Review: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

It’s been a Pride and Prejudice retelling kind of month. First it was Jo Baker’s Longbourn, and now it’s a modernization. Well, actually it’s an adaptation of a modernization. Let me ‘splain.

Meet Lizzie Bennet, Californian grad student embarking on a vlog for her final project.

I stumbled upon this amazing web series soon after its premiere, and got to follow it through every nail-biting episode. The core of Austen’s novel is preserved and modernized beautifully, and the writers even added in some extra stuff that took it over the top.

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is a companion to the video series, Lizzie’s first-person narrative of the story behind the videos. It’s yet another perspective on one of my favorite stories, and includes even more plot points and conversations not present in the web series or the original novel.

In fact, I think it would be fun to watch the videos again while reading the corresponding diary entries.

Watch the series, read the novelization, and — most importantly — read Austen’s  Pride and Prejudice. There’s a reason it’s still being adapted over 200 years after its publication.

What other Austen adaptations have you read/seen and liked?

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Review: Longbourn

Longbourn, Jo BakerSarah spends her days washing, cooking, and cleaning for the Bennet family. The work is back-breaking and never ending, and Sarah knows she will be doing it until she dies. The arrival of an eligible bachelor at Netherfield has the gentry in a buzz, but it’s the arrival of a new footman that has Longbourn’s servants’ hall that sends Sarah’s life on a new and unpredictable course.

Jo Baker’s Longbourn sails right past the drawing room and into the kitchen, revealing the lives of Regency England servants and telling the story of “Mrs. Hill and the two maids” that Jane Austen overlooked.

Beautifully done

Just when I get to thinking that living in Regency England would be fun, a book like Longbourn comes along to remind me that it would most definitely not be enjoyable.

Sarah’s life is excruciating and oftentimes revolting. Chamber pots, blood, endless sewing and cooking and sweating and mud. Her one bright spot is the new footman, James, and the intelligence and kindness he brings to Longbourn.

Like the Austen novels around which it is based, Longbourn is a “slow burn” story — quick-fire action and jaw-dropping revelations are nowhere to be found. Instead it’s like watching a cake rise in the oven, swelling so slowly it’s nearly popping out of the pan before you realize what’s happened.

Great characters

The favorites from Pride and Prejudice make their appearance, with Wickham being more involved in the story than I would have imagined (spoiler: he’s still a sociopath).

I don’t like how Baker portrays Elizabeth — unobservant of Sarah’s blistered hands, forgetful of her situation, etc. — because I’ve always thought of her as being kinder than that. But the truth is that every gentleman’s daughter, no matter how kind, lived a life of blissful non-observance of the lower classes. I imagine that little good came of friendships between people like Lizzie and people like Sarah.

But of course this book isn’t about the Bennets. It’s about Sarah and Mrs. Hill and the three other people to are responsible for keeping Longbourn running smoothly. Baker’s novel brings the reader into their world, which has its own rules and challenges.

Sarah’s low class belies her grit. She is strong and determined, and in the end defies even more expectations than do the Bennet sisters. Baker also does some great storytelling around Mrs. Hill, whose past comes back to her in unexpected ways.

Give it a read

If you enjoy Austen but are interested in seeing the truth squirming beneath the rocks, give Longbourn a try. It’s harsh, revealing, and ultimately very satisfying.

Anyone else read Longbourn? What did you think?

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Review: The Copper Sign

The Copper Sign, Katia FoxThe year of our Lord 1161 is not a great time to be a girl — even less so a girl who wants to become a swordsmith. Forced to flee her home in rural England, our young heroine Ellenweore disguises herself as a boy and travels with a famous swordsmith to Normandy, where sons of noblemen are trained to be knights.

Thus begins Ellen’s journey. Katia Fox’s The Copper Sign (translated from the original German by Lee Chadeayne) takes the reader on a journey across France and England, and follows Ellen for more than two decades as she fights for survival in a harsh world.

Sad trombone sound

I spent most of my time with this book doing variations of this:

I love a good YA fantasy with a kickass heroine, but The Copper Sign was…well, bad.

Fox had me hooked until oh, about page 15, when she lobbed the first of many plot harpoons that yank Ellen roughly from plot point to plot point for the next 600+ pages. It got boring, quick.

  1. Ellen arrives in a town
  2. She wins over stubborn but secretly kind-hearted person who can help her
  3. She learns an “amazing” skill or two
  4. Bad Guy (who’s obsessed and seems to always “accidentally” end up in the same ass-backward French hamlet) bribes someone to do Something Bad
  5. Ellen is blamed
  6. Ellen runs away to next town
  7. Ellen never sees those people again, and nothing more is ever heard of whatever crime she was accused of committing in said town

Holy overblown history, Batman!

I’d wager that Fox spends at least a third of the book describing in excruciatingly boring detail the process of swordsmithing, or scabbard building, or goldsmithing. It’s cool stuff that’s interesting in small doses, but it throws off the plot and just ends up being stuff you have to skim while hoping you don’t miss an actual plot point.

Ham-fisted translation

There were two distinct moments during which I was keenly aware I was reading a translation (originally German) — both happen when the story introduces a character whose name coincides closely with the person’s defining characteristic. For example:

The training instructor for Sir Ansgar’s squires was named Ours, that is, bear in French. Ellen wondered whether his parents had given him the name because they knew how strong he would become…

This is just badly done. Anyone who speaks French will find the inserted translation unnecessary, and those who don’t speak French — like me — may find themselves yanked mercilessly from the diegesis every time this happens:

Ho hum enjoying the story— hm, why would that translation be there? Maybe they thought boneheaded English speakers wouldn’t get the reference. Wait, what’s happening? I’ve forgotten what was happening.

At first I was inclined to blame Chadeayne (the translator), but then I realized that he also translated Oliver Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter, which I really enjoyed…although now that I look back at the review I had some language problems with that, too.

Not for the middle school set

The definition of “Young adult fiction” seems to be constantly in flux, but I think many readers would plant The Copper Sign firmly within this category (well, maybe YA Fantasy).

And while I think it’s a perfectly fine book for a high schooler, it’s not something I’d want my 6th, 7th, or 8th grader reading. The book is full of brutal sex, incest, rape, and homophobia — most of it perpetuated by the perverted antagonist.

I know the 12th century wasn’t exactly peaches and cream, but there’s just so much of the nasty stuff in The Copper Sign that I wouldn’t let my middle schooler read it — and I really wouldn’t want to talk about the moment when Ellen describes her parents’ sexual activities as being accompanied by “a peculiar, fishy odor”!

Run far, far away

To sum up my review of The Copper Sign (using a quote attributed to Dorothy Parker):

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

I would never wish for a book to be burnt, but in this case I will go so far as to wish it hadn’t been written — or at least that I hadn’t wasted my time reading it.

What’s your most recent “I wish I’d never read this” moment?

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Review: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick“Sooner or later, the lightning comes to us all.” Thus begins Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, a novel following two children wishing for happier lives.

At first their stories seem disconnected; Rose lives in New Jersey in 1927, Ben 50 years later in Minnesota. But when both children decide to head to New York a timeline swings into motion, swiftly carrying the two towards each other.

Wonderstruck is a powerful weaving of two separate lives — one told with words, the other with pictures — into a single shared story.

A unique storytelling experience

The thing that attracted me most to Wonderstruck is its reliance on imagery. Rose’s deafness makes words impossible, so her story is told through black and white sketches by author Brian Selznick.

The images are detailed and beautiful, telling a complex story in a much simpler fashion than I expected. Selznick transitions smoothly between past and present, words and pictures; bringing Ben and Rose’s stories ever closer to each other.

So much to learn

From hidden books to paper boats, bookstores to museums, secrets and adventures in new places, the theme of discovery is ever-present — even in the novel’s title.

Ben and Rose each leave home looking for something more, something better, something true. What they discover is not what they expect, and is in fact just the beginning of a whole new story.

Wonderstruck has a solid plot and good characters, and showcases some artwork and a different way of storytelling. Highly recommended for middle school age and up!

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State of the Blog: September 2014

State of the blogIt’s been a crazy summer, and I’m glad it’s almost over. Work has been crazy, home life has been crazy, everything has been crazy. We had an actual cold snap recently, and it’s getting me excited for fall and winter — more time to cozy up with a book.

The basics

  • Books read since July 1: 13
  • Pages read: 4210
  • Books reviewed: 10
  • Books not enjoyed: 1
  • Books not finished: 0
  • Library books: 0
  • Audio books: 0
  • Re-reads: 1

Genre breakdown

  • Fiction: 7
  • Non-fiction: 6
  • Fantasy: 2
  • History: 4
  • Memoir: 2
  • Mystery/Thriller: 1
  • Young adult literature: 2
  • Children’s literature: 1
  • Gender: 1
  • Essays: 2
  • Humor: 2

Reading challenges

  • The Mount TBR Challenge: 4/12
  • Reading Outside the Box: 2/4

No progress on either of my 2014 challenges. Check out books and reviews here.

Some thoughts

Another slow reading quarter. Last time it was due to binge-watching Lie to Me and Bones; this time it’s because of an insane work schedule and binge-watching The West Wing. It may also be because I’ve been playing Diablo III with Best Friend.

On one hand I feel bad that my reading has slowed, but on the other…I kinda don’t. Work is unavoidable, but I’ve deliberately chosen to watch a television show I love, play a silly game with the man I love, and work on a new cross-stitch. What’s to be upset about?

Looking ahead

  • I need to kick my reading challenges back into gear. I’m relying on the library for most of those books, and haven’t spent any time coordinating inter-library loans.
  • I’ve read all but three of my birthday books. I’m looking forward to getting to Essentialism, The Copper Sign, and S.
  • Stay tuned for a review of an advance copy of Ed Gorman’s Riders on the Storm!
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