The Bridge to Belle Island, by Julie Klassen — A Review

The Bridge to Belle Island by Julie Klassen (2019)From the desk of Sophia Rose:

First, Julie Klassen pulled me into her writing with a haunting, gothic romantic suspense, The Secret of Pembrooke Park, and most recently delighted me with the world of a quaint English village and its occupants in her series, The Tales of Ivy Hill. In her latest release, Klassen wrote a romantic suspense that is slightly darker, splitting the setting of an island estate on the Thames and London. I love a good murder mystery, and setting it in the Regency period had me taking up The Bridge to Belle Island prepared for a reading treat.

Young lawyer, Benjamin Booker, has just experienced a humiliating loss in court when the client he thought innocent had charmed him into risking all to defend her and it turned out she had utterly lied. He feels that he has disappointed his mentor at the firm and took a hard hit to his confidence in reading people and situations. However, he soon has the opportunity to prove himself to his mentor, Mr. Hardy, when Mr. Hardy wants justice for the death of his former colleague at the firm who lately held the position of trustee for the Wilder family and was murdered in their London Town House.

Living retired from the rest of the world on Belle Island, Isabelle Wilder has seen a great deal of tragic death in her family and it has left her with an extreme fear that won’t allow her to leave her island family home for years now. She is sorry to miss her niece’s engagement party in London because of her own weakness. The night of the party, Isabelle has a terrible dream that their skinflint trustee was murdered. She is dismayed when Mr. Booker, a skeptical lawyer from the family firm, shows up both to sort their legal matters brought on by the death of her trustee, but also to investigate the death with her as the chief suspect. It was a dream when she saw vivid images of the death, right? She has nothing to hide, she hopes, so welcomes Mr. Booker to Belle Island and invites him into her life there where he starts to mellow toward her until disturbing facts start to come to light leading right to her door.

There is a lot to unpack when I look back on this story. It has two main characters, Benjamin and Isabelle, who took turns narrating. They are well developed, likable and yet flawed in their own ways. Isabelle is in deep fear of dying in a tragic way if she leaves the island as a result of not coming to peace with the past loss of parents and sister, her only close family with the exception of her beloved niece. Benjamin struggles with the issue of inadequacy because he was never good enough with his father like his over-achieving brother and because he isn’t interested in the family medical practice. This is where the inspirational element is strongest as they work through their issues and learn to rely on their beliefs and promises in Scripture to aid them to overcome their issues.

The attention to the historical background and the island setting was well done as usual. I enjoyed learning about life on the island estate that was on the Thames. The growing of the willow reeds for the basket weaving that was their prime income besides the sheep herd was fascinating but never tedious. There is also focus on how criminal investigation was handled in those pre-CSI days and on trusteeships and their effect on single gentlewomen.

The murder mystery is front and center at different times and I enjoyed the clever twists and turns it takes as Benjamin gets to the truth. The murderer and motive took me by surprise.  I was just starting to get a glimmer when the big reveal moment came.

As to the romance, it’s a slow burn one and doesn’t come completely into the open until near the end. It takes a back seat to the mystery, to personal and spiritual growth, and even to family. But it’s there subtly strengthening in the background until it’s time to shine near the end. Some might prefer the romance to be more overt and show itself much earlier, but I thought the pacing and development worked well for this story.

All in all, The Bridge to Belle Island was a superb read. Julie Klassen is a deft hand at taking the reader back to the Regency Era with her engaging characters and the gentle flow of the story that passes quickly leaving the reader well-satisfied but still wanting more at the end. If you love sweet Regency Romance with strong inspirational flavor but want the spice of a cunning murder mystery, this book is for you.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Bridge to Belle Island by Julie Klassen
Bethany House Publishers (2019)
Hardcover, trade paperback, ebook, and audiobook (400) pages
ISBN-13: 978-0764218194

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AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | INDIEBOUND | GOODREADS

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received a review copy of this book 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. Austenprose.com is an Amazon.com affiliate. We receive a modest remuneration when readers use our links and make a purchase. 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.”

Cover image courtesy of Bethany House Publishers © 2019; text Sophia Rose © 2019, Austenprose.com

The Watsons, by Rose Servitova and Jane Austen — A Review

The Watsons, by Rose Servitova and Jane Austen (2019)

From the desk of Debra E. Marvin:

Author of The Longbourn Letters, Rose Servitova’s candid preface in The Watsons intrigued me as much as the concept of someone taking on an incomplete Austen manuscript. It’s believed Miss Austen began the story around 1803, but it was no more than a partial manuscript at the time of her death. Published in that form by her nephew in 1871, the original document is safely archived ‘as is’ with her edits and revisions. Once I began Ms. Servitova’s novel, I immediately trusted her efforts—dare I say chutzpah—to be the latest to co-author with Jane Austen. What delicate kid slippers to fill!

You’ll not be surprised to learn the story centers on a particular family of a kind, well-read, possibly dying gentleman lax in providing for his adult daughters. Around them, a circle of friends and acquaintances carries on with the business of gossip and country balls. Our protagonist is nineteen-year-old Emma Watson who’s returned home unexpectantly after being a long-time ward of her wealthy aunt and uncle. Because of this, both her family and their neighbors are practically strangers to her.

“Yes. Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor- which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony. She must marry, and I pray that it will happen soon,” said Elizabeth, “that she may rob a gentleman of his fortune and us of her company.”

Emma’s fourteen years away have produced a well-spoken and well-mannered young woman now surprised by the rather rough edges of two manipulative sisters, and the novelty of being the newest single female in want of a husband. Continue reading

A Matter of Honor: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Abigail Reynolds — A Review

A Matter of Honor: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Abigail Reynolds (2019)From the desk of Debbie Brown:

Abigail Reynolds continues to outdo herself, to the delight of JAFF readers throughout the world. Her name is one of the most recognizable in the genre, and for good reason. She’s been providing unique ways for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet to fall in love for over a decade. While many authors run out of fresh ideas after one or two solid books, her prolific writing keeps improving.

In her recently released A Matter of Honor, she’s given Darcy and Elizabeth some new obstacles. She mostly ignores Longbourn and Pemberley and, while Hunsford and Rosings loom large in the plot, her book goes to Kent only briefly, spending most of its time in Scotland.

The story begins six months after Elizabeth refused Darcy’s insulting marriage proposal and accepted his letter the following morning, but their paths haven’t crossed since. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy are returning to Netherfield, each praying he can win the forgiveness and love of his respective Bennet sister. Both gentlemen are shunned by the entire Meryton community, and they’re turned away from Longbourn. When Bingley discovers the reason, he angrily confronts Darcy. “You ruined [Elizabeth], and with her, you ruined the woman I love. Because of you, Miss Elizabeth has had to leave Longbourn forever. The Bennets are in deep disgrace.”

Darcy didn’t do anything wrong, but he figures this is an easy fix: he’ll just talk to Mr. Bennet and offer to marry Elizabeth, which is what he’d planned to do anyway.

Nope. Mr. Bennet won’t budge. “Lizzy does not wish to marry you, and she will do so only over my dead body…  She is out of your reach. I am the only person who knows where she is, and I will not tell you.”But it’s Darcy he’s talking to here, and you just know he’s not giving up so easily. It’s a matter of honor, after all─honor and love. The search is on! Continue reading

A Convenient Fiction: Parish Orphans of Devon Book 3, by Mimi Matthews — A Review

A Convenient Fiction, by Mimi Matthews (2019)From the desk of Debbie Brown:

I need “Me” time. Frequently. My husband and I joke about my need for a “Leave Me Alone!” hat as a signal that I am NOT to be disturbed for a while. Anyone else feel this way sometimes? When the worries pile up, you feel the need to go somewhere by yourself, shut all the noise out, and forget about your obligations temporarily. It’s therapeutic. It recharges your batteries.

That’s why the beginning of A Convenient Fiction immediately grabbed my attention. Laura Hayes is hiding away from everything that bothers her. She chooses a rather unorthodox method of escape, especially considering this is Victorian England: she swims below the surface of the pond at Talbot’s Wood, wishing it were the sea, and tries to remain underwater as long as possible without coming up to breathe. “There was nothing of the world underwater. No unmet expectations. No burdens too heavy to carry. Nothing, save herself, and the sound of her own beating heart.”

Then a strange man shows up compelled to “rescue” her.

Okay, Alex Archer thought she was drowning, but he ruined what would otherwise have been a perfectly lovely morning for Miss Hayes. What’s particularly embarrassing is that she’s wearing only her chemise and drawers to swim, leaving the rest of her clothing folded neatly near the banks of the pond. What’s he doing on private property, anyway?

It doesn’t take long for Laura to find out. She meets him later the same day when she joins her friend Henrietta Talbot to serve as a chaperone. Mr. Archer is supposedly a “friend” of George Wright, the ne’er-do-well son of the local vicar who’s been away from home for quite some time. In fact, George’s huge gambling debt to Alex is way over his head. In lieu of payment, George provides the introduction to Henrietta, his childhood friend, who will inherit Squire Talbot’s profitable country estate, Edgington Park, as well as a fortune from her late mother. Continue reading

The Bride of Northanger: A Jane Austen Variation, by Diana Birchall — A Review

The Bride of Northanger: A Jane Austen Variation, by Diana Birchall (2019)From the desk of Debbie Brown:

Soon, All Hallow’s Eve will be upon us, when restless spirits of the dead are said to roam. What better time to pick up a gothic Austenesque novel centered around an ancestral family curse that continues to claim its victims? Beware, brave readers: this tome is not for the faint of heart. Several characters will not survive until the end of the story. (Cue creepy organ music, a bolt of lightning, and evil laughter!)

Diana Birchall’s latest, The Bride of Northanger, is a sequel to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. In this case, General Tilney’s estate is the setting for melodramatic goings-on that are NOT the products of anyone’s imagination.

Catherine Morland – who becomes Catherine Tilney in the early pages here – is a year older and wiser. She has put aside silly gothic romances and instead reads more scholarly works. (There’s an interesting subtext here: her husband Henry is happy to see how educated she is becoming but, since she is a woman, there are limits on how much education is desirable in a wife.) Our more mature heroine is determined to control her imagination, though she still retains curiosity that must be satisfied. As she says, “I am no longer a fanciful girl, given to fears.” Her resolve is sorely tested throughout the book.

As the book opens, Henry reluctantly explains the superstitious rumor that the Tilney family is cursed. “…the race of Tilney might survive, but its fruitfulness be blighted forevermore. The wife of each firstborn son would die, either in terror or in madness, early in her life…” That doesn’t apply to Catherine since Henry isn’t the firstborn – his older brother Frederick is. But she’s no longer superstitious, so she’s not dissuaded anyway. Continue reading

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, by Lucy Worsley — A Review

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, by Lucy Worsely (2017)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

What can the places that Jane Austen called home tell us about the author’s life and work? In Jane Austen at Home, historian, author, and BBC presenter Lucy Worsley looks at the author’s life through the lens of Austen’s homes.  As Worsley notes in the book’s introduction, “For Jane, home was a perennial problem. Where could she afford to live? Amid the many domestic duties of an unmarried daughter and aunt, how could she find the time to write? Where could she keep her manuscripts safe?” (1) Worsley seeks to place Jane Austen “into her social class and time” while admitting that, as an Austen reader and biographer, she has a vision of the beloved author that allows Jane to speak for her and to her circumstances. “Jane’s passage through life, so smooth on the surface, seems sharply marked by closed doors, routes she could not take, choices she could not make. Her great contribution was to push those doors open, a little bit, for us in later generations to slip through.” (4)

Jane Austen at Home is divided into four major sections, titled as acts in a play. I thought this a lovely touch by Ms. Worsley, reminding readers of the Austen family’s love of amateur theatricals. “Act One: A Sunny Morning at the Rectory” covers Austen’s early life at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire (1775-1801). During this period, Jane traveled to relatives’ homes and even lived away at boarding schools for several years. Nonetheless, Steventon remained her place of safety until her father’s retirement forced Mr. and Mrs. Austen, along with Cassandra and Jane, to move to Bath.

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire

Steventon Rectory, Hampshire

Continue reading

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 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

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 teacups 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 a desire to hear more of his rhetoric, and to become familiar with his not-so-attractive yet completely arresting face—for this face, at 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