Archive for the ‘read in 2013’ Category

dear mr. knightley

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

If you truly are a “Mr. Knightley,” I can do this.  I can write these letters.  I trust you chose the name as a reflection of your own character.  George Knightley is a good and honorable man — even better than Fitzwilliam Darcy, and few women put anyone above Mr. Darcy.

Yes, Darcy’s got the tempestuous masculinity and brooding looks, but Knightley is a kinder, softer man with no pretense or dissimilation.  Yes, he’s a gentleman.  And I can write with candor to a silent gentleman, and I can believe that he will not violate this trust.

(from Dear Mr. Knightley, page 13)

I must admit that when I picked out Katherine Reay’s epistolary novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, as a birthday gift (per my husband’s request), I thought it was a Jane Austen-inspired novel.  It is, in a way, but it really is a modern-day retelling of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.  I haven’t read — and to be honest, never heard of — Webster’s novel, so I can’t make any comparisons between the two, but I can say that Reay’s version is a charming, overall feel-good novel.

Reay’s heroine is Samantha Moore, a 23-year-old orphan living in a group home.  She can stay there until she’s 25, provided she attends school, and with her attempt to break out on her own proving to be a failure, she takes advantage of an offer from a mysterious benefactor.  This “Mr. Knightley” will pay her tuition for the master’s program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, provided she keeps up a written correspondence with him about “things that matter.”

Sam is socially awkward, not knowing how to make friends or interact with other people, and speaking and writing in the words and styles of her favorite classic authors when things become too difficult.  In these letters to “Mr. Knightley,” however, she can be herself, without worrying what he will say because the conversation is one-sided.  No matter how hard Sam tries to change, to make friends, to forge a career in journalism, to write these letters effortlessly, she always finds something to hold her back.  But her relationships with her favorite novelist Alex Powell, Professor and Mrs. Muir, the tough Dr. Johnson, and Kyle, a rough youth at the group home, might just put her on the path to finding herself.  However, the journey isn’t an easy one, and when her curiosity about “Mr. Knightley” gets the best of her, the world she so carefully built begins to crumble.

I’m a big fan of epistolary novels, and I found it easy to lose myself in Sam’s story.  Reay’s writing is smooth, the literary references are relevant and fun, and the Christian elements of the story aren’t preachy.  Sam is easy to like, though her naivety is a bit unbelievable at times, especially for a girl who spent time on the streets.  However, I couldn’t help but root for her, and she won me over in the end.

Despite its predictability, Dear Mr. Knightley is a charming novel.  Reay shows how easy it can be to lose one’s way and sense of self after years of feeling worthless, but it is possible — with some tough love, some hope, and a whole lot of courage — to find value in oneself.  Dear Mr. Knightley‘s literary connections are what caught my eye, but its heartwarming story of a young women looking to find her voice, personally and professionally, is what prompted me to finish the book in one sitting.

Disclosure: Dear Mr. Knightley is from my personal library.

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

Read Full Post »

the tattered prayer book

Source: Review copy from Gihon River Press
Rating: ★★★★☆

The next day I saw our synagogue in ruins and I cried.  Burned prayer books were everywhere.  When no one was looking, I hid this one in my coat.  I wanted a reminder of the place where I had been so happy.

(from The Tattered Prayer Book)

The Tattered Prayer Book by Ellen Bari is a picture book intended to be a gentle introduction to the Holocaust.  When Ruthie finds a box of old photos at her grandmother’s house in a box marked “Germany,” she discovers a tattered and burned Jewish prayer book and learns that it belonged to her father when he was a young boy.  Ruthie is surprised to learn that her father was born in Germany, and despite his desire to forget, he tells her his story.

Ruthie’s father describes the happy life he enjoyed in Hamburg and how everything changed after the Nazis came to power.  He tells her about the friends he lost, the prayer book he found on the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) in 1938, and how he and his family came to live in America.  He remembers the comfort the prayer book gave him and is grateful for the discussion prompted by Ruthie’s question.

With Avi Katz’s illustrations, which have an old-book look about them, The Tattered Prayer Book puts readers in the shoes of a young boy who witnesses so much hatred and fear yet does not lose hope.  There is no mention of the death camps, mass shootings, or the systematic slaughter of millions of people, so parents need not worry that they are sharing too much too soon.  But it definitely is a book that will spark questions, as children struggle to understand why the synagogues were burned, why Ruthie’s father lost his friends, and why his family had to leave their home.

The Tattered Prayer Book is more than an introduction to the Holocaust.  Ultimately, it emphasizes the pain of remembering but how doing so can both honor those who perished and teach children about a period in history that should never be repeated.  Just like Ruthie’s father used the prayer book as a reminder of the good times in Germany, Ruthie’s curiosity is a reminder that children long to understand and are our hope for the future.

Disclosure: I received The Tattered Prayer Book from Gihon River Press for review.

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

Read Full Post »

undressing mr. darcy

Source: Review copy from author/Berkley
Rating: ★★★★☆

Vanessa had, as a young teen, developed a sibling rivalry of sorts with Jane Austen, competing with her for her aunt’s attention, even though her aunt doted on her.  She never could get through Pride and Prejudice and, much to her aunt’s chagrin, she’d only read the outlined study-guide version.

To this day she didn’t quite believe in happy endings.

(from Undressing Mr. Darcy, page 18)

I absolutely loved Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, so I couldn’t pass up a chance to read Karen Doornebos’ latest novel, Undressing Mr. Darcy, which is just as funny and sexy as the title implies.  Doornebos’ heroine, Vanessa, is not a Jane Austen fan, but her Aunt Ella, who pretty much raised her and is slowly losing herself to dementia, is Austen-obsessed.  As a favor to Ella, social media-obsessed Vanessa handles the PR for Julian Chancellor at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting in their hometown of Chicago and the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville.  When Julian waltzes into her life in full Regency wardrobe, turns his nose up at modern technology, and speaks and acts like a gentleman, Vanessa isn’t sure what to think.

Vanessa spends nearly every waking moment on Twitter and other social media broadcasting Julian’s every move as Mr. Darcy, helping him promote his book, My Year as Mr. Darcy, so he can earn enough money to restore his rundown estate in Chawton.  But Julian’s striptease show, Undressing Mr. Darcy (which is supposed to educate attendees about men’s clothing during the period but really is just a way to see Mr. Darcy nearly naked), is steamy enough to pull Vanessa’s attention away from her phone and toward the charming man who seems to have stepped right out of Austen’s novel.

Meanwhile, Vanessa tries to come to terms with her beloved aunt’s failing health, take her aunt’s advice about enjoying life offline, and handle the reappearance of her one-time best friend and business partner, Lexi, who quickly sets her sights on Julian.  Add Chase, a shameless flirt in a pirate costume, Vanessa’s budding love for Austen, a plastic Colin Firth, and a scavenger hunt into the mix, and you have a hilariously romantic tale that pokes fun at the popularity of All Things Austen.

Janeites bond over stories about how they came to love Austen, and Undressing Mr. Darcy is a novel about one woman’s journey from rolling her eyes at even the slightest mention of Jane to promenading around Bath in a Regency gown.  Vanessa was likeable even though I found her annoying and clueless at times; that just made her more real.  I loved how Doornebos kept me chuckling throughout (there’s a plastic Colin Firth!), and by the time it became clear how it would end, I’d grown attached to all of the characters and was sad to see it end.  I longed for more time with Aunt Ella and even Sherry, the woman with an overflowing closet of Darcy-themed attire, and the novel made me determined to attend an Austen event someday.

Undressing Mr. Darcy is a lighthearted novel that shows how happily-ever-afters can happen even for people who are so resistant to them and how social media and classic novels can complement one another.  I still don’t completely understand the whole #hashtag thing, nor do I want to spend more time on Twitter, but Doornebos’ playful take on social media addiction was both funny and sadly realistic.  The novel also veers into more serious topics, like dementia, but it never once feels heavy or depressing.  A treat for Austen fans, especially those who like to read about Austen but don’t want to read a sequel or retelling of one of her novels.

Book 21 for the P&P Bicentenary Challenge

Disclosure: I received Undressing Mr. Darcy from the author and Berkley for review.

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

Read Full Post »

I managed to read 102 books in 2013, which is amazing given how busy I’ve been the last few months visiting high schools and filling out applications and financial aid forms for The Girl.  With everything due in December, right around the holidays, I’ve been exhausted.  So I’m not surprised that I didn’t top the 114 books I read in 2012 and that I was two books short of finishing all the challenges in which I participated.  But I’m thankful that I had reading time at all, and I read so many good books in 2013 that narrowing them down was really difficult.  So here’s my list of favorites, keeping in mind that all of them were read in 2013 but not necessarily published that year.

My Top 10 of 2013

life after lifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

(from my review) Life After Life is a beautifully crafted novel whose impact on me has not lessened in the weeks since I finished it.  Atkinson has created an amazing character in Ursula — someone so ordinary and so endearing yet called to something too big for us to wrap our minds around.  If I hadn’t grown to care for her, to cheer her on every time she struggled through another life, and if Atkinson had not set the book in such a fascinating time period, it might have grown as tedious as the title sounds.  But in Atkinson’s skilled hands, Ursula and her story (gift? plight?) will not be easily forgotten.

the english german girlThe English German Girl by Jake Wallis Simons

(from my review) The English German Girl is one of those books that leaves you speechless when you turn the last page and haunts you for weeks afterward.  It’s also one of the best World War II novels I’ve read depicting the struggles of Jews living in Germany as Hitler and the Nazis come to power. … Beautifully written, with rich details and unforgettable characters, The English German Girl is a powerful novel about how war brings people together and tears them apart, how far people are willing to go to save the ones they love, and finding hope among the horrors, love among the ruins, and the strength to keep going.  I was blown away by Simons’ storytelling, how he made me feel as though I was actually in prewar Berlin and wartime London, walking alongside characters who felt real, like I knew them as well as I know myself.

rising sun falling shadowRising Sun, Falling Shadow by Daniel Kalla

(from my review) Rising Sun, Falling Shadow is an exciting novel, with Kalla showing the danger and chaos from the very first page.  Kalla is a fantastic storyteller, making wartime Shanghai come to life.  I could see how the once vibrant city had begun to deteriorate, feel the fear and hunger and never-ending anxiety and uneasiness of the refugees, and sense the danger lurking everywhere. … With complex and memorable characters struggling with anger and guilt and simply trying to survive, Rising Sun, Falling Shadow is an emotional story about how far people will go to save those they love.  Kalla provides enough back story for the novel to stand on its own, but I recommend reading them in order to appreciate the evolution of the characters and the changes the city undergoes as the war drags on.  The novel is not only a page-turner but also a thought-provoking tale of love and loss, courage and betrayal, and the search for humanity amidst so much wretchedness.

looking for meLooking for Me by Beth Hoffman

(from my review) Looking for Me is one of those books you know you’re going to love from the very first page.  Beth Hoffman is such a talented storyteller, and I’ve loved her writing since I read Saving CeeCee Honeycutt (which made my Best of 2010 list).  Her characters are so well developed and so real, and her descriptions are so vivid and rich that you feel like you are walking alongside the characters.  The best way to describe Hoffman’s writing is warm and insightful, and this book just spoke to me. … I love how Hoffman can take you on an emotional roller coaster ride (I teared up reading this on the train and didn’t care if anyone noticed), and even when you feel wrung out and breathless like the characters, you can’t help but enjoy it and want more.  She writes about a family broken by a tragic event, and she does so with heart and even hope.  Looking for Me is such a rich novel, with delicious descriptions of antiques and a portrait of the power of nature, the unbreakable bond of close siblings, and the freedom that comes from accepting the past while looking forward to the future.

the crooked branchThe Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins

(from my review) Normally when I read a novel that weaves together the past and the present, I find myself drawn to the historical story and think the present-day story is just so-so.  But this time around, I was equally captivated. … The Crooked Branch is a story with motherhood at its core, how parenting comes with its ups and downs, no matter the time or place.  Majella’s problems may seem insignificant in comparison to Ginny’s, but her fears and inner turmoil are authentic.  Cummins paints a picture of two women willing to do anything to protect their children and addresses the issue of heritage and one’s identity after becoming a mother.  It’s a tale of mothers and daughters — Majella and the mother she feels she never knew, and Ginny and Maire, who was forced to grow up too soon.  Cummins’ prose flows so beautifully that it’s easy to get lost in the story and breeze through a whole chunk of pages without even realizing it.  The connections between the past and the present are satisfying, and the characters are so fascinating that I didn’t want the novel to end.

the passing bellsThe Passing Bells, Circles of Time, and A Future Arrived by Phillip Rock

(I know I’m cheating with a trilogy, but these books span both world wars and must be read together!)

(from my review of The Passing Bells) The Passing Bells is truly an epic novel of the “war to end all wars” that shows how the war ushered in change on all levels.  Rock’s characters were so tenderly crafted and so wonderfully complex that I could understand them all even when I didn’t like them.  Their relationships and entanglements felt true to the chaos of the time, and the battle scenes had just the right amount of description to emphasize the horror and the confusion without going overboard on the violence or the military maneuvering.

(from my review of Circles of Time) Rock was a fantastic writer, bringing the post-World War I landscape to life, all the chaos and the change, and letting readers tag along while the characters they have grown to love evolve with the times. Even while the world is swiftly moving forward, Rock doesn’t let readers forget about the massive loss of life, the destruction of the landscape, and the veterans with missing limbs or shell shock left behind by the Great War.

(from my review of A Future Arrived) A Future Arrived was a difficult book to put down, but at the same time, I didn’t want to rush through it because I knew I was going to have a hard time letting these characters go.  Although I longed for more time with the characters I’d grown to love since the first book, I understood the need for the torch to be passed and to view the wartime struggles from the eyes of the characters at the forefront.  At the same time, Rock also shows how those who remember the Great War deal with the prospect of another, and he continues to shine a light on social class, sexuality, and the role of women, which changed so much in response to WWI.  The scope of this trilogy is so big, so ambitious, yet focusing on one family navigating the changes brought by two wars makes it manageable.

the revolution of every dayThe Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna

(from my review) The Revolution of Every Day is gritty and raw, yet carefully composed and beautifully written.  Luna doesn’t portray squatting as right or wrong, but she gets readers thinking about why people would take such a risk for a chance to create a home of their own in an exciting and vibrant city.  Her love for the city of her birth shines through as she describes the promise it once held and a sense of loss as money ushers in change.  Most importantly, Luna shows how revolutions are grounded in the every day and how struggles within a community and within friendships and romantic relationships affect and even transcend the larger movement.  Luna’s prose is detailed and insightful, and The Revolution of Every Day is a thought-provoking page-turner with unique characters whose strength and passion will not be easily forgotten.

every man dies alone hans falladaEvery Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

(from my review) Every Man Dies Alone is a powerful book, one I won’t easily forget.  It was easy to see where the story was headed, but there were plenty of twists and turns to keep it from being too predictable.  It’s one of only a few books that have affected me so deeply that, after turning the last page, I could do nothing but sit and stare and ponder what it all meant.  Reading the bonus features about Fallada’s difficult life, especially how the Nazis stifled his creativity, and the true story behind the book made for a richer reading experience.  Every Man Dies Alone is an important novel, and I fear I didn’t do it justice here.  I urge you to give this one a try, so long as you don’t mind a story that plunges you into the depths of evil and despair but also leaves you with a better understanding of what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.

city of womenCity of Women by David R. Gillham

(from my review) City of Women was both difficult to read and difficult to put down.  Gillham focuses on a flawed woman who had grown so used to ignoring the atrocities being committed around her that she can’t help but be completely changed when she is forced to act.  It’s a novel that really underscores how easy it is to grow complacent, to do nothing, to lose oneself in the routines of everyday life.  Sigrid is far from perfect, but readers will recognize a little of themselves in her, making it easier to understand her choices.  And life-or-death choices must be made over and over during the course of the novel.  Gillham forces readers to think about how they would have behaved in Sigrid’s shoes, how far passion can drive someone to act, and how love and duty affect our decisions.  A highly recommended portrait of fear and longing, with rich prose that highlights the darkness of war and the freedom that comes from finding one’s true self.

the last telegramThe Last Telegram by Liz Trenow

(from my review) I honestly can’t think of one thing I didn’t like about The Last Telegram.  The romance between Lily and Stefan might seem like something that’s been done before in other WWII novels, but Trenow makes it different by incorporating the history of how the British government placed all men and boys age 16 and older with passports from enemy countries in internment camps. … The Last Telegram is a story about love and loss, guilt and forgiveness, and although it made me cry, Trenow does a good job balancing the sadness with hope.  It’s a fast-paced novel that isn’t too heavy on the tragedy, but the love you feel for the characters and how Trenow transports you back in time, in their shoes, make for an emotional and completely captivating read.

The 2013 Honorable Mentions

I’ll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan — The best epistolary novel set during World War II that I’ve read so far.  With each author writing from the point of view of one of the heroines and trading letters via email without ever meeting in person, the novel has two distinct voices.

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik — I never would have read this book if it wasn’t for my book club, and I would have missed out on a great fantasy novel set during the Napoleonic Wars.  I never thought I could be so captivated by a talking dragon, but now I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys — A fantastic swashbuckling spy novel set during the Revolutionary War.  Jack Absolute is a dashing, brave, charming, and completely unforgettable character.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan — This novel goes beyond the typical teenage love story by delving into the romance between two female best friends in Iran, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death.  Farizan gives readers a glimpse of Iran’s underground gay community and shows the struggles endured by those who choose sex reassignment surgery, which is legal.

The Ghosts of Rue Dumaine by Alexandrea Weis — I’m very picky about romances, especially paranormal ones, but Weis is one of my favorite romance writers.  I do enjoy a good ghost story, though, and coupled with Weis’ detailed and enticing descriptions of her native New Orleans, this one grabbed me from the very beginning.

What were the best books you read in 2013? Feel free to link to your lists in the comments, and I’ll be sure to check them out.

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

Read Full Post »


Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★☆

Alek found himself deposited into the commander’s chair as the machine began to move.  He struggled with the seat straps, but a terrible thought took hold of his mind, freezing his fingers.

If they’re trying to kill me…it’s all true.

Count Volger crouched beside him, yelling over the rumble of engines and gunfire.  “Take heart at this impoliteness, Alek.  It proves that you are still a threat to the throne.”

(from Leviathan, page 49)

Leviathan is the first book in the steampunk series of the same name, which presents an alternate history of World War I.  The novel is set partly in Austria-Hungary, a Clanker nation that uses steam-driven iron machines as weapons, and Britain, a Darwinist nation that uses fabricated animals as weapons.  The novel centers on Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand (Alek), son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who is on the run in a two-legged Cykolps Stormwalker with his fencing master, Count Volger, and his master of mechaniks, Otto Klopp, after his parents’ assassination.

Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp aims to become an airman in the British Air Service, so she disguises herself as Dylan Sharp.  After managing to keep her head when a storm botches her air test on a Huxley, a jellyfish-like hydrogen breather, Deryn is rescued by the Leviathan.  She soon becomes a member of the whale-like airship’s crew.  When war breaks out between the Clankers and the Darwinists, Alek and Deryn are brought together as the factions — each needing something from the other — join forces to make a delivery of the utmost importance to Constantinople.

This was my first foray into steampunk, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  Scott Westerfeld’s detailed descriptions of each Clanker machine and each fabricated animal, coupled with illustrations by Keith Thompson, make them come to life.  Without being able to visualize their inner workings, I would have been lost, since their maneuverings make up a great chunk of the story.  It’s obvious that the Clanker and Darwinist weapons are fiction, but Westerfeld plays with other historical details as well, and I was thankful for the afterword that sets everything straight.

Leviathan shines not just in its world-building but also in its characters.  Alek and Deryn are both strong, admirable characters whose flaws are on full display throughout the course of the novel.  They are both intelligent, quick thinkers, but they are also teenagers, and their secrets are nearly exposed several times due to their pride and foolishness.

Westerfeld manages to make both the characters and the alternate history believable, and the novel is perfectly paced with plenty of action to keep readers’ attention throughout.  I wish all science fiction novels showed the same attention to detail as Leviathan, as I didn’t find myself questioning this world as much as I normally do when reading books in this genre.  I finished this novel months ago (for my book club’s October selection, in fact), and it has stayed with me.  I hope to finish the trilogy, which continues with Behemoth and Goliath, in the new year.

Disclosure: I borrowed Leviathan from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

project darcy

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

Looking up at the boathouse rising from the water with its verandah and windows, unchanged over the years except for fresh paint and the addition of some gothic decoration, she imagined him standing there, waving to her.  Tears misted her eyes and spilled over her cheeks.  Dreaming of her Mr. Darcy would never be enough, but there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.

(from Project Darcy, page 219)

Project Darcy is the second book in Jane Odiwe’s Time Travels With Jane Austen series, which began with imagining the inspiration for Persuasion in Searching for Captain Wentworth.  This time, Odiwe follows five college friends on an archaeological dig at Jane Austen’s childhood home in Steventon, Hampshire.  Ellie Bentley has always been able to see things other people can’t, and the moment she sets foot in Hampshire, she sees the ghost of a fair-haired man inhabiting the home where she and her friends are staying, a former rectory that belonged to a friend of Jane Austen’s.  Without warning, Ellie is transported from the hot summer dig to the winter of 1796, where she experiences first-hand the romance between Jane Austen and the man who may have inspired Pride and Prejudice.

Ellie is confused about whether she is experiencing Jane’s feelings or whether she is actually falling in love with the man from Jane’s past herself.  It becomes increasingly hard for Ellie to stay grounded in reality, where she is painting pictures of what the Steventon Rectory may have looked like as part of her work on the dig and doing her best to avoid Donald, the curate who has been pursuing her at the urging of her mother.  Sound familiar?  That’s because when she isn’t traveling back in time, Ellie’s life in the present is very much a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice.

Ellie and her friends are reminiscent of the Bennet sisters, with Ellie, a free-spirited woman who, like Elizabeth, is not afraid to speak her mind; Jess, who is just as good-natured as Jane; Martha, who is just as serious as Mary; Cara, who is exuberant and a follower, like Kitty; and Liberty, who is every bit as wild as Lydia.  At the dig, Jess hits it off immediately with Charlie Harden, whose sister, Zara, and best friend, Henry Dorsey, turn their noses up at Ellie and her friends, especially when Liberty and Cara hang all over the camera crew both on and off the dig.

Odiwe makes the romance between Jane and her Mr. Darcy believable, from the stirrings of first love to the end that we know is coming but hope will turn out differently.  Jane was such an astute observer of human nature, and I like to believe that just like her heroines, she had her own love story.  Odiwe also makes Ellie’s travels through time seem plausible, from the subtle triggers to her intense response and ultimate confusion.  However, the ending of the novel seems a bit rushed and completely unexpected, given how insignificant the character in question seemed until that point.  I like that the ending is unpredictable, but that also serves to make the conclusion feel less realistic.

Even so, Project Darcy is a fun take on Pride and Prejudice, especially for Austen fans who wonder about the inspiration for her beloved novels.  Odiwe does a wonderful job balancing the past and present story lines and making the present-day characters similar enough to Austen’s to follow the parallels to Pride and Prejudice but also different enough that there are some surprises.  Odiwe makes Jane Austen come to life, and I really hope she is planning more time travel novels for the rest of Austen’s books.

Book 20 for the P&P Bicentenary Challenge

Disclosure: I received Project Darcy from the author for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

jane and bingley

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

She wished she might be so fortunate in life as to be able to show her displeasure, rather than always hiding behind an obsequious mask.

(from “Jane & Bingley: Something Slightly Unsettling”)

“Jane & Bingley: Something Slightly Unsettling” is a short story by Alexa Adams that retells the beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the eldest Bennet sister, Jane.  Jane has long been known as beautiful and good, with never an unkind word for anyone — not even Mr. Bingley’s condescending sisters.  But Adams puts Jane’s thoughts on display, from her desire to be more than just beautiful and elegant to her embarrassment over the actions of her mother and her youngest sister, Lydia.

The story begins after Elizabeth is slighted by Mr. Darcy at the Meryton Assembly and follows Jane through her illness and extended stay at Netherfield Park to her second dance with Mr. Bingley at the Netherfield ball.  Jane’s thoughts run from her admiration of Mr. Darcy to her distress at Elizabeth’s impertinent remarks to the gentleman and interest in the shady Mr. Wickham.

Adams’ portrayal of Jane is refreshing because I’ve always found it hard to believe that she’s so perfect and good, and I have long wondered what she really thought about being forced to ride to Netherfield on horseback in the rain or listen to her mother’s obnoxious prattle.  I was surprised at Jane’s thoughts about the obviously besotted Mr. Bingley but glad to see her portrayed as having more depth.

“Jane & Bingley: Something Slightly Unsettling” is an enjoyable take on the eldest Bennet sister, bringing the saying “still waters run deep” to mind.  That Jane let her need for an advantageous marriage guide her interactions with Mr. Bingley provides much food for thought.  Was Jane not as crazy in love with Mr. Bingley as we like to believe?  It’s not often that a Pride and Prejudice retelling assumes Jane’s point of view, so I was reluctant for it to end.  Adams is talented in dreaming up alternative scenarios for Austen’s novels and characters and giving readers just enough to get them thinking.  She is definitely not afraid to give Austen’s heroines less than the expected happily ever after, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for her next “Twisted Austen” tale.

Book 19 for the P&P Bicentenary Challenge

Disclosure: “Jane & Bingley: Something Slightly Unsettling” is from my personal library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

midnight in austenland

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★★

She sighed.  And decided it was okay to let her heart flit and flutter around, and for her breath to get caught in her chest like the ghost’s flowing headdress on a shrub.  It was okay to fall in love inside books and stories, and where was she if not inside a story?  And wasn’t this why she’d come, after all?  She felt certain she would be able to withdraw herself intact when the time came.  She felt certain she was not in too much danger.

(from Midnight in Austenland, page 151)

Shannon Hale’s Midnight in Austenland is the follow-up to Austenland, once again set at Pembrook Park in Kent, England — an exclusive vacation destination where guests adopt the manners, customs, and wardrobes of Regency England and experience a little romance with actors whose characters are reminiscent of the heroes from Jane Austen’s novels.  Charlotte Kinder still feels blindsided by her husband’s infidelity and their subsequent divorce, and in the midst of her friends setting her up on disastrous blind dates, she discovers the novels of Jane Austen.  With her two children spending the month with her ex and his mistress-turned-new-wife, Charlotte decides she’d like nothing better than to step into an Austen novel and make herself its heroine.

At Pembrook Park, she becomes Charlotte Cordial, the widowed sister of the handsome and charming Edmund Grey.  While she bonds easily with her pretend brother, she finds herself nervous under the watchful gaze of the brooding Mr. Mallery.  Charlotte becomes immersed in Colonel Andrews’ tales of murder and ghosts, especially when she finds a secret room, which may or may not have been hiding a body.  She is determined to figure out what she saw in that room — so determined that the romance of Pembrook Park is put on the back burner while she pokes around for clues.  This is no ordinary vacation, as readers watch the Charlotte Kinder who was merely nice and clever and never heroine material come to terms with the end of her marriage and discover her true self among the corsets and carriage rides, the darkened halls of an old estate, and her very own Gothic novel.

Midnight in Austenland alludes to Northanger Abbey and its naive heroine, Catherine Morland, who let her imagination get the best of her.  Like Catherine, Hale’s unlikely heroine is likeable and endearing.  I couldn’t help but laugh at Charlotte’s attempts at witty conversation in an effort to become a sort of real-life Elizabeth Bennet but sounding more like a less rambling but equally dull Miss Bates.  What saves this novel from becoming a mere rehash of the first is the mystery.  Was there a murder?  And if so, was it part of the script?  Or is Charlotte just overcome by a house that seems alive at night?  Hale also revisits characters from the first novel, and I loved how she gave more depth to the stoic Mrs. Wattlesbrook and Miss Charming, who enjoys Pembrook Park so much that she has almost become part of the furniture.

Midnight in Austenland is a fun, escapist novel, especially for readers who have longed to live in their favorite books for a short while.  Hale shows the dangers of being unable to separate fiction from reality and how the heart can easily be persuaded when real life is just too complicated to face.  Her heroines are realistic, strong women in need of a self-assessment and the ability to see their true selves.  I am hooked on Austenland and hope Hale takes readers back to Pembrook Park soon!  This is a completely standalone novel, but I suggest reading Austenland, too, just for the fun of it.

Disclosure: I borrowed Midnight in Austenland from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

pride prejudice and jasmin field

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★☆

‘He’s amazing.  I’d get in his car any day arrogant or not.’

‘Yeah, and I’d pay the petrol,’ agreed Mo.

‘God, listen to you two,’ said Jazz.  ‘Anyone would think your brains turned to jelly in the presence of a man.  Does the word emancipation mean anything to you?  Women burnt their bras for you, you know.’

‘Why?’ asked George, nonplussed.  ‘Were they planning to wear backless dresses?’

‘If anyone burnt my Wonderbra, I’d boil their heads,’ said Mo.

(from Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field, page 107)

Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field is the story of a journalist for a women’s magazine who lands the lead in a one-night, charity production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Not only does Jasmin Field get to play Elizabeth Bennet on the stage, but she is Elizabeth Bennet — from her charming wit to her “terrifying” impertinence, from her snap judgments about people to her inability to tolerate the arrogant Harry Noble, the Oscar-winning actor directing the production, who eventually takes up the role of Mr. Darcy.  Melissa Nathan’s modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice is unique in that its backdrop is a stage production of the classic novel, and it’s not until Jasmin overhears Harry call her the “Ugly Sister” at the audition that the parallels between Jasmin’s life and Austen’s novel become apparent.

Jasmin earns her living by judging people, and she is more focused on her career — particularly the column in which she depicts her younger sister Josie’s happiness as a housewife and stay-at-home mom by choice — than on finding a man.  In fact, she can’t stand that her older sister, Georgia, can’t be without a boyfriend, even refusing to dump a guy who is obviously wrong for her.  When Georgia lands the role of Jane Bennet, she immediately starts seeing Jack Hayes, the actor playing Mr. Bingley. Harry Noble apparently is very adept when it comes to casting because he gives the role of Charlotte Lucas to Jazz’s best friend, Mo, who is dieting simply to get a man — any man — and the role of Mr. Collins to Gilbert Valentine, Jazz’s former colleague, who can’t take no for an answer and has manipulated actors into treating him like a friend to avoid having vicious gossip spread about them.

Jazz falls into the routine of rehearsals and finds that she enjoys acting — when Harry isn’t singling her out to show her up or staring at her intently.  She enjoys flirting with William Whitby, who plays a priest on TV and Mr. Wickham in the play.  Not only is he handsome and charming, but they also bond over their mutual dislike of Mr. Noble.  But Harry proves himself to be more than meets the eye, and it’s not long before Jazz realizes she’s been wrong about a lot of things.

Nathan does a great job updating the characters, especially Jazz and Harry.  He’s as sexy and endearing as you’d expect a modern-day Mr. Darcy to be, and Jazz is confident and fearless.  I loved the fact that Nathan’s Darcy was willing to admit that her Elizabeth scared him a little.  And the novel is funny, from Gilbert and Mo’s morning-after interaction to Harry and Jasmin’s heated exchange when he first tries to kiss her against his better judgment.

Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field is one of the best modern retellings of Pride and Prejudice that I’ve read so far.  I loved how Nathan balances the drama of the stage production with Jazz’s real-life drama and how she stayed true to the original plot but also made it her own.  It was fun to spot the parallels beyond the obvious Elizabeth/Mr. Darcy storyline and to not know exactly what would happen in the end.  Nathan breathes new life into a timeless story and plays homage to Austen’s long-lasting popularity in this fun, well-paced novel.

Book 18 for the P&P Bicentenary Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

city of women

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

More Berliners pack the aisles as the bus trumbles onward.  An odor of human dank deepens.  A familiar bouquet by now.  It is the smell of all that is unwashed, stale, and solidified.  It is the smell that has replaced the brisk scent of the city’s famous air.  The ersatz perfume of Berlin, distilled from all that is chemically treated and synthetically processed.  Of cigarettes manufactured from crushed acorns, of fifty-gram cakes of grit-filled soap that cleans nothing.  Of rust and clotted plumbing.  Damp wool, sour milk, and decay.  The odor of the home front.

(from City of Women, page 34)

David R. Gillham’s City of Women is a portrait of Berlin in 1943, when World War II had taken nearly all of the men off to fight, people were afraid to say what they really thought about Hitler and his chances of winning the war, the Jews who hadn’t left or gone into hiding were being deported, what food was available was nearly inedible, and women like Sigrid Schröder just put one foot in front of the other to make it through each day.  Sigrid acts like a good German wife; she goes to work each day at the patent office and comes home each evening to her insufferable mother-in-law.  But Sigrid spends her lonely nights at the cinema half-watching propaganda films and dreaming, not of her husband, who is off fighting in Russia, but of her Jewish lover, Egon.

Egon ignited passion in Sigrid and made her willing to do his black market deals despite the dangers.  But he wouldn’t or couldn’t love her the way she loved him, and he refused to discuss his wife and children, no matter how hard she tried to learn who he really was.  Sigrid is lost in her memories of him when she hastily covers for a young duty year girl who lives in her building and is supposed to care for the six children of a woman who earned the Mother’s Cross for procreating for the Reich.

Ericha refuses to explain why Sigrid needed to lie to the Gestapo on her behalf, and by the time Sigrid finds out, she’s too far involved herself and must think long and hard about what’s right and wrong during wartime.  But that’s the kind of soul searching Germans at that time couldn’t afford to undertake, especially for someone like Sigrid, who is already at odds with the Nazi party members monitoring the comings and goings and charity contributions of everyone in their apartment building and has somehow become friends with the pregnant wife of an SS officer and her siblings.

City of Women is a stunning novel about the chaos of war and the secrets people keep in order to survive the brutality and live with themselves when all is said and done.  Gillham expertly paints a portrait of wartime Berlin at the beginning of the end.  Sigrid’s story moves along at the perfect pace, building the back story of her affair with Egon, easing into her relationship with Ericha, and emphasizing the conflict with her mother-in-law and husband — all the time with a sense of tension and excitement, of something boiling beneath the surface.  Gillham shows the fear among the Germans, both of action and inaction, and as Sigrid moves deeper and deeper into her dealings with Egon and Ericha, readers can feel the danger lurking in every café, on every street corner, and even in the privacy of her home.  Sigrid’s story feels authentic in that she didn’t set out to do what she did but sort of stumbled into it.

City of Women was both difficult to read and difficult to put down.  Gillham focuses on a flawed woman who had grown so used to ignoring the atrocities being committed around her that she can’t help but be completely changed when she is forced to act.  It’s a novel that really underscores how easy it is to grow complacent, to do nothing, to lose oneself in the routines of everyday life.  Sigrid is far from perfect, but readers will recognize a little of themselves in her, making it easier to understand her choices.  And life-or-death choices must be made over and over during the course of the novel.  Gillham forces readers to think about how they would have behaved in Sigrid’s shoes, how far passion can drive someone to act, and how love and duty affect our decisions.  A highly recommended portrait of fear and longing, with rich prose that highlights the darkness of war and the freedom that comes from finding one’s true self.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 37 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: City of Women is from my personal library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »