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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

eligibleI wonder what it would be like to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (Random House, digital galley) without first having read Jane Austen’s classic. What to make of the Bennets and their five unmarried daughters transported from the English countryside of two centuries ago to a Tudor house in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood? Would it be just another chick-lit tale of family dysfunction, with late thirty-something Jane and Lizzy returning home from New York when their father has heart surgery and their shopaholic matchmaking mother can’t cope? Would you appreciate the humor of having flighty still-at-home Kitty and Lydia obsessed with Cross-Fit, or pontificating Mary taking online classes for her third master’s degree? Can you buy Chip Bingley as a former reality TV star, and his best bud Fitzwilliam Darcy as an uptight neurosurgeon? When Mr. Bennet tells Mary, “Oh, put a sock in it,” do you laugh?

Alas, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so many times, I’ll never know. I think Eligible could stand on its own as a comedy of manners, but its sparkle comes from the ways in which Sittenfeld chooses to update the tale so the familiar becomes fresh. I love that she’s set the story in her hometown of Cincinnati with its Grater’s ice cream and Skyline chili. Many of her choices are inspired — that stuffy Mr. Collins is now a nerdy — and wealthy — tech guru; that sweet yoga instructor Jane has been having secret IVF treatments because she wants a baby; that the daft Bennets don’t have health insurance so crushing medical debts are about to render them homeless. Other tweaks feel strained — that Mrs. Bennet is both a racist and a homophobe so Lizzy hires a gay, black real estate agent; that the cad Wickham has become two characters: Lizzy’s married lover Jasper Wick, and Lydia’s latest, hunky gym owner Ham; that “hate sex” leads to love. There’s plenty of wit here but not enough romance. Sometimes Sittenfeld seems to be having more fun than the reader, and the book’s charms fray at almost 500 pages.

Eligible is the fourth entry in the the Austen Project, which pairs each novel with a contemporary writer. I found Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility ho-hum, but I enjoyed Val McDermid’s satirical Northanger Abbey, with its young heroine fascinated by paranormal stories like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma had its moments but not as many as the movie Clueless. In Eligible’s  “The Bachelor”-like TV show, a kiss on the lips means a contestant is still in the running, while a kiss on the cheek sends the girl home. I enjoyed Eligible’s company, but it’s a kiss on the cheek for me. I’m going back to the original.

 

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bookaneerAhoy, my mateys, here’s a literary thriller worthy of  a bottle of rum. In the swashbuckling The Last Bookaneer (Penguin, digital galley), Matthew Pearl spins the tale of late 19th-century book pirates seeking unpublished manuscripts before worldwide copyright laws put them out of business. Operating in a flourishing literary underworld, Pen Davenport and his sidekick Edgar Fergins set off from England for Samoa, where a sickly Robert Louis Stevenson is penning his final manuscript, worth a fortune in America. Davenport, disguised as a travel writer so as to gain access to the famous author, finds himself pitted against rival bookaneer Belial, disguised as a missionary. He also contends with cannibals, German colonials, prison and an astounding betrayal. Pearl frames the digressive narrative, replete with flashbacks, as an “as told by” story, with Fergins, an aging bookseller in New York, recounting his adventures to a black railway porter, Clover. This makes for a slow beginning but a humdinger of an ending, with Clover sailing the high seas to solve the mystery of the last bookaneer.

fifthheartThe game’s afoot again in Dan Simmons’ lively The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown, library hardcover), in which writer Henry James plays Watson to Sherlock Holmes after the two meet in Paris in 1893. Both men are depressed; James after the death of his sister and a downbeat in sales of his books, and Holmes, on his Great Hiatus after his presumed death at Reichenbach Falls, has discovered he may be a fictional character. That’s just one of the head-spinning conceits that Simmons pulls off with aplomb as Holmes and James set off for Washington, D.C., to delve into the death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams. Although the death was determined to be a suicide, Holmes thinks it might be a murder connected to the Adams’ literary salon known as the Five Hearts. Real-life figures of the Gilded Age, including President Grover Cleveland and Washington hostess Clara Hayes, mingle with characters from the Holmes canon such as Moriarty and Irene Adler in a case with international implications. Readers need to know their Arthur Conan Doyle and Gilded Age history to truly appreciate Simmons’ playful, tongue-in-cheek tale. Anything but elementary.

emmaEmma is still clueless in Alexander McCall Smith’s witty Emma: A Modern Retelling (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), which is both the charm and the problem with the third entry in the Austen Project. McCall Smith moves the setting to Scotland (as did Val McDermid in her recent Northanger Abbey) and reimagines Jane Austen’s Regency heroine as a 21st-century recent college grad who fancies herself as matchmaker/ms. fix-it. He updates the plot with cell phones and Mini-Coopers, and appropriately modernizes the original characters. Emma’s poor and pretty friend Harriet is  no longer a love child but the product of a single mother and a sperm donor. Vicar Philip Elton’s new bride is a TV talent show contestant. George Knightley is still the neighbor and family friend who dares to call out bossy Emma when she’s behaving badly. McCall Smith’s social commentary is on point, and his droll humor a good match for Austen’s. Still, his Emma seems overly familiar, not so much from Austen’s tale as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Actress Alicia Silverstone set the bar high as a contemporary Emma,  Beverly Hills teen queen Cher Horowitz, and I keep picturing her as McCall Smith’s Emma. Not a bad thing, just been there, done that.

booksellerWith its “what if’?” premise, Cynthia Swanson’s engaging first novel The Bookseller HarperCollins, review copy) reminds me of another movie, the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors. In 1962 Denver, Kitty Miller goes to sleep in her apartment as a 38-year-old single woman who runs a bookstore with her longtime friend Frieda. But when Kitty wakes up, she’s living in a suburban Denver split level as Kathryn Andersson, married to Lars and mother of three. When she wakes up again in her apartment, Kitty is perplexed by her realistic dream of Kathryn’s life, especially when she dreams it again, with more detail, the next night, and the next. Even as Kitty increasingly looks forward to her alternate life as Kathryn, she investigates the intersection with her own — a personal ad she placed several years ago and Lars’ reply. But Lars never showed up for their first date. Visiting the neighborhood where Kathryn lives, Kitty finds only an empty lot, but her life as Kathryn continues to take on a more solid and complicated reality. Swanson makes both lives perfectly plausible with attention to period detail. Books, clothes and hairstyles serve as touchstones in both lives, and their overlap helps Kitty/Kathryn resolve the mystery.

 

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impressionsIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is a cottage industry, her life and six books spawning numerous prequels, sequels, mash-ups, mysteries, reimaginings, movies, mini-series and more. I recently received a lovely set of of Jane Austen postcards as a birthday gift, and at this very moment, I am leaning back on my little Jane Austen pillow, another gift. I do not yet possess a Jane Austen action figure, but Christmas is coming and a girl can dream . . .

The Austen-inspired books range from serious to silly, and some are very good, indeed, such as Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which I wrote about a year ago this month, and P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, now adapted for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. I’m also happy to recommend Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (Viking Penguin, review copy). The “novel” is important because Lovett’s book effectively blurs the lines between fact and fiction so that his parallel plots seem plausible enough, especially the historical one involving Austen. The contemporary story benefits from bibliophile Lovett’s knowledge of the antique book trade, as did his first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, about a bookseller’s obsession with an old volume annotated by William Shakespeare.

In First Impressions, recent Oxford grad Sophie Collingwood is stunned by the sudden, accidental death of her favorite uncle, who leaves her his book-filled London flat. She is even more dismayed to discover that Uncle Bertram’s collection of rare book has been sold to covers his debts, so she takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller, determined to track down and buy back as many volumes as possible. Two competing customers ask her help in tracking down an obscure old book by the Rev. Richard Mansfield.

You were wondering where Jane Austen figures in this tale? Lovett neatly alternates short chapters about Sophie with those about Jane Austen, who in 1796 Hampshire finds a kindred spirit in an elderly vicar visiting her neighbors. At the time, Jane is working on an epistolary novel tentatively titled Elinor and Marianne, while the Rev. Richard Mansfield is revising and expanding his little book of moral stories. The two offer each other advice and encouragement — the words “sense and sensibility” come up — and Jane even agrees to contribute a story to Mansfield’s book.

Back in London, Sophie is growing increasingly suspicious of the circumstances of Uncle Bertram’s death, as well as one of the customers seeking Mansfield’s books. Her sleuthing, which takes her to Oxford, Hampshire and her own family’s library, is complicated by two suitors: one an arrogant American academic who writes her wonderful letters, the other a handsome London publisher who takes her to dinner and bed. Both, it turns out, have an interest in the Mansfield book, which Sophie discovers casts in doubt the authorship of Pride and Prejudice.

Meanwhile, Jane’s writing life in Hampshire and her friendship with Mansfield is interrupted by her trip to Bath and his departure  for his Yorkshire home.

I don’t think I’m going to tell you anymore. I may already have told you too much. Suffice to say, Lovett is a clever writer and First Impressions is good sport.

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fikryIf bookstores attract you like magnets, you’ll find Gabrielle Zevin’s charming novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, review ARC) absolutely irresistible. “No Man is an Island. Every Book is a World.” So says the sign over the door of Island Books, housed in a Victorian cottage on a fictional New England island. Alas, owner A.J. Fikry seems to have forgotten the sign since his young wife died in a car accident and his business took a nosedive. He fends off friends, like the police chief with a taste for crime fiction. He pushes away his sister-in-law, the disappointed wife of a philandering author. He even makes free-spirited Amelia, the new sales rep for Knightley Press, depart in tears. But just like in a storybook (!), A.J.’s pleasure in life, love and books will be renewed with the arrival of an unexpected package. Not all at once, though, and not without tears. Bittersweet proves sweet.

northangerJane Austen had some fun writing Northanger Abbey, but Catherine Morland always struck me as a ninny. I like her much more as Cat Morland in Val McDermid’s clever update of Austen’s Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey (Grove Atlantic, digital galley). This home-schooled daughter of a Dorset minister loves novels, especially paranormal fiction like Twilight and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (wink wink). Cat’s horizons broaden when family friends invite her to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she becomes BFF  with socialite Bella Thorpe, who is crushing on Cat’s brother, and meets enigmatic Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Gee, she’s awfully pale, and something weird is going on at the Tilney family estate, Northanger Abbey. McDermid, an award-winning crime novelist, sticks to the bones of Austen’s plot but fleshes it out with modern details. If it reads a bit like a YA novel, that’s ok; Cat is just 17. Still, I could have done without slang expressions like “Totes amazeballs.” So last year.

chestnutFans of the late Irish writer Maeve Binchy will welcome Chestnut Street (Knopf Doubleday, digital), a collection of stories about the neighbors of a middle-class Dublin street. Binchy wrote the stories over a period of years, sticking them in a drawer with the idea of a book in mind. Approved by her husband, the writer Gordon Snell, the stories vary in length and complexity, but the characters are familiar types from previous Binchy books, ordinary folks facing domestic crises and misunderstandings. There’s the teenager who’s unexpectedly pregnant like an aunt before her, who went to America and visits once a year. There’s the divorced mum who minds her tongue and allows her grown daughter to make her own decisions. There’s the mistress who belatedly realizes her predicament, the stingy uncle and his estranged niece, the spiteful woman who resents her friendly new neighbor, the four strangers who meet in a takeaway on New Year’s Eve and reunite every year thereafter. Several stories beg to be longer. Oh, it would have been grand to have a Binchy novel about the visiting friend who becomes the street’s favorite fortune teller after picking up on the local gossip.

Nohopestreett everyone can see the titular building in The House at the End of Hope Street (Viking Penguin, paperback review copy), a whimsical literary confection by Meena van Praag. But young Cambridge grad student Alba Ashby, overwhelmed by a stunning personal and academic betrayal, is welcomed to 11 Hope Street by landlady Peggy Abbot, who tells her she can stay 99 nights. As former residents whose portraits hang on the walls — Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Parker, among them — can attest, the house will work its peculiar magic during this time. Van Praag reminds me of Alice Hoffman as she recounts Alba’s time at Hope Street, which overlaps with that of actress Greer, disappointed in love, and singer Carmen, who has buried a dark secret in the garden. Did I mention the portraits talk to one another and a pretty ghost hangs out in the kitchen?

jasmineDeanna Raybourn, author of the popular Lady Julia series, has another smart heroine in aviatrix Evangeline Starke, who narrates the winning City of Jasmine (Harlequin, digital galley). Five years after losing her husband with the sinking of the Lusitania, Evie is flying around the world in her plane The Jolly Roger, when she receives a recent photograph of the presumed-dead Gabriel Starke. She immediately heads for Damascus, with her eccentric aunt and a parrot in tow, to find Gabriel, who once worked an archaeological dig in the area. If he’s alive, she just might kill him — for abandoning her after four months of marriage. Action and adventure, romance and history, secrets and spies! Ah, good times.

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longbournDo you remember the footman in Pride and Prejudice? Me neither, and I’ve read Jane Austen’s classic umpteen times. So I’m going to take author Jo Baker’s word that he appears in the novel just once, an invisible man delivering a letter to the drawing room.

But in Baker’s spirited re-imagining, Longbourn (Knopf, digital galley), the hiring of young James Smith as the Bennet family’s new manservant is as newsmaking below stairs as Mr. Bingley’s arrival is upstairs. For aging Mr. Hill, it means gratefully handing over the coach reins on cold nights. For orphaned housemaids Sarah and Polly, it’s a new face and some help with the heavy-duty chores, although Sarah wonders why the housekeeper Mrs. Hill is having a closed-door conversation with Mr. Bennet. Surely, there’s nothing to object to about the strong, leanly attractive James?

“This is what Sarah had always wanted: something — anything — to disturb the quiet. . .the prospect of another spiritless season, and the monotony of reading three-decker novels and three-day old news.”

Sarah is both pragmatic and aspiring as she washes the Bennet girls’ muddy petticoats and totes their chamber pots. She saves one of Elizabeth’s hand-me-down gowns for her best. She keeps a small wooden hope chest under her bed. She borrows books from Mr. Bennet. She flirts with Ptolemy, Mr. Bingley’s attentive manservant, but it’s really secretive James she has her eye on. Sent on a miserable, rainy errand to shop for rosettes for dancing slippers, she finds a limited selection and figures the Bennet sisters can like her choice or lump it. She rather hopes they lump it.

Baker does a splendid job of intermingling the familiar storylines of Austen’s novel with the lives of the servants. They are sympathetic to the socially inept Mr. Collins, and Mrs. Hill approves of his marrying Charlotte Lucas because there will be little upset downstairs when the day comes. Sarah is quick to warn pre-teen Polly that Mr. Wickham is up to no good.

Baker imagines some events before and after those in Pride and Prejudice, thus amplifying her own tale and Austen’s, creating a story that can stand on its own. Sarah’s romance with James is thwarted when he suddenly disappears, and this dramatic turn allows for his backstory as a foot soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. A long-held secret illuminates another side to Mr. Bennet. The ending is real and lovely.

Perhaps best of all is Baker’s sensitivity to her characters’ inner lives and her evocative writing. One vignette depicts several servants abed after a long day, heads still turning on pillows. “Mrs. Hill was not asleep either. She lay looking up at the cold stars through the skylight. . .She thought, Wherever you are in this world, the sky is still above you. Wherever you are, God still watches over you; He sees into your heart.”

senseOf rewriting Austen there seems to be no end.  In this year of Pride and Prejudice’s 200th anniversary, HarperCollins’ The Austen Project is commissioning six well-known contemporary writers for updates of Austen’s novels. Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility (HarperCollins, digital galley) is first out of the gate the end of the month, and Alexander McCall Smith has just been tapped for Emma.  Oh, dear. I generally like Trollope’s novels but was disconcerted by her faux Austen. It begins with the Dashwood sisters and their mother understandably upset at the prospect of losing their Norland Park home, but  there’s  little to suggest that this is a 21st-century tale until Margaret suddenly begins fiddling with her iPod. I rather wish Trollope had just used Austen’s story as inspiration to write her own novel, as Cathleen Schine did in the playful The Three Weissmans of Westport.

janeitesI was much more entertained by journalist Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley). Austen fans, of course, are legion, obsessive and yet surprisingly diverse in their passions. Some are enamoured of Regency culture and clothes; academics concentrate on scholarly details and scorn fan fiction; amateur psychologists read between the lines and wonder where Darcy fits on the autism spectrum. As someone who loved Jane Austen before Colin Firth wore a wet shirt, I admit to being a Janeite, but I’m minor league compared to these folks. On the other hand, I like a good ramble around the Republic of Pemberley website.

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Every time I read another “Best of” list, I add to my “Dear Santa” list. I don’t read enough different kinds of books anymore to name any one “the best.”  Of course, I’ve read lots of good books lately, hence this blog. Come the holidays, though, and I find myself putting ribbons and bows on a select few, my favorites for my favorite people.

Several friends will be getting copies this year of Chad Harbaugh’s  The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown),  an old-fashioned first novel about baseball and college, love, friendship and obsession. Henry is the unassuming star shortstop for Westish College, a small Wisconsin school on Lake Michigan. Herman Melville once paid a visit and gave a lecture, sparking the literary career of Guert Afflenlight, a former Harvard humanities prof who’s now college president.

The Harpooners have a shot at the national championship, and the pro scouts have their eye on Henry. Then he makes a surprising errant throw, which knocks out Owen, his brilliant gay roommate and teammate, and leads to a sequence of surprising events. Affenlight falls in love with injured Owen; Henry loses confidence in his game; Pella Affenlight, the president’s prodigal daughter, finds herself involved with Mike Schwartz, team leader and Henry’s mentor, and with Henry himself.

Early on, a pro scout notes that “Henry can flat-out play.” Harbaugh can flat-out write.

P.D. James meets Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley (Knopf).  Really! And really good!

Somehow I never thought to put two of my favorite authors togther, but thank goodness James, now 91, set aside detective Adam Dalgliesh to write this delightful homage to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Of course, Austen sequels, prequels, mash-ups and rip-offs are a cottage industry these days; I’m generally wary, but James puts on a very good show, indeed.

Wouldn’t you know that the infamous Wickham, married to Elizabeth Bennet Darcy’s sister Lydia, would return to cause trouble? A mysterious shooting in the woods near Pemberley on a stormy night threatens the happiness of Elizabeth and Darcy, plus Jane and Bingley. James provides the necessary background to this “odious” event, and plots a twisting mystery with a satisfying resolution. The witty writing is spot-on:

“A murder in the family can provide a frisson of excitement at fashionable dinner parties, but little social credit can be expected from the brutal despatch of an undistinguished captain of the infantry, without money or breeding to render him interesting.”

Other 2011 favs that may yet find themselves under the tree were Victoria Roth’s Divergent, an exciting YA dystopian novel that won Goodreads’ book of the year; Lev Grossman’s The Magician Kings, a fine fantasy that builds on the story started in The Magician; Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an award-winning British novel for fans of Brideshead Revisited; and Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret, an absorbing novel drawing on her father-in-law’s World War II experiences in France.

And on my TBR list: Robert Massie’s biography Catherine the Great (which I think a certain elf named Dean has already wrapped up); Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending; Ali Smith’s intriguingly titled There But For The; and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I already have on hand, along with Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of Malory’s The Death of King Arthur.

Finally, already read but still to blog about before year’s end, fingers crossed: Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel sanctioned by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate; The Nine Lives of Christmas, a sweet holiday romance by Sheila Roberts; and more YA fantasy, including Legend by Marie Lu and the splendiferous fairy tale, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.

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First, I had a cold. Now, I fear I might catch Austen-itus, a strain of  the virulent Austenmania, which is rampant in bookstores everywhere these days. Here a Darcy, there a Pemberley, everywhere an Austen wannabe. That “Clean-up on Aisle 2” must be yet another victim of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I’m not an Austen purist. Far from it.  I adore Clueless, the clever movie adaptation of Emma.  I swoon for Colin Firth, both in the miniseries and Bridget Jones’ Diary. I think the mash-up P&P&Z is hilarious, and am looking forward to the prequel, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, which drops next week.

But I couldn’t bring myself to read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters because the cover showed poor Colonel Brandon looking like Bill Nighy/Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean.  I also have grown weary/leary of all the Austen faux sequels, in which major and minor characters from Austen get new lives. Some of them might as well be zombies, they’re so lifeless and dull. Jane herself is a vampire in Jane Bites Back, and really, who can blame her?

Still, because Austen only wrote six books, and I can only reread them so many times, I find myself looking for books written with her kind of wit and style. For as Mr. Bennet once said, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

It’s Cathleen Schine’s turn in The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a contemporary comedy of manners a la Sense and Sensibility. If you’re familiar with Austen’s tale of the Dashwoods’ descent into genteel poverty and their troubles with reason and romance, you’ll appreciate Schine’s book all more. She parallels the plot and characters when it suits, but she’s smart and skilled enough to go her own way.

The three Weismanns — 75-year-old mother Betty and her middle-aged daughters, pragmatic librarian Annie and emotional literary agent Miranda — are engaging and endearing characters in their own right. Because Betty’s husband of nearly 50 tears has dumped her for his young assistant, Felicity, Betty is forced out of her Manhattan apartment to a shabby Westport cottage owned by wealthy Cousin Lou. She is joined by Miranda, disgraced and bankrupt by her “Awful Authors” who have been faking their memoirs, and by Annie, who rents out her New York apartment so the three have a little money. Both sisters have love affairs — Annie with the novelist brother of the duplicitous Felicity, and Miranda with a handsome young actor with a cute toddler son. Difficulties ensue, some of them farcical. 

Schine is an artful satirist who lets the arrows fly. But her heroines know fear and doubt. At one point, Annie, in Palm Beach at Christmas (the equivalent of Austen’s Bath during the season) wonders if this is “real life.”

“Sometimes her life struck her as a mistake, not in a big, violent way, but as a simple error, as if she had thought she was supposed to bear left at an intersection when she should have taken a sharp left, and had drifted slowly, gradually, into the wrong town, the wrong state, the wrong country; as if she returned to a book she was reading after staring out the window at the rain, but someone had turned the page.”

Schine’s on the right page, whether or not she borrows a few from Austen.

Open Book: I bought my copy of The Three Weissmanns of Westport (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you like it, try Paula Marantz Cohen’s Jane Austen in Scarsdale, Or Love, Death and the SATs (St. Martin’s, 2007)), a lively updating of Persuasion. I bought it, too.

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