Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review - Shannon Hale's Midnight in Austenland

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
Published by: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: January 31st, 2012
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Charlotte Kinder is still wondering how it went wrong. She dedicated her life to her family. Now she's single again and her husband James will soon be married the a woman named Justice. How is that just? To be single again at her age is something she never thought would or could happen. Thankfully due to her brains, and her Internet start-up company, she's not exactly hurting for money. But what does that matter. She doesn't know who she is without James. Finding an old bucket list from when she was a teenager she realizes how many dreams she had that where abandoned by an early marriage and pregnancy. The list is unrealistic, Kilimanjaro, really? But what about the part about reading all Jane Austen's books? That was something that she didn't even have to leave the house to do.

Reading the works of Jane Austen is the first time she has truly felt anything in a long time. Realizing that she has the money and the time to take a vacation, Charlotte thinks she would like to go to England and walk in the steps of this great author to hopefully recapture some of those feelings Austen has reawakened. Then she hears about Pembrook Park... an immersive Austen experience. She wouldn't be walking in Jane's footsteps, she would be living in her world! Arriving at the park she meets a motley crew, from the strict proprietress, Mrs. Wattlesbrook, to the Englsih songstress Alisha, ill and in disguise as Miss Gardenside, with her ever present nurse, Mrs. Hatchett, as well as the guest in permanent residence, Miss Charming. But what about the men? There's the exuberant Colonel Andrews, the Rochester like Mr. Mallery, and the actor who is to play her brother, Eddie. Because Charlotte has left her life behind and is now Mrs. Cordial, the widowed bell of Regency England. Even if Charlotte just learned what Regency means...

A relaxing stay doesn't seem in the cards. The drunken and decidedly modern dressed husband of Mrs. Wattlesbrook makes an appearance. But an interruption into the verisimilitude isn't so troubling as the ghost stories and mysteries that start to weave through the house. Dead nuns and ghosts and secret rooms and fire. Charlotte stumbles on a corpse, but was it really there, was it Bloody Murder? Could Charlotte be next?

For those familiar with Pembrook Park from Hale's previous jaunt into Austenland, you are in for a complete 180. Instead of the romance and comedy of manners, much like Austen's Pride and Prejudice, her we have the Austen of Northanger Abbey. The laundry list that might be a plaintive cry for help. The tone is set quite early by Charlotte, who, upon first seeing Pembrook Park, thinks "this is the sort of house were murders happen." She isn't far off. With a far more Bronte-esque man set aside for her, this isn't going to be all longing gazes and secret rendezvous. Instead Charlotte will be sizing everyone up in the drawing room and making lists of suspects.

Quite a suspect list it is, with some familiar faces returning, in fact, after her last stay, Miss Charming has never left, instead moving into the park full time. Also, Mrs. Wattlesbrook's husband, who was booted out of the house because of an incident in Austenland, shows he's even more of a villain than previously thought. Also, the new characters are interesting, though I think with Miss Gardenside is badly timed. She is very much of the Amy Winehouse/Lily Allen persuasion... and, well... things didn't really turn out well there. Not that Hale was to know writing this book way in advance of Winehouse's death.

While I found the change of tone and the recurrence of characters fun, feeling at times like my favorite movie, Clue, there was one problem I had. A problem that often happens in murder mysteries. Why does the heroine always have to be in danger? Not just once, but repeatedly. The same scenario played out over and over and over. The inner monologue trying to justify what was really going on and always second guessing herself. I did like how the red herrings Hale laid out did lead me down a few dead ends, but once it was all solved... there was not enough rapidity in the conclusion. A drawn out ending can be the killer of a book and this ending did bring it down a full star rating. If I where Charlotte I wouldn't have second guessed, I would have called the police immediately and had done with it. Why do people have to figure things out for themselves before calling the proper authorities... I mean, I'm sure I might make the same mistake, but I'm hoping that after all the horror films and mysteries I've been exposed to I wouldn't be so dumb.


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