A Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant – A Review

Summer in Europe, by Marylin Brant (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“A chorus of Happy Birthday roused her into greater awareness of the rest of the group.  Her aunt, who’d managed to light candles on a big, chocolate, sprinkle-covered birthday cake, came forward in song and demanded Gwen’s attention.  She thought about her wish: to be happy, secure, loved by someone and not so very afraid her life would end before she got to experience this.  She took a breath and blew.

Every candle went out.  All except one.”

So begins the 30th year of the life of Gwen, a beige-slipper-wearing, commitment-obsessive, scrupulously diligent Iowa girl.  She loves Andrew Lloyd Weber, meticulous flossing and fruit kebabs, and she knows in her heart that all she wants is to be engaged…to an insurance agent with the company motto on the back of his car.

If you think it sounds dull, you’re right!  Gwen is lost in a life of muted and measured structure, swimming in bowls of bran cereal and floral peach skirts, Barbara Streisand, pearl earrings, and crippling juvenile embarrassment about her own sexuality.  She’s the dreariest 30-year-old you’ll ever meet, but you’ll hope for the best as Gwen’s feisty Aunt Bea surprises her with a trip to Europe.  Think of the possibilities!  She can walk among the ruins of Rome!  She can eat Sachertorte in Vienna and meander the watery streets of Venice!  She can live for once!  That is, if she’s ready to be alive at all, to breathe in and out, to take it all in.

I had my doubts, actually.  Gwen is chronically detached from everything around her, constantly moping and pouting as she participates in the classic American-in-Western-Europe experience: Italy, Austria, Hungary, France and England with a tour guide and a group of octogenarians.  As she wanders around, uninspired and lifeless, she begins to slowly understand how much she’s missing as a result of her fear and mistrust of the unknown.  Where was her path leading?  What the hell was she doing, traipsing around like a lost puppy?  Where’s the life in her life?  Gradually, she begins to figure things out with the help of a gregarious English man and his spontaneous younger brother, her aunt, and the other tour mates whose sparkling personalities utterly dwarf her own.

Having read Marilyn Brant’s work before, I was unsurprised when the prose and phrasing of the book rolled through my mind like honey, beautifully structured and carefully executed with the clarity of a practiced writer.  A Summer in Europe reads a lot like a travel guide, with snippets of history and accounts of heavily-visited landmarks and restaurants, hotels and gelato stands, coffeehouses and boutiques, an undertaking that must’ve been challenging and complicated.  Again Ms. Brant’s commitment to quality sings true, as seen in her previous works like Friday Mornings at Nine.

But just like Friday Mornings at Nine, my scruples with the book came with the depiction of characters, both main and supporting.  I rolled my eyes at Gwen’s lack of strength, passions, or pursuits and her inability to order her own meals, but I let out an audible “UGH!” at her girlish blushing in front of David in Florence.   I found myself saying, “REALLY?!” when Gwen bounced back and forth between two men, entertaining the idea of being with both of them but never considering what would happen if she were to simply be alone, to wander off the beaten track by herself and think things through.  Gwen is on a non-adventure adventure, and her determination to be a woman of the world seems disingenuous and totally insincere by the end.  A Summer in Europe’s secondary roles are filled by wholly predictable creatures, complete with bad jokes, gender stereotypes, and rounded off with an absurd encounter with “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” that I’ll leave open to your imagination.

With all the talent that seems to be pouring out of Marilyn Brant’s fingers, I still greatly look forward to another contribution.  A Summer in Europe may absolutely be worth your time if you appreciate the simple beauty of seamless prose, or if you’re thinking about visiting Europe for the first time, but you may also find that you’re better off waiting for her next book.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant
Kensington Publishing (2011)
Trade paperback (352) pages
ISBN: 978-0758261519
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758274212
Kindle: ASIN: B005G023VI

© 2007 – 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Not too long ago, I picked up my old and battered copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and reread the novel.  It was my third reading.  I was pretty confident that I would stop reading after the first few chapters, thinking that I only wanted a small dose of familiarity and good, old-fashioned Gothic comfort before turning to something else, something new.  Jane’s haunting self-awareness, however, sucked me in (again) and I read the whole thing through trying hard to keep feelings of guilt at bay for what felt like a waste of my time.  I shouldn’t be rereading Jane Eyre, I told myself, when I still haven’t read Bronte’s Shirley or the book I checked out from the library or this book or that book that I should read for this or that reason.

And yet, despite these feelings, I reread all the time and I’ll probably never stop.  In fact, I hope I never do because my third reading of Jane Eyre was, so far, my most enjoyable.  “This passion for sameness,” as recently retired Literature professor and editor of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition Patricia Meyer Spacks describes it, is the subject of her new book On Rereading, an interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir.  Released late last year by Harvard University Press, Spacks’ book attempts to answer the very fascinating question of why we read the same books over and over again.

Spacks’ book is mostly a collection of thoughts about novels reread over a period of one year, an attempt to trace personal development and growth through literature revisited.  After a nuanced examination of the act of rereading, Spacks begins her experiment with children’s books with such classics as Alice in Wonderland.  A substantial chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma follows with a discussion of how these novels continue to instruct far beyond the initial reading.  A number of chapters are devoted to the project of trying to disentangle personal and social history from the books we read and reread followed by chapters on recreational and professional rereading.  Of course, like any comprehensive book on rereading, the temptation of rereading books we should have liked, and those we feel we shouldn’t have liked but did anyway, is also explored.  The book ends with the lovely articulation that we are never alone when we read since through reading and rereading we are in a silent exchange with the book’s author, with the generations of readers before and after us, etc., that the act of rereading can be far more dynamic and interactive than we realize.

Rereading, according to Spacks, is “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or distracting oneself, a way to evoke memories (not only of the text but of one’s life and of past selves), a reminder of half-forgotten truths, an inlet to new insight.  It rouses or soothes or reassures.  And…it can provide security” (2).  This sense of security is born from a text’s seeming stability since, as we all know, the words on the page do not change with time.  And, yet, the conviction that change has indeed taken place when we reread can feel so powerful as to convince us otherwise.  It is this sense of change, this “something,” that fascinates Spacks.  The book may not have changed over time but we, as readers, definitely have and, consequently, our relation to the book has changed as well.

Underpinning this experiment are assumptions worth highlighting: reading fiction is important, recreational reading is important, and rereading need not be an act of avoidance or laziness but re-engagement.  Readers of this blog will probably find the act of rereading pretty standard as, according to an informal British survey mentioned in Spacks’ book, Pride and Prejudice is the third most popular reread text (the Harry Potter books, interestingly, are the first most popular).  And, arguably, the countless contemporary re-imaginings of Austen’s world are, to my mind anyway, a type of rereading – we revisit and re-imagine and relive our experience(s) of reading Austen’s books whenever we pick up a contemporary book featuring Darcy or Lizzy Bennet.  Spacks’ book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you’ve ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over.  But, fair warning, you’ll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you’re done.  Hopefully with a little less guilt.

4 out of 5 Stars

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0674062221
Kindle: ASIN: B006LZTL9O
Nook: ISBN: 978-0674063310

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Forbidden, by Syrie James and Ryan M. James – A Review

Forbidden, by Syrie James and Ryan M. James (2012)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

Look out, Alyson Noel. Make way, Becca Fitzpatrick. Heads up, Lauren Kate.  There is a spectacular new Young Adult (YA) writing team on the horizon! 

Forbidden, authored by a mother and son writing team is their debut supernatural novel chocked full of intrigue, romance and humor.  But whyever is a Jane Austen blog site reviewing such a book?  One with not even a mention of Mr. Darcy, nor a reference to Jane Austen, nor anything remotely Regency? Simply thus.  One of the authors, none other than the international best-selling author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen as well as the award winning The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Syrie James, along with her son, Ryan M. James, ventures to offer us a larger allowance of prose to our daily study.

High school sophomore, Claire Brennan is tired of constantly moving from city to city.  Every time she seems to put down roots, her paranoid, seemingly hippie mother decides to pull up stakes and start anew.  New city.  New school.   But here at Emerson Academy, in the posh Brentwood, California community, not only does Claire love her prestigious school and value the scholarship she has worked these last two years to maintain but also her two bosom buddies, Erica and Brian, whom she shares everything with.  So who can blame her for not telling her mother about her newly discovered psychic powers and the visions warning her of imminent peril?  Then there is Alec MacKenzie, new man on campus with the exotic Scottish accent and handsome good looks.  Who is he?  After he somehow saves them from being crushed by falling scaffolding… his story of being orphaned at an early age, lived all over the world with various relations and most recently emancipated from a rich uncle… seems more and more sketchy, putting Claire and her friends on high alert.  “Even if you can explain away all those other things, the fact is, I saw those platforms hover for a moment in mid-fall before being tipped, I’m telling you, Alec held them up – somehow –  with his mind, and he made them fall to the side.  He may not be a vampire, but he’s… I don’t know… telekinetic.” p. 87

What Claire doesn’t know is Alec is a Grigori, an earthly angel bound to watch and sometimes eliminate the descendants of his angelic forefathers, and chose Emerson Academy to hide from those duties, living amongst the humans as one of them. “So, when you hugged – did you feel Alec’s heartbeat?  Claire stifled a laugh.  She looked at Brian from her seat and nodded emphatically, patting her chest one-handed with a rapid drumbeat.  He grinned triumphantly and made his hand for her to turn the note over.  She did. It read: See. Told you. He’s not a vampire.” p.118  Who would have thought Alec would end up falling in love with Claire, a newly Awakened Nephilim, a half angel, a Halfblood… one whose very existence is forbidden.

At first Alec appears aloof, but his demeanor improves on acquaintance.  “Claire could feel the heat emanating from his body.  Suddenly, all she could think about was that moment in her dream when he’d almost kissed her.  He was looking at her now in the same way.  The fear and doubt she’d been harboring began to trickle away.  Whoever Alec was –whatever he was –Claire realized she wouldn’t mind if he did kiss her.” p.157  As the two discover each other, as Claire learns about her heritage and her newly discovered powers, the stakes rise and are no longer about first kisses and crushes.  “If there entire relationship was against Grigori law, what would happen if they pursued it?” p.211   It seems others have discovered her existence now and the hunt is on.  Alec vows to protect her from those he is escaping as well as The Fallen, the evil ones he has hunted for a century.  “…what are you going to do?  Turn me into your hangman committee?  Have me executed?”  “That’s what I should do.”  Vincent finished off his wine and sighed.  “But Alec has begged me to reconsider.  It seems you’ve become so important to him, he’s willing to put many lives at risk.  So we’ve made a deal.” p.307

If this all seems familiar, as in “We can’t be together… I’ll hurt you,” Bella and Edward from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga; or the mysterious, handsome teenage boy romances the odd girl with new found powers, Ever and Damen from Alyson Noel’s Immortals series; or girl falling in love with angel protector with Fallen angels all about them, Nora and Patch from Becca Fitzgerald’s Hush Hush series and Daniel and Luce from Lauren Kate’s Fallen series…  I can promise you it’s not a copycat novel.  Yes, there may be similarities but I interpreted it as part of the genre and following angel lore. It was very much about trust, discovery, and love. I totally enjoyed this. I was entertained by the inspired prose, witty dialogue, the humorous actions and reactions, and of course, the honest, pure character development.  The ending will leave you not quite hanging off a cliff by your fingernails… but I assure you, I look forward to James and James n©ext installment. This may be written for Young Adults, however, might I also suggest, for the young at heart?

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Forbidden, by Syrie James & Ryan M. James
Harper Teen (2012)
Trade paperback (416) pages
ISBN: 978-0062027894

Cover image courtesy of Harper Teen © 2012; text Christina Boyd © 2012, Austenprose.com

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides – A Review

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“In the days when success in life had depended on marriage and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? …Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time,” (22).

The above quote is great, because I suspect it reflects a tongue-in-cheek challenge that Jeffrey Eugenides put to himself when writing The Marriage Plot, a modern novel that revolves around marriage, but which faces the very plot difficulties mentioned above: gender equality and divorce—along with the giant elephant in this story’s fictional room: mental illness. In writing this tale, Eugenides shows that one need not go back in time to write a novel about marriage, for just as in the Austen canon, the main crux of this story revolves around the question of who will marry whom.

To construct the marriage plot of The Marriage Plot, Eugenides introduces to the reader three main characters—Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus—the three points of a classic love triangle: Mitchell loves Madeleine who loves Leonard who loves Madeleine who likes Mitchell. All three also attended the same school for undergraduate studies: Brown University. Like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, Madeleine is from an upper, middle class family, popular, pretty and smart. Also, like Elizabeth Bennet, Madeleine can be rather “blind” to the faults of the young men she is interested in. Unlike the more famous heroine, however, she lacks both a strong moral compass and wise friends who could have given her much needed advice. Is it any wonder then that she finds herself mixed up with two young men who, rather than forming mature partnerships with her, cause her a great deal of emotional stress?

To be fair to her, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus are both interesting, handsome, intelligent young men whose flaws are not so readily apparent. Leonard, whom she meets and bonds with in a semiotics course, is something of a maverick and scientific genius with a campus reputation for sexual prowess. In contrast, Mitchell is more like the cute boy-next-door who secretly pines for the girl he will never get if he doesn’t quit acting more like a brother than a suitor. Will Madeleine choose Leonard the wounded soul/psych patient whom she likens to Bertha Mason, the crazy woman in Jane Eyre (340) or will she choose Mitchell the Christian mystic-in-the-making?

There is more to both of these young men than their attraction to Madeleine, however, and it is really their inner lives that give the novel its fascinating flavor. Eugenides does an excellent job in exploring the relationship dynamics of loving someone with a mental illness, as when he writes, “The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places,” (64-65). He also paints a moving example of the type of dysfunctional family life and difficult childhood that can contribute to the development of such diseases, along with the arduousness of seeking treatment and therapy that may or may not bring results. Likewise, his depiction of Mitchell’s quest to find God, first through study, then charity work, is equally written with powerful credibility, particularly the scenes where Mitchell volunteers for the Missionaries of Charity in India. Both storylines are sure to conjure up empathy from the reader, forming the kind of bond between characters and audience that transforms a good story into a great read.

If The Marriage Plot is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially Austenites, it could be because drugs and sex are major details of the characters’ lives. Indeed, what could be more anti-Austen than a marriage proposal delivered only after the couple has had a rather aggressive bout of sex? It could be, too, that some will be unimpressed by the storyline, which does not involve a great deal of dramatic events and flips back and forth in time. Yet, for those interested in a love story with flawed characters that seem eerily similar to themselves or people they know—thoroughly modern, yet similar to the Regency and Victorian characters they love—then Eugenides’ superb writing style and narrative crafting is sure to satisfy.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011)
Hardcover (416) pages
ISBN: 978-0374203054

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the masters of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly – A Review

The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly (2011)Guest review by Kimberly Denny-Ryder of Reflections of a Book Addict

There are many reasons why books published well over a hundred years ago are still relevant and well loved today.  One of these reasons is that as a reader you become so invested in the lives of the characters that you can’t help but want to read their story over and over and over again.  I’m sure that this is the case for Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters.  Her love for Louisa May Alcott’s beloved March sisters inspired her to continue their story by allowing the stories of Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy to live on via a much younger and contemporary setting.  The result is a great juxtaposition of old and new as Donnelly does an outstanding job at telling their stories and breathing new life into this classic.

The novel begins with sisters Emma, Lulu, and Sophie of the Atwater family, who live in London.  They are “imagined descendents” of Jo March, the second and very opinionated child in the March family from Little Women.  Lulu, the middle sister, is sent up to the attic of their home to find some recipes for her aunt, and inadvertently discovers a trove of letters written by Jo to her sisters.  Feeling a bit lost herself, Lulu takes solace in these letters and begins to discover the lives of the March sisters through their correspondence.  She discovers that she is much like Jo herself, and this empowers her to view her life in a whole new way, weaving the great stories of the March sisters in the past with her own present.

Firstly, I have to give Donnelly a lot of credit for her writing style.  She writes in a way that makes the Atwater sisters seem like your own, and the more you read about them, the more endearing they become.  I truly felt as if I was getting to know them as the book went on, and Donnelly allowed a relationship to grow between myself and the characters that made the book that much more enjoyable.  Secondly, I also really enjoyed that the plot of Little Women had so much influence in the writing of The Little Women Letters.  A lot of contemporary novels that I’ve read that are influenced by classics normally just take the plot of said classic novel and modernize it.  While that was done in this book, Donnelly finds ways to take the original story and infuse it with the new contemporary one, giving the reader an opportunity to hang out with his/her favorite characters from the original.

Finally, it takes a masterful artist to weave the lives of three characters together, let alone the 8+ that Donnelly works with.  She’s definitely something special and is a gem of a writer.  I wouldn’t be surprised if The Little Women Letters is as loved and adored as Little Women in the future.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly
Touchstone, New York (2011)
Hardcover (386) pages
ISBN: 978-1451617184

© 2007 – 2011 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

Evenfall, by Liz Michalski – A Review

Evenfall, by Liz Michalski (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“In summer the trees are full, but in fall they drop their leaves, and the valley surrounding land crouches below the house like a cat before it springs.  If someone searched very hard, they could just see, from that attic window, the things they hold most dear: the faintest glint of sunlight on water, the white, circling wings of gulls; the remote, unreachable face of the woman they love, telescoping away into darkness.”

As a reviewer, I tried desperately to keep my head about myself as I swam in Liz Michalski’s beautiful novel Evenfall, an un-biased, unsentimental capture of it being my goal …but as a reader, I completely dissolved under its spell and utterly failed to keep my wits.  When you read it, you’ll see that I really had no choice.  It had me.

And so, I must present a review of Evenfall much in the way that Jane Austen presented A History of England, as a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant assessor.

The back of the book would have you believe that the story is about ghosts, one in particular actually, that tries to win back the only woman who ever mattered to him even as he floats around in an amorphous almost-existence.  In reality, the ghost character isn’t much of a character at all, and is essentially used as a way to look at the lives of two women from a third person perspective.  The ghost (Frank is his name) spends most of the book in the attic of Evenfall, the old family stead of the Murphys in rural Connecticut.  The house itself seems to stand as a person, having witnessed the lives of each family member with more clarity than most, along with a cat who fends off the loneliness of an aging woman, and Nina the dog, who is Frank’s biggest fan.

No, the story is really about Gert and Andie.  Tough as nails and seasoned in World War II as a nurse, Gert lives only footsteps away from Evenfall where she’s spent 40 years watching her sister live out the life she should’ve had, with the partner she should’ve had.  Regretful and bitter, Gert is forced to face the past when Andie, her niece, returns home to help bear the burden of cleaning up the Murphy family mess.  Andie isn’t so keen on spending a summer stuck in hicktown, even though she’s running from a few of her own demons (including a pressed-shorts-wearing, expensive-car-driving dandy of a man with a toxic personality and an endless track record of infidelity).  These two women have to figure out how to move forward in summer, move forward in life, move forward as family while coming to terms with their past decisions.  We all suffer from it eventually: those pesky, nagging possibilities and consequences of the roads not taken.  Roadnottakenitis maybe, a condition we all contract sooner or later.  Gert and Anide face it amidst an interesting cast of characters, including a grown up version of a boy Andie used to babysit and a goat…or two.  How will Gert and Andie face their pasts?  Their mistakes? What does it all mean?  By the time the end of the book is looming you realize that, just like in your life, there really are no answers.  Your choices are half chance, just like Gert’s, Andie’s, and everyone else’s.

Michalski weaves a story that positively drips with the hopelessness of summertime romance, the sadness of a life lived under the guise of joy, the true emptiness that fills the soul when it discovers that it can never rest.  The prose is beautiful.  Poetic, really.  The book itself is beautiful.  Tranquil and moving.  Evenfall was a lovely vision of summer-soaked humanity, with our sweaty brows and unspoken affections, and truly a sight to behold.

5 out of 5 Stars

Evenfall, by Liz Michalski
Penguin Group (2011)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0425238721

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

Friday Mornings at Nine, by Marilyn Brant – A Review

Friday Mornings at Nine, by Marilyn Brant (2010)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“Relationships are so complicated, and the path strewn with thorns, that everybody struggled somewhere down the line.  Early in the dating process. Those rough first years of marriage.  Later, when midlife crises and doubts rushed in.  Passion waxed and waned across the board, didn’t it?  And so many times, people who had dealt with hardships in the relationship at first, grew into mature adults who retained a warm appreciation for each other and their memories—even the challenges—they had shared.  Perhaps their initial fiery ardor evaporated over the years, but a tender respect was forged in its place.  Though both parties would have to want that.  To be willing to work to reinvent their couplehood.”

Welcome to the world of Friday Mornings at Nine, the most cunningly disguised self-help book on planet Earth.  But before you run screaming from the bookstore, desperately afraid that someone might actually catch you reading a self-help book, take a moment to soak this in: this novel will drag you in, whether you’re open and willing, kicking and screaming, politely interested, or coolly unmotivated.  Read it.

The story circles around three standard chicks that are, unfortunately, irksome in their level of predictability.  Calling them “archetypes” might actually be an understatement, and any person who’s ever seen Oprah or watched a few minutes of The View will know exactly who these women are.  First up is Bridget, the undervalued, under-appreciated, self-deprecating Mom of three who desperately wants someone to pay attention to her.  Bridget needs to hear, “I thinking you’re amazing and value every moment we spend together,” and the person who finally speaks those words is her boss, Dr. Luke.  Instantly she is attracted, realizing with unsettling clarity just how bad her marriage has become, how little she gains from being her husband’s wife.  Will she leave him?  Second is Tamara, the under-worked lawyer’s wife who spends her time fawning over her extensive gardens, fancy home, and sexy neighbor Aaron with whom she enjoys real, stimulating…conversation.  Will she cheat on her workaholic husband?  Will he even notice?  Finally, we meet Jennifer.  She is the quintessential ex-career woman who gave up her life at work to become a Mom, work that she used to love, work that she was undeniably talented at doing.  Jennifer is tempted by her old flame, the one who always supported her ambition but still managed to be a crushingly toxic presence in her life.  Her husband isn’t anything like her ex, and yet she wonders if she’s made the wrong choice.  What will she do?  Will she be unfaithful?  (Here’s a tantalizing hint: Only one of the three women takes the plunge into infidelity…who will it be?)

I have to admit to you all, you fabulous readers you, that I was immediately turned off by these women.  So banal, so unsurprising, so 90’s in the seemingly inevitable decision all three have made to leave the full time workforce.  But with each page turn, with each brief glimpse into the lives of these lonely females, I found myself more and more captivated by their predicaments.  Each marital problem is different than the others but still circles around the same key issue: the lack of solid a relationship with the self.  Marilyn Brant, author of According to Jane, spins an engaging story around the concept Polonius described so simply, “To thine own self, be true.”  And so, despite my skepticism, I flew through the book and let my annoyance chill out for a while.  In fact, I only shrieked in protest during the occasional portrayal of the dieting-binging-dieting-binging cycle of one of the ladies, most especially when she proclaims that she “didn’t have as much willpower as she thought” and proceeds to eat a huge chocolate chip muffin with a side of defeat.  Okay, that was aggravating.  But beyond those moments, and the few others that smacked of self-imposed victimization, the novel was wonderful.  Ms. Brant’s style is charming, full of wit and humor, and she positively brims with quotable advice for couples.  Even if your relationship is all sunshine and lollipops, a trip through the lives of these women and their subsequent spouses is an education, and will bring you nothing but good things.

4 out of 5 Stars

Friday Mornings at Nine, by Marilyn Brandt
Kensington Publishing (2010)
Trade paperback (352) pages
ISBN: 978-0758234629

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

The Countess and the King, by Susan Holloway Scott – A Review

The Countess and the King, by Susan Holloway Scott (2010)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“I deftly slipped free as soon as I could with a pretty, breathless show of resistance, enough to make him smile as he let me return to the ball. Seduction was better played in several acts, and we both knew it.  But that single kiss had excited me mightily. I’d tasted the power of royalty in it, and of a man who was accustomed to having whatever he wanted. Yet I’d power, too, because what he wanted was me, exactly as I was and without any regard for my fortune.  Was there any more heady realization than that?”

Thus, the big question of Catherine Sedley’s life begins to rage inside her. How can a woman be in love and still keep a hold of what’s hers? Raised to be willful and sharp-tongued by a father who participated in endless royal frivolity, a marriage contract for Catherine would mean a huge loss of wealth and freedom. So, despite the wishes of her father and the questionable morality of mistresshood, she decides to forsake that silly marriage idea in favor of becoming a professional bedfellow…a lowly station indeed in most situations. However, her situation is different.

Born in 1657 to an 18-year-old fledgling playwright, Catherine Sedley was never a pretty girl.  Too thin, too small-chested, too pale, she learned quickly to distinguish herself from the sea of bedecked beauties with her clever humor and outspoken manner. Her mother had lost her mind and her father, being highly favored by King Charles II, was involved in a constant cycle of partying, recovering, and preparing to party again. Left to her own devices and without much direction from schooling, it was only a matter of time before Catherine joined in the royal debauchery. She learned the ropes, met the important figures, and began to impress the highest ranks of people with her unguarded intellect.  So it was that she attracted the gaze of the king’s brother, the Duke of York, and eventually became his most favored coital co-hort.

Huzzah! What an exalted position!  It was better than being some rich guy’s wife, and way better than living a life of spinsterhood. Each day was a veritable fountain of finery for Catherine, and she lived a life removed from the bonds of royal matrimony…no pressure to produce an heir, no need to be presented as a paradigm of good principles, no reason to uphold the honor and integrity that the bonds of marriage were supposed to represent.  She lived like this for several years, standing by her man as he ascends to become King of England himself. He put her up in her own place, gave her a large allowance by which to support herself and their daughter, and continued to care for her even as his own circumstances were in question. It wasn’t so bad.

This is the story of Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester as told by Susan Holloway Scott in The Countess and the King. It’s a wonderful book, impeccably researched and extremely well written. The vocabulary is delicious, the imagery beautifully detailed, and the characters are full of depth and intrigue, all of which combine to successfully breathe life into this dusty ‘ol narrative that, if it hadn’t been so skillfully crafted, could’ve been as sleepy as a little kid in the back of a car. Ms. Scott weaves a fantastic example of historical fiction and romance, intertwined with life in 17th-century England and its constant trouble with religion. Should the kingdom be Catholic?  How about Anglican? What about our allies…what religion are they? Round and round it goes, bouncing back and forth between the two royal brothers, King Charles and the Duke of York, who each have a foot in a different pool. This battle of spirituality is explored exhaustively, so much that I found the last half of the book to drag a bit. But in the larger sense, The Countess and the King was an enjoyable romp through the palaces of English royalty, a naughty little glimpse behind the bedroom doors of those who made history, and most definitely an educational look at the plight of women. I think you’ll like it.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Countess and the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester and King James II, by Susan Holloway Scott
Penguin Group (2010)
Trade paperback (400) pages
ISBN: 978-0451231154

© 2007 – 2010 Shelley Dewees, Austenprose

Nocturne, by Syrie James – A Review

Nocturne, by Syrie James (2011)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

After loving best selling author Syrie James’ The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, as well as her Dracula, My Love: The Secret Journals of Mina Harker, my next obvious step was to read her latest offering, Nocturne. Our story begins with Nicole Whitcomb driving to the Denver airport from a Rocky Mountain wedding and ski mini-break, when a blinding snowstorm whips up, and her car hits black ice, spinning her out of control and over an embankment. She blacks out, only to wake in a rustic, mountain lodge having been rescued by its owner, a handsome, recluse named Michael. The blizzard outside prevents her from continuing on her journey. As the hours turn into days, an uneasy companionship ensues, as Nicole becomes ever curious of her mysterious host. Why does he choose to dine alone? Why is the kitchen so under stocked? Why is he shockingly rude but yet still thoughtful?

Curious attraction fuels this odd companionship through their common interest in books when she discovers his first edition collections of classic literature represented by Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain… When she asks if she can borrow one, he answers,

‘Whatever you like, Miss Whitcomb.’ She heard something different in his voice—a quieter, mellower tone that he’d yet exhibited – and she turned to look at him. He was leaning up against his desk, his arms crossed over his chest, his long legs stretched out before him. His guard was down, and he was studying her with an expression that resembled something like tentative delight. It was the first time he’d looked at her that way – as if she might prove to be an interesting human being after all and not just an inconvenience. It wasn’t the most flattering look in the world, and yet the newfound warmth in his blue eyes made her heart skitter. ‘This isn’t Pride and Prejudice.  You can call me Nicole.’ Page 49.

As the sexual tension increases and her imagination runs rampant in this mountain seclusion, she readily makes his excuses, only to discover that her wildest dreams, or nightmares, are now her reality. Will I ruin it for you if I tell you that yes, Michael is a vampire? Like the iconic vampires of Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, and even Stephenie Meyer, Michael has his impossible strengths and weaknesses. When Nicole realizes what he is, the shock and fear that she has fallen for a vampire sets her on a dangerous escape.

But it’s his unlikely humanity, as well as his “love for her” that allowed him “to hold his carnal instincts in check” that endeared me most. As the sun comes out and the roads have cleared, Nicole and Michael must find a way to co-exist if their forbidden love is to survive.

Tauntingly compelling, the ending left me spent. Let’s just say however, thankfully Syrie James included an Author’s Note (and helpful Author’s Questions and Answers) that gave me hope (or at least wishful thinking) that she might revisit Nicole and Michael’s love story in the future. If not, let me be the first to petition such a work! The haunting Nocturne is the perfect escape book for romance readers with some pretty steamy love scenes sure to warm you to your toes these cold, winter months.  Enjoy!

4 out of 5 Stars

Nocturne, by Syrie James
Vanguard Press (2011)
Hardcover (288) pages
ISBN: 978-1593156282

Cover image courtesy of Vanguard Press © 2011; text Christina Boyd © 2011, Austenprose.com

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – A Review

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2009)Long on my TBR (to be read) pile, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had so many intriguing factors in its favor that I could not put it off any longer. Firstly, I cannot tell you how many of my customers come in searching for this novel even two years after publication. It was on the bestseller list for over a year and is a book group favorite. Secondly, it takes place during and after WWII, one of my favorite historical periods. And thirdly, it is filled with literary references. The puzzling bit is that it is written in epistolary format!

Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.” Isola Pribby, page 53

Yes, an entire novel written as a collection of letters. A very popular style in the mid seventeenth-century, the epistolary novel was utilized by the venerable Samuel Richardson, no less, in his bestselling novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749). This format has its challenges – like characters not being able to interface with each other directly and react in the moment.  Jane Austen discovered this dilemma after writing Lady Susan in 1795, and the first drafts of Elinor and Marianne (later Sense and Sensibility) and First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice). The latter two were rewritten into the third-person omniscient style that she is now famous for. Lady Susan remains unchanged, and for those who have read it, it is quite charming but not as accessible to modern readers as her later works. I was very curious to see how co-authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows could pull off a novel written in letters and why readers were clamoring to buy it.

Sophie – what is the matter with me? Am I too particular? I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.” Juliet Ashton, page 8

In 1946 post war England, our heroine and unmarried thirty-something Juliet Ashton is ready to move on from her comedic war-time newspaper column to more serious fare. Interested in writing a novel, she is searching for the inspiration for a new story. Living in bombed out London she has few personal connections that are still alive. Her parents and brother are dead, and besides her agent Sidney and his sister Sophie, she has few friends and only one suitor, the “great catch,” the wealthy and imposing American publishing heir Markham V. Reynolds, Jr. who woos a woman who has lived for five years on war ratios with champagne, lobster and dancing at the Savoy. Heady stuff.

I wonder how the book got to Guernsey. Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” From Dawsey Adams, page 10

Juliet is pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from one of her readers, Dawsey Adams, a farmer on Guernsey Island who is now the owner of a used book by Charles Lamb with her name inscribed on the flyleaf. They strike up a correspondence and she learns about his co-founding of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an ad hock group first formed by residents to fool the Nazi’s into allowing after curfew movements during the German occupation of the island. Later, the book group would become the axis in their lives; both for fellowship and intellectual nourishment; building friendships and, changing perspectives. She was intrigued by his descriptions of the society’s eccentric members and activities and welcomes correspondence from them. What unfolds is a truly remarkable tale. As the society members retell firsthand accounts of their challenges and tragedies during their islands Nazi occupation, Juliet is drawn into their stories and feels that it would make a great subject for her next book. Her eventual visit to the island will change her life forever.

We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.” Eben Ramsey, page 64

At times the epistolary format from twenty different voices had its limitations, but the authors overcome the challenge of characters not being able to talk to each other in real-time by supplying detailed accounts and engaging stories with humorous undertones. The narrative is primarily told through the viewpoint of Juliet, but the heart of the story is Guernsey resident twenty-something Elizabeth McKenna, co-founder of the Literary Society and later prisoner of war in Germany. Many of the anecdotal reminiscences told by the residents circle back to Elizabeth’s life, her brave heroism during their horrendous occupation and how her fellowhip and honor affected her friends, residents and concentration camp inmates.

After all, what’s good enough for Austen ought to be good enough for anyone.” Juliet Ashton, page 274

The ongoing glimmer of hope of romance for our heroine Juliet kept me intrigued, like a cat watching a mouse, but it was not the main focus of this novel and I found its dénouement predictable and mildly satisfying. The tragedy, and this is a war-time tale with some troubling and gruesome bits, is offset by occasional humor, the joy of literature as a tonic especially during the worst of times, and the resilience of the human spirit. As many classic authors are mentioned and discussed: Lamb, Dickens, Bronte, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wilde, I was quite pleased that Jane Austen, my favorite author, was given her due deference and place of honor as the final to be discussed and her philosophies entrenched on the last page. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was a delightful exploration of strength, compassion, enduring friendships, and the irrepressible spirit of the British people during WWII. I enjoyed it greatly.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Random House (2009)
Trade paperback (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0385341004

© 2007-2010, Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel, by Helen Simonson – A Review

Occasionally, I am tempted to read outside my Austenesque book sphere when high praise influences my TBR (to be read) pile. It has taken me over six months to get to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. My only regret is that I put it off so long. What a pleasure to discover a debut novel with so such charm, wit and satirical humor.

“You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care–and humility.” He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. “But I must ask you, do you really understand what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?”

“My dear boy,” said the Major. “Is there really any other kind?”

The main characters are a typical collection of fictional fodder, but with a clever slant. Therein lies its appeal. Pushing seventy, retired Major Ernest Pettigrew is not your usual hero. A delightfully droll proper English gentleman, the Major lives in the small idyllic country village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex populated with an array of characters so foibled in folly, it would make Jane Austen blush. Roger, his self-absorbed son is a banker in London driven by money and social connections with an equally obsequious American girlfriend Sandy. The Major readily admits that if he and Roger were not united in blood they would have nothing in common. There is also the morally amenable Anglican vicar and his busybody wife, the financially challenged local Lord, the opinionated golf club cronies, recently widowed sister-in-law and grubbing family, and Mrs. Jasmina Ali, an elegant fifty something Pakistani widow and proprietress of the local convenience store who shares his interest in literature and his wry sense of the ridiculous in his neighbors and the world. Their friendship evolves into a love story igniting local gossip and cultural prejudices that challenge the Major’s social sphere and re-evaluate his values.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a comedy of manners in the traditional sense but it also offers more than a gentle nod to the clash of cultures experienced in Britain when her colonial children immigrate to mother country, but after years and generations, are still considered outsiders. The story touches on important issues: love, honor, family obligations and tradition by exploring social values in the treatment of our elder parents, out-of-wedlock children, interfaith alliances, land stewardship and social progress. This may all seem rather dry, but the way in which Simonson blends in all the personal challenges between children, friends and community with a strong emphasis on humor is enchanting. The highlights for me were the duck hunting scene and the club dinner dance. Simonson has a way with similes and action description that left me crying with laughter.

There were moments at the beginning of the novel where I cringed at her caustic treatment of the American girlfriend Sandy with her brash manners and focus on the almighty dollar. However, I knew that I was being overly defensive for my countrymen when her boyfriend Roger Pettigrew and many of the other British characters act even more offensive and mercenary throughout the story. As an Anglophile she had me at page one, but I give full credit to Simonson’s polished and engaging writing style reverently influenced by the classics. Besides the similarities to Austen’s witty slant on three or four families in a country village, I can see bits of Georgette Heyer, P. G. Wodehouse and George Bernard Shaw in her energized dialogue, social reproof and sense of high comedy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is one of those unique debut novels that humorously captures a sense of what is familiar in our own lives and fictional lexicon by introducing memorable characters you will cherish. I recommend it highly.

5 out of 5 Stars

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel, by Helen Simonson
Random House (2010)
Hardcover (358) pages
ISBN: 978-1400068937

Further reading

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

The Season of Second Chances for The Season of Second Chances, by Diane Meier – A Review & Rant

I recently finished The Season of Second Chances, by Diane Meier and liked it so much that I didn’t want to write about it!

I do that sometimes after experiencing a great movie, opera, musical or book. When something touches me profoundly, I want it all to myself. Talking or writing about it somehow takes the shine off my new found treasure. And then there is that Bridget Jones insecurity tapping me on the shoulder telling me that my review could never give it due justice, or I would gush about it so much that people will think I am nuts. Well, more nuts.

So, I have been holding it in savoring my selfish indulgence until this week when I read Ms. Meier’s poignant commentary on publishing, media and buyers perceptions of literature vs. chick-lit in the Huffington Post. I was miffed. Not only had her charming book received positive reviews from all sectors, it also garnered some not so complementary criticisms from those who wanted to classify it as chick-lit because its forty-something female protagonist renovates her home, and the cover has flowers on it. Flowers? Flowers now disqualify books from being literature and earmark them as chick-lit? Conversely, one reader review on Amazon hated it because it wasn’t chick-lit! Go Figure! Like her sharp, funny and insightful book Diane had the perfect come-back to this dilemma.

Okay, I wanted to respond, I’m sorry that you’re disappointed, but it’s like trying to blame a hot dog for not being ice cream.

Exactly!

What I didn’t see was that the chick-lit argument had landed squarely on my doorstep.

Was “The Season of Second Chances” Chick Lit or not? That, in itself, became the general theme of most reviews, professional and consumer.

“Five stars because it is NOT Chick Lit.”

“Zero stars because it is NOT Chick Lit.”

What? Who asked for this as a mark of critical analysis?

I will let you make your own decision, but first, you must read the book to understand the debate. Here’s a teaser and some thoughts…

Forty-eight year old English literature professor Joy Harkness has been avoiding relationships all her life. After fifteen years in the cold, competitive confines of Columbia University she accepts an exciting new position at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Eager to leave the spurious glamour of the New York lifestyle behind, she packs up her small cluttered apartment and purchases a once majestic Victorian house sorely in need of a major renovation. (not quite as disastrous as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, but close). Everyone insists that she contact local home restoration magician Teddy Hennessy. The man who shows up does not look very promising and their first few meetings are discouraging, but Joy soon discovers that this thirty-five year old laid back mama’s boy is a genius with plumbing, carpentry, vintage detailing and paint chips.

Joy’s anonymous lifestyle from New York soon changes as she makes connections in the community of supportive female co-workers on campus and a romance with an eligible professor. But it is simple, unassuming Teddy who makes the biggest impact on her life, transforming her house and her heart. In turn, she thinks that he needs a make-over and encourages him to return to college for his degree so he can teach (like her). However, his sad past and his domineering mommy-dearest have a strong hold on him that Joy may not be able to fix with her academic acumen.

Meier has crafted a story resplendent with memorable characters ready to make you laugh out loud and nod your head in recognition of the foibles and follies in us all. Joy is a literature professor who has formed her thinking, and her life around critical analysis of classics books. She treats people the same way. As we follow the narrative she throws in all sorts of literary and cultural references as antecedents peppering the plot with descriptors at the most important moments: “His eyes narrowing like a small-town spinster at the suggestion of living in sin.”, “She was a strange bird, almost attractive in a hard and urban way that “seemed to have flown too close to the scalpel.“”,  or my personal favorite, “Like a stripper, I knew my routine, how much to reveal and when to cover up again.” I read this book during my lunch breaks at work and laughed so hard that my co-workers (fellow booksellers) looked at me in amazement quizzing me on what I was reading. I was happy to let them in on the secret. “The Season of Second Chances was a witty coming of age at any age story filled with astute observations and characters so real and outrageously funny that Jane Austen would smile.” There is more… but I promised I would not gush.

I loved the ending, but I can’t tell you about it. Nope. Won’t go there. I feel a personal affinity to Joy Harkness, being a single woman of a certain age who is having her own season of second chances. I wrote to Ms. Meier and told her so. She kindly replied that she wrote the book just for me! *purr*

Back to the literature vs. chick-lit kerfuffle. If Jane Austen is credited as being the grandmother of chick-lit and she is considered one of the finest writers EVAH – those good folks in book award land should take heed. The Season of Second Chances deserves its own second chance. Let’s call it literature. No chick-lit. Even better, chick-ature. Any thing you call it, it’s a darn good book.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Season of Second Chances, by Diane Meier
Henry Holt & Company, Inc. (2010)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0805090819

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose