Jane Austen’s First Love: A Novel, by Syrie James – A Review

Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James (2014 )From the desk of Christina Boyd:

Everyone in my world knows of Jane Austen. Alas, I can speculate that there are those who might not recognize the name. If they look her up on Wikipedia they would learn that:

‘Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”… Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favour of “good quiet Aunt Jane”.’

Further, they would learn that this masterful writer of the social commentary and romance had never married, little is known of her love-life, yet it has been widely speculated upon in some circles. It is not a secret however that in 1802, Miss Austen had accepted the marriage proposal from family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, but by the morning had withdrawn her acceptance. There are also letters from Jane to Cassandra in 1795 when she was twenty years-old about a brief flirtation with a Mr. Tom Lefroy. Sadly, his family did not approve of the match. Neither had any money and Tom was sent away, later to marry an heiress. And yet for an author who wrote exclusively of what she knew in her own sphere, how could she write of love so well had she never fully experienced it? Continue reading

That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:That Summer, by Lauren Willig (2014 )

After a successful divergence from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation series with the post-Edwardian The Ashford Affair, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig again embarks on another stand-alone narrative. Entangling one generation with the past is Willig’s trademark, and That Summer is of modern day Julia Conley as well as her ancestors in 1849.

In 2009, motherless Julia inherits an old family house in England from a great Aunt Regina Ashe, a woman she cannot even recall. One of the recently unemployed in the recession, she travels from New York City to Herne Hill, a district south of London, to view her inheritance and unload it as quickly as possible. Upon arrival, she meets her exceedingly obliging and maybe even presumptuous cousin, Natalie, who eagerly volunteers to help sort the old mansion and later even brings along the fine Nicholas Dorrington, if somewhat taciturn antiques dealer, to value the lot. Although they jest concerning hidden treasures, Julia cannot but wonder if in fact there might be some sort of riches her relations hope to unearth beneath the years of dust, dank oddments and papers. But what she had not expected was to exhume memories of her childhood.

Julia’s hand was on the knob of the door before she realized that she had retreated, step by step, ready to duck out and shut the door. She laughed shakily. Great. Metaphor made action. Her English professors in college would have loved that. Shut the door and shut the door. Just like she had been shutting the door all these years. Julia’s knuckles were white against the old brass doorknob. This was insane. Insane. What was she so afraid of? What was she so afraid of remembering? Maybe she was just afraid she would miss her. Her mother.” (87)

Continue reading

The Secret Betrothal: A Pride and Prejudice Alternate Path, by Jan Hahn – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:   The Secret Betrothal by Jan Hahn (2014)

Marriage in Regency times was the rock that built Society’s foundation. Not only was it the most important step in a young woman’s life, the union could advance her family’s social standing and wealth. Throughout Jane Austen’s novels we are shown the maneuverings of families to obtain advantageous alliances for their children, so when we see the secret engagements in Emma and Sense and Sensibility, and their outcome, we know the risk and scandal that can ensue. With this in mind, I am both curious and uneasy by author Jan Hahn’s choice of The Secret Betrothal as a title of her new novel. Furthermore, in this reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, she has boldly chosen to explore what would happen if Elizabeth Bennet entered into one herself! Whatever would possess our favorite Austen heroine to take this risk—and what would Mr. Darcy do to save her from such a folly?

For reasons I shan’t give away here, Elizabeth must keep this betrothal a secret and when she was told she could tell no one, not even her beloved sister, Jane:

“…she felt a chill crawl up her back….Although he lacked fortune, it was due to no failing on his part, and he had the promise of an adequate future awaiting him. But the possibility of waiting two years provoked a sigh from deep within her. He had warned Elizabeth that they must avoid paying close attention to each other when in public so as not to raise talk among the gossips of Meryton. Being a sensible woman, Elizabeth knew that was necessary as talk of matches and mating was primary among Hertfordshire society. Still, it did not set well with her.”  (63)

Continue reading

Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy: Austen Addicts Vol. 5, by Victoria Connelly – A Review

Happy Birthday Mr Darcy by Victoria Connelly 2013 x 200From the desk of Christina Boyd:

The Austen Addicts series has evolved through the years into a guilty pleasure for me. Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy is Victoria Connelly’s fifth installment in this contemporary romance series loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The novella reunites us with her original characters from the first in the series, Weekend with Mr. Darcy, and opens a week prior to when Warwick Lawton (Austenesque author who writes under the female nom de plume, Lorna Warwick) is to pledge his troth to his Austen scholar/fiancé, Katherine Roberts.

Katherine is enchanted with the Regency themed wedding plans, her antique Russian engagement ring, and her empire-styled gown. She had never seen anything so beautiful. Well, not since Matthew Macfadyen had strode across the dawn meadow in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She really didn’t feel worthy of such a dress and it felt like a terrible extravagance to have something so lovely for just one day. Though passionately in-love with her fiancé, not unlike many brides, doubts about the marriage state and how her life is to change loom overhead right up until the wedding hour. Continue reading

Undressing Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos – A Review

The Pride Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge (2013)This is our twelfth and final selection for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013, our year-long blog event honoring Jane Austen’s second published novel. Please follow the link above to read all the details of this reading and viewing challenge. Sign up’s are now closed but you can read the reviews and comment through 31 December 2013.

From the desk of Christina Boyd: 

With a title like Undressing Mr. Darcy, author Karen Doornebos’ new release is sure to turn a few heads this holiday season. “Sex sells, even to smart, liberated women, and Mr. Darcy was the smart girl’s pinup boy.” p. 7 And like the novel’s heroine, a master PR rep who has turned tweeting into an #artform, Doornebos has carefully crafted another contemporary romance novel about an ambitious, highly energized, very modern woman who meets a charming Mr. Darcy re-enactor, sure to draw the attention of Janeites and romance readers alike.

When Vanessa Roberts, PR extraordinaire with the perpetually-present smartphone and ever-ready clever social media tweet or posting, takes on a pro-bono job as a favor for her elderly Jane Austen loving aunt, little does she expect promoting the English author of, My Year as Mr. Darcy, to turn her organized world topsy-turvy. When she finally meets Julian Chancellor, who has capitalized on his good looks “as he gives a little historical background on his Regency-era clothing as he proceeds to take it off –down to his drawers” at his book signings, she finds she too, like the throngs of Darcy fans in the audience, is caught by his artful allurements. Continue reading

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding – A Review

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding (2013)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

We were first introduced to Bridget Jones’ Diary in 1997. Readers kept it on the New York Times bestseller list for over six months. We were utterly addicted to this new confessional literary genre author Helen Fielding had created—the unguarded, neurotic ramblings of a London singleton in search of love—and her obsession with Jane Austen’s romantic hero Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, (admittedly Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC/A&E mini-series). We devoured the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in 1999, and the subsequent movies with an all-star cast of Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and, yes, Colin Firth as dishy, love-interest Mark Darcy. Now 14 years later, Fielding has resurrected her most popular character …

STOP. If you haven’t heard about the big, gigantic, SPOILER in her new novel, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy—DO NOT PROCEED. This is your chance to bail now. Save yourself the trouble and time of ranting at me in some long-winded diatribe. You have been given due notice. But, please do come back here and let’s compare notes, once you have read the book, of course.

However, if you have heard the big news about this third book in the series, then carry on. My little review won’t ruin anything for you that has not already been broadcast worldwide. Also, a slight warning as to the sailor-like language sprinkled throughout that we have come to expect from Bridget and friends. (My apologies to sailors everywhere who do not swear or speak in a vulgar manner. Terrible, terrible stereotype. I know.) Though jarring, cringe-worthy really, if any of my American friends were to spew such vulgarity, coming from Bridget, any Brit really, this American reviewer tends to give a pass. Maybe it’s the charming British accent? Or the Renee Zellweger narrative I hear in my head?

Channeling my inner-Bridget’s up to the minute, daily diary-style format, the following is an account of my ponderings on Fielding’s latest offering:

SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT

Monday 30 September 2013 

Number of times I said “WHAT?” when The Today Show announced author Helen Fielding killed off Mark Darcy 20, number of negative thoughts 1000, number of Facebook posts and threads I mentioned this spoiler 9, hours it took me to overcome my shock of Mark’s death 26, days I had to wait after this bombshell until my advanced copy was released from the publisher 10, days I had to wait until my copy was forwarded on from Austenprose blogmistress 2, hours I had to wait to get a moment to myself from delivery of said book until I could crack it open 10, number of days it took me to actually finish because of the rude intrusions of real life 3.

7:17 a.m. Breaking news on The Today Show. “Hearts are breaking wide open around the world. Bridget Jones is back. Minus Mr. Darcy.” What? What?! No Mark Darcy! My dear husband tried to offer his condolences by pointing out the British are not afraid of killing off their favorites in their television programs, reminding me of the recent Downton Abbey debacle of doing in yummy male lead, and all-around good-guy, Matthew Crawley, and even many of my favorites from MI-5, aka in Great Britain as Spooks. (Not helpful.) Still, how can this be? Is this a prank? Pfffffft. What’s the point? Who wants to read about Bridget Jones if there’s no Mark Darcy?

7:27 a.m. Facebook, twitter, and blogs are all abuzz with devastating news. I knew the book had been embargoed to all advanced copies for reviews. Was this the reason? Maybe so, and yet, somehow a copy must have slipped out, and the publisher must have said, “Go ahead, leak the bloody spoiler,” says my wildly, active imagination. Amidst the U.S. economy being held hostage by its own government, earthquakes, typhoons, Iran’s nuclear program talks, Mark Darcy’s death has pushed aside Miley Cyrus’s “strategic hot mess.” Or, was so-called leak possibly part of cleverly choreographed marketing scheme? Hmmm…? On to reading the book…

Friday 11 October 2013

Number of times nits are mentioned 43 (plus or minus), number of times I scratched my own head after reading about nits 43 (plus or minus), number of times I scratched my head at the mention of some clearly British word or product like: spag bog and Fairy Liquid 2, number of barn owl sightings 2, number of times I cried at the end of barn owl scenes 2, number of times I wept over Bridget’s memories of Mark 3, number of times I laughed out loud 78, number of pages I giggled at the repeated mention of the f-word (and I mean fart) 3 ½, number of pages until the use of the other f-word is used (and I mean “fuckwit”) 12, number of times used thereafter 278 (plus or minus), number of Jane Austen references 2 (maybe 3), number of days since I finished reading it (yet am still mulling over the details) 5.

When last we read about Bridget Jones it was the year 2000, and at the close of The Edge of Reason Mark Darcy was arranging his case load in America and, or Thailand, with Bridget in tow. Over a decade later, the world has changed. Major life changes. 9-11. Technology. The Internet. Bridget and Mark now have two children.

Mad About the Boy opens with Bridget in a quandary about her friend’s 60th birthday party. Should she, or should she not, invite her boytoy Roxster, who happens to be celebrating his 30th birthday on the same night? Then it proceeds right into a calamitous episode of nits (head lice), vomit and diarrhea. She must handle it all alone, if we are to believe the spoilers, without Mark. For the next 20-odd pages all the usual Bridget chatter about her boytoy, and bumbling about as a single mother, without one mention of Mark. I quite think if I had not heard Fielding had killed off Mark prior to this reading, I would have been Googling to see if I had missed a Book 3 and was in fact reading Book 4. And then on page 26, there it was:

Mark Darcy 1956-2008

Told from Bridget’s perspective, with long chunks of her irreverent monologue, her often minute by minute running commentary, her texting conversations, and now with Twitter, her attempt to get current, she tweets:

Thursday 12 July 2012, 155 lbs, pounds lost 20, pages of screenplay written 10, Twitter followers 0. <@DalaiLama Just as a snake sheds its skin, so we must shed our past again and again.> 

“You see? The Dalai Lama and I are one cyber-mind. I am shedding my fat like a snake.” (p. 55)

So this is Bridget a decade and a half later. Widowed, 51-year-old, cheeky single mother of two small children, attempting to write a screenplay and still struggling with how she fits into the world—a tech savvy world. Forlorn, without her rock Mark Darcy. She is still friends with the bawdy cast we love and adore: Talitha, Jude, Tom and Magda, and as they are all now deeply entrenched in that other vulgar phrase “middle age,” are determined to get rid of Bridget’s lonely, “Born-Again Virgin” status. 

“I’ve had enough of this! What do you mean ‘middle-aged’? In Jane Austen’s day we’d all be dead by now.  We’re going to live to be a hundred. It’s not the middle of our lives. Oh. Yes. Well, actually it is the middle.” (p. 67) 

Yet, she is determined to find her new normal. Mark wouldn’t want her to be alone and miserable. 

And just like that, she decides to get back out there. After all, it has been four and a half  years since she has even kissed a man. But, like most times when you are trying something new, or rather something you have done before but not in a very, long time, and trying to be 30, when you are in fact 51, events do not always turn out as you hoped. 

“We all became crestfallen, our confidence collapsing like a house of cards. ‘Oh God. Do we just look like an ensemble of elderly transvestites?’ said Tom. 

‘It’s happened, just as I always feared,’ I said. ‘We’ve ended up as tragic old fools convincing ourselves the vicar is in love with us because he’s mentioned his organ.’ (p. 80)

However, Bridget does find love and affection via Twitter. This story-line is chock full of tender, LOL, randy moments, and amusing texting dialogue as she enjoys re-discovering her sensuality with her 30 year old boytoy, who really does fancy her. But Bridget is still Bridget—sure  to cock something up as she fumbles about and never showing herself to her best, especially in front of smug marrieds, potential career makers and her son’s chess/music/sports department teacher Mr. Wallaker. Bridget describes him as “fit, tall, slightly younger than me, crop-haired, rather like Daniel Craig in appearance.” (p. 5). Surely this must be Fielding’s nod to who should play the new teacher in the future movie? Yes, puleez.

At the moment when you think you can’t take one more self-destructive, idiotic, nitwit antic, Bridget takes a breath, adjusts her priorities and performs a few self-less acts—that end up turning things around. I think that’s what Bridget would call Karma. And what would a series be (that began with what Fielding confesses was stolen from the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), without a romantic, happily ever after? Bridget-style, of course.

“He took a step closer. The air was heavy with jasmine, roses. I breathed unsteadily. It felt as though we were being drawn together by the moon. He reached out, like I was a child, or a Bambi or something, and touched my hair. ‘There aren’t any nits in here, are there?’ he said.” (p. 321-322)

And that’s not even with the loveable Daniel Cleaver, who, yes, is in this book as… wait for it… the children’s godfather!

Keep Calm and Carry On Without Mark Darcy

So, let me be the one to say, although I loved Bridget with Mark Darcy, (her grounded, stabilizing life-force, her Yin to his Yang), I do accept that horrible, tragic things do happen in real life. Fielding took a brave leap (others might say foolish) in killing this beloved character off. Believe me. Those first 26 hours after I learned of his death I was as dazed as Jones in a vodka induced stupor. Fielding could have played it safe. But where would she have gone with that? Every day real life women get up, face the day, and soldier on. If our Bridget can do it… you can too. Stay calm and carry on without Mark Darcy. Mad About the Boy is a delicious, boisterous, raucous triumph championing a re-awakening of life. Read the book. As in real life, you’d hate to miss out. <@Dalai Lama An open heart is an open mind.>

5 out of 5 Stars

P.S. I was going to knock off ½ a star for killing Mark, but then reminded self it would have been a predictable, pointless, fuckwit move.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding
Alfred A. Knopf (2013)
Hardcover (400) pages
ISBN: 978-0385350860

Cover image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com

Finding Colin Firth: A Novel, by Mia March – A Review

Finding Colin Firth by Mia March (2013)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

What Janeite would not stop dead in her tracks when she spies “Colin Firth” in the title of a book? Mia March’s latest offering Finding Colin Firth: A Novel certainly set off all my bells and whistles. The smolderingly sexy British actor not only won our hearts when he emerged dripping wet from Pemberley pond as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, he has had an acclaimed career, winning the best actor Academy Award in 2011 for The King’s Speech. Who wouldn’t want to find Colin Firth? But no, dear friends, this is not a “How to” book sharing tips and advice on how to track and successfully have a Firth encounter. Eeesh! It’s a work of fiction about three women unknowingly bound together and whose lives intersect when the actor is slated to film a movie in a coastal Maine town. Daily rumors of Mr. Firth’s arrival fuels fantasy and stirs the excitement in their lives and aspirations. (Just imagining spotting Mr. Firth in my little town sets this fan-girl’s heart racing!)

A year after her mother’s death, (who incidentally was a Colin Firth fan), 22 year-old Bea Crane receives a mysterious letter from her deceased mother, confessing she adopted Bea as a newborn. “…Now that I feel myself going, I can’t bear to take this with me. But I can’t bear to tell you with my final breaths, either, I can’t do that to you. So I’ll wait on this, for both of us. But you should know the truth because it is the truth.” Shocked, Bea tracks down her birth mother to Boothbay Harbor, Maine and decides she must see this unknown woman for herself.

In Boothbay, Bea learns that 38-year-old Veronica Russo is an unmarried waitress-slash-magic pie baker-slash-Colin Firth fan who has only in the last year returned to her hometown. After years of failed relationships, her friends worry she will end up alone.  “…she’d started saying what felt light-hearted but true at the same time, that she was holding out for a man who felt like Colin Firth to her. Her friend Shelley from the diner had known exactly what she meant. ‘I realize he’s an actor playing roles, but I get it,’ Shelley had said. ‘Honest. Full of integrity. Conviction. Brimming with intelligence.  Loyal. You just want to believe everything he says with that British accent of his –and can trust it.’” Having failed to escape haunting memories of her youth, Veronica has come home to confront her past then “maybe her heart would start working the way it was supposed to. And maybe, maybe, maybe, the daughter she’d given up for adoption would contact her.” Now back to those magic pies by Veronica… She calls them elixir pies claiming to cast hope, love or banishment– or anything that conjures up a solution to one’s troubles. “For a heartbroken friend, Healing Pie. For a sick friend, Feel Better Pie. For a down-in –the dumps friend, Happiness Pie. For the lovelorn, Amore Pie.” And they seem to work! On everyone except Veronica. At least so far.

After seeing her birth mother at the diner, but not brave enough yet to approach her, Bea decides to take a tour of Hope Home, a home for unwed pregnant girls where she was born. There she meets a Manhattan journalist, Gemma Hendricks. Upon first coming to town, the recently fired Gemma thought she could curry favor with her old magazine by scooping a coveted human-interest story on Colin Firth. Instead she is offered a free-lance gig at the local newspaper to write a story on the 50th anniversary of Hope Home.  At a crossroads herself, Gemma has only just discovered she is pregnant but has yet to share the news with her devoted attorney husband. She loves living and working in the city but already knows her husband wants to move to the suburbs and start a family.  “How would she ever get back what she had at ‘New York Weekly’? Alexander would realize this in a hot minute and argue her into that Dobbs Ferry house before she new it.  He’d make his own case until she had no arguments of her own. And once she had the baby? He’d bombard her with articles about working mothers and bad nannies and reckless day cares.”

Although this is an intricate concoction, cooking up a potentially emotionally heated story, it would be a failing indeed were I not to mention the elephant in the room. A glaring error, in fact. And I mean GLARING—Red-light GLARING error—in the beginning of the book. Veronica is baking a pie while supposedly watching the mini-series Pride and Prejudice. The Colin Firth, 1995, A&E five-hour version. March writes, “Fitzwilliam Darcy’s face filled the TV screen. ‘If, however, your feelings have changed, I will have to tell you; you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on…’” Although it’s not Austen’s prose, this Janeite loves that line and all it’s saccharine sweet sentiment. I know for a fact it’s what the Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy from the Joe Wright 2005 version of P&P says to Kiera Knightley’s Lizzy Bennet as they meet in a mist covered field at daybreak!  So, I went back and made sure I hadn’t missed something—something like, Veronica was watching the newer version. But no, she is supposed to be watching the Colin Firth version. Ugh! It is incredulous any author writing about the namesake of her book, or her editor, or the layers of people who read it before publication could let such an obvious blunder slip through unnoticed. From then on I had my doubts March was a fan of Colin Firth or P&P – and speculated maybe she wrote this bit of pastiche to take advantage of the current popularity and ready-made fan base of both. Prejudiced thereafter, I read any mention of Mr.Firth or his movies with a cynical eye, thinking this could be any popular actor and his movies dubbed in. Nevertheless, I soldiered on because honestly, I liked the premise—and was hopeful.

Did I enjoy the book? Hmmmmm… Yes, I did. It was an interesting story with strong plot lines. Although Finding Colin Firth: A Novel dealt with powerful issues regarding teenage pregnancy, adoption, marriage and relationship struggles with a happy ending for all, I must admit I never felt overly invested in any of the characters to really like them. There seemed no shortage of disjointed “telling” from the three main characters’ point of view but scant, soulful interaction. Given the themes, I thought there would have been more depth. Pity. In short, it’s a good book. Easy, breezy bit of chic-lit that I liked. Not loved.

Yes, there is a Colin Firth sighting, eventually, but then again, he’s not really the story. Just the bait.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Finding Colin Firth: A Novel, by Mia March
Gallery Books (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1476710204

Cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com