Longbourn’s Songbird: A Novel, by Beau North – A Review

Longbourns Songbird Beau North 2015 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny Ryder:

Much of the Jane Austen Fan Fiction that I read usually falls in to two categories: works that take place during the Regency Period and works that take place during contemporary times. Works that take place during times of war are fairly rare (Darcy Goes to War by Mary Lydon Simonsen being a notable exception) and works that take place in the South (Mary Jane Hathaway’s Jane Austen Takes the South series being the only other example I’ve read) are also unfamiliar to me. Enter Longbourn’s Songbird by debut author Beau North, a re-imagined version of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice taking place in 1940’s South Carolina.

It’s 1948, only three short years since the end of the Second World War. The setting is the small, sleepy town of Meryton, South Carolina in the American south. Will Darcy has come to visit Charles Bingley and conclude some business in the acquisition of Longbourn Farms. While there, he comes across Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who despite the painful events of her past finds that she can’t stop thinking about Mr. Darcy, who engages and challenges her enough to bring her out of the vanilla monotony that she has settled in to as of late to protect her emotionally. Not only do we get to experience the charged and engaging dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy, but we also have a host of other interactions that play out, including an interesting relationship between Bingley and Jane Bennet. Jane is terrified when she realizes that Charles fancies her and has recently purchased Netherfield Plantation, because she is afflicted by diabetes, which she knows will limit her lifespan and may make Bingley rethink his choice. Continue reading

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

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 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