Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (Being the First Jane Austen Mystery) by Stephanie Barron: Review

I need to preface this whole review by saying that Jane Austen is one of my all time favorite authors. I have read every single one of her novels (I’ve read Pride and Prejudice twice already this year bringing my total up to something like fifteen of sixteen). I studied Jane Austen’s literature extensively in school and have written multiple essays about her. This book was actually recommended to me by a professor after I wrote about Jane Austen as detective fiction in his class (it sounds weird, but I pulled it off and got an A no less). It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading this first of Stephanie Barron’s novels featuring Jane Austen as the ‘detective’ because, as much as I love Jane Austen, I’m really not that big a fan of detective stories. Given my background with Jane Austen you might imagine that I had mixed feeling picking up this novel. Would Barron do Austen justice? Would it be authentic to the times? Would the story actually be good or was Barron just trying to attract attention to a mediocre novel by using Austen’s well known and respected name? Having read the novel my feeling are mixed, but enough of this intro stuff, lets get to it.

The first few chapters of the book had me enthralled. I was, to put it bluntly, ridiculously excited, because in a very few pages I began to realize what kind of game Barron was playing at. Sprinkled throughout the pages of this novel are dozens of hints, references, and nods towards Jane Austen’s own novels. Character names, places, the personalities of the characters, there were so many things I could point to and say “AHA! I see which Austen character this is based on!” or “This is the conversation that is supposed to ‘inspire’ such and such scene in this Austen novel.” It became something like a treasure hunt, trying to pick out the specific bits that made direct references to Austen’s own  writing. It was this aspect that really got me reading and remained one of my greatest pleasures in the novel throughout. However, after a while the novelty of what Barron was doing started to wear off and I began to pay attention to the novel itself.

The plot of The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor didn’t hold a lot of interest for me for the first half of the novel or so, but eventually I did start getting invested in the story and trying to figuring out who the culprit was and all that. Unfortunately the story was somewhat predictable, at least in the bigger aspects of the plot. I knew who’d done it, who seemed to have done it but was really innocent, and such and such, way before the big reveal at the end, but I still enjoyed reading the story to see how Barron would have all of her characters figure it out. Still, on the rare occasion that I do read detective fiction I prefer for the plots to be slightly less predictable.

It’s about time that we start coming to my major problems with this book. The novel is written in the form of a journal that was supposed to have been kept by Austen herself and that details the events of the unpleasantness that she is witness to, and involved in, at Scargrave Manor, and that’s where Barron really starts to go wrong. Since the novel is written from Austen’s perspective it, of course, needed to try and imitate her voice, and Barron did a commendably decent job. However, although Barron used Austen’s typical language, phrasing, and syntax relatively well, you could still see the more modern narrative style coming through. Had the novel been narrated from a third person perspective I think this would have been perfectly acceptable, but, since it was supposed to have been written by Jane Austen herself, it ended up seeming false and inauthentic. Even had her writing style been a complete and perfect imitation of Austen’s, Barron’s attempt would still have fallen short because of the necessity of weaving into the narrative information that we, as modern readers, needed to know but that Austen would never have included because of it being perfectly understood in her time without the need for further comment. Barron does save herself from some of this by using footnotes to explain some of the more historical information. At first these footnotes added to the authenticity that she was going for as they were presented in the guise of editor’s notes and explained such things as social class and geography or the like. Then Barron took it too far. The notes started turning to the “history” of Austen’s life. Claiming that this character in Barron’s novel was supposed to be the inspiration for this character in Austen’s novel, and that kind of thing. It was all lies. Had the foot notes been restrained to actual historical information relevant to the story it would have been fine, but I take great issue with Barron trying to twist Austen’s actual life story for her own literary aims. I understand that it’s fiction, and if this had been done to an author that I liked a bit less then I might not care, I might have even thought it was clever, but as it is I found it incredibly wrong that Barron would corrupt the history of an amazing author for her own benefit.

At some point during the novel, around when I started getting more interested in the plot and more frustrated by Barron’s false footnotes, I started trying to read the novel as just another historical novel with a detective plot rather than as anything connected to Austen, her work, or her life. While I could manage to do that I found the story to be a fun read. That, combined with the fun I had picking out all of the little Austen treasures (the real ones based on Austen’s work, not the fake stuff that Barron was making up), kept me from actually disliking this novel. It certainly won’t be ranked among my favorites, and I likely won’t continue with reading the following books in the series, but I did enjoy this book in the end.

Final recommendation. If you like Austen, and you like detective fiction, you should give this book a try. If you read this book without a strong familiarity with Austen’s works then you miss out on a lot of what makes this novel worth reading, but, on the other hand, you could probably enjoy it just for the plot and historical aspect. Final rating 2.5/5 stars. If I were rating just plot or quality of writing then I’d have rated it higher, probably 3.5/5, but I’ve got to take that extra point off for those frustrating footnotes.


A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: Review

A while back I decided that I was going to start reading my way through classical literature, even the stuff that never held any interest for me, because I think that classical literature is pretty important. Towards that end I made myself a reading jar in which I put the names of a long list of literary texts that I want to get under my belt. A Tale of Two Cities is the most recent book that I drew from my jar, and I was not excited to read it. I read Dickens’s Great Expectation in college, and I was not a fan. Dickens is, to put it bluntly, very long winded. Rumor is that he was paid by the word, although a quick bit of research seems to indicate that this is not the case and he was actually paid for something like every thirty-two pages that he wrote. Either way, it was in his best interest to write in as lengthy a way as possible, which can make his novels a bit hard to get through.

It’s been a couple years now since I read Great Expectations but I remember it as being ceaselessly wordy, and the story seemed to drag pointlessly on when it all could have been wrapped up so much sooner. You can see why I was dreading A Tale of Two Cities, but I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Unlike in Great Expectation I found that in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens makes excellent use of his wordy style to create an artful, witty, and engaging narrative. Yes, he goes on at length in certain scenes and about certain occurrences that really could have been abbreviated considerably and still done their job very well; however, his way of talking round and round a subject turns in to a kind of double edged wit where he gets across the point of what he is trying to say without ever actually saying it. It’s this style that really sets the tone for the novel, and I really came to enjoy it. That being said, the convoluted paragraphs and run on sentences did get tiresome and hard to follow at times, but once I got into the style I was able to manage without too much trouble.

The characters in A Tale of Two Cities are also a great improvement on those that I remember from my last Dickens novel. I actually liked a lot of these characters. Certainly they have that quality that you often find in classic literature of being pretty one dimensional and seeming more like caricatures than real people, but that actually worked quite well with the story and the style of the narrative. Without a doubt the best character was Sydney Carton. I liked him right away and was never sure quite where the character would go, out of the whole cast he was the only character that I really felt could surprise me and the one I was most invested in.

The plot itself was interesting, if exaggerated and somewhat unrealistic. For the most part, not knowing much at all about the book before I picked it up, I wasn’t able to predict where the plot would go. In the last few chapters I was able to figure out how it was going to end, and, when I figured it out, I realized that there had been clues pointing towards this very conclusion throughout the novel that only made sense after I figured out what was happening, and I thoroughly enjoyed putting the pieces together. I am still not sure whether I only figured it out so late because I wasn’t paying enough attention, or if Dickens did it that way on purpose. For my pride’s sake if nothing else I’d like to give the credit to Dickens and his top notch story telling.

All together I was very satisfied with this read. The story was interesting, the characters were beautifully crafted, and the writing was very well done. This is a solid 4.5/5 with half a point taken away for being confusing sometimes. I highly recommend you give this a read if you haven’t already, after all, you can never read too many classics.


The Wicked Will Rise by Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die Series, book 2): Review

There will be some spoilers in the following post.

This second book in Paige’s series picks up right where the first book left of, with Amy fleeing after a failed attempt to kill Dorothy and take back Oz. With their plan unsuccessful and Dorothy in the wind, The Revolutionary Order of the Wicked isn’t doing so well. In fact, Amy can’t seem to find any of the other members. Can you guess what she spends most of the novel trying to do? The Wicked Will Rise
follows Amy as she tries to track down the missing members of the order, while also collection the magical items the Wizard told her she would need in order to kill Dorothy, all while trying to contend with the dark magic that is taking her over bit by bit. Sort of anyway.

I have as many or more issues with book two as I had with book one in this series. We have all of the same reoccurring issues, for example, how every time Amy comes up against a challenge that she doesn’t know how to handle something magical happens and she can “somehow”just do what ever needs to be done, and acquires a handy new magical ability in the process. As a result Amy pretty much never has to actually work for anything, and two-thirds of the way through the trilogy I still can’t get myself to feel invested in Amy as a character. Her successes are magically handed to her, she has very little, if any control over what’s going on around her and her emotional turmoil seems cheap in consequence. In this novel Paige seems to be trying to make use of the every-time-I-need-Amy-to-make-progress-or-the-plot-too-move-ahead-I’m-gonna-make-it-happen-magically-with-no-apparent-cause-or-effort-on-Amy’s-part plot device by making these inexplicable magical interventions and breakthroughs of a darkly magical nature. Basically Amy finds herself tapping into incredibly dark magical forces, the same magical forces that Dorothy used to take over Oz, without knowing why or how, but, hey, they work so she uses them. All the while she worries about what these dark powers mean and weather she could end up being corrupted by them like Dorothy was, but, again, her struggle never seems authentic to me. I think that Paige made a valiant effort to redeem her prodigious use of such a repetitive plot device by trying to turn it into a means for character development, but she doesn’t succeed. Which leads us to another issue common between this novel and the last.

We spend so much of this novel wandering in circles inside Amy’s head. It seems to me that Paige’s writing style is stuck somewhere between close first person and all knowing narrator, and the combination really doesn’t work. It leads to Amy instinctively knowing things whenever she needs to know them for no apparent reason except that she needs to for the plot to move along, and, worse, we get stuck in these endlessly repetitive loops of thoughts in Amy’s head. First, she struggles with the dark magic that she suddenly finds herself wielding, then she decides that as long as she has it she might as well use it even though it’s dangerous, because of some trauma, hardship, etc. from her past that makes her realize that she is a strong person who knows who she is, unlike Dorothy. Until the next crisis comes around and then she starts all over again. It gets tiresome very quickly.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand what Paige is trying to do with this story, but her execution just isn’t there yet. To be honest, I know I’m probably being a bit overly critical here, but it’s because a lot of the issues that I see constantly popping up in Paige’s writing are a lot of the same issues that have when I write, and that I have put a lot of hard work into becoming aware of and training myself not to do. It’s just something that I’m so aware of at this point that I can’t not notice it. I do realize though that I am not being completely fair, because there is a lot of good stuff in the novel too.

Paige has a lot of really good magical elements that help bring to life a unique and beautiful Oz. Some of her characters, like Lulu, Pete, and Ozma, are really interesting, and the plot is one that I find highly interesting. There are some elements that have been predictable, but, for the most part, at least in the big ways, I really don’t know what’s going to happen next and I want to find out. That’s what really keeps me reading at this point. What is the origin of Oz? Are we going to find out more about these mysterious faeries that have been discussed? What will happen with Ozma? What exactly has the Wizard’s role been in all this? It’s these questions that are going to keep me reading through the final book in the series.

I’ll give this the same 3/5 as I gave the previous book in the series. I’m tempted to give it a lower rating, but the interesting plot and beautiful magical elements redeemed it somewhat. This series has it’s issues, but it’s a fast read and good if you want a bit a break from harder or more complex novels.


Word Wednesday

Word Wednesday!

Definitions are taken from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Comeuppance: a noun meaning “punishment that someone deserves to receive.”

Where did I learn this word? From Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire.

Why do I like it? Because it sounds a lot like the combination of the three words ‘come’ ‘up’ and ‘pence.’ Which, if you think about it, but don’t think about too hard, kind of makes sense for a word that means what this word does. This is not the proper etymology of the word, but if you take ‘comeuppance’, divided it into the words it sounds like a combination of, and then make a sentence out of it, it would be “come up with the pence.” Which, to me, is very much reminiscent of the phrase “paying the piper”, which, in effect, means something very similar to comeuppance. This is all, of course, nonsense. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of thing I think about for some reason, and that’s why I like the word.

Have I ever used this word? Sadly no, but I will be looking for my first opportunity.


Word Wednesday

It’s Word Wednesday!

Hello friends!

I’ve decided to try a new thing, and I’m calling it word Wednesday because, well, I’ve never been that good at titles. Anyway, basically the way it’s going to work is that every Wednesday I’m going to be making a post about a word that I have recently learned. This post will, of course, include the definition, as well as little bit about where I learned the word and why I like it etc. And now, without further ado, here is the first word!

(All definitions will be taken from the Merriam-Webster dictionary)

nabob: a noun meaning “a very rich or important person.”

Where did I learn this word? From reading The Count of Monte Cristo. During the course of the novel several people upon first becoming accounted with the count speculate that he is some kind of nabob.

Why do I like it? Well, just say it, go ahead, give it a try… It was fun right? I also like that it means someone is rich and important, both apparently good thing, but that it totally sounds like an insult. For example, “Did you meet Susie last night? She is such a nabob!” See, it sounds like an insult right?! Okay, maybe it’s just me who thinks it’s funny.

Have I ever used this word? I did “use it” in a word game I was playing with my brothers during a longish car trip about a week ago, but it wasn’t in context so I guess it didn’t really count.

Aaaand, that’s the end of my first Word Wednesday! I hope you liked it and learned something new!


1984 by George Orwell: Review

I’ve been meaning to read 1984 for about three years now. I took it with me on my very first international flight thinking I’d read it on the plane. Of course, I ended up being horribly sick the whole ten hour flight and didn’t do any reading at all. Then I kept planning to read it, and meaning to read it, and thinking it would be the next book I read, etc. But it never happened until now, and I have to say that the wait wasn’t really worth it.

I was pretty excited about reading 1984. I’d heard it talked about as something like the father of the dystonian genre, which is a genre that I’m generally very fond of, and I was really excited to see what it would be like. At first I was intrigued. I didn’t find Winston to be the most engaging or likable character, but I didn’t hate him, and, as someone who wasn’t completely brainwashed by the Party, I thought he was alright as a protagonist, if not particularly interesting. But the farther I got into the novel the more bored and disappointed I got. I felt like it mostly just went in circles with Winston thinking about the past, and the party, and reality, wash, rinse and repeat. When Julia came in I was ready for things to get a bit more exciting. They didn’t. I could never bring myself to like Julia. Sure, she was rebelling against the Party, but not because she felt that the Party needed to be over thrown, or because she believe that humanity deserved better, but just because she wanted to have sex and the party told her not to. Basically I found her pretty shallow. And, although the “love story”, if you want to call it that, between Winston and Julia was certainly something that could have put a bit of excitement into the book, it ended up just providing different settings for Winston to go on having the same musings that he had been having throughout the book.

As much as I generally disliked the vast majority of this book the ending definitely takes the prize for least favorite part. Maybe I’m just a sucker for happy endings, or maybe I just don’t like a novel that completely undermines the idea that we are all independent people with unique thoughts and experiences who are capable of more than base feelings and self preservation, but, whatever the case, the ending did not work for me.

Of course, I understand that 1984 is meant to make you think about human nature, human society, what makes us ‘us’, what’s true, the importance of the past, human bonds… I could go on. I do understand that. I saw it, and it made me think, which is good, but it tried to make me think to much. I guess it was just too in your face with the message. That being said, I do understand why this book as as highly respected as it is, and I would even say it is worth a read so long as you understand what you’re getting yourself into, which evidently I did not.

Final rating? 2/5 I gotta give it a couple points just because it was well written and it does accomplish it’s purpose in making you think, but I can’t give it more than that because I really just didn’t enjoy it. It was just so depressing. Yes it’s worth reading, but no, it’s not something to read if you want to actually enjoy what you’re reading.