Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas: Being a Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron – A Review

Jane and the Twleve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron 2014 x 200From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

The holidays make me nostalgic for past times I’ve never actually experienced, so I leapt at the chance to spend the Yuletide season with Jane Austen. Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas is the twelfth installment in a series that features one of my favorite novelists as an amateur sleuth, but so far I hadn’t managed to read one of them. It seemed high time to rectify that lapse, especially since author Stephanie Barron studied European history in college and then worked as a CIA analyst, highly suitable credentials for writing a story of intrigue set in the past.

The book opens on a blizzardy, bitterly cold evening with Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister Cassandra traveling by coach to the home of Jane’s eldest brother James and his family in Hampshire. Unfortunately when they reach the end of the public line the women find that James has sent an unlighted open horse cart for the last few miles of their journey, even though it’s dark outside and blowing snow. Both Jane’s mother and sister have their heads bowed to prevent the snow from stinging their faces, so it’s only Jane who sees the rapidly approaching carriage heading straight for them. There’s a terrible crash and the ladies are thrown to the floor of the now ruined cart, but almost as shocking is the language of the gentleman in the carriage. Raphael West comes gallantly to their rescue and certainly acts with consideration and grace, but he proves he must be some kind of freethinker by swearing in front of them without reservation. Jane is intrigued.

It’s Christmas Eve of 1814 and this trip is a homecoming of sorts because James lives in Steventon Parsonage where Jane grew up, but with James in charge it’s not the lively, loving place it was when their father was alive. James is stingy about lighting fires in the chilly rooms, contemptuous of Jane’s writing career, and broadly dismissive of most holiday traditions believing they aren’t Christian enough. Except for enjoying the company of her niece and nephew it might have been a dismal visit for Jane, but fortunately they are all invited to join a large party celebrating Christmas at The Vyne, the beautiful ancestral home of the wealthy, generous, and politically connected Chute family. The Vyne is also the place Raphael West was heading when his carriage crashed into the Austen’s cart.

Their hosts at the Vyne are William Chute, an amiable older country gentleman who’s been prominent in Parliament for two decades, and Eliza Chute, William’s energetic much younger wife who’s a longtime acquaintance of Jane’s. On being properly introduced Jane discovers that mysterious Mr. West is the son of a famous artist and is visiting The Vyne to sketch William Chute for his father. Or is he? Miss Gambier is another guest who interests Jane. She’s highly fashionable but being in her late 20’s is well on her way to spinsterhood and she has an almost forbidding reserve that suggests things hidden.

With Napoleon banished to Elba and the war with America going well there’s lots to celebrate, but festivities have only just begun when a nasty anonymous poem upsets Miss Gambier during a game of charades. Then a courier carrying an important political message for William Chute dies in what appears to be an accident, but Jane finds evidence to indicate it was murder. Since the storm has shut down the roads someone at The Vyne must be guilty, heightening the tension. As Jane quietly investigates she discovers that several among their party have secrets, including the enigmatic but appealing Raphael West.

Penned with evocative prose that allowed me to feel and see the story, I was shivering on my perfectly warm couch while Jane rode in an open cart through the blizzard. Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas has a rich and well realized historical setting with all the fun, food, and games of a pre-Victorian holiday celebration interrupted by murder. I love that the mystery includes several important issues of the day, and it gave me a thrill to hear characters discussing Jane’s recently published novels.

As in Austen’s books, Barron’s story is full of wit and wonderful company, but Jane is older than her heroines, romance is not a large part of the plot, and the story’s undertones are somewhat dark. Set less than three years before Austen’s death, Jane and her sister Cassandra are much how I imagine Lizzy and Jane Bennet would be if they had never married, and Jane’s sharp eye and well developed understanding of the human heart make her the perfect sleuth. Though I hadn’t read Barron’s earlier Jane Austen mysteries I had no trouble jumping into and thoroughly enjoying this one.

5 out of 5 Stars

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas: Being a Jane Austen Mystery, by Stephanie Barron
Soho Press (2014)
Hardcover & eBook (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1616954239

Additional Reviews:

Book cover courtesy of Soho Press © 2014; text Jenny Haggerty © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide to Modern Love, by Sinead Murphy – A Review

The Jane Austen Rules by Sinead Murphy 2014 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

When author Sinead Murphy chose to title her guide to modern dating The Jane Austen Rules it was guaranteed to generate a certain amount of controversy. In the mid-1990s, a dating guide titled The Rules became famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for imparting to women “a myriad of tricks and schemes” (14) for finding Mr. Right.

Does Murphy seek to replace one set of arbitrary opinions with another, using Jane Austen’s name as a marketing ploy? Happily Ms. Murphy has not taken this approach. Rather than a narrowly focused “how-to” for dating, she takes readers through the novels of Jane Austen, examining the women and men Austen created and the way their character informs their actions, whether in the pursuit of love or in making other important life decisions.

As such this is not really a dating guide at all; its scope is much wider. In the introduction titled “The Real Thing” Murphy proposes that modern dating guides have a Regency ancestor in the conduct book, full of dos and don’ts for women wishing to succeed in society:

…the Regency conduct book tended to judge a woman by how she conducts herself–that is, by how she acts, by how she seems. The novel, by contrast, was concerned with what women are really like, admitting—perhaps for the very first time—that women too have a fulsome interior life, with thoughts and feelings that are as crucial to get right as the actions that follow from them…And Jane Austen was at the forefront of it all, presenting to the Regency world a host of real women—so determined to do so, indeed, that she invented her very own narrative style, which gives the reader almost unrestricted access to the internal life of her female characters. (4)

Readers unfamiliar with The Rules may be puzzled or offended by Murphy’s manner of presenting her “Classic Guide to Modern Love.” However, those willing to take it in a playful spirit similar to Austen’s own treatment of “horrid novels” in Northanger Abbey will enjoy the humor the author uses to support her argument: that Jane Austen’s rules are the kind worth following.

For example, where The Rules advises women to keep quiet to allow their dates to drive the conversation, The Jane Austen Rules counters with “Don’t Just Sit There, Say Something!” Of course, we think of Elizabeth Bennet here, verbally sparring with Mr. Darcy on any number of occasions, and Murphy includes several examples from Pride and Prejudice. But she does not stop there. While a conduct book or dating guide might say otherwise, all women are not required to act in a particular way. Murphy offers the example of a very different Austen heroine:

Consider Persuasion’s Anne Elliot: though perfectly good humoured, she is, on the whole, a serious person, even a grave person, for whom the sparkling repartee of an Elizabeth Bennet would be utterly out of character. Nevertheless, Anne Elliot is not silent, waiting patiently in the passenger seat while Captain Wentworth carries the day with his gregarious personality. (75)

Anne may often operate on the sidelines, but she does and says a great many things in the course of the story. Wentworth praises her capability when Louisa Musgrove is injured in Lyme. Overhearing her conversation with his friend Captain Harville, he writes, “You pierce my soul.” What finally recommends Anne to Wentworth is her demonstrated character, not her ability to make coy remarks or flatter his ego, as Louisa Musgrove does.

Other Jane Austen rules include “Be a Woman, Not a Girl,” “Find a Man, Not a Guy,” (this chapter is especially painful for Frank Churchill fans) “Listen to What They Say,” “Be Quite Independent,” “Prove It,” and “Have Great Expectations.” In the final chapter “Reader, Marry Him!” Murphy presents a take on the institution of marriage that may surprise some readers and also addresses Austen’s personal choice not to marry. Each chapter includes a black and white Victorian-era illustration from an Austen novel that ties in with the chapter’s subject and adds just the right touch of visual interest to the text. Whether readers ultimately agree with Murphy or not, she presents thought-provoking viewpoints on women’s lives today, including but not limited to building healthy relationships.

For me, the only strike against The Jane Austen Rules was its excessive use of non-standard punctuation and the overuse of exclamation marks. Editing these minor flaws would place this book firmly in five-star territory. Ms. Murphy has done an excellent job of blending light-hearted charm with reflections on the serious business of love and life.

4.5 out of 5 Stars

The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide to Modern Love, by Sinead Murphy
Melville House (2014)
Trade paperback & eBook (144) pages
ISBN: 978-1612193823

Additional Reviews

Cover image courtesy of Melville House © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett – A Review

First Impressions A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett (2014 )From the desk of Ruth Anderson:

Jane Austen’s unparalleled wit, biting social commentary, and sharply-drawn characters have transformed works that were once private scribblings, shared only with family, to classics beloved the world over. For the spinster daughter of a clergyman, Jane Austen’s work has proven to have a remarkable staying power, the unforgettable characters and storylines having been indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness, giving rise to a wide array of interpretations – from stage plays to films – as well as sequels or spin-offs. When I was approached with the opportunity to review Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions, I was simultaneously intrigued and wary, as it promised to address the creation of two of my most beloved characters in all of literature – Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.

Happily, Lovett’s charming sophomore effort won me over on all counts. This is both a loving homage to the enduring power and appeal of Austen’s stories and the passion that her works inspire, but the power of story. Bibliophiles of the type featured within these pages such as Lovett’s heroine Sophie are uniquely wired to grasp the inherent power and potential of words, and of how stories can forge connections across time and experience, knitting together authors and those who love their words in a community of common ground birthed from the shared reading experience, no matter how varied the respective interpretation.

First Impressions is a dual-narrative, a difficult feat to pull off successfully in my reading experience. In these cases, typically one half of the story thread resonates more strongly than the other, but here Lovett proves equally adept at balancing his contemporary narrative with the historical thread. The historical portion of the novel introduces a young Jane Austen, crica 1796, deep in the first draft of Elinor and Marianne, the epistolary novel that would serve as the genesis for Sense and Sensibility. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Richard Mansfield, an elderly and retired clergyman whom she is shocked to discover shares her passion for novels. Despite the wide disparity in their age and experience, Jane and the reverend prove to be a meeting of remarkably like minds from which a fast friendship is born. This friendship, and the trust that comes to underscore their every interaction, transforms Jane’s life as Reverend Mansfield becomes the staunchest support of Jane’s writing efforts (outside of her family). When Jane confesses a secret shame to her friend and mentor, a story called “First Impressions” is birthed from their joint project of reconciliation and redemption – the genesis of a love story between one Elizabeth Bennet and one Fitzwilliam Darcy.

The contemporary thread of the novel tells the story of Sophie Collingwood, a lifelong book lover and recent Oxford graduate, facing the daunting task of deciding what to do with the rest of her life post-studies. A self-described outsider in her family, as a child Sophie found a kindred spirit in her Uncle Bertram, a bright spot of imagination in her less-than-bookishly inclined family. Bertram taught Sophie to love books and to savor both the experience of reading and collecting cherished favorites. When tragedy strikes, Sophie finds herself heir to Bertram’s legacy determines to solve the mystery of his death. Armed with an extensive knowledge of books both rare and classic, Sophie embarks on a career in bookselling, marrying her passion for the printed word with her need for both work and an outlet for her grief – and the ever-growing certainty that her uncle’s passing had something to do with his book collection.

Potential suitors are introduced – one of the prickly-but-honorable Darcy variety, and one a slick customer in an appealing, hard to deny package reminiscent of Wickham or Willoughby. Sophie’s romantic options prove inextricably entangled in a shocking discovery that could set the literary world on fire and upend a multimedia empire built on Austen’s legacy. When she discovers indications that Austen may have stolen the story concept that would become Pride and Prejudice from an unknown clergyman named Mansfield, she’s devastated by the implication and determined to prove her literary idol’s innocence. But this bombshell proves to be more dangerous than simply threatening the hearts of Austen’s legions of fans – this is a literary coup that someone feels is worth killing for to acquire.

Sophie’s increasingly dangerous quest to prove the provenance of Austen’s work is seamlessly woven alternating chapters detailing Austen’s progression to full-fledged, publish author, and the indelible impact her friendship with Mansfield had on her life. As a mystery, First Impressions is a gently paced one, perfectly tailored to appeal to fans of classic cozy mysteries such as Agatha Christie – the types of works that are as endlessly in demand as Masterpiece Theater adaptations as Austen’s own tales.  But more than any mystery or love story that unfolds within these pages, Lovett has crafted a tale that pays tribute to a bibliophile’s love affair with the written word. Sophie and Jane’s experiences, separated by centuries, are tied together by a single common thread – the power of story to transcend barriers of age, class, and experience to enrich, empower, and transform. First Impressions is a wholly charming, fresh look at old and familiar literary friends, and Lovett is an author I’m thrilled to have met via these pages.

4.5 out of 5 Stars

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett
Viking (Penguin Group USA) 2014
Hardcover and eBook (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0525427247

Cover image courtesy of Viking Adult © 2014; text Charlie Lovett © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Prelude for a Lord: A Novel, by Camille Elliot – A Review

Prelude for a Lord Camille Elliot (2014)From the desk of Katie Patchell:

In the Regency era, the only acceptable musical instruments a woman was allowed to play were the harp and piano, and if she played any other, particularly a violin, she would be looked-down upon in society and considered unfeminine. But in Camille Elliot’s recent debut novel, Prelude for a Lord, the heroine defies conventions and plays this beautiful but forbidden instrument, which stirs her heart, makes her forget her past and society’s censure, and ultimately, entangles her in a web of romance, mystery, and danger.

At the age of twenty-eight, Lady Alethea Sutherton has accepted her fate: that she will never marry, and will always be looked down upon by society as an eccentric. With her height, striking (rather than classical) features, and her unconventional country ways, she is whispered about by the Bath gossips, but it is Alethea’s consuming passion for music and her skill at the extremely unfeminine instrument—the violin—that has her scorned by polite society.

When she meets Lord Bayard Dommick, the man who eleven years ago convinced her to pursue her violin playing with his offensive statement that it was “unfeminine for a woman to play the instrument” (53), Alethea plans to ignore him at all costs. But when Bayard offers to help her discover why her old violin has suddenly become the obsession of two shady individuals, Alethea has no choice but to accept this potential ally. As she spends more time with him and his two best friends, the remaining members of the famous string Quartet, Alethea discovers that Bayard is far from insufferable, and instead, one of the only people to understand her love of music and the violin.

When their search for answers as to the origin of her violin results in a dangerous pursuer and threats to their families, can they protect those they love and in the end, be able to solve the mystery of the violin? And will Alethea and Bayard be able to put aside society’s view of musicians—female and male—to play their own soaring music together in a new Quartet?

I loved Prelude for a Lord’s premise of a female violinist going against the societal norms in the Regency period in order to play a beautiful instrument. I’ve never come across this topic in Regency fiction, and I’ve never even considered the fact that some instruments were seen as inappropriate for either men or women to play (in the eyes of some, or most, of society). I also loved the three-dimensional and wildly entertaining supporting characters, specifically Alethea’s aunt, Ebena, Bayard’s sister, Clare, Ian and Raven (the remaining members of the Quartet), and the precocious Margaret. Something else that I loved about this novel was the picturesque and beautiful descriptions of music. The characters’ (and author’s) love of music was clearly evident and effectively translated to the reader.

Reading Prelude for a Lord gave me the feeling of sitting in an opera, seeing all the bright costumes, hearing the drastic rise and fall of the full-voiced dramatic soprano, and watching the sometimes shocking and unbelievable, but always fascinating, dramatic storyline unfold. This is the theatrical feel of the novel—it isn’t in the style, language, or customs of Jane Austen, and the drama and mixing of genres, (described by one Amazon reviewer as a blend of Jane Austen and Castle) made this novel less of a comedy of manners and more of a combination of a Regency setting with a modern perspective, rules (societal and courtship), and dialogue (including words like brat, ugly mug, and greedy guts). But while there were parts that were not period, those that were included were interesting, and shed light specifically on society’s view during the Regency in regards to female musicians.

Prelude for a Lord is full of action and drama, including (some small spoilers): kidnapping, someone sold (literally) into marriage, Bedlam, a man who killed his first wife, a marriage of convenience, larger-than-life villains, and two main characters with secret traumas in their pasts. As a lover of the ‘comedy of manners’ style of Regency fiction (with more under-the-surface elements than dramatic action), at times I grew tired of all the melodrama that tended to overshadow the characters and romance, which I admit, lessened my overall enjoyment of the novel. But this can (and should) be chalked up to personal preference, and should not dissuade any future reader from reading and enjoying this novel.

Overall, Prelude for a Lord was a light and entertaining read, and while the romance and story were not always true to the time period, this was still a dramatic, exciting story with a touching romance that will interest music-lovers and mystery-readers alike.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Prelude for a Lord: A Novel, by Camille Elliot
Zondervan (2014)
Trade paperback & eBook (352) pages
ISBN:  978-0310320357

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy of Zondervan © 2014; text Katie Patchell © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Jane Austen: In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her, by Helen Amy – A Review

Jane Austen In Her Own Words, by Helen Amy (2014)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to biographies of Jane Austen these days, but that was not always the case. As Helen Amy notes, it was not until fifty years after Austen’s death that a growing number of readers wanted to know more about her life. At that time, the only outlet for this increasing public interest was Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral. Flocks of people began visiting the site, causing a puzzled verger to inquire, “Is there anything particular about that lady?” (172)

This interest coincided with the death of Jane’s last surviving sibling and prompted her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh to write his biography of her in 1869. Other family biographies were subsequently published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and by this time Austen was regarded as an important literary figure. Later scholarly works have uncovered a somewhat different Jane than the quiet homebody her family described. Since Helen Amy’s work references the family biographies extensively, I was curious to see the portrait of Austen that would emerge in Jane Austen In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her.

From the first chapter “Childhood 1775-1786” the Austen family home is described as cheerful and harmonious with Jane growing up in a “well-educated, intellectual and cultivated family whose members were close, loving and united.” (13) However, this fondness for one another did not blunt the acerbic wit within the family. For example, Jane’s mother remarked upon her young daughters’ close relationship by saying, “if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.” (13)

Jane’s own words, apart from her novels, come to us in her letters. Many of these may be familiar to readers, such as the letter she wrote under an assumed name to urge a publisher to take action on her novel Susan (later Northanger Abbey) where she signed her name “M.A.D. Mrs Ashton Dennis” (93) or her correspondence with her niece Fanny in which she famously advised “anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection” (126). Amy does not use the letters to fill pages, but has chosen excerpts to bring out Austen’s ease with language and mastery of her trademark humor. The exchange of letters between Jane and the prince regent’s librarian is an excellent example that Amy includes in the chapter “The Later Writing Period 1815-1816.”

While Amy has focused on family accounts of Jane as beloved sister or aunt, when the Austen mythology differs from documented reality she points out the disparities:

“The extensive travelling undertaken by Jane in 1799, and the varied scenes she encountered, disprove the claims of some early biographers that she led a sheltered life, largely confined to the quiet backwaters of rural Hampshire. Another myth about Jane Austen, which was started by some early biographers, including her nephew, was that she led a calm and untroubled life. Jane’s life, like that of most people, was touched by trouble and tragedy.” (60)

The author includes Jane’s second-eldest brother George in the Austen family tree. He suffered from epilepsy, learning disabilities and possibly deafness. George never lived with his family and is not mentioned in any of the family histories. Similarly, Amy covers the incident of Jane’s Aunt Leigh-Perrot who was accused of shoplifting a piece of lace in Bath and was subsequently kept under house arrest for several months before being tried and acquitted. This incident might sound trifling to contemporary readers, but had Mrs. Leigh-Perrot been found guilty she would have been deported.

The structure of the biography is a great aid in charting the course of Austen’s life. Chapters are titled with milestones such as “Juvenilia 1787-1793” or “The Parson’s Daughter 1794-1796” as well as geographical locations “From Bath to Southampton 1805-1809.” Following “The Last Months” detailing Austen’s illness and death in 1817, Amy includes accounts of her “Growing Fame” and “Observations & Opinions on the Novels” by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf. Appendices include “The Austen Family After 1817,” “Words of Wisdom” containing quotes from Austen’s novels and letters, and a short list of “Places to Visit” in Bath, Chawton, and Winchester.

Amy presents a concise and highly readable account of Austen’s life story while integrating passages from her letters and early family biographies. This is not the sort of heavily footnoted biography that some readers might struggle to finish or enjoy. With just under one-hundred illustrations, including ones in color from Victorian editions of the novels, Jane Austen In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her will appeal to a variety of readers, especially those who enjoy learning about the Jane Austen her family and closest friends she knew: a lively, kind, talented, and above all, much-loved person.

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars

Jane Austen: In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her, by Helen Amy Amberley Publishing (2014)
Trade paperback (224) pages
ISBN: 978-1445641430

Cover image courtesy of Amberley Publishing © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”