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Ocean at the End of the Lane lgPhantasmagorical is how I would describe Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

That is not to say this is a book of pure fantasy. Gaiman grounds his story in the ordinary, as told from the viewpoint of a seven-year old, unnamed boy. His father burns the toast each morning, his sister annoys him, and his great excitement is the weekly arrival of the new SMASH! comic.

This story feels real even as it veers off into the fantastic. The monsters are both human (his father, the opal miner) and supernatural (Ursula Monkton), and the shadows that lurk are predatory. There’s also a clever and creepy-crawly twist on the space-time theory of wormholes. All of this becomes plausible via Gaiman’s dark magical realism.

However, it is the emotional pull that gives this book its heft. Gaiman really taps into the fears of childhood, whether it’s the need for a hall light at bedtime or the helplessness of being in the grip of a menacing adult. The reader feels how important a kitten, or a new friend, can be to an awkward, bookish boy.

The whole story is permeated with a sense of loss—the loss of childhood, the loss of familiar things, the loss of loved ones. We first meet the narrator as a middle-aged adult, returning to his boyhood home for a funeral. The house is gone, replaced by tract housing, and most of the area is beyond recognition.

This particularly resonated with me, as I too went back to my childhood home to find that all the places once sacred to us kids were gone. The forest, where we believed a witch lived; the apple grove, where we climbed trees; and the tiny fish pond—all scraped and replaced by new houses with manicured gardens.

Though most of the novel takes place when the narrator is seven, this is not a children’s book. There are some very mature and disturbing themes. The bathtub scene, in particular, really rattled me, and my one complaint is that Gaiman never fully resolves this. I think best for parents to read first.

Early on, the young hero tells us that he “liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories.” This seems to be exactly what Gaiman is aiming for with The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is a mythical, frightening, and mostly satisfying read.

This would be perfect pick for a gift for Neil Gaiman’s own #AllHallowsRead or as a scary read for the Halloween meme #Mx3 at Jenn’s Bookshelves.

Halloween Reads on Word Hits:

Join Us for a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Death in the City of Light by David King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read

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Ghost Stories of Edith WhartonIf a book could at once be chilling and cosy, that is how I would describe The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. The settings of these tales will be familiar to Wharton’s readers: old New York, rambling country estates, wintry New England, and the Europe of American expats.

Moody and atmospheric, each story quickly drew me in, and I felt that wonderful, familiar pleasure in reading Wharton. But very soon, things begin to go off.

As I read, I grew tense and unsettled. While these are not horror stories, they leave you feeling creeped out and vulnerable. (I had to switch to lighter fare at bedtime.)

Wharton evokes the mysterious and supernatural. As she does to her characters, Wharton keeps the reader guessing about what is actually going on. These stories reminded me very much of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

Ironically, this ambiguity gives the stories a realistic, firsthand quality. You get that same tingle that you would when sitting around a campfire in the woods. Except in Wharton’s version, it’s a dwindling fire in the dark library of a “damp Gothic villa.” Wharton sets one of these villas in Irvington, New York—named for Washington Irving (famed for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Wharton was also a great fan of Edgar Allen Poe.

In the book’s introduction, British crime writer David Stuart Davies explains that Wharton was at once terrified of and fascinated by ghost stories.

“I could not sleep in a room with a book containing ghost stories and that I have frequently had to burn books of this kind because it frightened me to know they were downstairs in the library.”—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

Perhaps this fascination with the paranormal has carried on into Wharton’s own afterlife? Her home The Mount has been the scene of many ghost sightings. They’ve even posted online gallery of spooky images and offer “ghost tours.”

I highly recommend this book. It offers all the joy of reading Edith Wharton, plus some very spooky moments. Said Wharton of a good ghost story:

“If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.”

She has achieved just that!

This would be perfect pick for a gift for Neil Gaiman’s #AllHallowsRead or as a scary read for the Halloween meme #Mx3 at Jenn’s Bookshelves.

NOTE: There are several collections of Wharton’s ghost stories. I chose the Wordsworth Edition (paperback; published 2009;  ISBN: 9781840221640) as it had the most stories. I also really enjoyed the forward by Davies.

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top 10 books read so far 2013

Some of my Top 10–the others have been passed along.

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly book blogger’s meme organized by The Broke and The Bookish. This week this topic is the Top Ten Books Read So Far in 2013.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Technically I read this late last year, but I just loved it! It’s even better than Wolf Hall. I had to give it a shout-out as I’ve been meaning to blog about Mantel.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (reread)
I have been rereading this in several iterations for the P&P Bicentenary Challenge. I was so excited to also discover a graphic novel version by Marvel.

Eventide, by Kent Haruf
Haruf returns to Holt, Colorado in his spare, inviting prose. This is a truly satisfying sequel to Plainsong, which I loved. I enjoyed but am not gushing over Benediction, his new book which takes place years later with a different cast.

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather (reread)
This achingly beautiful classic shows the hard life of early settlers in Nebraska. Cather paints a vivid and nostalgic picture of the last days of the red-grass prairies and that immense, untracked emptiness.

The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell
This is a twisty, pulpy, noir with a devious unreliable narrator. Rindell infuses her tale with the snazzy glamour of 1920’s New York: speakeasies, flappers, and lavish parties in the Hamptons.

Revolutionary Summer, by Joseph J Ellis
A fascinating and stirring read. Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
I have long been entranced by the poetic, magical realism spun by Erdrich. This book also pulls readers along with a thread of suspense. This is not my favorite by Erdrich, but a very good book nonetheless.

Sinners and the Sea, by Rebecca Kanner
Kanner has given us a sharply drawn work of literary fiction that is also an addictive read. Narrated by Noah’s unnamed wife, this is a bit like Noah’s Ark meets The Red Tent meets the Titanic-in-reverse.

A Storm of Swords, by G.R.R. Martin
I cannot recommend these books enough! Martin has me totally wrapped up in this magical, mysterious realm. Be warned though—this series is unputdownable book crack.

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
Ah, another bubbly, chic-lit delight from Sophie Kinsella. This is one of her best and funniest, right up there with the first two Shopaholic books. Breezy, book candy. #BeachRead

Under the Dome, by Stephen King (almost done)
Ok, this makes 11, but I am surprised by how much I’m enjoying this! I haven’t read much King and was spurred to pick this up by the #DomeAlong group read. Suspense, psychological intrigue, and loaded with King’s trademark easter eggs.

What is the best book you have read so far this year? I’d really appreciate some book recommendations, please.

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revolutionary_summerI really enjoyed Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph J. Ellis. This book offers several fascinating and new (to me) insights on that seminal time frame from May to October of 1776, which Ellis calls “the crescendo moment” in American History.

Ellis puts a somewhat sympathetic focus on General William Howe. Ellis explains the thought process behind Howe’s cautious military strategy, particularly his aspirations of diplomacy. Rather than crush the rebellion, Howe wanted to return to Britain having brought the Americans back into the fold. He believed, as did many of his countrymen, that the cry for independence came from a loud minority and not from the general American public. This was reinforced by the welcome he got when he landed on Long Island, then the largest concentration (with New York) of loyalists to the crown. Howe’s strategy was to demonstrate his martial dominance, thus bringing the Americans to their senses, and then negotiate peace with them. He had several opportunities early on to end the war with a decisive blow, but held back. Ellis adds a whole new intrigue to the dance between Howe and Washington, as we see each misinterpreting the other’s motives and moves.

Ellis also seeks to dispel the myth of the Minutemen, whom fables (and even schoolbooks) have credited with beating the British. In fact, these state militias were just that … only in for a minute. They were the last to show for battle and the first to desert. Washington complained to John Hancock, “great numbers of them have gone off, in some cases by whole Regiments.”

Joseph J. EllisInstead, it was the trudging, poorly-rationed regulars of Washington’s Continental Army, who fought the hardest and who kept up the battle, which became a drawn-out war of attrition. The states preferred to outfit their own militias, or Minutemen, rather than supply a unified army. This was partially due to regional loyalties, the beginnings of the state vs federal clash, and also because “the very idea of a robust Continental Army was generally regarded as an American version of the British Army.” This mistrust promoted word-of-mouth praise of Minutemen accomplishments. The press happily went along and reinforced this.

Indeed, I was a bit shocked to discover how controlled and complicit the press was in furthering “the Cause.” While they prominently reported unfavorable news about Howe and the British, they kept silent on Washington’s dramatic setbacks. “Most of the population remained ignorant that the Continental Army had suffered any kind of defeat at all … American newspapers did not report it.” Very interesting considering that “freedom of the press” would ultimately be such a cornerstone of our constitution.

Ellis also spends a great deal of time on the Dickenson Draft, the first outline of the Articles of Confederation. Already there are kernels of unrest between those who would later become federalists or states’ rights advocates. And already there is a giant schism between the north and the south over slavery, so much so that southern states threatened “an End of the Confederation.”

founding_brothersOverall, Ellis kept me thinking and rethinking a period which I have read so much about. He peppers his arguments with erudite allusions to Aquinas, Thebes, Tolstoy, the Peloponnesian Wars, and such comparisons as Howe to Hannibal and John Adams to Cicero.

I highly recommend Revolutionary Summer! A stirring read with so much information for such a short book (only 185 pages). Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider. Finally, I also highly recommend Ellis’s book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Revolutionary Summer (Knopf)

Joseph J. Ellis official website

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other typistThe Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell is a twisty, noir page-turner. Fans of Gillian Flynn will definitely enjoy this book, which feels like Gone Girl set in the 1920s. Actually, strike that. The plot is totally different, nor is The Other Typist so dark. It’s snazzy!

What I mean is that Rindell also offers us an unreliable (and rather unsettling) narrator, Rose Baker, who spins out an alluring, slow-boiled plot.

Rindell sets the story in a New York City police precinct in 1923, when women have only recently been brought in as typists. I won’t divulge any other plot details, as the reveals will be best enjoyed firsthand.

The writing crackles with a sort of stylized, art-deco feel:

“We were headed into the long black nights of winter, and although it was only four o’clock, outside a cloudy sky was already turning from ash to soot. And yet inside the office there was still something vital, the peculiar sort of kindling that comes from human activity buzzing away in the falling dark of dusk. The electric lights still glowed, and the office thrummed with the sounds of telephones, voices, papers, footsteps, and the syncopated clacking of many typewriters all being operated at once.”

I was a tad concerned when I saw The Great Gatsby cited in the author’s acknowledgements page. That is sacred text. However, this is not an overblown attempt at replicating Fitzgerald. (Phew.) Though this would be a good pick for those who enjoyed the new film version of The Great Gatsby.

The Other Typist reads much like a paean to film noir classics of the 1940s and 1950s. At one point Rose says of another character, “Gib and I were building up a slow tolerance for each other, the way some people slowly build a tolerance for a specific kind of poison.”

Overall, The Other Typist is clever, atmospheric, and unpredictable. There’s a lot of buzz online about the ending—so avoid the spoilers!

The Other Typist

Suzanne Rindell

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Sinners and the Sea picSinners and the Sea tells the story of Noah’s Ark from the viewpoint of his unnamed wife. It’s a fascinating and beautiful read. The novel has been favorably likened to The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, which I liked … but this book I loved.

Noah’s tale barely takes up four pages of the Old Testament (Genesis 6:9). Kanner fills in the gaps with an impassioned look at what life was like for Noah’s wife, the family’s struggle with the sinners around them, and the giant, terrifying adventure of the ark. The wife is a sympathetic narrator and quickly drew me into her story.

Kanner does a wonderful job conjuring up this ancient world with spare but vivid prose.

“He turned and ran across the flat, sun-scorched earth so quickly that he sent up a cloud of dust. It seemed to pursue him as he got smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared into it.”

Kanner evinces the biblical tone and feel of the period without being stilted or dragged down by it. “Three hundred goats do not make a man a prophet,” says Noah. He is portrayed as rather gruff and rigid, but for me this lent authenticity to the book. Noah would have to be pretty hardened to take on such a task, knowing that everyone else in the world will die. Also, I really liked the shifting dynamic among the three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Kanner plays out the tension as the local villagers, who initially ridicule the ark, and then grow fearful when it nears completion. Once the waters come, the story takes on the panic of the Titanic in reverse, as people desperately try to crawl up the sides and climb aboard. Noah’s wife struggles with the sight of these people—the sinners—swirling and crying for help in the roiling seas. As the rains continue, she laments “I never knew how sharp water could be.”

After several weeks adrift, Noah admits to his wife that he misses the sinners. We realize this is partly because they are so alone and partly because preaching to them gave Noah a sense of purpose.

There are subplots and characters that I have not even touched upon, as I don’t like to give away too much. Suffice it to say, that Kanner did a great job of injecting human emotion (and some action-packed excitement) into a story that has become so rote in our culture. I also loved the way she wove in mythology: Methuselah, the long-lost mammoths, and the Nephilim race of giants.

Rebecca KannerFull disclosure, I met Rebecca Kanner a few years ago at a writers’ conference. (This did not influence my opinion. I bought the book myself and was not asked for a review.) Through Facebook, I’ve learned that she has a passion for literary authors such as Charles Baxter, Hilary Mantel, and Louise Erdrich. But, like me, she also devoured G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and The Hunger Games trilogy.

I was especially curious to see what kind of book she would write. In Sinners and the Sea, Kanner has given us a sharply drawn work of literary fiction that is also an addictive read.

Sinners and the Sea

Rebecca Kanner

Rebecca Kanner on Facebook

Noah’s Story in Genesis 6:9

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Files cover“Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place,
but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.”
—E. L. Konigsburg

I stopped and caught myself when I heard that E.L. Konigsburg passed away last Friday. It hurt. But almost immediately, that gave way to the familiar, deep-in happiness I always feel when I think of her. Oh, I loved her books when I was growing up!

Like Elizabeth, I had a pet frog so I was thrilled by the schemes and magic in Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. And, I have to point to Konigsburg’s tale of Eleanor of Acquitane, A Proud Taste for Scarlett and Miniver, for sparking my interest in biographies and historical fiction. (Cannot wait for the next Hilary Mantel!)

But most of all, I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—the story of Claudia and her little brother Jamie, who run away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Claudia is the reluctant adventurer. “Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside where it counts.”

Still, ‘the Mixed-Up Files’ had just enough adventure (and mystery) to keep me hooked, but there was also the research and library angle, which especially appealed to a bookworm like me. I’ve read the book countless times and have given it to almost every kid I know.  After they read it (and are in on the secret), it’s especially fun to take a child to the Metropolitan Museum to see the “Mixed-Up” haunts.

Claudia and Jamie spent a lot of time in the Egyptian galleries and the very bronze cat they admired is still in a case there. There are several period bedrooms on display, though the exact bed that the kids slept in has been dismantled. Likewise, the fountain they bathed in is gone, though there are several others in the Charles Engelhard Court. Finally, in a case of life imitating art—well, art imitating fiction—the Met recently put on display a small marble statue called the ‘Young Archer’ which may or may not have been carved by Michelangelo.

In fact, so many children ask about the book, that the museum has put out a special “Mixed-up Files” guide to their collection. (As opposed to the American Museum of Natural History, which pretty much has nothing from Night at the Museum. #disappointedkids)

In addition to being a great storyteller, Konigsburg wrote beautifully. When Elizabeth looks out at spring from her window she finds, “new green was all over … green so new that it was kissing yellow.” The author won two Newbery Medals and several other literary citations.

Konigsburg would often tell her readers, “before you can be anything, you have to be yourself. That’s the hardest thing to find.” Most of her novels were about self-discovery and that time in life when children start to define themselves with their actions and choices.

I like to think of E.L. Konigsburg starting off like the out-of-place, questioning Claudia and in her later years resembling the accomplished Mrs Frankweiler, smiling with her secret. I’m so grateful to Konigsburg, and I am sad that she is gone. But mostly, when I think of her, I feel that happiness and excitement which she so perfectly described, and I can still it flapping around a little.

Scholastic Book Clubs Tribute Page to E.L. Konigsburg

Washington Post: E. L. Konigsburg Obituary and Bio

New York Times Books: E. L. Konigsburg, Author, Dead at 83

WP Style Blog: To My Lawyer, Saxonberg, the Genius of E.L. Kongisburg

The Metropolitan Museum Kids Guide: the “Mixed-Up Files” Issue

The Metropolitan Museum Unveils a ‘Maybe’ Michelangelo

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triple covers

How, HOW did I not know that Marvel published a comic book, er graphic novel, of Pride & Prejudice?! It came out three years ago. I am hugely, abominably embarrassed. I wouldn’t even share this mortifying tale, except for the hope that others might benefit.

Let me say up front that this Marvel P&P is a gem. Regency romance meets comic book—pure genius!

p and p danceAs a kid, I loved Betty and Veronica and all the superheroes comics. I don’t read them much anymore. (I go to all the movies!) When I see the Marvel or DC logo, warm memories of childhood summers flush to the surface. For Christmas, I got my 10-year-old godson the DC Comics Encyclopedia. He already had the Marvel one (the boy is very advanced).

To blend Marvel with Jane Austen is such a frothy new twist (well, to me). The illustrations really capture the characters—except Mr. Collins could be more repellent. Also, Pemberley looks a bit like the White House, but overall the settings are spot on. The editors chose the best quotes—the banter between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the snobbery of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. They even included the moment when Darcy acknowledges that Jane Bingley is very pretty, “though she smiled too much.”

Here’s another great way to celebrate Pride and Prejudice’s 200th Anniversary. Even better news: Marvel has also come out with Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma. I haven’t been this excited since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

fun extra coverAusten Fans Celebrate 200 Years of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks: Boring to Brilliant

So Glad Jane Austen Made Me Do It

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

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P&P pen classicToday, January 28, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and celebrations abound both here and in the U.K. For many years now, P&P has been one of my favorite books. I confess, however, that when I first tried to read it I simply could not get into it. I was 15, and having been primed on Judy Blume and Danielle Steele, I wasn’t ready to appreciate Austen’s refined language and her subtle, yet nice, plot pacing (‘nice’ here in its regency-era connotation).

The characters all seemed stiff and a bit dull. Austen does a great job early on of making Mr. Darcy seem like rather a jerk, nor was the landed gentry thing working for me. My taste in heroes ran more towards Indiana Jones. But my eldest sister made me promise to finish, so on I read … until I got to the letter that Darcy writes Elizabeth after she has refused his marriage proposal:

“Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you.”

I burst into laughter, caught myself, and read it again. I ran to ask my sister who said that yes it was supposed to be funny. Suddenly, Mr. Darcy had some spunk and personality. I won’t go into the letter, which has important plot points. But through that missive, both Elizabeth Bennett and I became acquainted with a different side of Darcy. He’s actually very clever and amusing, something that Colin Firth managed to bring out so perfectly in the must-see BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice.

Recent editions of Pride and Prejudice.

Recent editions of Pride and Prejudice.

Not only did I fall for Darcy, I finally fell for Jane Austen. I flipped back to earlier parts of the book. Aha. Now I saw Mrs. Bennett as silly comic relief (not just tiresome). I howled when Mr. Bennett, weary of hearing about Mr. Bingley at the ball, retorts “say no more of his partners. Oh! That he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!” I just loved the supercilious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who scowls at Elizabeth’s piano playing and boasts: “if I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”

Aside from the caricatures, I grew to know the keen, observant, and witty ‘Lizzy’ Bennett. Instead of pining over sonnets, she quips, “I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!” Then, after her disastrous encounter with Darcy and her dear sister Jane’s own broken heart, Lizzy heads off on a walking tour. “Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I raced through Pride and Prejudice, with newfound enthusiasm, and then devoured Austen’s other novels. Like most Janeites, I’ve reread them so often that whole sections seem to be lodged in my head. My favorite keeps changing—sometimes Emma, sometimes Persuasion—really, must one choose? Still, Pride and Prejudice will forever be special to me because it sparked me to ‘get’ Jane Austen.

Austen Fans to Celebrate 200 Years of Pride and Prejudice

So Glad Jane Austen Made Me Do It

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

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ImageAs it’s Jane Austen’s birthday, December 16th, and also the season of giving, I wanted to spotlight an absolutely delightful collection of Austen-inspired short stories, Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress.

I should preface by saying that I am usually very skeptical about all the Jane Austen riffs. I avoid them as they can be painful, excruciating, to read. Mr. Darcy has been reimagined as everything from a hillbilly to a rock star to a (groan) vampire. (Thanks a lot Twilight!) All of this pop-culture running roughshod over Austen is simply “not to be bourne.” (Disclaimer here: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is pure genius, but that’s for another post.)

Part of the problem is that these knock-offs only make me pine for authentic Jane even more. But now, Janeites take note—the drought is over! A wonderful collection of short stories has done the unimaginable, the unthinkable. Austen’s beloved characters have come to life again in an enchanting series of vignettes, many of which are backstories or codas to our favorite novels. Well before Persuasion, Captain Wentworth earns his stripes as a Midshipman in the Royal Navy. We learn how Mr. Bennett landed himself his “very silly wife.” The now married Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy prepare for Georgiana’s ‘Coming Out’ ball. And, things get complicated when Mr. Knightley moves in with Emma and her father. Teensy spoiler alert: this story also offers happy news for poor Miss Bates. I loved getting another glimpse at these characters. It’s almost like the bonus deleted scenes you get with a dvd.

Jane Austen herself makes a few cameos, finishing up her Mansfield Park manuscript, and also acting as a sort of deus ex machina for star-crossed lovers in a very Austenesque Christmas tale. A few of the stories take place in modern times, including a clever ghost-busting romp in Northanger Abbey. The only glitch is that current owner, Mr. Tilney-Tilney, comes off sounding a bit more like Thurston Howell the Third than a British gentleman. Still, it’s a fun little parody, much in the vein of the original and complete with papers appearing and disappearing in the very chest that so vexed Catherine Morland. Indeed, most of the stories have similar sly ‘easter egg’ allusions for Janeites to uncover.

While, no one else can write like Jane Austen, these stories come close and they certainly capture her spirit. The collection reads almost like the literary equivalent to a tribute album.

Janeites will certainly delight in and savor Jane Austen Made Me Do It. A perfect Christmas gift. I usually pass books along, but this one is a keeper.

Jane Austen Made Me Do It–official link

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Jane Austen Unfinished Fragment Sold for $1.6 Million

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