Happy Release Day, Lauren!

It’s book launch day for Lauren Willig and The Other Daughter!

Other Daughter

Huge thanks to St. Martin’s Press and to NetGalley for letting me get my hands on an early copy.  If you’re picking up your copy today, you are in for such a treat!  I’m going to include my review below – I am *almost* positive that there’s nothing in it you may consider a spoiler, but if you like to dive into a book knowing only what you’ve read on the jacket, maybe give the rest of this post a miss until you’ve finished the book. Happy reading to one and all!

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When I received an email from NetGalley letting me know that an ARC of Lauren Willig’s The Other Daughter was available for me to download, I did a serious happy dance. But I made myself wait a few weeks to begin it. A new book from Lauren is a thing to be savored, and I knew that when I started it, it would be over all too quickly. True to form, once I did sit down with my Nook, I gulped this book down in two sittings. Once again, and as always, Lauren has delivered an excellent story.

When Rachel Woodley receives a telegram in Normandy informing her that her mother is sick with influenza, she immediately packs her bags for her home in Netherwell, England. But by the time Rachel sets foot on home soil, her mother is already gone. Rachel can’t imagine that her grief could be any worse, but then she finds a newspaper clipping among her mother’s bedclothes. In that clipping is a picture of Rachel’s father – her father who died when she was only four – escorting his daughter, Lady Olivia Standish, to a society function. Suddenly, Rachel’s past is a lie. She isn’t the daughter of a respectable, hard-working widow. She is the other daughter – the illegitimate daughter – of an earl. With no idea how to move forward and no clue how to fill in the gaps in her history, Rachel joins forces with Simon Montfort, a gossip columnist with a past as murky as her own, to find a way to insinuate herself into her father’s set. She makes a daring entrance into London society, masquerading as Vera Merton, and quickly becomes the toast of the Bright Young Things. Her goal: get herself invited to her half-brother’s twenty-first birthday at the family seat and seize the opportunity to confront her father. But as Rachel pushes deeper into Lady Olivia’s social circle, she realizes that she is woefully ignorant of the shared history in this set. And although Simon Montfort has promised to help her, Rachel begins to suspect that his reasons for interfering in her family affairs may not be as straightforward as she thought.

The idea at the heart of this story is a familiar one – what would you do if you found out that your past was not what you’d always thought? But even though this premise is one I’ve read before, Lauren’s variation on the theme is fresh. Rachel is an excellent narrator. I was indignant and angry right along with her when she learned that her father had abandoned her. I celebrated with her when she launched herself into London society without a single person questioning her backstory. I turned up my nose with her at the empty lives of the Bright Young Things with their “too, too sick-making” rounds of parties and entertainments. But then, when Rachel starts losing herself in the façade of Vera Merton, I worried for her. Is she becoming so single-minded that she is willing to hurt the people who are, even though they don’t know it, her family? And if she does manage to get close enough to her father to force a confrontation, what will she do if his reaction isn’t what she’s been hoping for? I started to feel less “in Rachel’s corner” and more disappointed in the person she was becoming, and I was holding my breath to see if Lauren would redeem her in the end.

I loved the relationship between Simon and Rachel. They fling Much Ado about Nothing quotes at each other fast enough to make your head swim. They bicker, but they find genuine comfort in each other’s company. And at heart, they are very similar – two people who are unsure where they belong but brave enough to make a fresh start somewhere new. Watching Lauren peel back the layers to show Rachel the real Simon was like watching a picture resolve into focus. You think you see him clearly, but shift a few things around and see how he’s brought into sharper relief. The revelations are not always good ones, but Simon is a better, more interesting character in the end for the twists that Lauren puts him through.

On a more technical note, this is the first of Lauren’s stand-alone books that does not shift perspective between a modern and historical storyline. I didn’t even realize until halfway through the book that she had made this departure from form, but it didn’t bother me a bit. I loved all the setting detail that she included – the brief glimpse of Rachel’s life as a governess in France, the fancy-dress parties and beautiful flat in London, and the imposing estate at Carrisford Court. The supporting cast she created for Rachel’s story is incredible.

To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Thanks to Downton Abbey, I shouldn’t be surprised at the lengths that the British aristocracy would go to in order to keep a title and an estate intact, but Lauren kept me on my toes. I can’t wait to see what she’s planning for her next book.

Rebel Queen

rebel queen

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Rebel Queen, Michelle Moran’s latest release.  Perfect timing for the month that our Pink book is set in India, no?

In the small Indian village of Barwa Sagar in 1840, a young girl named Sita’s world collapses around her when her mother dies giving birth to a second daughter. To earn money for her family, and to prevent her grandmother from selling her sister to the temple for life as a prostitute, Sita begins a rigorous course of training to become a member of the Durga Dal – an elite group of women who function as the bodyguards, entertainers, and personal confidants for the Maharani of Jhansi. Sita learns to fight, to play chess, to discuss English poems and plays, and to ride a horse, but nothing could prepare her for her life in the palace of Jhansi. In the royal court, Sita discovers that there are two sets of rules at play: a set of traditions and expectations that she will understand with time and practice, and the unspoken rules of behavior that are only known to those who have spent a lifetime at court. On her first day at the palace, Sita learns that trust is an invaluable commodity, but it’s a lesson she will find herself forced to learn over and over throughout her seven years in the Durga Dal. Between the threat from the encroaching British and an even more insidious threat from within the palace itself, Sita begins to lose sight of her purpose in coming to Jhansi, and when open war breaks out between the British army and the local sepoys, she finds herself questioning where she owes her highest loyalty.

I have had a fascination with books set in India in this time period ever since I read M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions a few years ago. I’ve tried to find other books that would have that perfect blend of rich historical detail, beautifully rendered setting, exciting plot and fascinating characters, but for the longest time, I thought Kaye had managed to catch lightening in a jar. I’ve read a few other books that have come close, but never a story that could match Kaye for making me feel so wrapped up in the story. Rebel Queen has succeeded where the others failed. Moran’s story is immersive and compelling (although Rebel Queen clocks in under 300 pages, compared with over 1,000 for The Far Pavilions).

Some books about Indian history have an annoying habit of trying to place you in the setting by just throwing random Hindi or Sanskrit words at you in italics throughout the story. I find that, rather than making me feel at home in the setting, that tactic jerks me out of the story abruptly, like a big billboard screaming, “LOOK, A FOREIGN WORD! BECAUSE WE’RE IN INDIA, REMEMBER?” Moran’s setting details are so subtle that sometimes you forget she is building another time and place for you. Without bashing you over the head with descriptors, Moran makes you feel the summer heat, smell the rain, and hear the chaotic hum of a busy marketplace around you.

I love stories about palace intrigue, and Rebel Queen has that in abundance. The Durga Dal are, in theory, all fiercely devoted to the Maharani, but within their ranks, some are more interested in self-preservation and advancement than serving their queen. Neighboring kingdoms jockey for additional territory, and spies are constantly infiltrating the court of Jhansi. The all-female Durga Dal are the counterparts to the Maharaja’s male bodyguards, and given the amount of time these groups spend in close quarters, romantic sparks fly. Meanwhile, the British are slowly taking over Indian kingdoms under the guise of stewardship. Sita explains their presence with the parable about the camel’s nose, and how “on a cold winter’s night, the camel begged its master to allow it to place its nose inside the master’s tent… the camel, who promised at first it would be just its nose, then its legs, then its back, until finally it was the camel living inside the tent while the master shivered in the cold outside.” With so many sources of drama and tension, I was never bored – the pacing is great.

Sita was a wonderful narrator. You want her to succeed so badly after all the hardships she’s endured growing up, and you feel fiercely protective of her when people in the Jhansi court try to take advantage of her inexperience. And in the end, when you watch her struggle with conflicting loyalties, you heart will break right along with hers when she realizes that it’s not possible for her to save everyone and everything that she loves.

All in all, I was really impressed. I will definitely look into some of Moran’s previous books – I keep picking up Madame Tussaud and putting in down again in my trips to Barnes and Noble. Have you read any of her books? What would you recommend?

The Hero and the Crown


I have come across Robin McKinley’s name on several occasions on lists of books I would or should like – several of her fairy tale retellings have been on my TBR list for years. Open Road Integrated Media has released several of her older books in e-book format, and I had the chance to read a copy of The Hero and the Crown from NetGalley. I felt a special connection to this book because it won a Newbery Medal the year I was born. It’s a prequel to her novel The Blue Sword.

In the kingdom of Damar, Aerin is a princess, but she is not exactly a beloved one. It’s whispered that Aerin’s mother, who may or may not have been a witch, killed herself in despair when she gave birth to a daughter rather than a son. In Damar, all royalty are supposed to have a Gift (kelar) they can display which marks them as special. While everyone else in her family can use their Gift without struggle, Aerin has never developed hers. Aerin spends her childhood trying to be invisible, preferring the company of her father’s retired warhorse Talat to her peers or subjects. She becomes fixated on learning sword fighting skills and perfecting a recipe for an ointment that will keep her safe from dragon fire so that she can slay dragons. The trouble is, in Damar, dragons are more like vermin than ferocious beasts from legend, and killing them is far from a noble pastime. Aerin’s talents for dragon-killing are scorned rather than appreciated.

Suspicion grows in Damar that the hero’s crown, lost for years, has fallen into the hands of the unruly Northerners. Aerin’s father, her cousins, and their army ride out to negotiate with the Northerners, and word comes to them too late that Maur, one of the last great dragons left in the world, is attacking a nearby village. Aerin is the only one on hand to help the villagers fight Maur, and though she kills the dragon, she pays a heavy price. Maur’s death sets off a chain of events that will cause Aerin to leave home seeking healing, the truth about her family and her destiny, and the hero’s crown.

Aerin is the archetypal hero who doesn’t understand her own worth. She’s used to being the butt of everyone’s jokes and having her efforts be under-appreciated. People in Damar think she’s crazy, and they speculate about whether or not she’s even legitimate – but she doesn’t hesitate to do them a service (like killing their dragons) when she can. She doesn’t do it out of any sense of obligation to the people – it’s just something that can be done and something that she’s capable of doing. Aerin can be stubborn to the point where you want to shake her, but you have to admire a girl with her level of perseverance. It’s one of the things that saves her life in the end.

The first half of the story reminded me of a traditional fairy tale, as we learn about Aerin’s childhood and her determination to do something useful. The second half flew by, and I will confess to being a bit lost at times. I think if I had read The Blue Sword, I would understand a bit more about the world McKinley has created for these books and some of her mythology. It was interesting enough that I do plan to read more of this series eventually, and I do really enjoy her writing style. I think my next book of hers will either be Beauty or Spindle’s End.

First Frost

first frost

Any Sarah Addison Allen fans out there?

I heard Sarah speak at Quail Ridge Books in January 2014 while she was on her Lost Lake tour. The response when she announced that she would be publishing a sequel to Garden Spells was amazing. People clapped, gasped, cheered, and I think a few might have teared up a bit. I knew I was looking forward to reading this book too, but sequels are tricky. Sequels are especially tricky when they come eight years after the original book was written.

Garden Spells was a wonderful story with a very satisfying ending, so a sequel seems like the perfect opportunity to catch up with some great characters. But a sequel has to come at a price. To give us another story about the Waverly sisters, Sarah had to take them out of the snug, cozy places where she tucked them it at the end of Garden Spells and shake them up.

In First Frost, all the Waverly girls are back – Claire, Sydney, Bay, and Evanelle – and just as magical as ever. Claire has put her catering business on hold to start up Waverly’s Candies. In typical Claire fashion, she wants to do all the work herself, but as demand for her candies grows, she struggles to balance filling her orders and ensuring that her products deliver what they promise. Sydney loves her husband, daughter and sister more every day, but her desire to have another baby and to protect Bay from high school heart break are overshadowing all the goodness in her life. Bay has grown up a lot since we last saw her, and her Waverly magic is causing her a bit of a struggle. High school is full of teenagers trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. Bay’s gift is knowing exactly where things belong, but not everyone trusts her instincts.

It’s a time of uncertainty for the Waverly girls, and they anxiously await the first frost of the year, when the temperamental apple tree in Claire’s back yard will carpet the garden with its blossoms and remind them that it’s okay to let things go. As Claire could tell you, “First frost was always an unpredictable time, but this year it felt more… desperate than others.” With only a week to go before the frost arrives, a silver-eyed drifter checks in to the Bascom bed and breakfast. He has a way of charming those around him, but what he carries in his suitcase may just be enough to bring Claire’s entire world down around her.

I’ll admit, as much as I love Sarah’s books, this one took me a few chapters to get into. It’s because Sarah worked so hard in Garden Spells to give Claire, Sydney and Bay such hopeful, happy endings. When the book opens with Claire in the kitchen, frazzled and doubting herself, I wasn’t sure I liked where things were headed. But after a few chapters, I reminded myself to trust Sarah and let her tell me her story, and in the end, I loved it.

The best thing about Sarah’s particular brand of magical-realism is her ability to make you forget that the things she’s describing don’t actually happen in real life. There is no tree that throws apples through your bedroom window. You don’t actually have an eccentric aunt who pops over at after dinner to give you something simple, like a Band-Aid or a flashlight, which will turn out to be absolutely essential tomorrow. You can’t buy a lemon drop at the store that will both ease your sore throat and give you peace of mind. Sarah makes you believe these things are not only possible, but they are a fascinating blend of remarkable and commonplace.

This was another hit for me – I hope she’ll have another in 2016!

*I got an advance copy of this e-book from NetGalley.

The Magician’s Lie


Thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Landmark, I had a chance to read an advance copy of The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel from Greer Macallister.

In 1905, The Amazing Arden and her company of performers are putting on a show in Waterloo, Iowa. The audience is clamoring to see Arden’s most notorious illusion, The Halved Man. From his seat in the packed theater, a local policeman named Virgil Holt watches in horrified fascination as Arden attacks a man in a wooden box with an axe – and moments later, presents the same man, whole and uninjured, for the audience’s inspection.

Hours after the show has ended, Holt is called back to the theater to investigate a murder. A man is lying in the wooden box used in The Halved Man with an axe buried in his chest, and two young performers have identified him as Arden’s husband. No one who saw Arden perform The Halved Man earlier in the evening has any doubts about what happened to her husband – her trick, her axe, clearly her doing. Holt is the one to find Arden and take her into custody, but once he has her, he doesn’t know what to do with her. If he hands her over to the sheriff, she’ll definitely be hanged, and Holt isn’t entirely convinced she’s guilty. Arden has one night to tell Holt her story and convince him she isn’t a murderer. She starts from the beginning, as far back as she can remember, and as the night wears on, Holt struggles to decide if he can trust a women who built her reputation on making people believe the impossible.

Evidently, I have a bit of a weakness for stories about traveling performers in the early 1900s. I thought Water for Elephants was really interesting, and I absolutely loved the movie The Prestige (for more reasons than just because it starred Christian Bale). I think what appeals to me most is the backstage feeling these stories have – the impression that you’re being let in on a secret or getting a rare sneak peak at how things work. Some of my favorite moments from The Magician’s Lie were Arden’s descriptions of how her illusions worked. I love the way that she integrated herself into the company’s routine, starting as an extra, working her way up to having a few of her own illusions, and gradually becoming such a presence that she carries the show rather than being an accessory to it. The other thing that pulls me into this type of story is the sense of duality. The audiences who attend the circus performances or magic shows see something glamorous and fantastic, but the reality for the people who live and work on the shows is drastically different. As the reader, you get to see the hard work and the very unglamorous details that go into each performance.

The frame story format works really well for this book. There is a brief prologue from Arden’s perspective, but then Macallister shifts immediately to Holt. The story stays with him until Arden is in his custody, and then the point of view alternates between Holt’s thoughts as he interrogates Arden and Arden’s story of how she came to be where she is. I will say that I found the bits about Arden’s early life less interesting. She trains as a ballerina, works as a maid at the Biltmore, and eventually dances in a New York ballet company. The story didn’t really take off for me until Arden is approached by Adelaide Herrmann, the only female magician of the day with her own show. From that moment, I felt like Macallister found her rhythm, and the story really got going.

Beneath the excitement of Macallister’s descriptions of life in the magician’s company, there is the lurking awareness that Arden is telling her story because she’s bargaining for her life. In the moments where Macallister returns us to the “present,” we learn that Holt and Arden aren’t as different as he might like to pretend – Holt has a secret, one that he knows will catch up with him one day, and deep down, he’s hoping for a miracle (or magic, maybe?) to save him. As Macallister peels back the layers and shows you more about each character, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for both of them.

Macallister opens her story with a quote from Sanditon by Jane Austen: “Those who tell their own story, you know, must be listened to with caution.” As you come to the end of The Magician’s Lie, you wonder right along with Holt how much of Arden’s story is real and how much is illusion. Macallister gives readers plenty to think about: historical details, mystery, a villain, an unconventional romance, and a coming-of-age story. The only thing that kept this from being a five-star read in my opinion was the length of time (almost a hundred pages) it took for the story to really find its footing.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust


Oh, scissors – Flavia is back! Thanks to NetGalley and Bantam Dell, I had a chance to read an advance copy of As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, the seventh novel in Alan Bradley’s fantastic Flavia de Luce series.

In this novel, we pick up with Flavia on a boat crossing the Atlantic as she departs England and her beloved home at Buckshaw to attend Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada. Flavia understands this school will train her to follow in the mysterious and patriotic footsteps of her mother and her eccentric Aunt Felicity, but she knows nothing about what to expect or what this training will entail. Most twelve year old girls would probably faint if their first night at boarding school involved a charred corpse tumbling out of their chimney, but Flavia – chemistry enthusiast, lover of poisons, and avid student of biological decomposition – is not your average twelve year old. Thanks to her habit of pocketing important bits of evidence and her ability to startle people into answering her unexpected questions, Flavia discovers that something is amiss at Miss Bodycote’s. Three girls have disappeared, and Flavia makes it her business to determine what has become of them, and whether one of them might be the unfortunate body from her chimney.

I absolutely loved exploring Miss Bodycote’s with Flavia. It reminded me of reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time and watching Harry learn his way around Hogwarts. At Miss Bodycote’s, there are day-pupils and boarders, chemistry labs with the very latest technology and equipment, teachers with a wide variety of backgrounds (among them an acquitted murderess), and a headmistress who seems uncannily omnipresent. The wings of the school are named after goddesses, the girls’ rooms after heroines, the houses after female saints, and the bathrooms after defunct royalty. There is a hierarchy among the students, both official and unofficial, that Flavia must learn to navigate, and she hasn’t been at the school for more than a week before she’s had several late-night visitors and an impromptu field trip into the Canadian woods to hone her survival skills.

Watching Flavia try to integrate herself into new surroundings was every bit as wonderful as I hoped it would be. When she tries to mimic the other students’ slang and says to a classmate, “Spill it,” she is overjoyed to see that she’s used the phrase correctly. Flavia decides that “[a]ll those afternoons with Daffy and Feely at the cinema in Hinley had not been wasted after all, as Father had claimed. I had learned my first foreign language and learned it well.” She calls upon all her skills to learn her new environment – her ability to adopt the body language of “little girl lost,” squeeze herself into tight spaces, and (oddly) to vomit on command all come in handy in this story.

If you’re a regular reader of the series, you probably will miss Colonel de Luce, Dogger, Mrs. Mullet, Flavia’s sisters, and the other Bishop’s Lacey locals we’ve come to know and love. But Bradley introduces a whole cast of characters to take the sting out of their absence, and I found that this change in setting is breathing new life into the series. If you haven’t experienced Flavia yet, definitely grab a copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and get started. If you’re already a fan, you won’t want to miss the latest of Flavia’s exploits.

Vanessa and Her Sister


Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.

In 1905, the Stephens siblings have moved out of their childhood home on the “right” side of town and into the avant-garde neighborhood of Bloomsbury. They shock their more conservative relatives by hosting mixed evenings at home and gathering around them an eccentric circle of artists that includes Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster. The biggest commonality the group members have is their time at university with Thoby Stephen, but it quickly becomes clear that Vanessa and Virginia are the main attraction: Vanessa, the unflappable hostess and the group’s center of gravity, and Virginia, the mercurial writer whose moods can turn an evening on a dime. Their circle is enjoying being young, thinking big, and pushing boundaries, but a sudden death brings changes they could not have anticipated. Vanessa, the mother hen of the group, finds herself suddenly captivated by the idea of being cared for rather than being the caregiver, and her brother’s friend Clive is determined to marry her. This shifting dynamic sets the already volatile Virginia on a destructive course that will lead to a betrayal Vanessa could never have expected and is not sure she can endure.

The central conflict in the novel is Vanessa’s relationship with Virginia. Vanessa assumes responsibility for Virginia because she is older and because she has a nurturing temperament, but she forgets that she is not Virginia’s mother. I felt like all the characters made excuses for Virginia’s horrible behavior constantly. At one point, Vanessa says that “[b]eautiful Virginia is full of malice, but she is not malicious. It is just how she is built. She is governed by different forces than we… I do not think, in this case, Virginia meant actual harm; she just could not bear to be irrelevant.” Even when she is thinking critically about Virginia, Vanessa is not really seeing her clearly. The Virginia that Parmar shows readers is a monster, completely self-centered and bent on causing as much pain and devastation as she can. Parmar does a great job of making readers feel invested in the conflict – you’re pulling for Vanessa the whole time.

There were a few things about this book I found confusing. First, all the Stephen siblings and their close circle of friends have multiple nicknames for each other. These are used throughout the book with no explanation of who is who – there is only a list of characters (including nicknames) before the first chapter begins. It was nice to have the chart, but it takes you out of the moment when you have to stop reading constantly in the first few chapters to flip back to the chart and figure out who the heck Parmar is talking about.

The second thing I found distracting was the novel’s composition. It’s written as though it is Vanessa’s diary, but there are letters and telegrams scattered throughout as well. I usually like novels that include letters – evidently Parmar’s first book about Nell Gwyn, Exit the Actress, was written in this style too. Some of the letters are written by Virginia or Vanessa, and those were easy enough to understand, but there is lots of correspondence between Lytton and Leonard Woolf. I knew Leonard Woolf eventually married Virginia, but he’s hardly mentioned at all in Vanessa’s diary entries, so these letters just feel random. About halfway through the book, suddenly we start to see letters from someone named Roger Fry to his mother. Who is Roger Fry? He never mentions knowing the Stephens in his letters, he’s never brought up in Vanessa’s journal, so what does he have to do with anything? We discover later, of course, but I thought that was a really weird way to introduce a character.

Despite these issues, I did enjoy the read. Parmar shows on several occasions that she really does have a beautiful way with words. She gives Vanessa some excellent, introspective lines about herself and the people around her. I’ll give you a few examples:

About Virginia: “Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her centre holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”

About the Bloomsbury group: “For all our confidence, only Morgan has done anything of note in the outside world. The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential so far and have not left deep footprints.”

About herself and her painting: “We do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another.”

I’ll be interested to see what Parmar picks as the subject of her next book, and I will be willing to give it a try. If you enjoy books like The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, you’d probably enjoy Vanessa and Her Sister.

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

jane and 12

Thanks to NetGalley and Soho Press, I had the chance to read Stephanie Barron’s latest installment in her Jane Austen mystery series: Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Jane Austen, her mother, and her beloved sister Cass are trying to summon up their holiday spirit to spend Christmas of 1814 with Jane’s brother James at Steventon Parsonage. All three are determined to enjoy themselves, but James’s tendency to see any sort of revels as paganism and his wife Mary’s constant nervous complaints are sure to put a damper on their celebrations. So it comes as a delightful surprise when all the Austens are invited to spend Christmas day at the Vyne, the beautiful ancestral home of the wealthy and exceedingly kind Chute family. When a snowstorm strands all the Chutes’ visitors at the Vyne for several days, everyone is prepared to relax and enjoy Mrs. Chute’s plans for fine dinners, parlor games, and a Twelfth Night Ball. But the atmosphere shifts from festive to tragic when a military messenger to the Vyne is killed in a fall from his horse. Jane finds the circumstances surrounding this messenger’s death suspicious, and when she examines the scene of the accident, she realizes that she and her family are snowed in with a murderer. It’s up to Jane to convince her host to take her suspicion seriously and discover the murderer in their midst, because Jane suspects that another guest at the Vyne is danger as well.

I’ve never read any of Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries before, and evidently this is the 12th book in the series. I do love Jane Austen though, and mystery novels are my favorites. Sometimes starting a series after so many books are already published can be a bad thing – you feel lost with all the characters or backstories referenced that you don’t really know. But that wasn’t the case with this book. I feel like all you need is the most basic knowledge of Jane Austen, and you can pick right up where this book begins.

The mystery was definitely interesting. There is a fair amount of political detail involved, and Barron does a nice job of summarizing Napoleon’s exile to Elba and the British occupation of Washington D.C. without belaboring them. There are incidents of blackmail, mistaken identities, and love affairs, which all make the resolution more interesting. The only thing that was missing for me was a sense of urgency – I never really could get myself too worked up about whether the murderer would strike again.

Narrating your book from the perspective of such a popular and beloved author is a risky choice. For those of us who have read Jane Austen’s novels (and probably read them more than once), we already know what Jane’s voice sounds like. I thought Barron did a fairly consistent job of staying true to Austen’s tone and style, and there were a few gems in her writing that could have come straight out of Emma or Mansfield Park. Here’s a great example: “The little fever of envy, once caught, is the ruin of all happiness.” Also, there are funny moments when Jane has a realization about the people around her that she knows will make her a better writer. For example, when Mary is describing their Christmas at the Vyne to others, she tells the story as though she was “hounded by violence from first to last” and in immediate danger of being murdered at any moment. Jane thinks to herself: “It was a lesson in writerly humility. We are each the heroines of our own lives.”

If you like Regency mysteries, or Jane Austen adaptations, you should give this series a try. The first book in the series is Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.

And while we’re on the subject of Jane, this past Saturday, a crowd of more than 500 people turned out in Bath (where Austen lived for a few years) in Regency period dress.  Their goal: break the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people in Regency costume.  It looks like they did it!

Manga Classics: Pride and Prejudice

Let’s be clear about this right from the beginning – I love a good Jane Austen adaptation. I love the movies, the BBC productions, the audiobooks. I love the modern spin-offs like Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Jane Austen Book Club. I’ve read plenty of the Austen continuations (my personal favorite is Darcy’s Story by Janet Almer). I gobble it all up, but it never occurred to me that someone would take one of Austen’s stories and turn it into a graphic novel.

PPmanga cover

UDON Entertainment Production is evidently planning to release a whole line of Manga Classics. The first two books of the collection, both published on August 19, are Les Miserables and Pride and Prejudice. What a fabulous idea. Evidently, this isn’t even the first P&P adaptation of its kind. I poked around Amazon and found that Marvel Comics (you read that correctly) has a version of P&P as well. Mind blown. The only graphic novels I have ever read are Maus and Hyperbole and a Half, and my experience with manga is limited to a brief (though surprisingly intense) obsession with Sailor Moon as a child. But when I saw this title on NetGalley, I knew I had to try it.

The text was adapted by Stacy King, and the artist is Po Tse. According to UDON, these Manga Classics are intended for young adult readers, “with strong and accurate adaptations that will please even the toughest teacher or librarian!” As I was reading this one, it reminded me of the Great Illustrated Classics I read as a kid and loved so much. They really opened the door for me as a reader, and I think that these adaptations will do the same thing for kids who love comic books.

I have to start off my thoughts on the experience of reading this by saying that the artwork is absolutely beautiful. I have no idea how long it took to illustrate this, but the amount of detail included on each page is astounding. Take a look at this drawing of Elizabeth and Jane:

PPmanga elizabeth jane

I could have spent hours looking at the illustrations, just soaking up each facial expression and clothing detail. Really, really beautiful.

Beyond the gorgeous artwork, Austen’s story that we know and love is still what keeps you turning the pages. The good stuff is all there – Mrs. Bennet is as irritating as a swarm of gnats, Mr. Collins is ridiculous, Lady Catherine is imperious, and Wickham is dangerously charming. Since this adaptation is geared toward a younger audience, King occasionally took some liberties with the story. These instances were rare though, and I understood how simplifying certain plot points or making the occasional small change could make the adaptation easier to follow.

Every once in a while, King will make a shift in the language that feels abrupt. The occasional exclamation of “No way!” doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the dialogue that King has obviously tried to keep as close to the original as possible.  But even these moments are not enough to distract you from plowing ahead.  I found myself itching to flip ahead a few pages to see how some of my favorite moments in the story would be illustrated.  For example, here is Sir William Lucas pairing up Lizzy and Darcy for a dance:

PPmanga darcy2

As a manga newbie, I appreciated the guide at the beginning of the book that explained to me how I should start at the back of the book and read the pages right to left. It wasn’t that hard to adjust to, and after the first few pages, I didn’t find it at all distracting. I think this is a great new medium for appreciating an old favorite story.

What do you think?  Would you be willing to give this a try?  What are your favorite Austen adaptations?

Secrets of the Lighthouse


I’ve never read anything by Santa Montefiore before, but I know she has fifteen novels to her name, and I have picked up The Mermaid Garden several times in the book store and debated buying it. Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster, I just had the chance to read her upcoming release, Secrets of the Lighthouse.

The story is divided between to narrators. The first is Caitlin Macausland, who died mysteriously at a lighthouse off the coast of Connemara, Ireland. Her husband, Conor, is the only witness of her death. The locals whisper that Conor may have murdered her, and there is a rumor that a third person was seen rowing away from the lighthouse that night. Caitlin chose to stay near her husband and their two children rather than “moving on,” but she can’t communicate with them and resents any indication she sees that they may be prepared to move on with their own lives.

Ellen Trawton is five months away from her wedding when she decides she has had enough – enough of her overbearing mother, her tepid fiancé, and her life in London that is her mother’s ideal rather than hers. Desperate for space, Ellen heads for the one place that she knows her mother would never think to look for her. Her mother worked hard for 33 years to bury her past in Ireland, and so Ellen is surprised when she arrives to find not just her Aunt Peg, who she assumed was her only family, but a whole village full of aunts, uncles and cousins she has never known. To put off thinking about what to do with her own life, Ellen starts looking for answers to why her mother ran away from her family without ever looking back. Her quest brings her into the path of Conor Macausland, and the two of them are drawn powerfully together. They both have elements of their past to put behind them, but Caitlin’s spirit is not ready to watch Conor create a future that doesn’t include her.

Santa Montefiore’s style reminded me a bit of two of my favorite authors, Susanna Kearsley and Maeve Binchy. Susanna has a gift for writing about women who take their troubles off to remote locations to start over and wind up finding something extraordinary. Her books are gothic and suspenseful, usually romantic, and totally captivating. Maeve Binchy wrote about Irish women. Her stories weren’t plot driven, but character driven – beautiful, moving stories about the small moments in people’s lives. I felt like Montefiore was aiming for something that was a mix of both these styles. She came close, but the magic was missing. It was a good story, and I definitely enjoyed reading it, but it just didn’t have that special something that keeps you from being able to put the book down. Also, there were a few places where a line or two of dialogue seemed to jar with the rest of what was happening in the scene.

The only other thing that kept this book from being a five-star read for me was the speed at which Montefiore threw Ellen and Conor together. In a 300 page book, it takes a hundred pages for Ellen and Conor to even meet for the first time, but the minute they do, they are a couple. It was just too fast to be really believable.

Montefiore does a great job with her setting. Connemara jumps off the page at you, and all the important locations of the book (Conor’s castle, the lighthouse, the local pub, Aunt Peg’s home, and the local chapel) felt realistic and familiar. I liked the character of Aunt Peg, with all her eccentricities and spunky personality, but I did have a bit of trouble keeping all her uncles and cousins straight.

The majority of the “secrets” in this book are pretty easily guessed early on, but I still enjoyed watching Montefiore weave everything together.