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Posts Tagged ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’

impressionsIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is a cottage industry, her life and six books spawning numerous prequels, sequels, mash-ups, mysteries, reimaginings, movies, mini-series and more. I recently received a lovely set of of Jane Austen postcards as a birthday gift, and at this very moment, I am leaning back on my little Jane Austen pillow, another gift. I do not yet possess a Jane Austen action figure, but Christmas is coming and a girl can dream . . .

The Austen-inspired books range from serious to silly, and some are very good, indeed, such as Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which I wrote about a year ago this month, and P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, now adapted for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. I’m also happy to recommend Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (Viking Penguin, review copy). The “novel” is important because Lovett’s book effectively blurs the lines between fact and fiction so that his parallel plots seem plausible enough, especially the historical one involving Austen. The contemporary story benefits from bibliophile Lovett’s knowledge of the antique book trade, as did his first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, about a bookseller’s obsession with an old volume annotated by William Shakespeare.

In First Impressions, recent Oxford grad Sophie Collingwood is stunned by the sudden, accidental death of her favorite uncle, who leaves her his book-filled London flat. She is even more dismayed to discover that Uncle Bertram’s collection of rare book has been sold to covers his debts, so she takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller, determined to track down and buy back as many volumes as possible. Two competing customers ask her help in tracking down an obscure old book by the Rev. Richard Mansfield.

You were wondering where Jane Austen figures in this tale? Lovett neatly alternates short chapters about Sophie with those about Jane Austen, who in 1796 Hampshire finds a kindred spirit in an elderly vicar visiting her neighbors. At the time, Jane is working on an epistolary novel tentatively titled Elinor and Marianne, while the Rev. Richard Mansfield is revising and expanding his little book of moral stories. The two offer each other advice and encouragement — the words “sense and sensibility” come up — and Jane even agrees to contribute a story to Mansfield’s book.

Back in London, Sophie is growing increasingly suspicious of the circumstances of Uncle Bertram’s death, as well as one of the customers seeking Mansfield’s books. Her sleuthing, which takes her to Oxford, Hampshire and her own family’s library, is complicated by two suitors: one an arrogant American academic who writes her wonderful letters, the other a handsome London publisher who takes her to dinner and bed. Both, it turns out, have an interest in the Mansfield book, which Sophie discovers casts in doubt the authorship of Pride and Prejudice.

Meanwhile, Jane’s writing life in Hampshire and her friendship with Mansfield is interrupted by her trip to Bath and his departure  for his Yorkshire home.

I don’t think I’m going to tell you anymore. I may already have told you too much. Suffice to say, Lovett is a clever writer and First Impressions is good sport.

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Every time I read another “Best of” list, I add to my “Dear Santa” list. I don’t read enough different kinds of books anymore to name any one “the best.”  Of course, I’ve read lots of good books lately, hence this blog. Come the holidays, though, and I find myself putting ribbons and bows on a select few, my favorites for my favorite people.

Several friends will be getting copies this year of Chad Harbaugh’s  The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown),  an old-fashioned first novel about baseball and college, love, friendship and obsession. Henry is the unassuming star shortstop for Westish College, a small Wisconsin school on Lake Michigan. Herman Melville once paid a visit and gave a lecture, sparking the literary career of Guert Afflenlight, a former Harvard humanities prof who’s now college president.

The Harpooners have a shot at the national championship, and the pro scouts have their eye on Henry. Then he makes a surprising errant throw, which knocks out Owen, his brilliant gay roommate and teammate, and leads to a sequence of surprising events. Affenlight falls in love with injured Owen; Henry loses confidence in his game; Pella Affenlight, the president’s prodigal daughter, finds herself involved with Mike Schwartz, team leader and Henry’s mentor, and with Henry himself.

Early on, a pro scout notes that “Henry can flat-out play.” Harbaugh can flat-out write.

P.D. James meets Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley (Knopf).  Really! And really good!

Somehow I never thought to put two of my favorite authors togther, but thank goodness James, now 91, set aside detective Adam Dalgliesh to write this delightful homage to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Of course, Austen sequels, prequels, mash-ups and rip-offs are a cottage industry these days; I’m generally wary, but James puts on a very good show, indeed.

Wouldn’t you know that the infamous Wickham, married to Elizabeth Bennet Darcy’s sister Lydia, would return to cause trouble? A mysterious shooting in the woods near Pemberley on a stormy night threatens the happiness of Elizabeth and Darcy, plus Jane and Bingley. James provides the necessary background to this “odious” event, and plots a twisting mystery with a satisfying resolution. The witty writing is spot-on:

“A murder in the family can provide a frisson of excitement at fashionable dinner parties, but little social credit can be expected from the brutal despatch of an undistinguished captain of the infantry, without money or breeding to render him interesting.”

Other 2011 favs that may yet find themselves under the tree were Victoria Roth’s Divergent, an exciting YA dystopian novel that won Goodreads’ book of the year; Lev Grossman’s The Magician Kings, a fine fantasy that builds on the story started in The Magician; Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an award-winning British novel for fans of Brideshead Revisited; and Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret, an absorbing novel drawing on her father-in-law’s World War II experiences in France.

And on my TBR list: Robert Massie’s biography Catherine the Great (which I think a certain elf named Dean has already wrapped up); Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending; Ali Smith’s intriguingly titled There But For The; and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I already have on hand, along with Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of Malory’s The Death of King Arthur.

Finally, already read but still to blog about before year’s end, fingers crossed: Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel sanctioned by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate; The Nine Lives of Christmas, a sweet holiday romance by Sheila Roberts; and more YA fantasy, including Legend by Marie Lu and the splendiferous fairy tale, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.

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