiana is considering two suitors, but her choice is settled very easily. Some romance and romantic scenes and misunderstanding and revelation would have been nicely in the spirit of Jane Austen.

My biggest objection is that the mystery was not solved by our main characters. When all has been resolved, Darcy is simply informed of the resolution. Sure, we had some clues and some suspicions, but not really enough to solve the crime, and it ended up pretty much being luck that let the truth come out. I would have liked it much better if Elizabeth had solved the crime, coming up with the crucial information, or, next best, Mr. Darcy.

I also was kind of annoyed by an ending talk between Elizabeth and Darcy. They discussed things that they’d already cleared up at the end of Pride and Prejudice. This was unnecessary.

However, some things I loved:

She really got the spirit of the characters and the society. Without petty tricks like imitating Pride and Prejudice‘s first line.

She brought back so many characters from the original book. Even Mr. Bennett visits for awhile, just as Jane Austen mentioned he was wont to do.

She made the legal process at that time, with magistrates and the inquest and trial process, very clear and easy to understand.

Most of all, I felt like I was spending time with my beloved characters again. Definitely a treat for fans of Pride and Prejudice!

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Review of Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale

Midnight in Austenland

by Shannon Hale

Bloomsbury, New York, 2012. 277 pages.
Starred Review

I’m interrupting my posting of my 2011 Sonderbooks Stand-outs to write a review of a book that will most definitely be a 2012 Sonderbooks Stand-out, if not my favorite book of the whole year.

Shannon Hale’s Austenland was a 2007 Sonderbooks Stand-out, though that was the year I was working on my Master’s in Library Science and didn’t get very many reviews written. The idea is a fun one, playing off all the Jane Austen frenzy that continues to happen in our time. It’s about a young woman who goes to what is essentially a Jane Austen theme park in England. Guests come to an English manor and are submerged in Regency culture and finish off their vacation with a ball. The original book parallelled Pride and Prejudice in many ways and was a fun and romantic read.

In Midnight in Austenland, Shannon Hale has surpassed herself.

Now, I should say that this book is particularly delightful to me because this time the heroine is a divorced mom whose husband cheated on her. I definitely related to her and her feelings as she worked through the divorce. She felt like a complete idiot because she hadn’t seen the clues that he was cheating, and as the book goes on, it dawns on her just how long he had lied to her. It’s very easy to see — when it’s someone else — that she should not beat herself up for believing someone who vowed to be true to her. But I completely related to all her turmoil about it.

I also loved this book because I am a Jane Austen aficionado. In college, I wrote my English Literature research paper on Jane Austen. I had more than a month to write it — so I spent the time reading ALL her novels and wrote the paper staying up all night the night before it was due.

Pride and Prejudice is definitely my favorite, but Northanger Abbey is the most light-hearted and just plain fun. Midnight in Austenland parallels Northanger Abbey in so many beautiful ways. In fact, the similarities enhanced the story. You see, Charlotte, our heroine in Midnight in Austenland is playing a “Bloody Murderer” game after the lights go out. In the dark, lit only by a flash of lightning, she is in a secret room and touches a cold hand attached to a covered dead body.

But when Charlotte goes back the next day, there is no body. Did she imagine it in the dark, in the night? In fact, is this book simply paralleling Northanger Abbey, in which silly Catherine Morland imagines a murder has taken place where there was none?

I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to give away any delicious details. I did like that Charlotte has been reading Agatha Christie, so there was still a tribute to novel-reading, as Catherine Morland had been reading The Mysteries of Udolfo. Again, we weren’t sure if Charlotte was drawing conclusions because she’d read too many detective novels.

I think I can stay spoiler-free if I simply comment that this book has the best heroine-escapes-from-deadly-peril scene EVER!

In short, Shannon Hale combines lots of humor with Jane Austen parallels, romance, suspense, mystery, gothic themes, and eerie atmosphere in a book that will make divorced women everywhere feel empowered.

You can read Midnight in Austenland without having read Austenland, though I do recommend reading both. The heroines and their stories are different — they are just at the same theme park with some of the same actors and the same administrator.

To get you in the mood, I’ll quote from some of the Prologue, where we’re told about Charlotte. It does echo Northanger Abbey:

“No one who knew Charlotte Constance Kinder since her youth would suppose her born to be a heroine. She was a practical girl from infancy, only fussing as much as was necessary and exhibiting no alarming opinions. Common wisdom asserts that heroines are born from calamity, and yet our Charlotte’s early life was pretty standard. Not only did her parents avoid fatal accidents, but they also never locked her up in a hidden attic room….

“We may never know what turned once-nice James away. Was it the fact that his wife was making more money than he was? (A lot more.) Or that his wife had turned out to be clever? (That can be inconvenient.) Had Charlotte changed? Had James? Was marriage just too hard to maintain in this crazy, shifting world?

“Charlotte hadn’t thought so. But then, Charlotte had been wrong before.

“She was wrong when she assumed her husband’s late nights were work-related. She was wrong when she blamed his increasingly sullen behavior on an iron deficiency. She was wrong when she believed the coldness in their bed could be fixed with flannel sheets.

“Poor Charlotte. So nice, so clever, so wrong.

“Charlotte came to believe that no single action kills a marriage. From the moment it begins to stumble, there are a thousand shots at changing course, and she had invested her whole soul in each of those second chances, which failed anyway. It was like being caught in her own personal Groundhog Day, only without the delightful Bill Murray to make her laugh. She would wake up, marvel anew at the bone-crushing weight in her chest, dress in her best clothes, as if for war, and set out with a blazing hope that today would be different. Today James would remember he loved her and come home to the family. Today she would win back her marriage, and her life.

“Eventually the time came when Charlotte sat in the messy ruins of her marriage and felt as weak as a cooked noodle. She would never be nice or clever enough. Hope had been beaten to death. She dried her eyes, shut down her heart, and plunged herself into an emotion coma. So much easier not to feel.

“Once numbness shuts down a damaged heart, a miracle is required to restart it. Things would prove rough for our heroine. Her only hope was Jane Austen.”

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Review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

pride_and_prejudice_and_zombiesPride and Prejudice and Zombies

by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2009. 319 pages.

This book is awful. Truly terrible. But I have to admit that I find it frightfully hilarious.

Seth Grahame-Smith took the text of Pride and Prejudice and simply adjusted it to reflect an England in the grip of a dreadful plague of zombies. Everyone’s prim and proper about it, but Elizabeth and her sisters are valiant zombie fighters who have trained in China in the “deadly arts.”

This book should not go on lists titled “If you like Jane Austen…” It would be better for lists for those who don’t like Jane Austen. I found myself laughing out loud and reading bits to my 15-year-old son, who is not interested in the original book, but found this all perfectly reasonable zombie mayhem.

In many places the story is much cruder, and definitely far more violent. I think they went too far when they had Elizabeth eat the beating heart of a ninja she’d conquered. I couldn’t stomach more than a few chapters a night. But I’m afraid I found I couldn’t stop. Knowing Pride and Prejudice as well as I do, I knew exactly what they had changed, and it was hilarious.

For example, at the party where we first meet Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, just as in the original book, Elizabeth overhears Darcy calling her “tolerable” and saying “I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” But in this book, Elizabeth is insulted, and her warrior code demands that she avenge her honour. However, just as she is reaching for the dagger concealed at her ankle, a herd of “unmentionables” breaks the windows of the room and attacks the party.

“As guests fled in every direction, Mr. Bennet’s voice cut through the commotion, ‘Girls! Pentagram of Death!’

“Elizabeth immediately joined her four sisters, Jane, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia in the center of the dance floor. Each girl produced a dagger from her ankle and stood at the tip of an imaginary five-pointed star. From the center of the room, they began stepping outward in unison — each thrusting a razor-sharp dagger with one hand, the other hand modestly tucked into the small of her back.

“From a corner of the room, Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went. He knew of only one other woman in all of Great Britain who wielded a dagger with such skill, such grace, and deadly accuracy.

“By the time the girls reached the walls of the assembly hall, the last of the unmentionables lay still.

“Apart from the attack, the evening altogether passed pleasantly for the whole family….”

Later on, when Elizabeth goes to visit Jane, taken ill at Netherfield, it is scandalous that she walk alone through the fields because the ground is soft from the recent rain, so all the more zombies are digging themselves out of graves. Elizabeth does encounter some, and dismembers them with skill. In this version, instead of simply commenting on the state of Elizabeth’s hem, Bingley’s sister notes,

“Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and pieces of undead flesh upon her sleeve, no doubt from her attackers.”

Later on, instead of being shocked that Elizabeth and her sisters did not have a governess, Lady Catherine is shocked that they didn’t have their own ninjas.

Of course, probably the best part is when Elizabeth refuses Mr. Darcy’s proposal and kicks him across the room with a force that shatters the mantelpiece. You don’t mess with Elizabeth Bennett!

It’s all very very silly and all carried off as if this is completely natural. Some things even make a little more sense. For example, Charlotte marries Mr. Collins because she was bitten by a zombie and stricken with the plague. She says,

“All I ask is that my final months be happy ones, and that I be permitted a husband who will see to my proper Christian beheading and burial.”

Surely such a fate would make it worthwhile to marry even Mr. Collins.

I also find Wickham’s eventual fate much more appropriate than the original.

One of the funnier parts of the book is the set of discussion questions at the back, still taking the book very seriously. Here is the final question:

“Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?”

My only fear is that memories of this book might intrude the next time I reread that great classic, Pride and Prejudice.

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Review of Flirting with Pride and Prejudice


Flirting with Pride & Prejudice

Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece

edited by Jennifer Crusie

Benbella Books, Dallas, Texas, 2005.  230 pages.

Starred Review.

Ah, tremendous fun!  This book talks about Pride and Prejudice, plays with Pride and Prejudice, and reveals that other people have their little foibles and weaknesses about Pride and Prejudice, just as I do.  (And what an amazing number of people have a crush on Colin Firth!)

The authors who contributed cover a wide range, with Chick Lit writers particularly well-represented.  Some of the essays are even written by men!  (Well, two.)

I recently bought and viewed Becoming Jane, and my sister-in-law gave me the Collector’s Edition of Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth) and I found myself quite taken in by the accompanying book of behind the scenes stories of making the movie.  So I was definitely in the mood for this book.

Of course, I have my own stories about my love of Jane Austen.  I did my Sophomore English Literature paper on her and ended up using the time to read every one of her books — and then wrote the paper staying up all night the night before.

I confess that I regularly reread her books.  I was recently captivated by a photo-illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice put out by Dorling Kindersley, which I found in the library and couldn’t resist.  I’m planning to watch Becoming Jane all over again, with commentary, which isn’t something I normally do.

So — I definitely enjoyed reading other people’s musings on the subject of Jane Austen and her immortal characters.  What is it about Mr. Darcy that enchants us?  How about Elizabeth?  And do we think that Charlotte Lucas was a sell-out, or just practical-minded?

There are a wide variety of offerings here, from discussions to confessions to playful rewritings to new stories.  I liked the story Mercedes Lackey wrote about what might have happened if one of her own characters had gone to a party at Pemberley hosted by Elizabeth Darcy.  Jennifer Coburn compared Pride and Prejudice with Fiddler on the Roof.  Several discussed the implications of capturing the book on film.  I enjoyed Laura Resnick’s essay on Bollywood’s wonderful musical Bride and Prejudice, and what things translated well and what things didn’t.  Of course, there were several discussions of Mr. Darcy.  Teresa Medeiros’ title said it well:  “My Darling Mr. Darcy:  Why is the Unattainable so Irresistible?”  I also enjoyed Jill Winters’ take on the passionate secret life Mary Bennett was living behind the scenes.

I don’t need to say any more.  Those who are as enchanted with all things Austen as I am will want to read it just as soon as they find out the book exists.  Enjoy!

Thinner thighs and darker chocolate may not always be within our grasp, but thanks to Jane Austen, a brooding Englishman with an inscrutable gaze and good teeth will always remain just at our fingertips. — Teresa Medeiros

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Review of North by Northanger, by Carrie Bebris

North by Northanger

(Or, The Shades of Pemberley)

by Carrie Bebris

Reviewed July 5, 2007.
Forge, New York, 2006. 318 pages.

This is the third “Mr. and Mrs. Darcy” mystery by Carrie Bebris, extending the story begun by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. This one was by far my favorite. In this book, Elizabeth is expecting a child, and she finds a letter from Mr. Darcy’s mother, who died giving birth to Mr. Darcy’s sister Georgiana.

This book is well done. We get a puzzling mystery, where Mr. Darcy himself is accused of stealing diamonds. We get a perplexing experience at Northanger Abbey and even a hidden treasure. We meet again some characters from Jane Austen’s book, Northanger Abbey.

But most fascinating of all is getting to know the earlier Mrs. Darcy through her letters, especially those exchanged with Mrs. Tilney, the mother of the hero of Northanger Abbey. It’s fun to think how Elizabeth would have been affected by the reputation of her predecessor—but then to see her come to peace with that memory as she learns the heart of her husband’s mother.

This book gives you the chance to spend more time with two delightful people. You get to experience two happy people in love, facing the birth of a child at a time when giving birth could be dangerous, with perplexing difficulties to untangle as well.

The first two books in the series went a little too far with supernatural explanations of puzzling events for my taste. But this book had only a hint of such things, and they added atmosphere with the loving spirit of the former Mrs. Darcy.

Thanks to my friend Stephanie for urging me to try the third book in the series!