Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman – A Review

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman: 

Lady Susan is my favorite of Jane Austen’s minor works. A scheming widow who also happens to be “the most accomplished coquette in England,” Lady Susan Vernon is intelligent, attractive, and unscrupulous, agreeing with her immoral friend Alicia Johnson that “Facts are such horrid things!” (256) Her letters to Alicia detail her plans to snare wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter Frederica, while causing pain and suffering to those she deems detestable. As she includes her own daughter in this camp, calling her a “stupid girl,” she has no qualms in forcing Frederica to marry a decidedly silly man with a large fortune. Lady Susan is a terrible person, but a wonderful character. While the novella lacks the depth of later works, it is a wickedly funny short story in epistolary form; its tone is reminiscent of the snarky comments found in many of Austen’s letters.

Who better to capture Austen’s witty social commentary than filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman?  His first film, Metropolitan, was one of my favorites from the 1990s, but I confess that I didn’t catch its similarities to Mansfield Park until many years later. Now Stillman has written a companion piece to his latest film Love & Friendship in straight narrative form. He introduces a new character to the story: Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s nephew. Rufus has penned his “true narrative of false-witness” to expose Austen’s supposed hatchet job on his aunt. His loyalties are made clear with the novel’s subtitle, “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Cunning Daughter & the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family).”

Readers familiar with Austen’s Lady Susan will notice an inversion of good and evil from the outset. Rufus has dedicated his novel to none other than the Prince of Wales, mimicking Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, but in a much more effusively toad-eating style. After two knowing winks from Stillman in two pages: consider yourself warned. Rufus is the quintessential unreliable narrator, writing his rebuttal of Austen’s version of events from debtors prison in Clerkenwell in 1858. The vindication of his maligned aunt, riddled with inconsistencies and bizarre logic, is peppered with tirades on a range of subjects: history, theology, and grammar. These make for some of the funniest passages in the novel. Continue reading

The Summer Before the War: A Novel, by Helen Simonson – A Review

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson 2016 x 200From the desk of Debra E. Marvin:

Discovering just-released fiction on my library’s New Audiobooks shelf makes me feel as if someone has let me slip in at the front of a long line. When I found Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, I was delighted she’d chosen another charming English town (I’d quite enjoyed her debut Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) and the summer of 1914. Whether she planned it or not, the timing may help some of us adjust to the end of a ‘certain’ British historical drama, though enjoying this novel can’t be limited to Downton Abbey fans. What better time than the centennial of The Great War, to revisit its impact.

Protagonist Beatrice Nash is a young woman of high intellect, low tolerance for the superficial, and a middle-class income stymied by the death of her beloved father. Mr. Nash’s academic profession provided his daughter an unusual upbringing ripe with experiences beyond England, and making Beatrice independent, resilient, and practical. She was “not raised to be shy, and had put away the fripperies of girlhood.” All very good indeed when she takes a position as Latin teacher for the local children and is tested by the restrictions and social expectations of small town life in this delightful corner of Sussex. She simply must succeed or risk returning to her wealthy aunt’s suffocating control.

If this novel was a miniseries, she’d be the lead in an outstanding ensemble cast. To her left, Mrs. Agatha Kent, mentor, and “of a certain age when the bloom of youth must give way to strength of character, but her face was handsome in its intelligent eyes and commanding smile.” To Beatrice’s right, Hugh Grange, likely the most uncomplicated man in town…who happens to be a brain surgeon. The residents of Rye create the rich background we so enjoyed in Ms. Simonson’s debut, and Rye itself rounds out the cast as quintessential England. I had no trouble balancing the many characters who exit the other side of the war—the autumn after the war, so to speak—forever altered. Just as it should be. Continue reading

A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd – A Review

A Man of Genius Janet Todd 2016 x 200From the desk of Shelley DeWees:

Once as a child he’d had himself electrocuted to see how it would feel. He’d let the current course through him. He’d felt vibrant. 

Perhaps he’d never been the same since, just full of sparks. Perhaps touching him she’d taken on some of his electricity, only instead of making her more alive, it had singed and dulled her.

Confident, theatrical, and opinionated, the genius anti-hero of Janet Todd’s novel—which is a departure from her well-known nonfiction work on Jane Austen and others—positively reeks of potential for unusual behavior, right from the start. He’s fussy and aloof; he gets upset if he is forced to walk through pale-colored soil in dark boots; he balks at tea cups that are “coarse” or “thick” and favors a more delicate model of his own choosing. He is Byronically volatile and tense, but in Ann’s eyes, Robert James is the picture of perfection, a man she simply cannot ignore. Their first meeting at a party in 1816 leaves her reeling with desire to hear more of his rhetoric, and to become familiar with his not-so-attractive yet completely arresting face—for this face, in that moment, becomes the face to Ann. “Robert James,” she acknowledges within five pages, “changed everything.”

And it’s true. At the beginning of the story, Ann St Clair is a different person. She’s plainly-dressed—relying as she does on her Gothic writings as her only source of income—and “not dissatisfied with her mode of life” in her small lodgings. Yet as soon as she connects herself to Robert James, she must change, first by demurring to his opinions of proper dress, and later, far more destructively, by abandoning her life in order to accompany him to Italy. This, in fact, is the point in the story where the relationship begins to degrade in haste: With one snide comment after another, one slight, one violent outburst, one mad musing after another, Ann and Robert James fall apart. Quality of life deteriorates for both of them, and in a long crescendo we are swept to the inevitable conclusion of a relationship built on half-truths and unspoken grievances. Yet you need not worry that it will be predictable; rather, it’s quite surprising how it all shakes out in the end. Continue reading

Love, Lies and Spies, by Cindy Anstey – A Review

Love Lies and Spies by Cindy Ansley 2016 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell:

Espionage. Matchmaking Mamas. Pretend Romances. Ladybugs!

Who would have thought that these four things are closely related? Yet these tantalizing details (and much more!) can be found in April’s latest Regency novel involving spies and traitors to the English crown, conniving young heiresses, dashing rescues, and one very independent, insect-loving heroine. In Cindy Anstey’s debut, Love, Lies and Spies, readers are whisked away from the chill and rain-streaked windows of early spring to the shores of Devon, crowded streets of London, and glittering, secret-filled ballrooms of Regency England. 

Love, Lies and Spies opens onto a scene of danger and a dramatic cliffhanger—a quite literal moment of cliff-hanging peril, underwent by the brave (and very embarrassed) heroine, Juliana Telford. Up until her buggy overturned and she found herself dangling far above the English Channel, Miss Telford had managed to avoid potential scandal. For eighteen years she had grown up with only her scientist father for company, running the estate and filling her spare hours with her favorite pursuit: studying the ladybug. But her growing dread that she’ll die before completing her plans is calmed at the hope-boosting sound of approaching footsteps. Continue reading

Jane and the Waterloo Map: Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Book 13), by Stephanie Barron – A Review

Waterloo cover x 200From the desk of Christina Boyd:

As a fan of the Being Jane Austen Mystery series, I have been all anticipation for the latest edition, Jane and the Waterloo Map. Author Stephanie Barron knows her Austen lore, as well as a being a masterful storyteller and researcher; writing in a most Austen-like style. She is also The Incomparable when it comes to Regency mysteries. Given that disclaimer, and holding the series in much esteem, I feel quite at liberty to share my impressions herein.

The novel opens with our dear Miss Austen attending her sick brother Henry at his London residence while editing the proofs of her latest novel, Emma, for her publisher John Murray. Summoned to Carlton House, the opulent London mansion of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, Jane meets his toady Historiographer, Mr. James Stanier Clarke, who not only arrogantly invites her to use the Royal Library to write her next novel, but welcomes her to dedicate her work-in-progress to the Prince Regent himself. As she holds the prince and his profligate ways in contempt, Jane cautiously makes no commitment and politely continues on with the tour. Upon reaching the library, they come upon a Colonel MacFarland, hero of Waterloo, collapsed upon the floor in an apoplectic fit. As Mr. Clarke finds help, the colonel utters his last words to Jane, “Waterloo map.” After a curious inspection of the colonel’s vomit, Jane speculates that the colonel may have been poisoned. The next day, word reaches her that the colonel did succumb, and it is not long before the royal physician confirms that the hero of Waterloo was murdered. Thus begins the intrigue—and danger—for our clever authoress as she exposes whodunit in this thirteenth of Stephanie Barron’s mystery series. Continue reading

The Dark Days Club (A Lady Helen Novel), by Alison Goodman – A Review

The Darck Days Club by Allison Goodman 2016 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Fantasy novels with a supernatural bent are all the rage right now. So, if you love a battle between the forces of good and evil… all set against the backdrop of the upper-crust society of 1812 London, then The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman should be on your reading list.

We meet 18-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall on the eve of her presentation to Queen Charlotte. Helen’s mother, who drowned at sea ten years before, was allegedly a traitor to England, and Helen’s current guardians—her aunt and uncle—really hope this won’t affect Helen’s chance of making a good marriage. After all, isn’t that the best that any young lady with fortune and tainted family connections can hope for?

But, Helen has other ideas. Wilder ideas. She gets the feeling she’s meant for something more than ballrooms and husband hunting. When she meets the mysterious Lord Carlston, who has quite the checkered past himself, she discovers that the growing spirit inside her actually points to the rare ability to identify and destroy a group of supernatural baddies that are overrunning England. Will Helen follow her demon-fighting destiny with Lord Carlston? Or will she resign herself to the life of a proper English wife instead?

The Dark Days Club is the first in what will be a series of novels focused on Lady Helen and her adventures in Regency London. It actually reminded me a lot of The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare (which actually has a Victorian spinoff of its own). The basic premise is the same—a young girl with a mysterious family history finds out she actually has the ability to fight supernatural villains. It’s miles from a Jane Austen novel, but the author does a great job of giving us the Georgian-era feel while still mixing in elements of mystery and fantasy. Continue reading

Jane Austen Lives Again, by Jane Odiwe – A Review

Jane Austen Lives Again by Jane Odiwe 2015 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell:

What would Jane Austen say and do if she lived in the 1920s instead of the late 1700s/early 1800s? Would she wear a drop-waist dress that showed her ankles and bob her auburn hair? Would she dance the Charleston or listen to Jazz music? How would she react to being called ‘baby doll’? And would being handed into the front seat of a car by a young, eligible man just as romantic as being handed into a Regency carriage? These fascinating questions and more are imaginatively answered in Jane Odiwe’s latest novel, Jane Austen Lives Again, where readers—and Jane Austen herself—are transported to the chaotic, electrifying Jazz Age.

1817: After days of sickness, Jane Austen closes her eyes on this world for the last time. Or so she thinks. When she opens them again—to her, only a few moments later—her doctor informs her that he found the secret to immortal life, and the year is… Continue reading