Monday, May 31, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Heartbreak River'

The Book: Heartbreak River

The Author: Tricia Mills

How I Found It: I was looking at bargain books and this one was one of them. Looked interesting, so I gave it a shot.

The Review: After reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, I wanted something as far from that as possible, just to take a break for a bit. I decided to go with a YA romance (sort of).

Alex Landon has grown up around Grayton River, and helping to run her grandparents' whitewater rafting business means that the river is her domain, her thing. Or at least, it should be. Ever since her father died in a tragic rafting accident, Alex is petrified of the water, and worse yet, she blames herself for his death. When her father returned from serving with the National Guard in Iraq, he wasn't the same, and Alex wonders what more she could have done to save him.

As the season starts, Alex is faced with another problem besides her fear of the water--the return of her childhood best friend and ex-boyfriend, Sean, whom she hasn't seen in nine months due to his parents' divorce. Alex has mixed feelings about his return--not only might she still have feelings for him, but she said things she can't take back the last time they saw each other. Even as Alex considers apologizing to Sean and getting back together with him, there's other things to consider--is Alex's coworker, Tommy, looking for more than just flirting? Does Sean really have a girlfriend back in Denver? What does Alex's cousin Mala have going on with Daniel, another coworker? And will Alex ever be able to raft again, to forgive herself for her father's death?

I will admit upfront that this wasn't the greatest YA novel I've ever read. I think the examination of a child's grief after the death of a parent has been done in more detail and better by other authors (I can think of Sarah Dessen's The Truth about Forever in particular). I think the book was shortchanged because it was simply too short. There is a lot going on and not enough space to explore it all, which I'm sure is the fault of manuscript length requirements by the publisher. I've read another book published by Razorbill that was about the same length, so I'm sure there's a word count or some such that can't be exceeded. Still, either the book should have been longer in order to properly address everything, or the subplots should have been cut entirely.

What I felt should have been changed or addressed more: I think that Alex had too many coworkers, for one thing; the supporting cast was very large and sometimes this became tiresome. Everyone always had to be accounted for. Some of them actually had interesting motivations that I would have liked to see dealt with in greater depth: for example, the insecurities of Alex's boy-crazy cousin Mala. It is brought up more than once that Mala hates being compared to Alex, that she has gotten the image of the "bad girl" while Alex is the Goody Two-Shoes. Mala seems to seek validation with men rather than attempting to address her problems with herself and fix it. Though Alex does tell her once that she doesn't need to be out with a different guy every other week, Mala simply says she wants to and they leave it at that. I would have liked if Mills could have delved further into Mala's issues with Alex and what was obviously Mala's poor self-image. It could have raised an important topic that isn't really addressed enough in YA novels-- that you don't need a guy in order to feel worth something. Even the ones that do raise that point have the girl ending up with a guy in the end.

While Alex's relationship with Sean was pretty realistic, we only get a few glimpses at what it was before Alex's father passed away. In order to fully believe them as a couple in the story and to fully root for them, I wanted to know what exactly their relationship had been before it changed. I didn't think I'd seen enough of them in order for me to really pull for them as a couple. I also wanted to see more of how Alex had reacted to the news of her father's death when it happened--for something that really motivates Alex's actions in the book, we surprisingly didn't get a flashback or really much information at all on the immediate aftermath of her father's death. I felt that should have been explored more; it would have made Alex's grief more palpable and maybe would have brought her feelings about the death into sharper focus. I also didn't like the tacking on of another tragedy at the end just to get Alex to open up to her feelings about her father's death. It made the victim of the tragedy less of a character and more a device for the author's point, and it was blatant.

While I feel the book could have done with more depth and less characters, it was a decent read. The dialogue was realistic and Alex's problems were, as well. She was an interesting narrator with pretty relatable feelings--any teenager who's had a crush at one point will understand her wavering and hesitant attraction to Sean. Overall, a decent but fairly forgettable YA read that has been done better by other authors; I recommend the aforementioned The Truth about Forever instead.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest'

** Given that this is the third book in a trilogy, there will be spoilers for the first two books. **

Okay, so I paced myself. I didn't want to rush through the book headlong without absorbing it all, and I didn't want it to be over quite so soon. Entirely without planning, I read a third of the book a day. I reached the end just a few hours ago. It's hard to accept there's not going to be any more, but all good things must come to an end, right?

The Book: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (book three in the Millennium Trilogy)

The Author: Stieg Larsson

How I Found It: If you look at the April entries, you'll see how quickly I fell in love with the first two books of the trilogy.

The Review: A quick rant before I start: I don't get publishing sometimes. This is the most minor quibble in the world, but the New York Times pointed it out, too, so I don't feel bad... the UK has Hornets' Nest; we have Hornet's Nest. First off, I'm wondering why the change from singular to plural possessive was made in the first place. Second off, I'm wondering why the US edition decided to go with singular. It's not like one hornet lives in a nest all by itself, and isn't it somewhat more threatening to kick a nest of more than one of them? Yes? Okay. Don't mind me; I'm just bugged by that completely unnecessary punctuation thing.

At the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, we were left on a major cliffhanger. Lisbeth has been grievously injured and even buried alive by her two worst enemies: her half-brother Ronald Niedermann, who can feel no pain, and her father Zalachenko, a Soviet defector whom the Swedish government schemed to keep secret. Mikael Blomkvist finds her. It is the first time he has seen her in a very long time--but she is almost dead.

When we open Hornet's Nest, Lisbeth and Zalachenko are being rushed to the hospital: Lisbeth for her numerous gunshot wounds, including one to the head, and Zalachenko for being attacked with an axe by none other than Lisbeth herself. Both are saved, but Lisbeth is still in hot water. Once she recovers, she is to stand trial for the three murders she was accused of in the previous book--murders that Niedermann committed, not her. Incapacitated in a hospital room with no access to a computer and barely anyone who believes her story, Lisbeth must rely on outsiders to help her out of her situation. Mikael Blomkvist is unraveling the real story behind the Zalachenko coverup, while his sister Annika Giannini agrees to defend Lisbeth in the murder trial--where Lisbeth's declaration of incompetence could be revoked. However, many people want to see Lisbeth silenced, whether that means permanent institutionalization... or even death.

This book, in my opinion, was just a tiny bit slower than the first two simply because there is not much action. Whereas the first two books were about investigating a crime, this was more of a law procedural dealing with the events leading up to and of Lisbeth's trial. As a result, it could get rather talky at times, which tended to drag down the pace a tiny bit. There was a lot of discussing what could happen, and occasionally the same information would be relayed to different characters in the span of just a few pages, which could get annoying fast. Also, even more characters joined the already large supporting cast introduced in Played with Fire, so remembering who was who could get a little distracting. Eventually it didn't bother me as much, but this book is a slower read than the first two. It's worth it, though, for how well it ties things up in the end, considering Larsson's sudden passing after the manuscripts had been delivered.

It is because of Larsson's death that this book could have been a hit or a miss. Does everything get tied up properly, considering the supposedly mostly-finished fourth book will never come to light? Was it worth it overall to read the trilogy, knowing there will be no more (especially since the series was supposed to be ten books initially)?

Does everything get tied up properly? Yes, I would say it does. It is a little disappointing that the second book and this one had Salander and Blomkvist having little to no physical contact, instead communicating via the Internet. I did miss the actual pairing of the two of them investigating in Dragon Tattoo. But the relationship between the two of them is still preserved even if they do barely talk, and the little moments for the two of them were very sweet, as was their final resolution. Erika Berger also gets more screentime--a subplot of her own that, while it devolved into a too-common trope, raised an important issue. Berger has been asked to be editor-in-chief for a well-known newspaper, and finds herself receiving threatening emails as well as home invasions from an unknown employee at the paper. In order to discover the person's identity, Berger must turn to Salander. Erika's subplot addresses the male-dominated world of news, and how little women's opinions are valued there. It was interesting to read about, even if, as I said before, the stalker subplot eventually ends with a whimper because it felt too cliche.

That was one criticism I had of the book-- the villains felt too cartoony at times. Lisbeth's primary threat during her trial comes in the form of Dr. Teleborian, introduced in the last book. Teleborian is the psychiatrist who institutionalized the young Lisbeth, and he is exceptionally sick and twisted. Problem was, that twistedness bordered on hyperbole at points and I wanted to roll my eyes a little. Still, even if Lisbeth's trial was less of the book than I expected, I found it immensely satisfying. There might be no more Mikael and Lisbeth after this book, but everything is handled so well that I'm almost okay with there not being any more.

While the cast of supporting characters was sometimes too large, I enjoyed reading about most of them, and a few new additions and expansions worked well, such as Blomkvist's sister Giannini. I had some mixed feelings about Monica Figuerola--her chemistry with Blomkvist felt somewhat forced, but she had some pretty good moments and I did sort of like her. The characterizations were consistent with the other books as well. Blomkvist also displays a dry humor in this volume that brought some levity.

Overall, the book was a pretty solid conclusion that wrapped up loose ends and actually left me with a feeling of satisfaction, instead of just craving more. Larsson fans in the US like me have reached the end of the road--for the books. You can still expect my reviews of the Swedish movies when they hit Stateside in the summer (Played with Fire) and the fall (Hornet's Nest). I'm also starting a small blog for Millennium fans where I'll post news and interesting links and such. In the meantime, I'm incredibly grateful for Stieg Larsson's books and how much I've enjoyed them, and I hope other people will pick them up and feel the same way.

Monday, May 24, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart'

Hello again! I took a small break from reading and reviewing in the last couple weeks in order to study for finals, but I'm back now in full force. In particular, I'm waiting with bated breath for tomorrow's release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, so expect that review as soon as I finish! In the meantime, here's a review of my first book of the summer.

The Book: Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart

The Author: Beth Pattillo

How I Found It: I read Pattillo's first book, and my review can be found here.

The Review: Claire Prescott has built her life around taking care of others. Her parents died in an accident when she was 18, and she was left to care for her little sister Missy. Now, years later, her life is in disarray. She never went to college and has been fired from her job as an office assistant. She is dating a not-particularly-attentive sports fanatic, Neil, who probably hasn't even noticed that she has left the United States for England. She is traveling to Oxford to attend a seminar on Pride & Prejudice in the place of her sister, who cannot attend due to pregnancy complications. Claire is not particularly enthralled with either the book or Mr. Darcy, but she cannot disappoint her sister.

Once there, Claire meets a few enticing people. One is Martin, an older man with a love of Jane Austen who offers Claire almost fatherly guidance. Another is James Beaufort, a publishing magnate who is unnervingly like Austen's Mr. Darcy. And the last is Harriet Dalrymple, an older woman who possesses what she claims is Austen's lost first draft of Pride and Prejudice, entitled First Impressions. Harriet's possession of the manuscript is threatened, as the leader of the Formidables (the secret society first introduced in Pattillo's previous book) would like nothing more than to take the manuscript from her, given her advanced age. Claire finds herself faced with a few different problems: how to deal with the knowledge of a secret Austen manuscript, how to deal with those around her and Harriet who would like to take the manuscript, and how to sort out her feelings about both James and Neil.

I liked that this book had elements in common with Pattillo's other book, but that she made an entirely different take on a similar story. To start with, Claire is simply an ordinary woman, an everywoman, as opposed to Emma's PhD in Ruined. (I couldn't help but wonder if this was Pattillo's response to the many criticisms of Ruined that pointed out that Emma did not speak like a doctorate.) Rather than being a seasoned Austen fan, Claire is slightly bewildered by all the Austen obsession and is only just finding her way into Austen for the first time. Similarly, she is not being asked to join the Formidables, but instead finds herself in their midst entirely by accident. Claire is caught between two different men, and Pattillo uses the device of Austen's "first draft" (or, at least, a fictional version of it) to parallel Claire's story and provide her with guidance.

So while the book had some things in common with Pattillo's first book, it was nice that this was an entirely different experience. It showed her versatility as a writer that she could take two stories with similar elements and make them entirely separate from each other. I have to admit that I liked this one better than I liked Ruined, but oddly enough, it wasn't as engaging, if that makes any sense. In Ruined, I was spurred on because I wanted to know the mystery behind Jane Austen's lost letters. Here, there wasn't any mystery, so I couldn't get into it as much. Still, all things considered, it's a quick read.

Pattillo's imagined version of Pride & Prejudice had a few problems, too. First, it just didn't sound like Austen, which is to be suspected somewhat, given that no one else probably could. Second, there are a few mistakes. "Hunsford", Mr. Collins' parsonage, is spelled "Huntsford". Mr. Darcy calls Elizabeth "Miss Bennet" multiple times, even though Elizabeth would be called "Miss Elizabeth Bennet". (I thought it could have been because in this "draft", Darcy might not take into consideration that Lizzy has an older sister, but Colonel Fitzwilliam always addresses her as "Miss Elizabeth".) There's also the continual misspelling of Elizabeth's nickname "Lizzy" as "Lizzie".

*** Beyond here be spoilers, matey. ***

What I had problems with was Claire's romantic conflict with Neil and James. I just didn't like how that was resolved; it felt too contrived. We're supposed to accept that James isn't all that nice a guy and that Claire just never realized Neil's good qualities until he was in front of her. I just didn't see how Neil being inattentive and focused on sports suddenly morphed into Claire being too concerned with others to notice that he was a good guy. It seemed like a cop out. It also didn't help that we didn't see any of Neil before Claire left for England. It would have been nice for us to make our own judgments, instead of Claire's opinion being the only thing to go on, which is what made it feel forced to me. Still, the ending was slightly more satisfying than in Ruined, where Emma chooses to be with no one.

I also didn't like how desperately Claire depended on the manuscript to give her answers. It's fine to accept guidance from fictional characters--it's what it comes down to in a lot of Austen-inspired contemporary novels--but it just made Claire seem weak-willed and too easily swayed.

*** Here end the spoilers. ***

While the book had its flaws, it was still an enjoyable read. I liked Pattillo's device of the alternate story, and I really enjoyed the characters of Claire (even when she got on my nerves) and Martin, the Austen scholar. I know Pattillo is working on a third Austenesque book as well as a Jane Eyre-related one, and she's going on my list of authors to keep in mind when a new book is coming out. Overall, even with its flaws, I'd recommend this one to Janeites looking for a fun read. (To all others, I wouldn't recommend it unless you've read Pride & Prejudice or are familiar enough with the story to spot the differences, but since Claire herself points them out in the book, it might not be that big a deal.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Supernatural: Origins'

The Book: Supernatural: Origins

The Author: Peter Johnson / The Illustrator: Matthew Don Smith

How I Found It: I'm a Supernatural fan, which should be obvious by the fact that I read this. :)

The Review: Okay, so I don't know why anyone would have any interest in this comic if you're not a Supernatural fan, unless you're just in it for the art or something. But I'll try to recap briefly the background information that leads up to what happens in this comic.

Okay. So initially, in the first season, Supernatural was about two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester (Dean's the older brother; Sam the younger) driving across America, searching for their missing father, John. John raised the boys to hunt and kill evil supernatural beings, with the goal of finding the creature that killed his wife, the boys' mother, Mary. Not much was known about the creature, other than the fact that it left Mary bleeding on the ceiling of Sam's nursery when he was just a few months old, and that it caused a fire that killed Mary.

The problem is, John's obsessive hunt led to Dean and Sam's childhoods being less than idyllic. Part of the tension between Sam and Dean in the early days came from the fact that Dean blindly obeyed John in everything, fiercely defending him, while Sam resented that John's quest led to his inability to have a normal life. He leaves John and Dean before the series to go to law school at Stanford, but when Dean comes to him to tell him John's gone missing and Sam's girlfriend is killed in the same way Mary was, Sam agrees to join in the search for John.

Since 2007 or so, the CW has licensed products to go along with Supernatural, either to fill in little gaps in the show or explain the things that went on prior to the series. I recently started collecting these novelizations and comics as a little project for this summer. It's recently been speculated that Supernatural will come back as a midseason replacement next year for its final season, and with that in mind, all this stuff will have to hold me over. This comic, Origins, was the first released and charts John's transformation into a hunter and his first steps towards finding out what killed Mary. (The other two comics are Rising Son, when John starts to speculate about what could be wrong with Sam, and Beginning's End, currently being issued, which explains how Sam left John and Dean to go to Stanford.)

I'm pretty sure this one had a lot of issues--mainly with the years and other such continuity problems. I looked it up and I saw that Johnson had to make a whole lot of revisions. I'm not a super-obsessed fan that would immediately notice if a date was off, so I'm not sure if anything's really glaringly wrong, but from glancing over the Supernatural wiki, it looks like all the dates were fixed for the trade paperback, the edition I was reading.

It didn't always have that sort of Supernatural feel to it, but that's probably because I'm used to the boys and not John solo. I think it did a pretty decent job. Right away, we get a sense of John's obsession and how desperately he wants to know what happened to Mary. We get a glimpse or two of John as a widower attempting to find his way. The fact that Dean and baby Sam are on the cover is a teensy bit misleading; we don't see all that much of them, but they are, very obviously, a presence in the story. It was actually what made the comic a little poignant: seeing the very beginning of John putting the hunt before his kids, and how that affected them (mostly Dean, since he was the only one old enough to understand).

John is helped along the way by Missouri, the female psychic we met in one of the very early episodes, and a mysterious hunter friend who teaches him the basics. A familiar location, the Roadhouse, crops up, and Ellen appears for a few pages (Jo is mentioned). It is what the title says: an origins story. So for that, it did a pretty decent job showing John becoming the person we meet in the show. We see how hesitant he is to kill someone the first time, and then at the other end of the spectrum, how he becomes ruthlessly efficient when it comes to dealing with supernatural threats. We see his doubts about the boys as he has to leave them with relatives, friends, and even strangers. We see how this affects his relationship with Dean, who questions his father at some points and sees something he wasn't meant to see. The one thing that gave me pause were two very brief scenes taking place in 1991, where we see young Dean contemplating leaving and then reading John's journal, which makes him decide against it. I couldn't quite figure out why those scenes were there, honestly.

Origins itself was pretty good, but I think what made it worth it was the inclusion of a mini-story at the end, "Speak No Evil". It's what would be, on the show, a flashback to young Sam and Dean. We get to see how clueless Dean and Sam were raised to be in the early days, as Dean believes Mary died in a car crash and Sam is just scared and upset by the glimpses he and Dean get of John's darker side. I was really touched at this little scene of the brothers bonding and Dean starting to take care of Sam, and it was a sweet little bookend to the comic. Overall, the story was decent and the characters were pretty faithful to what has been shown on the show. But like I said before, I'd only really recommend it to fans of the show, not a casual reader.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Stuff Every Woman Should Know'

The Book: Stuff Every Woman Should Know

The Author: Alanna Kalb

How I Found It: Tiffany, the Marketing and Social Media Coordinator over at Quirk Books, asked me if I wanted to review it and very obligingly provided me with a copy. Thanks, Tiffany!

The Review: So you've pretty much got it all in the title: this really is stuff a woman should know, and I was surprised at how much of it I didn't know and how useful a lot of it really is! I'm not much of a how-to (sorta?) reader, but I found this one really useful and I'll definitely refer back to it on some things!

The table of contents divides the book into sections: Do-It-Yourself; Business and Pleasure; Relationships and Friendships; Beauty and Fashion; Etiquette and Socializing; and Mind, Body, and Spirit. Do-It-Yourself covers things like changing a tire or parallel parking (which is sometimes the bane of my existence). Business and Pleasure offers instruction on such diverse things as asking for a raise or throwing a football. Relationships and Friendships offers advice on how to make friends in the "real world" (i.e., outside of school) or how to respond to bad pick-up lines. Beauty and Fashion is self-explanatory: it details how to pick makeup, perfume, or clothes that will work for you. Etiquette and Socializing offers tips on how to throw a party or write a thank you note, or even how to cook. Mind, Body, and Spirit offers some really useful information on things like self-defense techniques and ways to stay healthy.

I will start off by saying that Kalb was the right person to write this book. She comes off as friendly and fun, the type of person you'd like to have as a girlfriend. It never once felt like I was reading a boring how-to book; the information was relayed in a conversational tone and had a dash of humor to it. It's easier to swallow information and advice when it's not directed at you in a condescending or overly educational way. Neither does the information go into excess--the book is clear, concise, and easy to understand. It's only 144 pages and sized to fit into a pocket or purse, but despite how small it is, it's packed with information.

A lot of the things in here were very useful to know. Some, such as how to remove a stain or how to iron, would help someone like me who is living on their own for the first time. (Well, not really as I'm at college and going back home, but still. It's a little nervewracking to do these things on your own for the first time!) Others, such as how to flirt or how to act confident, help in business or social environments. Some of the information was truly useful, whether it's how to buy a car without getting ripped off (I'd never heard some of the words Kalb mentions as useful, so that was a definite help) or how to perform a breast self-examination. Pretty much everything Kalb writes about will turn up at some point in a woman's life, and it's nice to have a starting point on how to deal with those things.

So, while the book is tiny and might not seem like much, I'd definitely recommend it to any woman who needs a common-sense guide to little or big things in life. I'd even say it's an excellent gift for a high school or college graduate or someone just starting out on their own. It's full of excellent, well-written information that can be used at almost any age, and that's what makes it a standout how-to guide.

Monday, May 3, 2010

In Which Trai Is Surprised

I'm posting twice in one day--unusual for me, but I've just found out some interesting news and I thought I'd blog about it.

You all might remember my post back in March about how series I either loved or expressed interest in as a 14-year-old or younger are being reprinted. One of the series I mentioned in that post was Melinda Metz' Fingerprints. Fingerprints was an absolutely amazing series about a girl who could read the thoughts people leave when they touch something (she would touch their fingerprints and experience what the person was thinking as he or she left them).

I discovered this series after it was out of print; I obtained it through Amazon and a really fortunate find at a free-book thing (the last three books in the series were extraordinarily expensive and somehow I found them all free; it was a miracle in my mind). I absolutely loved this series and it drove me on to Metz's Roswell High books, the basis for the beloved series Roswell. I was sad that Metz's writing was not recognized more often; since the series was OOP by the time I found it, I could never find other fans, and Melinda Metz herself was scarce. There was a website at one point in time that was being worked on, but it is now defunct.

So imagine my surprise when I put Metz's name into Amazon today and learned that the first three Fingerprints books are being reprinted as an omnibus entitled Echoes. The titles of the original three books are Gifted Touch, Haunted, and Trust Me--it looks like the titles of Gifted Touch and Trust Me have been changed to Echoes and Trust, respectively. I dearly loved these books and I'm so excited to see the omnibus is being published--I hope this will draw more attention to Metz and give the series a renewed readership.

What I am dismayed about is the cover design and the retitling. Fingerprints worked as a title to the series because Rae, the main girl, picked up thoughts from people's fingerprints. As a title, Echoes is more vague and I don't think it does the story as much justice. Fingerprints was concise and expressed exactly what all the books revolved around: Rae's powers. There's also the girl on the cover: she just looks too sexy to be the Rae I remember, who was humble and more of an everygirl type. I much prefer the old cover model, with her wavy hair that reminds me of my own untameable hair and her enigmatic smile. The old books also had two other key characters on the cover: Anthony, Rae's friend and love interest, and Yana, another friend of hers. Rae's personal relationships were integral to the series. She builds a relationship with Anthony, who if I remember correctly helps her discover she is not crazy (which she repays by helping him overcome his dyslexia), and Yana becomes a very central part of the story in the later books. By having Rae alone on the cover, I think the cover is missing the point that Rae very much has allies in her story. I'm so happy about the reprint, but I just wish the cover didn't have to be quite so like what sells today.

I'm really excited that the series is being reprinted--I might just have to break out my old copies of all seven books and reread them this summer, and I might even buy the omnibus in order to pay back Ms. Metz some of the money I denied her by having to buy the series used. She gave me so much enjoyment as a teenager that I wouldn't mind buying the book over again at all. I hope that maybe all Ms. Metz's books could come back--it would be fun to see the Roswell High books reprinted, and I'm even holding out a tiny bit of hope that maybe there will be more Fingerprints books if this series is being reprinted! I hope that young readers will read the series now and find as much enjoyment in it as I did.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Dearest Cousin Jane'

The Book: Dearest Cousin Jane: A Jane Austen Novel

The Author: Jill Pitkeathley

How I Found It: I'm sure it came up as I was searching Amazon for something Jane-related.

The Review: This is historical fiction, and the events of the book all occurred in real life. Thus, there will be some spoilers, although I'm not sure they can exactly be called spoilers if this was written based on true events. (It's like not telling someone the Titanic sinks because it would ruin the ending.)

Jane Austen had a cousin, the enchanting Countess Eliza de Feuillide. She was born in questionable circumstances--there are whispers that Eliza is the natural (i.e., illegitimate) child of her mother, Philadelphia Austen Hancock, and Warren Hastings of the East India Company. In Paris, at the age of 19, Eliza marries the Comte de Feuillide, Jean Capot, though Mrs. Austen is convinced he is a no-good adventurer.

Eliza defies convention, as she is free-spirited and often talks of improper matters in front of the impressionable Austen sisters, Jane and Cassandra, her cousins. Eliza particularly likes Jane, who she feels needs instruction in the ways of flirting and "husband hunting". Though Eliza herself is fun-loving, her life is marked by tragedy. Her mother dies of breast cancer. Her husband is guillotined in the French Revolution. Eliza has two miscarriages and her only son is epileptic and dies fairly young. Through all this tragedy, Eliza never loses her indomitable spirit, and eventually finds contentment as the wife of Henry Austen, Jane's favorite brother, who watches with the rest of the family as Jane begins to grow into her talents as a writer. Eliza lives almost to the publication of Mansfield Park, and when we leave Jane and Henry in one of the final scenes, Jane is just beginning to formulate her ideas for Emma.

I didn't know all that much about Eliza before I read this book; I knew only that she was Henry's wife and that she could have been the model for Lady Susan in the eponymous novella or for Mary Crawford in my second-favorite Austen, Mansfield Park (of which my opinion is not popular among Janeites). I am pleased to say that her life was fascinating enough to keep me turning pages throughout the whole novel. It is told from multiple viewpoints, all of which are related to the Austen family. Jane herself even narrates a few times. We get the story through direct narration, almost gossipy reports from relatives, and letters from one member of the family to another. (Pitkeathley apparently used some real letters and wrote some of her own. I haven't read all that many letters of Austen's, so I'm not sure which were real and which were imagined, but I suppose that's a testament to the novel's period authenticity.)

I liked reading about the story of Eliza and how she eventually came to be a full member of the Austen family, after rejecting both James and Henry once apiece. The story did a decent job of compressing many years of history into a fairly short novel--Eliza died when she was 50 and that's just about how many years are covered in the novel. The ending chapters are poignant, as Eliza succumbs to the breast cancer that claimed her mother, and Jane, with only five or six years left to live herself, gets the premonitory feeling that she should write as much as she can just in case. I will admit that I was somewhat teary-eyed as I read Eliza's assurances to Jane that she would live to write twenty more novels, and as Henry and Jane stand at Eliza's grave. Pitkeathley did a fine job capturing those emotions, and I suspect the story has personal importance for her, as she is a survivor of breast cancer.

I will admit that the novel was not perfect; it had its advantages and its drawbacks. The characters were all very well-defined and it was easy to tell them apart, a considerable feat since Austen had a very large family. It does sometimes get confusing to remember which brother and which wife is being referred to, but there is a character list in the beginning to help sort that out. The multiple narrators, while certainly a very interesting device (I've expressed my love for it before), sometimes dragged the book down. We would hear about a circumstance in one chapter and then the next chapter get another narrator's opinion on it--while repeating the same information we already received in the last chapter. This happened at least three or four times and I was most seriously displeased, as Lady Catherine would say. This repetition sometimes made the multiple narrators redundant and boring.

Also, though Jane asserts many times in the novel that she "does not write from life," many characters are made to strongly resemble those in her novels and suggest from where in her family she could have drawn those portraits. Mary Austen is very, very similar to Fanny Dashwood; Philly Walter to Mary Bennet or Mrs. Norris, etc. That did get a little distracting when all I could think was, "Well, she doesn't write from life, so why is [so and so] similar to...?" Many paraliterature writers have the tendency to do this, though, having characters resemble the ones in the Austen novels so that we think, "Oh! That's where she got it from!" Sometimes I like to think Jane could have thought of it on her own, but I guess it's perfectly reasonable for Pitkeathley to reflect the personalities onto Austen's family rather than just making up new characters for this sole purpose.

My other quibble is that the editing leaves much to be desired, which I understand was a frequent complaint about Pitkeathley's other novel, Cassandra and Jane. There are not commas where there probably should be, or there are entirely too many commas, or the quotation marks are badly displaced, among other errors. Since this book is published by Harper, a fairly large publishing outfit, I find that I cannot forgive it as easily as I would if it were self-published. (Self-published books are normally atrociously edited, or at least the ones I have come across are. Seriously, one of them did not correctly spell Aaron Eckhart's last name. It is not that hard to spell, and even if it is, it takes two seconds to pull up IMDb and check. Geez.)

So while the book was not the most perfect thing in the world, it is a perfectly acceptable tale of Jane Austen and one in which I believe many Janeites could find something to like. I would not recommend this to non-Jane fans, however--it might be difficult for them to keep track of Jane's family, and I imagine it wouldn't be as fun without background knowledge of the novels.