The Wild Heavens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sarah Louise Butler
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I rarely buy books without first looking up the ratings and reviews on goodreads or checking out the hype about it. I like to stay on the pulse and read new and upcoming books, but I’ve been trying to stop reading books solely because of the hype and focus more on finding stories that intrigue me and that I think I will really like.

I love exploring local indie bookshops because the owners always have a deep love of reading and spend a lot of time crafting their inventory. I also love them because they’re a great place to find Canadian lit and books by local authors. The Wild Heavens was a purchase from a pop-up bookshop that showed up in my neighbourhood over the holidays and I was immediately drawn to the cover, which is gorgeous, and then the synopsis, which is set in BC.

I loved this book. It is a classic slow burn character driven novel, which is one of my favourite kinds of books, and I adored everything about it. It’s an extremely atmospheric book set in BC’s interior mountains and covers most of Sandy Langley’s life spent living there. Her grandfather settled in a cabin in the woods in the 1920’s and after the death of her mother, Sandy is brought up by her grandfather and becomes close friends with the only other kid in a neighbourhood, a young boy named Luke.

They grow up together exploring the wilderness and eventually become privy to one of Sandy’s grandfather’s greatest secrets – the encounter he had with a large 2 legged creature when he was wondering the mountains in the 1920’s and has spent the rest of his life trying to understand. The creature is known to Sandy as Charlie, but to the rest of us, names like Bigfoot or Sasquatch might sound more familiar.

Did I expect to fall in love with a book about Bigfoot? Definitely not, despite my intrigue at the story, the concept did sound just a little bit weird to me. But like any good book, the story is not always about what we think it will be about and even though Charlie formulates the narrative of the story, ultimately it’s not really about him. Rather it’s a story about growing up and growing old. It’s about the ways that life will challenge us and how our early experiences shape us into the people we become. It’s about finding love and losing it, the people who influence us, and the moments that make up a life – both happy and sad.

It’s a totally different story, but it some ways it reminded me a little of The Great Alone, which I also love. Setting is a critical part of the story and the isolated cabin in the mountains contributes to a deeply atmospheric feel that permeates the whole novel. More than anything, setting formulates these characters and I got completely lost in the romanticism of it. I love the mountains and the forests and the lakes and the snow. Despite not having a Charlie of my own to inspire me, I understood how a sense of place influenced and motivated these characters.

It is a heartbreaking story, but the characters moved me. The plot is subtle and if you’re looking for a fast paced novel, this is not it. But if you’re looking for a reflection of a life lived and a place loved, pick up The Wild Heavens and get lost in the story and setting within.

Emma

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1815 (read Jan. 2021 on audible)
Narrator: Emma Thompson & full cast

Emma was my final book in the Austen Audible collection! It was a re-read, but I knew I would like it better than the last time I read it. You can see my original review here, but I have written a new one to reflect my new opinions.

Emma is really quite the character. At the start of novel I found her hilarious, but I must admit I did find that my opinion of her character regressed the more time I spent with her. She is both a person that sees the best in people, but still wants to maintain the social order. She loves Mrs. Westen and is genuinely thrilled for her happiness. Likewise, she sees only good in Harriet, someone who is in reality much below her in social status. However her determinedness to see the best in Harriet is more indicative of her desire to commend herself than to actually elevate Harriet. What she really seeks is Harriet’s admiration as a friend and mentor. This makes her blind to the reality of Harriet’s situation and causes Harriet a great deal of harm over the course of the novel.

But while she sees nothing but good in characters like Harriet (who admire her), she sees only faults in characters like Jane Fairfax, who in reality she is jealous of. For all her class and wealth, Emma is clever, but she is also undisciplined and unable to appreciate in others what she herself lacks.

This book is very smart, yet I did find the narrative a little repetitive after a while. I said in my first review that I thought the book long and I am still inclined to agree. Where I think this book differs from her other books, is that there is no true villain. There are flawed characters, like Mrs. Elton (and Mr. Elton) and Frank Churchill, but they are only that – flawed. We are suspicious of Frank and from other novels, I’d come to expect a grand deception, so it was refreshing to see only poor judgement rather than outright malintent.

What this book really has going for it though is Mr. Knightly. I think the reason I gravitated to P&P and NA is because they both have well developed male leads. Mr. Knightly is present through the entirety of the novel and offers very sound judgement and advice throughout. Austen takes a bit of a different tact in this book by having characters that discuss Emma outside of her personal narrative. Emma is vain and Mr. Knightly is one of the few people that calls her out on it. I liked that he had a meaningful relationship with Emma, though he was somewhat more of a father figure for most of her life rather than a lover.

I also loved the inclusion of Jane Fairfax in the novel. She’s an excellent character through which to judge Emma because while we’re supposed to dislike her because Emma does, it quickly becomes evident that Emma is unfair and their relationship serves more to highlight Emma’s flaws. Where the novel is disappointing though is in Emma’s treatment of Harriet.

Harriet definitely gets the worst end of the stick. Fortunately Harriet’s prospects are not ultimately damaged by Emma and once they are finally separated, I’d argue that Harriet’s prospects are actually much improved as she is finally free to accept Mr. Martin’s proposal which would easily have made her happy from the start. But Emma’s meddling causes nothing but harm to Harriet and it was disappointing to see Emma avoid the situation by basically ditching Harriet, rather than to admit she’s been a bad friend. While she does admit this to herself, she never admits it to either Harriet or Mr. Knightly. It’s an interesting choice because it doesn’t show a huge amount of growth of Emma’s character.

Overall though, I liked this a lot better on the second read through and think this is one of Austen’s tightest plots.

Some of my personal highlights were (in no particular order):
– Emma immediately f*ing up Harriet’s marriage prospects
– Emma refusing to advise Harriet, but still manipulating her, only to be called out on it immediately by Mr. Knightly
– Emma’s dislike of Jane and how evident her jealousy
– Emma’s general obliviousness
– Mr. Knightly’s goodness, especially when he asks Harriet to dance
– Mrs. Elton’s meddling to the annoyance of everyone
– Emma still wanting the best for everyone, even if ill-informed

Mansfield Park

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1814 (read Jan. 2021 on audible)
Narrator: Billie Piper & full cast

Mansfield Park – my final Jane Austen. I left Emma for last in the Audible collection, but as it will be a re-read, I’ve now finished them all!

I was curious what I would think about Mansfield Park. I’ve heard it’s not a favourite and I was determined to like it just as much as the others, but alas, I didn’t. I still think it’s a great book and overall I would give it 3.5 stars, but something about it just wasn’t quite as endearing.

The reason a lot of people dislike MP (I’ve heard) is because of how timid and meek Fanny Price is. I admit, she doesn’t have quite the same draw as characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma, who are very self-assured, but it’s clear she’s intentionally written that way. One thing I appreciate about Austen is that despite having similar themes in all her books, each of her heroines is quite unique and Fanny was really a victim of circumstance.

Of all Austen’s books, this one reminded me the most of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favourite classics. While Fanny eventually finds her place at Mansfield Park, as a child, she is mistreated by every member of the family save Edmond. It wasn’t surprising that she grew to be so quiet and timid, yet I must praise her developing such morality. While everyone else at Mansfield lets their egos and vanity run away with them, Fanny is the sole voice of reason and propriety. Doesn’t sound like quite as much fun, but she becomes a very good reader of people.

I confess I struggled a little bit on this one to read the characters as well as Fanny. I had no idea where the plot was going as Austen is both reliable in her story telling, yet unpredictable. Knowing how it ends now I think I shall have to go back a read it again some day to see if I can’t pick up some more telltales of each of the character’s motivations. Fanny was much more perceptive than me as I found myself forgiving all of Henry’s previous transgressions and becoming quite a fan. Probably it was because I desperately didn’t want the novel to end with 2 cousins getting married, but while I could see through Mary Crawford, Henry had me quite duped.

However I think the main reason I didn’t love MP quite as much is because I didn’t find it as comic as Austen’s other books. To be fair, I had just read Northanger Abbey, which I think is the most comic of the lot, but I found the characters more vexing than funny. Still a sign of a good author, but I found it hard to find anything humorous about characters like Mrs. Norris. Likewise, while characters like Lydia are annoying, I still found her funny, whereas I found Maria extremely shallow and felt bad for thinking that she got her just reward (unfair I know when characters like Henry are just forgiven by society thanks to their wealth and sex). But mostly I was just sad about how Fanny was treated by her relatives.

The one thing I really liked about this book though was Fanny’s resolve not to marry Henry. She was pressured so much by her family and I honestly thought Henry seemed so sincere. I both wanted her to accept him, but also wanted her not to because it would only reinforce the terrible notion that a ‘no’ doesn’t really mean no, only that the individual needs to be better convinced. Women should be respected enough to know their own mind. Fortunately this wasn’t beyond Austen either and this quality in Fanny ended up raising her in everyone’s opinions when it was discovered what a scoundrel Henry really was.

Some of the my personal highlights were (in no particular order):
– Sir Thomas having his character redeemed and being good to Fanny
– The realization that while Fanny had a tough time at MP, she did ultimately gain from it and was raised in social class
– Henry deciding to woo Fanny for sport only to fall in love with her
– Fanny’s decidedness in not marrying Henry despite the pressure from every single person at Mansfield
– The love triangles and lack of discretion
– Fanny’s impression of her family when she returns home
– Grown adults acting out a play like children

Northanger Abbey

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1817 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Emma Thompson & Cast

Did I read this entire book in a day? Maybe, but honestly with the pandemic there’s not much else to be doing these days and I had the most wonderful time doing a jigsaw while listening.

I thoroughly loved this! 4.5 stars! I know NA does not have the same depth as her other works, but it was just so much fun to read! Catherine Morland is the spunkiest heroine and I loved watching her grow up and learn how to read people and navigate the world. She’s so hopelessly naïve, but it was endearing. Even though most of Austen’s heroines are young, I felt NA much more a coming-of-age story than any of her other books, and I do love a good coming of age story.

I don’t have as much to say about this one because, as I said, the themes don’t really have the same depth as P&P or S&S, but as far as humour and satire go I think this might be one of Austen’s best books. The way she satirizes gothic novels and literature in general in this book is just hilarious! There’s quite a difference between the first and second halves of the book, but I got a kick out of Catherine’s naïveté in the first half and her dramatization of Northanger Abbey in the second half.

I did find the ending a tiny bit jarring (may be a theme) with Catherine being sent away so unceremoniously, but overall I thought NA was comedic brilliance. It showcases Austen’s witty dialogue and her ability to convey characterization through discussion. Isabella and John are quickly shown to be totally insipid, while Henry showcases his intelligence and wit. That said, I loved the introduction of a female villain in this book!

My personal highlights were (in no particular order):
– Catherine thinking the General either murdered his wife or was hiding her in a dungeon
– Catherine having no idea about flirting or subtlety, with every comment going over her head
– Isabella’s incessant chatter and John’s egotistical ramblings
– Catherine finally dumping the Thorpe’s to go walking with the Tilney’s
– Austen’s defense of novels
– Catherine’s disappointment at Northanger Abbey being totally normal
– how Catherine’s imagination runs away with her after hearing Henry’s story
– how Catherine grows and finally learns how to judge the character of those around her

Sense and Sensibility

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1811 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Cast

Despite having already made one attempt at this book, I decided to make it my third read in the audiobook series. I never finished it on my first read-through and despite having read 60% of it, I remembered nothing of the content, so I knew a re-read would be more like a first read now that I’ve discovered my appreciation of Austen.

I read the full cast audiobook in just 2 days and loved it so much more! I’d still place P&P at the top of my list, but I’m between S&S and Persuasion for the second. I think I’d give the edge to S&S as overall I enjoyed it more than Persuasion, I just didn’t like the ending quite as much. Had the ending gone a different way I think this might have been a 5-star read for me, but alas, I have a few criticisms.

First let’s talk about what I liked though. This book was about sisters! I know her other books have sisters too, but the relationship between Elinor and Marianne was really central to the theme of this book (though I do love Elizabeth and Jane’s relationship in P&P as well). Elinor and Marianne embody the title of the book and despite their close relationship, could not be more different from one another when it comes to their approach to love. Elinor is sensible while Marianne is wildly romantic.

While the book starts with Elinor’s flirtation with Edward Ferras, we are quickly swept up into Marianne’s whirlwind romance with Mr. Willoughby. Elinor makes no assumptions about her relationship with Edward, but Marianne abandons almost every sense of Victorian propriety in her desire for Mr. Willoughby. And through it all Colonel Brandon stands patiently by wishing both sisters all the best. I definitely related more to Elinor and found Marianne to be too impulsive, but I did come to love her romantic heart and appreciate that though over the top – her feelings were thoroughly encouraged by Willoughby and that she shouldn’t held too much to blame.

The one thing I did remember from this book from both readings was the conversation between Mr. Dashwood and Fanny in the first chapter of the book. I bring it up because I think it is such a fine example of Austen’s brilliance. It’s not often that you see so much dialogue in a book, but Austen really is the master of it. One conversation between John and Fanny about the fortunes of the Dashwood sisters told me everything I needed to know about both their characters. They really are the most odious people and if I was Elinor I would have found it so hard not to call them out on their selfishness and greed.

As a villain, I think Mr. Willoughby may be one of my favourites thus far. He is so deliciously evil, yet we get to see something from him that is absent from both villains in P&P and Persuasion: remorse. He’s still a total scoundrel, but his final conversation with Elinor humanizes him and I enjoyed getting to see a more 3-dimensional villain. That said, I also loved Elinor’s observation of his fickleness. He’s able to regret that he married for money rather than love now that he has the comfort of money. But had it been the other way around, he likely would have had the same regret that he married for love now that he had no money.

What I liked about S&S as well was the return to a well developed love interest. Colonel Brandon was such an example of caring and goodness. He’s a constant throughout the novel, yet he never asks anything of the Dashwood sisters. He supports them both, assists them in any way he can, and only wishes them both every happiness. We get an interesting back story about him that again, demonstrates the strength of his character.

What disappointed me was how the romance was resolved. I liked both Elinor and Marianne, but as the main focus of the novel, I related much more with Elinor and wanted so much to see her happy. I thought everyone was misreading Colonel Brandon’s intentions and that he was actually going to end up with Elinor. I cared much less for Edward. The whole saga with Lucy only served to make me care more for Elinor and resent both Lucy and Edward. I know we’re told he no longer cares for Lucy, but has too much honour to get out of it, but the treatment of the whole thing made me think him unworthy of Elinor.

He lead her on in the beginning and though he had real feelings for her, I felt he should never marry Lucy just because he made a promise to her. I understand that the thought was very different in Austen’s time and that couples came to really know one another after the marriage and that once a proposal was made, it should be kept, but Austen was ahead of her time and I thought Elinor and Colonel Brandon would have made a better couple. I would have been totally fine with Marianne not finding love at all in this book. She showed a lot of growth at the end and came out of her heartbreak with renewed love for her sister and appreciation for her family.

Which brings me to my final point. While I could see Elinor with Colonel Brandon, I just couldn’t see him with Marianne. They had little interaction throughout the novel and less chemistry. He was enamoured with her musical talent, but I thought he shared an emotional connection with Elinor and I found it hard to believe Marianne would fall for him. Likewise with Elinor becoming attached to Edward at the end, I felt we never really got to know Edward and I struggled to understand Elinor’s love for him.

So overall I really enjoyed the characters and storyline, but the ending left something to be desired. Austen is still a romanticist and I just wasn’t feeling the final pair-ups.

Highlights of the book for me were (in no particular order):
– the opening dialogue between John and Fanny Dashwood
– the relationship between Elinor and Marianne
– everything about Colonel Brandon, particularly his backstory
– Marianne’s unbridled desperation to see Willoughby
– the added depth to Willoughby’s character
– John Dashwood hoping everyone else but him would provide for his sisters
– John Dashwood not understanding why Colonel Brandon would selflessly help someone not from his family
– Lucy Steele being ridiculous
– Elinor constantly telling Marianne to restrain herself
– Marianne corresponding with a man out of wedlock *gasp*