May 30: Things That Make Me Instantly NOT Want to Read a Book (what are your immediate turn-offs or dealbreakers when it comes to books?)
Keep in mind that none of these are 100% dealbreakers. I can and have read very good books that fit one/more of these descriptions. But they are generally turn-offs..
It’s a cliché setting in the genre. Scotland and historical romance novels? I’m looking at you…
It’s been compared to a book I didn’t particularly like. One that jumps to mind is the Court of Thorns and Roses series. It’s not really my cup of tea, and I see a lot of new books being compared to it.
It’s a spin off of a series. This one has a lot of exceptions. But often my initial thought when seeing a spin off of a popular series is “someone wanted to make more money…” Though sometimes my bias against these has kept me from checking out things that have turned out to be good. Just a note: I haven’t read A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and I’ve actually only read the first A Song of Ice and Fire book. It’s just an example.
It’s a genre (or subgenre) that I don’t usually gravitate toward. For example, even though I love fantasy, sword and sorcery usually isn’t my thing. Please note I haven’t read anything by Dylan Doose. I literally googled sword and sorcery and this is what came up. He’s an author with a series that’s actually called Sword and Sorcery. I don’t even know it’s actually a good example of the subgenre.
Some whose tastes I usually share said something negative about it. Actually The Ex Hex may not be the best example, because even though I avoided it for a while due to something someone said, I did eventually end up reading it, and I enjoyed it enough. Not great, but entertaining while you’re reading it IMO. I may check out the sequel at some point.
There’s a major public outcry that it’s not good in some important way. American Dirtmay be very good. I don’t know, I haven’t read it. It does have a high rating and it also got some acclaim. But I remember when it came out there was a lot of criticism that it was an indication that the publishing industry needed to change. There were accusations that it was ill informed at best and racist at worst. All of that can put me off a book. That’s not to say the book should be pulled from the shelves or anything! It just means I’m less likely to want to read it.
It’s a doorstop. One example is Nor Gold. It’s the sequel to The Pirate Captain, a book I enjoyed a lot. But this one has been sitting on my shelves for a while, because at 750 pages it’s hard to bring myself to start it. I sometimes really enjoy long books, but I often procrastinate them for a while in favor of something shorter.
I didn’t enjoy my last read from the author. Jill Mansell is one example. I’ve liked most of her books. But last year, I read Kiss, a book she wrote in 1993, that was reissued more recently. It definitely reads like an early attempt at a genre that the author later mastered, and some parts left me with a bad feeling. Even though I know her more recent work is so much better, it’s been hard to make myself pick it up since then.
May 23: Things That Make Me Instantly Want to Read a Book (these can be auto-buy authors, tropes you love, if an author you love blurbed it, settings, genres, etc.)
1. It was blurbed by on of my favorite authors. But not all blurbs are equal. There are authors whose taste lines up well with mine, but also authors I may like to read, but we don’t share mutual taste.
2. It has an academic setting. I love a school setting whether it’s a realistic school or there’s some sort of fantastical element about it.
3. Regency settings. Doesn’t matter if it’s an authentic novel written during the Regency period, or a historical novel about that period. I also really like genre fiction about the period.
4. Fairy-tale inspired and dark. I love a lighter fairy tale inspired read too, but I especially appreciate it when author’s look at the darker roots of the stories we think we know.
5. Someone’s compared it to a book I love. I’ll often read a book if it’s compared to a favorite. One of the potential dangers with this is that I’ve read a lot of poor imitations of favorite books!
6. I saw a trailer for a movie/tv adaptation that sparked my interest. I don’t usually enjoy books as much after I’ve seen the movie/show because then that’s what’s in my head. But sometimes I will seek out a book based on a great trailer.
7. Someone I admire has recommended it. I admit it. If I’m a big fan of a celeb who features a book on social media or recommends it, I’m more likely to read it.
8. I see it online everywhere. Yes, I’ve been burned by this before. But I’m also picked up some things I never would have otherwise.
9. A great cover. Yes, I know I’m not supposed to judge books this way. But sometimes, it happens. Again, not a reliable indicator that I’ll like the cover, but I may like the book.
10. A bookish setting. Think bookshops, libraries etc.
11. It’s by an auto-buy author. I’ve read books I would otherwise never have picked up because an author I love write it.
As I was writing my Gothic romance list recently, I noticed something: a lot of the themes that show up in Gothic romance also turn up in the domestic suspense genre that has been popular in recent years. I decided to think about these parallels and do a bit of research.
Just a disclaimer: this post features some generalizations. I am, of course, aware that a genre being marketed to a female audience certainly doesn’t limit it to that audience. I actually don’t like the idea of “women’s fiction” as it’s own category. But I’m using that terminology in this post mostly because of facility–it’s what others, before me, have used to describe these themes and market these books. I also think it’s worth considering why this might be the case.
Domestic thrillers (also called “domestic noir,” “chick noir,” and “mommy thrillers”) are often set in homes. The relationships that drive the plot tend to be between spouses, parents and children, and/or siblings. In her blog, author Julia Crouch defines the genre as follows “…[it] concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.” Popular examples include the work of authors such as Gillian Flynn, Erin Kelly, Lisa Jewell, Ruth Ware and more.
The Family, too, is a cauldron for crime, bringing with it abductions, incarcerations, issues with infertility, infidelity and missing children. The home is rife with buried family secrets that come back to haunt us. This sub-genre plays on the idea that the home is the safest place to be – OR IS IT..?
Crime by the Book further defines the genre as “a style of psychological thriller that focuses on interpersonal relationships. This might be secrets between a married couple or between relatives; what’s important is that the driving force of the story lies in domestic disturbances, secrets, and tensions.”
This genre is marketed largely to a female audience. Historically the home and the family were considered a feminine space. But why are these books popular with that readership? In an essay on CrimeReads entitled “Women Read Thrillers Because There’s No Avoiding Danger,” Jessica Barry says that women:
exist in a state of constant low-level fear for our safety. Checking under the bed before climbing under the sheets at night… walking down a dark street with keys clutched between our fingers, headphones off, shadows scanned, eyes avoided, ponytails tucked in. It’s the unspoken code we learn as young women and live by for the rest of our lives. Thrillers know the code, too, and both validate it and exploit it.
So in a world where women are taught to be constantly on guard, why would we choose to read about the worst that can happen? Why would anyone want to read about a safe space that turns out to be the most dangerous of all? Loved ones who betray you? According to Barry, we think of it as a talisman. By reading about it, we feel that we’re protecting ourselves from it. But it’s more than just that. These books also give readers a chance to see female characters able to navigate difficult and threatening situations. Yes, it’s a worst-case-scenario, but it’s seeing someone handle the worst.
All of this is true of the Gothic novel as well.
The Gothic genre takes its name from Gothic architecture. Often a Gothic style building is the backdrop for a Gothic romance. The atmosphere is one of mystery and suspense, with supernatural elements, and intense emotions. Some stock characters tend to be the distressed heroine and the Byronic hero.
In Gothic romance the setting is crucial. Book Riot says “the setting — the house, the place — is one thing you cannot help but notice immediately. It breathes life into the novel. Almost always in need of care, reflecting the main character’s life, the ominous manor is a fundamental part of how the story will develop.” In fact, the covers of Gothic romances often used to feature the heroine literally running from a house. (side note: Check out the Women Running From Houses blog if you’re interested in more of this).
These books gained popularity in the middle of the 20th century with authors such as Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart. Often they featured a woman in a subservient position in a large house. She was commonly a governess, a maid, or an orphan taken in by the family. But sometimes she was the new wife of the Lord of the Manor. These heroines found themselves involved with a man who was simultaneously dangerous and exciting. Plots often involved adultery, bigamy, kidnapping, captivity, madness, crime, and dark family secrets.
In an essay on Gothic Literature, Carol Margaret Davidson says that, “traditionally, female authors of Female Gothic novels use their trapped heroines as a tool, exploring anxieties concerning marriage, childbirth, and independence (or lack thereof) through the seemingly supernatural.” So in a way, these books, like domestic thrillers, are also looking at that worst-case-scenario, but they’re looking at it through a stylized lens rather than through the lens of something that is recognizable to most people (as it is in domestic thrillers). Instead of the contemporary urban or suburban setting of the domestic thriller, the Gothic uses a remote, and usually historical, setting.
Like the domestic thrillers that are popular today, the Gothic romance genre had a spike in popularity in the 1960’s. But they haven’t really gone anywhere. Contemporary authors such as Susanna Kearsley, Simone St. James, Hester Fox, and others still write them now. What’s interesting is that both now and in the sixties the role of women in society was in flux. So maybe these books give a space for some of the anxieties surrounding this. Certainly in Gothics the heroine seemed to hang around the house all day. Perhaps they tends to be period pieces for that reason: the home feels more or less inescapable. In domestic thrillers, on the other hand, the heroine’s job frequently adds complications to the plot. Perhaps this reflects how the role of women in the home, and the world has changed over the past sixty years or so.
It’s also worth noting that while the main characters are predominately female in both genres, they’re not exclusively female. Some Gothics featuring male main characters include Daphne DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel and Vincent Virga’s Gaywyck trilogy. Some domestic thriller novels featuring a male main character include My Lovely Wife and Alex Michaelides The Silent Patient. In some cases the subversion of the gender tropes associated with the genre seems intentional. There’s probably something worth looking at there too, but that might be a whole nother post!
I’ve been going back and forth about posting this, but I do think it’s important, so I decided to go for it. There’s a lot of discussion happening right now about suppressing, restricting, or limiting reading material for children, for different reasons. But I think the sense of fear behind a lot of these discussions is the same. I also think best ways to confront these issues is the same.
One discussion is about student access to books in schools. Different states have different rules for what books students have available in a school environment. But there seems to be more of a push to restrict books recently on the basis of content. For example, books that deal with disturbing historical events have been challenged in several states.
In Florida, training will soon take place to curate books in schools to comply with a state law passed last year. Florida teachers have been removing books from classrooms at risk of federal prosecution. The state has 566 book bans in place. This is not exclusive to Florida by any means. In Texas, which leads the book banning pack with 801 books banned, books in schools must be subject to parental review process. Last year, Missouri passed a law banning “explicitly sexual material,” but the definition of such material includes works about artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as depictions of the works of Shakespeare. It also included the removal of Maus, a Pulitzer prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, which was also banned from a school in Tennessee in January of 2022. [x]
I believe that book banning is wrong and harmful. Like it or not, kids deal with a range of upsetting issues as they grow up. One of the healthiest, most constructive ways for them to deal with these issues is by going to books for support. They needs access to a range of books so they can find things that reflect their experience. They also need to learn about bad things that have happened in the past. It’s only by learning about these things that we can hope for children to create a better future.
Further, reading promotes empathy. Not all all kids deal with the same issues. But reading about people who have different experiences can make children more understanding and compassionate. By restricting the books that students can access, we remove opportunities for students to learn about things and people outside of their immediate frame of reference. The more books students have access to, the more likely they are to find something, somewhere, that speaks to them. And yes, they’re also more likely to come across something upsetting. That’s part of life. As adults, we can support children as they deal with things that frighten them, but we can’t, and shouldn’t remove any source of upset. That’s not a realistic goal.
Banning books is also ineffective. When I was in high school I had a sort of brush with book banning. In my English class, we read the The Canterbury Tales. One day, the teacher told us, “Normally, I’d assign ‘The Miller’s Tale‘ for tonight’s homework. But the school board says you have to skip that one because of content.” The next day, for the only time in school, every kid in that class came in having done the reading. True, it was reading that hadn’t technically been assigned, but my point is that whatever book you take away from kids, for whatever reason, has just been made infinitely more attractive to them. I was fortunate enough to have a high school teacher who understood exactly what she was doing when she told a class full of teenagers not to read a book. She knew that the following day, she’d have a class full of students who had read the book and were eager to discuss the scandalous tale!
Giving students that space for discussion in important. It can allow them to contextualize what they’ve just read. And I think that’s important to do in a classroom setting, so that students can come to teachers with their questions and concerns, and then teachers can guide them toward other resources. By banning a book you are not keeping kids from reading it, as my high school class so beautifully proved. You are both making it more interesting to kids, and taking away the space that they have draw nourishment from it.
“Words matter. The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvelous characters. This book was written many years ago and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
These revisions were made by sensitivity readers at Inclusive Minds, an organization that believes in “breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes to ensure that every child can access and enjoy great books that are representative of our diverse society.” In general, these changes remove language relating to gender, weight, mental health, and physical appearance.
Dahl was no angel during his life, and some parts of his books do reflect some of the prejudices he held. But that language is also an excellent teachable moment for kids. Rather than simply removing that language and replacing it with something more sanitized and “acceptable,” parents and teachers should discuss it with children. Explain why it’s hurtful and discuss why standards have changed over the years. Maybe speculate about how and why they might continue to change in the future. Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America tweeted that Puffin’s revisions risk “clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society.” Allowing children to read these books as written, teaches them to use that critical lens. It also teaches them to use and apply critical thinking skills to other areas of life. I would go so far as to argue that by removing some of the troubling materials, Inclusive Minds is unintentionally putting up a barrier to understanding. Instead of allowing those discussions to happen, by removing that material, it shuts those discussions down.
Not all books are appropriate for all settings or all individuals or all ages. The decision about what books should be included in school libraries and curriculum is complicated, but restrictions are not the answer. Similarly, it’s not always easy to know how to handle a book that has potentially hurtful content. It can be tempting to just remove that content. But easier isn’t better. No one learns anything from not reading a book. They learn from reading it, thinking about it, being haunted by it, being disturbed by it, being offended by it, and yes, potentially even hating it. More responsibility falls on us as adults to teach children to read and think critically. But I think, by doing that work, we can work toward a world with a more informed, engaged, understanding population.
February 7: 2023 Debut Books I’m Excited About (These can be actual brand new authors, age-group-shifting debuts like when a YA author writes their first adult book, or genre-shifting debuts like when an author who has always written romance releases a thriller.)
Rather than make it 2023 debuts, I’m look at some recent debuts I’ve read
The Hacienda by Isabel Canas – This fusion of Gothic tradition and Mexican history takes place just after the Mexican Revolution. Beatriz’s father was murdered and her home was destroyed. Living with her mother on the charity of resentful relatives is not the future Beatriz wants for herself, so when the handsome, wealthy Rodolfo Solórzano proposes, she ignores the rumors about his first wife’s mysterious death, and accepts. But Roldofo’s country estate, Hacienda San Isidro, isn’t the refuge Beatriz hoped for. Rodolfo returns to the capital for work, and Beatriz is left alone in a house where she feels watched at all times. Her sister in law, Juana, mocks her fears, but refuses to enter the house after dark. As she grows more desperate, Beatriz turns to the Church for help. The young priest who answers her call has his own secrets.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl – I loved Pessl’s other books, Night Film and Neverworld Wake, so I was eager to read her debut. While I ended up enjoying it a lot, I’m glad I read her other books first because otherwise I might have been too intimidated to seek them out based on this. Raised by a (very pretentious) professor, Blue van Meer is well acquainted with science, literature and philosophy. Actually relating to kids her age? Not so much. Her father moves around frequently for work and as a result, Blue has been to a number of schools by her senior year of high school. But her father promises to stay put all year, so that Blue can graduate from St. Gallway. It’s here that Blue meets a clique of students who are in the thrall of Hannah Schneider, film teacher. Hannah welcomes Blue into their group. One year, one drowning, one hanging, and an upturned life later, Blue finally learns why. It’s not an easy read, and I’m glad I had some experience with the author because it motivated me to put in the effort.
The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne – Haelwise is shunned by her village, due to her strange fainting spells. But she takes comfort in her loving mother’s rich stories. When her mother dies, Haelwise decides to find a place her mother told her of in stories: a legendary tower in a place called Gothel, inhabited by a wise woman. This woman takes Haelwise in and gives her a home. But another girl, Rika, also comes to take refuge at Gothel. Rika has a dangerous secret that threatens Haelwise, and everything she loves. This is supposed to be the story of the witch in Rapunzel. But I actually found it more successful independent of that story. The Rapunzel connection felt like more of an afterthought than anything else. But I still want to read more from this author.
The Wolf and The Woodsman by Ava Reid- Based on the Goodreads rating it seems like this is a love it or hate it kind of thing. I loved it, but I think the expectations you go in with are important. For one thing, despite the fact that the title suggests a Red Riding Hood retelling, this isn’t one. It incorporates a lot of folklore though. It draws from both Hungarian and Jewish traditions. It’s also not YA. Both main characters are in their mid-late twenties. Don’t go in expecting late teens. Finally, it’s dark, it’s violent, it’s ugly at times. But if that doesn’t scare you off, I really liked it!
White Ivy by Susie Yang – Again this has gotten some hate due, I think, to expectations. The cover blurb makes it sound like a mystery/thriller, and it’s not really, though it has some of those elements. It’s about a Chinese-American girl from an immigrant family, who wants to be accepted by an old money, privileged crowd of people. She finds a guy who she can marry and get what she’s always wanted. But she also encounters a man from her past who could threaten everything. This is a sort of coming of age, tied in with a love triangle (well, a triangle anyway…) and crime. It’s definitely a slow burn, but I enjoyed it.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow- It’s hard to write much about this one because I think it’s the kind of book that’s better the less you know going in to it. January is the ward of Mr. Locke. She lives in a large mansion and is ignored for the most part. One day, January finds a mysterious book that tells a tale of secret Doors (yes, the capital “D” is on purpose) that lead to discoveries about her own life and identity. This made Harrow pretty much an “auto-buy” author for me.
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore – Elsewhere this book was released under the title The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart. It opens on New Year’s Eve 1982. The title character is set to turn 19 at the stroke of midnight. She faces some big decisions in the year ahead. But as the countdown to the New Year begins, Oona faints. When she wakes up, it’s 32 years in the future, and Oona is 51 years old physically (mentally she’s still 19). She is greeted by a stranger who tells her that for the rest of her life, she will leap to another age at random. So from 19 she leaped to 51. From 51 she might leap to 25… Oona tries to build a life given her “condition.” There are perks (she’s able to give herself stock tips based on her knowledge of the future) and drawbacks (in one leap she finds herself married to a man, with no idea how she met him!) We watch Oona grow up (and down, and up again) on the outside, while developing normally on the inside.
The Book of Speculation Erika Swyler– Simon is a librarian, living alone in his family home on Long Island. When a book dealer sends him a mysterious volume that may have some connection to his family, Simon gets caught up in the tale it tells of a misfit living and working with a traveling circus. But he soon comes to realize that the book may reveal a curse on his family. If Simon is right, it may be the only thing that can save his sister. This book also has sketches (related to the story) that I found interesting.
My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing – The main character of this book uses the alias, Tobias. He’s happily married to Mellicent and they have two children. As a way to combat boredom, Tobias and his wife take up a homicidal hobby. But word of a serial killer on the loose is starting to spread. Their kids are scared, and it looks like their hobby might be discovered. This is another one where it’s better to know less going into the story. I’d recommend this to fans of shows like Dexter or You.
Eleanor Olyphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – Eleanor tends to put people off by saying exactly what she thinks. But she’s completely fine. Her life is carefully scheduled and she is able to avoid social interactions. She spends her weekend alone and her weeks are broken up only by phone calls with her mother. But when she and a coworker, Raymond, help an old man who has fallen on the sidewalk, Eleanor’s life opens up to the prospect of friends. But that forces her to confront fact that her life might not be as “fine” as she thinks, and to face the real reason why. This is being made into a movie soon, and I’m really hoping that the filmmakers don’t feel the need to make a platonic friendship anything other than just that. But, knowing Hollywood…
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – I was initially hesitant to read this because I’m not generally a fan of Greek myths and Classics. But I read Miller’s second book, Circe, and loved it, and it motivated me to check out this, her debut. It’s basically the story of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, from the Iliad, but it’s just beautifully written and makes the reader really care about them. I wrote some more about it here.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – This book fuses historical fiction with touches of fantasy. It’s set in the 18th century. One evening, the captain of one of Jonah Hancock’s ships announces that he’s sold Jonah’s ship for a mermaid. He then gives Mr. Hancock the (dead) mermaid. As word spreads, people clamor to see this curiosity of Mr. Hancock’s. This is really more about the characters and their interactions than whether the mermaid in question is real. It should probably appeal to fans of The Essex Serpent.
Why: Cackle was a fun, feminist, witch story, so I decided to see what Harrison does with werewolves! Actually I also looked at her other book, The Return, which I’ll also get to at some point, hopefully.
Why: The Wolf and the Woodsman is a dark, sometimes ugly, fairytale that incorporates Hungarian history and Jewish folklore. While not a sequel, Juniper and Thorn is Reid’s second book, and it is set in the same world.
Why: The two I read in 2022 were weird hybrids of horror and humor that appealed to the strangeness in me. Hendrix tends to explore a different subgenre in each of his books, and I’m interested in reading his take on the haunted house story.
Why: I won A Spell of Rowans in a Goodreads giveaway, and really enjoyed it. It combines a genre I often find comforting (small town witch story) with a darker story of trauma, and a murder mystery. I definitely want to read more of Nash’s work, and The Wicked Wolves of Windsor appealed to me most at first glance.
Why: I won Sometimes I Lie in another Goodreads giveaway (I had bizarrely good luck with Goodreads giveaways in 2022!) and I really enjoyed the domestic thriller/murder mystery. Feeney has a few others that look good but this had the highest rating so I might try for this one first.
Why: The Nature of Fragile things told a compelling personal story against the backdrop of historical events: in this case the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Stars Over Sunset Boulevard is a dual timeline (a device I love) set in contemporary LA and Old Hollywood (I’m an old movie buff!).
Why: My book club read Lolly Willowes and I loved the weird hybrid of character study, family drama, and the third act transition to witch story! I think it also reads nicely as a companion to Cackle (above), which turned out to just be good timing on my part. I did a bit of googling about what to read next, and came across this review, which intrigued me, so I decided to go with The Corner that Held Them next.
Why: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths was another book club read. I had an interesting response, in that I liked it more after reading than I did while I was reading. I wanted to read more so I did some research. This blog says that Our Spoons is probably not the best place to start with Comyns (oh well!) but recommends this and another one. This sounded more interesting at the moment.
Why: I had a slightly conflicted reaction to The House in the Cerulean Sea (explained here) but I did really like it and want to read more from the author. This and In the Lives of Puppets both look good really, so I’ll see which I get to first.
I was honored to be asked to write an author list for Shepherd.com. Since Beautiful is a faerie tale (I explain why I used that spelling in my intro!) I went with a list of other books that portray faeries as ambiguous and “other” in some way. Basically these aren’t your butterfly-like creatures hopping around gardens! Check out my list here, and let me know what you think. Do you agree with my picks? Disagree? Is there anything I should have included?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen fans both love and hate adaptations of her work. We’re eager to see a new interpretation of a beloved work, but when it’s not done right, we get angry. Sometimes, very angry.
So I knew going in, that whatever I’d be watching, it wouldn’t be Persuasion as written by Austen. I tried to let those expectations go and watch it with an open mind. As a standard Hollywood romantic comedy, it was fine. No more, no less. I certainly didn’t find it as offensive as some did! The historically anachronistic elements didn’t bother me because they seemed intentional. But there’s no Jane Austen there, and when I wanted her, I felt her absence. For example, when Anne reads the note that Captain Wentworth has written her, that beautiful love letter comes off like a note jotted on a post-it with a number two pencil. Actually, I won’t say there’s no Jane Austen there. Rather it’s the wrong Jane Austen. While Austen is known for satire, Persuasion isn’t where those elements primarily come out.
Not long after, I happened to catch Modern Persuasion. This 2020 film is, as it sounds, Persuasion set in the modern day. Wren Cosgrove fell in love with Owen Jasper in college. After graduation he wanted to move to California, and asked her to come with him. Wren’s godmother didn’t think it was such a good idea, and told her so, in no uncertain terms. Years later, wealthy and successful, Owen hires Wren’s company to promote his new app… This movie is very…OK. Again, it’s fine as a romcom but it’s not the best of Hollywood’s romantic comedy offerings by a longshot. It’s not a Hallmark movie but it feels very “Hallmark-esque” (yes, I did make up that word.) Even though this movie is set in contemporary New York City, it feels similar to Netflix’s version. Both try to force Persuasion into a romantic comedy “box.” While much of Austen’s work fits in that box, Persuasion (despite a beautiful romance and a happy ending) doesn’t.
So I thought about some of the other adaptations of Austen’s work that I’ve seen. I think my first Austen exposure was rather obliquely through the film Clueless. If you’re not in the know, Clueless is an adaptation of Austen’s Emma set in a high school in Beverley Hills in the 1990’s. I saw it for the first time when I was about ten, and I was sure that’s what high school would look like for me (reader, it was not.) It wasn’t until I was in college, years later, that I actually read Emma and it became my favorite Austen novel. I still maintain a great fondness to Clueless for being a sort of instruction to Austen’s themes albeit in a very different milieu. I’m still surprised that Clueless managed to pull off what it did, as well as it did.
But it’s far from the only time that Emma has been done well onscreen. I’m probably the only Austen fan who is partial to the 1996 film with Gwyneth Paltrow, but she always always struck me as very Emma-y. Plus I really like Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightly and Toni Collette as Harriet Smith. But the 2020 film has a lot to recommend it. So does the 1996 ITV film with Kate Beckinsale and the 2009 miniseries with Romola Garai.
In 1996 Helen Fielding introduced the world to Bridget Jones. Bridget was the single, thirty-something, Londoner who launched a genre. She also inspired a hit motion picture in 2001. But before there was Bridget, there was Lizzie. Lizzie Bennet to be precise, heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie and Bridget were different. Aside from the nearly two centuries between them, Lizzie was country girl, a nonsmoker, didn’t work in publishing, and didn’t get drunk five nights a week. But they both loved a Mr. Darcy. Lizzie’s was Fitzwilliam Darcy and Bridget’s was Mark Darcy. Both Darcys were played by Colin Firth in notable adaptations. Both got sidetracked and prejudiced by Mr. Wrong (Wickham and Cleaver respectively) before realizing that Darcy was right there all along.
Is Bridget Lizzie? No, not by longshot. Just like Clueless’s Cher isn’t Emma. But regardless of how faithful adaptations are, the unfaithful ones don’t usually feel as gratingly “off” as the recent adaptations of Persuasion. That’s because Pride and Prejudice and Emma are both very different books from Persuasion. On the surface, that’s not so clear. All three are set in the same geographic location, at the same time period. All three deal with issues of love, marriage, money and family, among the same social class.
But Emma and Pride and Prejudice are both what I’d call coming of age comedies. Emma and Lizzie are both naïve at the beginning, despite both thinking they’re very wise. Wisdom is developed in both their stories, through life, and mistakes, and being humbled, and falling down, and getting up again. In Persuasion much of that has already happened before we meet Anne. She’s loved and lost before we open the first page. She’s changed as a result of suffering, taken responsibility for her mistakes and been humbled. She’s more an adult that Austen’s other two heroines, she’s more introspective and brooding. Actually, characters in Persuasion repeatedly comment that Anne has lost the “bloom” of her youth. Therefore it feels more wrong and jarring to see her act like a perky heroine in a romantic comedy. It’s not that they’re no humor or wit in her tale. There is. But there is also a hard-won wisdom. That’s what feels missing in the most recent films.
I, personally, would recommend the 1995 film for those seeking Persuasion out onscreen. But if you prefer there’s also a 2008 TV movie. While neither is perfect, both feel far more like they’re based on the novel Jane Austen wrote than either of the more recent versions do.
In thinking about my favorite Austen adaptations, and the less successful ones, it seems like the ones that do well, understand that there’s more to Austen’s work than just a funny love story. You could read Jane Austen for political commentary. You could read her for life lessons. And some of the more successful adaptations recognize that. Clueless has a lot of social satire. By it’s very title, it’s telling us that Cher is, at the beginning, “Clueless” about the real world. Bridget Jones highlighted a period of life that didn’t really exist for women in Austen’s day: after college and before marriage. It highlighted trying to establish oneself in a career just as much as in romance. Those are things Lizzie Bennet might do if she lived 200 years later (even though Bridget does a lot of things she probably wouldn’t do!). Neither are the stuff of great literature mind you, but they realize that their source material is.
A lot goes into whether or not an adaptation works. It’s not just about sticking closely to the events on the page, and making sure each character looks exactly as described. It’s about knowing your medium; understanding that what works on the page might not work on the big screen. What works on film, might not work as a four part miniseries. But I think a big part of it is also about respecting the complexity of your source material, rather than trying to push it into a pre-cut genre shape. It’s about recognizing what makes it unique from others in it’s genre rather than trying to hop onto a successful bandwagon.
One of the nice things about being an author is the knowledge that even after you’re gone, your books will still be out there. But some authors continue to put out new books even after they’ve died. In most cases, this is because the family of the author (or whomever owns the copyright, I suppose) hires a ghostwriter to continue to write under that author’s name. ‘
A famous example of this is author VC Andrews. In 1979, Andrew’s debut novel, Flowers in the Attic became a best seller. She wrote a few other successful novels before her death in 1986, and more than 70 bestsellers since! The vast majority of her work has been written under her name by Andrew Neiderman. Initially Neiderman was hired by Andrews estate to finish Garden of Shadows, the prequel to Flowers in the Attic that she’d been working on at the time of her death. He later finished her unfinished Casteel series and continued from there.
Andrews wrote mostly 4-5 book series (with a single stand alone title) that were mostly non-supernatural gothic horror. But literary markets change. So Neiderman has written trilogies, standalone and duologies in her name. And sometimes a lot changes: for example the duology Daughter of Darkness and Daughter of Light introduces vampires to Andrews’ world. Obviously no one can know what Andrews would have thought of this: she may have been all for it, or she may have hated it! But the Andrews estate is pretty open about Neiderman’s work. In an open letter included in the book Dawn in 1990 they announced that a ghostwriter had been hired to “organize and complete Virginia’s stories and to expand upon them by creating additional novels inspired by her wonderful storytelling genius.” It was another several years before it was revealed that Neiderman was the ghostwriter. Since then, he has been interviewed a number of times about the gig, and written a biography of Andrews under his own name.
Tilly Bagshawe is another writer whose work frequently appears under a different name. Sidney Sheldon had sold hundreds of millions of books when he died in 2007. Bagshawe, who has written books under her own name as well, has a Sidney Sheldon page on her website where she reveals that she’s taken “up the mantle of this late, great author, writing in his inimitable Sheldon style.” All of Bagshawe’s work in Sheldon’s name has titles like “Sidney Sheldon’s Mistress of the Game” and “Sidney Sheldon’s The Silent Widow” whereas Sheldon’s own work is just called by the novel’s title. Additionally, Bagshawe is listed as an author on all the “Sidney Sheldon” books she wrote.
An interesting case is romance writer Janet Dailey. Dailey died in 2013 having written a number of romance series. However, over on the Topaz Literary Blog, Lyndsay E Hobbs wrote that as a February 2021 Dailey’s website made no mention of her death, and even seemed to make an effort to make it sound like she was still alive and writing. You could subscribe to the “author’s” newsletter, follow “her” on Facebook, and read a bio written in the present tense with no mention of Dailey’s death. When Hobbs sent a contact email to the website about this she received this in reply: That’s a good question and one I get asked frequently. Before she died, Janet mentored a young author and taught the woman how to write in her style. Janet also left outlines of future books and outlines for the characters to work from. I guess Janet knew how beloved her characters were and how heartbroken readers would be if no one ever knew what happened to the Calders, or her other characters. We like to think the writer is doing a good job of keeping to the spirit of Janet’s writing, and she is acknowledged in every book.” However the website admin she’d been corresponding with didn’t even know the name of the ghostwriter. After she’d contacted the publisher and been told they don’t give out any info about ghostwriters, she said that it did seem as if the publisher was trying to be deceptive about Dailey’s death. She received no response.
In 2017, Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone mystery novels died. She’d started the Kinsey Millhone series in 1982 with A is for Alibi. At the time of her death, her most recent novel, Y is for Yesterday had just been published. In a Facebook post, her daughter wrote: “Many of you also know that she was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, and in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.” In an interview, her husband Steven Humphrey added that she’d been struggling to think of an ending for the series when she became ill, so there’s no manuscript to work from. “Nothing’s been written. There is no Z.”
Obviously there are a number of ways to handle someone else writing in the name of a dead author. Personally I’m OK with the idea, as long as the author would have been OK with this (I think in Grafton’s case her family did the right thing), and as long as they are open and forthcoming about the fact that the books are being written by a ghostwriter. Would I want someone writing in my name someday when I’m gone? I don’t know…
What do you think of this practice? Are you comfortable with ghostwriters taking over from popular authors?
We all know that the literary canon is represented by white, male writers to a disproportionate extent. But there are many exceptions, and diverse writers are gaining more exposure all the time. Women read about 50% female authors and 50% male authors. But for men that ratio is about 80:20 in favor of male authors. Why? I think there are a lot of reasons having to do with how our society at large sees and defines masculinity. But The Guardian recently put out a list of Books By Women That Every Man Should Read. The list included contributions from the likes of Ian McEwan, Richard Curtis, Salman Rushdie and more.
On one hand I don’t want to criticize The Guardian for seeing the discrepancy between male and female reading habits and trying to rectify some of the imbalance. But something about this article doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the authors who are left off. The omissions include (but are no means limited to) Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, any of the Bronte sisters, Agatha Christie, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson and that’s just off the top of my head! But there’s no way a list like this could possible be comprehensive. They asked a handful of men to name a favorite and these are the ones that came up. That’s fair. If they’d been asked to list favorite books by male writers there would be many gaps and omissions as well. That’s the nature of such a list.
Maybe what doesn’t sit right with me is the idea of a bunch of men telling other men that these are the books by women that are “acceptable” for them to read. I’m aware that’s not the intention. The intention is the highlight great work by female authors. But it’s how it comes off.
This article also spurred me to think about my own reading habits. Looking at the books I’ve read so far this year, I’ve read thirty eight books so far. Nine were by men. Clearly I gravitate toward women authors in my own reading. My TBR looks more or less consistent with that proportion. So am I in any position to criticize men for reading things are they feel are in line with their own experiences of the world? Maybe not.
I think the take away is that we should all try to step outside our comfort zones. That goes for gender, but also for race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and any other category you can think of.
Do you gravitate toward books that reflect your experience/identity? If so do you think it’s worthwhile to try to read outside that comfort zone?