Monthly Archives: February 2011

Literary Monsters: Shakespeare Undead vs. Jane and the Damned

I was in the library the other day, picking something up for my mom and trying to keep my itchy fingers from grabbing yet another book to read (after all, I’m still trying to finish Jane Eyre and Red Riding Hood before their March 11 movie release date! Not to mention the 20 other books on my goodreads.com to-read shelf…), but I couldn’t help myself when I came across Shakespeare Undead, by Lori Handeland (St. Martin’s Griffin) and then Jane and the Damned, by Janet Mullany (Avon, HarperCollins). Is this a new genre emerging? Literature legends meet the undead? I had to check them out. Sorry Jane Eyre.

Shakespeare Undead

photo via amazon.com

The story opens in London, 1592, with an unknown narrator stalking and killing a zombie in the dark streets, then mistakenly slicing the neck of a man who’d startled the narrator by coming to his/her aid. The playful, humorous writing style hooked me from the beginning. (“I call them the tibonage. You’d call them zombies. Yes, they exist. All over the damn place.”) I want to be fair in this review because there were some great things about the book. Handeland has a great voice to her writing, which she carries consistently throughout the story. It’s a fast-paced book and it was fun to read. But it did have some “oh come on… really?” moments that I’m going to do my best to explain below.

At some points in the book, I felt like I was reading a story in which zombies and vampires and ghosts had invaded the movie Shakespeare in Love, and it bothered me because I wanted Handeland’s fun story and vivid characters to stand on their own. The love of Shakespeare’s post-life (oh btw, Shakespeare is a vampire who sees dead people) turns out to be a married woman, bound to a husband she doesn’t love who has a plantation in Virginia. She disguises herself as a boy to moonlight as a zombie hunter and that’s how she first meets Shakespeare (who I couldn’t help but picture as Joseph Fiennes, yum). And even the Queen herself (featured in a climactic scene at the end) seems to have stepped straight from the silver screen.

Joseph Fiennes made an appearance in my mind's eye for this Shakespearean mash-up. (photo via http://www.imdb.com)

Another thing that interrupted the fun, fast-paced action takes a little explaining. Shakespeare, as an immortal vampire, is supposed to have written many great works from various personas over the course of history. The narrative, then, is interrupted here and there by moments of distraction, in the form of ideas for future works. Alluding to other future works of this undead person (for example, “Will’s brain tingled. I see dead people. The voice of a child. Where had that come from? The usual place, Will’s overactive imagination. But what if there were a child who saw dead people, as Will had?…”) is kind of fun at some points, but at other times trips the flow of the narrative and is more distracting and corny than cute.

Bottom line: Shakespeare Undead was a fun, witty story about love and zombies that reminded me a lot of a movie I like. It had its corny moments that took away from the story, but I still somehow managed to make it through the book in record time.

Jane and the Damned

photo via tlcbooktours.com

What I thought would be the sillier of the two books was actually the one I enjoyed more. When reading Jane and the Damned, I felt much more in-tune with the main character’s setting than I had with Shakespeare Undead, and it had a much stronger plotline.

The story opens with the rejection of a manuscript and our as-yet-unpublished heroine, Jane Austen, attending a country dance with her sister and a friend. To the horror and delight of the girls, the dance is attended by some of London’s illustrious Damned. (“…in London the Damned of the ton gambled and whored and scandalized decent folk…”) Jane catches the eye of one of the svelte creatures and her witty banter leaves him wanting more. So much more that he drains her and, feeling slightly guilty, gives her the gift of rebirth… as a vampire.

So the story begins. Jane, horrified to discover what she has become, confides in her father, who takes the whole family to Bath, as the waters of Bath are said to be the only thing that can cure Jane’s new affliction. While she is there, she meets a vampire who, intent on changing her mind about her condition, does his best to talk her out of it. He almost fails when French forces attack the small city.

Events unfold and Jane is drawn deeper into the world of the vampires as they try to drive the French from the city. Underneath that plot arc is Jane’s desire for Luke, the vampire who takes her under his wing, versus her ache to go back to her family and her life of writing, which she just can’t seem to get interested in as a fanged fiend.

I won’t tell you how it ends (I suggest you read it for yourself to find out), but I will tell you this much, I was glad to find that this was only the first book of a series because business, my friends, was not finished.

While Jane and the Damned was not as lighthearted as I thought it would be, it was also a fun read. The only thing I found frustrating was one particularly confusing battle scene. It felt as if parts were left out and jarred me out of the otherwise well-written storyline.

Bottom line: Jane and the Damned had all the things I like: believable historical context, likable characters, a plotline that kept my attention and was written in a style that allowed me to feel sympathetic of the characters when it was appropriate. I am looking forward to the next one!


The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Uncommon Reader’s book-flap commentary includes praise after praise of author Alan Bennett: his style, his humor, his popularity, even his, well, Englishness. What is sadly missing, in my humble opinion, is praise of the story itself. The story, which centers around the Queen’s journey of discovery through the world of books, is to me more than just a vehicle for Bennett’s wit. As the Queen sinks deeper and deeper into the world of literature, she accordingly begins to see the world differently and to question role within it.

This book tugged some strings for me personally (which I’ll explain below), but if it hadn’t, the question is, would the much-praised Alan Bennett have appealed to me, the average, book-reading, 20-something American? I enjoyed the dry humor and the dead-pan delivery, but I stress dry. I enjoyed it quite a bit, because the dry, deadpan approach is something I appreciate, but for those who crave a more involved, action-packed plot line, this is not the book for you. I also found it frustrating when my enjoyment of the story was snagged by an British acronym I didn’t understand, and I have to say, it took me longer than I appreciated to figure out that “dolly” means attractive or appealing or something like it.

Bennett’s story is about a Queen, but following her journey made me realize my own. As I read, I couldn’t help but reflect on the role of reading in my life. I’ve been surrounded by readers since I was a baby. My parents are both readers. Some of my fondest childhood memories include trips to the children’s section of the local public library, with its puppets, games and, of course, books. The smell of a library or a bookstore is a smell that says to me I’m home. In other words, I can’t imagine a life without books. So to follow the Queen’s growth from book-tolerator to book-devourer, and to see the effect it had on her job, on the opinion of those around her who serve her, made me question, maybe for the first time, how reading has changed me in similar aspects. (Not, mind you, that I have anybody who serves ME!) It brought me into an experience I have always taken for granted.

So bottom line: Would I recommend this to my friends? If you are in for a humorous, dry, witty little 120-page story (of fiction) about a public figure you will never meet, which might just get you thinking about things you never thought about before, then yes. Give it a shot.

PS – There’s even a surprise at the end.


Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sarah’s Key was an enjoyable, albeit slightly depressing read.

The story begins in Paris, July 1942, from the perspective of a little girl. The girl, whose name isn’t actually acknowledged until much later in the book (I’m not sure I understand why) and her family are being rounded up by the French police with other Jewish families for eventual deportation to Auschwitz.

Fast forward sixty years and we meet the main narrator of the book, Julia Jarmond, an American ex-pat living in Paris with her French husband and daughter. Julia is a journalist covering the 60th anniversary of the roundup and, as the back of the book says, “stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah…”

The two stories are well-woven into easy, digestible sections, each story doing its job to pull you further in to the separate story lines until they collide in a way I wouldn’t have predicted.

The story, besides being some well-written historical fiction, draws in a lot of themes, some I could identify with better than others. For example, Julia deals with a lot of things that, being single and childless, aren’t things I worry about. An unstable marriage, pregnancy problems and uneasy relations with the in-laws are issues that my married friends and family members can probably better sympathize with and I’m guessing feel closer to the narrator because of it.

In a nutshell: I enjoyed reading the book. It was informative about events in the past that I was unfamiliar with, and I liked that it was written by a French author and much of the story centered around contemporary France’s attitude about the events of the past. There were a lot of unhappy events in the story, so while it was a good story and interesting to read, it was a bit of a downer. The end, which I won’t give away, does end on a hopeful note though.

And: This book (St. Martin’s Press, 2007) includes a brief interview with the author about the book, recommended further reading titles and a list of discussion questions. The book raises a lot of good discussion points and I would definitely recommend it for a book club/reading group.