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 Goodreads.com 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…






AUTHOR BIO


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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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Book Review & Launch Giveaway Package: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

Victorian high society’s most daring equestrienne finds love and an unexpected ally in her fight for independence in the strong arms of London’s most sought after and devastatingly handsome half-Indian tailor.

Evelyn Maltravers understands exactly how little she’s worth on the marriage mart. As an incurable bluestocking from a family tumbling swiftly toward ruin, she knows she’ll never make a match in a ballroom. Her only hope is to distinguish herself by making the biggest splash in the one sphere she excels: on horseback. In haute couture. But to truly capture London’s attention she’ll need a habit-maker who’s not afraid to take risks with his designs—and with his heart.

Half-Indian tailor Ahmad Malik has always had a talent for making women beautiful, inching his way toward recognition by designing riding habits for Rotten Row’s infamous Pretty Horsebreakers—but no one compares to Evelyn. Her unbridled spirit enchants him, awakening a depth of feeling he never thought possible.

But pushing boundaries comes at a cost and not everyone is pleased to welcome Evelyn and Ahmad into fashionable society. With obstacles spanning between them, the indomitable pair must decide which hurdles they can jump and what matters most: making their mark or following their hearts?



The first novel of the year (for this reader) arrives via the vivid and fashionable new work by Mimi Matthews, The Siren of Sussex. Like her recent title John Eyre, (reviewed last summer) it is set in 19th century England, albeit somewhat later in 1862. The Victorian era is on full display throughout the story, with copious details which easily transport the audience to a different time full of pomp and luxury, but also rife with unforgiving societal pressures and bigoted beliefs. The titular Siren is Evelyn Maltravers, a determined young woman who aspires to not only marry well for the sake of her family, but also to retain her somewhat costly practice of horse riding, one of her greatest joys. She hires a talented man to outfit her for the season, and quickly finds that she and the tailor Ahmad Malik have a romantic attraction which complicates her plans. 


The Siren of Sussex has a completely different feel than John Eyre. The latter was based on the classic Jane Eyre, and was very gothic in tone. Siren is its own original story, although many elements are based on historical fact. This becomes abundantly clear in Matthews’ writing. Her research into the time period was quite impressive, as details regarding horseback riding, the current fashion trends, societal issues and fads were copious without being exorbitant. The descriptions of the many dresses and gowns that the women donned were quite thorough; even without photographs I felt like I could see and feel them. As a horsewoman herself, the author is also well versed in details regarding equestrian matters, from minute animal behaviors to the way riders would maintain control of their powerful steeds.


The storytelling of
Siren
1998 Kate as "Evelyn"
is quite captivating, a quick read without being flimsy. The attraction between Evelyn and Ahmad was quite palpable, sometimes bordering on becoming overly sentimental, but this reader chose to simply sit back and enjoy the colorful romance of it all. As I imagined a younger Kate Winslet in the “role” of Evelyn, this parallels my enjoyment of her part in the movie
Titanic, which is also seen as a sentimental (although tragic) film by many. Like Titanic, the lead romantic roles in The Siren of Sussex deal with an intense attraction across class lines. However, Siren also tackles the complex issues facing those of mixed Indian-English heritage at that point in history. Matthews’ personal connection to Indian culture was quite evident, and has most certainly educated her readers in matters we may have been ignorant of or had forgotten. Many of us romanticize England in the 19th century, but there is more to that era than fancy gowns, glittering dancing halls and “proper” etiquette. Siren shines a direct light upon difficulties that are often ignored in many works of romantic historical fiction.  While I was entertained by the novel, I also appreciated its perspective from an educational standpoint.

For my conservative readers, I can report that The Siren of Sussex would probably be appropriate for a slightly older audience (later teens and above), but in general the writing is fairly family-friendly. The colorful language is not prominent, and while the romantic elements are palpable, Matthews was quite restrained in several scenes. There is also an element of occultic spiritualism in one subplot, but it is presented as a matter of historical fact and doesn’t hold a tone of endorsement. Crystal ball-readers were quite common during that era, and including it in the narrative felt natural and wasn’t overly dark. 


The Siren of Sussex was a great way to start off 2022. Captivating and romantic, Mimi Matthews’ latest work transports the reader to a different time, with a unique and compelling perspective that not only entertains, but informs. The narrative's pace was brisk without feeling rushed, and the conclusion was satisfying and realistic. The protagonists were appealing, and faced obstacles both in the form of human foes and cultural barriers.
As a "word nerd" I also appreciated the author's proficiency with the vocabulary of the era. I found myself highlighting "new" words quite often. The Siren of Sussex was a delight to read, and I’m thrilled to know that this is not a standalone title, with more to come in a series, The Belles of London. The next volume, The Belle of Belgrave Square is slated to arrive this fall, and I hope that it will be on my nightstand for reading over the holiday season.







Mimi is celebrating of the release of The Siren of Sussex with a curated giveaway that we hope you will love.⠀
With her hero and heroine in mind, Mimi selected items that reflected their love of fashion, horses, and tea!⠀
The Siren of Sussex Giveaway package includes:
  • Signed print copy of The Siren of Sussex
  • Horse scarf
  • Pewter sidesaddle brooch (made in Sussex, England!)
  • The Siren of Sussex tote bag
  • Three candles in scents: Fresh Hay, New Saddle, and Winter Ride
  • Box of Ahmad Tea (60 count, assorted flavors)
  • The Siren of Sussex bookmark⠀
The winner will be announced on Mimi's blog - mimimatthews.com – at 8:00 pm Pacific time on 2/8/22.

The giveaway is open from 12:01 am Pacific time 1/4/22 until 11:59pm Pacific time on 2/7/22. US Mailing addresses only. Enter via the Rafflecopter widget below, which is linked to Mimi's website.


a Rafflecopter giveaway



            Photo Credit: Berkley Jove (TR)
About the Author

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats. 











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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Book Excerpt and Launch Giveaway Package: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

Victorian high society’s most daring equestrienne finds love and an unexpected ally in her fight for independence in the strong arms of London’s most sought after and devastatingly handsome half-Indian tailor.

Evelyn Maltravers understands exactly how little she’s worth on the marriage mart. As an incurable bluestocking from a family tumbling swiftly toward ruin, she knows she’ll never make a match in a ballroom. Her only hope is to distinguish herself by making the biggest splash in the one sphere she excels: on horseback. In haute couture. But to truly capture London’s attention she’ll need a habit-maker who’s not afraid to take risks with his designs—and with his heart.

Half-Indian tailor Ahmad Malik has always had a talent for making women beautiful, inching his way toward recognition by designing riding habits for Rotten Row’s infamous Pretty Horsebreakers—but no one compares to Evelyn. Her unbridled spirit enchants him, awakening a depth of feeling he never thought possible.

But pushing boundaries comes at a cost and not everyone is pleased to welcome Evelyn and Ahmad into fashionable society. With obstacles spanning between them, the indomitable pair must decide which hurdles they can jump and what matters most: making their mark or following their hearts?



I'm excited to present the first novel of 2022 (for this reader), Mimi Matthews' The Siren of Sussex. My review will be coming up next week, but for today I offer a taste of the novel in the form of an excerpt. This Janeite is very pleased to see one of Miss Austen's books mentioned!

I also wanted to alert my readers to a fabulous launch giveaway that Mimi is hosting, to give you a chance to enter as soon as possible! Enjoy the excerpt to follow, and be sure to fill out the Rafflecopter widget to enter the contest. Giveaway is hosted by Mimi Matthews, so the winner will be chosen, announced and administrated by her. US Mailing addresses only. Good luck to all, and happy pub day to The Siren of Sussex!



Excerpt: The Siren of Sussex


     A surge of disappointment dimmed Evelyn’s smile. It occurred to her, quite suddenly, how little she knew about him.

     Of course, he must have a sweetheart. Heaven’s sake, he was probably married! Just because he didn’t wear a wedding band didn’t mean he didn’t have a wife—and probably several children besides. It was none of her affair.

     She turned back to the shelves. “In that case . . . What about a romance?”

     “No romances,” he said darkly.

     “No?” Was he one of those stuffy men who disapproved of romance novels? Many did. Even so, she’d expected better of him. A man who designed clothing so beautifully shouldn’t be averse to sentiment. “What about this one, then? Silas Marner. It only came out last year.”

     Mr. Malik drew it from the shelf. It was bound in brown cloth with gilt lettering on the spine. “What’s it about?”

     “An individual and his place in society. The hero of the story is a weaver. A man with no family to speak of, who keeps himself apart from his community.”

     “A bit too close to home.” He returned the book to the shelf. “She needs something bright. Something to boost her spirits.”

     Evelyn wondered why. Was she ill? Melancholic? Had she had some sort of disappointment? “In that case” —she reached for a Jane Austen novel— “I recommend this one.”

     He took it from her, giving the title a dubious glance. “Northanger Abbey.”

     “It’s Miss Austen’s satire of a Gothic novel. A vastly entertaining read. It should take her mind off whatever it is that’s troubling her.”

     Mr. Malik thumbed through the pages. His expression was doubtful.

     “I confess,” she said “there is a romance in the story, but it’s witty rather than mawkish. I can’t imagine she won’t enjoy it.”

      “It’s still a romance.”

     A cough sounded nearby, along with the thump of books being shoved back on a shelf. It was a reminder that she and Mr. Malik weren’t alone. Far from it. The shop seemed to be growing busier.

     Evelyn sunk her voice. “What does she have against romance?”

     “Nothing,” he replied, his tone equally low. “I just don’t want her to get any ideas.”

     “Ideas about what?”

     “About happily-ever-afters.”

     The wide swell of Evelyn’s skirts brushed his leg. She belatedly realized that she’d drawn closer to him. That their conversation had taken on an air of intimacy. “You object to them?”

     “I don’t believe in fairy tales,” he said.

     She gave him an amused look. “Is that what they are?”

     “In my experience.”

     “How illuminating.”

     “Is it?” He turned another page.

     “Indeed. You’re a cynic, Mr. Malik. I wouldn’t have thought it.”

     “I’m a realist.”

     “Happily-ever-afters are real. For some people, at least. And even if they weren’t . . . A little romance never hurt anyone.”

     His eyes lifted to hers. There was an expression in them that was hard to read. “You think not?”

     Butterflies unfurled their wings in her stomach. The same feeling she’d had when she’d first touched his hand. A fluttering, breathless sensation. As if her corset had been laced too tightly. “No,” she said. And then she thought of Fenny. “Not in a novel, anyway.”

     His mouth curled into the barest hint of a smile.

     Once again, she had the unsettling sensation that he could read her mind. She took a step back from him. “Forgive me, but I mustn’t linger. My maid is waiting for me.”

     He closed the book, clutching it in his hand. “Thank you for your help.”

     “It was my pleasure. I hope your . . .”  Wife? Sweetheart?  “I hope she enjoys the story.”

     “My cousin.”

     Evelyn nearly stumbled in the process of taking another step backward. “I beg your pardon?”

     “The book is for my cousin.”

     His words penetrated before she could school her features. She was certain an expression of relief passed over her face.

     She was equally certain that he saw it.

     Heaven only knew what he must think.

     “Your cousin. Well, that’s . . . that’s splendid.” Splendid? Evelyn’s eyes closed against a swell of embarrassment. She was quite ready to disappear into a hole in the earth. She took another step back. 

     “Please convey my regards.”

     His smile broadened. “I shall.”



From THE SIREN OF SUSSEX published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mimi Matthews.







Mimi is starting the celebration of the release of The Siren of Sussex with a curated giveaway that we hope you will love.⠀
With her hero and heroine in mind, Mimi selected items that reflected their love of fashion, horses, and tea!⠀
The Siren of Sussex Giveaway package includes:
  • Signed print copy of The Siren of Sussex
  • Horse scarf
  • Pewter sidesaddle brooch (made in Sussex, England!)
  • The Siren of Sussex tote bag
  • Three candles in scents: Fresh Hay, New Saddle, and Winter Ride
  • Box of Ahmad Tea (60 count, assorted flavors)
  • The Siren of Sussex bookmark⠀
The winner will be announced on Mimi's blog - mimimatthews.com – at 8:00 pm Pacific time on 2/8/22.

The giveaway is open from 12:01 am Pacific time 1/4/22 until 11:59pm Pacific time on 2/7/22. US Mailing addresses only. Enter via the Rafflecopter widget below, which is linked to Mimi's website.


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            Photo Credit: Berkley Jove (TR)
About the Author

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats. 













Friday, December 17, 2021

Book Review and Giveaway: Shadows of Swanford Abbey by Julie Klassen

Agatha Christie meets Jane Austen in this atmospheric Regency tale brimming with mystery, intrigue, and romance.

When Miss Rebecca Lane returns to her home village after a few years away, her brother begs for a favor: go to nearby Swanford Abbey and deliver his manuscript to an author staying there who could help him get published. Feeling responsible for her brother's desperate state, she reluctantly agrees.

The medieval monastery turned grand hotel is rumored to be haunted. Once there, Rebecca begins noticing strange things, including a figure in a hooded black gown gliding silently through the abbey's cloisters. For all its renovations and veneer of luxury, the ancient foundations seem to echo with whispers of the past--including her own. For there she encounters Sir Frederick—magistrate, widower, and former neighbor—who long ago broke her heart.

When the famous author is found murdered in the abbey, Sir Frederick begins questioning staff and guests and quickly discovers that several people held grudges against the man, including Miss Lane and her brother. Haunted by a painful betrayal in his past, Sir Frederick searches for answers but is torn between his growing feelings for Rebecca and his pursuit of the truth. For Miss Lane is clearly hiding something




The last few years have seen the reemergence of classic murder-mystery storytelling in our house, with films such as Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (which was such a hit, three more Knives Out movies are in the works). I've also enjoyed "Being Jane Austen" mysteries by author Stephanie Barron. For this viewer/reader, there is just something about the extended narrative of the introduction of many characters, any of whom could ultimately be guilty of a crime, and/or withholding secrets. Having little “clues” placed along the way as the mystery unfolds is always fun, especially if you return to the story a second time. Unexpected plot twists are a must (so– expected?), and having an element of romance is always a nice touch. In the case of Shadows of Swanford Abbey, author Julie Klassen has hit all the right points. Almost all the characters in this semi-gothic tale seem to be hiding something, the element of intrigue is palpable, and the plot frequently unpredictable. As is consistently the case with Klassen novels, the prose is well-written and the romance savory, yet tasteful. 

I found the characters to be especially well-drawn, and villain or not, they were very enjoyable. As I usually do, characters achieve “Hollywood casting” in my head as I read. I have a terrible time remembering names, but I never forget faces, so assigning “actors” to the individuals in the stories that I read helps me to keep everyone organized. I imagined a younger Felicity Jones as Rebecca Lane, and Stuart Martin as Sir Frederick. His flirtatious, youthful brother is personified by Callum Woodhouse. The troubled brother of Rebecca reminds me of Adam Nagaitis, who also played a troubled brother in Walk Invisible: The BrontĂ« Sisters. The reclusive author Ambrose Oliver would be deftly handled by Tom Hardy, if he put on a few pounds. 

In addition to Klassen’s usual captivating writing, I was also impressed at her knowledge of several elements that are foreign to most. Based on the real-life Lacock Abbey, Swanford Abbey’s description in the novel was full of detail, showing the author’s thorough knowledge of the historic site. (For more detail, check out her YouTube video HERE – it’s really interesting!) Readers will also be treated to in-depth descriptions of activities of the 19th century period in which the characters lived, such as dressing habits, lawn bowling strategy, unique foods and other cultural references. Klassen has not only woven an intriguing, romantic tale, she has adeptly taken her readers back in time through details rife with historical accuracy. 

As 2022 dawns, if you are looking for an excellent read to enjoy on dark wintery nights by the fire, I heartily recommend Shadows of Swanford Abbey. While it does have its moments of foreboding, it is thoroughly family-friendly, appropriate for all ages. The story of Rebecca's unrequited love is delectable, and readers can expect some interesting twists that will leave them satisfied at the story’s conclusion. Shadows is an excellent addition to the library of works that Julie Klassen is building, and can be enjoyed by Agatha Christie and Jane Austen fans alike.


 


About the Author

Julie Klassen loves all things Jane—Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. Her books have sold over a million copies, and she is a three-time recipient of the Christy Award for Historical Romance. The Secret of Pembrooke Park was honored with the Minnesota Book Award for Genre Fiction. Julie has also won the Midwest Book Award and Christian Retailing's BEST Award and has been a finalist in the RITA and Carol Awards. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Julie worked in publishing for sixteen years and now writes full time. She and her husband have two sons and live in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota.









Paperback Giveaway (US Only)

I have a paperback copy of Shadows of Swanford Abbey that I would love to share with one of my US readers! Simply fill out the Rafflecopter widget below, and you're entered to win. Contest ends January 2, 2022 at 12am EST.  The only "required" entry is your email address, so I may contact the winner for mailing information. Comments, tweets, etc. will earn you extra entry points. Thanks for participating, and I hope you enjoy this New Year's treat!


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