Book Review ~ “A Broken Vessel”

ross-broken-vessel-coverJulian Kestrel returns in this second mystery by Kate Ross [Viking 1994], A Broken Vessel.  Several months after his amateur but superior sleuthing at Bellegarde, home of the Fontclairs, [see Ross’s first book, Cut to the Quick, and my review] Kestrel is again thrown into the mix of murder and mayhem when the sister of his manservant, Dipper, shows up in her brother’s life after a two-year absence.  Sally Stokes is a prostitute and a thief, made of the same cloth as her now-reformed [hopefully] pick-pocket brother. After an evening of turning tricks with three very different “coves,” from each of whom she steals a handkerchief,  she discovers a letter written by an unknown woman, mysteriously locked up in an unnamed place, begging forgiveness and help from her family.  But whose pocket did Sally lift the letter from? – Bristles, the middle-aged skittish man; Blue Eyes, the elegant and handsome gentleman of the “Quality”; or Blinkers, the be-speckled young man who played all too rough with Sally, leaving her sore, battered and frightened. 

Here is how we first see Sally: 

She pulled the pins out of her hair and put them on the washstand for safe-keeping; she was always losing hairpins.  Her nut-brown hair tumbled over her shoulders: long at the back, but curling at the front and sides, in imitation of the fashion plates in shop windows.  Not that she would ever look like one of them, with their fair skins, straight noses, and daintily pursed lips.  She had a brown complexion, a snub nose and a wide mouth, with a missing tooth just visible when she smiled.  Still, she was satisfied with her face.  There was not much an enterprising girl could not do with a little cunning and a pair of liquid brown eyes.

So Dipper brings Sally to his apartment to get her off the street and give her a chance to heal.  He shares this apartment with his employer, Julian Kestrel, the Regency dandy, known far and wide for his fashion and manners, the man everyone emulates in all things dress and gentlemanly behavior.  We have already learned in Ross’s first book that there is so much more to Kestrel than this dandified appearance – his growing friendship with Dr. MacGregor serves as a foil for the reader to see Kestrel in more human terms, and MacGregor’s unasked questions become ours: all we know is that Kestrel’s father was a gentleman, disinherited upon marrying an actress, and that Kestrel has been an orphan for a good many years.  Although he appears to have money and is viewed as such by his cohorts, we, the reader, and Dipper know this not to be the case – but where DOES he get the funds to lead this gentleman’s life, buy these fine clothes, live in France and Italy for years before settling in London?  We learn a bit more in this book…but not much!

 Here is Dr. MacGregor, not of London and critical of all the goings-on there, learning about the gentlemanly art of duelling:

 ‘If you thought he was lying or hiding something. Why didn’t you tax him with it?’ asks MacGregor.

[Kestrel]  ‘If I called him a liar point-blank, I should have had to stand up with him, which would have been deuced inconvenient, and not at all part of my plans.’

‘Do you mean to say you’d have exchanged pistol shots with him over a mere matter of words?’

‘Not if there were any honourable way to avoid it.  But accusing a gentleman of lying is the deadliest of insults. If he’d insisted on receiving satisfaction, I should have had no choice but to give it to him.”

‘But that’s preposterous! It’s criminal!  I don’t understand you at all.  One minute you’re investigating a possible murder with all the seriousness it deserves – and the next minute you say you’d stand up and shoot at a man because he took offence at something you said!’

‘Duelling isn’t murder, whatever the press and pulpit say about it.  If one gentleman insults another, he knows what the consequences will be: they’ll fight according to the laws of honour, as nations fight according to the laws of war.  Killing an unarmed man, or -God forbid!- a woman, is completely different.’

‘Well, I suppose you can’t help those wrong-eaded notions.  You probably learned them at your father’s knee before you were old enough to know better.’

‘Oddly enough, my father had much the same view of duelling as you do.  But then, my father was too good to live.’ He added quietly,  ‘And he didn’t.’
  

 

 The discovery of the letter wrapped up in one of Sally’s stolen handkerchiefs sets the plot in motion – they must find which of the three men carried the letter, who the woman is, and where she is being held.  Many plot twists, many characters appearing, each with a tale to tell – are they all connected in some way, or are they all separate unrelated but oh so interesting mysteries of their own?  When Sally finally discovers that the woman who wrote the letter was an “inmate” of the Reclamation Society’s prison-like home for recovering prostitutes and has been found dead from an apparent suicide, Kestrel’s shackles are raised, his detective skills in high gear, and he, Sally and Dipper pursue the three men to find out the truth.  And along the way, we see Dr. MacGregor’s astute eye upon Sally and her effect on Kestrel – can this street-wise, sharp little spitfire possibly soften the edges of the leader of the ton?  Or is Kestrel immune to such feminine wiles? (and those “liquid brown eyes!) 

Ross writes a compelling tale, her research into Regency England, its language (she is adept at presenting the dialect of the streets and the Regency-speak of the “Quality”), the manners and mores, evident on every page; her knowledge of the underside of London life makes the telling very graphic and realistic – you will learn much about prostitution on the streets of London, the religious zealots who acted against it (indeed, the title is from a Psalm), the Bow Street Runners and the all too-ineffective police forces of the time, and best of all, the mystery is excellent!  and while I often “figure” these things out, I was most pleased to have the various side stories pull together with a few surprises along the way.  All in all, a fine mystery, with wonderfully drawn characters, and enough tidbits about Kestrel’s background to more than gently coax this reader into the third book in the series, Whom the Gods Love.

 4 1/2 full inkwells (out of 5)

Book Review ~ “Cut to the Quick”

cut_to_the_quickI spent a good part of the December holidays making the acquaintance of Julian Kestrel – Regency dandy, amateur sleuth, and main character in a series of mysteries by Kate Ross [alas! not unlike Jane Austen, Ms. Ross died of cancer at a young age and we have only four of these Kestrel novels to read, and re-read, and likely read again.]  I highly recommend you head immediately to your local library or local bookstore and start the first book, RIGHT NOW.  You are in for a most fabulous journey!

 

 Cut to the Quick [Viking 1993] is sort of an Agatha Christie whodunit – all the characters together in a large cavernous country house named Bellegarde, partly built in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, with winding staircases and secret passageways; an unknown woman is found dead, everyone in the house has a back story and the plot unfolds…. 

The novel begins with Julian Kestrel rescuing a very “in his cups” Hugh Fontclair from a game of hazard at a London gaming establishment. In gratitude Fontclair asks Kestrel to be best man at his wedding, though they have only just met, and as Kestrel has no idea why he is being asked, he decides to head to the country to find out why. 

Enter the characters:  Hugh Fontclair, just 21, forced into a marriage with a woman he does not know; Sir Robert and Lady Fontclair, Hugh’s parents, agreeing to the marriage but obviously hiding something; Lady Tarleton, Sir Robert’s sharp-tongued, very angry sister; Colonel Fontclair, Sir Robert’s brother, a war hero; Guy, the Colonel’s son, a likeable, ne’er do-well, often drunk rake; Philippa Fontclair, Hugh’s eleven-year old sister, immediately smitten with Kestrel; Isabelle, the orphaned cousin with hopeless feelings for Hugh; Maud Craddock, Hugh’s wife-to-be, a pawn in her father’s plans, who befriends Kestrel; Mark Craddock, Maud’s father, a wealthy tradesman shunned by the Fontclairs – but he holds all the cards; Dr. MacGregor, summoned to the house to deal with the dead body – he becomes Kestrel’s confidante and friend; Dipper, Kestrel’s manservant; and of course, the unidentified corpse … WHO is found dead in Kestrel’s bed.  As they are the unknown house quests, both Kestrel and Dipper are the prime suspects, and Kestrel is drawn into solving the crime, at first to prove his own and Dipper’s innocence and then because his sleuthing skills are far superior to anyone else’s, including the local magistrates and London’s Bow Street Runners.  Not all is as it seems at Bellegarde. 

And so we are introduced to Ross’s alter ego, her young Regency dandy, the “top of the tree,” the fashionista of London’s “Quality”, where what Kestrel does (or doesn’t do) is copied by one and all: 

Kestrel had first appeared in London society a year or two ago, and hardly anything was known about him, though he was said to be related in some dubious way to a landed family in the north.  If he had been anything but a dandy, such vagueness about his pedigree would have been fatal, but of course the most spectacular of the dandies was absolved from society’s usual inquisition into breeding and birth.

 ‘He always wears black in the evening – it’s all the crack in the dandy set, and of course Kestrel, being such a howling swell, was one of the first to take it up…’

 And we learn more about his appearance through the eyes of 11-year old Philippa when she first sees him:

 She looked at him approvingly, liking him much better that the dull, handsome men [her sister] Joanna admired.  He had a dark, irregular face and hair of a rich brown, like mahogany.  His eyes were brown too, but with a green gleam about them, especially when he smiled, or was looking at you very intently.  He was slender and spare and not above medium height, but he had presence – the way royalty probably did in the old days, before it was fat and fussy and came from Germany.  He looked splendid in his clothes, and yet there was nothing showy or striking about them, except that his linen was so spotless, and everything fit him so well.  Being a dandy was not so much what you wore, Philippa decided, but how you wore it.

regency-dandy

But we quickly learn that Kestrel too is not what he seems – he has a past we only see glimpses of, his present life of apparent wealth not quite the case; he has a thief for a manservant; and he has a charm and a wit that disarms most every woman he encounters, and many of the men as well.  His integrity is never in doubt – he is honest and true, and he can read others with little fuss – in short, the perfect objective detective [even his name is telling!] – he is another Peter Wimsey, Adam Dalgliesh, Alan Grant, Roderick Alleyn – all themselves a mystery to draw the reader in, but here with the setting of Regency England.  And in each book, Ross gives out a few tidbits of information about him: see how much we discover about him from this description of his home:

 Julian Kestrel lived in a first-floor flat in Clarges Street.  The ceilings were high, and the windows large.  The walls were painted ivory.  The mahogany furniture was handsome but not too plentiful; Julian hated clutter.  Here and there were keepsakes he had picked up on his travels:  a Venetian glass decanter, a Moorish prayer rug, a marble head of a Roman goddess, an oil painting of the Tuscan hills.  Crossed rapiers hung over the mantelpiece; they looked ornamental, but closer inspection revealed they had seen a good deal of use.  A small bust of Mozart occupied a place of honor by the pianoforte.  Under the piano was a canterbury full of well-worn sheets of music.

 And Ross showcases the Regency in all its glories – it helps to know something of the period (the Regency Lexicon is most useful!), as she weaves her story through country roads, in carriages and coaches, in London’s streets, the architecture of the houses, the description of the fashions, the elegant social life – it is all here.  And did I mention that this is a MYSTERY?? – it is deftly drawn, Ross a master of characterization and plot.  No more on that score, as you must just read the book! But as for me, I am on to the next, Broken Vessel, another mystery with hopefully a few more facts about Kestrel and I will continue my reviewing henceforth!

4 1/2 full inkwells (out of 5)

Two Guys Read Jane Austen (a review)

two-guys

With women predominating JASNA-Vermont’s chapter, one question that continually arises is: What do MEN have to say about Jane Austen’s novels?? In the end, according to TWO GUYS READ JANE AUSTEN, the answer is multi-faceted and not always gender-specific.

TWO GUYS READ JANE AUSTEN is a delight, guaranteed to make the reader chuckle – and read certain sections out loud to anyone who will listen. Being quickly published proves a boon, as timely topics like Anne Hathaway and Becoming Jane are subjects of the first letters: 

 “…I was hoping you and Kathy could weigh in with an opinion. We just saw Anne in the film Becoming Jane ….Miranda didn’t much like her, but then, in my experience, Anne Hathaway is a bit of a litmus test. If you like her, you’re a man; if you don’t you’re a woman.”

The epistolary style of the book (email versus letters) recalls 84, Charing Cross Road, although the poignancy of that novel is missing. While readers will learn a bit about the lives of authors Steve Chandler and Terry Hill, it is for their quips and deeper thoughts on Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice that will have you pulling this off the shelf for a re-read every once in a while. TWO GUYS READING JANE AUSTEN would be useful to many book groups; it would engender discussion on (especially) Pride and Prejudice. Continue reading

Chicago Beckons … and a Mini Round-up

        …if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad…

                                        –Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

  Off to the AGM in Chicago…will post on the many adventures upon my return…!

But before I depart, here are a few items worth sharing:

*JASNA has posted online the book reviews in its Summer News issue; there are reviews for the following books (this is great resource for book reviews:  scroll down for other issues)

*Want to go back in time?  here is an article with some sobering insights on real life in the past we so hanker for:   “Back in the Good Old Days”at WalesOnline.

*JASNA is looking for someone to draw a map of Bath in Austen’s time for their online collection of maps… for more information see the Central New Jersey JASNA Chapter blog.

*On the Janeites discussion group, there was a post with the following quizzes, all Austen-related:

http://www.ylcf.org/you/personality-janeausten.htm

http://www.visitbath.co.uk/lovebath/quirky-romance/jane-austen-quiz

http://www.quizilla.com/quizzes/3788704/which-male-jane-austen-
character-will-you-marry

http://www.quibblo.com/quiz/FkX0U4/What-Jane-Austen-woman-are-you-most-
like?view_quiz=1

http://www.funtrivia.com/quizzes/literature/authors_a-c/jane_austen.html

*See this travel blog that treks in search of Darcy, with many pictures of Chatsworth and other sites relating to P&P.

*The Independent reports of the “re-invention” of High Tea and Afternoon Tea in London and environs as a way to fill up at less the cost….and in grand style!

Book Review: Pemberley Shades

Kathleen Glancy in her “Persuasions” article “What Happened Next? The Many Husbands of Georgiana Darcy”(Vol. 11, 1989, pp. 110-116) states that D.A. [Dorothy Alice] Bonavia-Hunt’s Pemberley Shades is the best written of all the sequels she has read, and though “lacking in the irony department….it is a brave try, and an amusing story.”  [spoiler alert!…Ms. Glancy in this article tells the full story, so read this after you have read the book!]

Published originally in 1949 by Allan Wingate in the U.K. and by Dutton in the U.S., Pemberley Shades is finally available again (it was reprinted in 1977 and again in 2007, but quickly out of print, and only available from antiquarian booksellers and sure to finish off your annual book budget…there is one online for $650.), so this Sourcebooks 2008 reprint is welcome indeed!

There is little known about the author, and even if perhaps she ever wrote anything else under another name; but what is known is that she was born in London, the daughter of a clergyman, was educated by a governess and in private schools, and lived with her brother, the Vicar of Stagsden, Bedfordshire, during the time she wrote her Austen Pride & Prejudice sequel.  She obviously was knowledgeable about Austen and the Georgian period, and comes very close to Austen’s style.

The title “Pemberley Shades” refers to Lady Catherine’s angry retort to Elizabeth “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” (ch. 56, P&P)  Austen’s use of the word “shades” has generated many theories and some research into the word does little to clarify.  Austen was likely being intentionally ambiguous- with a literal reference to the woods and forests of Pemberley, with the darkness and shadows, as well as the figurative meaning of the ancestral lineage and social standing of the Darcy family (i.e referring to the ghosts of ancestors.)   But there is so much darkness in this book, so many secrets and the sense of “not telling all” and characters living in shadow, the “lightly gothic” atmosphere pervading the story…the author chose the perfect term to headline her tale, in the same ambiguous way as Austen.

So the title itself leads into this gothic realm and the reader is on alert from page one, although it all SEEMS so peaceful and harmonious.  We  re-enter the lives of Darcy and Elizabeth a few years after the end of P&P:  they have a two-year old heir to the estate named Richard (an inside joke perhaps?!).  The action begins with the death of the elderly Rector of Pemberely, leaving his two maiden sisters in the Parsonage and Darcy in search of a successor.  Passing over Mr. Collins, who, on the outs with Lady C, has written an officious (though humorous of course!) letter of application, Darcy heads to London to engage the services of Lord Egbury’s brother Stephen Acworth, who has been highly recommended.

Acworth’s arrival at Pemberley sets the plot in motion:  his first meeting with Elizabeth who “at the moment of first beholding him [it] was her instant conviction of having seen him before”… we meet characters we know and those new to this story:  The Robinson sisters, who seem more like the sisters in Gaskell’s Cranford, set themselves at odds with the Darcys by supporting Acworth; Jane and Mr. Bingley the milquetoasts that Mr. Bennet so predicted; Mr. Bennet is wonderfully drawn here with his insights and many witticisms [“every woman requires a dose of neglect now and then to keep her from being above herself”]; Anne de Bourgh finally getting a moment to shine no longer under her mother’s watch [“Anne was not so much proud and disagreeable as stupid” says Elizabeth]; Lady C exactly the same; Acworth, an odd peculiar lost soul; and a host of servants and maids getting some prime time of their own, a nice touch.

But the story really centers on Georgiana Darcy and her three suitors, all new characters:  Mr. Mortimer, Major Wakeford, and the vicar-in-waiting Acworth.  Miss Darcy is a shadowy figure, aloof and secretive, with “something on her mind” as Elizabeth keeps saying; and the resolution of her courting dilemma propels the tale.  There is no point in telling more….it is a bit of a mystery and so I shall not divulge a thing!  But we can ask Who is Acworth and what are his motives in coming to Pemberley? and why does Elizabeth feel so uncomfortable in his presence? and why is Georgiana so secretive and preferring to be alone with her music?  It is a good story, and this reader was much impressed with the author’s use of language.  But of course there is no duplicating Austen, and so there are disappointments: the story feels a tad far-fetched; Darcy and Elizabeth are a wonderfully harmonious couple, all that lovers of P&P could hope for, but I found them both a little too perfect and more than a little condescending to all those around them; and Acworth is quite the disturbing character, something not quite right with him (I cannot say more!…);  and there is this underlying sadness that pervades the whole novel…but it is certainly compelling enough and has wit enough to definitely be added to your Austen sequel collection, and you shall enjoy the read immensely!

Further reading: see also Laurel Ann’s review at Austenprose.

Some reading thoughts…. Austen, etc.

Here are a few of the books lately graduated from my bedside table along with a other few random thoughts for YOUR bedside table ~

First on my list, and as soon as I get the book, will find me engrossed in the latest Keats’ biography, Posthumous Keats:  A Personal Biography, by Stanley Plumly [Norton, 2008]  Click here for the NYTimes review, and run to your local bookstore to pick up a copy…. 

I was in Rome last year and the one thing on the top of my “to-do” list was a visit to the Protestant Cemetery where Keats’s grave was covered in fresh flowers (a daily occurrence) by a still-mourning public… I was quite overcome (to the embarrassment of my husband!)…and not to mention the meandering walk to Shelley’s grave site through this haunting enclave in the center of the City, and then this followed by a lengthy visit to the Keats-Shelley House [right next to the Spanish Steps] where Keats died on February 23, 1821.  Plumly’s book is a loving tribute to Keats’s poetry and his immortality…

…but now back to Austen….

Laurel Ann at Austenprose had recommended these two books, and I quickly added them to my pile and just as quickly finished them off!

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman [Putnam’s 2006] (see the Austenprose review):  I have been reading several sequels lately in prep for the Chicago AGM, and I find that of late I am confusing the stories!  All these Austen characters who have taken on lives of their own now have these MULTIPLE lives with varying outcomes and I suppose I am left with the ability to choose which “ending” I prefer for any of them…I think perhaps this is why one takes up a pen to write ones own adventure for a given character!  So it was with all these sequels swimming in my head, as well as Laurel Ann’s glowing review that sent me to the library shelves to find Polly Shulman’s Enthusiasm, a book for young adults with the aura of Pride & Prejudice.  This has to be one of the most refreshing reads I have encountered in a long time!  I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but will quote the jacket blurb:

…equal parts romance and comedy as a series of misinterpreted messages and super-awkward incidents, not to mention some rather mystifying poetry tacked to a tree and a valiant foray onto the stage, makes Julie wonder whether she is cut out for Enthusiasm – or True Love – at all…

With characters the likes of Ashleigh, the Enthusiast (whose latest “enthusiasm” is P&P), Ned the Noodle, Amy (the semi-wicked stepmother dubbed “IA”, a.k.a. “Irresistible Accountant”) and the to-die-for Charles Grandison Parr (love the name!), this lovely tribute to P&P sent this reader back to all those wonderful and awful moments as a teenage girl that for some reason we never forget!  And I think what most surprised and pleased me was to find this library book much used!  I recommend highly that you find your way to this book as soon as possible….

Mr. Darcy’s Diary by Maya Slater [Phoenix, 2007] (see the Austenprose review):  Gentle Reader, here is the tale all told from Darcy’s point of view, thanks to the diary he so meticulously kept, and we learn of his love and concern for his sister (and what really happened with Wickham), his escapades with Byron (!), his periodic “tumbling” of the maid,  his growing obsession wih Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and his endless fencing and fisticuffs to overcome his mood swings.  Darcy is so human in this book…Ms. Slater is at turns witty and wise in portraying him in all his glory…. I liked this book more than any other of the sequels I have read so far…this is the Darcy who stays with me the most….the Darcy I had imagined off the pages of P&P.

I skimmed again through The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James in order to answer my co-blogger’s rather scathing review…(see the two reviews on this blog:  Kelly’s and mine and then contribute to the fray if you will!)…. this book seems to have generated a wide range of opinion…

Carolly Erickson’s Our Tempestuous Day [Morrow 1986] is a rapid trek through Regency England.  Erickson, the author of biographies of Elizabeth 1, Anne Boleyn, Bloody Mary, Henry VIII, Empress Josephine and many others…., Erickson here tells the tale of the times not as a linear chronological history, but rather a series of vignettes of events, people, and places, that after you are done you have a much better understanding of the times that Jane Austen was living and writing in… and really a whole new list of books to read! [I will review this book more fully in another post…] 

Charlotte & Leopold: the true story of the original people’s princess,  by James Chambers, a biography of the daughter of King George IV and Caroline, and their Regency times ….here is the blurb from Amazon:

The tragic story of the doomed romance between Charlotte, heir to the English throne, and Leopold, uncle of Queen Victoria and first King of the Belgians. A story that Jane Austen famously declined to tell, declaring: “I could no more write a romance than an epic poem.”

Charlotte was the only legitimate royal child of her generation, and her death in childbirth resulted in a public outpouring of grief the like of which was not to be seen again until the death of Diana, over 150 years later. Charlotte’s death was followed by an unseemly scramble to produce a substitute heir. Queen Victoria was the product.

James Chambers masterfully demonstrates how the personal and the political inevitably collide in scheming post-Napoleonic Europe, offering a vivid and sympathetic portrait of a couple whose lives are in many ways not their own. From the day she was born, Charlotte won the hearts of her subjects and yet, behind the scenes, she was used, abused, and victimized by rivalries-between her parents; between her father (the Prince Regent, later King George IV) and (Mad) King George III; between her tutors, governesses, and other members of her discordant household; and ultimately between the Whig opposition and the Tory government.

Set in one of the most glamorous eras of British history, against the background of a famously dysfunctional royal family, Charlotte & Leopold: The True Story of The Original People’s Princess is an accessible, moving, funny, and entertaining royal biography with alluring contemporary resonance.

A new book out in March by Peter Graham, titled Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: naturalists and novelists (click for the table of contents), and a tad pricey at $99.  reads “3 or 4 families in a country village” : this phrase by which Jane Austen identifies the most congenial subject matter for novels as she chose to write them can also serve to characterize the environment that proved ideal for Charles Darwin’s naturalist observations.” 

Lady Anne at Jane Austen Today has nicely reviewed the new book Jane Eyre’s Daughter, by Elizabeth Newark.

As for the Austen sequels, head over to Austenprose for a review of several being published this September: Pemberley Shades, by Dorothy Bonavia-Hunt [I have just finished this book and will post a review this week; see Laurel Ann’s review hot off the press today!]; Netherfield Park Revisited by Rebecca Ann Collins (Book 3 of the “Pemberley Chronicles”); The Darcys and the Bingleys by Marsha Altman [see Ms. Altman’s post here; I will be reviewing this book shortly], and Impulse and Initiative, a Pride & Prejudice Variation by Abigail Reynolds. 

Just Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen’s Life, by Nancy Moser is given a lengthy review at the BC Blog Critics magazine site.

Ms. Place interviews Diana Birchall on her new book Mrs. Elton in America.

A short blurb on a fantasy fiction book which should excite Austen and Bronte fans:The Magicians and Mrs. Quent,” by Galen Beckett. (Bantam Spectra; $23)

Fans of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters will be in a familiar landscape reading “The Magicians and Mrs. Quent.” Click here to find out more!

 This fantasy debut uses those authors’ famous works as a template. Does the place name Heathcrest Hall ring any chimes? 
Ivy Lockwell is the eldest of three sisters. It is Ivy who is caught in polite society between holding the family together, after the reclusion of the sisters’ father in his library, and her chafing against the stricture of not being able to use magic (or magick, to use the genre spelling). She is female, after all, and magic also is seen as the cause of her father’s reclusiveness. Of the novel’s three parts, the second, “Heathcrest,” limns relationships nicely from Ivy’s point of view. She applies for governess to Mr. Quent and thinks her troubles eased when hired. If only she had not uncovered an ancient tome about magic still afoot in the world, she would not have met its willful protectors. [quoted from Macon.com]
But also see this glowing review from Rick Kleffel on NPR, and click here for an excerpt from the book:
Though this may look like the sort of book you’d find nestled in a shelf of paperback potboilers at a beach rental, don’t judge The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by its cover. Galen Beckett’s debut cleverly mixes fantasy and literary in a novel that imagines the social strictures that hemmed in Austen’s and Bronte’s heroines are the result of magical intervention. The novel’s supernatural elements and imaginary (but familiar-seeming) setting allow Beckett to examine class and economic conflicts from the outside, without resorting to polemics. The result is a work that mixes the rich pleasures of a Victorian epic with elements of the fantastic, an imaginative eye and a dry sense of humor.

  Kleffel rates this as one of his “nine first books that make a lasting impression,” with a heroine who had a peculiar habit of reading while walking]…now there’s a heroine I can identify with! 

And on that happy note, I should get back to my reading…hope this gives you a few ideas…

Another view…The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

I’ve mentioned before (see review of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma) that I am no lover of sequels; yet these past few months have brought many to my bedside table and the pile is slowly being depleted (in an effort to be somewhat prepared for the October JASNA AGM)…Syrie James’ The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen was a most enjoyable task in this journey of mine.  My co-blogger, Janeite Kelly, and I don’t see eye to eye on this book (see her review ), and I just needed to say a few words from the other side of the inkwell…

The Lost Memoirs should head its own category of “Fictionalizing Jane Austen’s Life.”  Like Becoming Jane, James also gives us a fictional tale of Jane’s lost love, this time, not her girlish love of Tom LeFroy, but her mature love, the “mystery man” that Jane met at the seaside as per Cassandra’s brief mention to her niece Caroline, and hence we have a lovely piece of romantic fluff, giving the reader along the way all sorts of references from Austen’s letters and a storyline that harkens back to the novels (and alas! sometimes even footnoted for your edification!) and the many biographies.

James’ knowledge shines throughout- she obviously knows her Austen- she says herself in the Author’s Note, that despite all her efforts to suggest this is the real “lost memoir” of Austen, indeed it is not- only a fiction derived from her Austen-obsessed imagination.  All of us who read and study Austen have always wanted the Jane who wrote such brilliant love stories to have had that experience herself.  Cassandra’s grand conflagration and excising much in those letters that survived, created a literary future for her sister of so much speculation and theory- certainly, we believe, everything that was destroyed would answer all our questions…

So James has done for us, as she says herself, much like the gift we were given in Shakespeare in Love – a tiny glimpse into the author’s life that indeed explains almost EVERYTHING that comes after.  She creates the story of that mystery man and names him Frederick Ashford; we meet him (appropriately in the third chapter) saving Austen from a fall off the infamous steps at the Cobb in Lyme Regis…. we are thus swept into Persuasion with names and incident (and Frederick is, of course, in a DARK BLUE coat, not the dreaded “light” coat of Tom LeFroy…)  We hear Austen in this first person narrative speaking the words as they appear in her letters and novels (this reader does question if there is anything original here!).  We see characters appear with names similar to her fictions:  Mrs. Jenkins (Mrs. Jennings in S&S); Charles Churchill (Emma), married to Maria (MP, though she behaves like Mary in Persuasion and then slips into Isabella-mode from NA); Charles’s sister Isabella Churchill (from NA who falls for the scoundrel Wellington [a.k.a. Captain Tilney, but who morphs into Willoughby from S&S])…have I lost you yet??  there is plenty more…. Ashford’s home in Derbyshire is called Pembroke Hall, and the almost exact scene is played out as Lizzy in P&P  visiting Pemberley; Mr, Morton is Mr. Collins right down to the bizarre marriage proposal…the list goes on, this constant weaving of fact and fiction- the family history; life in Bath, Southampton and lastly Chawton; Austen’s writing habits; publishing history; the Bigg-Wither proposal; her niece’s request for help with her writing; Austen’s love of nature and walking (rhapsodizing about a tree as Fanny does in MP); her reading of Udolpho in two days “my hair standing on end the whole time” (Henry in NA); her views on novel-reading (the letters and NA); Austen’s own obsession with fashion and “trimmings” — all are blended together seamlessly. 

But this is the story of Jane and Frederick, their meeting, falling in love and how that changes their lives (no spoilers here!)… James gives us the story of Sense & Sensibility, as it may have occurred in Austen’s own life and Austen’s subsequent re-writing of the novel.  It all falls into place…if you have wondered why Austen wrote nothing in her Bath years, why there are such gaps in correspondence, James creates for us a delightful fiction and a love interest who is part Darcy, part Edward Ferrars, part Wentworth (“you pierce my soul”), a bit of Colonel Brandon (he is soooo old…) and Knightley all rolled into one perfect fellow…who could want for more?

If you are not a certified “Janeite,” you will find this a fine romance; but if you know Austen like James does (i.e you can recite verbatim and by page number everything she ever said or wrote!), then you will marvel at this confection filled with so many facts, so much speculation, and so much of Austen’s fiction…you will have a fun time reading it and seeing all this together in one place!  I offer only one caveat:  by creating this grand illusion (“if I believe in your story as you have told it, then it is as good as if it were true?”), James conjures up a fine tale, but there is nothing of Austen’s turn of phrase, or humor or characterization that keeps us returning again and again to her writings, just a sort of pale carbon copy, a re-telling of all, mashed together in a fictional blender… but I shook this off and stepped back a bit and just offer high marks to Syrie James for bringing Austen into our life; this book is like the movie adaptations that are so far from the original source, but we like them all the same, and it might just send you scurrying back to your bookshelves for another Austen re-read!

3 full inkwells…(out of 4)