Joint Review: Austenland

In this post, my sister and I write a joint review of Shannon Hale's Austenland series. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As promised, I’m doing a co-review with my sister! We both read Shannon Hale’s books Austenland and Midnight in Austenland, two romances that center on the fictional vacation place where visitors dress and act like characters from a Jane Austen novel. Rather than a formal review, we decided to discuss our thoughts about both books. So be forewarned: There are spoilers for both books ahead!

Monica: To start off with, have you read any other Shannon Hale books?
Melanie: Princess Academy, right? And Goose Girl?
Monica: Yes. I’ve read those and also Book of a Thousand Days, and the two graphic novels she wrote with her husband. I thought it was interesting because most of what I know about Shannon Hale is her YA/children’s fiction. She usually writes stories with strong but flawed female MCs that give a darker twist to lesser-known fairy tales. So I felt like these adult fiction books were really different!
Melanie: Yeah, it’s almost like these books (well, the first one anyway) were lighter than what she writes for children. I assume it was because she was going for an Austen feel?
Monica: Yes, which brings me to another question: What did you expect from these books, and how did that differ from what you read?
Melanie: I’ve read Austenland before, and it was pretty much what I expected, a light rom-com thing. So I had every expectation that Midnight in Austenland would feel the same way.
But I was very wrong…
Monica: So I had never read these books before, and I guess I was kind of expecting them to be a little more along the same lines as her YA books, a little darker maybe? Honestly, I really didn’t like the first one very much; I thought it was pretty cheesy.
Also, did you think the whole idea of Austenland a little creepy? I think I would have been good with the historical reenactment part if they hadn’t promised you a fake romance also…
Melanie: It was pretty cheesy, but I liked that about it. It was just a nice, sweet, entirely implausible book. It did seem a little emotionally manipulative of the women who came, though.
I just got frustrated with the protagonist in the first book because I felt like she really didn’t understand the dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy for the first half of Pride and Prejudice.
Monica: What do you mean? Like she expected to fall in love and have it be perfect immediately?
Melanie: No, like how she was so angry at Henry and thought he was such a jerk, and kept comparing him to Darcy at the end of Pride & Prejudice. Like, “Oh, he’s such a jerk, he’s not really a Darcy, he’s just rude.” It was like she didn’t see that he was being first half of P&P Darcy.
Monica: I guess the audience is supposed to see the parallels between him and Darcy when the MC doesn’t.
Melanie: Yeah, I guess it was to make the love story feel like P&P, but I felt like she should have been more self-aware, being such a huge fan of Austen. It was almost like she kept forgetting he was an actor playing a role.
Monica: Yes! That was the worst part to me, in both books. If you’re into historical reenactment, that’s awesome! It sounds super fun. But the idea that this was kind of a resort mostly for bored wives looking for romance felt really creepy. Like, you paid a ton of money to dress up and play pretend, why do you keep thinking this is real?
Melanie: Exactly! Like, in one scene, they’d be totally unable to get into character and feeling super awkward, and then in the next scene, you couldn’t even tell that they weren’t actually living it.

Monica: So my next question is basically book 1 vs. book 2. What did you think? I was surprised at how different they felt!
Melanie: Right? I really thought they’d only be as different as two of Austen’s books. I kind of thought that was the point. I think she was going for Northanger Abbey with the second one, but Northanger Abbey did not actually have a murder…
Monica: I actually liked the second one a lot better because 1) I thought Charlotte had a better grip on her life and 2) I’m addicted to mysteries and I liked that this book was a little less romance-focused.
Melanie: I think I liked the first one better. I felt like I could identify more with Jane than with Charlotte, because I know more about being obsessed with romances in books than I do about being cheated on and having kids. Also, I don’t think I like mysteries very much because I am a wimp. I kept getting creeped out in the second one. Basically any time Charlotte wandered the house by herself, and when she had to go to sleep in the dark and her door wouldn’t lock. I kept thinking of a Jane Eyre adaptation I saw once where Jane was laying in bed and then lightning flashed and then the insane wife was there.
Monica: It was kind of a big leap from straightforward romance to suddenly a dead body! And a murderer running around!
Melanie: That was the biggest problem for me. I just reading along, and then all of a sudden, wait! That murder was real! And there’s crazy people!
Monica: Reading the second book did give me a little more sympathy for Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice. Life as an upper class lady would have been pretty boring except for all the balls and social gatherings… and murders!
Melanie: That’s a good point. Although, what’s up with this “let’s put on a play!” “let’s play a game called Murder!” Jane got way cheated out of evening entertainment in her stay.
Monica: The one thing I liked less about the second book was the romance itself. Not that I disliked Eddie (or Reginald), but I felt a little strange about the deus ex machina ending where she had  to stay in the country because of the murder trial, and magically her kids were fine with it?
Melanie: I really liked the buildup to the romance in the second book. I thought it was sweet how they were friends during the whole time and everything. But yeah. It all worked out veeeeery conveniently in the second book. Like, she didn’t even have to see the crappy stepmom or anything!

Monica: So my last question/discussion is about the implications of Austenland. Would you go if there was a real one? Is the forced romance creepy? (spoiler alert: yes) Did you find it weird in the first book how Jane was so desperate to find love that her aunt died and left her a trip to Austenland?
Melanie: I think Austenland would be fun in real life if there were more guests and fewer actors. Like if the hosts were actors, but you could bring a group of friends, or your significant others, and just do historical reenactment, I think that would be more fun and less creepy.
Monica: That sounds great! I do like the idea of historical reenactment. I felt like Miss Charming was the epitome of the so-called “Ideal Client,” at least in a pessimistic way. Like she was so starved for affection and distraction that she was willing to live in a literal fantasy world, letting this gay guy fake fall in love with her for months on end. So I thought it was interesting that Jane and Charlotte came to heal their romantic wounds. I feel like in real life it would just be a bunch of Austen fangirls, not nearly so much drama!
Melanie: Yeah, I did appreciate that we got to know Miss Charming better in the second book and she got a nice resolution. That’s probably what all the other vacations were like, when the actors didn’t accidentally fall in love…

Monica: Any other thoughts about these books to wrap it up?
Melanie: Hmm. As I was reading Austenland, I thought it was really interesting how much Jane cared about everyone’s opinions. Even though she knew they were actors, she still really wanted them to like her.
Monica: Good point… It’s kind of a clue to her whole approach to life. Thanks for reviewing these books with me!
Melanie: Thank you! I never would have read the second one otherwise!

My First Graphic Novels!

My first graphic novels are by one of my favorite authors--Shannon Hale--and are a Wild West, steampunk retelling of famous fairy tales. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, both written by Shannon Hale (one of my favorite authors), were my first graphic novels.  I had been hesitant to dive into the world of graphic novels, finding it a little intimidating, so I decided to start with someone I trusted to write a compelling story, pictures or no.

I was not disappointed.  These books combine cute artwork with fun fairy tale retellings.  They’re simple but fun, a good intro to graphic novels, especially for kids.

Rapunzel’s Revenge is the first of the pair.  It’s a Wild West themed retelling, combining many fairy tales (the focus, of course, is on the Rapunzel tale).  Rapunzel is a spunky girl, forced by her witch mother to live in a magical forest for years on end, where both the tree she is trapped in and her hair grow at an astonishing rate.  Rapunzel uses her hair as a lasso when she finally gets free and starts seeking justice, which is hilarious and awesome.  She runs into Jack (as in Jack and the beanstalk) along the way, and despite his shady past, he and Rapunzel team up and kick butt.

My first graphic novels are by one of my favorite authors--Shannon Hale--and are a Wild West, steampunk retelling of famous fairy tales. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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In Calamity Jack, Jack is the star (obviously), and Rapunzel becomes the sidekick.  The story moves from the Wild West setting to a steampunk city.  It reveals Jack’s backstory, and it involves plenty of magical creatures (brownies, jabberwock, etc.).  Jack and Rapunzel must once again fight for justice, this time in a corrupt city that is taking over citizens’ businesses and livelihoods.

Both of these books are cute, fun, and a great introduction to graphic novels.  Whether you’re a Shannon Hale fan, or just looking for a way to get yourself or your child interested in graphic novels, check out these books!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book of a Thousand Days

Shannon Hale's retelling of this Asian fairy tale is characteristic--flawed but likeable female characters and dark-edged magic. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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This book by Shannon Hale (author and Twitter-er extraordinaire whose books I’ve been working my way through recently) is a retelling of an Asian fairy tale.  It’s similar to Rapunzel in that a young girl gets locked in a tower, but this time she has a maid with her.  The maid’s name is Dashti.  She’s a mucker, one of the very lower classes, but she doesn’t mind.  She venerates gentry, however, so when she finds out that Lady Saren’s father is going to lock her in a tower until she agrees to marry the husband he has selected for her, Dashti volunteers to be locked in with her.

The book of a thousand days is Dashti’s journal, which she means to be a record of their years in the tower.  But things don’t go as planned.  Eventually, on the brink of starvation, Dashti and Lady Saren make their escape–and find that everything has changed in their world.

First, let’s talk about the characters, and why Shannon Hale is such a wonderful writer.  Hale’s characters have a way of stubbornly attaching themselves to you.  She writes fantastically flawed female characters, neither totally beautiful nor incredibly sweet nor bulletproof.  Dashti grew up in the dirt and hunger of poverty, but she was happy.  Her mother cared for her and taught her the healing songs that the muckers know, which reminded me of the linder speak from the Princess Academy books.  Even with her mother gone and with a terrible birthmark across her face, Dashti does the best she can to serve her country, but she’s not always happy about it.  Lady Saren can be a pain, and despite Dashti’s veneration for the upper class, she finds herself having to take charge in their awful circumstances.

This book, like The Goose Girl, can be dark–the burned skulls in the city really stuck with me.  But the magic still shines through the darkness.  It’s a fitting addition to my collection of Shannon Hale books, and my respect for her plots and characters continues to grow.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Goose Girl

This book by Shannon Hale is a dark retelling of the goose girl fairy tale. | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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Shannon Hale is the writer of Newbery books such as Princess Academy, a book which I loved (and for which the sequel was also pretty fantastic) and which was much less intense than this book was.  The Goose Girl was Hale’s first book, but you’d never know it.

In The Goose Girl, Ani is Crown Princess of a kingdom she never wanted to rule.  Ani has the power to learn animal languages, a skill which is looked upon with apprehension, but her mother and lady-in-waiting have the skill of people speaking, and Ani feels forced into doing whatever they say.  When Ani’s father dies, her mother sends her to marry the prince of Bayern, the neighboring country, and Ani reluctantly gives up her title and her home to marry someone she has never met.  Along the way, Ani is betrayed, and she must flee through the woods of Bayern and become a goose girl, using her talents to keep the birds in line.  Ani is constantly looking for a way to throw out the imposter and regain her rightful place as royalty, but she finds herself more and more drawn to the simple life she leads and the rough people she works with.

One thing I loved about this book is that Ani’s transition from royalty to outdoor worker is not smooth.  She takes things for granted; she is soft.  She assumes rights that are not hers, simply because she is used to being waited on hand and foot.  I always find it a little irritating when cast-out royalty automatically knows how to cook, clean, and do hard work without any training.  Like, you’re rich, famous, beautiful, and have a title; you’ve never done a day of work in your life.  How are you perfect at that, too??

Ani’s struggles are real, and her battle to get back to her rightful place is painful to read.  There is violence, fear, and death, and Ani has to find her own way, with no strong-willed person to tell her what to do.  This book reminded me of Ella Enchanted, but with a darker edge.  It was hard for me to classify–it’s just barely too simplistic to be labelled adult fiction, but some of the events which occur are so dark that I wasn’t sure I could be reading a YA fairy tale adaptation.

If you’re a fan of Shannon Hale, you need to check out her first book.  It’s the first of a trilogy, but it works well as a stand alone, too.  I’m still debating if I want to finish the series, but I did enjoy The Goose Girl.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Sequels: Palace of Stone and Hattie Ever After

A review of two sequels to Newbery books--one lives up to its predecessor, the other... not so much. | Book reviews by Newbery and Beyond
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Palace of Stone is the sequel to the Newbery book Princess Academy, one of my favorite Newbery books ever.  When I found this sequel, I was equal parts excited and wary.  I loved Princess Academy so much, getting to know Miri and the other mountain girls and how quarry-speak carried through the linder, stone which the mountain people carved out of the mountainside for use in the lowlands, and I was afraid that this sequel wouldn’t live up to the original.

At the beginning of this book, Miri and a few of the other girls from the academy are invited to visit Britta at the palace as she prepares for her wedding.  But a letter from Katar, now a delegate for Mount Eskel, sends a cryptic letter that makes Miri think that their visit might be more than just a pleasure trip.  As the girls acclimate to life in Asland, Miri begins to see the injustices that the nobles have carried out against the “shoeless,” the poor of the country.  She works hard at her studies, as the other girls pursue their own interests, but she finds herself increasingly drawn to the revolution that may soon be taking place. But when Miri finds that the spark for the revolution may hurt her friend Britta, she doesn’t know what to do.  Can Miri stay the girl from Mount Eskel, or does she need to find a new path?

The best part about this book was that the quarry-speak from the first book was used and expounded upon.  I loved the girls’ ability to communicate without anyone else knowing, and I loved the power of the linder as it carried the power of the mountain.  This book wasn’t quite as good as the original, but I truly enjoyed it.  Hale’s writing style stayed consistent in both books, and the simplicity of the writing was beautiful.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hattie Ever After was not nearly as good a sequel, sadly.  I loved, loved, loved Hattie Big Sky, the Newbery winner that was the original.  But this sequel did not stack up.  Hattie, after failing to claim her uncle’s land, decides to move to San Francisco to pursue her dream of being a journalist, much to her boyfriend Charlie’s chagrin.  She fights her way into a newspaper job, where she encounters scammers and backstabbing, along with adventure and plenty of questions about her future.

There just wasn’t as much substance or emotional resonance here as in the original book, and though I still liked Hattie, I felt like she could have been any 1900s female character looking to break into a male-dominated field.  Just not as interesting as the original.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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