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 a 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 the 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

Giveaway Winner Announced for Death Sits Down to Dinner

Death Sits Down to Dinner by Tessa Arlen x 200It’s time to announce the winner of the giveaway of one hardcover copy of Death Sits Down to Dinner, by Tessa Arlen. The lucky winner was drawn at random and is:

  • Paige B., who left a comment on March 30, 2016.

Congratulations Paige! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by April 13, 2016, or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments, to author Tessa Arlen for her great interview and to her publisher Minotaur Books for the giveaway copy.

Cover image courtesy of Minotaur Books © 2016, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2016, Austenprose.com

Q & A with Tessa Arlen – Author of Death Sits Down to Dinner

Death Sits Down to Dinner by Tessa Arlen x 200Please help me welcome historical mystery author Tessa Arlen to Austenprose today during her blog tour of her new novel, Death Sits Down to Dinner, the second book in her Lady Monfort series.

Firstly, I want to congratulate Tessa on her recent nomination for the Agatha Award for her debut novel, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman. I enjoyed it tremendously, and obvious others did as well. Set at an Edwardian era English country manor house, it is the first novel in the Lady Montfort series. Death Sits Down to Dinner was released on March 29th, 2016 and is set in London. The two novels are now Town and Country bookends!

Welcome Tessa!

Comparisons of your novels to Downton Abbey were inevitable. When were you first inspired to write a mystery novel, and why did you select Edwardian era English aristocrats and their servants as your main characters?

I have always loved English history and in particular the short window of time we call the Edwardian era (1901-1914). It was an era of great innovation in all areas, but there was a tremendous leap forward in fine arts, the arts and crafts movement and the performing arts. The last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries saw huge innovations in communication, transportation and manufacturing, but I think the early 1910s were rich in societal changes: the fight for the women’s franchise became decidedly nasty with the breakaway from women’s suffrage movement of the Women’s Social and Political Union (Suffragettes). The Irish were becoming more assertive about Home Rule; there was a Liberal government hell bent on social reform and taxing the landowners to provide funds for those changes, and the House of Commons broke the power of veto in the House of Lords which meant that bills for social reform could be passed more quickly. But the rich had never been richer nor the poor more desperate. I thought it a perfect era to write a murder mystery!

I sat myself down to write the book that eventually became Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman in 2008. It was really an exercise in whether I could actually write a full length novel. I wanted my two main characters to come from opposite ends of the class spectrum so they might represent the rigid caste distinctions of the time. Combined with this was my love of the Golden Age of mystery, where the writer gathered a group of ecccentrics together, isolated them in a country house, or on an island, or even on board an ocean liner and turned up the heat with a spot of murder. I was not in the least influenced by Downton, but I was very happy for it to introduce my book to a group of people who were already in love with this time. Continue reading

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman: A Mystery, by Tessa Arlen – A Review

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen 2015 x 200For those who are in the doldrums after last week’s final episode of season five of Downton Abbey and in need of another English country manor house upstairs/downstairs story, Tessa Arlen’s debut novel could fit the bill. Set at the fictional estate of Iyntwood in the summer of 1913, Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is a murder mystery in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and P.G. Wodehouse. Here is a brief preview and review for your consideration:

DESCRIPTION (from the publisher)

Lady Montfort has been planning her annual summer costume ball for months, and with scrupulous care. Pulling together the food, flowers and a thousand other details for one of the most significant social occasions of the year is her happily accepted responsibility. But when her husband’s degenerate nephew is found murdered, it’s more than the ball that is ruined. In fact, Lady Montfort fears that the official police enquiry, driven by petty snobbery and class prejudice, is pointing towards her son as a potential suspect.

Taking matters into her own hands, the rather over-imaginative countess enlists the help of her pragmatic housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, to investigate the case, track down the women that vanished the night of the murder, and clear her son’s name. As the two women search for a runaway housemaid and a headstrong young woman, they unearth the hidden lives of Lady Montfort’s close friends, servants and family and discover the identity of a murderer hiding in plain sight.

In this enchanting debut sure to appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, Tessa Arlen draws readers into a world exclusively enjoyed by the rich, privileged classes and suffered by the men and women who serve them. Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is an elegant mystery filled with intriguing characters and fascinating descriptions of Edwardian life–a superb treat for those who love British novels.

Continue reading

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke – A Review

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke 2013From the desk of Christina Boyd

It you are a fan of Downton Abbey and are jonesing for a Grantham family-like fix until season four premieres next January on PBS, Elizabeth Cooke’s latest novel Rutherford Park might be just the ticket. Set during the Edwardian era at the eponymous estate in the Yorkshire countryside, the Cavendish family are as wealthy, titled, and drama-filled as the Grantham’s, yet we are privileged to be reading a book, as opposed to watching a screenplay, so the author’s historical detail, characterizations and compelling narrative make it even more intriguing

Rutherford Park is the seat of the Cavendish family who live their lavish lives by strict rules and obligation. Not surprisingly, the beautiful Lady Octavia Cavendish is lonely and bored, even somewhat envies the servants for their work. Her husband William, bound by the obligations of his title and his vows, unknowingly feels a similar discontent. “They saw him as some sort of fixed being, a symbol, a caricature. Octavia too, perhaps, in her great wool-and-velvet shawl with her pretty little straw-colored boots under a cream dress. They were both a sort of monument, he supposed: not real in the same way that the laborers were real…” p. 52. Later when Octavia suspects William of an affair with a longtime family acquaintance from Paris, the last remnants of a charmed world seemed to disappear. Continue reading