Sunday, June 8, 2014

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Last Best Kiss'

** Spoilers ahoy! I'll be discussing this book in some depth. If you're familiar with Persuasion, they're not quite spoilers, though. **

The Book: The Last Best Kiss (the third of LaZebnik's Austen YA modernizations, after Epic Fail and The Trouble with Flirting)

The Author: Claire LaZebnik

How I Found It: I read LaZebnik's previous efforts last year. I reviewed The Trouble with Flirting (Mansfield Park), which I ended up strongly disliking, but not Epic Fail (Pride and Prejudice), which I did like. My thanks to my local library.

The Review: This book. The only word I can really summon is "ugh." I had hope; I really did. I told myself, after being so upset by the last quarter of Trouble, to not judge LaZebnik so harshly and to give Epic Fail a try, and it was an endearing diversion. When I found out this, a Persuasion modernization, would be LaZebnik's next effort, I was hopeful. And then so very, very let down.

I'm going to divide this review into a few sections that illustrate my main problems with it; it's the only way I can even begin to coherently discuss how many flavors of wrong this book was for me. As always, this is my subjective opinion, but I would not want this book to be given to teens, as it perpetuates truly irresponsible (and illegal) behavior, unfortunate sexist thinking, and its anti-peer pressure message is so muddled as to not even be recognizable. So let's start with that, as it's LaZebnik's substitute for the original's "persuasion."

Peer Pressure: To give a basic idea of the plot, Anna (Anne Elliot) and Finn (Frederick Wentworth) meet when Anna's older sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Elliot) needs a fourth for their carpool during Anna's freshman year of high school. Finn is sweet and geeky, and Anna is gradually endeared to him. They begin secretly dating--secretly for Anna, that is, who is afraid of how her friends will react. Finn isn't popular or conventionally attractive and as a result, Anna keeps quiet about their Starbucks dates and kissing sessions.

When the ninth grade semiformal comes around, Anna turns down Finn's invitation, insisting that going with a date while she's with her group of friends would be weird. Finn shows up at the semiformal in a suit that's probably his father's and asks Anna to dance in front of all her friends. Anna's friend Lucy bails her out and drags her away, and the next thing Anna knows, Finn is no longer speaking to her, and moves to Oregon before the start of the next school year. By the time Anna's senior year starts, she still hasn't forgotten about him, and Finn is now back in town.

I had a lot of trouble with this scenario. I recognize that it's extremely difficult to modernize Persuasion's basic plot and have seen discussion on this before--how exactly do you handle breaking up a modern Anne and Wentworth in a way that doesn't make Anne seem heartless, when the social context of just why Lady Russell persuades Anne to turn Wentworth down is gone? And that's exactly it--in the original Persuasion, Anne is, well, persuaded to break off the relationship with Wentworth. There was no direct persuasion here. None at all.

Anna's decision to blow Finn off at the dance is entirely her own. So is her decision to keep the relationship secret. In the original text, the reader can somewhat see the justice of Lady Russell's advice; Wentworth was penniless and socially below the wealthier Anne, and there was every reason to believe Anne was young, inexperienced, and likely to make a better match in the future. Anna? Anna is just young and stupid, and entirely too dependent on her friends, so dependent she assumes she knows what they'll say and doesn't even pose her and Finn's situation as a hypothetical. "We all wanted to fit in so badly. That was the thing. ... We dressed alike... and grew our hair as long as it would go and coveted or bought the same iPhones, the same messenger bags, the same necklaces. It made us a tribe. It made us safe. It made us bonded" (9).

I could have forgiven this absurd reliance on her friends if Anna had displayed one single shred of growth away from them by the time we see her again in her senior year. But she hasn't--she's still hanging out with the same group of friends, and as much influenced by them as ever. Her friends partake in social (underage) drinking and drug use (more on that later) and while Anna is shown to mostly not like that sort of thing, she doesn't stay away from it, either. She just goes along with it to fit in. And even after this is pointed out to her by Finn, in a way, late in the book, she still doesn't display individual thought. LaZebnik poorly illustrates Anna's supposed individuality by an eleventh-hour monologue by Finn about Anna's art, which is a solitary undertaking she doesn't shove in her friend's faces. And that's all the individuality he needs her to display. ... Huh?

Air of Entitlement: To explain the atmosphere that allows for the underage drinking and drug use I mentioned above, I have to mention where this is set, and the general attitudes of the teens. LaZebnik sets her story in Los Angeles, with all the teens going to an exclusive prep school. There's a lot of money involved--parents are lawyers and doctors, and the "Musgrove" twins' father is a music producer (responsible for the Coachella knockoff that in this book takes the place of Lyme Regis). Most of the characters have or had, at one time, housekeepers.

LaZebnik chose not to include the Elliots' financial distress, which saddened me. Maybe it's because this is very, very clearly wish-fulfillment lit for teens, but in a country beset by horrible economic times, I think showing that not everyone, even in privileged areas, is doing well financially would have been sensitive and realistic. Perhaps a modern equivalent to the Elliots' "retrenching" would've been an enlightening and comforting thing for teens to see. But no. LaZebnik stuffs this book to the gills with privileged teens (Hilary and Lily Diamond [Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove] even get to take turns accompanying their dad to the VMAs). And they're not even privileged teens with social consciousness. There is exactly one moment where Anna recognizes their privilege at all, and that's it. I expected, and did not get, some sort of social consciousness from Anna or Finn. Anna grew up with two housekeepers who practically raised her and her sisters. Finn is the only one who is mentioned as having less money than the rest. And yet, when Lily makes a mess all over the floor with a bowl of mini M&Ms and is told she should probably clean it up, her response that the maid will do it later is simply accepted as fact. I was hoping that Anna, having bonded with her housekeeper as a child and who even hugged the Diamonds' housekeeper as she entered, or Finn, who is not as accustomed to the lifestyle of the rich as the rest, would object, but nope. I thought wistfully of that great scene in Clueless where Josh puts Cher gently but firmly in her place with regards to her behavior to the Horowitz's housekeeper. There was nothing of that here.

Anna herself? She's not the quiet, withdrawn, "only Anne" of the original Persuasion. Frankly, I saw her as an entitled brat just as much as the rest of them. Here's one particular segment that grated on me. Ginny Clay (Ms. Clay) is over, attempting to court Mr. Eliot:

"Anna, get the wineglasses."

I get out three. [Mr. Eliot] pours two and puts down the bottle. I pick it up and pour a little bit into the third glass. "Cheers," I say, and drink it.

Dad shoots me a look, but he lets it go. (151)

Within a few paragraphs she pours herself more wine, and Mr. Eliot finally does verbally reprimand her. I found myself shaking my head in disgust. I could not see Anne Elliot asserting herself this way, and I'm not particularly endeared to an underage teen serving herself wine she clearly isn't offered. That brings me to:

Underage Drinking and Drug Use: Here's the thing: I'm 23. I'm legal to drink myself, but I prefer not to socialize where alcohol is involved and I don't drink much to begin with. That probably does color my opinion of what's presented here. But LaZebnik's previous two books were so tame that it was somewhat shocking to see such an abrupt shift towards showing drinking and drug use here, with mentions of sex and even a sole use of the word "fuck." I felt comfortable recommending The Trouble with Flirting as appropriate for younger Janeites; I don't think this one is, unless a parent reads it beforehand and feels comfortable discussing with their child why the behavior of Anna and her friends in this regard is inappropriate and dangerous.
  • A water bottle full of vodka is drank by a ninth-grader prior to the semiformal (24). 
  • Anna at least has the wisdom to go for an unopened soda at a party (104) and denies the chance to spike it with something stronger thanks to a promise to a friend playing designated driver that she'll stay relatively sober. 
  • Anna thinks that she'd potentially hook up with Wade (William Elliot) "if she were drunk" (106).
  • Wine is consumed at the Diamonds' house without parental supervision; Mr. and Mrs. Diamond are, Hilary says, "cool with that" (142-3). 
  • The driver getting them to the Coachella knockoff forbids drinking in his van, knowing all are underage (188).
  •  "Twenty bucks' worth of vodka" is confiscated before the festival (206). 
  • A teen is hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and must have his stomach pumped (289).
Less prevalent is the drug use.  It's only weed, but I was still surprised and irritated by the way it's presented. Yet again, Anna succumbs to peer pressure. "Weed isn't [her] thing," we learn, "but [she's] happy to pass one around in a group and have a hit or two" (214). To me, this is a "if everyone else in the group wanted to jump off a bridge, would you?" moment. The weed is being supplied by Connor, Wade's friend, whom Anna and Lucy have met about two minutes before. Lucy quizzes Connor about his source, finds out it's the captain of his school's tennis team, and decides it's safe. Anna and Lucy proceed to smoke the joint with Connor and Wade, which made this exchange between Anna and Lily pages later baffling:

"They're passing around a joint. Think they'd share with two cute girls who ask nicely?"

I shake my head [... and] whisper, "I'm not about to take drugs from strangers." Isn't that like Safety 101? (236)
One could argue that LaZebnik makes her anti-drug statement by Lily's being stoned off of that weed being the cause of her accident (the equivalent to Louisa Musgrove's fall), but one (admittedly serious) accident does not make up for scene upon scene of irresponsible behavior by underage individuals, especially when none of them reflect in any way on their own partaking in drugs and alcohol after the accident.

Sexism / Stereotyping / Diversity: I'm lumping this all into one category because it was less noticeable than the other things that bothered me about the book, but still there, and still unfortunate in reading material targeted at teens. Finn is the main offender on the sexism front, sadly, as he was the only character in the book I actually liked. In one instance, looking at a Garden of Eden-esque painting of Anna's and asking if the figure reaching for the fruit is male or female, Anna doesn't specify, saying the figures are genderless. "It's Eve," Finn says. "She has to be a female. She knows she shouldn't eat the fruit, but she does it, anyway. Because she shouldn't. Which makes her a total girl, and I'm allowed to say that because I'm a card-carrying feminist" (316). Later, Anna calls him "weird" for cleaning her room, and he asks if she's "questioning [his] masculinity" (332). Still later, [Finn] touches [Anna's] bare shoulder and says, "It's a good thing girls don't dress up like this all the time. Guys would lose the ability to speak coherently" (364). According to Finn, gender roles are rigid, and a woman should cover up her bare shoulders lest she distract a poor, helpless man driven crazy by the sight of them, and all of this thinking is okay because he's "a card-carrying feminist."

Though Finn displayed the most sexist thinking, it was Anna who came out with the worst example: "And I'm miserable because I can't cling to the hope anymore that Finn never hated me. He did. For a long time. And even though maybe he's stopped hating me--maybe--I'm miserable because he has now so completely friend-zoned me that I couldn't claw my way out of there even if I showed up naked on his doorstep" (234). Generally, when the sexism of the friend zone is discussed, it's in terms of a man being "friend-zoned" by a woman, and irritated that the woman will not gratify him sexually or enter into a relationship with him when he has been nice to her. This is a gender-flipped example, and a truly unfortunate one, because not only is Anna displaying some truly sexist thinking, she actually hasn't even shown Finn any kindness. Repeatedly, she thinks to herself that because she feels bad about blowing Finn off all those years ago, she deserves to be forgiven, and feels that the breakup is Finn's fault because he never gave her a chance to explain herself. Does she honestly think telling him that she blew him off because her friends would've made fun of her otherwise would have made her come off any better?

I'll cover the stereotyping and diversity fronts somewhat quickly, as this review is lengthy enough as it is. LaZebnik has two gay characters, Molly (Mary Musgrove, nee Elliot) and Oscar, a friend of Anna's. Molly--she was awesome. Molly could get her own book and I'd read it in a heartbeat. Molly's situation is made to loosely parallel Anna's, in that she didn't come out in high school for the same reason Anna didn't come clean about seeing Finn: fear of ridicule. A subplot in which Molly is subject to homophobia by her (not out) girlfriend's family is handled sensitively. Oscar was less well-done. He exists mostly to complain about how he's not getting any, thanks to being the only out guy in the school, and... to be a token gay character, evidenced by lines like these: "Gay guys make the best boyfriends [to straight girls]. I actually like to go clothes shopping" (359). This was better than LaZebnik's previous inclusion of gay characters in The Trouble with Flirting, where the setting made two gay males into theatre-loving stereotypes, but Molly was the only nonstereotypical gay character here and, sadly, not part of the book enough to really matter.

On the diversity front, there is the Diamond family, who are Asian, and... the housekeepers, who are given typically ethnic names. And that's it. The female legs on the cover are white. No one but the Diamonds are given ethnicities, but it's almost entirely safe to assume they're all Caucasian. I recognize that all Austens, except the unfinished Sanditon, are entirely white, but this is 2014, and this is taking place at an urban high school. Diversity shouldn't be a problem.

Clearly, I had a lot of problems with this book. I wish I could say there were a few things I at least liked about it, but sadly, there weren't many. The aforementioned inclusion of Molly was one. That Lily was a (directly stated) criticism of the sexist Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope was another. But ultimately, it didn't succeed as a Persuasion modernization for me simply because Anna was not persuaded by anyone out of being with Finn, and because Anna was such a follower of the crowd in every respect, still going along with her friends' stupid antics despite her recognizing she shouldn't have blown off Finn because of what she felt they'd think, I didn't genuinely believe she'd changed from her ninth-grade self, nor did I feel she deserved sweet, smart Finn, whose self-admitted hatred of her felt justified. She treated him cruelly and his telling her she would have to "have an opinion of her own for once" (246) was used by Anna as an excuse to be petulant and not to display any real growth. This conversation late in the book sums it up:
"I guess people change." 

"Yeah," I say. "They grow up and stop acting like idiots." 

 "That's half true." 

 "Are you saying I'm still an idiot?" 

 "I'm saying we all are." (349)
And they really all were, and remained the same people they were at the beginning of the book. Because of the shallow characterizations, irresponsible and illegal behavior by underage characters, and the perpetuation of some truly unfortunate sexist ideas and a lack of diversity where there should be plenty, I cannot in good conscience recommend this to anyone, Janeite or no. For a better, more enjoyable modern take on Persuasion that also happens to deal with the college admission process, a concern of Anna and her friends in this book, see Paula Marantz Cohen's Jane Austen in Scarsdale.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

In Which Trai Reviews 'Tempted in the Tropics'

The Book: Tempted in the Tropics (Book 2 in March's Suddenly Smitten trilogy)

The Author: Tracy March

How I Found It: I read and loved March's The Practice Proposal so much I requested a review copy from Entangled, who were obliging enough to provide me with one in exchange for a review. My thanks to them! (As a disclaimer, my review is honest and in no way influenced by my receiving the book from the publisher.)

The Review: Paige Ellerbee first appeared in The Practice Proposal as Liza's endearing, endlessly supportive best friend, who worked hard at her own bakery, Sweet Bee's. Now, it's Paige's turn to take center stage and find some romance of her own. In the past, she moved to the sleepy small town of Maple Creek when her mother was terminally ill, and later stayed on to keep her now-widowed father company. Maple Creek is mostly composed of elderly residents, and Paige helps out the local physician, Dr. Hartley, by making special muffins (gluten-free, sugar-free, etc., as required) and providing them at low cost to his patients to help them eat healthy.

The Special Recipe program is quickly endangered when Dr. Lane Anderson, Hartley's nephew, comes to town to fill in for his vacationing uncle. Betrayed personally and professionally by his ex-fiancee, Lane knows every professional move he makes is going to be carefully scrutinized, and can't risk the slightest association with the HIPPA-approved but still questionable program. He inadvertently insults the within-earshot Paige by shooting down the locals' belief in the "magic" of her muffins, and later learns that Paige thinks of him as an "uptight jerk." Both of them find the other attractive, but is it any wonder they don't get along?

But they're going to have to get over that, as both of them are invited to take part in Cole and Liza's wedding. Soon enough they're off to the island paradise of St. Lucia, and Paige calls a truce. They both want to be civil for each other for the duration of their stay. Some swimming and mudbathing in a local tourist attraction alerts them both to their simmering physical chemistry, and their pact to be civil quickly evolves into a steamier one: a fling, no strings attached, to be ended upon their return to Maple Creek. But what happens when they both start wondering if a fling can turn into something more?

I spent a slow Sunday reading this book, and while I'd already really enjoyed March's writing style, particularly her skill at crafting a relationship dynamic, in the previous book, I was uncertain how I'd feel about this one. I so enjoyed reading the slow buildup of Cole and Liza's relationship, seeing how they waited to have sex until they were ready, that I wasn't sure I'd be as taken in by a book that was founded on the exact opposite dynamic--a sexual fling lasting only a few days.

I needn't have worried, because just like The Practice Proposal, the couple felt so real to me that I found myself turning the pages faster and faster, hoping they'd work things out. Paige is just as likable here as she was in the previous book, and though she has a slightly wild side, it's never taken so far as to become grating. It's easy to root for her to find love after she's already spent so many years valuing her parents' happiness before her own. Lane's struggle to trust again after being burned so badly in his previous relationship isn't the huge point of contention other novels would've made it out to be; Paige never presses for the whole story and asks for it at the right time, without having made ghastly assumptions about what it could be, and allows them both time to process the revelation afterwards.

The characters were so well-handled it was easy to be taken in by their sexual tension, and though the scene always fades out before the act itself, there's still plenty of steam to be had! Whether it's swimming naked or giving a whole new meaning to the word dessert, there's just such a sense of fun and exuberance, fitting for a book that's based around a vacation. While disapproving parents do figure slightly in the narrative, what Lane and Paige are doing is never made into something shameful or wrong. And while the relationship starts off as purely sexual, that's never all it is; Paige and Lane tell each other about themselves, their pasts and their presents, and make apologies for the wrongs they've accidentally done each other.

Overall, Tropics really defied my reservations about the premise and became something I truly enjoyed reading; I came out of it just as eager for another book by March as I had been after I finished The Practice Proposal. I eagerly guessed which character (or characters!) could possibly serve as the hero or heroine in the next book. Regardless of whether or not March does return to Maple Creek, I'll eagerly read anything by her, and recommend this one to anyone who wants a fun, steamy romance to offset that coming fall weather!

Monday, September 9, 2013

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Practice Proposal'

The Book: The Practice Proposal (Book 1 in March's Suddenly Smitten trilogy)

The Author: Tracy March

How I Found It: Amazon had a sale on Entangled Bliss titles, and having recently enjoyed a release from another Entangled line (Indulgence's The Reluctant Wife by Bronwen Evans), I bought a few that sounded interesting!

The Review: Liza Sutherland's mother has set her up in an unexpected way--by bidding in her name for a charity auction's grand prize, a date with Washington Nationals player Cole Collins. Liza, still grieving her ex-fiance who died a hero, wants to protest, but the money goes to a good cause: her family's foundation that promotes awareness of the dangers of doping among athletes, particularly young and underprivileged up-and-comers. She agrees to the date, having known Cole from his days at her parents' baseball camp... when she may have nursed a little crush on him...

Cole, meanwhile, has his own reasons for wanting the date to turn into something more. He's had a tough road to the major leagues, and following a recent brush with the law, his spot on the Nats could be slipping from his grasp. His manager Frank suggests a possible solution: Cole could clean up his image by going steady with Liza. Two problems are solved: dating the wholesome Liza will, to all appearances, put to rest his playboy image, and her connections to her parents' anti-drug message will enforce his innocence in his recent PR fiasco.

Frank offers Liza an attractive incentive for going out with Cole--if she can date him until the end of the baseball season without falling in love with him, he'll make a sizable donation to her parents' foundation, helping her meet her fundraising goal. Liza is as uneasy about the deception as Cole, unbeknownst to her, is, but what should be a fake romance for both of them quickly leads to very real feelings...

I have to say, I'm incredibly glad to have found Entangled's romances. I love that the Bliss line in particular emphasizes the emotional component of a romance over the physical--it was just so refreshing to read a romance where both hero and heroine had misunderstandings, sure, but resolved them quickly after talking and apologizing where necessary.

There was another thing I found refreshing about this book, one that made me glad I read it: it was the most sensitively handled and well done depiction of a widowed person moving on to another relationship that I've yet read. It's a subject that's near and dear to me due to family experience, and I've often ended up exasperated by how it's handled in fiction. I was so pleased by how March portrayed Liza's family and best friend looking out for her welfare, and how Cole handled the situation once he knew the full story. The Sutherlands and Paige, said best friend, gently encourage but never outright force Liza into something she isn't ready for, and I was genuinely moved by a scene where Cole acknowledges Wes' prior claim to Liza's affections and the tragedy of his death, and promises to try his best to make Liza as happy as he would have had he lived. No man is made out to be somehow better or the "one true love" where the other is inferior, and that pleased me so much. More than that, I think this is the only romance I've read where the hero and heroine just didn't leap straight into sex. Liza's wishes are respected and boundaries clearly established; the sex only happens when both Cole and Liza are ready. There's no drawn-out scenes of morning after regrets, no awkward explorations of half-developed feelings. It was wonderful.

Other elements of the story that could have been a soap opera-ish disaster were handled with just as much tact and respect, including Cole's backstory, his being conceived following a one-night stand and born to a mother known around town as a drunk. I felt proud of Cole for overcoming the pain in his past and getting to where he is when the story starts, and how determined he is to stay there, just as I felt proud of and thrilled for Liza's getting the second chance at love she deserved. It wasn't just Liza and Cole who felt real to me; I loved the side characters, too. Frank's concern for Cole and occasional disappointment, Paige's lively advice and providing of comfort food, the Sutherlands' devotion to the Baltimore Orioles--it all rang true for me and made the characters feel like people I could know in real life.

Though the premise of the story could easily lend itself to dramatics and cheesy writing, I loved how skilfully March presented both sides of the agreement. Cole doesn't come off as a sleaze just looking to get a new contract, because his feelings for Liza prevent him from simply using her as a means to an end. Similarly, Liza's pursuing the relationship for money could come off as gold-digging, but she wants the money for others, those who need it most, not for herself. Ultimately, their motives for beginning the fake relationship aren't what matters--what they begin to feel as it becomes a real one is.

I could go on and on about the things I enjoyed in this story: that Twitter was an integral part of Cole and Liza's relationship's development and not just a forced insertion to make the narrative hip. That even I, the least sporty person on this earth, could relate to and understand the Sutherlands' and Cole's devotion to their respective teams and their sorrow at losses. But that would make this review far longer than it has to be, so I'll leave off with this: if you like contemporary romance and want a good story with believable leads and an enviable emotional core, pick up this one. It's sweet, fast, and fantastic, and March has made a fan out of me!

** I received an ARC of this book's sequel, March's Tempted in the Tropics (starring Liza's best friend Paige), from Entangled, and my review of that will be up shortly! **

Monday, June 10, 2013

In Which Trai Reviews 'Death Comes to Pemberley'

The Book: Death Comes to Pemberley

The Author: P. D. James

How I Found It: I heard much of this book when it first came out, and none of it really positive, from my Janeite book-blogging friends who read it. However, my "twin" Tori liked it well enough, and I decided to give the book a shot when a BBC miniseries adaptation was announced. The three principals were announced this weekend (Matthew Rhys as Darcy, Anna Maxwell Martin as Lizzy, and Matthew Goode as Wickham). My thanks to my local library!

The Review: It's been six years since the events of Pride and Prejudice, and the Darcy and Bingley families are happily settled spouses and parents. Pemberley in particular is busy, as preparations for the annual ball held in honor of Darcy's late mother are in full swing. It's an event highly anticipated by the people of Pemberley village and Pemberley's own residents, but a pall is quickly cast over the forthcoming celebrations when Lydia Wickham (née Bennet) shows up at Pemberley screaming that Wickham has been murdered.

As it turns out, Wickham is still alive, but Captain Denny is not, and Wickham is found in the woodland with his body, drunkenly sobbing that his friend's demise is his fault. But what does he mean? Did he murder Denny, or is someone else to blame? Darcy and Elizabeth are wrapped up in the subsequent inquest and trial, which exposes the family to scandal and stirs public speculation and questioning about Darcy's enmity towards Wickham.

To start, the book isn't absolutely terrible, but it's also not all that great. I had difficulty finding anything redeeming about it, anything that made my reading experience enjoyable and worth the hours I spent on it. To its credit, I laughed a few times in recognition of the qualities Austen imbued her characters with. (A letter from Lady Catherine regarding the scandal was a highlight for me.) Other characters were less recognizable. Charlotte doesn't appear on-page, but James turns her into someone who never forgave Lizzy's reaction to her engagement, the person who told Lady Catherine about Darcy's partiality. I could certainly see relations having cooled between Lizzy and Charlotte even in the original text, but Charlotte as vengeful enough to bring Lady Catherine's wrath down on Lizzy? Definitely not. Mr. Bennet shows up for a visit at Pemberley but is gone after a few weeks (which the reader does not get to witness) and doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than a cameo. Bingley and Jane appear in the first fifty pages or so and are little more than helping hands following the initial discovery of Denny's body.

Worst of all, none of the humor of the original is apparent in any of the characters. Colonel Fitzwilliam has lost his playful manner and is turned into a viscount and almost a caricature of the militaristic man; he gives orders and does little else. I could probably count the scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth on one hand; people turning to the novel for their relationship will be incredibly disappointed. To be sure, a murder mystery is not a barrel of laughs, but James spends so much time describing the anxieties the characters are allegedly experiencing that there is no room for what relief some light, if forced, banter or a small romantic moment could have offered. That is, if the reader felt the anxieties alongside Darcy and Elizabeth, which I did not. Perhaps most disappointingly, Lizzy is hardly in the book at all, and definitely lacks the spirit and determination one would expect her to show in a time of great difficulty. Gender roles are enforced strongly; the notion of "women's work" shows up several times and the men are shown to be concerned for Lizzy and Georgiana's delicate sensibilities. There is one rousing moment--another highlight--where Georgiana's suitor Alveston objects to Georgiana's own wishes being disregarded by Darcy and the Colonel, but otherwise the book conforms to period expectations and keeps women away from men's work.

My biggest problem with the novel was the amount of telling rather than showing, and the constant rehashing of details both from the original Austen and from earlier in the story. I can understand some summary for those unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice who might take up the book, but I couldn't help rolling my eyes every time Darcy's dislike of Wickham was driven home with a sledgehammer. Similarly, the story of the night of the murder is told over and over and over again to the point of being wearisome and tedious to slog through. Dialogue is extremely sparse and there's chapter upon chapter, two or three pages in length, where actions of and conversations between characters are relayed in long paragraphs of description. I pity whoever has to adapt this book for the BBC; he or she will have to manufacture most of the dialogue. There were also instances of unnecessary or annoying detail seemingly thrown in to show James had done her research. At times it reads like a treatise on the legal system of the era; legal process and proposed reforms are described to an annoying extent. Another instance that jarred me was when Colonel Fitzwilliam remarks upon another character's eagerness to relieve himself seemingly for the sole purpose of mentioning that Darcy has had indoor plumbing installed at Pemberley, which the Colonel goes on to add has caused gossip and curiosity among the people of Pemberley village. It was an unnecessary and annoying detail in a text that could have used far less of those. There's also an epilogue where Darcy and Elizabeth discuss Darcy's letter and Georgiana's past involvement with Wickham--a conversation one would have thought they had six years before!

The characters just aren't themselves, and the writing leaves much to be desired. Is the mystery at least enjoyable or engaging? Sad to say, no. Darcy's participation in the investigation would be a conflict of interest, given that the murder took place on his property and the prime suspect is a man he's known to dislike, so the reader sees nothing of the actual investigation. The trial is simply a rehash of details and accounts we already know and have heard at least a half dozen times before, and the outcome is a somehow still-expected deus ex machina. I know James is a respected mystery writer, but I definitely wouldn't have guessed that from this book.

Ultimately, is Death Comes to Pemberley worth reading? It's hard to say. The characters readers will be hoping to revisit are hardly themselves and sometimes hardly present, the text could've used a ruthless editor, and the mystery itself doesn't hold a reader's attention. If you're like me and like to read a book before seeing its movie or television adaptation, it might be worth checking out. Having read the book, I at least have hopes that the cast will transcend the material; I enjoy Matthew Rhys' work on The Americans and have been impressed by Matthew Goode in other roles. Those who want to read the book before the adaptation are encouraged and won't find it much of an investment time-wise; once I was relieved of the responsibilities of schoolwork and other demands on my time, it didn't take me longer than two days to work through the majority of the book, tedious as it could sometimes be. Others who want to look in on favorite characters and be amused and entertained should seek elsewhere--for those who still want a Pride and Prejudice-related mystery story, I enjoyed Regina Jeffers' The Phantom of Pemberley much better. Whoever decides to read this book, I would recommend he or she the same course of action I took--check it out from the library. At least that way, the possible, maybe even likely, disappointment will come free.

Friday, May 24, 2013

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Trouble with Flirting'

** Spoilers ahoy! This review will discuss the ending, and it does vary from the original Mansfield Park. Readers beware! **

The Book: The Trouble with Flirting

The Author: Claire LaZebnik

How I Found It: My friend and fellow blogger Kim read and reviewed it, and I'm interested in anything that takes on Mansfield Park, my second favorite Austen, that remains ill-liked by the general Janeite public. My thanks to my local library.

The Review: High school junior Franny Pearson is faced with a problem many students are these days: finding gainful employment for the summer, to earn money for her college education. Her mother comes up with a solution: Franny will help her aunt Amelia sew costumes for the Mansfield Summer Theater Program, where forty-eight of the best high school actors from all across the country go to hone their skills. Franny isn't entirely enthralled with the idea, as she's no great fan of her aunt and wishes she could be on stage herself, but agrees to take the job.

Once there, she finds she's in good company: Julia and Alex Braverman, former school friends of hers, are the niece and nephew of the program's director. Julia and Franny were friends and castmates in several middle school productions, and Franny nursed a crush on Alex back then that doesn't appear to have flamed out. But Franny's not the only one dealing with a crush. Romance just seems to be in the air at Mansfield, and soon enough, two of the other students, Harry and Isabella, are making waves. Isabella is cozying up to Alex, and Harry attracts the attentions of Julia and her roommate Marie--but also seems to have eyes for Franny, who believes Harry is merely a flirt and still wants Alex to notice her as more than a friend. As the summer passes, Franny struggles with her conflicting feelings for both Harry, who might not be as shallow as he first appeared, and for Alex, who might not be the paragon of goodness Franny first saw him as. Flirting certainly does have the potential to get Franny in a lot of trouble...

To begin with: following the success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I have renewed respect for people who can make modernizations of Austen work and work well. I appreciate setting updates, like changing the staging of Lovers' Vows at Mansfield Park into a prestigious theatre program at Mansfield College in this book, and clever updates of plot elements that are no longer relevant in today's world, like the choice to have the militia in Pride and Prejudice be a college swim team in TLBD. After The Lizzie Bennet Diaries did the impossible for me and made me sympathetic towards Lydia, by transforming her from a shallow flirt into a young woman unashamed of her sexuality and unfortunately victimized and emotionally abused by the unscrupulous Wickham, I even warmed to the idea of modern updates to Austen's characters, with a twist. The biggest disappointment for me lay in the ultimate direction this novel went in updating Franny's character, one that, at first, seemed to be taking a cue from Austen, but that ultimately veered way off course for me and into, to my view, unfortunate territory. It's a shame, because LaZebnik seemed to be just there, to the point where I grinned and said a mental Yes! Yes!, because there it was, the real theme of Mansfield Park, the one that people seem to miss when they root for the Crawfords over Fanny and Edmund. But that mental cheer quickly turned to a mental wince.

Just because I found the book's ultimate direction and ending distasteful doesn't mean I hated the book. I was disappointed and didn't like it nearly as much as I thought I would, but LaZebnik did a decent job in the 273 pages preceding the point where she lost me. Those who want Fanny Price to have more of a backbone, this is the book for you. I'm one of the few who loves Austen's Fanny just as she is, because I can relate to her meekness, but even I had to admit liking the changes LaZebnik made with "Franny." I grinned when she wishes, if internally, to be part of a conversation in a capacity that isn't helping other people flirt, and when she doesn't simply submit to Marie's (the Maria Bertram stand-in) order for her to tell her aunt about some costume alterations she wants done, instead telling Marie to do it herself. Franny knows herself and, though she does sometimes stay quiet and doesn't confront others, she isn't afraid to speak up when it really comes down to it. So it was a shame to see her lose that, in the end.

To continue with what I liked about the book, before I start in on what I didn't: LaZebnik's prose is funny without trying too hard or being overwhelming, like Austen; the pages turn quickly and the book is of a reasonable length, just over 300 pages, unlike some of the mammoth YA books that seem to be 400 pages and upwards simply because they can be; and there is some, if slight, representation of gay characters. Yes, it does run with the stereotype that most theater-loving guys are gay, but the thought was there. For those who are leery of such things, there is a brief exchange about genitalia, but it's framed in the context of a joke about tailoring costumes and isn't anything truly explicit. Indeed, the book uses no foul language and even if the characters are teenagers, the only sexual activity explicitly mentioned is kissing, so this one would be appropriate for younger Janeites.

My big problem with the book ultimately lies not with the direction the book chose to go, but with how the resulting message came off, and how I think a modernization of Austen's original theme sort of fell flat. As I said above, I thought initially LaZebnik was really nailing Austen's original message, as Franny reflects on choosing Alex over Harry: "But it was the right choice: Alex over Harry. Substance over style. Kindness over selfishness. Steadiness over unreliability" (212). In those few sentences, LaZebnik reminded me of a defense of Mansfield Park I'd absolutely adored when I first read it. That review pointed out how vulgar the Crawfords were and how Fanny and Edmund, though dull, have an integrity and goodness the Crawfords do not. What bothered me about LaZebnik's take is that she did an abrupt 180, and made the Crawford equivalents the victims.

Franny is told by Isabella how hurt Harry is, following a talk about Alex's kissing Franny without bothering to break up with Isabella first. Franny is still stung by Harry's running off with Marie once she broke things off with him, and Isabella retorts that he wouldn't have done it if he hadn't been so hurt by Franny's rejection. Franny is thus told that Harry's behavior is her fault, and she comes to believe she made assumptions about Harry and didn't bother to look beyond his surface appearance and behavior, in a weirdly Elizabeth Bennet-like moment of self-scrutinization. Alex and Franny are the bad guys here; Alex for unintentionally wavering between Franny and Isabella, despite that Harry did the same by doing nothing to stop Marie and Julia from fighting over him, and Franny for believing Harry is nothing more than a flirt and kissing Alex while he was still with Isabella.

Franny comes to realize her supposed mistake and begs Harry's forgiveness, twice. The second time was where the book really lost me. Earlier, in an echo of the original's trip to Mr. Rushworth's estate, the whole gang goes to the beach, and Franny is carried by Harry after she steps on some sea glass that embeds itself in her foot. When she goes to seek Henry's forgiveness, she takes an empty beer bottle with her, and the following ensues:
He hauls me away from the glass and safely onto the grass at the side of the building. "People like you need to stay away from sharp objects."

"People like you need to rescue me."

"It's a full-time job."

"And it doesn't pay very well."

[...] "You'd really walk barefoot through broken glass for me?"

"I'd crawl through broken glass for you." (274-5)
I was so disgusted I barely knew where to start. This exchange came not long after one where Isabella reams Harry out for buying into her father's idea that she needs protection, explicitly calling him on his sexism. And then suddenly, pages later, Franny is perpetuating the idea that girls need to be rescued from irrational decisions and, most disturbingly, that she'd subject herself to physical harm in order to win back Harry's attentions. What? What happened to strong Franny, Franny who seemed very aware, earlier in the book, of just how badly her previous boyfriends had treated her, Franny who didn't want to be treated that way again? Why was she suddenly simpering and playing into the worst stereotypes?

And it got worse from there. When her relationship with Harry starts up again, Franny jokes that her needs are mostly physical, and reflects a few times on how Harry's a better kisser than Alex. Even worse was this scene, when Harry and Franny congratulate Alex on a successful performance:
Harry takes my hand and tucks it under his arm. It's a small gesture, but I have to hide my smile, because its message is so obvious:

She's mine. (299)
 Not only has Franny offered to put herself in harm's way to win back Harry's affections, she now enjoys him acting possessively towards her, one of the recognizable signs of an abusive relationship or at least one that could head there. My disgust grew. I could understand wanting to impart a new take on the Crawfords, to redeem Henry Crawford and make him someone of substance. Even if I love the original book's message, I could see where a modern-day take on Mansfield Park would be suspicious of the "nice" Edmund and quicker to grant Harry a second look. But the way it came off here disturbed me. In the original, we are meant to feel the injustice of Mary Crawford accusing Fanny of being the cause of Henry and Maria's affair. In LaZebnik's story, the blame is entirely on Franny for misjudging him, and Harry's behavior is handwaved away and easily excused. It bothered me, too, that Franny seemed to consider Alex's lack of experience in kissing a factor in deciding she doesn't want him after all, that her and Harry's subsequent relationship is based on frequent makeout sessions. Never mind that, but their relationship didn't seem to have anything but that going on, whereas Franny and Alex have intellectual conversations early in the novel about Shakespeare and other worthwhile topics. Harry didn't seem like he'd challenge Franny in any way, or bring anything really worthwhile to the table. Alex did.

The final resolution of the book lost me. This version of Fanny lost her determination to hold out for the man she truly believed cared for her, and became someone unrecognizable in order to win back the man she believes herself to love. Alex is written off completely as uncaring and unworthy of Franny's time, and ultimately I felt the book focused on Harry to Alex's detriment; I didn't know Alex the way I "knew" Harry. If Harry and Franny's relationship was shown to be equal and an opportunity for growth for both of them, I wouldn't have minded it, and probably would've been able to forgive the unfortunate way they'd gotten back together. But I just couldn't, here. Austen's message of substance over style was lost, and unfortunate sexist stereotypes prevailed. And the William and Aunt Amelia characters seemed to just be there to bring in more from the original novel, not to serve any tangible purpose in influencing the plot. Ultimately, I think The Trouble with Flirting was a decent effort, but one whose unfortunate implications really ruined it for me.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

In Which Trai Lists Her Top Ten Favorite Covers of Books She's Read

Hello again, everyone! It's been a while! And this time I'm hoping to really be back for good, because I'm a college graduate! My last few semesters kept me very, very busy, and time to myself to read, let alone to think on what I read for myself enough to compose a coherent review, was rare if not nonexistent. But now that I have some time to myself, I'm hoping to really get this blog back up and running!

A Top Ten Tuesday caught my eye yesterday, as it dealt with something I love thinking about: book covers! Specifically, my favorite book covers of all the books I've read. I'm not much of a visual person, but I'm a huge fan of evocative book covers, and some of them have really stuck in my brain.

1) Delicacy, by David Foenkinos - I wanted to avoid putting movie poster covers on this list, but I just can't, with this one; it was the cover that drew me to the book in the first place! When I saw it in a recommendation email from Barnes & Noble or Kobo, I just couldn't look away. The colors are vibrant and the shot is strikingly composed. I was so taken with the cover that it lingered in my mind, and I was delighted to find the book at my local library last summer. Fortunately, the book itself was just as good as I'd hoped!

2) Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (Vintage Classics edition) - I absolutely adore the Vintage Classics edition covers for some of my favorites (they just recently released some Bronte editions I had a bit of a fangasm over). This one really floored me. The strawberry scene is so pivotal in the book, and the contrast of the red strawberries against the white cloth (maybe a commentary on Tess' purity?) in the green grass is gorgeous. I don't own this edition, but if I ever run across it, I really want to buy it!

3) Here Comes the Groom, by Karina Bliss - Sometimes I'm really struck by how pretty the covers of the SuperRomance line (my preferred imprint) can be. I really like how something that could come off as sleazy or suggestive instead comes across as tender and caring, going by the expressions on both parties' faces. And the dress is wonderful!
4) Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater - I have yet to read the second and third books in the series, but I just love this cover. The leaves shaped like hearts, the blue that really evokes the dreadful feeling of cold and impending loneliness that pervades the book, the tangled branches, the wolf peeking out of the trees, and that tiny, tiny spot of red blood amidst the stark white.
5) The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice (Pemberley by the Sea), by Abigail Reyolds - This is another one like Here Comes the Groom, where I just love the drawing and the intimacy of the pose. The Cape Cod setting is so important in the book, and I think it really comes off here in the lush colors of the ground, the sea, the lighthouse. And the intimacy between Cassie and Calder is conveyed by how close they're standing and the various ways they're touching.
6) Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart, by Beth Pattillo - Once again, I'm hardly a visual person, but I seem to like covers where the colors really pop. This color scheme is similar to the Tess cover, but I think the absence of white like in that cover makes this one even more striking. The red dress (which is beautiful all on its own) against the green grass and the model's fair skin and hair is really eye-catching and a great focal point for the cover.
7) The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson - It's telling that I hate fire and yet this cover made the list! I remember really looking at it one day and noticing for the first time that the seeming flames on the cover were actually wisps of blonde hair against the reddish orange background. Given that Lisbeth spends most of the book in disguise (a blonde wig) and the series' general crusade against "men who hate women," and sex trafficking particularly in this volume, I thought the choice to evoke a wig--a disguise worn to escape such hateful men--was really clever.

8) Dearly Devoted Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay - This one will go down in my all-time favorites; it still blows me away. It's the second of the books Showtime's Dexter series is based on, and I can't get over how perfectly and succinctly conveys the contrast between domestic Dexter (who, in this book, finds himself engaged to Rita) and killer Dexter, by highlighting the bouquet of roses and the knife being held in the same hand.
9) Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (Pocket Books edition) - I read Gone with the Wind, a favorite of my mother's, when I was 18, and insisted on my own copy not only because my wrists screamed in protest at the thought of hefting one of her hardcover versions, but because I loved this cover so much! It's another fire themed one, so it's a surprise to me, too. As many conflicting feelings as most of us have about Scarlett and Rhett, I find the drawing itself to be really gorgeous, and the choice to deck Scarlett out in white really interesting.

10) I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (St. Martin's Griffin alternate cover and Vintage Classics edition) - This one does make me a little sad, because the St. Martin's Griffin edition (left) seems to be one of those conceptual covers that only exists on product pages and not in real life! I love the nature imagery and the Mortmain girls running through the field to their home, and have sought this cover for years to no avail (the only cover I've ever seen is this). Earlier today, as I was looking up Smith's 101 Dalmatians (now that I'm 22, I figure it's time to check out some of the children's classics I never read as a kid!), and saw another Vintage Classics cover I fell in love with on sight (right). It's another really gorgeous evocation of the nature theme, featuring a lake, flowers, and leaves (and a much more appealing color scheme than the standard cover I linked to above!), and hits the nail on the head with the lake being heart-shaped: a really brilliant indicator of one of the central focuses of the book being love and courtship. (One of the love scenes even takes place outdoors!) It's another Vintage Classics edition I'd love to own if I ever get the chance; it might even soothe the sting of the St. Martin's Griffin cover not existing in real life!

I'm glad to be back up and running, and hope to really get this blog going again soon. Until next time!

- Trai

Monday, January 28, 2013

You've Come a Long Way, Baby: Happy 200th Birthday, Pride and Prejudice!

My gosh, it's been a while, hasn't it? I won't make any apologies and will instead offer my standard explanation: college can kick a girl's ass. It kicked mine last semester, and will continue to kick it this semester (I've got exactly one left, in progress right now, before I become a real grownup!), and while I do want to make this blog a priority again, it might not always be that easy.

As it is, I have too huge a backlog to even think of catching up on the reviews I missed last year, and thus I've made the sad executive decision to not review them. I will, however, do my best to start afresh this year and hope to begin updating again by the end of this week. To get a headstart, I decided I'd do a celebratory blog post for the 200th birthday of one of my very favorite books, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.


Earlier this summer, I took a small trip with my parents out of state, and as ever, I brought a book, the Lydia Davis translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It was funny, my stepdad remarked, as we got onto the elevator, that classic literature makes up such a large part of what I read now, when getting me to read the classics in the first place was like pulling teeth. My mother will attest to that; she was the one pushing. Though she well understood my love of fantasy and scifi, having gone through that herself, she wanted to broaden my horizons. She recommended; I resisted. I hadn't even read the children's classics, like The Secret Garden or Little Women, because they'd never appealed to me.

The looming specter of the AP English Literature exam in my junior year changed my mind. It was recommended that students begin preparing several classics in the months before the exam, learning their ins and outs in order to effectively write about them on the exam. In the second term of my sophomore year, I decided to get a head start, and a friend of mine mentioned reading Pride and Prejudice after seeing the Joe Wright adaptation on TV. The next time I was in a Borders (alas!), I bought myself a copy, the Bantam edition pictured above. I was sixteen years old, it was my first true classic, and it was one of the books that truly changed my life.

I fell in love with Austen. Pride and Prejudice made me seek out the rest of her books. I read Persuasion on the treadmill during gym class; Mansfield Park as I sat waiting to take the SATs; Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma during car trips. I became a Janeite. I joined the Republic of Pemberley. I watched the films. I begged my parents to take me into New York City to see The Jane Austen Book Club (and succeeded!). I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies just after it came out and was the one to explain to an incredulous male classmate that yes, it was a thing that existed (said classmate read it and came up to me following that summer, exclaiming, "Thank you! My mom and I have something to talk about now!").

Jane was a constant my last two and a half years of high school, and remains one even into my senior year of high school. I get varied responses when people learn I'm a Janeite; some are surprised at how young I am, while others wish they'd read her at my age. I had to reread Pride and Prejudice for English Literature II last year and found that I enjoyed studying the books at an academic level just as much, and that discovery has shaped my senior year--after writing two papers that explored evolutionary mating theories as applied to Austen's works, I'm now writing my senior thesis on Northanger Abbey and a subset of that field. I have confidence in myself as a woman and as a writer because of the teachings of Jane and her heroines. And I wouldn't have any bit of this if I hadn't marched into Borders that day and bought that $5 copy of Pride and Prejudice.

P&P's not my favorite Austen (that honor belongs to Sense and Sensibility!), but its spell still hasn't faded, for me. I reread it last year for that class and found myself laughing at all the parts I normally do, internally screaming in frustration and wishing Lizzy and Darcy would just talk about their feelings like I normally do, cringing at Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine, rooting for Lizzy to stand up to their snobbishness, but also to learn about herself, to overcome her willful blindness and finally unite with Darcy. The original text still enchants me, and ever since I ran out of Austen novels to read, I've turned to the sequels and variations when I need a fix, and those enchant me just the same. What one thing has the author changed that turned everything upside down? Lizzy and Darcy will surely get together, but what about Bingley and Jane, and what of poor, misguided Lydia? Will Mary and Kitty get their days in the sun? Will Georgiana grow into her own person? I love seeing the different ways different authors have answered this question, and even if I'll never be brave enough to answer them myself, I know that Pride and Prejudice will never lose its power of inspiring readers to ask those same questions in the first place.

This past year, I've seen even more people come to Pride and Prejudice as a result of the wonderful webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which was lovingly forced on me by my best friend Steph after being recommended by several others. I celebrated the anniversary today by staying in bed and watching more of those, and it delights me to see the comments on the videos from people who are following the story for the first time, taking that journey with Lizzy and Darcy and emerging the better for it. I hope someday to introduce my own children to Austen, to inspire in others the love of Jane that Pride and Prejudice inspired in me, and I've taken the time today to feel grateful for letting that book into my life, because I wouldn't be who I am today without it.

Thank you, Jane; I owe you.