Archive for Books


Comfort Reads

I posted some of this on Twitter over the weekend and thought I’d expand on it here. I’m a wimp under the best of circumstances. You could call me Wimp Empress of the Universe. I know that conflict is the heart of story, but I have a strong aversion to conflict. I have an overreactive sympathetic nervous system and have to take beta blockers to keep my heart rate and blood pressure at somewhat normal levels, and I’m rather empathetic, so I overidentify with other people’s emotions, even when they’re fictional.

Now, more than ever, we need some lower-stress entertainment. Some people may enjoy the catharsis of intense drama. But I think I’m not alone in wanting something comforting.

I’m sure everyone has their own stress triggers, but here’s what I consider a low-stress read:

  • Nothing really bad happens to main characters
  • Personal, rather than global, stakes
  • No emphasis on darkness or evil

I don’t think this has to be boring. Here’s a brief list of recommendations:

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis may be my all-time favorite book, and is a great comfort read. It’s a charming idyll in Victorian times. The goal is to find an ugly urn (and not break the space-time continuum). No villains or evil, but so much fun. The related books, The Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, are a lot more intense, but if you want a sometimes funny and ultimately hopeful book about pandemics, read The Doomsday Book, but it will hit pretty close to home right now so may not be the best thing to read (it’s a time travel book in which a character lands in the middle of the Black Death, and meanwhile a virulent flu is sweeping through the area in the “present,” so no one’s up to getting her out of where she is).

Terry Pratchett is a go-to for comfort reads. Funny, insightful, and even if things come to the worst, Death is a decent guy, so it’s not too dire. Maybe not the Guards books because bad stuff tends to happen to Sam Vimes. I’d probably lean toward the Witches books now, with Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad. You feel like Granny Weatherwax has things totally under control, and that’s reassuring.

I’ve been rereading the 500 Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey. In these romantic fairytale fantasies, stories are magic, and knowing them gives you an advantage. Start with The Fairy Godmother, but after that they don’t require any particular order. They may be hard to find in print but seem to be available in e-books.

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a lovely fairytale fantasy of the sort that makes you sigh when you close the book after reading it. It’s much lighter than most of his other work.

Romances, especially romantic comedy, can be good at times like this, but one of my stress triggers is humiliation or embarrassment, and since a lot of the comedy comes from embarrassing things happening to the main character, sometimes those are too much for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t hide behind the sofa for scary monsters. It was sitcoms that sent me fleeing or hiding from secondhand embarrassment when the characters had humiliating things happen to them.

Jane Austen is a good bet. The writing style gives a bit of emotional distance, so it doesn’t trigger the intense empathy that makes the books painful to read. There’s humor and happy endings. Some of Georgette Heyer’s books work, but she tends to have plots involving gambling (another one of my odd stress triggers — I’m too cheap to gamble, and reading about people throwing money away bothers me), and she can get pretty racist.

One book that I think might work is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It’s a spoof of the “rustic romance” that was apparently popular in the early part of the 20th century. A sophisticated young woman goes to live with distant relatives on their farm, and she sets about tidying things up. There are helpful stars marking the most beautifully written passages. (The movie is also brilliant, but I’ll deal with movies later this week.)

Cozy mysteries might work, depending on how much peril the sleuth gets into and how much you worry about the victims. I like the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. I don’t recall being too terribly tense while reading them. Agatha Christie is also usually a good bet.

I think my books are generally good low-stress reads, though I’m sometimes pretty mean to poor Owen and Lord Henry. Still, it’s mostly light and fun. For contemporary fantasy, try Enchanted, Inc. For steampunk, Rebel Mechanics.

There were some responses by others on the Twitter thread. I don’t want to endorse something I haven’t read, but you can see the thread starting here.


Hooking Fantasy Readers

There’s been some discussion on fantasy author Twitter lately about recommending books that will hook people into reading fantasy. Quite frequently, if someone asks for a fantasy recommendation, no matter what they stipulate they’re looking for, the same books tend to get recommended, usually the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Wheel of Time series, and that sort of thing. Someone did a survey, and they found that nearly half the people didn’t get hooked on fantasy because of the usual recommendations. It was something else they read later when they tried again that worked. But there is a very vocal crowd that seems to think there’s something wrong if you don’t immediately fall in love with fantasy because of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.

I personally don’t believe in the idea of one book that totally hooks you. I think it’s more of a process, and it starts in childhood. I started with Disney movies and Dr. Seuss books, which I think paved the way by getting me used to the idea of magic and strange alternate worlds. Someone who didn’t start out with that sort of thing may have more trouble getting used to the idea of things that can’t happen in our world. When I got to the “chapter book” level, I read pretty widely, usually by topic rather than genre — every horse book I could find, for instance. I seem to have gravitated toward books with a fantasy or magical element, whether it was talking animals, witches, or other worlds. I read The Horse and His Boy from the Chronicles of Narnia when I was reading horse books, and didn’t connect it to the series or to the genre. I read all the Roald Dahl books, read a few of the Oz books, and I read The Hobbit when they came out with the animated movie.

Around this time, there was Star Wars, which got me into science fiction, but I think it also laid a lot of groundwork for being a fantasy fan, since it’s essentially fantasy wearing a science fiction costume. Yeah, there are spaceships and robots, but it’s about a group of wizard warriors with magical powers, and there are princesses in need of rescuing. It’s structured so well as a fantasy that it’s easy to rewrite the same story as a fantasy. Lucas himself did it in Willow, and Eragon is basically a scene-for-scene rewrite with dragons instead of X-Wings (incidentally, that survey showed that book as one of the big entry-level books that hooked people on fantasy). I suspect it has a lot to do with the hero’s journey structure that’s so universal.

I didn’t really click into the idea of fantasy as a genre until sixth grade, when I read The Silver Chair and became obsessed with the Narnia books. Around that time, I re-read The Hobbit and moved on to the Lord of the Rings. From there, I got into other fantasy, mostly that written for children. There was Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, then I got back into the Oz books. But I was also reading pretty widely in a variety of genres, and I didn’t glom onto fantasy in a big way, to the point I wanted to write it, until I discovered the Katherine Kurtz Deryni books in high school, and from there I found the Shannara books and a few other of the series that were big then.

I tend to give The Silver Chair credit for making me a fantasy fan, but it was more of a tipping point in an overall process. That’s really how just about anything works. They say you need to introduce a new food to a child at least three times before you can really tell if the child dislikes it. The first time is bound to be a big dislike because it’s new and different. We resist the unfamiliar. It’s not until the second time that the kid can even really try it once they’re past the unfamiliarity. Then the third time they can make a more honest assessment and decide they like it.

With that in mind, I don’t think you can hand a person a book and instantly turn them into a fan of something. It’s a process, and it’s going to vary by background — was the person exposed to fantasy-like stories as a kid? Does the person read fiction at all, or was the last novel they read assigned reading for a class? What kinds of other things does the person like? Maybe start with something in their chosen genre that has some mild fantasy elements, like a paranormal mystery or romance. (Enchanted, Inc., is apparently a really good entry-level fantasy because it appeals to those who like mystery, romance, chick lit, or liked the Harry Potter books but haven’t read other fantasy.) Handing someone who hasn’t read a novel since college a doorstopper of a book that’s the first in a trilogy and that’s full of songs written in made-up languages is probably not going to go well.

One thing we need to be really careful about is the high-pressure recommendation, when we hand someone our absolute favorite book, which is in a genre they aren’t familiar with, and expect it to have the same impact on them as it did on us, with the strong sense that we can’t be friends anymore if they don’t like it and immediately like everything else we like. That’s doomed to failure. Maybe start with something that has lower stakes for you emotionally, and only move on to your all-time favorite book once you’ve laid some groundwork — and then maybe leave off the hype and the importance that book has for you.


Jane Austen, Master Worldbuilder

One area of interest that I’ve found a lot of fantasy and science fiction authors and fans share is the works of Jane Austen. I’m not sure what the connection is, other than perhaps the sense of worldbuilding. Austen wasn’t really doing worldbuilding the way we think about it. She was just writing what she knew, the society around her. But it’s such a vividly depicted world that’s utterly alien to modern readers that it functions like reading a fantasy or science fiction novel set in another world. We know exactly how her world works, what the social rules are, what the expectations are for each kind of person and how the different groups are meant to interact. We know what they do for leisure, what their spiritual beliefs are and how they vary from person to person in the way they actually carry them out. We know what their courtship rituals are and what the penalties are for violating those rules. If you’re writing about another world, reading Jane Austen will teach you a lot about how to depict that world in a story and use the rules of the world to create tension and conflict and to drive the plot.

Although there’s a lot more narrative exposition than you can get away with in a modern novel, the interesting thing about Austen is the way she lays out the rules and how they affect the plot. It usually comes through dialogue, and the dialogue happens because those rules are creating some kind of conflict, like Mrs. Bennet’s diatribes about entailment and inheritance laws that mean her daughters have to find good husbands because they won’t inherit their father’s estate. That drives most of what happens in the novel, and you come away from reading Pride and Prejudice understanding how it all works without there having been that much exposition.

PBS is currently showing the series Sanditon, which is based on the fragment of a novel Austen left unfinished when she died. She only wrote eleven chapters, and in those chapters she mostly established the main cast of characters and the situation they were in. The plot hadn’t really kicked in yet, other than setting up that it was going to have something to do with turning a small seaside town into a fashionable resort while a bunch of relatives are campaigning to inherit from a wealthy elderly woman who has no children to inherit. The TV series takes this setup and spins a story from it. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. I suppose it might be okay if you just take it as a costume drama that happens to be set in the Regency era. It doesn’t really work as any kind of Jane Austen story for me, mostly because I think the screenwriter forgot that one of the keys to Austen’s works was a strong sense of how that world worked. This show goes far astray from any sense of those rules and structures, but also without a sense of real tension coming from those rules or consequences of those rules being violated.

I kind of think Jane is spinning in her grave. I’m watching because I’m curious how it will all play out. The edition of the novel I have is completed by “another lady,” and I may read the rest of it to see how that author sees it. It’s like Jane Austen left a writing prompt and it’s up to us to figure out how to finish the story.


Reconsidering Darcy

Yesterday, my book group discussed Pride and Prejudice. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read it, but there are so many pop culture takes on it, so many adaptations, so many memes, that sometimes it’s hard to remember what comes from the book and what’s been added along the way. Reading the book again is like a revelation, stripping away all the baggage and getting back to the source, and I always notice something new.

I’ve never been a huge Darcy fangirl. I remember thinking of him as a jerk the first time I read the book (but I was reading the book for a course on satire, so I wasn’t reading it as a romance. I was looking for the snark). I found Colin Firth quite attractive in the miniseries, but I still wasn’t entirely sold on the character. As much as I love the book, I’ve never been one of those women swooning over Darcy or wanting to travel in time and meet him or even to meet the modern version.

But I noticed on this reading that the text is pretty clear that a lot of what Lizzie read as pride was actually social awkwardness, with the pride and snobbery used as a kind of social armor. It’s a lot easier to say “I’m not going to speak to those people because they’re beneath me” than to pull together the nerve to speak to someone when you’re feeling awkward in a crowd where you don’t know a lot of people. He’s got enough social grace to manage to look aloof and proud rather than tripping all over himself and being a dork, but basically he’s a dork who hides it well. That makes him a lot more endearing. But at the same time, he’s terrible at reading people, but arrogant enough to think he’s correct about people, which is a problem when he imposes his views on others.

I know Austen Twitter has started promoting Darcy as the poster boy for recognizing privilege and getting over it, and that is a strong thread in the book, where he starts from a place of assuming he knows best and Lizzie will be glad to take him, then realizes where he screwed up, and then sets out to change his ways and his attitude, then show her he’s changed, even using his privilege to help without expecting credit for it. He really has a satisfying character arc. The contrast between his first proposal, all, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” and the second proposal, “My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever,” is like a master class in how to talk to women. It goes from being all about him and her being obligated to listen to being about her and giving her the power not to listen.

But he wasn’t all gone in the earlier proposal. There’s a line that I love: “He listened without attempting to interrupt her.” That’s rather swoonworthy.

Plus, the best description of a slow-burn romance, when Lizzie asks him when he fell in love with her: “I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

I guess I’m Team Darcy now.


Recommended Reading

A few weeks ago, I had a reader question about what books I’d recommend to readers of my books who want more things like that.

That’s a little tricky. I haven’t really found anything quite like my books. That’s part of the reason that selling and marketing my books is so challenging. They aren’t much like anything else in the market, so there’s nothing editors can point to and say “this is like that, so we know how to market it and we know how it will sell.” And there’s nothing quite close enough for me to know the best way to package what I write. Most of the contemporary fantasy, for instance, is darker and has vampires and werewolves. Or if it was published as paranormal chick lit, it still has vampires or has a lot more sex. I haven’t really found anything else that has all the elements I’m looking for that I didn’t have to write for myself. The best I can do is find some things that work for me, with some caveats. There’s also a fine line between books I like and can recommend, with the idea that if you like my books, you might like some of the same books I like, and books that I really think will give people a similar reading experience as my books do.

This may become an ongoing series, since I know that the moment I post, I’ll think of dozens of others. And if you have suggestions, feel free to comment, and I can later add reader recommendations to future posts.

Obviously, there’s the Harry Potter series. Wanting something like that, but for grown-ups, was what spurred me to write Enchanted, Inc. in the first place. I’ve seen a review of my books that wondered if they had origins in Harry Potter fan fiction, and the answer is no. I’ve never even mentally written Harry Potter fanfic. These were never characters or situations from that world. It’s just that I was basically Hermione when I was that age, and since I related to her tween/teen experiences, I found myself wanting to read about adult issues with magic involved. I really wanted a cross between chick lit and fantasy and couldn’t find it, so I wrote it.

About the closest I found in contemporary fantasy when I was researching the market to see what was out there was Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. It’s a lot darker and edgier than my books, but it does have that sense of whimsy and quirkiness and a way of making you look at the city in a different way, like there’s magical stuff going on around you that you aren’t seeing if you aren’t looking for it.

She writes science fiction rather than fantasy, but I think some of Connie Willis’s books are in kind of the same niche as the Enchanted, Inc. books, in that they have that sassy romantic comedy voice and all kinds of chaos going on, only the chaos has to do with science rather than magic. Of her older books, there’s Bellwether and Remake. More recently, there’s Crosstalk, which is outright a science fiction romantic comedy. Her To Say Nothing of the Dog is a Victorian time travel book that may be of interest to fans of Rebel Mechanics. It takes place around the same time, and one of the characters even has the same name as my heroine (I didn’t name her after this book, though this book was where I discovered the name. I used it for different reasons).

Fans of Enchanted, Inc. and A Fairy Tale might also like the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. They are a bit darker and get pretty violent, even gory, but they’re contemporary fantasy with a bit of a sassy tone, and they draw heavily upon folklore, looking at what beings from folklore might be doing in the modern world.

Some of the Heather Webber/Heather Blake (same person under different names) mysteries remind me of the Enchanted, Inc. books in tone. The Heather Webber ones may be a bit more romancey/sexy. The Heather Blake ones do a lot of magical worldbuilding and have a secret magical society in parallel with the normal world.

The Rogue Agent books by K.E. Mills are kind of like if the Enchanted, Inc. books and the Rebel Mechanics books had a baby. They have the magical organization like in the Enchanted, Inc. books but take place in a quasi-Victorian steampunky setting. They do take the occasional turn to very dark and her hero goes through all kinds of torture, though. I actually stumbled on these when I ran across the second book in the series, Witches Incorporated, in a publisher catalog and thought it might be like Enchanted, Inc., so I got the first book and discovered that it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but I still liked it. Supposedly, the author sold another few books in this series, but I haven’t seen any news about them being published.

I’ll keep digging through my reading logs and bookcases to come up with more recommendations.


Stars Aligning in a Quaint Village

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of what would have been called “chick lit,” though I suppose that term is anathema in publishing right now, and the more recent stuff is an evolution of what was around in the early 2000s rather than being much like it (far less urban, less shopping, less sex). I’ve been in a frame of mind when I didn’t want a lot of tension, and that makes it a lot more pleasant to read something in which the stakes are more like “will she ever get together with that cute guy and make her bakery/shop a success?” than like “will they escape the Death Knights in time to stop the encroaching Darkness before the evil sorcerer ends the world?” I think I’d maxed out on fantasy and needed a break.

As I’ve read the mostly British stuff — since American publishers don’t seem to be publishing it, other than re-publishing the more successful British authors — I’ve noticed a couple of key tropes that are popping up all over the place. There are books without these, but not many.

One is the “I’m scrapping my life in the city and moving to a quaint village in the Cotswolds/Scotland/the Cornish coast to start that cafe/bakery/bookstore/boutique I’ve always dreamed of” story. Usually, it’s kicked off by the heroine losing (or quitting) her job and/or breaking up with her boyfriend, and so she goes to start a new life. She may struggle in the new environment but also meets some charming local guy.

The other is what I guess you could call the “stars aligning” plot. It’s when two people meet and really hit it off, but there’s some external obstacle keeping them from getting together at that time — one (or both) is in a relationship, one of them lives elsewhere and is just passing through, or one of them is about to start a job far away. Then a year or so later, they run into each other again, and while that obstacle is no longer an issue, there’s another one. Repeat for however many years until the stars finally align and they end up together. So, in meeting #1, she’s intrigued, then learns he’s dating someone. In meeting #2, he’s available, but she’s just about to start a new job in New York. Meeting #3, he’s married. Meeting #4, his wife has just died tragically, so he’s not even thinking about dating. Meeting #5, he’s ready to move on, but she’s dating someone. Etc. If you’re the wife in one of these books, you’re better off if you’re an absolute witch who cheats on him (thereby justifying the divorce) because if you’re a nice person, you’re going to die tragically either in a car crash or of a fast-acting cancer.

I wonder if these are particularly British fantasies or if it’s just that this sort of book doesn’t get published in the US right now. In general, if the heroine is younger, it’s published as more of a straightforward romance. I don’t read a lot of those now, but I do recall the “moving to a small town and starting a business” plot was fairly common in category romance. The difference is that in these books, the business plot is more the main plot with the romance as something that happens along the way. For women’s fiction, where the other life stuff is the focus, in American books it seems to be more about older women, so the standard plot is that the middle-aged woman gets dumped or cheated on by her husband and moves back to her home town with her teenage kid, where she reunites with her first love, who is conveniently available.

I suppose it could also be a selection bias, where I tend to be drawn to these plots, though I don’t recall picking books on this basis. I’m usually drawn to some other aspect, then find that they’re also one of these stories. I’ll admit, the whole “chuck everything and go live in the Cotswolds” thing is really appealing because I love that area. I wouldn’t start a bakery or bookstore, though. I’d be that mysterious and reclusive American author who rents a cottage in the village to work on a book and gradually gets drawn into village life.

I haven’t really had that stars aligning problem with relationships, though I did go through a phase in my early to mid-20s in which everyone I met and found interesting or went out with ended up getting a job somewhere else. It got to be such a pattern that it became a joke. There was the guy who visited the church singles department for the first time on the same Sunday I did, so we ended up sitting together and hanging out, and I found him very promising. At a party the next weekend, he saw me when he arrived and made a beeline to come sit with me. Things were going well, and then he announced that he was moving to Malaysia the next week for a year (he was a petroleum engineer). I had all kinds of hopes for what might happen when he moved back, but if he did, he didn’t come back to that church. Then there was the guy I probably had the most fun date I’ve ever had with, who announced the following week that he and his friends had decided to move to Colorado together. And the guy I was just starting to hit it off well with who then went to grad school (actually, he was in grad school and living in Dallas while working on his dissertation, but he had to move to the university he was attending for a semester to be “in residence” to get his degree, though I don’t know when/if he came back to town). And there was the boyfriend who applied to the FBI soon after we started dating and was surprised to get called in for the exam, and then passed the exam and went on to the more serious interview phase (he subsequently vanished, so I have no idea if he got into the academy or became an FBI agent).

I never ran into any of these guys again, with or without a complication, so I guess the stars didn’t align for us, but I can see why that might be fun for me to read about. I finally realized that maybe this was all a sign I was supposed to stay single, if everyone I was interested in was immediately moved out of range.

And, sadly, even the middle-aged moms moving back home after their marriages fall apart are younger than I am now. Yikes.

Hmm, I wonder what it would take to rent a cottage in the Cotswolds. I think you can stay up to six months on a tourist visa.


In Defense of Jane Eyre

A while ago, there was a thing circulating among the classic literature fan groups on Twitter (and, yes, there are classic literature fan groups on Twitter) about figuring out the kind of person you are based on which classic literature you loved when you were a kid/teen, with the choices being Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre/Wuthering Heights, and if you chose the Brontes, you were supposedly someone who gets into unhealthy relationships and maybe is a bit goth.

I read Little Women as a child and didn’t like it much. The only character I liked was Jo, and I hated her outcome, and the rest of it I thought was a bit too sweet/cute. Plus, I’ve never had much interest in the US Civil War era. I didn’t read Pride and Prejudice until I was a junior in college, so I didn’t have an impression of it as a kid/teen. But I did read Jane Eyre for the first time in fifth grade, and I absolutely loved it. I may still like it a bit more than Pride and Prejudice, but they’re two very different moods, so I’d never enjoy one while I was in the mood for the other.

But I’ve never been all that “goth,” and I don’t have a thing for bad boys and unhealthy relationships. However, I’ve never read Jane Eyre as a romance. To me, the romance has always been secondary (in the book itself, though the film and TV adaptations focus on it). The book is really about a woman’s self-determination, going from being a pawn of fate to taking control of her fate. As a child, she’s subject to her aunt’s whims, she’s taken away to a school where she doesn’t even get to establish herself as herself, since she’s labeled based on what her aunt says, then she ends up working with someone who wants to control her life. Every step of the way, she remains true to herself. She refuses to lie to her aunt, even though she knows telling the truth will get her in trouble. She holds fast to her own identity in the terrible school and learns to stick to her faith and avoid things like revenge and hatred. When she learns Rochester has been lying to her about the mad wife in the attic, she refuses to live a lie with him and takes off on her own, but then when St. John Rivers wants her to live a different kind of lie, marrying him but living as brother and sister to be missionaries, she also refuses that, insisting on sticking to what she knows is right for herself. She builds a life for herself, doing something she believes in and knows is important. I’ve always found her story to be very inspiring. It’s not about her finding some fairytale prince to take her away from her troubles. She’s worked that out for herself before she gets the inheritance, and she has that inheritance before she goes back to Rochester, so she’s able to do so on her own terms and with a much more even power dynamic.

As for the relationship, I don’t think it’s the “she reformed the bad boy with her love” kind of unhealthy thing that people keep categorizing it as. Really, she reforms him with her contempt. When she finds out who and what he really is, she leaves him without a word. She doesn’t return to him until he’s had a big downfall and changed. Her contempt seems to have had a lot to do with him taking a good look at himself and realizing where he went wrong. I don’t see that as being too unhealthy. The unhealthy thing would have been sticking with him in the hope that he’d change, but if he changes on his own while she’s gone, then he might be worth taking a second look at. Still, I’ve never idealized that relationship. I’ve just admired her strength in being willing to walk away from him.

I last re-read Jane Eyre just before I started work on the book that became Rebel Mechanics. I originally had an idea of making it something sort of gothic-like, with the governess ending up in the spooky house full of secrets and lies. But Lord Henry refused to be a mysterious, brooding Rochester type, so I dropped that angle entirely. There were still secrets and lies, but the tone ended up being very different.

As for Wuthering Heights, I read that in my early 20s and again a few years ago, and I don’t see it as all that romantic. I don’t think it’s meant to be romantic. Heathcliff is clearly the villain of that book, not a romantic hero. In the 19th century Romantic movement sense, I think it’s more about nature vs. civilization, and Heathcliff and Cathy might have been okay if they’d been left alone to follow their natures, but they were destroyed by society trying to “civilize” them and put them into social constraints based on class. I’m not a huge fan of that story, but I do think it gets a bad rap from the misinterpretation as being a romance.


Historical Language vs. “Historical” Language

My first day of Book in a Week went pretty well, with a little more than 6,000 words for the day. I’m going to try to top that today.

Meanwhile, in reading, I suppose I’ve been on a Regency kick, reading Jane Austen and other books set during that period. There was Sorcerer to the Crown, then I read a modern author’s sequel to Sense and Sensibility (about Margaret when she’s grown up), and now I’m reading a Georgette Heyer book from the To Be Read shelf.

One thing I’m finding interesting is that the actual Austen was easier to get through than the modern books set in that time. The language is more florid than in most of our modern literature, but it’s still simpler and more straightforward than the modern books that are trying to imitate that style. I suspect it’s because the more modern authors are attempting “worldbuilding” in re-creating a time and place they aren’t actually experienced with. They’re trying to mimic the style of the time. Austen was just writing contemporary books without trying to build anything. She was writing about her own time and place, using the language she used in everyday life.

I think another difference with the Heyer may be that she’s writing about a different kind of people. Austen focused on the country gentry while Heyer tends to deal with the titled nobility, those who go to London for the Season, and all that. She’s trying to use the flash slang of the upper class. In the book I’m reading (Cousin Kate) she’s also dealing with a heroine who’s the daughter of a soldier and who grew up around the military, so she’s picked up a lot of that slang. And then there are the lower-class characters who use their slang. I’m having to practically translate as I read. I can’t help but wonder quite how accurate her use of language is — does it really come from the period, or is she making up something to give an impression?

The straightforward language may be one reason Austen is still so widely read today. It’s a bit more difficult than reading modern books, but it’s not as though it’s almost a foreign language.

When I write in historical-type settings (whether alternate history or another world in a period similar to our history), I try to do just enough to give a sense of flavor without making it hard to decipher. I don’t want my language to throw anyone out of the story.


If Jane Austen Wrote Fantasy

I’ve been on a Jane Austen kick lately — not just reading Austen (though I have, since one of my friends started a Jane Austen book club), but reading biographies and things about that era. The one thing her books are missing is magic, and I’ve recently discovered a series that takes care of that. Well, with books like you might imagine Jane Austen might have written if she’d been writing fantasy, not those mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The first book in the series is Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho. A young man has recently taken the role of Royal Sorcerer after the death of the previous one, his mentor, and he’s got a number of crises on his hands. For one thing, the other sorcerers aren’t too keen on him, given that he’s an African former slave bought, freed, and adopted by his mentor, and they’re just looking for an excuse to strip him of his office. For another thing, amounts of magic in England have slowed to a trickle, and if he can’t figure out and resolve the problem, that will give his enemies ammunition against him. And then there are the magical assassination attempts. Things get even crazier when he goes to speak at a girls’ school and realizes that the conventional wisdom about women being incapable of handling magic is all wrong. The school is supposed to be teaching girls how to suppress their magic so it won’t harm them, but there are some powerful magicians there — especially one girl who’s sort of a teacher, sort of household staff, the orphaned daughter of a friend of the headmistress. She’s powerful enough that she has to be taught. But insisting on teaching women isn’t going to make him any more popular. Meanwhile, she’s just starting to uncover her own startling legacy and doesn’t have a lot of interest in boring lessons. She does, however, want to find a husband who can support her endeavors.

This is such a fun book that I’d recommend to fans of Jane Austen or those who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It’s written in a very Austen-like style. The characters fairly jump off the page. The dialogue is witty and vivid and at times is laugh-out-loud funny. There’s action, magical battles, drawing room intrigue, and a dash of romance. The second book in the series was in my goody bag at the Nebulas Conference, so I found the first book, and I’m about to break my rule about not reading a series back-to-back since this is exactly the sort of thing I’m in the mood for.

In other news, I’ll be taking a break from blogging next week because I’m volunteering for Vacation Bible School, and that will eat up my mornings. See you the week after that!


Questioning Sense and Sensibility

I recently re-read Sense and Sensibility (I’m in a Jane Austen book club, and that’s our next book), and as much as I love dear Jane, I had some serious issues with this book.

I’ve always kind of thought that Elinor and Colonel Brandon would have been a better match than Brandon and Marianne, but I thought that was mostly because of the movie, since Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman have played a couple elsewhere. I was really surprised on this re-read to find that the impression is even stronger in the book. In fact, I got the impression that Jane (we’re professional peers, so we’re on a first-name basis) kind of felt that way, too.

All the other characters seem to think Col. Brandon and Elinor are an item, especially after the truth comes out about Edward’s engagement. People are always assuming they’ll end up together, and Elinor has to keep correcting them. There’s even this whole bit where Mrs. Jennings overhears part of their conversation about him giving a living to Edward and misinterprets it to think he was proposing to her, with it taking some effort to untangle the confusion. There are far more scenes of Elinor and Brandon interacting than there are of Brandon and Marianne or Elinor and Edward. There’s even a line about how Brandon talks to Elinor and looks at Marianne. Jane really seems to like writing their relationship and their interactions. All the evidence cited for him being in love with Marianne is really just evidence that he’s a good and decent man, not anything specific to his feelings for Marianne. It’s more that their mother thinks he’d be good for Marianne than that there’s any real affinity between them. If I didn’t know the outcome, I would have assumed for much of the book that the happy ending would be Elinor realizing that Edward’s a bit of a twit and Brandon getting over his infatuation with Marianne and realizing that Elinor’s right there and far more stable and sensible.

Which makes me wonder about Jane’s process. Was she a plotter? Did she plan out the book with the outcome she wanted, but then the characters kept trying to go their own way and she fought it through the whole book before forcing them into the outcome she wanted at the end? Or, since she was often a rather caustic satirist, was it all deliberate? Was she making some kind of point rather than being sincere about this being the best outcome for the characters?

And Edward really is a bit of a twit. You don’t notice so much in the movie because he’s Hugh Grant, and Emma Thompson’s screenplay expands his role and makes him far more charming (and in the more recent TV version he’s Dan Stevens, and the screenplay has him doing manly stuff like chopping wood), but he’s a rather dull, lifeless character in the book. Even Jane doesn’t seem that interested in him because she keeps him almost entirely offstage. He’s someone they talk about, but he’s seldom actually there, and even when he is there, he doesn’t do much.

I know the whole deal with his secret engagement is a cultural issue that’s hard for us to understand. In that era, he really would have been considered brave and honorable for sticking to an engagement even after he realized he wasn’t really in love with the woman and even in the face of family disapproval, while we think he’s a wimp for not being able to break it off. But there’s still plenty about his behavior to raise eyebrows about. In the book, when he’s explaining himself to Elinor at the end, he even makes excuses, saying he never would have become engaged if his sister’s brother had given him a job after he finished school and before he went to Oxford because then he’d have been distracted and he’d have forgotten his infatuation. So, it’s someone else’s fault for not giving him a job, rather than his own fault for not finding a job and for taking a gap year to be idle rather than going straight on to Oxford or doing something worthwhile? And then there’s the fact that he’s attentive enough to Elinor that everyone who observes them assumes they’re as good as engaged while he’s actually engaged to someone else. That’s actually worse than Willoughby, who isn’t attached while he’s involved with Marianne. Not to mention that he strung his engagement along for four years rather than facing his mother about it. And this is the guy the heroine ends up with? (In the book, he’s not nearly as attractive as Hugh Grant or Dan Stevens, either.)

That’s what makes me wonder if there’s some satire going on. Are we supposed to think everything worked out right, or are we supposed to be smirking about all the things that are silly about society to lead to this outcome?

This is possibly the least timeless of Austen’s novels because there’s no good way to update the main plot. You can do the flighty emotional sister and the calm, rational one, but the Edward and Elinor plot doesn’t work in a modern setting. The key things are that he’s in a relationship he can’t get out of honorably even though he wishes he could because he’d rather be with Elinor and that this relationship is a secret, so Elinor has to suffer heartbreak in silence while her sister is having histrionics and acting as though she’s the only one ever to have her heart broken. In today’s world, Edward would have just given Lucy the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech and broken up when he wised up. You’d probably have to make them actually be married, so that ending the relationship is much more serious, but then there’s the secret part. You’d have to contrive a reason for them to have to keep their marriage a secret so that Elinor can’t even tell her sister that she’s heartbroken and can never be with the man she loves. If you move it into the modern world, Edward becomes almost as bad a villain as Willoughby since he’s leading on one woman while involved with another woman he has no plans to split up with, and about the only reasons I can think of for him maintaining a relationship he doesn’t want and keeping it secret involve money, which doesn’t make him look good (then again, that’s why he’s keeping it secret in the book, since he knows he’ll be disinherited if his mother knows).

It might be fun to do an update that fixes all these things. Have both Elinor and Brandon wise up and end up together.