Series: Austenland #1
Summary: After a dozen failed relationships, Jane Hayes has given up on men and accepted that none of them can live up to the expectations she has gained from watching Colin Firth play Mr. Darcy. She believes that a vacation at the exclusive, and somewhat mysterious, Austenland will be her one last fling with romance before she packs away all her dreams. There women can enter a world where they live like Jane Austen’s heroines, down to their Regency dresses and their flirtations with eligible young men. At first Jane has trouble entering the play; she is all too keenly aware of how awkward it is to have a fake romance with an actor. However, as time passes, she begins to wonder if some of the romance might be real.
Review: Looking at Austenland, one cannot help but wonder why no one thought of this concept before Shannon Hale. It combines Austenmania—and the well-known obsession of women with Colin Firth—with a sympathetic protagonist whose despair at finding love mirrors that of countless readers. Jane Hayes thus serves as a sort of screen onto which women can project themselves and their fantasies. Through her, they live the life of a Jane Austen heroine. They find themselves clever, witty, pretty, and engaging—in short, desirable. They can associate with handsome men dressed in breeches and cravats and do nothing all day but read or paint. Jane is in some respects better than Elizabeth Bennet, however, because she allows women to bring the fantasy back into their own world—thus strengthening it. She is a single, career-minded girl living in NYC who ultimately proves that Mr. Darcys still exist. The only problem is that this ultimate message seems to contradict the theme of the story.
At the beginning of the book, Jane seems to admit that her longings for Mr. Darcy have ruined her real-life relationships. Readers find out later that most of her boyfriends actually deserved to go based on their own infantile/disrespectful/downright scandalous behavior. However, Jane’s thoughts suggest that she might not be happy even if she found a nice, upright man who respected her. Thanks to countless hours spent watching Colin Firth, she wants a man who wears top hats and says romantic things with a British accent. Readers simply cannot know that she would accept anything else. She, at least, seems to think she will not. Readers now have the dilemma of a chick lit announcing that reading too much chick lit (or watching too many chick flicks) can prove unhealthy.
Of course, readers know that the genre demands Jane will end up with a man. The question is not whether Jane will find love, but how Hale will make her do it in a way that defies the norms of chick lit and makes this one somehow superior to the rest. Hale does not pull it off. Jane falls in love exactly the way anyone would have predicted. She finds a nice Mr. Darcy-esque guy in the most improbable of places, they hit it off quickly, some obstacles occur, they end up happily together. But wasn’t the moral of the story that women should not expect Mr. Darcy’s to fall into their laps?
The book, of course, never implied that good men do not exist or that women will never find them. It did, however, suggest that women should not live in their daydreams. Yet the book is exactly the type of thing it condemned for leading women into these daydreams. It is perhaps even more successful than most due to the inspired combination of Austen with the modern-day world.
The story is fun, the characters are likeable, and the mystery of Austenland is intriguing. The book has wide appeal for those who like Austen, romance, or chick lit. However, the attempt to warn against chick lit strikes a jarring note throughout the book and ultimately just proves baffling.
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Goodreads: Princess Academy
Series: Princess Academy #1
Summary: Miri lives on a remote mountain where the families trade the stone they quarry for food. Then one day, a messenger from the king arrives to announce that the priests in the capital have foretold the next princess will come from the territory of Mount Eskel. All the eligible young girls are sent to an academy where they learn and compete to be the most like a princess. At the end of their training, they will host a ball for the prince and he will choose his future bride.
Review: Princess Academy is a delightful book full of adventure and family, not at all the glittery and girly read the title can suggest. Miri is a spunky but lonely mountain girl who is in love with her home on Mount Eskel, even if the work in the quarry can be hard on all the villagers and the winters there are long and cold. She finds value in the uniqueness of the mountain, its beauty, and the community it inspires among those who live there. Even when the chance of becoming a princess with beautiful clothes and a big home in the green lowlands arises, Miri remembers what makes her and Mount Eskel special.
Princess Academy is almost unique in that it places value on a variety of talents and characteristics. It is not more important to be a princess than it is to be a goat herd, and it does not make one better to be book smart instead of wise in the ways of quarrying. Learning is presented as being important and a great way to open life opportunities, but doing any job well makes a person special. It is also clear that everyone, whether in the scheme of the academy, the village, or the whole kingdom, has a role to play, and that every role is essential to helping things run as best as they can. None of these “lessons” come across as preachy or forced, however. They are simply built into the story and Miri’s own thought processes, and they make the reader feel as if she must be important somehow, too.
Hale’s management of the romance is equally as beautiful. Miri fluctuates between dreaming that the prince will fall in love with her and wondering why she would want to marry someone that she barely knows. There is also a boy at home who has recently caught her interest, so should she dream of the prince or of him? This is no annoying love triangle, and everything turns out quite perfectly. There is the sense everyone ends up where they belong, not that the author has contrived a bunch of pairings.
The focus is not really on romantic relationships, however, but on friendships and families. Miri is very close to her sister and her father, but sometimes feels a bit left out. She wonders how she can fix that. She also feels alone, and there are other girls who are something like social outcasts, as well—something authors often fail to imagine in a community so small. The way the villagers all come together as families, friends, and sometimes couples is very inspiring.
Hale has written a wholesome book for girls full of adventure, thoughtful questions, beautiful friendships, and just the right amounts of magic and romance. The characters grow through their time at the academy, and readers will grow with them as they ponder what it means to truly to be happy and a good person.
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Summary: Princess Anidori-Kiladra of Kildenree had every reason to expect she would one day rule as queen of her country. Instead, her mother offers her as a bride to the prince of Bayern, hoping in that manner to make peace between the two countries. During the trip to Bayern, however, half of Ani’s guards rebel, setting up her maid Selia as princess of Kildenree. Ani flees for her life, ultimately finding work as a goose girl for the palace of her betrothed. To unmask Selia and claim her rightful identity, however, Ani will have to learn to trust her co-workers, as well as her own abilities. The first of the Books of Bayern. Read the rest of this entry
Summary: After Lady Saren refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her, she, along with her maid Dashti, is sentenced to a seven-year imprisonment inside a tower as punishment. Dashti keeps a journal of their experience as she struggles to lighten the spirits of her mistress, save their food storage from rats, and stave off her own boredom. She hopes that Khan Tegus, the man to whom Saren secretly betrothed herself, will rescue them both, but Saren refuses to speak to him when he visits the tower and forces Dashti to take on her identity. Eventually, however, Tegus stops visiting and Dashti realizes they have run out of food. Their only chance of survival lies in breaking out of the tower and starting a new life in a different land. Dashti, however, does not wish solely to survive; she hopes also to reunite her mistress with her true love. A retelling of “Maid Maleen.” Read the rest of this entry
Summary: Razo’s little sister Rin used to find peace by listening to the trees that surround her home in the Forest. Lately, however, she has not felt as welcomed, so when Razo comes home from the capital for a visit, she decides to return to the city with him. As a waiting woman for Isi at the palace, Rin quickly becomes attached to the two-year-old Prince Tusken. When his safety is threatened, she joins an adventure that will lead her, Isi, Enna, and Dasha to Kel where they must confront a queen who is ordering new fire-witches to burn Bayern towns.
Summary: Razo is a member of Bayern’s Own, the elite group of warriors that serves the king, but his position was earned through the part he played ending the war with Tira and not through physical prowess. When he is chosen as part of the small group that will accompany the ambassador to Tira in hopes to prevent a reopening of the war, he has no idea why and strongly considers going home. Razo soon discovers, however, that he has an important role to play in keeping peace and that he possesses more skills than he had realized.
Summary: Enna wants a life beyond tending her home in the Forest, but when she has the chance to learn to control fire, she thinks it might be too dangerous. Bayern, however, is at war with Tira to the south, and Enna believes her kingdom can be victorious only if she uses the fire—the augury made that clear. She must find a way to use her power to burn the Tiran without being consumed herself; she may find that she herself is her greatest enemy.
Enna Burning is the second Book of Bayern, following The Goose Girl.
Review: Enna Burning is a perfect companion book to The Goose Girl. Hale retains the characters from her first book but brings new ones to the forefront, allowing them to control the action and even flavor the book with their different personalities. Enna is a stronger, more tempestuous protagonist than Isi, and Enna Burning becomes slightly darker and more action-oriented than The Goose Girl. Read the rest of this entry