Book chat: ‘Jane Austen’s First Love’ by Syrie James

Jane Austen's First LoveRomantic, wistful and richly engrossing, fans of the beloved Miss Austen will delight in Syrie James’ well-researched, evocative story of the summer Jane is believed to have first fallen in love.

For a month in 1791, 15-year-old Jane Austen is welcomed with her sister and brother to the vast, beautiful world of Goodnestone to celebrate the engagement of her brother, Edward, to Elizabeth Bridges, one of the young ladies of the estate. On their way to the celebration, their carriage meets with calamity — and Edward Taylor, a handsome and educated young man who lives nearby, comes to their rescue.

As their connection to the Bridges family brings them together, Jane and Edward pass many enjoyable weeks in each other’s company . . . much to the chagrin of the chaperones entrusted with making sure the reputations of both families remain unsullied. Though she knows a match between a wealthy heir and a reverend’s daughter is unlikely, their affection continues to grow — even as Jane meddles in the romances of those around her, causing disturbances and miscommunications.

Based on the scholarly belief that Jane did, in fact, meet one Edward Taylor through her brother — and snippets of letters in which she mentions both Him and Bifrons, Edward’s actual home — James has constructed a lively, entertaining tale of the man who may have stolen young Jane’s heart. With generous and creative nods to future characters (especially Emma Woodhouse, intrepid but misguided matchmaker), Jane Austen’s First Love is a treat for fans of the author and historical fiction alike.

The way Jane falls in love with Edward was sudden but believable — a feat not easily accomplished. As a young woman with little experience away from Steventon (and her mother’s grasp), Jane is enamored to be passing time as she chooses — and in the company of new, exciting, accomplished people. In addition to being handsome and well-traveled, Edward is adventurous and kind. Though a bit of a daredevil with a reputation to match, he has no trouble questioning the status quo: unique in a society that places propriety above all else.

Jane comes from different stock, of course. Visiting Goodnestone for her brother’s engagement celebration, she and Cassandra are under immense pressure to behave well and not present as “country folk.” At 15, Jane is too young to actually be “out” in society . . . but her mother relents for the special occasion, allowing her to participate in the many events and balls held in honor of two sets of soon-to-be newlyweds (the sister of Edward Austen’s intended is also to marry). This new independence delights Jane — but it comes at a cost.

The early feelings of love and affection blossoming between Jane and Edward Taylor — the nerves; the excitement; the desperation to see each other again — are familiar to all of us. Indeed, it’s tough to read Jane Austen’s First Love and not feel transported back to your own first brush with romance. James does a remarkable job of drawing us into the easy banter and camaraderie the two share . . . but of course, we know the ending of the story.

Is it a spoiler to talk of the fate of a famous author who passed nearly 200 years ago? Austen fans know that, for all her exquisite explorations of the human heart, Jane herself never did marry — nor did her sister, Cassandra, after losing a fiance as a young woman. Jane passed at age 41 and left an enormous legacy that still has us talking, speculating and daydreaming centuries later.

Knowing the end of her romance with Edward Taylor even before it began did nothing to harm it; in fact, James beautifully demonstrates how reasonable it was that Jane could have fallen in love . . . but how, in the end, first loves are not always forever loves. What could have been a bittersweet ending was, instead, satisfying and realistic.

I loved my time at Goodnestone — and any time spent in the company of dear Jane is always well spent. Syrie James does a remarkable job of returning us to Regency England in the company of “characters” that actually feel like friends, with a story that felt both familiar and fresh. Jane Austen’s First Love will be a welcome addition to the shelves of Janeites everywhere — and those interested in a good love story will rejoice in it, too.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Paperback copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Book review: ‘Sedition’ by Katharine Grant

SeditionRacy, entertaining and unexpected, Katharine Grant’s Sedition was nothing like I expected and better than I had hoped.

Let me explain.

Though firmly in the historical fiction camp, Katharine Grant’s Sedition is and isn’t romance. Set in London during the 18th century, Grant’s romp is centered on a group of wealthy fathers eager to marry off their daughters — five spoiled, disinterested young women. As the men conspire to teach their girls piano by purchasing an instrument from an eccentric shopkeeper, the girls cook up schemes of their own . . . namely with Monsieur Claude, their new instructor. And he, in turn, has secrets to keep.

Though it seems rather complicated, everything is actually straight forward — at first. He wants her; she wants him; she wants her; he wants none of them. It’s a comedy of errors that often results in some entertaining misunderstandings — but there’s plenty of heart here, too.

The novel centers mostly on Annie Cantabile, the piano virtuoso daughter of the man who sells the families their pianoforte, as well as the woman she befriends and eventually loves. Though every woman takes a turn in the spotlight, we get to know Annie and Alathea Sawneyford the best — and I really felt for both. Born with a cleft palate, Annie is hidden in the shadows at the shop . . . but longs to play music and start a new life away from her callous father. Dedication to her sick mother keeps Annie rooted in London, but a friendship forged unexpectedly with Alathea gives her renewed purpose.

Grant’s story is engrossing, unique and captivating. Not really knowing what to expect going in, I found myself delighted by Sedition and stealing time on vacation to meet up with the characters. The racy content level is pretty high — higher than I would have guessed — but hey, I’m a married woman; I could handle it. Some may take offense to the content, however. (Also, there are some graphic depictions of incest. Just so you know.)

With its endlessly dark subject matter, Grant still managed to keep the tone and feel of the novel light. There were some disturbing messes going down, no doubt, and I did feel disgusted on several occasions, but I think that was intentional. To understand the struggle and longing, we must know the depravity. We must understand the hurt and betrayal and pain.

Sedition is about push-pull power struggles . . . the struggle of women to take control of their bodies and sexuality; a movement to break away from familial expectations. Still, the girls were without many options aside from marrying well . . . and they throw themselves into learning the pianoforte in order to dazzle at a concert attended by the gentlemen of London: a sort of debutante ball without the dancing.

And they dazzle, all right.

Memorable and titillating, Sedition was an enjoyable story. After I got over my initial shock at all the behind-closed-doors carryings-on, I really felt the emotional changes of the characters and thought them realistic. Grant writes with humor and a keen eye for pacing — enough to keep me flying through the pages.

This is a fairly quick read, but it wasn’t without depth and wisdom. I felt connected to Annie Cantabile long after I’d finished the story. Her plight — and desire to break free of expectation, of restraint — was moving. Though selfishly I longed for a happier ending for many of the women, I also knew Sedition concluded in just the way it needed to. Not a novel I’ll soon forget!

4 out of 5!

Pub: April 1, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Mischief Of The Mistletoe’ by Lauren Willig

Arabella Dempsey is in a quandary. Fearful of becoming a further burden on her aging father and three younger sisters, Arabella cannot return to the only home she’s known of late: her Aunt Osborne’s, which has recently become populated with a money-hungry young army officer — her aunt’s new husband, and a man half her age. No matter that this guy was once courting Arabella and fighting for her affections; and no matter, too, that her good friend Jane Austen is now warning her away from accepting a position doing the only thing that could offer her financial security: teaching.

Arabella has to do what she must.

Armed only with her few possessions and desire to make a living, our heroine arrives at Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in Bath, England, where she soon runs smack into Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh, the older brother of young Sally, a curious and sparky pupil there. As Turnip visits to deliver Christmas gifts to his sister, he introduces himself to Arabella as if she’s a stranger — but she remembers him, even if he can’t place her. Suddenly bold, Arabella reminds him of the time they spent together in London, when she was nothing but a shy wallflower and Turnip, popular and handsome, flitted about to every lady in the ballroom but her.

Not so encouraging for Arabella’s ego.

After a kerfuffle with a Christmas pudding that lands Arabella flat on the street, Turnip flies to her rescue — the first salvation of what will prove many in coming days. Inside a soggy holiday treat is a note, scribbled in French: “Meet me at Farley Castle, tomorrow afternoon. Most urgent.” And thus begins a rollicking adventure that brings Turnip, Arabella and other members of the British ton closer together — and, hopefully, closer to solving a mystery that brings Arabella to the edge of danger.

Lauren Willig’s The Mischief Of The Mistletoe, the seventh book in her popular Pink Carnation series, is a wildly entertaining, funny and engaging holiday story that centered around two unlikely lovers and their unexpected entrance into the world of espionage. Arabella is about as far from a spy as one can get — pretty but not beautiful; tall, thin, unassuming; quiet and bookish, a teacher and wallflower. Conversely, Turnip is a boisterous companion: striking and talkative, wealthy but not snobbish. Infamous for his perceived lack of brains, Turnip still manages to intrigue Arabella for being exactly what so many other rich British bachelors are not: patient, kind, attentive and thoughtful. And fast on his feet.

I read the first book in Willig’s series years ago, pre-blogging, but couldn’t tell you much about The Secret History Of The Pink Carnation. Luckily, that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of this one; any background I needed to enjoy the story was provided early on. What I loved best about this novel was Willig’s light, humorous tone; even when some Serious Stuff was going down, Arabella and Turnip’s witty banter had me giggling. Despite the fact that this is historical romance (or historical fiction, take your pick), Willig doesn’t take herself too seriously. The book is quick and engaging — a truly pleasant read.

And what a surprise to find our dear Jane Austen here, operating as the ever-present voice of reason (and sarcasm) when Arabella, motherless, needs guidance. Austen lived in Bath in the early 1800s, when The Mischief Of The Mistletoe takes place, but hated the tar out of it. Our fictional heroine, Arabella, wanted nothing more than to be free of the place — and her family’s strife — herself. They are long-time friends in Willig’s latest, and I loved Jane’s cameos. They really placed and anchored the story for me.

Of course, I couldn’t talk about this one without extolling the virtues of the romance happening here! Turnip and Arabella’s slow realization of their feelings for one another was wonderfully done, and the scenes in which they talk, dance and laugh together teem with romantic tension. Willig gave us just enough to whet our appetites but keep us wanting more, and I turned the pages hoping to get another taste of their blooming love affair. The story’s mystery came as a surprise to me, too, and was one I didn’t see coming. If I’d really tried to read the signs, I might have been able to uncover it — but I was too busy drooling over Turnip, who cuts a pretty dashing figure as a hero.

Lovers of historical fiction and romance will likely love this holiday tale, which sped by as I got lost in the world of Regency England — one of my most favorite places. And what’s not to love about that lush cover? I actually gasped when I pulled it out of the mailbox. Gorgeous!

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525951873 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review