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longbourn to london

Source: Review copy from Meryton Press
Rating: ★★★☆☆

“I have divided them into stacks, the first being those we need not accept.”

“Is there such a thing?” Mr. Bennet asked over a lowered corner of his paper.  “I had thought a lady must accept all invitations.”

“Indeed, sir!”  Darcy smiled a little.  “I am more interested in that pile than any other.  I should make a study of how to extend an invitation into society in such a way as to have it not accepted, and then I shall give lessons to all of these others.”

Mr. Bennet smiled and nodded.  “Very wise, Mr. Darcy.”

Elizabeth extended them an arch look.  “Are you quite finished, the two of you?”

(from Longbourn to London, pages 18-19)

Longbourn to London is a different take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in that it’s not a re-imagining or a sequel.  Instead, Linda Beutler aims to fill in the blanks left by Austen when it comes to the weeks of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s betrothal and the early days of their marriage.

Much of the novel focuses on Elizabeth’s worries about what awaits her on the wedding night, the difficulties she and Mr. Darcy encounter in controlling their desires before their wedding day, and their many amorous moments afterward.  Yes, much of the book is about sex, and Beutler does not shy away from writing lengthy and quite descriptive sex scenes, so this is definitely a book for mature audiences only.  Although there isn’t much of a plot, just a recounting of the events that occurred during this period, there are a few obstacles that crop up and are almost immediately resolved.  I didn’t mind the sex scenes much, but given how many there were, they did start to get old after a while.

However, what I liked best about Longbourn to London were the humorous scenes, from the way Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy conspired to tease Elizabeth to Mrs. Bennet being put in her place about a certain wedding bonnet.  Beutler lets readers see Caroline Bingley come undone, gives Louisa Hurst some personality, and enables Mrs. Gardiner to swoop in and save the day, or Elizabeth’s sanity at least.  Even Mr. Collins made an appearance without trying my patience.

Longbourn to London is a sweet tale about two lovers — neither of whom expected to find such happiness, given Mr. Darcy’s disastrous first proposal and Elizabeth’s vehement rejection of it — navigating the nervousness and newness of getting married.  Like most couples, they experience stress with the wedding planning, have to deal with tiresome relatives, and spend less time together than they’d like.  Despite the abundance of detail when it comes to their most intimate moments, Beutler does a good job showing the joy Elizabeth and Darcy brought to one another and especially how Elizabeth softened Darcy’s rough edges.  I admire Beutler for taking a chance with this Pride and Prejudice “expansion,” and I liked it more than I thought I would given its focus.  If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after tale and detailed sex scenes don’t bother you, Longbourn to London provides some lighthearted entertainment for a lazy afternoon.

Disclosure: I received Longbourn to London from Meryton Press for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the program

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

I hate The Program and what it does to us, but I also know that I don’t want to die.  I don’t want any of us to.  Despite everything, our school district has the highest survival rate in the country.  So in some sick and twisted way…I guess The Program works.  Even if the result is a life half lived.

(from The Program, page 24)

The Program is a young adult novel set in a world where suicide has become an epidemic among teens.  In an effort to prevent them from succumbing to their depression, some high schools have implemented the Program, which aims to cure them by erasing their memories.  Sloane is grieving the death of her brother and the loss of her best friend to the Program.  Neither Sloane nor her boyfriend, James, can express their feelings for fear they will be taken by the Program — either at school, where they are under the watchful eyes of handlers, or at home, turned in by their own parents, who believe the Program is their only hope.  They don’t seem to notice or care that the children who complete the Program come home as empty shells of their former selves.

James is the only person Sloane can trust, the only one who can see her cry, and he vows to protect them both from the Program.  But when they lose someone else close to them, James starts to unravel, and Sloane must find a way to safeguard her memories of him so that, no matter what, their love will survive.

The Program is an interesting look at how far society and the government will go to protect the next generation, but it soon becomes apparent that the Program doesn’t have the best interests of its patients in mind.  Although the cause of the suicide epidemic is unknown, the Program only makes things worse by forcing teens to bury any emotion other than happiness.  Sloane, for instance, has to fake an injury to have an excuse to cry and must always pretend for her parents’ sake that everything is just fine.

Suzanne Young tells the story through Sloane’s eyes, so readers understand the depths of her grief and the fear of knowing that every move she makes is being watched, and they follow her as she struggles to hold it together.  With the threat of the Program looming overhead, there is little talk about the future — other than trying to make it to 18, when they can no longer be forced into the Program.  Given their shared grief and their lack of another emotional outlet, it’s not surprising that Sloane and James’ relationship takes center stage.  Of course, Young creates a love triangle, among other obstacles, and between that and the Program, there is more than enough angst and melodrama to go around.  I understood why their relationship was so important to Sloane and central to her happiness, but it was also sad that she felt she had little to live for beyond that relationship, and all the memories she wanted to preserve involved James.  Honestly, all the “James this” and “James that” quickly became repetitive and even annoying at times.  I read this book with The Girl for our July book club meeting, and she did a fair share of eye-rolling throughout.

Still, the idea behind the story is intriguing, and the choice Sloane must make provides much food for thought.  The Program did generate a great book club discussion, though most of us had mixed feelings about the book.  It didn’t seem as though most of the book club was curious enough to read the sequel, The Treatment, but there were enough loose ends to make me want to know how it all plays out.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Program from my local library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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remember the past

Source: Review copy from the author
Rating: ★★★★★

Darcy shut the door behind her, emptiness filling his belly until he sank into his favorite chair.  What was more troubling, that others saw his admiration for Miss Elizabeth, or that Miss Elizabeth could not?

He knew her to be upset, but the possibility of hurting her was insupportable.  Somehow, he had to rectify the misunderstanding.  She must not be somewhere in the world thinking ill of him.

(from Remember the Past, page 45)

I’ve said it a lot lately that Pride and Prejudice retellings need to be very unique these days to keep my attention, and Maria Grace’s latest novel, Remember the Past, certainly fits the bill.  As soon as I started reading, I knew that this was going to be different from all the re-imaginings I’ve read before.  What if the Bennet family had a fortune, so marrying off the daughters wasn’t their sole concern?  What if Lady Catherine was kind, grateful to her nephew for saving her and Anne from a life of genteel poverty?  What if there was no Mr. Bingley to win Jane Bennet’s affections?

In Remember the Past, Admiral Thomas Bennet has retired from His Majesty’s Navy and purchased an estate in Derbyshire after being thrown out of Longbourn by his scheming brother.  While Alston Hall is being readied for occupation, the widower Bennet, his daughters Jane and Elizabeth, and his twin sons Francis and Philip are invited to stay at Pemberley, where the widower Mr. Darcy lives with his sister, his mother-in-law Lady Catherine, his sons George and David, and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam.  Darcy is immediately drawn to Elizabeth, who excites a passion in him that he never felt while married to Anne, but after a scandalous first season in London, Elizabeth cannot trust another man.

Even in these much changed circumstances, misunderstandings abound.  When Darcy admires Elizabeth’s willingness to sword fight with the boys while trying to put aside his feelings for her, she thinks the look in his eyes signifies his disapproval.  She also feels slighted when both her father and Darcy dismiss her feelings about Wickham serving as her father’s steward; she senses a littleness about him from their very first meeting, and thankfully the Admiral taught his daughters how to protect themselves!

Meanwhile, Bennet is a man used to delivering orders and expecting that they will be carried out, but he soon finds that the women in his life increasingly refuse to submit to his will.  When it comes to Darcy, Elizabeth isn’t the only one who needs to set aside pride and prejudice, as Bennet’s own happiness, as well as his daughter’s, depends on him doing so.

Remember the Past is a fantastic retelling of Pride and Prejudice not only because of the original characters — from the rambunctious Bennet twins and Darcy brothers to the menacing but gentle Piper, the Admiral’s valet — but also because of the huge risks Grace takes in leaving only the bare bones of the original novel intact.  It was exciting to read a retelling in which I could not predict anything, other than the ultimate happily-ever-after ending.  The novel itself was exciting as well, with everything from sword fights to dangerous floods, and if it hadn’t been for work and family responsibilities, I would surely have finished it in one sitting.

Grace stays true to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy even while drastically changing the circumstances in which they meet and fall in love, but her delightful versions of Lady Catherine and Mr. Bennet drew me to the novel from the start.  Moreover, I never once missed the characters left out of this retelling (Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennet, the younger Bennet sisters, Mr. Collins, etc.).  Grace also does a good job balancing the heavier topics of grief, violence against women, and duty to family and friends with moments of humor and lightheartedness.  I’ve long enjoyed Grace’s Austen-inspired fiction, but Remember the Past is her best work so far, and I can’t wait to see where she takes these characters next.

Disclosure: I received Remember the Past from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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jane austen's first love

Source: Review copy from Berkley
Rating: ★★★★★

“I take it, Mr. Payler, that you have never read a novel?”

“Never.  It is said that they are designed to entertain the weak of mind.”

“Sir,” said I with animation, “that could not be further from the truth.  Some novels might be poorly written, but in the main, I believe the opposite to be the case.  A good novel — a well-written novel — not only entertains the readers with effusions of wit and humour, it touches the emotions and conveys a comprehensive understanding of human nature — all via the simple and remarkable act of transmitting words on a page — while at the same time displaying, in the best-chosen language, the greatest powers of the human mind.”

(from Jane Austen’s First Love, pages 81-82)

The inspiration for Syrie James’ latest novel, Jane Austen’s First Love, was a single line Jane wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1796: “We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.”  The resulting novel is a beautifully written tale of 15-year-old Jane Austen falling in love for the first time in the summer of 1791 on a trip to Kent to celebrate her brother Edward’s engagement to Elizabeth Bridges.  Despite knowing deep down that a match between herself and Edward Taylor, the heir to Bifrons — who has led a fascinating life on the Continent and even dined and danced with princesses — will never be, his intelligence, knowledge of the world, humor, and admiration of her impertinence make it impossible for her to resist him.

In this delightful novel, told from the first person viewpoint of Jane herself, James portrays Jane as a girl quick to fall in love, open with her opinions, and astute in her observations of human character and behavior.  Early on, Jane says to her mother, “I write because I cannot help it,” and I loved picturing her sneaking in a few moments to write while her mother insists that needlework is more important.

What I loved most about Jane Austen’s First Love were the references to her novels, from misguided matchmaking attempts reminiscent of Emma Woodhouse and the similarities between Jane’s relationship with Cassandra and the bond between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, to Jane’s insistence that love could overpower society’s expectations for marriage.  Jane’s observations of the people she met certainly inspired the various characters she wrote, and James gives readers a glimpse of how that might have happened, and in her skilled hands, Jane’s family, friends, and acquaintances come to life on the page.  James even includes an afterword where she explains her inspiration for the book, details the research she conducted, and points out which aspects of the story are imagined.

Jane Austen’s First Love is a satisfying novel that gives Jane the love story that many of us imagine she had.  But more than that, it’s a portrait of a young woman who was ahead of her time in many ways, whose brilliantly composed stories and characters have stood the test of time.  James shows Jane Austen as a normal teenager, with a desire to act older than her age, an impulsiveness that prompts her to make poor decisions, and a romantic nature that ensured she truly felt the things she wrote about.  The few letters that survived provide the only glimpse we’ll ever really have of the real Jane, but James does such a fantastic job creating a believable inner narrative, I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t actually inside Jane’s head reading her thoughts.  Jane Austen’s First Love is another book likely to turn up on my Best of 2014 list!

JA tour

Disclosure: I received Jane Austen’s First Love from Berkley for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the fault in our stars

Source: Borrowed from The Girl
Rating: ★★★★★

I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.

(from The Fault in Our Stars, page 125)

I’ll be honest: I never wanted to read this book.  It just sounded too depressing, and I read enough depressing books as it is.  But then The Girl read it, and it made her cry.  Book, movies…they NEVER make her cry, so I admit I was mildly curious at this point.  But then I thought, if it made her cry, then I’ll be a blubbering mess.  And then she BEGGED me to take her to see the movie, so I figured that maybe I’d read the book so then I’d know what happens and maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t embarrass myself by sobbing in the movie theater.

The Fault in Our Stars is narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year-old with terminal lung cancer.  An experimental drug has bought her a little extra time, and her mother, worried that she is depressed, makes her attend a support group for kids with cancer.  This is where she meets Augustus Waters, a charming boy whose cancer is in remission.  He is instantly smitten with Hazel, and they bond over discussions about Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, and her burning desire to know what happens to the characters after it ends.

Yes, the novel is depressing at times, but mostly The Fault in Our Stars is hopeful.  Hazel and Augustus felt real to me, and their relationship unfolded beautifully, giving them something to look forward to, something to hold onto when the only thing that’s certain in life (for everyone) is death.  John Green made me feel like a teenager again, and yes, I sobbed, dried my eyes and sobbed some more, but I was surprised how many times I also laughed out loud while reading this book.

My daughter and I saw the movie the weekend it opened, and it was a good thing I packed a handful of tissues in my purse.  It was a fantastic adaptation, and I have to agree with The Girl, who said watching the movie was like reading the book all over again.  And The Fault in Our Stars is definitely a book I’d read again.  (We plan to buy the movie, too.  I need to watch it in the privacy of my own living room because there were too many tears left unshed in the theater because I didn’t want to make a complete fool of myself!)

Don’t let the subject matter, or the fact that it’s a young adult novel, stop you from reading this book.  I’ve told several people in the weeks since I finished it that it’s the kind of book that made me feel like I was hit by a truck, like my heart was ripped out of my chest and handed back to me…and I enjoyed every minute of that pain because there was more to it than that.

Looking at the world through the eyes of a girl who is facing the end before she’s really had a chance to live makes you ponder what it means to be truly alive and to fall in love.  The Fault in Our Stars makes you appreciate the little things and think about what it means to remember and be remembered.  I didn’t expect these characters and their love story to affect me so deeply, but it’s definitely a novel that will stay with me for a long time.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Fault in Our Stars from my daughter’s personal library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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grand central

Source: Review copy from Berkley
Rating: ★★★★★

In those moments when she was alone, her body propped up in bed and a borrowed book she was using to study English on her lap, she saw her mother saying good-bye for the last time through a forced smile, and her father still holding on to her bag for a few more moments.  She didn’t want to look at those horrible photos in the paper and believe her parents could be amongst the piles off bodies or reduced to dark ash.  She wanted instead to look at the family photograph that sat on her nightstand and believe that they were still just as she had left them.  Father in his dark brown overcoat and stylish fedora, and Mother always with something warm and sweet in her hands.

(from “Going Home” by Alyson Richman, Grand Central, page 27)

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion is a collection of 10 short stories that at some point bring readers to Grand Central Terminal in New York City on the same day in September 1945.  The stories are set shortly after the end of World War II, when refugees were creating new lives in America and soldiers were making their way home.  When I saw the list of authors and stories in this collection, I definitely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read it.

  • “Going Home” by Alyson Richman (The Lost Wife)
  • “The Lucky One” by Jenna Blum (Those Who Save Us)
  • “The Branch of Hazel” by Sarah McCoy (The Baker’s Daughter)
  • “The Kissing Room” by Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Sarah Jio (Blackberry Winter)
  • “I’ll Walk Alone” by Erika Robuck (Call Me Zelda)
  • “The Reunion” by Kristina McMorris (Bridge of Scarlet Leaves)
  • “Tin Town” by Amanda Hodgkinson (22 Britannia Road)
  • “Strand of Pearls” by Pam Jenoff (The Kommandant’s Girl)
  • “The Harvest Season” by Karen White (The Time Between)

I don’t usually read short stories because I often feel like they end before the story takes off, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself satisfied by every one of these stories.  I couldn’t put this book down, and while I liked some stories more than others, in the week since I finished it, I still can’t decide which story was my favorite.

These stories are all unique in their subject matter, from a Holocaust survivor trying to get on with his life after losing his wife and daughters to a female pilot struggling with a different sort of grief and guilt, from a woman who dreads her soldier husband’s return to a young girl leaving her home in England to start a new life with her mother and GI husband in America.  Another story follows a young girl who travels alone from Shanghai to New York City to reunite with her father only to learn he’s not the man she thought he was, and Sarah McCoy lets readers know what happened to Hazel from The Baker’s Daughter, who joined the Lebensborn program.

Grand Central seems to perfectly capture the postwar atmosphere in a big city, with the chaos in the train station and the roller coaster of emotions within each character.  The changes in society, especially in regards to women and their romantic relationships and career aspirations, also feature prominently in some of these stories.  I was impressed not only by the character development in these stories but also by the ways in which the characters crossed paths with one another, which emphasizes how well this collection is structured.  If you love novels set during World War II or have loved novels by these authors in the past, you’ll definitely want to get your hands on a copy.

war challenge with a twist

Book 16 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 17 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Grand Central from Berkley for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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war babies

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

We sat outside in a sort of silence.  Everything else made noise — the black birds growled, the trees rattled in a wind that stuttered, then died — while Hilary ran her fingers round and round the moistened rim of the glass we had drunk from.  It screamed despite its thickness and heft, proving its value.  I’d proved mine, I thought, by standing for the toast to the hero my father had helped to betray.  I disproved mine, I thought, by sitting with the hero’s daughter whom I probably would betray.  What I wanted was her history.  What she offered me was all the rest.  I’d taken some of each.  I wanted more.

(from War Babies, page 49)

In War Babies, Frederick Busch emphasizes how war wounds the children of soldiers long into adulthood.  Peter Santore is an American lawyer whose father was jailed for being a traitor during the Korean War.  While in a POW camp, Peter’s father worked with the Peace Fighters Battalion in coercing confessions out of American and English soldiers.  He never really knew his father — why he did what he did, whether he really had converted to the side of the enemy — and he has spent much of his life searching for answers.

Peter thinks Hilary Pennels, a bookstore owner in Salisbury, has the answers he seeks, so he goes to England to track her down and learn how his father played a role in the death of her father, the “hero” lieutenant.  In an oh-so-convenient fashion, Peter finds Hilary almost immediately after he arrives, and the pair right away commence a very weird, very sexual relationship.

Through Hilary, Peter meets a Mr. Fox, who was in the same POW camp as their fathers and has a strange obsession with Hilary; one can’t tell whether he wants to be her lover or her father figure.  Readers learn what happened in the POW camp through Mr. Fox’s bitter, exaggerated, and even romanticized narrative.

War Babies is a short novel, but its disjointed narrative makes it a bit of chore to read.  In fact, if Serena and I hadn’t been reading it for a readalong on War Through the Generations (click here and here for our discussions, beware of spoilers), I doubt I would have finished it.  I couldn’t connect with the characters; they spent most of their time together in bed, the dialogue was just odd, their whole meeting felt contrived, and I felt like I was missing something essential about them.  What I did take away from the story was a sense of pain and loss.  Mr. Fox’s war story speaks for itself, but both Peter and Hilary were wounded in different ways by their fathers, especially Hilary, who doesn’t see her father so much as a hero but as the man who chose not to come home.

War Babies is an intriguing novel, but Busch spends too much time on Peter and Hilary’s “relationship” yet barely scratches the surface of the most interesting (and arguable most complicated) character — Mr. Fox.  It’s probably not a book to pick up if you know very little about the Korean war (like me) or want a more traditional war novel (like me).  However, War Babies is worth giving a try if quirky characters are your thing or you have an interest in character studies dealing with the effects of war.

war challenge with a twist

Book 15 for the War Challenge With a Twist (Korean War)

historical fiction challenge

Book 16 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed War Babies from my local library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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