Saturday, September 24, 2022

Book Review: The Debutante's Code by Erica Vetsch

Newly returned from finishing school, Lady Juliette Thorndike is ready to debut in London society. Due to her years away, she hasn't spent much time with her parents, and sees them only as the flighty, dilettante couple the other nobles love. But when they disappear, she discovers she never really knew them at all. They've been living double lives as government spies--and they're only the latest in a long history of espionage that is the family's legacy.

Now Lady Juliette is determined to continue their work. Mentored by her uncle, she plunges into the dangerous world of spy craft. From the glittering ballrooms of London to the fox hunts, regattas, and soirees of country high society, she must chase down hidden clues, solve the mysterious code her parents left behind, and stay out of danger. All the while, she has to keep her endeavors a secret from her best friend and her suitors--not to mention nosy, irritatingly handsome Bow Street runner Daniel Swann, who suspects her of a daring theft.

Can Lady Juliette outwit her enemies and complete her parents' last mission? Or will it lead her to a terrible end?

In the summer of 2020 I was introduced to historical fiction author Erica Vetsch with her Serendipity & Secrets series. The Lost Lieutenant, The Gentleman Spy, and The Indebted Earl were very enjoyable, and recently I was pleased to learn that a new series was in the works. I had found Vetsch’s writing to be well-crafted, her plot lines entertaining, and the content was family-friendly. I had few criticisms. One reservation of praise came in regard to narrative choices within The Gentleman Spy. Given the subject matter implied in the title, I expected there to be more espionage than was presented in the novel. I still heartily endorsed the work, but I had hoped for more “cloak and dagger” material. The suggestion was even put forth that the audience could have experienced a bit of a flashback, to the days when agent Marcus was a spy-in-training. 

My hopes for The Gentleman Spy have thus far been fulfilled in Vetsch’s new series, Thorndike & Swann Regency Mysteries. The saga begins with The Debutante’s Code, wherein the audience is indeed given a spy-in-training with young Lady Juliette Thondike, daughter of government secret agents. Although she did not grow up with knowledge of her parents’ true line of work, she finds herself thrust into their world with the choice to join them or remain a simple debutante. She chooses the former, and like them begins leading a double life as a life-threatening conspiracy breaks out in the aristocratic world of art and antiquities in 1816 London. 

The Debutante’s Code manages multiple plotlines: Juliette’s life as a Lady and as a spy. The novel also follows the career of young Bow Street runner Daniel Swann, who becomes connected as he investigates related crimes and apparent thefts in the community. As Juliette and her family make progress in their efforts to secretly serve the Crown, Daniel begins to suspect connections between Juliette’s family and the illegal activity. As Juliette and Daniel pursue their varied but similar interests, their life trajectories inevitably begin to head in each other’s direction.

Both Juliette and Daniel harbor internal insecurities in regard to their relationships with their respective parents. While this is not dealt with openly between the two of them, their inner thought life is presented to the reader. We see two young people who earnestly want to have healthy, caring relationships with their parents, but they are at sixes and sevens to achieve this. As they wrestle with their parental alienation, they also address God in thoughts and prayers. They also address the Almighty on occasion when dealing with troublesome situations. Vetsch is a Christian writer, and this is the extent of the religious material in the novel. As a believer myself I’m glad to see these kinds of thought patterns, as I also turn to the Lord in moments of joy as well as frustration. That said, sometimes the insertion of the spiritual content felt a little shoehorned to me. I’m grateful that it was included, but it wasn’t always a seamless transition from espionage to spiritual matters.

Although I found this to be the case, the novel as a whole remained very entertaining. Virtually every chapter seemed to have its own mini-mystery as individual problems had to be solved, whether they were issues handled by the spy network, or incidents encountered by the Bow Street runners. Erica Vetsch is well-versed in many historical details of the Regency era, as well as in the art world. She combined knowledge of the past with a diverting narrative. This was also accomplished in a family-friendly way, with no colorful language or overly adult scenes. Although there are hints of romance, that content is negligible. There is one moment where a deceased stabbing victim is discovered, but details are not gory and kept to a minimum. While this series is not necessarily written for the middle-grade audience, as a mother I would feel comfortable recommending it to that age group or older.

The Debutante’s Code is a fine start to a new series by Erica Vetsch. I was pleased to find some connections to her previous Serendipity & Secrets series, but knowledge of those titles is not necessary to enjoy this one. Lady Juliette Thorndike and Bow Street runner Daniel Swann are emotionally vulnerable, yet likable characters, and a solid foundation for their long-term story has been set in this first volume. I will be immediately diving into the next book, Millstone of Doubt, and I look forward to seeing what is ahead for our intrepid debutante and detective.

About the Author

Erica Vetsch is a New York Times best-selling author and ACFW Carol Award winner and has been a Romantic Times top pick for her previous books. She loves Jesus, history, romance, and watching sports. This transplanted Kansan now makes her home in Rochester, Minnesota.







Audio to come!

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Book Review: Colonel Brandon in His Own Words by Shannon Winslow

Colonel Brandon is the consummate gentleman: honorable, kind almost to a fault, ever loyal and chivalrous. He’s also silent and grave, though. So, what events in his troubled past left him downcast, and how does he finally find the path to a brighter future? In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen gives us glimpses, but not the complete picture. 

Now Colonel Brandon tells us his full story in His Own Words. He relates the truth about his early family life and his dear Eliza – his devotion to her and the devastating way she was lost to him forever. He shares with us a poignant tale from his military days in India – about a woman named Rashmi and how she likewise left a permanent mark on his soul. And of course Marianne. What did Brandon think and feel when he first saw her? How did his hopes for her subsequently rise, plummet, and then eventually climb upwards again. After Willoughby’s desertion, what finally caused Marianne to see Colonel Brandon in a different light? 

This is not a variation but a supplement to the original story, chronicled in Brandon’s point of view. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the things Jane Austen didn’t tell us about a true hero, the very best of men.

The title of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is derived from the personalities of the two main female characters of the novel. Elder Elinor Dashwood is the sister of steady sense, whereas younger Marianne’s romantic and emotional sensibilities make her the less restrained of the two women. However, there is another character who could also be considered a person of measured sense, Colonel Brandon, the mature veteran who becomes besotted with young Marianne. He is the model of restraint and decorum, and Austen did not give her readers copious amounts of background information about him. 

Full disclosure: I am ashamed to admit that I have not read Sense and Sensibility in its entirety. Like many modern Janeites, the bulk of my appreciation for this story comes from the visual adaptations of it, such as the 1995 movie and the 2008 TV miniseries. While these versions do divert from the source material somewhat, what remains consistent is that Colonel Brandon is somewhat of an enigmatic figure at times. He clearly has had trying experiences in his personal and professional past, and this influences how he comports himself in society. As author Shannon Winslow writes, he is a “staid, timeworn fellow.” Those who enjoy Sense and Sensibility (S&S) might wonder how this demeanor was developed. Certainly some of it was integral to his innate personality, but at the “advanced” age of thirty-five at the outset of the novel, surely his youthful experiences and time in the military had some measure of effect.

Shannon Winslow’s latest novel Colonel Brandon in His Own Words addresses this curiosity. She has indicated that she has not particularly altered the events of S&S, but has expanded upon them, giving readers insight into the inner workings of Brandon’s mind. His story is not told in strictly linear fashion. Winslow employs flashback stories, detailing the events of the Colonel’s past that led him to grow into the man who becomes enchanted by the lovely Marianne Dashwood. The events within S&S are fleshed out as well, as readers are given more material regarding the friendship between the unlikely pair that eventually become a romantic couple.

Because the pre-S&S episodes are mostly composed of completely new content from the mind of Shannon Winslow, she was free to expound upon Colonel Brandon’s past. I found those chapters to be particularly riveting. His efforts to be with his beloved Eliza at a young age, and his adventures during his days in India were captivating. Those two aspects of his history could have been an independent book on their own, with no mention of the Dashwoods at all. However, pairing these influential moments with Brandon’s present-day was an excellent way of showing the reader the manner in which he became the man he was. It was Marianne’s similarity to Eliza which drew him in initially. His “failure” to protect Eliza and others motivated him to come to the Dashwoods’ aid as well. All of these difficult life lessons are explained in Brandon’s first-person voice, with all his doubts and insecurities on display.

Winslow’s writing remains consistent with her previous works. Her tone is accessible, but she is adept with the 19th century vernacular and vocabulary. Her knowledge of cultural norms is evident, and while she is not heavy-hitting with her Christian faith, aspects of it are made clear at key points in the narrative. As such, the content is mature, but is also family-friendly. Tough issues are openly but carefully addressed, such as out-of-wedlock pregnancies, deadly religious rites in India and the habits of men who see women as commodities. There is no colorful language openly stated, and romantic scenes are satisfying but not steamy.

Colonel Brandon in His Own Words is an excellent examination of a man who has a complicated history. While circumspect on the outside, Brandon has been given a rich inner life by Shannon Winslow which is charmingly sentimental and spiritual. This character has always been known as a man of honor, but through Winslow’s vision of him we not only see why this is the case, but also how deeply that honor runs within. The sisters of Sense and Sensibility were originally given the spotlight by Austen, but in this new composition a worthy gentleman has been given his due, in a compelling manner to which I can offer my hearty endorsement.

About the Author

Shannon Winslow claims she was minding her own business when an ordinary trip to Costco a dozen years ago changed her life. That was the day a copy of the ’95 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice fairly leapt off the shelf and into her oversized shopping cart. She has been hopelessly hooked on all things Jane Austen ever since, her obsession ultimately inspiring her to begin writing her own stories a la Austen.

Winslow's 2011 debut novel, The Darcys of Pemberley, quickly become a best seller, praised for its authentic Austen style and faithfulness to the original characters. Eight more novels and a Jane Austen Devotional have since followed, with no end to her creative output in sight! 

Her two sons now grown, Shannon lives with her husband in the log home they built in the countryside south of Seattle, where she writes and paints in her studio facing Mr. Rainier. Visit Shannon at her website/blog:  Shannon Winslow’s “Jane Austen Says..." and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.



Audiobook to Come!

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Book Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen

A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of La Belle Époque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, who shattered the boundaries of fashion with her magnificently sensual and enchantingly unique designs.

Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?

When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option. 

Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. 

Seven years ago I read Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen. Despite my hopes, the book was not a good match for me. However, in that murder mystery I appreciated Arlen’s talents as an author. When reading the premise of her latest work, A Dress of Violet Taffeta, it seemed that I might have an opportunity to try again and have a reasonable hope to offer a positive review. Like many in my generation, I have been fascinated with the story of the doomed Titanic, and the 1997 film is one of my favorite movies. I also highly enjoyed the fashion-based elements of Mimi Matthews’ The Siren of Sussex, which I reviewed in January. While based on historical fact, Taffeta is a somewhat fictionalized period piece set in the world of fashion, culminating with one of the most dramatic disasters of the 20th century.

              Lady Lucy Duff Gordon
Although the most dramatic portion of the narrative comes near the end with the events of the Titanic, this tragedy does not dominate the majority of the book. In fact, I had assumed there would be more on this subject and was surprised that it came so late in the story. I was slightly disappointed with this, but the remainder of the content in the novel is still very captivating. Lucy begins her new life as a single mother with very little, and builds this into a virtual empire in the fashion industry. She endures corporate espionage, dire illness, near-eviction and other challenges, most of which were made more difficult because she was a divorced woman. Her determination to hold onto her passion for dressmaking while flourishing in business was quite admirable.  

A Dress of Violet Taffeta was a highly enjoyable novel, and was a much better match for this reader. Tessa Arlen has crafted the biographical facts of Lady Lucy Duff Gordon into an inspiring tale of persistence and passion. She was not only a survivor of the Titanic, but weathered challenges both personally and professionally for decades. Lucy was a strong, yet vulnerable character, and Arlen’s depiction of her draws the reader in so that we come to care about her fate. The descriptions of Gordon’s artistic creations of fashion brought much color to the story, showing us that the fashions of “Lucile” were more than just a livelihood for her: they were the fulfilment of her life's purpose. 

For my conservative readership, I can report that the novel is fairly family-friendly. Colorful language does pop up now and again, and there are mentions of the extramarital goings-on within “polite” society. One romantic couple (planning to soon marry) does sleep together, but there is no graphic bedroom scene. There are also a few mentions of one husband’s cruel behaviors towards his wife during times of intimacy. During the scenes of the sinking of the Titanic, the details regarding the fates of those who perished are heartbreaking.

My main negative quibble for Taffeta is Arlen’s use of dates at the beginning of and interspersed within the chapters of the novel. Although the work is not meant to be as reliable as a textbook, using particular dates such as April 14, 1912 does give an air of specificity to the scenes. There were times when the ages of characters and dates offered did not line up with history and/or Arlen’s timeline. This is an extremely minor issue, and it doesn’t really detract from the quality of the novel overall.

A Dress of Violet Taffeta is a highly enjoyable narrative of a woman determined to survive within multiple theaters of life. Lucy Duff Gordon was not only able to pursue her passion for fashion, but she reshaped the industry, created an empire and survived far more than a sinking of an ocean liner. A caring mother, wife, employer and designer, her story has much to recommend it. Tessa Arlen has done a fabulous job in bringing the story of Lucile to the world.  

About the Author

Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fictions; In Royal Service to the Queen and available July 5, 2022 A Dress of Violet Taffeta.

Tessa lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Book Review: The Lighthouse by Christopher Parker

Enchanting, mysterious, and deeply romantic, The Lighthouse follows a young woman's breathtaking journey far from home to discover where she truly belongs.

Something strange is happening in Seabrook. The town's lighthouse–dormant for over thirty years and famously haunted–has inexplicably started shining, and its mysterious glow is sparking feverish gossip throughout the spooked community.

Amy Tucker is only visiting for the night and has no plans to get caught up in the hysteria, but that changes when she meets Ryan, the loyal, hard-working son of a ranch owner who lives on the outskirts of town.

Their chance encounter turns into an unforgettable weekend, and against the backdrop of the lighthouse-obsessed town, the two of them forge a deep connection, opening their hearts, baring their souls, and revealing secrets long kept hidden.

But as they grow closer, and as the lighthouse glows ever brighter, a startling discovery about Ryan leaves Amy questioning everything she thought she knew. To uncover the truth about her new friend, Amy will need to enter Seabrook’s ominous tower, where waiting inside she will not only find the reason why fate has brought them together… but a shocking secret that will change the course of their lives forever.

The Lighthouse
is not my usual novel. It has a contemporary, American setting, there are no bonnets on the women, and the men do not wear cravats. Jane Austen is nowhere to be seen or heard. However, there was something about the book’s description (and I confess, the captivating cover art) which drew me in. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what was delivered is unique indeed.

Writing a review of The Lighthouse is no simple task, as its surprises are one of the reasons that the story is compelling and mysterious. To offer any spoiler material would certainly ruin the novel’s impact for future readers. I will submit that Christopher Parker has written an interesting story, one that I would almost categorize as a fairy tale, although no true fairies are involved. I did have to “check my theology at the door” a little bit, but I in no way found the story to be spiritually offensive. It’s a whimsical world in which these characters live. While it’s true-to-life in many senses, there are elements that take the narrative beyond the norm as well.

Author Christopher Parker’s writing is well done, and I must confess that for some time I wasn’t able to put a finger on the hidden aspect of the novel’s premise. It just felt like something was “off”, but it was an indeterminate quality. Eventually pieces began to fall into place, and it made for a compelling set of circumstances in the lives of the characters. The subjects of pain and grieving are central to the story, but such heavy matters are handled in a compassionate way.

I wish I could say more about The Lighthouse. In fairness to those who have yet to read it, I must resist the urge to reveal more. Christopher Parker has crafted a thoroughly original tale that I enjoyed very much. There is just a touch of colorful language and romance, but overall the novel can appeal to all readers. In conjunction with a print copy, I also listened to the audiobook presentation of the novel, and narrator Braden Wright offers an excellent performance. 

Although this review is short, I do offer an enthusiastic endorsement of The Lighthouse. Well-written and unexpected, it was a pleasure to discover and savor. 

About the Author

Christopher was born in Takapuna, a seaside suburb in Auckland, New Zealand, where he currently lives with his daughter. Having loved writing stories growing up, it was a walk along Takapuna beach and a chance glimpse at a distant lighthouse that made him want to revisit his childhood passion and try his hand at producing a novel. Nearly ten years on from that fateful stroll, he is proud to finally share his story. The Lighthouse is Christopher’s first novel.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Book Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Natalie Jenner, the internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world in Bloomsbury Girls.

Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare bookstore that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager's unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:

Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiancé was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances--most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she's been working to support the family following her husband's breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.

Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she's working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.

As they interact with various literary figures of the time--Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others--these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.

Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society was a delightful read in June of 2020, and her follow-up novel, Bloomsbury Girls does not disappoint. Once again Jenner has brought to her readership a wide cast of amusing characters, excellent storytelling and unexpected literary touchstones. While there are characters and narrative details which are tied to The Jane Austen Society, this second work stands on its own well enough that newcomers could easily begin with this title. That said, understanding the background of some individuals would increase the reader’s enjoyment. 

A predominant connective character is Miss Evie Stone, a meek and young lady who not only played a pivotal role in The Jane Austen Society, but in her own quiet way is a heroine in the lives of the other women in Bloomsbury Girls. In Miss Stone we find a recurring theme of the novel: the desire for more. Evie is a graduate of Cambridge, yet finds herself toiling away as a mere book cataloguer. She has dreams for the future, but it is unclear whether they can be realized. In the same vein, her co-workers within the Bloomsbury bookshop often exhibit variations of the same yearning. The women are often inhibited by the patriarchal mores of society and the rules-bound bookshop itself. Some of the men also long for more, but various forces keep them hemmed in behind desks or in particular employment roles. As these individuals are finding their way in post-WWII London in the beginning months of 1950, the wheels of change begin to turn, and the adjustments which occur do not always run smoothly. 

Natalie Jenner’s writing in The Jane Austen Society was enjoyable, but her skill has increased in the last two years. Her ability to weave a story, execute a turn of phrase and surprise this reader was simply enchanting. As a book lover, I highly enjoyed the literary cameos, with one in particular surprising me so much, I audibly cheered with glee when they emerged.  The concept of Bloomsbury Girls is a simple one, but I was riveted from one chapter to the next. Many passages have been highlighted, with memorable quotes saved for future reading.

From a content standpoint, conservative readers can be aware that the “adult” material is approximately the same as was seen in The Jane Austen Society. There are a couple of bedroom scenes between two unmarried persons, but details are spare. Two men are in a secret relationship, but this element is not at the forefront. There is another thread regarding a married person, but I hesitate to give more details because of the “spoiler factor.” It may be sufficient to say that Jenner could have been much more colorful in the descriptions of all her adult relationships and the language that they used, but the strength of her storytelling did not necessitate this, and I appreciate her discretion.

Once again as I read Jenner’s work, I endeavored to assign “Hollywood casting” to the characters in the story. In this case the individuals that were chosen did not necessarily match the book characters perfectly in age or appearance, but sometimes were chosen because of the nature of their personalities. Evie Stone was once again “played” by Downton Abbey’s Sophie McShera. Juno Temple of Ted Lasso inhabited Viven Lowry, as did her co-star Nick Mohammed in the character of Ash Ramaswamy. Rachael Stirling of The Bletchley Circle was Grace Perkins. Actor Paul Bettany was Lord Jeremy Baskin. Dan Stevens, also of Downton Abbey, was Alec McDonough. There are other “casting” assignments, but in an effort to preserve the surprise of their appearances in the story, I will not reveal them here.

In addition to reading the text, I also supplemented it by listening to the audiobook version. I must admit, when I learned that Richard Armitage would not be returning for this second title, there was disappointment. I enjoyed his performance in The Jane Austen Society very much. However, narrator Juliet Stevenson has done masterful work in Bloomsbury Girls. Having a feminine voice for such a female-dominated story was really the right choice. She did have to portray male characters and did a fine job with this, but having a woman represent the majority view of the book made sense. I applaud the change in actors. If you'd like to listen to excerpt, it is available HERE.

As a lover of books, book stores, and libraries, I highly enjoyed Bloomsbury Girls. It is not only a story of female empowerment, but it is a love letter to the literary and academic world. One of my favorite quotes from the novel holds true: “All great writing comes from a desire to escape, but you have to know what you are escaping to. The audience will follow anything you do if they are confident you know where you are going.” In Bloomsbury Girls Natalie Jenner knows where she is going, and she is leading her readers into a delightful story of yearning and fulfillment.

About the Author

Natalie Jenner is the author of the instant international bestseller The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls. A Goodreads Choice Award runner-up for historical fiction and finalist for best debut novel, The Jane Austen Society was a USA Today and #1 national bestseller and has been sold for translation in twenty countries. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie has been a corporate lawyer, career coach and, most recently, an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. Visit her website to learn more.

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Sunday, May 8, 2022

Book Review: The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray

A summer house party turns into a thrilling whodunit when Jane Austen's Mr. Wickham—one of literature’s most notorious villains—meets a sudden and suspicious end in this brilliantly imagined mystery featuring Austen’s leading literary characters.

The happily married Mr. Knightley and Emma are throwing a party at their country estate, bringing together distant relatives and new acquaintances—characters beloved by Jane Austen fans. Definitely not invited is Mr. Wickham, whose latest financial scheme has netted him an even broader array of enemies. As tempers flare and secrets are revealed, it’s clear that everyone would be happier if Mr. Wickham got his comeuppance. Yet they’re all shocked when Wickham turns up murdered—except, of course, for the killer hidden in their midst.

Nearly everyone at the house party is a suspect, so it falls to the party’s two youngest guests to solve the mystery: Juliet Tilney, the smart and resourceful daughter of Catherine and Henry, eager for adventure beyond Northanger Abbey; and Jonathan Darcy, the Darcys’ eldest son, whose adherence to propriety makes his father seem almost relaxed. In this tantalizing fusion of Austen and Christie, from New York Times bestselling author Claudia Gray, the unlikely pair must put aside their own poor first impressions and uncover the guilty party—before an innocent person is sentenced to hang. 

The first read of the summer season comes in The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray. The premise instantly hooked this Janeite reader. The idea of many of Austen’s beloved characters abiding in an Agatha Christie-like mystery seemed delectable, and it was! While all of Austen’s favorites are not present, Gray brings in most of the biggest names: the Darcys, the Brandons, the Knightleys, the Wentworths, plus a few newly created characters as well. Gray’s writing is pitch-perfect for the era, yet the style is very accessible and makes for great fun. Her wit amused me from the opening sentence. Clues regarding the identity of the killer of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Wickham were sprinkled throughout the narrative, as is done in other cozy mysteries of this type. Gray keeps her readers guessing until the very end. With hindsight being crystal clear, the responsible party now seems obvious, but this knowledge and the enjoyable nature of the story are such that I actually would like to go back and re-read the opening scenes of the novel all over again. Details that I now know to be “clues” will be interesting to see from an omniscient position. 

While this certainly is predominantly a mystery novel, Claudia Gray also takes time to explore the personal lives of Austen’s characters, as most of them have now been married for some time in this vision of Austen’s world. The original works are known for their “Happily Ever After” (HEA) endings, wherein the main characters ultimately fall in love, get married and ride off into the sunset within the blissful bonds of marriage. We readers sigh with delight, close the novels and return to real life, which includes relationships that don’t always achieve their HEAs. Gray’s cast members have taken on rhythms seen in many marriages– misunderstandings that have led to alienation, differences in temperament that sometimes cause conflict, etc. As the mystery swirls around the married couples, readers are also privy to the struggles that sometimes cause bewilderment within even the strongest relationships. As a woman who loves her husband of 27 years, I understand this to be true. Gray’s version of these individuals smacked of a realism that I found to be quite accurate for many, not just in the 19th century but in today’s world as well. 

Because some of the characters are connected with the Church, the topic of faith and related issues come up more often than I’ve seen in other Austenesque novels that aren’t released from Christian publishing houses. The Bertrams of Mansfield Park in particular wrestle with how their faith impacts their choices, and the interpretation of Scripture is offered more than once. As a seminary student I cannot say that I completely agree with the hermeneutical posture of all the characters, but the intent behind their motivations is one of grace and love. Because of theological differences amongst readers, this is the only area in which my conservative readership might have any quibbles, but it is a small sub plot and not the main focus of the story. The content is predominantly family-friendly, with the topic of propriety being so common, it was almost a character in and of itself. I will say this: when interpreting the Word of God, single Bible verses should not be reckoned with in isolation. They need to be read and exegeted within their context. Ultimately I did appreciate the tack that Gray took in this aspect, in that Edmund Bertram could still hold on to his beliefs, while still extending love and grace to those with whom he disagreed. The path to that was not always one I would have taken, but the final position was a loving accord.   

As may seem evident from the title, The Murder of Mr. Wickham is truly a love letter to Jane Austen’s most popular works. While Gray does endeavor to offer some background for each character, those who are already familiar with the stories of works such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility and the like will enjoy the novel far more than newcomers will. If you are not inclined to read all six of the main Austen works, quality cinematic productions of the stories will temporarily suffice, if only to familiarize yourself with the characters. George Wickham of Pride and Prejudice is a despicable villain, so it is no surprise that he would lose his life by the hand of another. Claudia Gray’s work was thoroughly delightful, introducing readers to new aspects of Austen’s characters as well as bringing in fresh arrivals such as the Darcys’ son Jonathan and the Tilneys’ daughter Juliet. I loved the portrayal of the neurodivergent Jonathan and the plucky Juliet. I hope that their paths will cross in the future and we are treated to more adventures with them and their families. The Murder of Mr. Wickham was a fun way to kick off the summer reading season, and I give it a hearty recommendation.

About the Author

Claudia Gray is the pseudonym of Amy Vincent. She is the writer of multiple young adult novels, including the Evernight series, the Firebird trilogy, and the Constellation trilogy. In addition, she’s written several Star Wars novels, such as Lost Stars and Bloodline. She makes her home in New Orleans with her husband Paul and assorted small dogs. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Book Spotlight: A Perfect Equation by Elizabeth Everett

How do you solve the Perfect Equation? Add one sharp-tongued mathematician to an aloof, handsome nobleman. Divide by conflicting loyalties and multiply by a daring group of women hell-bent on conducting their scientific experiments. The solution is a romance that will break every rule.

Six years ago, Miss Letitia Fenley made a mistake, and she’s lived with the consequences ever since. Readying herself to compete for the prestigious Rosewood Prize for Mathematics, she is suddenly asked to take on another responsibility—managing Athena’s Retreat, a secret haven for England’s women scientists. Having spent the last six years on her own, Letty doesn’t want the offers of friendship from other club members and certainly doesn’t need any help from the insufferably attractive Lord Greycliff.

Lord William Hughes, the Viscount Greycliff cannot afford to make any mistakes. His lifelong dream of becoming the director of a powerful clandestine agency is within his grasp. Tasked with helping Letty safeguard Athena’s Retreat, Grey is positive that he can control the antics of the various scientists as well as manage the tiny mathematician—despite their historic animosity and simmering tension.

As Grey and Letty are forced to work together, their mutual dislike turns to admiration and eventually to something... magnetic. When faced with the possibility that Athena’s Retreat will close forever, they must make a choice. Will Grey turn down a chance to change history, or can Letty get to the root of the problem and prove that love is the ultimate answer?

I'm in the throes of school work these days and am not reading many novels, but I wanted to pop by The Calico Critic to alert readers to a novel which has its publication date today. The second in The Secret Scientists of London series, A Perfect Equation is on my TBR list for sure! Not long ago I purchased Book 1, A Lady's Formula for Love and then shortly after I won the sequel in a giveaway. I truly look forward to reading both of these titles in the near future, and am excited to see that a third is in the works. In the meantime, I offer an excerpt to give us all a taste of what is to come.  Enjoy!

Excerpt: A Perfect Equation by Elizabeth Everett

Slipping through the crowd, Letty approached the building as a thin wail rose from the doorway. A beady-eyed man with a pinched mouth and spidery fingers had grabbed the shopgirl by the wrist, halting her escape.

"Don't bother trying to go to work. We're shutting this place down until they stop employing women in their factories and hire the men back," the man said.

A tinkling of broken glass punctuated his threat as someone launched a sign at the ground-floor window of the shop. The atmosphere turned in an instant from hectoring to predatory. With a foreshadowing of violence, the group of individuals molded into a single organism-a dragon ready to pounce on whatever threatened. This monster's hoard consisted of power rather than gold.

"Oh, no, you don't," Letty said through gritted teeth, clenching the straps of her heavy reticule in one hand.

"Letty!" Sam called after her. "Letty Fenley, you come back here this instant. I know you don't listen to me, but for goodness' sake, will you listen to me?"

Fear set her stomach to churning, but Letty allowed nothing to show on her face. Instead, she stuck her chin out and her shoulders back. Never again would she suffer a man intimidating her into submission, and she'd be damned if she watched this happen to any other woman. As Flavia Smythe-Harrows always said, sexual dimorphism does not excuse bad behavior.

What a pity Letty didn't have that printed on a banner.

Without benefit of a rival sign, she used what was available in the moment. Swinging her reticule around twice to achieve maximal momentum, Letty brought it down, hard, on the wrist of Beady Eyes.

"You let go of that girl, right now, you weasel-faced, onion-breathed . . ." Letty's stream of insults was drowned in the crowd's protest at the sight of their fellow man being assaulted by what someone deemed "half a pint-sized shrew."

"Half a pint indeed," Letty shouted back. "I'm less than an inch shorter than the median height for a woman of my weight, based on-Oy, stop waving that sign in my face."

Before Letty could take another swing at Beady Eyes, the sound of horses whinnying and men shouting from somewhere at the edge of the crowd broke the tension; a decrescendo from taunting voices to garbled protests heralded the arrival of authority. Jumping up for a better look, Letty spied two well-dressed men on horseback.

"On your way," a clipped, aristocratic voice shouted to the crowd. "Disperse at once."

The crowd buckled, its mood shifting from dangerous to frustrated. Letty protected the girl as best she could from the sudden shoving around them. Most of her attention, however, fixed on the familiarity of those crisp, clean syllables echoing in the air.

She would know that voice anywhere. Their rescue rode toward them in the form of Lord William Hughes, the Viscount Greycliff. A traitorous wave of relief that he would put an end to the danger was quickly followed by a cold dose of shame.

Six years ago, she'd believed him the epitome of nobility and elegance until that voice had delivered a verdict upon her head. The words he'd said and the pain they'd caused were etched into her memory forever.

"I don't care if you're Prince Albert himself. Move your arse, man!" A deeper baritone, the voice of Greycliff's companion, now carried over the crowd. "Put down the signs, or I'll put them down for you."

"Are they here to rescue us?" the girl asked.

Visions of Greycliff riding up on a snow white steed flashed before Letty's eyes. A handful of years before, such an image would have set her heart to racing and put roses on her cheeks. She would have caught her ruffled skirts in one hand, ready to be swept away by a hero, lit from behind by a shaft of golden sunlight.

Not anymore. The dirty grey-brown reality of working-class London remained solid and smelly before her eyes. These days, romantic scenes remained between the pages of a well-thumbed book.

"Never wait for someone else to rescue you," Letty advised. "Especially a man. They'll ride away on those fine horses afterward, and where will you be? Still here, cleaning the mess, having to work for an owner who couldn't even be bothered to come out here after you. Rescue yourself, my dear."

"Shall we run for it?"

"We could, but I've a better idea." Letty turned to Beady Eyes and held up her reticule. The man flinched, but she had other plans.

"Want to get rid of two troublesome women?" she asked him. Pouring out a palmful of coins, Letty made an offer. "Here's your chance."

About the Author

Elizabeth Everett lives in Upstate New York with her family. Her Secret Scientists of London series has received critical acclaim from BuzzFeed, Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, PopSugar, Entertainment Weekly, and various other outlets. Elizabeth’s work is inspired by her admiration for rule breakers and belief in the power of love to change the world.

A Lady's Formula For Love

A Perfect Equation

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Book Review: Jane and the Year Without a Summer by Stephanie Barron

May 1816: Jane Austen is feeling unwell, with an uneasy stomach, constant fatigue, rashes, fevers and aches. She attributes her poor condition to the stress of family burdens, which even the drafting of her latest manuscript—about a baronet's daughter nursing a broken heart for a daring naval captain—cannot alleviate. Her apothecary recommends a trial of the curative waters at Cheltenham Spa, in Gloucestershire. Jane decides to use some of the profits earned from her last novel, Emma, and treat herself to a period of rest and reflection at the spa, in the company of her sister, Cassandra.

Cheltenham Spa hardly turns out to be the relaxing sojourn Jane and Cassandra envisaged, however. It is immediately obvious that other boarders at the guest house where the Misses Austen are staying have come to Cheltenham with stresses of their own—some of them deadly. But perhaps with Jane’s interference a terrible crime might be prevented. Set during the Year without a Summer, when the eruption of Mount Tambora in the South Pacific caused a volcanic winter that shrouded the entire planet for sixteen months, this fourteenth installment in Stephanie Barron’s critically acclaimed series brings a forgotten moment of Regency history to life.

After a six year hiatus, fans of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mystery series have been given another volume in this delightful collection of fictional tales featuring the esteemed Regency author. The fourteenth title in the collection is Jane and the Year Without a Summer. As mentioned in the above description of the novel, the “year without a summer” includes 1816, which harbored dour weather conditions due to the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before. This is not an indication of a somber storyline in any way, although clear acknowledgements of Austen’s deteriorating physical condition are included, as history records that she died in 1817, about a year after the events of this particular fictional tale. 

Jane and the Year Without a Summer is set between May 20th and June 10th of 1816 and based on the actual holiday that Jane took with her sister Cassandra to Cheltenham Spa. Fiction comes into play when a murder is committed, and the intrepid Jane is once again bent on solving the mystery of the identity of the killer. Author Stephanie Barron has chosen to front-load the novel with most of the content occurring before the crime is committed. Readers will encounter quite a few suspects, and many clues are planted well before any nefarious actions are taken. As such, the last fourth of the novel moves at quite a brisk pace, as pieces of the puzzle are put together by Miss Austen, and even further excitement ensues. There is also a nice touch of romance between two characters that carries the tension of unrequited love that Austen expressed so deftly in her novels as well.

My only difficulty with Jane and the Year Without a Summer came in the cast of characters. Several of them go by multiple names, such as their married/Christian names as well as their “titled” names, such as "Lord" or "Lady". As a result I sometimes had trouble remembering which person was which. This is a minor issue, as the most important individuals in the story were clear-cut in my mind and easy to recall.

From a content standpoint Barron keeps things very family-friendly, with little to no colorful language throughout and a scarce amount of material that would even venture towards being “adult”. Her research into the time period is impeccable, as she includes facts from Regency England that are enjoyable as well as educational. Occasionally footnotes are included to explain historical issues that some may not be familiar with. Vocabulary of the era is often utilized, and every now and again winks to actual Austen quotes pop up in the writing, such as, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a novel, must be intolerably stupid.” 

Once again Stephanie Barron has brought to her readership a brisk, delightful murder mystery featuring a fictionalized version of the very real Jane Austen. As Jane and the Year Without a Summer concludes about a year before Jane’s actual death, I am holding out hope that Barron has a few more titles to add to the Being a Jane Austen Mystery series. Much can happen in a year of the life of our intrepid sleuth. Perhaps she still has an adventure or two remaining up her sleeve…


Francine Mathews
was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written twenty-five books, including five novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-Season, Death in Rough Water, Death in a Mood Indigo, Death in a Cold Hard Light, and Death on Nantucket) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the penname, Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.





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