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.”

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.”

Emma and Elizabeth: A story based on The Watsons by Jane Austen, by Ann Mychal – A Review

Emma and Elizabeth Ann Mychal 2014 x 200From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

For those who love Jane Austen’s novels her early death is a tragedy we feel anew each time we contemplate the scant space she takes up on our bookshelves. What Austen fan doesn’t long for more than six completed novels, especially since she left behind several tantalizing story fragments? Of these Sanditon is the most polished. Austen was working on it as a mature author shortly before she died, but it’s an earlier fragment, The Watsons, that has one of my favorite scenes in all of Austen’s work. Emma Watson’s exuberant dance with 10 year old Charles Blake caught the eye of every man at the winter assembly and won my heart. Though Austen never finished Emma’s story, her sister Cassandra knew what she planned, and several authors, including Austen’s niece, have written endings. Ann Mychal’s version titled Emma and Elizabeth intrigued me because Elizabeth is Emma’s older sister. I was eager to read an adaptation featuring both sisters.

Mychal’s opening is wonderfully Austenesque: “When a young woman, on whom every comfort in life is bestowed has the misfortune to inhabit a neighborhood in which peace and harmony reign, her ability to perceive and understand the world must be diminished and, consequently, in need of adjustment.” Emma’s adjustments start as the book begins. After years of living with her wealthy uncle and aunt she is returning to the family of her birth whom she hasn’t seen since her mother died when she was five. Though their father was ever dutiful to his parishioners, the other Watson children lived like orphans, with eldest sister Elizabeth shouldering the drudgery of caring for them all.

Emma however was raised with the undivided loving attention of her guardians and every advantage their wealth could offer her. She learned to ride, draw, sew, speak French, and play the pianoforte well enough to be considered accomplished, but tragedy struck again when her uncle dies. Grief rushed Emma’s aunt into a second marriage, and Emma was sent to join her siblings.

Before arriving home, Emma’s coach is waylaid by rock throwing rioters and she faints into the arms of Lord Osborne. In spite of his gallantry Emma is unimpressed because Osborne has stiff speech and awkward manners. Emma is equally unmoved by popular Tom Musgrave’s charms, though her sister Elizabeth enjoys bantering with him. But Emma is smitten when she meets upright Mr. Howard, known for his long sermons. When Howard’s widowed sister invites Emma to stay at their house, Elizabeth is as thrilled as Emma. Though the sisters were raised in very different circumstances, Emma and Elizabeth are truly fond of each other.

The visit brings Emma into frequent contact with Lord Osborne, but Emma’s low assessment of him doesn’t change, in spite of his obvious interest in her and his kind attentions to young Charles Blake. Emma longs for a match with serious Mr. Howard, so when teased about Osborne by Tom Musgrave she gives her unguarded negative opinion with all the blunt confidence her privileged background has afforded her. Emma cares deeply about doing what’s right. She’s adjusting to her new circumstances and helping Elizabeth with chores, but her upbringing has given her the appearance of an heiress and everyone in the neighborhood assumes she will inherit her late uncle’s fortune. How will Lord Osborne and Mr. Howard react when they discover she’s penniless?

It surprised me at first that Mychal doesn’t start with Austen’s fragment, which is interspersed throughout the text in italics. Mychal writes scenes that precede Austen’s events, and though initially unsure about that, I ended up appreciating the rich, layered story Mychal creates, especially the way she develops characters and backstories Austen could only touch on. There is Miss Carr, a highly entertaining young woman with a Caroline Bingley determination to marry Lord Osborne, and Tom Musgrave with a rakish charm that’s hard to resist. Also fleshed out are Emma’s ever quarreling sisters Margaret and Penelope, her self-important brother Robert, and her needy invalid father, but as befits the title it is Emma’s cheerful, spirited, devoted sister Elizabeth who, though she had none of Emma’s advantages, almost steals the show.

I love that the story incorporates current events, but felt mildly cheated that the ending cut away before all the lovers fully declared their passions–readers learn how the relationships resolve in a somewhat confusing last chapter that takes place years in the future. But that’s a minor quibble, and Mychal’s book has some final, ultimately delightful, surprises because her ending is unlike the one Cassandra Austen said her sister had imagined. Mychal discusses her choices in an interesting afterward, and this reader ended up enjoying her book immensely.

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars

Emma and Elizabeth: A story based on The Watsons by Jane Austen, by Ann Mychal
J. G. Books (2014)
Trade paperback & eBook (306) pages
ISBN: 978-0992879501
ASIN: B00L6GLEPM

Cover image courtesy of J. G. Books © 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.”

Remember the Past…only as it gives you pleasure, by Maria Grace – A Review

Remember the Past by Maria Grace 2014 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

Complete re-imaginings of Jane Austen’s novels are always interesting fan-fiction works to read. There are essentially no rules or paths that the characters must follow. One of my favorites has been Darcy’s Voyage by Kara Louise. I enjoy how creative some authors get in the trials and tribulations they make their characters endure. With that being said, I was excited to read a new re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice entitled Remember the Past by Maria Grace. With how much I enjoyed Grace’s Given Good Principles series, I knew I was in for a treat.

The Bennet family thought they had everything one would need for a successful season in London. Elizabeth’s father, Admiral Thomas Bennet, has just retired from the navy with a sizable income, and his friends in high places should provide them with enough social standing to make the challenges of entry into London’s high society a non-event. Not all goes as planned, however, when a disaster forces them to flee from the riches of London to the mundane existence of Derbyshire. How can they ever survive such an abysmal area with no one of interest around?

Enter Fitzwilliam Darcy, a widower who finds all of his time devoted to taking care of his two sons. He despises the intrusion that the Bennet family has forced upon his life, and his sons’ insistence on going to meet the Bennet twins makes his aggravation rise to new heights. That is,  until he meets Elizabeth, who seems to hold a certain spell on his consciousness. His efforts to help and assist the Bennet family go horribly awry at first, and Darcy finds himself in a deeper hole than when he began to make their acquaintance. Will he be able to see himself out of this mess?

First of all, I really enjoyed Grace’s creative take on the tale. I thought it was interesting that Lizzie and Jane were the only Bennet sisters, and that there were two twin brothers from Mr. Bennet’s second marriage. I liked that there were still traces of Austen’s Mr. Bennet, but there was a freshness brought to his character that was intriguing. Additionally, while Austen’s influence was still present with other characters, it was nice to see a Lady Catherine stripped of her usual officious demeanor and Jane bolstered with more confidence and an outspoken personality. Seeing Lady Catherine dote on Darcy, and imagining Darcy as a father was endearing, even without Elizabeth as the mother of the children (the late Anne de Bourgh was their mother.)

Despite all these changes, take heart that not everything falls far away from Austen purism. Darcy still sees himself as needing to take care of everyone, Elizabeth is still witty and outspoken, and Mr. Bennet is still at times aloof. Fear not, Wickham is still around, and he manages to get in trouble even without Lydia. Grace sprinkles in enough of the familiar, while still allowing room for change and growth to highlight her creativity and abilities in weaving a tale. I believe that this is what she does best, blend old and new together to create a story that has the framework of Austen and her characters, but contains enough new and exciting content to keep me turning the pages. Yes, there were a few moments where I believed the story needed tightening, but overall it was a great read that pulled me in. For those that enjoy a classic Jane Austen re-imagining this is a no-brainer. Grace’s style is not to be missed.

4 out of 5 Stars

Remember the Past…only as it gives you pleasure, by Maria Grace
White Soup Press (2014)
Trade paperback & eBook (316) pages
ISBN: 978-0692263174
ASIN: B00M3MENT2

Additional Reviews:

Diary of an Eccentric

Cover image courtesy of White Soup Press © 2014; text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 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 Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen: A Novel, by Shannon Winslow – A Review 

The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen, by Shannon Winslow (2014)From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

It seems to be a great injustice indeed that we, as lovers of all things Jane Austen, spend such a small percentage of our time thinking about Jane’s own love life, as we are instead wrapped up in the lives of her amazingly-created characters. With that in mind, I was excited to hear that one of my favorite Austen authors, Shannon Winslow, was dedicating a book to Ms. Austen herself and the potential influences she had in writing one of her two posthumously published works, Persuasion. It is aptly named The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen. I couldn’t wait to read this once it came out, given how much I admired Winslow’s previous works, The Darcy’s of Pemberley and Return to Longbourn. So, without any more fanfare, I eagerly began reading.

The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen is based on the premise that Austen had her own object of affection: a sea captain by the name of Philippe Devereaux. Introduced to the Captain by her cousin Eliza at her wedding to Jane’s brother, Henry, we see Jane thrown into a whirlwind of emotion upon meeting Philippe. In fact, she behaves not unlike her own characters when they find themselves in much the same predicament. Winslow tells us of Jane’s personal love story with Captain Devereaux via entries of Jane’s own personal journal, penned alongside the pages of Persuasion itself. Winslow slowly begins to intertwine these two tales, and we get to see Jane go through the emotions of loss, love, and finally (what she really deserves) a happy ending.

This is definitely Winslow’s best work to date. The writing is emotional, moving, and my heart was stirred for Jane and her tribulations. Winslow is one of the few authors who can channel Austen’s style of prose so well that I could not tell the two apart if I tried (the only other who comes to mind is Meg Kerr and her novel Experience.) The style of the book (in a journal format which weaves in Persuasion) was a perfect choice, because Winslow’s prose is so like Jane’s that it is incredibly believable that you could be reading actual diary pages written by Jane years ago. It’s obvious that Winslow put a lot of research into where Jane was at certain points of her life to make this story so believable.

I’m glad that Winslow chose to write about Persuasion instead of Pride and Prejudice, for although P&P only slightly edges out Persuasion as my favorite book, Persuasion is often relegated to second fiddle in the fan fiction world, with less work devoted to it. I’m glad such a prolific author in the Jane Austen Fan Fiction world was able to introduce the love and beauty of Anne and Frederick’s story to a new generation. My challenge to you, dear readers, is to download a sample of the first chapter of this book, in which Jane begins writing Persuasion, and not be moved by the frail humanity Jane expresses:

“To begin is to risk everything – crushing defeat, utter failure or, worse still, mediocrity. However, not taking the risk is unthinkable. I have come through successfully before, but that hardly signifies. With each new work the familiar doubts and niggling questions resurface, chiefly these. Do I really possess whatever genius it takes to do it again? And if so, what is the best way to go about it?” (9-10)

The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen is one of the most moving, soul-filling, and beautiful stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The wait for this book was totally worth it, and I’m already eager to see what beauty Winslow will create next.

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars

The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen: A Novel, by Shannon Winslow
Heather Ridge Arts (2014)
Trade paperback (266) pages
ISBN: 978-1500624736

Cover image courtesy of Heather Ridge Arts © 2014; text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 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.”