My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma Approved” [2013]

mv5bmtq0mjewndk5of5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjuznta3mde40._v1_sy1000_cr007231000_al_YouTube Series: “Emma Approved”

Release Year: 2013

Actors: Emma – Joanna Sotomura

Alex Knightley – Brent Bailey

Harriet Smith – Dayeanne Hutton

Frank Churchill – Stephen A. Chang

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

First off, as a comparison to the other YouTube adaptation I’ve reviewed in this series, I think this version is much more successful than the last. For one thing, I think we got to actually see more of the events we’re familiar with from the book on the screen. In the other version, we mostly had Lizzie telling the viewers second-hand stories or trying to re-enact them. Not only do I not thing that actress was fully up to the job, but it was always going to be a hard sell when you don’t have the actual people in front of you. Here, the casting is not only perfect and this Emma, I believe, is a strong actor, but many of the scenes and conversations from the book are included on screen. Having a larger and more varied cast really helps this version.

I’ll get into it more later, too, but this version also comes off better than the “Lizzie Bennett Diaries” in the romance arena. Alex Knightley is in the majority of the episodes, and it is the relationship between him and Emma that carries the show almost equal with Emma’s own arc of foibles and ultimate self-realization. Due to his being around for so much more of the story, and for the audience to have plenty of opportunities to see him and Emma together, their ultimate romantic conclusion is much less awkward and weird to watch from a viewer perspective.

As a comparison to the book, I think it does really well. It really hits most of the major plot points, and the set-up of Emma and Alex running a match-making/event organizing company really works well for much of it. I loved the clever interpretation it brought to many of the characters and important scenes. They also threw in a bunch of lines from the book that are sure to please avid “Emma” lovers.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed this version more than the other. I had wondered whether simply viewing these a second time was part of my struggle with “The Lizzie Bennett Diares,” but I really enjoyed this one, probably as much as the first time. So, I think this one is just better overall. I think the story is probably better suited for this type of thing. The acting was better. And overall, it just came together in a much more seamless, natural way.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I really like Joanna Sotomura’s take on Emma. I think she nails the essential elements of the character. She’s charming, witty, and overly confident. But also endearing and sympathetic, so when she blunders, it’s easy for the viewers to be in her corner and root for her ultimate success. Even early in the show, when we see her beginning to doubt the success of the Westons’ marriage, her balance of cocky over-assurance and intervention still comes off as sympathetic when paired with her obvious concern. It’s clear that she values her reputation as a success, but we also never doubt that she cares about those around her.

All of this is even more striking once Caroline Lee shows up. Alex Knightley even compares the two, saying they have a lot in common about interfering in other’s lives thinking they know best. Emma protests that she is nothing like Caroline, and while we can all see the point that Alex is making, Emma is also right. It’s distinctly clear to the viewers that they are different and while Emma blunders sometimes and doesn’t see everything clearly, she, unlike Caroline, truly does care about those she thinks she is helping and hurts for them when she messes things up.

I also really like this version of Harriet Smith and Emma’s older sister, Izzy. Harriet is a perfect modern adaptation of the character we have on the page. She clearly idolizes Emma, and while I, personally, don’t put much stock in fashion choices as a major personal improvement, we do see her gain confidence in herself.

And Izzy’s struggles with her husband are very relatable, not being able to stand up for herself in the face of her husband’s strict adherence to financial planning. Here, too, we see Emma really shine as she sees a problem that no one else, including Izzy, sees and manages to fix, albeit with a few bumps in the road. It’s actually one of the few moments where Alex’s Knightley’s criticisms of her come off as the least sympathetic, as anyone hearing Izzy’s account of how her requests have been constantly denied can see that Emma has the right of the situation, not Alex or his brother. Complaints that John feels like choices are being made behind his back land on supremely unsympathetic ears to my mind. But I’m also biased as a stay-at-home mom (for now) myself and Izzy’s situation razed my hackles immediately.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I also really like this version of Mr. Knightley. I think this is probably what stands out the most when comparing my experience watching this adaptation and “The Lizzie Bennett Diares”: there was really no escaping, there, the challenge of having your leading man absent for half of the run and then only in a handful of episodes after that. Here, Alex is almost in every single episode, and his bantering, lecturing friendship with Emma is clearly the foundation upon which all the rest of the show is built.

The actor really nails the balance between fond dismay at Emma’s actions and the more serious interventions when he sees her crossing a line. His frequent exclamations of “Emma!” are perfectly in-tune with how I’d imagine a modern Knightley would interact with Emma. The idea of them being business partners is also a clever way of keeping the two constantly in each other’s circles and Alex Knightley constantly attuned to Emma’s antics.

He also does very well with the few fights they have, lecturing Emma on her intervention into Harriet’s life (she’s not even a client!) and her poor treatment of Maddie Bates towards the end. But we also see him stand by her when it matters, catching himself in the middle of his anger about Emma’s interference in their siblings’ relationship when he realizes that Emma may truly be on to something that none of the rest of them see.

Perhaps it’s due to the increased screen time or just the character himself, but I was a much bigger fan of this actor’s Knightley than I was of Darcy in the other version. While Darcy, by the very nature of the character, is a bit harder to warm up to, the actor didn’t really have enough “oomf” to land him as endearing once he did arrive. It’s a very hard line to walk, trying to make a romantic hero who rarely smiles appealing. So this character was probably much more easy, but I still think credit goes to the actor for doing such a good job.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Mr. Elton’s character is reimagined into a snobby politician, and it’s a great alternative. He’s just as insincere and ambitious as the original character, and it’s easy for audiences to quickly see that Emma is sniffing up the wrong tree with him. There’s also a great adherence to the original story with Emma misunderstanding who gifts (poems in the original, flowers/yogurt/concert tickets here) are for. And then later Emma writes a song to have Harriet perform, and Elton Tweets it out, with Emma clearly missing that he is taking the song as proof of Emma’s interest, not Harriet’s. When it all comes to a head, he is all the more unlikable for being such a stuck-up snob. This Harriet is nowhere near as “questionable” as the version in the book where things like unknown parents could be a very real detractor. What’s actually wrong with this Harriet? Nothing, other than not being as fancy as Emma or the later Mrs. Caroline Lee/Elton.

Speaking of Caroline, that has to be one of the best surprises of this entire run, and a perfect nod to fans who watched both series. Those who have know to immediately dislike her and understand her nods to “not minding documentaries.” But she’s also obviously bad enough for new viewers to not need much to equally dislike her. I love the substitution for calling Mr. Knightley “Knightley,” to calling Alex “Al.” And, of course, Emma’s complete disgust at it all.

Frank Churchill is also perfectly cast. I have to imagine he watched some other versions of “Emma” before taking this part as there seem to be direct nods to other actors’ versions of the part in the way he performs it. Even in the delivery of his lines, he just fits perfectly alongside all the other variations of this character we’ve seen. And, in a satisfying twist to the story, his truly bad actions, like flirting with Emma and dismissing Jane so harshly, are not swept under the rug. Instead, she dumps him, and the show ends with him realizing he wants her back and will have to work for it. It’s a dose of justice for the Jane Fairfax character who I always sided with Mr. Knightley on: “I feel sorry for her.”

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance in this show is probably almost as important as the depiction of Emma herself. Unlike the book, to most media consumers, it’s pretty obvious from the start that Emma and Alex are endgame, thus their chemistry and interactions are important from the very first. Luckily, these actors have great chemistry together, and their teasing, friendly relationship is just the sort that appeals to fans of rom-coms.

We never see anything truly overt on either of their sides throughout most of the show, but it’s still pretty clear. Alex’s early dislike of Frank Churchill is probably the biggest clue on his part. And, of course, Emma’s dismissal at her friend’s theories about Alex and Jane speak to her unknowing interest in him.

I really liked how they played Emma’s realization about her true feelings for Alex. The actor really manages to nail the shock of Harriet’s confession and then through mostly subtle facial expressions, demonstrate Emma’s change of heart. It’s also really great how they play the scene where Emma is trying to be a good friend to Alex but puts him off from his confession due to her concerns that he is about to confess his love for Harriet. When she chases after him again, there’s some really nice humor in her trying to build herself up to hear the news. And then, later, Alex’s question about what she thought he was about to say when the truth.

I also really like the final payoff we get for a running joke we see throughout about flowers being romantic. Early on, Elton brings Harriet a new kind of yogurt and flowers for Emma. And it is only after the whole debacle comes to light that Emma has to re-orient herself with a new mantra: “Food means friendship. Flowers mean romance.” So it’s really great to see this come around again when Alex gives her flowers, and she, bewildered, says “But…flowers mean romance.” It’s very sweet.

On a general note, I also found this romance much less voyeuristic and uncomfortable to see come to a head. I’m not sure why. It’s probably some combination of the increased screen time for the romantic hero. The fact that the Alex character is just much easier to see in a romance plot line than the version of Darcy we had in the other YouTube series. Or the simple fact that these actors had better chemistry. It also probably helps that we see their entire relationship progress and the fact that they are so comfortable with each other from the start makes the audience more comfortable as well. Lizzie and Darcy were so awkward together that it’s no wonder they made others uncomfortable watching them!

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Emma and Alex do most of the heavy lifting as far as the comedy goes as well. They by far get the most screen time and, with their character arcs, have the most opportunities to take advantage of comedic elements in the story. Harriet is too sincere much of the time to really be funny. Jane Fairfax is almost too serious to really like in this version.While I like that her relationship with Frank Churchill ends, this was probably the one character in this show who seems the most different than their book counterpart. She’s almost so snobby in her “do-goodery” that one finds oneself coming down on Emma’s side of their conflict. In the book, it’s clear that Jane is a good natured, though quiet, woman and most of Emma’s problems with her are based purely in the fact that she makes Emma insecure. Here, however, Jane is kind of off-putting, making Emma’s discomfort feel completely natural.

This mostly leaves Maddie Bates to carry the rest of the weight for the comedy side of things. And she’s great! I really love how they carried over Mrs. Bates deafness and how Maddie Bates will dictate back conversations with her mother by starting out “And then I said ‘MOMMA!'”, yelling that last word at the camera. It’s just great. I also really liked this version’s interpretation of the Box Hill incident. Here it’s for a restaurant opening, Boxx Hill, that Emma and her company are hosting. Maddie tries to bring forward her (terrible) home-made jams, and Emma publicly mocks her for how bad they are. It’s a perfect adaptation of the incident, and even though we don’t see it, we get to see plenty of the fall-out as Jane quits the company and Alex delivers the famous “Badly done!” line. But, of course, it all ends well with Emma apologizing to Maddie Bates, and Maddie demonstrating how truly good and kind-hearted she is by quickly forgiving Emma and working to help her in Alex’s absence.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Not a lot for this one, it seems: the actors who played Emma and Alex Knightley were dating while they filmed this. That probably helped with the good ole chemistry. They’re also both currently in a show called “Quarantine” about out-of-work soap opera cast members in L.A. Mildly interested in checking that out, mostly due to the adorableness of these two here.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Just a cute little moment between these two. Really, their relationship is the funniest part of the entire thing.

In two weeks, I’ll the first half of “Mansfield Park.”

 

Serena’s Review: “Storm and Fury”

40291564Book: “Storm and Fury” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.

When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…

Review: This book had been hanging out on my audiobook holds list long enough that I had forgotten completely why I put it on there! Which can be a good and bad thing. For the good, it was a complete surprise, as I typically don’t read this type of book and probably wouldn’t have prioritized it if I had known that it was a modern YA fantasy. For the bad, I didn’t realize that this was a companion series to another, already finished series. Not that it had a huge effect on this read, but it was a factor. But, overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this book.

Trinity has been raised by the Wardens, taught to fight demons, and hidden from humans. But she is not any of them. Though going blind, Trinity’s unique abilities, aided by her excellent combat skills, have made her a force to be reckoned with. Her future, however, is anything but clear. It is made all the more murky when a group of stranger arrive with ill-boding news. And soon that news strikes closer than home than any of them would like. Now Trinity, with the help of the oddly appealing but supremely frustrating Zayne, must venture outside her home and put her true powers to the test.

So, as I said, this is the beginning to a companion series that had already completed. I will give props to the writer, however, for making this one feel pretty approachable all on its own. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the world and various players in it fairly early on. Once the main character and her love interest from the previous story showed up, I did feel like some background on their story and, particularly, their histories with Zayne would have been helpful. But even there, as they are all new to Trinity, it wasn’t hard to be introduced to them the first time through her eyes. If anything, I was more fully in her boat than I would have been otherwise, also not knowing what to believe between the various histories being told.

I also liked Trinity’s voice well enough at the beginning. She was funny and only ridiculous at times. Unfortunately, these traits swapped as the story went on, and she quickly became less funny and more ridiculous. Surprising no one, this change corresponded with the increased page time devoted to the romance. Again, not knowing the history between other characters and Zayne, it was all too easy to have to be mired in the nonsense of insecurity and drama alongside our main character.

The romance itself was everything I hated. First off, we have instalove or instattraction. Tons of mentions of how Trinity felt an inexplicable draw and interest in him. And he, too, with very little true development, is of course interested in her as well. Then you add in the forced drama in the middle. And then you get to the end and find out it was all just kind of pointless? I don’t want to spoil it or anything…but it’s another of my least favorite tropes. So the book strikes out three for three in the romance department.

The story is also incredibly long, something like 500 pages? Much of this is devoted to witty repartee and smaller character moments. Some have value, others not so much. And the few action scenes we get are brief and over before you really realize what’s going on. Overall, the story probably could have lost about 200 pages worth of filler and been a tighter, more compelling story for it.

I also really, really disliked the “reveal” at the end of the book. It wasn’t so much that I could see it coming, as that it just didn’t make that much sense. We get a bland, villain speech as an explanation, but no groundwork or character development had been laid down beforehand to make any of it feel earned or believable.

Yeah, so not much about this book worked for me. I was mildly intrigued by the characters who were introduced from the other book, but I also don’t trust this author anymore as far as developing an interesting, trope-free romance. So, I think I’ll probably skip those and not continue this either. If you’re a fan of her other series, this may be worth checking out. But if you’re new to this author, I can’t recommend this. If it sounds like your thing, probably just read the other series first and go from there.

Rating 5: A cringe-worthy romance really killed the mood on this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm and Fury” is on a bunch of fairly random Goodreads lists, but this one made me laugh and given my rating…“I’ve Thought About Reading… But I Probably Won’t.”

Find“Storm and Fury” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Natural History of Dragons”

12974372Book: “A Natural History of Dragons”by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Tor Books, February 2013

Book Description: All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Review: When I read “Turning Darkness into Light” a year or so ago, I didn’t realize that it was connected to Marie Brennan’s “Lady Trent” series. It was still an enjoyable read, however, and it inspired me to go back and put the original series on my list. Of course, that now makes reading this series, set quite a bit before “Turning Darkness,” into a very different reading experience than it would have been had I been approaching without any prior knowledge. But, overall, I really enjoyed this read!

Before she was the well-known adventurous, Lady Trent, Lady Isabella was just a young woman with an unladylike interest: dragons. But ever determined, she set out to make a life for herself where she could pursue this unlikely passion as far a a lady of her time could hope for. Instead, she got more than she ever wished for. Finding a marriage of true affection with a liberal minded man who eventually even concedes to allowing her to travel on expeditions alongside her. Never did he suspect that she, herself, would be the one to begin making the most extraordinary discoveries of their time!

This book was both what I expected and very different than I expected. On one hand, it’s kind of your staple historical fantasy story featuring an intrepid lady going and doing what no lady has done before. Lady Trent’s voice was very familiar, if a bit less bland than the likes of Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell. But her story was unique enough to stand alone. For one thing, I appreciate the way the story is grounded in the realities of the “time” for a lady such as herself.

Her marriage is not made from wild romance, but from the practical choice of two individuals with unique interests to team up with another who can appreciate their eccentricities. It was a nice change of pace to read about this type of relationship and how their feelings towards each other change and grow over the years as they are put to different, unexpected tests. Her husband doesn’t simply jump onboard with her wanting to travel the world, but very realistically expresses concern that he will be judged for not protecting his wife as a proper husband should. Of course, he quickly sees reason and realizes that her wants and needs are more important than this judgement, but I appreciated that the challenge of living so far outside the norm was addressed.

The story was a bit slower to get started than I may have liked, but once Lady Isabella actually begins her explorations, I really enjoyed it. Even then, the dragons were much more often an idea or passing fear than ever being very present. This, of course, was part of the mystery of them, but it did leave the pacing of the story itself a bit stilted. Here, mostly, is where it was strange that I had read the companion book before this actual series. Many secrets and truths had been taken as common knowledge in that book, but here Lady Trent had yet to make any of these discoveries. It did add a strange, new layer of intrigue for me, personally, as I spent a lot of time trying to guess how all of these smaller clues would lead to the bigger reveals I knew were coming at some point. Even knowing some of the outcomes, I still wasn’t able to put much together beforehand.

I really liked the narrator for this audiobook, and I highly recommend reading the book that way if you like audiobooks at all. The slower pace and, at points, removed feeling one has from the characters themselves did knock this back a few points in my rating. But I plan on continuing the series and hopefully those aspects will pick up in the next one.

Rating 7: A fun historical fantasy story, if a bit plodding at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Natural History of Dragons” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Dragons/Serpents.”

Find “A Natural History of Dragons” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Poppy War”

35068705Book: “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the the library!

Book Description: When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Review: Whew! That book description is about half the length of my entire post usually! But I guess given that this is a 600+ page book, it kind of makes sense. There’s a lot to pack in there! This summer continues to be the summer of catching up on books that were quite a hit a year or so ago, and that for whatever reason, took me forever to get to! I have clear memories of seeing this cover and title being thrown about everywhere and yet I never really knew anything about what it was about! Which, having read it now, I kind of get! There’s a lot in here, and it’s the kind of book that’s hard to pin down or to compare to some other, obvious read-alike. And, while I was not prepared for everything in this, I really loved it!

Rin has always been a fighter. Maybe not in the classical sense, though she gets even there eventually. No, she is one who fights against the life that others have chosen for her. A war orphan from a poor providence, through sheer stubbornness and force of will she studies hard enough to earn her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Then, in a northern school that looks down on her lowly beginnings, Rin, again through sheer stubborness, finds a way to become one of their best students. And then the war hits, and her real fight begins. Not only against an almost unstoppable invading force, but the fight within herself to define her future. Will she follow a beloved teacher, warning of dark paths ahead? Or an esteemed leader who asks her to embrace every bit of power she has always hid within herself.

This book took me by complete surprise. For one thing, it almost reads as two entirely different books, so right when you’re getting settled in and think you understand the type of story you’re read, bam! Nope! The first half is your classic coming-of-age, boarding/military school story ala Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” series. You have Rin, the girl who has nothing going for her, proving to everyone again and again that sheer stubbornness is enough to get you through most everything. She’s an outcast among her peers with the one sweet friend and the one big enemy in the local school enemy. She befriends the quirky teacher. It’s all lovely. And as familiar as that all sounds, the author imbibes her story with such a complicated history, culture, and mythology that the reader never once feels like these aspects of the story are coming off as tropes.

And then, whoops! Not the innocent school story anymore! A foreign army invades and suddenly the story takes a steep turn into a grim and gritty war story. And even that came with surprises. It starts out well enough with a few things going Rin’s way as she learns more about her abilities, her history, and her potential. She joins up with a crew of other “freaks” and they have a few wins. And then…it gets dark. Pretty suddenly even. And when I say dark, I mean dark. I’m not a prude about violence by any means, but man, I wasn’t prepared for where this book headed. I definitely teared up a number of times and had to put the book down (metaphorically, as it was an audiobook) at least two or three times. Some parts of it were really hard to get through.

I will say that this is the one part of the story that knocked it back a point from being a full “10 rating” book: at times, it felt like the violence was almost a bit too much. There was one section in particular about three fourths of the way through where I felt like the book just seemed to linger and repeat examples of the atrocities. While a lot of this was necessary for Rin’s own arc and to justify her choices and how she ends up where she does, I think the point was made even without some of the circling round again through all of the horror. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s the kind of thing that many readers will have different tolerances for. But, the warning stands: this book goes to some awful places. I wasn’t prepared, so I’ll let you know so you can be!

I really liked Rin’s character. Her arc is incredibly compelling, especially as we see her struggle through some awful choices. And by the end, we have a character who is very different than the one we started with. But at the same time, completely recognizable. And the changes are so subtle and the influences on her pile up so slowly, bit by bit, that by the grand conclusion, we’re not shocked by what should be shocking.

I also loved the incredibly world-building, history, and mythology. This story felt completely fresh, and even after 600+ pages, I still only felt like I was scratching the surface of this world. This is the first book in a trilogy, and while I have a few guesses as to where one or two things are going, I’m also prepared to be dead wrong. Since I was completely blown off my feet with this one, it’d be the height of arrogance for me to assume I know what’s coming next! That said, I will need to give myself a bit of breathing time before getting into the second one. My heart can only take so much!

Rating 9: A little late to the game and repeating what’s been said a bunch of times already, but this book is incredible.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Poppy War” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices” and “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Poppy War” at your library using WorldCat!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Clueless” [1995]

mv5bmzbmogq0nwitotzjzc00zdaxltgyotetodjiywq2ywniywvjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynte1njy5mg4040._v1_sy1000_cr006691000_al_Movie: “Clueless”

Release Year: 1995

Actors: Cher – Alicia Silverstone

Josh – Paul Rudd

Tai – Brittany Murphy

Christian – Justin Walker

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

“Clueless” is definitely a movie of its time, but it’s still a blast to watch today. Similarly to “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” is a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s work which means that while some things follow along pretty faithfully, there are also a lot of changes to make it work as a modern tale.

I really like the initial match-making switch. Instead of a governness, we see Cher setting up two of her teachers in an attempt to improve her grade. On one hand, this makes Cher’s reasons much more self-centered than Emma’s, but the change works well, I think. After her initial success, Cher decides that she likes helping people like she did for these two, sad, pathetic teachers. And so she takes Tai (Harriet Smith) under her wing. In many ways, her goal in helping Tai is much more centered around making Tai popular than specifically matching her up with someone. In the book, Emma had already proclaimed a desire to match Mr. Elton up before zeroing in on Harriet. Here, we see Cher directing Tai’s love life more because Tai’s original interest (a drugged up skater boy) would not be a good match for a popular girl. Elton is then selected as a proper match for someone of Tai’s aspiring popularity.

This arc then comes full circle when we see Tai become truly popular and then snap at Cher in all of Tai’s mean girl glory. So Cher’s “what have I done?” is much less about her project girl being interested in someone whom she realizes she cares for (though that is a factor), and more to do with how sweet and nice Tai had been before Cher’s meddling in her life. Luckily, on Tai seems to course correct on her own at the end of the movie.

All of the actors cast for various parts work great, and it’s definitely one of those movies where you see really young version of actors who went on to do bigger projects. Brittany Murphy, for example, is barely recognizable as Tai. And obviously Paul Rudd would go on to be a household name type actor. But even the smaller roles, like the two teachers and Cher’s father, are all pitch perfect and really help round out the movie.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Cher is probably the least likable Emma we’ve come across so far. On one hand, this is understandable because she’s the only teen version we’ve had. At 15-16, she’s four or five years younger than the version in the book and the other two adaptations I’ve reviewed. Not to mention the very different education and expectations she would face in L.A. in the mid-90s versus the Regency period. But she’s also given the fewest opportunities to show her good side as well. The movie leans in heavily to how spoiled she is, doing very little to counterbalance it with good deeds. Like in many other versions, it mainly relies on showing her care towards her father as the best look into her inherent goodness. But as her father is also less likable than other versions…

Not to say that you don’t end up rooting for the character, just that it’s a bit harder. Her constant up-speak is also a bit tough to handle, dating the movie and also signaling what is now a cliche of an entire new level. At the time, it was just a valley girl thing, but now the trope is so often connected with idiocy that it doesn’t do the character any favors to modern viewers.

I do like that the big realization moment for her is less her being rude to one individual, but seeing the type of person she’s turned Tai into. Tai was originally this sweet, friendly character. And after snapping and being rude to Cher, we see Cher realize that actual “value” of the things she’s been sharing with Tai. Tai is like a brutal mirror that is held up to Cher, and that, along with the realization about her general “clueless-ness” is enough to inspire change. It’s also pretty clear that she doesn’t do any of this in an effort to impress Josh, making it feel like the type of change that will be more lasting.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Josh is a pretty solid mid-90s teenage interpretation of Mr. Knightley. Having him being interested in a law (and with a less than stellar mother) is a good excuse for having him want to hang around Cher’s house and work with her dad. Of course, we can’t have him scolding Cher in quite the same way. It wouldn’t come off nearly as well with the age difference being so much more close and the times making it all sound much more patronizing and unappealing if he had done. Instead, we see him being more subtly critical of Cher’s superficial tendencies while at the same time clearly enjoying her company.

And, of course, no discussion about Paul Rudd can be had without acknowledging the freakishness of his lack of aging. It almost makes the age difference seem weird since he looks so much the same when he’s much older that he could just as well be in his mid-thirties in this movie as younger twenties.

I really liked that they included a version of him coming to Tai’s rescue and dancing with her. This version does a weird thing where we have the “rescue” of Tai by Christian, as well, but then it does nothing with this. It’s already established that Christian is gay at this point, and there is no inclusion of Cher becoming confused by any reference of a “rescue” by Tai. It’s kind of a weird choice. Instead, it’s used mostly to elevate Tai’s popularity which results in her later nastiness to Cher. But eh, I still like that they included the Tai/Josh dance thing. It’s a great moment for giving Cher more insight into why Josh is such a great guy.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Elton is by far the biggest “villain” in this movie. Not only is he not interested in Tai, a stuck-up ass about popularity status, and all of that. He repeatedly accosts Cher when she’s clearly said “no,” pretty much forcing her to get out of the car to avoid him. And then he leaves her in a bad part of town to be mugged. Much worse that the book version of Mr. Elton. I do like that he’s one of the few characters whose name remained the same. I guess it works pretty well for a snobby L.A. teenage boy in the 90s.

Christian, on the other hand, is really not much of a villain at all. Other than perhaps leading on Cher more than he should have, he seems like a pretty decent guy. It’s kind of unclear why he misleads her at all in the first place. He must know that she’s misinterpreting his actions, but at the same time, he’s not too subtle about hiding true orientation. Everyone other than Cher seems to see it, and we don’t see any push back in the movie itself about it. It’s definitely a unique take on her misunderstanding with this character role. This makes much more sense than any hidden romance would have, given the time period. And it’s kind of nice to have the movie end with Cher and Christian kind of being besties, instead of the tense, friendship-pretty-much-over state that Emma and Frank Churchill are in at the end of the book.

There’s also the jerk lawyer guy who snaps at Cher at the very end of the movie, thus making Josh come to her defense, thus serving as the impetus for the relationship getting started. So is he really a villain in the end?

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance in this movie does play second fiddle to the comedy. There are a few moments here and there that speak to Josh and Cher’s ultimate future, but they are scattered in between the bigger comedy scenes featuring Tai, Cher, and Dionne’s antics. We have the aforementioned dancing scene, of course.  There’s a small moment where Cher and Josh are hanging out at home watching a movie, and Cher seems to make a passing comment that sometimes having a quiet evening at home is more fun than all the social outings one could come up with.

And Josh is the one to come to Cher’s rescue after the Elton incident. This serves as a good point for Josh realizing that he’s into Cher as we see Cher correct Josh’s then girlfriend on some quote from Shakespeare. Josh smiles at this and seems not at all concerned that his girlfriend is pretty displeased at being shown up by a high schooler. And we get an even clearer idea of his interest when he follows Christian and Cher on their “date” just for “safety.” It’s very cute.

The actual romantic conclusion of them kissing on the stairs is a bit awkward, I think but fine enough. And then I think the cut to the wedding scene is pretty hilarious and a nice hats off to Jane Austen’s endings always featuring weddings of the main characters. And in this scene, the already established relationship between Josh and Cher reads as much more natural and enjoyable to witness.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Well, watching it now, there’s two sides to the comedy coin. There are the things the movie meant to be funny. And there are the things that are simply hilarious because of how dated it makes the movie feel. The very first scene, even, with Cher selecting her outfit on this old computer screen is just comical. Especially because it’s supposed to be set up as a way to establish how well-off Cher is. But to modern eyes…it’s some janky stuff.

The fashion, also, is hilarious. Even growing up in the 90s myself, it’s hard to get a good read on how accurate this way versus how much of it was blown up to extremes to show off Cher’s situation. Either way…man, gotta love it. Even Cher spends a moment (in an odd tonal break in the movie) to point out how bad men’s fashion was at the time. But, on the other hand, her friend Dionne is pretty much literally wearing a plastic bucket for a hat in the opening scene. So.

Dionne and her boyfriend don’t have any obvious parallels in the book itself that I can think of. But they play well for humor here. I especially like how all the comedic moments early on that highlight their bickering and public feuding are later tied together to show that, while they enjoy the drama in the crowd, in private they are much more caring and loving towards each other. In this way, they serve as a good example of love to Cher as she’s going through her awakening period.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

The director was asked to simply create a movie for teenagers. It was her own fondness of reading “Emma” as a teenager that inspired her to adapt that book into a teen movie.

There are 63 different costume changes in this movie.

Gwyneth Paltrow was considered for the role, but never auditioned. One would imagine she had her own “Emma” thing going around then.

While according to filming this was his second movie, “Clueless” was released first and thus is the movie that introduced the world to the lovely Paul Rudd.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

I didn’t actually do it, but I was tempted to count the number of “As ifs!” we had in this movie.

This seemed to be the most classic “Emma” moment in the entire movie:

In two weeks, I’ll review the YouTube series “Emma Approved.”

Serena’s Review: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn”

51182650._sx318_sy475_Book: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” by Melissa Bashardoust

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

Review: Here was another book I requested based mostly on cover lust. But the description itself, particularly the original fairytale-ness of it all, was another sure a attraction. It’s also yet another book that seems to feature siblings, though this one is only from Soraya’s POV, which is a nice change of pace in my reading lately. The story took a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting, but most of them turned out for the good, and I enjoyed this read!

Soraya is a forgotten princess. With a power that kills at her touch, she’s spent her life sequestered in shadows, separated from her family, friends, and people. She’s spent her life watching her brother pass all of the milestones that she herself has missed out on. And now it is coming to a head with his marriage to a lost friend from Soraya’s childhood. In unexpected places she begins to find new allies and new pathways, opening doors that she never dreamed possible. Some of them lead into the light, and some further into the dark. Which will she choose?

I ended up really enjoying this book. It was an original fairytale, something I always love, and it took a few unexpected twists and turns as it was told. On top of all of that, it’s a standalone novel. One small criticims there, however, was the story did feel like it had to distinctive arcs that may have been better suited to their own books, making the story into a duology. But even typing that feels wrong as I love standalone books so much and they’re hard to find! It’s kind of a mixed bag thing, here, I guess. The two storylines work well enough, and I don’t feel like either was truly lacking much. Just that as a complete work, it did feel oddly balanced with the first half telling one tale and the second another.

I really liked Soraya herself. She had a great narrative voice, and she was easy to become immediately invested in. This was important as the book took a twist down an antihero path that I hadn’t seen coming from the book description. Looking back now, yeah, it’s kind of there. But it was another nice surprise for me when going through this book. It’s always tough to sell a true antihero story, as often your main character is doing some pretty questionable things and walking a very narrow line. This made the likablity of Soraya’s character incredibly important. It was easy to understand her struggles and even some of her more questionable decisions, especially in the context of the life she had lived prior to this story.

Another surprise for me was that Soraya was a bisexual and the main romance ends up being a f/f one. For the book itself and its story, I really enjoyed this romance. I’ve read a bunch of f/f/ stories recently, and really liked them! Just last week, I reviewed a book by Django Wexler who is known for almost always giving his heroine a female love interest. My problem with it being a surprise here isn’t the book’s fault. It’s the marketing.

Looking over the book description, it’s clear that it’s intentionally deflecting away from using gendered pronouns in places, and then goes out of its way to place interest on the male love interest. The male love interest is a thing, so that’s fine. But there should be mention, clearly, of the female option. I really dislike these type of marketing techniques. It seems clear that its done out of mistrust of one’s audience, and that’s never going to work. Either your reader is game for a f/f romance, in which case readers like me would like to know ahead of time what to expect without having to delve into Goodreads reviews to get basic information like this. Or your reader is not down and once it becomes clear that you tried to hoodwink them with your marketing, they’ll put the book down. It’s bad faith marketing, and we need to get past this.

Overall, I really liked this book. If you’re looking for an original fairytale story with a morally grey main character, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A great standalone fantasy novel featuring an interesting anti-heroine!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA LGBT+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy” and “Magical Realism.”

Find “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ashes of the Sun”

52822248._sx318_sy475_Book: “Ashes of the Sun” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

Review: This will be the third Django Wexler book I’ve read this year, so I’m definitely on a roll! I had read a book by him before, but I think because it was the first in a long-ish series, I became intimidated and kind of let it slide. But I loved his new YA series and am looking forward to the final one in that coming out soon. Which made me all the more surprised when this, a beginning to a new adult series, suddenly popped up! I’m not sure how long of a series is planned, but based on this first book, I’m all in!

When his little sister, Maya, is taken away at age 5 by the powerful Twilight Order, Gyre’s idealic family life is broken. Years of simmering anger build until he comes of age to make is own way. And that way includes spending every resource he has delving into the underworld of the Republic in search of a power strong enough to destroy the organization that stole his sister and, in many ways, controls his world. Maya, raised by the Order and on the bring of becoming independent, is committed to the ideals of her organization. Raised to believe that the Order protects and serves, Maya sees the good that she and her people can do for the common folk who are plagued by dangerous monsters. But as she comes closer and closer to striking out on her own, she begins to see cracks among her people and a corruption that may go deeper than she thought.

The world-building in this story is excellent. It almost seems to be set in a post-apocaptic version of the “Star Wars” universe. Kind of an odd comparison, but once you read the book, you’ll totally see it. The author has a great afterward where he even states “Star Wars” as an influence, but it’s so subtly done, that at no point does this in any way feel like a “Star Wars” book. So it feels both familiar as well as incredibly unique all at once. I really liked the glimpses we have into the history of this world, and there were a lot of great reveals that game out over the course of the story. Of course, most of these just raised more questions than they answered, but what else can you expect from the first book in a series?

I also really liked both Maya and Gyre. This is one of those rare, great examples of a book where the duel narrators are equally strong and compelling. Especially since they are essentially representing opposing forces. It’s quite difficult to write two such characters and maneuver your reader into rooting for them both, a losing battle from the start. Gyre was perhaps a bit less sympathetic to start, but he definitely grew on me. And Maya is just the sort of bad-ass warrior women I gravitate towards. They also each had unique romance arcs that were at times quite unexpected.

The story is also action-packed from start to finish. It did take quite a while to get into the main conflict, with what felt like a bunch of side/mini quests taking up the majority of the first half. But as the main conflict begins to unfold, we see the importance of these early action scenes in setting the stage for the character choices are two leads make and how they end up where they are. Each also came with their own set of side characters, sidekicks, and enemies, so there was a lot of groundwork that needed to be laid out to really set the stage for the grand finale.

And while the grand finale itself was pretty intriguing, it was also clear that this was only the beginning. Sure, the current big bad was dealt with, but Maya and Gyre, while both questioning their own goals, are still clearly on opposing sides of a brewing conflict. I can’t wait to find out where their adventures lead them next and how or if they will ever be able to find a middle ground between them.

Also, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC copy of this book! I also had an e-book copy, so this is a completely fresh ARC ready and waiting for its first reader! Enter to win!

Rating 8: A rollicking adventure story with two fantastic leads at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ashes of the Sun” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “Ashes of the Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Giveaway: “Ashes of the Sun”

52822248._sx318_sy475_Book: “Ashes of the Sun” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

Giveaway Details: I’ve only recently rediscovered Django Wexler. Several years ago, I read a military fantasy by him which I really liked. But for some reason (too many books!) I never got back around to finishing the many other books in that series. Then this past winter, I was blew through two of his new YA fantasy books, and it really cemented him as an author worthy keeping my eyes on. So I was really excited when Orbit sent me an ARC for his upcoming fantasy title releasing this summer. It’s been a challenge holding off on reading it right away as I had many other books I wanted to get to and review first, but finally the time has come!

The story seems to be some combination of a post-apocalyptic tale and a traditional fantasy story with a bunch of new elements. It also seems like Orbit has went all in on this “siblings on the opposite side of a battle” theme, as this will be the second fantasy story from them I’ve read with that premise this spring/summer. But, while I wasn’t a huge fan of “The Ranger of Marzanna,” I have full faith that Wexler will be able to better pull off this type of set up. Mostly, I know that he can handle multiple POV characters in one book, the most important element in this type of storytelling. Both the military adult fantasy novel I read several years ago and the second in the YA fantasy series I read last winter had more than one POV character. I usually had preferences for one over another, but I always liked reading about them both. So I’m super excited to see what he’ll do with these two characters!

I’ve also skimmed through the book and noticed that there is a fairly extensive glossary of terms at the end of the book. That, and books that have maps, are often some of the first signs I look for in a fantasy book that has a lot to offer. An extensive glossary, in this case, hints that the world-building and magic system are extensive and complicated enough to warrant this type of added explanation.

So, overall, I’m really excited to jump into this one. I’ll have a full review of this book coming out this Friday. But, as the book itself doesn’t come out until later in July, make sure to take advantage of this opportunity to win an ARC copy of this book (I also had an eARC so this copy is completely untouched). The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends on July 15.

Enter to win!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma” [2009]

mv5bmtgxmdc1mzqxmv5bml5banbnxkftztcwmzy0mzuwmw4040._v1_TV Mini Series: “Emma”

Release Year: 2009

Actors: Emma – Romola Garai

Mr. Knightley – Jonny Lee Miller

Harriet Smith – Louise Dylan

Frank Churchill – Rupert Evans

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

As it is so much longer than the previous version, this mini series was able to do what the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” was able to do for that story. Every  major scene and character is included, and the series doesn’t shy away from adding its own touches here and there which further flesh out side characters like Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. The series also plays fairly fast and loose with the dialogue, but overall it retains the spirit of every exchange and there are few instances where these changes stand out.

One of the more major changes from the book is in the framing of the story around Emma, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill and how their lives were greatly influenced by the losses they experienced as children. This version of the story devotes quite a bit of time to the story before where the book itself picks up. In this way, we really do see how Emma has always been the center of attention. Unlike the other two children without a parent(s), she stays home. We see that even as a governess, Miss Taylor is bewitched by the charming Emma. And, of course, her father can see no flaws in her. Mr. Knightley is the only one to critique her, and even he admits privately that she’s the most beautiful and smart of her family. The movie also does a lot of groundwork to set the stage for Emma’s matchmaking. This version has Emma claiming to be the influence behind her sister and John’s marriage, a change from the book. So by the time she gets to Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston and has success there, it’s hardly any wonder that she believes herself an expert in this area.

The cast is also superb. There’s not a single misstep in the entirety. If forced to single someone out, I might say that this version of Jane Fairfax leaned very heavily into the reserved portion of her character at the expense of her elegance. In this way, the 1996 version may have come out ahead. The Jane we saw there was undeniably elegant, and it was easy to see why Emma would be threatened by her. This Jane had a tendency to fade into the background and read as more shy than anything else. But other than that small quibble, I really loved everyone who was cast in this. Michael Gambon is probably the standout as far as excellent side characters, and he really helps sell the loving, but dependent, relationship Mr. Woodhouse has for his daughter.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Romola Garai’s Emma is very different than Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Where Paltrow’s version was more cool and collected, Garai’s is joyous and exuberant.  This version of Emma seems to ground more of her flaws in youth and actual inexperience with the world and people than in any true character flaws. In many ways, I think this is very accurate to the book. Both there and here, we see a character who has always been the center of every social situation she’s in: family, friends, and the greater neighborhood overall. It’s like Frank Churchill notes later, “she presides over all.” It’s no wonder that this early regard from almost everyone in her life, regard pushed to the point of adoration even, would have this effect on her. We only ever see Mr. Knightley be critical of Emma and her decisions and even he can’t resist pairing his criticism with compliments (to her looks, when he is talking to Mrs. Weston, and to her wit, however misused, when he’s fighting with Emma herself).

Garai’s version of the character definitely pops on the screen, and it’s easy to see how the eyes of all would be drawn to her. She has a much more playful take on Emma’s matchmaking than we’ve seen before, but is still able to capture the more serious moments as well. When she confesses to Harriet, after revealing the truth about Mr. Elton, that she would be lucky to resemble Harriet in any small way, it’s very touching.

I also like all the attention that is given to Emma’s relationship with her father in this version. We see many small moments of the two of them together, with Emma fretting over her father’s scarf and worrying over the brewing conflict between him and John Knightley. I also really liked the way they dealt with the situation about their living arrangements after Emma and Mr. Knightley get engaged. It works both as a comedic scene, with Emma barging into Knightley’s office and declaring they can never marry and rushing out again, and as a serious one, as we can also see the true pain Emma is feeling about the prospect of hurting her father and her refusal to put him through that.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I absolutely love Jonny Lee Miller in most everything, and his take on Mr. Knightley is probably one of the strongest selling points for this version of the story for me. I really have zero criticisms for the way he portrays this character. In the book, Mr. Knightley really doesn’t have a lot to do in the first half of the story. He kind of pops in and out, has a big fight with Emma, and then disappears for a good bit until reappearing about halfway through the story. But this version makes good work of including him better in scenes and giving him more lines here and there to keep him ever present in viewers minds.

Miller has great delivery on some of the more comedic lines, like his and Emma’s teasing about the use of carriages. And, of course, he excels in the scenes in which he fights with Emma. This version’s fight over the Harriet/Mr. Martin situation is the most extended of all the versions, and it’s great watching them both shine. And then in the Miss Bates scolding, I love the way he delivers his lines, especially the “badly done.” You can see a marked difference in this fight versus the first. Miller’s able to add a new layer of disappointment and concern that speaks well to the character’s change in perspective to Emma.

I also liked all the scenes they include of Mr. Knightley walking about the countryside, playing in the snow with his nieces and nephews, etc. It’s a good highlight of the type of active, outdoorsman that he is presented as. This version also gives us personal insight into Mr. Knightley’s own thoughts. After the ball scene, we see him imaging Emma in his own home. It’s a good contrast to the two scenes we had before where Emma imagines Mr. Knightley married to Jane Fairfax. It’s great having both scenes with the different insights into their different thoughts and feelings.

The movie also includes several little scenes between Harriet and Mr. Knightley. We see them walking together, sitting next to each other, and talking privately. It all comes across in a very natural way, but then when Harriet brings up her hopes for the future, we, the audience, can see the groundwork lain. And it’s easier to understand Emma’s real concern that Harriet may be a true threat to Emma’s future happiness.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

The Frank Churchill of this version leans heavily in on the villainous side of the character. He takes every opportunity to criticize Jane behind her back, commenting to Emma about her hair being ugly and how unlovable a reserved person is. He seems to be criticizing her when he sidehandedly comments about the mistake he made in bring up Dr. Perry’s carriage plans when hardly anyone else knew about it. And the flirtation with Emma is at a peak. At the Box Hill party we see him making more snide comments to Jane, all while being completely overboard with his compliments to Emma, even laying on her lap at one point, a shocking level of familiarity at that time.

He also seems often poor tempered. Whining and complaining about his life to Emma during the strawberry picking, and then, again, being a poor tempered brat at Box Hill. The actor’s take on the character really works well with this interpretation of the character, as he has a bunch of perfect facial expressions that highlight how shallow and spoiled Frank can often be. All in all, it’s hard not to agree with Knightley’s assessment of the situation: that Jane could do much better.

There is an interesting added twist to his character in that we see early in the movie the scene where he is sent away from home after his mother dies. And then towards the end, we see him return to the same spot. It seems to be implying that he holds some bitterness towards his father for sending him away. But the movie just barely brushes on this angle, and even the interpretation I’m making from it is by no means super clear. It’s an odd little track that I wish they had either more fully committed to exploring, in context of the character traits Frank exhibits as an adult, or left out entirely. As it is, it’s a bit weak, and like I said, I don’t feel fully confident that I even understand fully what they were going for.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

I really, really like what they do with the romance in this version. Like I pointed out in my review of the book, the romantic plotline isn’t really even hinted at until over halfway through the story. So if readers aren’t invested in Emma’s comedy and antics, it can be a bit of a letdown. And in a movie version of the story, it’s even harder to pull of this type of late-game introduction of a romantic storyline.  If not handled right, it can make the romance seen as an afterthought and not properly built to.

Here, however, by giving Mr. Knightley more to do and more lines, the movie is careful to lay a thorough groundwork for the romance throughout. There are at least two instances that I can think of specifically where the movie goes out of its way to show how Mr. Knightley’s actions are often motivated by his feelings for Emma. First, when John and Isabella are visiting and John begins to become snappish with Mr. Woodhouse, the camera cuts to Mr. Knightley’s face and we see him observing Emma becoming more and more distressed. Even though they are still fighting a bit over the Harriet/Mr. Martin thing, it’s clear that Mr. Knightley’ speaks up to redirect his brother in an effort to bring Emma more peace. And secondly, at the ball, we see Emma become increasingly upset as she dances nearby Harriet and witnesses the rudeness of Mr. Elton. Again, the camera cuts to Mr. Knightley and we see his face as he watches Emma becoming more and more upset before he steps forward to aide Harriet. Both of these are very small moments, but they are so important for constantly fixing audiences’ attention on the importance of Emma to Mr. Knightley. And in both instances, Emma expresses thanks for Mr. Knightley’s actions, either in a quiet smile towards him or directly spoken to him.

I also really like the way they film the proposal scene and the moments directly afterward. I would say I wish they had filmed it in a bit less of a sunny location as you can tell both actors are having to squint at each other while talking. But as for the added dialogue and the delivery of lines, I think it’s excellent. Miller has perfect delivery on the “If I loved you less, I could talk about it more” line. And I really liked the added lines they gave Emma for her response to his declaration. As the book doesn’t include these lines, all the movies have to make something up here, and I think they did very well.

I also like the scenes after, the quiet, intimate moments when the two are sitting on a private bench discussing when they realized they loved each other. It has a nice balance of romance and a continuation of the type of friendly teasing that will always be in their relationship. And, of course, we get to see them go on their honeymoon and go to the seaside. The movie does a good job of introducing this fact, that Emma has never been to the seaside, early in the movie and then touching on it here and there throughout. So it’s a neat little button on the movie to end with her and Knightley standing on a cliff side looking out over the ocean.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Louise Dylan does a fantastic job as Harriet Smith. She perfectly captures the character’s simple beauty and charm, but also her lack of real depth. I love her facial expressions as she’s posing for her portrait and trying to secretly sneak Mr. Elton’s pencil. I also think one of the funniest lines in the entire movie is when she’s trying to work out Mr. Elton’s riddle and when asked by Emma to put the words “ship” and “court” together, she excitedly comes up with “Ship court!” Good stuff.

The Eltons are also always good for a laugh in more of a love-to-hate them sort of way. Mr. Elton’s exuberance early in the movie is overwhelming. And he’s at his peak at the Christmas party where he rudely snaps at one of the servants not to crush Emma’s coat. And then constantly bothers her with questions and, later, literally wedges himself in between her and another guest. You have to wonder if Emma was beginning to question whether Elton would even due for Harriet, let alone herself.

One of Mrs. Elton’s best moments is when she commenting about abhorring being over-trimmed while literally being covered with feathers and ruffles. The movie also does a great just with some quick cuts between characters when Emma is trying to plan the trip to Box Hill. We see how instantaneously Mrs. Elton dominates every social plan to make herself the center of attention. It’s also a nice little karma moment for viewers when we see Mr. Elton struggling to pull along the donkey that Mrs. Elton insisted on riding to strawberry picking. It’s completely ridiculous, but he literally yoked himself to this situation, so…

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

I remember hearing in some commentary or another that the stylists exaggerated Mr. Elton’s puffed up hair do more and more throughout the movie to signify is growing ego and ridiculousness.

Jonny Lee Miller and Blake Ritson (Mr. Elton) had both previously played the same Austen hero, Edmund Bertram, in two different adaptations of “Mansfield Park.” We should have seen them both in those first had I reviewed these in the right order, but alas. I bet everyone can guess who I thought did the character better…

There was a surprise spattering of snow outside the house that was staged as Hartfield one day.  And when the director was notified of it, they rushed cameras down, along with the signature swan that was often shown outside of the house, to capture the view for the winter scenes.

Christina Cole (Mrs. Elton) played Caroline Bingley in “Lost in Austen.” A pretty good fit, I’d say.

Emma is often shown at Hartfield wearing a small watch adornment attached to her dress. This was included to signify that she was the lady of the house.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Have I mentioned that I love Jonny Lee Miller’s version of this character? Even in small moments like this, when he’s being exasperated by Emma’s silliness:

And this movie has one of the best Austen dance scenes, as we get to see our two main characters dance together while clearly enjoying each other’s company. It’s also fun because Miller makes several awkward facial expressions throughout that show that he is becoming more and more aware of how in love with Emma he is, even though she’s still obviously clueless.

In two weeks, I’ll review a modern adaptation, “Clueless.”

Serena’s Review: “There Will Come a Darkness”

41823536._sx318_Book: “There Will Come a Darkness” by Katy Rose Pool

Publishing Info: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: For generations, the Seven Prophets guided humanity. Using their visions of the future, they ended wars and united nations―until the day, one hundred years ago, when the Prophets disappeared.

All they left behind was one final, secret prophecy, foretelling an Age of Darkness and the birth of a new Prophet who could be the world’s salvation . . . or the cause of its destruction. As chaos takes hold, five souls are set on a collision course:

A prince exiled from his kingdom.
A ruthless killer known as the Pale Hand.
A once-faithful leader torn between his duty and his heart.
A reckless gambler with the power to find anything or anyone.
And a dying girl on the verge of giving up.

One of them―or all of them―could break the world. Will they be savior or destroyer? 

Review: June has been the month of “better late than never” as far as my reading goes. This is at least the second book that I’ve read this month that was hugely popular last fall and yet…I didn’t get to it until just now. But there’s just so much good fantasy out there, and, I’ll admit, I’m always a bit hesitant about these books that seems to flare up as “the next big thing” in YA fantasy. My track record with these super popular new fantasy series hasn’t been good. But I liked “The Merciful Crow” more than I was expecting, so I thought I’d give another big title a chance. Sadly, this wasn’t as much of a hit for me, though I’ll likely still keep reading the series.

Five young people are living very different lives in very different spheres. Some from wealth, some from poverty, some who are running, and some who know that it is up to them to find what no one else can. But their world is on the brink of change, with powerful forces moving against those with magical abilities and a prophesy that has loomed over the heads of the people for generations. Each with their own role to plays, these disparate lives begin to cross and the pieces begin to fall in place. But who is the savior and who is the source of destruction?

I already gave away that this book wasn’t a hit for me, but I will start with a few positives before getting into my critiques. As the description gives away, this is an ensemble cast, but I was so pleased to find that it wasn’t another YA fantasy ensemble ala “Six of Crows.” For one thing, it’s centered around a prophesy and not heists, and more importantly, besides one exception, all of our main characters start out not knowing anything about the others. And this holds true though out most of of the story. Some characters weave in and out of other’s stories, but by the end, only a few of them have even ended up together with others still scattered to the wind.

But other than the unique approach to its ensemble cast, this book was barely even a book. Instead, it read much more like an extended prologue before the last few chapters sort of got into things. With such a large cast of characters and the fact that they all have unique histories and no nothing about each other (losing the opportunity to cross-tell their stories through various POVs that you often see in other books with large casts), the book has to devote almost two thirds of the story to introducing its main characters. The chapters were also short, so just when I felt like I was settling into one character’s life, struggles, and thoughts, I was suddenly bounced into a completely different character’s story. Between all of these switches, it was hard to become truly invested in any of them. And, like I said, it left very little room for the story to actually develop.

Frankly, very little actually happens in this book. We do get some action towards the end, but even that was a bit of a letdown. Some of the “reveals” I could see from a mile off and fell flat when they came. There was a big bad character who was talked about through much of the story, but when he finally appeared on page, he, too, felt like a let down and not nearly the threat he was meant to represent. The prophesy itself seemed interesting, but we barely scratched the surface of that here. Like I said, it read more like an extended prologue and introduction than a book itself.

Beyond that, I struggled to actually like any of the main characters. Several of them continued to make poor decisions that didn’t seem to fall in line with the roles they were in. Even as things fell apart around them and they began to see the negative consequences of their choices, they just continued to do so. It ended up being incredibly frustrating. One of the main characters, also, has an incredibly predictable story arc and was simply pretty dull all around. There were maybe two characters who I could kind of become invested in. But even I even struggled with them at times. A lot of the character choices and plot points just made several characters very unsympathetic. Even by the end of the book, it felt like many of them had learned nothing at all. This also played into the feeling that the book was an extended introduction. We don’t really see much true character growth on the page, and it ended with them all still feeling rather half-baked.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this book. But, like I said in the beginning, I’ll likely give the second one a go just because of the fact that this one read so much more like a prologue than a story itself. I want to see if the action will actually pick up in the next one! If you really like ensemble stories and want one that isn’t focused on heists, this may be worth checking out. But don’t go in with your expectations too high.

Rating 6: Not fully realized on its own, the plot was lacking and the characters shallow, leaving a lot of work for the sequel to improve upon.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“There Will Come a Darkness” is on these Goodreads lists: “Prophecies” and, amusingly enough, “The books that I bought during the pandemic to make me feel better….”

Find “There Will Come a Darkness” at your library using WorldCat!