The First Ten Books of 2021: For the Love of Fiction, True Crime, and Fluff

“Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.” – Truman Capote

THERE IS TREMENDOUS value to facing things head-on; to rooting yourself firmly and unshakably in reality, unmoved by the maelstrom it periodically unleashes. Hic et nunc, as the Stoics put it. To be immersed in the here and now. But some days, the going can get too tough, the waters too choppy. These are the days when staying afloat feels next to impossible.

During these moments, it helps to have a hobby or ten to buoy the spirits. These hobbies act as temporary escape hatches—a place where the mind can rest as the soul regroups. As someone who’s been struggling with cycles of anxiety and depression, I understand the value of escapism. I’ve always gravitated towards solitary (and sedentary) activities like writing, reading, singing, playing the guitar, crocheting, and cross-stitching. All these hobbies help shift my focus away from what’s stressing me out at a particular moment.

Out of all these activities, there’s one that I’ve turned into a daily habit, and that’s reading. Reading a few pages at the end of a long day can help cleanse the mental palate. Bonus points if the book teaches you something. Though, to be fair, all books have something to teach—even if the lesson is something as left field as when to quit reading a bad book.

Normally, I rely on book lists and recommendations to find out what I ought to read next. This year, however, I’ve had to nix my prepared list. Health problems. I have an autoimmune disease that leaves me with brain fog and fatigue. And because focus and energy are two things I have in low supply at the moment, I need to be very selective with my readings. Nothing too long or too demanding. So, expect most of the books on this list to be on the short (but superb) side.

Alors, without further ado, my first ten books for 2021:

Book 1: The Night Diary (2018) by Veera Hiranandani

Favorite Quote: “Papa says that everyone is killing one another now, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs. Everyone is to blame. He says that when you separate people into groups, they start to believe that one group is better than another. I think about Papa’s medical books and how we all have the same blood, and organs, and bones inside us, no matter what religion we’re supposed to be.” – Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary

Set in 1947, at the height of the Indian Partition riots, Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary follows the story of one family as they escape religious persecution in their homeland. The story unfolds as the diary entries of 12-year-old Nisha. She uses her diary to write to her mother who had passed on when Nisha and her twin brother, Amil, were babies.

Now, the fact that we’re reading about the Partition—one of the bloodiest and most devastating episodes in Indian and Pakistan history—through the experiences of a 12-year-old girl makes everything even more painful. Her family’s journey from Pakistan to the New India is perilous and heartbreaking. At one point, Nisha is held at knifepoint by a man whose lost his entire family during the riots.

Though the book is a quick read, it is not a light one. The Night Diary is a complex and moving book that explores challenging and important themes like family problems, religion (and the role that it plays in our perception of others), social class, social/racial/religious identity, justice, and finding one’s voice.

A must-read.

Grade: A-

Book 2: The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros

Favorite Quote: “One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.       

Friends and neighbors will say, what happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

                They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out.”

The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told through the perspective of its heroine, Esperanza Cordero. Each chapter offers a slice of Esperanza’s life. It gives the reader an idea of what it must be like to be a 12-year-old Chicana growing up in an impoverished Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago.

Fair warning, this is a book that tackles sensitive topics like racism, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. It may be a slim volume but you can be sure that it packs a proverbial punch. It’s definitely the type of book that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Another thing I love about the book is how authentic it reads. I can practically hear Esperanza’s voice in my ear. It’s so well-written, the lingo is spot-on, and it’s emotionally honest without the histrionics. What else is there to say? Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street is definitely worthy of a spot on your reading list.

Grade: A

Book 3: Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata (possible spoiler ahead)

Favorite Quote: “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.

So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.”

Convenience Store Woman is the heartwarming story of the awkward and endearing 36-year-old Keiko Furukura. As the book’s title suggests, Keiko is a proud Smile Mart employee in the Hiromachi neighborhood in Shinagawa. She’s had the same job for over 18 years, and it’s a job that she’s absolutely passionate about. To Keiko, it’s more than work—it’s her life. Working in a convenience store brings direction, stability, and purpose to her existence. It’s also where she takes her cues on how to live like a “normal” person. Now, if only society and the people around her would stop trying to mold her into something she’s not.

Out of the ten books in this list, this is my second favorite. The premise is quite simple. Quirky/misunderstood/boring middle-aged protagonist faces crushing societal pressures. Square peg forced into round hole shatters the mold—that kind of book.

Now, the plotline isn’t wholly new, but maybe that is its genius. Keiko’s struggles are universal. It’s the question of whether one should conform to society’s expectations and reap the benefits that come with that ‘peaceful’ existence or stay true to oneself and risk becoming an outcast. I think that while our experiences may differ, this is a dilemma we’ve all faced at one point or another. It’s a simple, sweet, funny, and heartfelt book. A perfect read all year round.

Grade: A+


“I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.” – Sayaka Murata

Book 4: Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

Favorite Quote: “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

Philip K. Dick once said, “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Now, if you’ve ever wondered about the madwoman in Jane Eyre’s attic, then this book is the salve for that particular itch. In Wide Sargasso Sea, author Jean Rhys breathes life—and what a fascinating and tragic life it turned out to be—to the infamous and violently insane, Bertha Mason. Of course, she wasn’t Bertha then. She was the beautiful, proud, and vulnerable Creole heiress, Antoinette Cosway.

Antoinette’s early life can only be described as wretched. Her family loses all their money, her mother goes insane, her brother dies early, and she’s left with no one to really love her or care for her. If not for her stepfather’s sense of responsibility, our heroine would’ve been out in the streets, or worse, dead. But the arrival of a certain Mr. Rochester might just change everything.

Of course, he marries her for her dowry, which is hardly ever a good thing, but he also presents her with the possibility of happiness and a fresh start. So where did it all go wrong? Why did our heroine go mad? Was Antoinette’s madness genetic or was it the consequence of neglect and a hostile environment? The book answers all these questions while also delving into postcolonial issues of sexism, racism, prejudice, cultural clashes, assimilation, and displacement.

Wide Sargasso Sea is undoubtedly a very important piece of literature. It’s a solid read and one that I do recommend to people who love classics. But, personally, I wish the writing and the plot were a little tighter or cleaner. I don’t know how else to describe it other than reading the book is like walking into someone’s dream or nightmare. The scenes are very vivid, but the pace is unpredictable and there are gaps in the story and the timeline that I wish were a little more fleshed out.

Grade: B

Book 5: The Duke and I (2000) by Julia Quinn

Favorite Quote: “A duel, a duel, a duel. Is there anything more exciting, more romantic…or more utterly moronic?”

A few years ago, two dear friends introduced me to the exciting world of Historical Romance. Their recommended starters? The whole Julia Quinn catalogue, starting with the first book in the Bridgerton series, The Duke and I. Now, I wasn’t planning on rereading the series just yet, but Netflix has inspired me to revisit Quinn’s works. And I’m sure glad I did.

Set in Regency London, The Duke and I is the story of how the commitment-averse Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, and the lovely and quick-witted Daphne Bridgerton set out to dupe the ton into thinking they’re in love. Simon is determined never to marry and by pretending to court Daphne, he has a built-in excuse to keep the marriage-minded society mommas at bay. As for Daphne, she’s hoping their little plan can make her more desirable in other men’s eyes. After all, a Duke did choose her, right?

Naturally, their plan backfires. Love gets in the way.  As far as hisrom books go, this has all the elements for a good one. You have the couple getting caught in a compromising position, a duel, family drama, and a dark secret that threatens to destroy all semblance of happiness for Simon and Daphne. It’s a great, quick and fun read. I highly recommend it.

Grade: B+

Book 6: The Viscount Who Loved Me (2000) by Julia Quinn

Favorite Quote: “A man with charm is an entertaining thing, and a man with looks is, of course, a sight to behold, but a man with honor—ah, he is the one, dear reader, to which young ladies should flock.”

The Viscount Who Loved Me is the second book in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton Series. This time, the book centers on the eldest of the Bridgerton siblings, Anthony. With his best friend, the Duke of Hastings, off the market (and married to his little sister, no less!), Anthony has become London’s most eligible bachelor.  Except he’s not looking for a bride, he’s already chosen one.

Edwina Sheffield is smart, beautiful, amiable, and someone Anthony’s sure he will never fall in love with. In short, she’s the Viscount’s idea of the perfect bride.  It’s just a matter of wooing her and getting the approval of her stubborn, willful, infuriating, and utterly irresistible older sister, Kate. Somehow, when Kate’s around, Anthony just can’t seem to bee-have. Yes, I did that.

The Viscount Who Loved Me is a strong second offering from the Bridgerton Series. I found it to be more lighthearted, generally a quicker and easier read than The Duke and I. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times secondhand cringe-inducing, this is a book that has enough ups and downs to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Grade: A-

Book 7: In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote

Favorite Quotes: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’”

“Just remember: If one bird carried very grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity.”

“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.”

And now, my favorite book in this list—In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The book covers the Clutter family murders and the arrest, trial, and execution of murderers Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith. As a true crime fan (the genre, not the activity), I don’t know why I waited so long before reading this seminal piece.

This is a book that shaped an entire literary genre. The fact that it’s still the second-best-selling true crime book over 50 years since its publication shows us how important and impressive In Cold Blood is. Now, I know the book has veracity issues, but I won’t be touching on that. For now, I’m basing this mini-review on my experience as a reader. And all I can say is that In Cold Blood is exquisitely written and worth the many praises it’s received from readers and critics alike.

All the characters—the Clutter family, Dick, Perry—are so fleshed-out that you can picture them as they were before their lives took a very tragic turn. It was a senseless and brutal murder that left an entire nation reeling and a town devastated. The murderers were completely inhuman in their cruelty, and yet Capote manages to somehow humanize these killers—especially Perry Smith. By doing so, the author makes the crime all the more terrifying and disturbing.

This is a staggering book. If you love good writing, true crime, and the classics, this is one for your shelf.

Grade: A+

Book 8: The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry

Favorite Quote: “The life where nothing was ever unexpected. Or inconvenient. Or unusual. The life without color, pain or past.”

Here’s a book from my childhood—and maybe yours as well. The Giver is a dystopian tale that follows the story of 12-year-old Jonas as he begins training for his new role in society. Jonas is his community’s new Receiver of Memory. He will receive and keep all of the world’s memories and knowledge, which are to be passed on to him by his predecessor, The Giver.

Prior to his training, Jonas’s Community was Utopian. Fear, chaos, hardship, and differences were concepts that were nebulous, if not downright nonexistent. Everything in the Community was designed for order, sameness, and peace. But as Jonas’s training progressed, he started seeing the other side of the coin. For the Community to attain “Utopia,” it needed to sacrifice wonderful and perhaps worthier values like individuality, freedom of choice, speech, and expression, and the capacity to feel emotions like love, happiness, anger, and grief.  Through the world’s memories, Jonas remembered what could have been and what still could be—a world of freedom and possibility.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver is one of those books that I like to revisit at least once every decade. And every time I do, I’m amazed by the book’s continued relevance. Language-policing, mob mentality, the silencing of dissenting opinions, the oppression of what’s Other, tyranny—these are all things we continue to witness in today’s society. Honestly, we can all learn a little something from this book. So, if you haven’t read The Giver yet, please consider adding this to your reading list.

Grade: A+

Book 9: Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman (2012)

Favorite Quote: “Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”

As far as inspirational speeches go, this 19-minute commencement address by Neil Gaiman—delivered at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012—is one of the best you’ll find online. In it, Gaiman shares his thoughts on creativity, resilience, resourcefulness, and bravery. To make good art, one must be willing to put oneself out there. To make mistakes, to risk failure, to keep going even when the odds are stacked against you, especially when the odds are stacked against you. To keep believing in yourself and to keep soldiering on. All solid and effective advice.

Make Good Art is a heartwarming and rousing speech. It’s a pleasure to watch and listen to—and it makes for a quick but impactful read. This is the book for struggling and blocked artists and writers who need the occasional reminder that they have what it takes to make good art.

Rating: A-

Book 10: How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits by Caroline de Maigret, Sophie Mas, Audrey Diwan, Anne Berest

Favorite Quote: “Enjoy the face you have today. It’s the one you’ll wish you have ten years from now.”

Have I mentioned that I’m studying French? C’est plus difficile que je le pensais. I’m progressing a lot slower than I thought I would, but any progress is good progress, right? As part of my learning experience, I decided to read more French culture books. This year, How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are was my toe in the water.  

Now, let me tell you, this was a fun ride. I was expecting something a little more serious and instructional, but what I got was far better. How to Be Parisian is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s snobbish, pretentious, sassy, amusing, witty, sarcastic, and funny at points. It plays to and pokes fun at the stereotypes we have of Parisian women. It also has a number of great recipes that I can’t wait to try. It’s a good, fun book for when you need a chuckle.

Grade: B+

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me

Title: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)

Author: Mindy Kaling

Genre: Fiction, Biography, Non-Fiction, Comedy

First Published: 2011

Pages: 219

“Mindy Kaling is my spirit animal.” These are words I’ve heard all too often when around good friends. While I wouldn’t go so far as to put Mindy at the top of my totem pole of spirituality—that spot’s currently occupied by Max Black (2 Broke Girls), though I’m also desperate to find a touch of Diane Lockhart (The Good Wife) in me somewhere—I will bow to the awesomeness of Ms. Kaling. Known for her roles as the quirky and ditzy Kelly Kapoor (The Office-US), and the equally fabulous Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project), it’s easy to see why there’s so much buzz surrounding the talented Emmy-nominated writer and actress.

Like any other Mindy fan, I jumped at the opportunity to read her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns). And boy, was I glad I did. The book is every bit as witty and funny as Mindy is in every role she plays, including her cameo in the hilarious This is the End. I chuckled my way through the book, from her Introduction to her Goodbyes.

At the start of the book, Mindy Kaling answered a bunch of questions she felt readers may have regarding Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)—FAQ style. One of her proposed questions was why the book wasn’t as funny as Tina Fey’s book. Now, I won’t pretend to have read Bossypants, though I would love to. So I can’t really verify if this book really isn’t as good as Tina Fey’s offering—but then again, let’s face it… It’s Tina Fey!  But I will reassure the reader that this book is every bit as good as Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang—albeit definitely PG compared to Handler’s R-rated work. Now, I’m one of those people who thoroughly enjoy a heavy dose of raunchiness, but what this book lacks in raunch, it makes up for in en-pointe humor designed for the every girl.

In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), Mindy candidly discusses her difficulties in losing weight and how she was bullied as a kid for it. The chapter Chubby for Life describes how she was made fun of for being on the heavy side, and how she fought hard to lose weight, only to be made fun of for having been fat before. In a bout of righteous indignation, Mindy declared: “The laws of bullying allow you to be cruel even when the victim had made strides for improvement? This is when I realized that bullies have no code of conduct.”

Another chapter in the book talks about a recent photoshoot Mindy had with close buddy and co-star Ellie Kemper. In this chapter, the comedian talks about the difficulties stylists seemed to have with her fuller figure. During the photoshoot, the stylist thought to bring dozens of gorgeous samples, all of which were a size zero, except for a shapeless navy shift. Feeling sorry for herself, she ducked into a bathroom, only to find words of wisdom offered by some angry student under a bit of poo smeared on the walls. Armed with a newfound take on her situation, Mindy marched up to the stylist and had one of the size zero gowns “fixed” so she could wear it for the shoot. I’ve seen the photos, and Mindy and Ellie look amazing!

Other chapters I loved in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) include I Love Irish Exits—where she has convinced me that an Irish Exit is, at least, more considerate than its French counterpart, Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly—truth! Why do they take forever with their shoes?, Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who are Not Real, and Roasts are Terrible.

While I share most of Mindy Kaling’s views, the last one in particular, was very compelling.  I love watching stand-up comedians. But I never really understood roasts, particularly the ones we have now. As Mindy puts it, “The self-proclaimed no-holds-barred atmosphere reminds me of signs for strip clubs on Hollywood Boulevard: ‘We have Crazy Girls. They Do Anything!’ We don’t have to do anything. Let’s bar some holds.”

All in all, I found Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) an amusing and somewhat eye-opening read. Mindy Kaling has a knack for philosophizing the everyday and finding something witty to share with her readers/audience. While it isn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, at least not for this particular reader, it does elicit its fair share of chortles and snickers. And most of all, it’s very well-written.

The Verdict: A 

Now, as stated earlier, I’m a Mindy fan—and proud of it—and this book just solidified that fact.

Book Review: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding

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Title: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

Author: Helen Fielding

Genre: Fiction, Chick Lit, Romance, Comedy

First Published: 2013

Pages: 390

There is a lot to be said about Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy—most of them, good things. I had loved Helen Fielding’s first and second offerings, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that I would be a fan of Fielding’s third “Bridget” book. But to be honest, it was a big surprise that I liked it at all. Here’s a tiny confession: ever since I heard it was out, I had done my best to avoid reading Mad About the Boy. I was convinced it would be a major let down. But when my best friend got me this book for the holidays, I knew it was time to finally have a sit-down with dear ol’ Jonesey.

The reason for my reluctance to read the novel was that, like most fans, I had heard about its major spoiler long before the book became available in nearby bookstores. In The Edge of Reason, we had left Bridget in what felt like a “happily ever after” scenario with Mark Darcy. The way things were going for the lovebirds, it seemed like their domestic spats would consist of petty jealousies, Bridget’s hyperactive imagination, disagreements on child-rearing—all the good quarrels associated with a healthy marriage. And, like most readers, I would’ve been perfectly happy reading about these things. It would’ve been gratifying even, to find the two in the midst of saccharine normalcy. But instead, we find out that Mark Darcy’s gone—done away in a ‘blaze of glory’ or in a rather gruesome manner, depending on how you look at things.

I had wanted to ask Helen Fielding, “Now why would you do that?” It just seemed cruel to get half the population of women, (a gross exaggeration, I know), to fall in love with a male lead only to kill him off immediately after a fairy tale ending. And the questions kept coming. “Isn’t Bridget Jones supposed to be a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice? How can you have Elizabeth without Mr. Darcy?” But that’s the sad premise of Mad About the Boy. And the book starts off with Bridget, once again, trying to find love in a horridly superficial and ageist world.

It’s 5 years after Mark’s death, and Bridget’s 51 with two young kids to look after. Though Mark had made sure that their family was well-provided for, Bridget is left struggling to stay sane while trying out a new career as a scriptwriter, attempting to keep her children well-fed and not raised purely by technology or Sponge Bob, and of course, shedding her dismal add-on poundage and “Born-Again virginity.”

The first problem, she tackles by creating a modern script for Hedda Gabbler by Anton Chekhov. (To you, dear literatus, I know. It’s part of the fun, really.) At the start of the novel, Bridget gets a call from her agent, saying her latest script is ready for film adaptation. This turns out to be an exceedingly humorous, and at times, embarrassing experience for Jonesey. Unfortunately, it also serves as a prop for the novel—at times, completely forgotten, as Bridget goes on her usual love-centric existence.

The second situation, I’ll have to say, is the heart of the story. Though one may doubt it sometimes, due to Bridget’s laughable thoughts and whims, our lovable heroine has certainly grown up some since the last book. Her love for her children, Billy (a mini-Mark) and Mabel, is palpable throughout the novel. She does well as a single mother; though not without the help of her perfect babysitter, Chloe, the children’s ‘fun’ godfather, Daniel Cleaver (Yes, *that* Daniel!), and the odd, aloof, and admittedly Daniel Craig-esque sports teacher, Mr. Wallaker.

And lastly, Bridget overcomes her third problem with the help of her ever-hip and ever-reliable posse of Tom, Jude, and Talitha. Sharon, the feminist of the original group, has since moved to the United States after marrying her successful dot.com husband. With the help of her three friends, a touch of Botox, and the diet plan of the local Obesity Clinic, Bridget manages to once again bring out her “wanton sex goddess” side.

Her amusing foray on social media, particularly Twitter, also leads her to the handsome boy-toy, which the reader meets at the start of the book. Roxster is, as his handle suggests, quite the rockstar in the bedroom and in real life—if you can categorize smokin’ hot, 30-year-old environmentalists as real-life rockstars (which I do!). Despite the raging chemistry between the two, Jonesey still finds herself in the midst of heartbreak and self-doubt. But that’s to be expected. This is, after all, Bridget Jones we’re talking about. In the end though, she does find what she’s looking for—a lasting love with a great father-figure for her kids. Though the introduction of this ‘great love’ is quite abrupt, it does work in a multitude of levels. At the very least, it’s a good way to tie up what would’ve been a gloomy story.

The Verdict: a well-deserved A.

Now, the rest of my two cents. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy is a feel-good novel that has enough laugh-out-loud moments to keep you turning the page, despite Mark Darcy’s depressing exit. Again, I really don’t agree with killing Mark off just to create a story. I believe that a marriage offers a wealth of ‘stories’ on its own. And no matter how greatly written her new love interests are, there’s simply no replacing Mark Darcy.

But, and this is quite a big BUT, that’s also what I loved about the book. Helen Fielding’s treatment of Mark’s death—with Bridget’s private grieving, particularly in that scene with her mother—left me in tears at least a couple of times. Mark is gone and he is missed. There are no over-the-top dramatics with Bridget, but you do acutely feel her loss. And the new men in her life aren’t Mark, nor are they designed to replace Mark. They are there to show that there is life after a loved one’s death. That, like most women in her situation, Bridget has had to move on, no matter how difficult the process was.

In the end, I do believe this is the type of story worth recommending to all fans of the Bridget Jones series.

Book Review: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

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Title: City of Bones

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2007

Genre: Fiction, YA

 

Plot Summary: When 15-year-old Clary Fray stepped into a New York nightclub, the last thing she expected was to become a witness to a murder that no one else could see. Things take a dive from there. Her mother goes missing and she ends up almost getting killed by a monster in her apartment. She wakes to find herself in the middle of the war between good and evil—a war between Shadowhunters and demons.

With the influx of Young Adult novels in the market, what makes City of Bones from Cassandra Clare a worthy pick?

Well, it really depends on when you’re coming from. I say when, because my choice to pick up this book has to do with history that I have (albeit one-sided) with the authoress. About a decade ago, I found her famous (though in some circles, infamous) fanfics: the LOTR: The Very Secret Diaries and, of course, the Draco Trilogy. Had a few quick laughs with the LOTR fic, but when it came to the Draco Trilogy, man, was I hooked. I would check for updates every week, and would stay up rereading each chapter. At that time, I was still using dial-up prepaid internet, and I thought Cassie Clare was probably the wittiest writer around. Of course, I was also 17, and was yet to meet Wifi, Nick Hornby, or Kurt Vonnegut.

**The fact that Aidan Turner is playing Luke Garroway in the Mortal Instruments film is, of course, added incentive for me.**

Suffice to say, I read the book out of curiosity. I wanted to see if City of Bones was as good as Draco Dormiens. What I found was that when it came to the characters of the book, City of Bones was, in a way, Draco Dormiens. Clary Fray, the 15-year-old protagonist of the Mortal Instruments series was painted as this impetuous, fiery, and passionate redhead—and I couldn’t help but think back to how Clare had written Ginny Weasley in her Draco Trilogy. And Jace Wayland, the sexy, damaged, platinum-haired bad boy of the story, was Clare’s Draco Malfoy. Of course, this is not to say that the novel wasn’t good; but for one who’s loved Clare’s past works, I just found the similarities a bit jarring. It also made it impossible not to compare the two.

On its own, I’ll have to say, City of Bones is actually a REALLY GOOD YA book. It’s creative, imaginative, and scandalous. It has all the elements of an enthralling ride—angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, forbidden love, mysterious bad boys, at least two love triangles, and even incest! Believe me, Clare just upped the ante for countless other YA writers with the incest plot. I mean, who else has the outgoing guts to do that in YA, other than VC Andrews? Genius! The book, judged on its own, is definitely a page-turner.

Except… It didn’t quite live up to what I had expected from Clare. Maybe it was Clary, and the fact that I didn’t exactly find her all that likeable. At times, she seemed more concerned about her relationship with Jace than the fact that her mother was missing and most probably dead. I found that unreal. It’s actually a bit of a peeve of mine, when a YA female leads get too caught up in the romance aspect that she fails to see how the world is falling apart. What can I say? I’m a strong believer in appropriate emotional reactions and investments.

Pace-wise, I found it a bit dragging at times too. The action scenes weren’t particularly exciting, except the scenes with the werewolves, which were really good. And lastly, lastly, lastly. Compared to the Draco Trilogy, I thought City of Bones was somewhat less witty. There were no laugh-out-loud moments for me. And you see, that was what I expected from Cassie Clare. That was what I remembered most about her writing. She had a way of drawing a chuckle out of you when you weren’t too busy rooting for one love team or the other.

That being said, I still think of City of Bones as being a pretty solid summer read. The plot is definitely interesting and promising. And despite Clary’s shortcomings, you do see her mature as the story progresses. The rest of the characters are also likeable enough. Jace is a flawed character, but the vulnerability that belies his cocksure attitude makes him a lovable male lead. Isabelle has her comic moments. Ah, and Simon. Poor Simon, is probably the most relatable character out of the lot. You can’t help but root for him despite the all-too-obvious rejection headed his way.

All in all, City of Souls is a good read that will make you want to pick up a copy of Clare’s second book, City of Ashes.

Grade: B

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad-Jennifer Egan

Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Author: Jennifer Egan

Genre: Fiction

First Published: 2010

Uncategorizable, experimental, but like most of its characters, unsinkable—A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks the usual mold of Fiction, then comes out victorious in its ultra-realistic portrayal of life. This Pulitzer-winning (2011) offering from Jennifer Egan is told in a non-linear (time-wise) and non-traditional format.

Is it a novel or a pastiche of short stories? Whatever it is, it’s one complex and gripping piece of literature that engages the reader and commands the reader to sit still and pay attention. Blink and you might lose the thread that links all the stories together. What Egan does in A Visit from the Goon Squad is she gives you glimpses of the lives of a number of highly different, and yet, interconnected characters. Okay, that’s oversimplifying it. She doesn’t give you a glimpse of their lives as if you’d know each character at a single glance. She lets you in on specific moments of the characters lives, and encourages you to put two and two together.

Mind you, this isn’t a piece of fiction that you can breeze through without going back a page or two to digest what’s going on. And yet, that’s what keeps the reader (this one, at least) hooked. You’ll end up trying to guess who’s next. Which minor figure in the current chapter will become the next chapter’s main protagonist? How does this character figure into the whole story, if ever, there was a ‘whole story’?

Now, normally, I would attempt to give you a brief summary of the book—and give me a second or two, and I will try—but it might be an ambitious attempt on my part when it comes to this one. You might just have to trust me when I tell you that this is a book worth reading. Either way, here goes nothing: [SPOILERS AHEAD]

A Visit from the Goon Squad starts off with a 20-something woman named Sasha, and her attempt to curb her kleptomania. We learn in the next chapter, that she works as Bennie’s personal assistant. Bennie is a recording executive whose mentor, Lou, discovered him when he was a bassist in his high school band, Flaming Dildos. Lou had a bit of a fling with Jocelyn, Bennie’s bandmate, who was also the sort-of girlfriend of Scotty (their guitarist). Of course, this was all before Bennie married Stephanie, a PR agent who tried to bring back the flagging career of the aging has-been rockstar, Bosco. Bosco, seeing something special in Stephanie’s brother, Jules, decides to give him the exclusive story to his ‘suicide tour.’ We learn that Jules actually has the writing chops for this story, after all, he was a former journalist whose career ended when he tried to rape a Hollywood starlet named Kitty Jackson. Kitty, will eventually work with La Doll, Stephanie’s former boss, as La Doll tries to soften the image of a foreign genocidal general. La Doll, who was once the toast of Hollywood, saw the collapse of her fascinating career during a huge PR spectacle that was simply too hot to handle. Of course, during the time of the PR fiasco, Sasha would’ve been a young prostitute in Naples—right before she went back to college where she met her future husband, Drew. The two will eventually move to the desert to raise their two kids. As for Bennie, at the end of the book, he would’ve found a way to bring back Scottie’s career through working with Alex, an old fling of Sasha’s.

So, Complex? Oh, YES. Confusing? Yup, a bit. Compelling? Definitely. All in all, this is a book that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a good read.

Grade: A+

Book Review: Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

Juliet Naked - Nick Hornby

Title: Juliet, Naked

Author: Nick Hornby

Genre: Fiction, Novel, Romance

First Published: 2009

Pages: 406

Status: Reread

 

I am no Nick Hornby expert, but I do consider myself a fan. I also believe Juliet, Naked is one of Hornby’s best works. In it, the author showcases his unique ability to create something beautiful out of a messed-up relationship and an unhealthy obsession with a washed-out musician.

The novel, in a nutshell, tells the story of how nobody is ever completely beyond redemption—how no life is beyond salvaging. In the book, we follow the lives of our three main characters—Annie, Duncan, and Tucker Crowe. Annie and Duncan are residents of Gooleness, a small, bleak, and dull town in the East Coast of England. Nothing ever happens in Gooleness, the same way nothing ever happens in Duncan and Annie’s 15-year relationship. Like the dead-end town, theirs is a relationship that’s free of burning passion. At least, free of the kind of passion that Annie wants in her life.

Duncan is passionate enough about one particular topic—the retired and reclusive 80s musician, Tucker Crowe. Duncan’s obsession makes him the ultimate Crowologist, an expert in all things Tucker Crowe. He owns thousands of bootlegged copies of Crowe’s performances. He dissects the lyrics of Crowe’s songs to find ‘hidden meaning’ that eludes even the actual songwriter. Though almost seeming like a caricature of a ‘fan’, one can’t help but recognize how there’s a bit of Duncan in all of us. That passion Duncan feels for Crowe stems from the same brook where our own unhealthy fascination for Late Greats like Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, and in my case, Sylvia Plath, springs from.

And though Annie doesn’t exactly share the obsession Duncan has for Tucker Crowe, she recognizes it, tolerates it. She tolerates it enough to join Duncan on a trip to the States to look at a toilet in a small bar in Minneapolis. Of course, the toilet isn’t just any toilet for Duncan. It is THE toilet where Crowe had an amazing epiphany that caused him to walk out of his own life forever—which isn’t to say he died, so much as disappeared from the face of the earth, its public face anyway. The fact that Tucker Crowe did this right after the release of his most critically acclaimed album, the break-up masterpiece Juliet, just adds to the mystery of his quitting.

Although Annie puts up with Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe, cracks in their staid relationship begin to show when the pared down version of Juliet is released. The album becomes known as Juliet, Naked. Duncan, understandably, almost wets himself in excitement after hearing the album. In it, he sees genius. Annie, on the other hand, sees just potential. Both write their respective reviews on a Tucker tribute website, which Duncan owns. But when the real Tucker Crowe contacts Annie, the lives of our three protagonists begin to change drastically.

Now, Hornby has always had the gift of bringing his characters to life. For some odd reason, despite being deeply flawed, all the characters in Juliet, Naked are also quite lovable. Even the music nerd Duncan, with his arrogance and elitism has his great speech, his flaw-free moment.

When Duncan reveals the extent of his obsession with Tucker, the reader can’t help but feel embarrassed for the guy. After spending over 20 years trying to establish himself as a credible and serious Crowologist, he becomes no different from some deranged fan who breaks into someone else’s home. And yet, can one really hate Duncan for it, I wonder? If you had the chance to ransack the drawers of your favorite writer or musician and no one would ever find out, wouldn’t you do the same? That type of dedication is rare, creepy, flawed, and yet so telling of the extent of one’s love. To debase yourself for another—ah, but I digress.

Then, there’s Annie, who is the quintessential modern heroine. Dissatisfaction is her primary mover. At one point in the novel, she asks Tucker Crowe: “What do you do if you think you’ve wasted fifteen years of your life?” To which Tucker, the King of Time Wasted, tells Annie to reevaluate her life by using some complex formula that would account for the years ‘wasted.’ Though the advice was clever enough, I was more struck by the question. Isn’t it completely human to feel like we’ve wasted time? I thought, where does one waste 15 years? And then I realized the answer was in the everyday. We waste it on the sameness of the everyday. We look at the conflict between contentment and happiness without fully grasping how those two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Yes, compromise is necessary in living, but there has to be some sort of self-imposed limit on compromising. And I digress, even more.

Lastly, there’s Tucker Crowe. The washed-up, once-was musician. At the time of the novel, he was a recovering alcoholic who has done nothing in the last 22 years that constitutes as ‘work’. For decades, he depended on his ex-wives to keep him afloat. And though he hates this dependency, he feels powerless to work through it. In a way, Tucker feels like the most hopeless of all three characters. His, seemed like the hardest character to redeem.

And yet, there is some form of redemption for all three characters. Maybe not the kind that’s perfect, but there are lessons learned and changes made. To quote Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And ever the optimist, I do believe that Duncan, Tucker, and Annie have all taken the first step by the end of the book.

So obviously, one of the central themes of the novel is “Time Lost”. One of the lingering questions from the book is whether or not we can still salvage our remaining years—few as they may seem.

The book’s ending is for the affirmative. Yes, it’s never too late to find happiness. And though the book’s ending is, well, open to interpretation, Annie’s conversation with her shrink, Malcolm, is enough to give the reader some hope. Hope that maybe things will work out for Annie and Tucker, at least.

 

SPOILER ALERT: How does Juliet, Naked really end?

Well, I find that its ending really depends on what you want to believe. In true Nick Hornby fashion, our dear author gives no certainties of sad or happy endings. The story doesn’t end, it merely stops. It mimics the fluidity of real life.

Now, the first time I read Juliet, Naked, I fell upon the bleakest ending. Like Annie predicted, life slid into place after Tucker. As for Tucker, his next album was a major disappointment.

But upon rereading the book, I discovered the possibility of something good. Maybe, just maybe, Annie and Tucker found their way back to each other. That would certainly explain Tucker’s newfound contentment and new album. After combing the net for like interpretations, I found that a number of readers believe that “Uptown Girl” in the forums is actually Annie. They believe that Annie married Tucker in the end. Also a likely outcome, IMO. I think if we read between the lines hard enough, ala Duncan, maybe we can come up with even more possible endings for the book!

Either way, with its endless possibilities, its endless questions, there is no doubt in my mind that Juliet, Naked is the type of book that is truly worth reading and re-exploring. Highly recommended to all book lovers.

GRADE: A+

Book Review: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

northanger abbey-jane austen

Title: Northanger Abbey

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 236

 

Northanger Abbey follows the story of Catherine Morland, an unexceptional young woman from the country, who finds herself suddenly a part of the elegant and complex society in Bath. Under the ‘guidance’ of the vapid, though not cruel, Mrs. Allen, Catherine finds herself acquainted with the wrong crowd.

When she is befriended by the deceitful and coquettish Isabella Thorpe, our unlikely heroine falls under the manipulations of Isabella and her brother, John. For a while, she is bullied into participating in indiscreet activities that could make an impact on her reputation. Take note, reader, these activities are by no means as racy as the sentence might suggest. It is, basically, the reputation you get when you quite literally, ‘ride in the car with boys.’

Mercifully, she is saved from further social mishaps when she joins the company of the handsome, though somewhat unromantic, Henry Tilney, and his lovely sister, Eleanor. As would be expected, she falls for Henry, and there is reason to think that he begins to feel the same for her. The only setback lies in the meddling of Henry’s father, General Tilney. Therein, is the real story, and it starts quite late in the novel.

Although the rest of the novel is pleasant enough to read, Northanger Abbey is a lot like Emma, in the sense that the story is not as rich or eventful as Jane Austen’s other works. Notably, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. What gets the reader through the piece though, is the strength of Catherine’s character.

Yes, Jane Austen does take pains to establish how Catherine is unremarkable in almost all aspects—but she also makes our heroine incredibly interesting. Austen infuses her with youth. Catherine’s curiosity and naivety makes her relatable—and that is the mark of a good character.

Northanger Abbey is often regarded as Austen’s earliest work. This shows, especially in Austen’s immense presence in the text. The author makes her thoughts known in a very direct manner throughout the book. In her latter works like Persuasion and Mansfield Park, you get less of the author in the story.  Some critics regard Northanger Abbey as one of the keys to Austen’s mindset. With little else to go by, Austen having requested that all her letters be burnt upon her death, such personal works as this one becomes crucial to historians, literary professors and majors, and Janeites alike. This novel gives as a clue as to what Austen’s mindset was during the period when she wrote this story.

As a parody of Gothic literature, this book also succeeds in being possibly the most lighthearted and easy-to-read novel from Austen. This is why I highly recommend this book to all first-time Austen/Classic readers.

Rating: A-

Austen Marathon: Emma

Emma by Jane Austen - 2008 BBC edition
Emma by Jane Austen – 2008 BBC edition

 

 

Title: Emma

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1815

Pages: 495

In Emma, Jane Austen deviates from her usual course, where the poor though lovable heroine falls in love with a wealthy gentleman or clergyman. Instead, Austen chooses to flex her writing skills by creating a character which the author, herself, has described as, “a heroine whom no one but myself [Austen] will much like.”

And true enough, unlike her predecessors (the Dashwood sisters, the Bennet sisters, and Fanny Price), Emma isn’t the type of character that pulls on one’s heartstrings. Emma is privileged, independent, outspoken, and beautiful. She’s stubborn and, though good-intentioned, meddlesome. She has little inclination or interest to fall in love or marry.

Though wealthy on her own, Emma is, in a way, held captive by her love for her father. Her father’s fragile nature, (although hypochondriac also comes to mind), prevents Emma from straying too far or too often away from home. Bored by the simplicity of small town life, Emma finds real passion and excitement in matchmaking.

This becomes most apparent when she takes Harriet Smith under her wing. Harriet is a beautiful and amiable young lady of unknown parentage. Despite her numerous good qualities, Harriet’s station in life greatly limits her prospects when it comes to love and marriage. This, however, does not stop Emma from attempting to elevate Harriet’s status by finding the latter a respectable and acceptable suitor. She sets her eyes on the handsome and well-liked local vicar, Mr. Elton. In the process of bringing Mr. Elton and Harriet together Emma separates Harriet from a growing attachment with the young farmer, Robert Martin. She even dissuades the other young lady from accepting a proposal from Martin by emphasizing the farmer’s lack of finesse and lowly station in life.

Emma’s plans eventually backfire when it becomes clear that Mr. Elton has been trying to impress her all along. Desperate to make things right with Harriet, Emma digs herself a deeper hole by becoming even more meddlesome and scheming in her matchmaking. In the end, the result of her efforts prove satisfactory, though not because of her doing but in spite of it. Harriet finds true love with her farmer friend, and Emma ultimately rethinks her stand in marriage when she realizes her true feelings for her close friend, George Knightley.

Like Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, there is enough comedy in Emma to excuse any meanderings in Austen’s part. Although Austen has always exerted tremendous attention to detail, Emma’s circumstances, her lack of actual freedom because of her ‘ailing’ father, makes it necessary for the writer to make the most out of Highbury. The reader becomes immersed in Emma’s everyday life. This is a dangerous technique. One runs the risk of boring the reader with the ‘details’. But as usual, Austen manages to pull everything off with her wit and her lovable characters.

 

Favorite Character/s: Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax. Though vastly different in temperament and behavior, both women exhibit strength in character. For Ms. Fairfax, fortitude. For Emma, willfulness—the good kind, mostly.

Favorite Quote: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” – Emma

Rating: A

Austen Marathon: Pride and Prejudice

 

Title: Pride and Prejudice

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Fiction; Classic, Romance

First Published: 1813

Pages: 480

Rating: A+

Status: Reread (for the 4th time!)

 

Pride and Prejudice is, arguably, Jane Austen’s most popular work—and rightfully so! There is much to love about this novel. At its worst, it’s one of the wittiest, sweetest, and most heartbreaking romantic novels out there. At its best, it’s a stunning critique on nineteenth century etiquette and vanity. There is a reason why Austen’s works endure—why they’re still well-read and well-loved til now. Despite containing a plethora of archaic customs, these works are timeless when it comes to their relatability.

To demonstrate Austen’s wit, Pride and Prejudice starts with one of the most unforgettable lines in Fiction—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Let’s take a moment to appreciate the perfection of that line. It sets the tone for the entire novel. It lets the reader know what to expect from the book—a heavy dose of romance laced with just the right touch of comedy.

To sum up a good book in a few lines, Pride and Prejudice follows the unlikely romance between the story’s main character, Elizabeth Bennet, and the immensely wealthy and seemingly proud, Mr. Darcy. Throw in Elizabeth’s meddling and sometimes-scandalous family; a failed romance between Jane Bennet (Elizabeth’s sister) and Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley; and the sly machinations of the charming, Mr. Wickham—and what you have is an engaging and heartwarming piece of Literature.

Obviously, to say that I enjoyed the novel would be an understatement. Pride and Prejudice is, actually, one of my go-to novels whenever I feel colossal disappointment over one thing or another. That’s why this novel gets an A+ for me.

 

PLOT

Pride and Prejudice begins when a charming and wealthy gentleman, called Mr. Bingley, moves into Netherfield Park in Hertfordshire, where Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live with their five daughters. The Bennet family isn’t rich, and their estate will be passed to their closest male relation upon Mr. Bennet’s death. To ensure that their children will be provided for, Mrs. Bennet has made it her duty to marry off each of her children to a wealthy young man. She rejoices when her eldest, Jane, catches Mr. Bingley’s eye. The two seem to form an attachment, but before much could be done (or celebrated), the pair is separated by Bingley’s best friend, the handsome and affluent Mr. Darcy, and his sisters.

The twist comes when Mr. Darcy falls for Jane’s younger sister, the fiercely independent and witty, Elizabeth Bennet. And while I would love to go on a blow-by-blow account of how the two eventually fall in love, that would ruin the book’s buildup for you. (See? I learned from my last post!) And I would love for anyone to read this literary masterpiece, so I’ll stop right here.

Plot-wise, the story is tight. Like its predecessor, Sense and Sensibility, this story contains a series of ‘surprise’ turns. But it deals with each turn well. Although circumstances do change the characters’ mindsets, these changes aren’t dubious or unexplained. These changes are the obvious reactions to specific situations. In short, you won’t find any OOC (out-of-character) moments here.

 

CHARACTERS

Once again, Austen aces character development (and relatability). Her characters are, by no means, two-dimensional. Their personalities are distinct, their actions apt according to their respective natures. Austen also demonstrates her wit through the likes of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth.

Top 5 Characters from Pride and Prejudice

  1. Jane Bennet. I know that a lot of people identify with Elizabeth more, but to me, there’s much to love about Jane’s agreeable nature. Like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, Jane epitomizes grace under pressure.
  2. Elizabeth Bennet. This list just isn’t complete without the novel’s lovable and opinionated heroine. Elizabeth, much like Marianne, is high-spirited, intelligent, and attractive. However, she also displays tremendous maturity, especially upon realizing her prejudices.
  3. Mr. Darcy. Alright, I’ll admit it. Mr. Darcy is, undoubtedly, one of the most swoon-worthy men in fiction. He’s quiet, reserved, handsome, intelligent, and incredibly wealthy. He’s the whole package. Why it took Elizabeth so long to come around, is beyond me. Okay, so maybe she was insulted at the ball, but how can one not love Mr. Darcy?
  4. Lydia Bennet. Lydia Bennet is the character you’d love to hate. She’s pigheaded and vapid, shameless and selfish. And yet, there’s something about her foolishness that’s perfectly attributable to her upbringing and age.
  5. Mr. Bennet. It’s easy to see which parent Elizabeth takes after. Mr. Bennet is witty and amusing. He’s also a bit cruel, sometimes—but he eventually gets his fill of humble pie (as does everyone else in the book).

 

OVERALL: Definitely worth a reread.

There’s a reason why Pride and Prejudice is considered the quintessential love story. It has all the elements of a great romcom with a dash of drama. I think that’s also the reason why there are countless literary adaptations to this piece. This is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone who’s looking for a good romance novel—or for first-time Classic readers.

 

FAVORITE LINES

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” – Ms. Bingley, Chapter 11

““In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” – Mr. Darcy; Chapter 34

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” – Mary Bennet, Chapter 5

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” – Mr. Darcy, Chapter 60. After Elizabeth asked him when he fell in love with her.

“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.” – Mr. Darcy, Chapter 58

Austen Marathon: Sense and Sensibility

 

 

Title: Sense and Sensibility

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Fiction; Classic, Romance

First Published: 1811

Pages: 389

Rating: A+++++++

Status: Reread (for the 5th time!)

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, we follow the life and loves of two of Austen’s most memorable heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Despite the close bond between the two sisters, it immediately becomes apparent how vastly different they are from one another. Elinor is sensible, too sensible for her own good. She is polite to a fault, and somewhat reserved. Marianne, on the other hand, takes after her mother, in the sense that she’s much too romantic, too emotional, and too expressive.

When the novel begins, the sisters live in Norland Park with their mother and younger sister, Margaret. Their father had passed on, and had left them with a small income—a pittance compared to what their half-brother (a product of a previous marriage for Mr. Dashwood), John, received. The entire Norland Park was handed to him. And although he had promised his father that he would take care of his sisters, his selfish wife, Fanny, convinces him that to offer to help his sisters move to a different home is help enough for them.

Meanwhile, we learn of a growing attachment between the ever-sensible Elinor, and Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars. Before any formal agreements can be made, however, Fanny learns of their growing closeness and insinuates herself into the thick of things by taking over Norland Park as its new mistress.

Miffed by the sudden intrusion of John’s domineering and snobbish wife, Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer of lodging from a distant relation—a certain Sir John Middleton from Devonshire. She moves her entire family to Barton Cottage, where the group is warmly received by Sir John and his family. There, the Dashwoods meet the local society. Despite their initial determination to keep to themselves, the family grows close to the affable Sir John, his reserved and elegant wife, Lady Middleton; her gossipy, matchmaking mother, Mrs. Jenkins; and Sir John’s good friend, the honorable Colonel Christopher Brandon.

Colonel Brandon immediately falls for the beautiful and romantic, Marianne. But she remains uninterested and ignores the colonel in favor of the dashing and debonair, John Willoughby. By all appearances, the two appear in love and ready to wed. That is, until Willoughby abruptly leaves Barton Park for London. We later learn that Willoughby has traded Marianne in for a wealthier wife. Although he later attempts to justify his behavior, understanding the root of his greed only humanizes him—it does not redeem him.

As for Elinor, she’s met with an even worse fate. Although Edward does make a brief appearance in Barton Park, we learn that he is engaged to another—the uneducated and cunning cousin of Lady Middleton, Lucy Steele. Though Lucy appears saccharine sweet, she doesn’t fool Elinor (and the reader) for a minute. Lucy is a master of passive-aggressive retaliation. Upon hearing of Elinor’s attachment to Edward, she immediately makes Elinor familiar with her ‘secret’ engagement. Elinor is sworn to secrecy. So while Marianne openly weeps for a lost love, Elinor suffers in secret.

The good news is that both sisters do find their ‘happy ending’. Having proven his enduring love for her, Colonel Brandon eventually wins Marianne over. As for Elinor and Edward, their happy ending comes at a hefty price. Upon learning of Edward’s engagement to Lucy, his mother cuts him off financially. The wealth he stood to earn as the firstborn son was passed on to his vain and selfish brother, Robert—who incidentally, ends up under the claws of the ultra-clever, Lucy.

 

PLOT: Oh what a tangled web…

There’s a lot that goes on in Sense and Sensibility—but that’s the beauty of this novel. All these twists are integrated perfectly, seamlessly, so to speak. I didn’t feel like anything was ‘forced’ in the novel. When Willoughby and Marianne fell in love in the span of a week, it was relatable. Considering Marianne’s age, (not even 17 at the start of the novel!), it’s easy to see how her world could revolve around the handsome and rugged, Mr. Willoughby.

And though, these days, it may be difficult to find a woman possessing Elinor’s reserve, fortitude, and forbearance, considering the setting of this novel, her behavior makes perfect sense. The novel was set in the years between 1792 and 1797—a time when decorum took centerstage.

Now, I know that some people don’t like the ending—with many wishing Marianne ended up with Willoughby, but I think the ending was apt. The greatest of passions often burn quick and extinguish in the night. The great loves are those that endure, like a slow, steady flame. At least, that’s what I believe—that’s why this book makes sense to me.

 

CHARACTERS:

One of Austen’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to create a myriad of ‘real’ characters—and it really is a joy reading about their interactions. From the passive aggressive arguments between Elinor and Lucy to the impassioned speeches of Marianne and Willoughby, Austen creates a dynamic world filled with dynamic characters. Now, if I were to be nitpicky and pick out the least fleshed-out character, then I’d have to say, Margaret. She’s not poorly-written, not at all. She simply falls into the background and is forgotten for a long time. But all good stories have their wallflowers, so this is hardly a point against Austen or Sense and Sensibility. 

Top 5 Characters from Sense and Sensibility:

  1. Elinor Dashwood. Some would call Elinor reserved, or even cold. But to me, she’s a lovely example of inner poise and graciousness. The way she handled Lucy’s constant barbs had me cheering her on, and secretly wishing she’d b*tch-slap the two-faced B.
  2. Charlotte and Mr. Palmer. They just might be my favorite couple in the novel. Charlotte and her dear Mr. Palmer were an extremely clever addition to the group. They provided comedic relief when needed, and they also showcased Austen’s versatility as a writer.
  3. Lucy Steele. Oh dear. Lucy is the perfect villain in this piece. She’s extremely cunning and extremely fake—how could one not hate her (or love her)?
  4. Marianne Dashwood. Marianne may have acted like a brat 60 percent of the time, but she did learn her lesson, and at least, she was true to herself.
  5. John Willoughby. Everybody loves a bad boy—and I can definitely see Willoughby’s charm. He’s the epitome of a man’s man. The fact that he’s a bit of a libertine just adds to the whole appeal. And that’s why he beat out Edward in this list.

 

OVERALL: Definitely worth an annual reread!

Sense and Sensibility never fails to lift my spirits. I try to reread it at least once every few years. If/When I get married, I’d love to hand out this book to my female guests. Maybe fancy pens for male guests. Hmmm.

 

FAVORITE LINES:

Elinor:  I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of him–that I esteem him.

Marianne:  Esteem him!  Like him!  Cold-hearted Elinor!  Oh!  Worse than cold-hearted!  Ashamed of being otherwise.  Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.

“Can he really love her? Can the soul really be satisfied with such polite affections?  To love is to burn, to be on fire, all full of passion…– Marianne

“Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.”Elinor (this line makes me cry—every.single.time.)

 “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”