Persuasion

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1818 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Florence Pugh & Cast

Persuasion was my second pick from the Audible suite of full cast Jane Austen audiobooks. I understand it’s one of her less popular books, but I’ve heard some good things about Anne Elliot and decided to jump into it.

It was definitely a different beast than P&P, though I’m coming to recognize a bit of pattern in many of Austen’s books. At 27 years of age, Anne is one of Austen’s much older heroines and definitely the member of her family with the most sense. She fell in love earlier in life to Captain Wentworth, but was advised by her family to decline him due to his lack of fortune and title.

In contrast to P&P, Anne’s family comes from high breeding and so they had a bit more pride than I’d come to expect from the Bennet family. While the Bennet’s were concerned with marrying up, the Elliot’s were concerned with maintaining their social status. The recurring theme of Austen’s novels being that regardless of money and class, women are really at the mercy of their marriage as their social status will drop or advance to that of their husband when they marry.

I liked Anne – she was sensible, considerate, and much more tolerant than I would have been in her circumstance. Next to her character, many of the other characters seemed childish and frivolous. Even though marriage is the ultimate achievement for these women, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the Musgrove sisters as they flirted with the various men in the book. Next to them, Anne felt so mature, it was hard to understand how all the men weren’t taken with her.

I found the structure of this book interesting though. It works up to a climax just a little past the halfway mark, when Louisa has her accident and the plot seems to ramp down from there even though there’s a lot of book left. I was also surprised by how much Anne seemed to judge others by their birth and title as well. Although I suppose it makes sense as she ultimately turned Wentworth down the first time because of his lack of title or fortune.

I liked that Anne was older and more mature, but as far as romance goes, I wasn’t as sold on this book. I liked Anne and I had nothing against Wentworth, but I also felt that I really didn’t know very much about him. Austen takes the time in P&P (and in S&S and Emma) to introduce us to her male characters are well. We get their backstories and through their actions become endeared to them. In Persuasion, I felt like I got limited backstory of Captain Wentworth. I didn’t really know why Anne fell in love with him to begin with and they had limited interactions that gave me a sense of his true character.

Their relationship grows towards the end of the novel and you start to see an inkling of their desire for one another, but I felt the romance of it was wrapped up too suddenly. While Wentworth’s letter was certainly romantic, I wanted more action to back up the goodness of his character. Overall I still liked it, but it was certainly different from her other novels.

Some of the highlights for me were (in no particular order):
– Wentworth’s letter to Anne at the end
– Mary’s selfishness and general ridiculousness
– Charles Musgrove’s good nature
– Mary calling out the sexism of motherhood
– The Crofts love for one another
– Anne’s conversation with Mrs. Smith where all is revealed
– The manner in which Louisa becomes injured (wtf)
– Sir Walter and Elizabeth being idiots about being unable to reduce their lifestyle despite having no money
– Anne’s sensibility and ability to be happy for others despite her own heartbreak

Pride and Prejudice

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1813 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Claire Foy & Cast

I’ve read 3 Jane Austen’s in the last month and the narratives are already starting to run into each other in my mind, so I figured it’s time I write some of my reviews.

P&P was not my first Austen, but it was the first that I’ve read and loved. For some reason I seem to have an interest for classics only in audio form and I listened to both Emma and S&S in the last two years. The version of Emma I listened to was free and while I listened to the whole audiobook, I found it a little tedious. I followed that up with Rosamond Pike’s version of S&S and had even less luck and DNFed at 60%.

So I’m not sure what possessed me to make another attempt, but when I saw all 6 books available for 1 credit and narrated by a full cast, I couldn’t resist. I’ve always felt that Jane Austen aught to be an author I should love. Her wit and sarcastic commentary about social class, wealth, and romance just screams my kind of book and I’m thrilled to have finally realized my love for her!

I can’t recommend these audiobooks enough! I’m halfway through and have loved them all so far. They’re each narrated by a different actress and feature a full cast for the characters and dialogue. I do find Austen’s casts a little daunting at the start of each book in trying to keep all the characters straight, so I think the full cast has helped immensely in this regard. Claire Foy does an excellent job narrating P&P and to date the cast of P&P was also my favourite. Especially the actress who plays Elizabeth, I thought she did a wonderful job!

Apparently I’ve read retellings of P&P and seen the movie, and yet have never picked up the original text. I watched the Kiera Knightly movie in high school and hated it, but I’ve resolved to rewatch it now that I’ve actually read it as I’ve heard it’s quite good. I’m tempted too by the mini series because I think Colin Firth is just the best Mr. Darcy, but I’m not convinced I’ll ever find the time to watch the whole thing.

So despite already knowing the story, I loved this so much more than I expected! There are a lot of subtleties with the family that I never picked up on in the past and I found myself so amused by Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Austen’s humour is something I’d read about but never really fully appreciated until this read through. Her characters are both hilarious and exhausting – it’s a wonder women don’t agree to the first marriage proposal that comes their way because the whole process of ensnaring a husband seems so tiring and tedious.

So I laughed a lot at the secondary characters, was enthralled by the drama of it all, and fell totally in love with both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. I didn’t realize Austen’s novels were so full of villains and I definitely got caught up in the intrigue of it all. I love that despite knowing her characters are all going to have happy endings, I never know which characters I can truly trust and to never let your first impression of a character carry too much weight.

I’m not going to both getting into a plot synopsis, we all know the story of P&P, but I found myself much more endeared to Mr. Darcy in this book. I feel like some of the retellings and other renditions don’t quite capture the goodness of his character and despite feeling resolved not to like him, I found myself falling for him just as strongly as Elizabeth.

The novel highlights for me were (in no particular order):
– Mr. Collins assured proposal to Elizabeth
– Mr. Darcy’s unexpected and insulting proposal to Elizabeth
– Mrs. Bennet blaming absolutely everyone but herself for her family’s failures and her general ridiculousness
– The Gardiners goodness
– Elizabeth telling Lady Catherine to suck it
– Mr. Darcy’s selflessness in trying to help the Bennet family at the end
– Lydia being an idiot
– Jane’s sweetness
– Mr. Bennet supporting Elizabeth when she declines Mr. Collins
– Elizabeth’s feisty character

Watch Over Me

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Nina LaCour
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Dec. 2020)

Watch Over Me was an impulse buy at a local bookstore. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Nina LaCour’s other book, We Are Okay, and the phrase “aged out of foster care” in the book synopsis intrigued me. Plus the cover art and end pages for this book are absolutely gorgeous, so I wanted it for my shelf. Publishers, never underestimate the power of beautiful end pages! I really wish more books had them.

Anyways, I started reading this almost right away and it’s one of those slow burn character driven novels that I absolutely love. The plot wasn’t quick paced, but I was sucked into the story and more or less read it in two sittings (it’s a short book). This was a weird mix of magical realism and ghosts and it just really worked for me.

18 year old Mila has aged out of foster care and been accepted to work as a teaching intern on a farm. The owners, Terry and Julia, have supported many foster children over the years and offer Mila room and board in exchange for help teaching some of their existing foster children. Mila eagerly accepts and travels to the remote farm to stay in her little one room cabin.
 
At first everything seems too good to be true. Everyone on the farm is extremely welcoming and she finally has a little space and family to call her own. But she soon discovers that the farm is haunted and that she may be forced to confront the trauma of her past. 

It’s a bit of a weird book and I could definitely see this not being for everyone, but I really loved it. First off, the writing is gorgeous – I really felt that there were no words or ideas out of place. At 250 pages, with a large font, it’s a short book, but I felt that the author said what she needed to say and then ended it. She spent time on what mattered and didn’t waffle around on what didn’t. 

Ultimately this is a story of grief and loss and learning to forgive ourselves. Mila had a very traumatic childhood, which compelled her to make choices that she’s not proud of. Yet she’s still an incredibly kind and loving person – her mistakes have not influenced her caring demeanor and ability to see good in others. But they are tearing her apart inside and not permitting her to grow and flourish. 

I really didn’t know how this book was going to go once Mila showed up on the farm. There’s an atmosphere of grief and longing that permeates throughout the entire novel and I wasn’t sure whether to expect good or bad things from the farm and the people who lived there. Everyone was so kind at the farm that I kept waiting for a big reveal for what’s actually going on underneath the surface. This happened, but not in the way I expected.
 
Overall, LaCour does a really good job of conveying the longing we all feel to be loved and accepted. Though Mila is forced to confront her demons, she finds everything she’s ever been longing for on the farm. We can always begin anew. We don’t have to be defined by the mistakes of our past and we are always still worth being loved. Especially in these pandemic times, aren’t we really all just longing for home? Sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s a person, but we all long to belong.

Where the Forest Meets the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Glendy Vanderah
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy on Audible because I liked the narrator and the cover art is really pretty. The book started so strong and I was immediately pulled into the story! The premise of the novel is that while doing her field research on buntings in a small town in rural America, Jo stumbles upon a young girl, Ursa, who claims to be an alien. Jo, of course, doesn’t believe her and tries to reunite the girl with her family. But the girl has resolved that she will stay with Jo and together they befriend their neighbour, Gabe, who runs a homestead next door and sells eggs to the locals. 

Jo and Gabe are both struggling with their own issues and the presence of Ursa is a distracting, but healing influence in their lives. However as time passes and no one comes looking for Ursa, they start to wonder how she ended up with them and what her real story might be. 

Like I said, the story starts really strong. It’s impossible not to love Ursa – she’s a vibrant character who’s full of life. She claims she’s decided to stay on earth until she “witnesses 5 miracles” and it’s hard not to be impressed with her zest for life. The author also adds more depth to Jo and Gabe, one of whom is a cancer survivor and the other who is battling depression. I really liked that the author added this complexity to the story and I was convinced I had stumbled upon something that was going to be truly magical.

Unfortunately, the further the story progresses, the more it starts to fall apart. The elements that I was impressed with early in the book start to become problematic, leaving me scratching my head about why the author chose to include them at all. The last third of the book went in a totally different direction than what I was anticipating and I found it to be both jarring how quickly the plot seemed to diverge, and disappointing how the author seemed to abandon the ideas presented at the start of the book.

I’d like to dive a bit more deeply into these issues, so the rest of my review will have spoilers and I suggest you quit here if you’re planning to read this book.
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I loved that Jo was a breast cancer survivor and I was impressed with the creation of a character who had already come to terms with her double mastectomy and the loss of her ability to bear children. She was able to look back on those decisions with no regrets, which I thought was such a great message. Similarly, Gabe was suffering from depression and I was really into the inclusion and intersection of these emotional struggles.

Beyond that, I found the author’s portrayal of depression problematic. Jo had almost no regard for his depression; she clearly didn’t understand it and continually pushed Gabe outside of his boundaries as if that was all he needed to be healed. He told her he had extreme social anxiety and had never kissed anyone before and her first instinct is to make a move on him without even asking his consent first. I thought it was so insulting and that it would have driven Gabe away from her or made him extremely uncomfortable.

But that wasn’t all, she kept badgering Gabe about his family and inserting herself where I felt she didn’t belong. Forcing Gabe to have conversations and interactions he didn’t want to have and then the author passing her off as so amazing for helping Gabe to confront his demons and grow. Personally, I thought she was a bit of an asshole and I would have been so mad at her for constantly meddling if I had been Gabe. Plus, I don’t care how much a person complains about a member of their family, you never get to insult them. They are always allowed to vent, but the way Jo bitched and complained about Gabe’s sister was so rude. 

As for the ending, I don’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, I just was really hoping for something more poignant. I wanted magic from this story. I wanted Ursa to actually be an alien. I thought her presence would be healing for Jo and Gabe and that we would witness something magical for the final miracle as a result of her presence. I was looking for more magical realism from this story and what I got instead was a hard dose of realism.

The story quickly changes track with a shootout on Jo’s property and from there a magical introspective story turns into some kind of crime drama. It was just such a change from the first half of the story that I felt like I had whiplash. The writing lost its magic and became repetitive and whiny.

The other problem I had was with Ursa’s behaviour. Suddenly our quirky little alien turns into an out of control, scheming, dangerous child. Did I believe a child could behave like this? Sure, but it was so worrying! Ursa knew exactly how to manipulate those around her to get whatever she wanted, which I found extremely frightening, not endearing like I suspect was the author’s intention. Did I want Jo and Ursa to be together? Of course, but to me, Ursa’s behaviour indicated that she would be impossible to discipline and I’d be extremely concerned about how manipulative she will be as she grows. I know she went through something extremely traumatic, but I think this girl needs a lot of therapy. It was cute when she was an alien, but as an orphaned girl, she’s a compulsive liar who will threaten those around her and throw tantrums until she gets what she wants. It was concerning. Plus I still don’t think Jo would have ever been granted the right to be her foster mom, nor did I think she deserved it.

So overall, this book had so much potential, but really flopped in the execution. I can’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, it’s her book, but it just wasn’t what I was hoping for and I can’t look past all the problematic elements. 

Transcendent Kingdom

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

To Date, Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, is the highest ranked book my book club has read – and we’ve been reading a book a month since 2012. So I was super excited to pick up Yaa Gyasi’s new book for our November meeting.

Transcendent Kingdom is completely different from Homegoing, but in the best possible way. Homegoing is a wonderful piece of multi-generational, historical fiction, while Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply introspective look at grief, addiction, mental health, religion, and the challenges of being an immigrant. I could see how some fans of Homegoing might be disappointed with Transcendent Kingdom, but I loved that the author tried something new in this book and I think she really showcased her versatility as an author. So even though this book is getting most of its press because of Homegoing, try not to let Homegoing influence your expectations.

Gifty is a PhD candidate who has studied medicine at both Harvard and Stanford. She’s been studying addiction and whether there’s a neurological way to break the cycle through lab experiments with mice. Her studies are driven by her own tragic past as her brother, Nana, was addicted to opioids. Her family immigrated to America from Ghana before she was born and she’s always had to walk the line between two worlds and cultures.

Meanwhile, her mother shows up at her apartment after undergoing her own emotional breakdown and spends weeks in Gifty’s bed battling depression. Her mother had a similar struggle with depression 20 years prior, after Nana’s death. Like the last time, Gifty is determined to help lift her mother out of her pit of depression, but has absolutely no idea how to help her. As she tries to encourage her mother to reignite her faith, she is reminded of her childhood and the deep-seated role religion and spirituality played in her own life.

I don’t think this was a perfect book. I think the structure could have used a little more work and I would have liked to see some of the themes developed further. Gyasi tackles a lot of issues in this short book and I’m not sure she was able to do them all justice in just 260 pages. That said, life and grief and mental illness are all messy. Healing is not linear and it does not fit into a nice like hallmark-movie narrative. I felt the story ended too soon – I wanted to see more of a resolution to some of the themes – but I also appreciated that grief and depression are things that we carry with us for many years and that though we all seek catharsis and closure, we don’t always get it.

That said, while I did feel her exploration of her Mom’s depression could have been a little better developed, I thought she did a great job exploring some of her other themes, particularly around grief, addiction, and religion. I really liked how the narrative was developed. There’s no clear delineation between the past and the present, with her current day experiences triggering past memories throughout the novel. I could see how this structure might be frustrating for some, but I loved gaining those little insights into Gifty’s past and how those past experiences influenced who she is today and her relationship with her mom. 

But the highlight of the book for me was Gyasi’s look at the role religion played in Gifty’s life, and how despite her best efforts, she was never able to completely shed that upbringing. I had a big religious upbringing myself and while I haven’t been trying to shed that background the same way Gifty was, I really related to her in the ways that it hurt and helped her. Unfortunately religion also brings with it a lot of shame and guilt. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it does create an internalized sense of shame and feelings of anger and frustration when religious institutions are not the good and holy influence that they should be. There are a lot of christians who carry around a lot of misplaced righteousness and it has not made the world a better place. 

But more than anything, I felt Gifty was really just looking for something to belong to. She has more often than not been the only black person in her church, in her classes, in her program, and she has struggled to make friends and connect with people. Her brother was the one person she felt close to and when she lost him and her mother started to fall apart, she had no one that she could turn to. Her faith in God was destroyed by the loss of her brother, and to an extent by the hypocrisy of the Christians in her church and town. But while she tries to leave her faith behind or explain it away, she’s never able to fully dismiss her spiritual experiences. Despite her church not caring for her family the way they should have, her pastor was there for her and her mom when they needed him and she finds herself seeking comfort in the familiarity of church services and her favourite bible verses. It’s hard to describe the feelings Gyasi’s narrative evoked, but I just really connected with Gifty and despite all that is different between me and Gifty, I found her very relatable.

Finally, the writing was lovely. It’s a very introspective plot – it’s not character driven in the way I normally like in literary fiction, but I liked how the author explored her ideas and how I came to understand Gifty and her family a little better throughout the course of the novel. Like I said, the narrative is a bit all over the place, but honestly that’s exactly what my thought process is like too, so it just worked for me.

Definitely recommend this one, just set aside your expectations because this is not like Homegoing.