Friday, July 23, 2021

Book Review: John Eyre by Mimi Matthews

Yorkshire, 1843. When disgraced former schoolmaster John Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to take up a position as tutor to two peculiar young boys, he enters a world unlike any he's ever known. Darkness abounds, punctuated by odd bumps in the night, strange creatures on the moor, and a sinister silver mist that never seems to dissipate. And at the center of it all, John's new employer—a widow as alluring as she is mysterious.

Sixteen months earlier, heiress Bertha Mason embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Marriage wasn't on her itinerary, but on meeting the enigmatic Edward Rochester, she's powerless to resist his preternatural charm. In letters and journal entries, she records the story of their rapidly disintegrating life together, and of her gradual realization that Mr. Rochester isn't quite the man he appears to be. In fact, he may not be a man at all.

From a cliff-top fortress on the Black Sea coast to an isolated estate in rural England, John and Bertha contend with secrets, danger, and the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Can they help each other vanquish the demons of the past? Or are some evils simply too powerful to conquer?

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is the quintessential 19th century gothic novel. Some pair it with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as the best literature of that era. However, unlike Pride and Prejudice, Brontë’s work has not been given the myriad adaptations and retellings that Austen’s has. Author Mimi Matthews has taken it upon herself to re-envision Jane Eyre with a bit of a gender swap, plus an extra dash of the paranormal as well. Given Brontë’s style of writing, the gothic tone and the lack of the “rom-com” formula that is so common in today’s Austen adaptations, taking on Jane Eyre was a brave choice.

In the source material, the titular character Jane joins the Rochester household as a governess, and she develops a relationship with her employer, Edward Rochester. In John Eyre, the main character is a young man brought into the household as a tutor for two young boys under the care of Mrs. Bertha Rochester. There are other amusing similarities between Jane and John Eyre, but it is sufficient to say that Matthews’ novel is very much its own entity. Brontë’s plot is not rehashed scene by scene. There is a darker element that makes itself known early on in the narrative, and builds to a larger presence near the conclusion. 

The vast majority of the novels that I read are historical fiction, with very few including supernatural or magical elements. I would count Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (which includes time travel) as the main exception to that trend, and those novels are read separately from ones for review on The Calico Critic. So John Eyre was a bit of a departure for me as a reviewer. That said, I was not disappointed in the venture. Mimi Matthews’ writing is excellent. Her word choices and turns of phrase made for compelling reading. Her characters were well-drawn, and the murky ambience of the tale was almost palatable, but not discomfitingly so. Given the alternating timeline device that was used, the carefully-divulged secrets that lay within the life of Mrs. Rochester were mysterious, but not in a way that made this reader overly uncomfortable for the majority of the novel. Only during a couple of key moments near the conclusion did the plot traipse into an area that was darker than my usual fare, but those times were brief. In general, John Eyre’s narrative style could almost be likened more to a mystery, rather than a paranormal gothic novel.

As I read, my mind initially “cast” the actor Timothée Chalamet as John Eyre, but as the story developed I felt that Tom Hiddleston would be a better choice. John was a very sympathetic educator and protector, showing maturity and a groundedness that were beyond his years. For Mrs. Rochester, I waffled between seeing a younger Angelina Jolie (sporting an European, non-American accent) and Jessica Brown Findlay in my vision of the beleaguered woman in black. Angelina’s beauty probably exceeds that of Matthews’ personification of the character, but Bertha had a strength, road-weariness and vulnerability that Jolie could embody. Actor Jessica Findlay also has a softness that Jolie lacks. So these two women somehow simultaneously held that role in my mind.

For my conservative readers, this novel may or may not be your cup of tea. Overall the “mature” material is very mild, with very little colorful language, and the sexual content is also fairly modest. The paranormal aspect of John Eyre is very much like what is found in 19th century literature for the majority of the story (although I’m no expert in that era’s material). For the last few chapters, some dark elements do creep in. That said, it’s often within the framework of good vs. evil, with even a few discussions of faith (or loss of it), the church, prayer to God, etc. It’s by no means a “religious” novel, but touchstones of faith are briefly mentioned. With this in mind, I would not necessarily recommend John Eyre to the ultra-conservative reader, but if a little bit of darkness (paired with the light of what is good) doesn’t scare you off, then this might be a good match.

Dark and compelling, with captivating characters and a narrative that builds to an exciting conclusion, John Eyre has been heralded as one of the “25 of the Best Books Arriving in 2021.” Those familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, as well as readers who are unfamiliar with Jane Eyre can both find much to enjoy in Mimi Matthews’ latest title. In a world of darkness and shadow, light and love are the most powerful forces of all.


About the Author

USA Today
bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Regency and Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, 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 Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

Join the virtual book tour of JOHN EYRE: A TALE OF DARKNESS AND SHADOW, Mimi Matthews’ highly acclaimed Bronte-inspired Gothic romance, July 12-25, 2021. Thirty-five popular on-line influencers specializing in historical fiction, Gothic romance, and paranormal fiction will join in the celebration of its release with an interview, spotlights, exclusive excerpt, and reviews of this new Victorian-era novel set in Yorkshire, England. 


TOUR SCHEDULE                  

July 12           The Caffeinated Bibliophile (review)    

July 12           Syrie James (review)        

July 12           Austenprose—A Jane Austen Blog (review) 

July 13           Bronte Blog (interview)

July 13           Laura's Reviews (review) 

July 13           All-of-a-Kind Mom (spotlight)

July 14           Gwendalyn's Books (review)      

July 14           Austenesque Reviews (review) 

July 15           Bookworm Lisa (review)  

July 15           Nurse Bookie (review)      

July 16           Savvy Verse and Wit (excerpt)

July 16           The Lit Bitch (review)       

July 17           My Bookish Bliss (review)           

July 17           From the TBR Pile (review)         

July 18           Rosanne E. Lortz (review)           

July 18           Books, Teacups, & Reviews (review)   

July 19           The Secret Victorianist (review)

July 19           Christian Chick's Thoughts (review)    

July 19           The Gothic Library (review)        

July 20           Getting Your Read On (review)  

July 20           The Silver Petticoat Review (review)    

July 20           Lu Reviews Books (review)        

July 21           Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books (spotlight)

July 21           The Green Mockingbird (review)           

July 22           Unabridged Chick (review)         

July 22           A Darn Good Read (review)

July 23           Kathleen Flynn (review)   

July 23           So Little Time… (review) 

July 23           The Calico Critic (review)

July 24           The Bronte Babe (review)

July 24           Probably at the Library (review)

July 24           Impressions in Ink (review)

July 25           From Pemberley to Milton (review)       

July 25           Vesper's Place (review)    

July 25           Cup of Tea with that Book Please (review)    





Sunday, July 18, 2021

Book Review: Back to the Bonnet by Jennifer Duke

"Oh really, Miss Mary!" He lowered his voice and leant closer. "Does convention hold you back? You who deny all conventions of time, twisting it into its proper course?"

Uncover the secret life of Mary Bennet and the extraordinary adventures you had no idea were hidden between the lines of Jane Austen's classic tale.

Matrimony is not a destiny that attracts plain but clever Miss Mary Bennet.

With her family’s fortunes threatened by their own foolish mistakes, deceptive rogues and the inconvenience of male heirs to her family home, the future looks unstable, even bleak. But Mary possesses a secret weapon . . . a bonnet that allows her to travel in time.

In orchestrating events according to her own inclinations, Mary takes an unconventional route to protect her family from ruin. However, she is unprepared for the dark path down which duty and power will lead her.

Some of my favorite tales from movies and literature include time travel. The Outlander series, The Time Traveler’s Wife (the book, not the movie), Somewhere in Time/Bid Time Return, and Back to the Future are just a few titles which come to mind. In each case, the plausibility of the “science” or magic behind the time traveling is not crucial. The story and overarching narratives carry more weight in my opinion of a piece. Can one truly walk “through” ancient standing stones to 18th century Scotland? Shall we one day find ourselves riding in souped-up DeLoreans at 88 miles per hour into another era? If time travel does become possible, it most certainly won’t be via those mechanisms. And yet, fans of those tales are able to enjoy them because they accept their premises. After this, we move on to the story itself and are amused with the repercussions of those travels through time.

In her novel Back to the Bonnet, author Jennifer Duke does not employ the use of a DeLorean for time travel. Instead, the mode of transport comes in the form of a well worn, out of fashion bonnet set in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If that premise has you grimacing rather than giggling, then Back to the Bonnet is not for you. It is for similar reasons that I myself have avoided reading Austenesque fiction that involves zombies or aliens, for example. I’m just not going to buy into those stories. But manipulating the embroidery of a bonnet, stitch by stitch to add or subtract time? Sure! Why not? Yes, it’s absurd, but it’s my kind of absurdity!

Pride and Prejudice is arguably Austen’s most popular novel, and the less-popular character of Mary Bennet is often overshadowed by the beautiful Jane, the tempestuous Lydia, or the protagonistic Elizabeth. In Back to the Bonnet, Mary takes center stage after haphazardly inheriting a magical bonnet that can transport its wearer through time. Through this device, Miss Bennet is able to right wrongs that readers of Austen’s work have never been privy to in the past. Mary’s choices aren’t flawless however. She stumbles at times and learns that she cannot control all aspects of her loved ones’ fates. Along the way however, readers will be treated to an amusing speculation of what “would have been” if the characters of Pride and Prejudice had made different choices, or if Mary had not been secretly working behind the scenes to give destiny a little “nudge”. In Jennifer Duke’s world, the dowdy, almost ignored Bennet sister becomes a powerful force working to ensure the happiness and security of the entire family.

While not my favorite time travel story of all time, Back to the Bonnet was a diverting read to take in during my summer break. There are also some additional, amusing fantastical elements that are revealed as the story progresses, but I will not divulge them here and spoil the fun. I would simply advise to once again “go with it” when surprising features of the bonnet are discovered, and just be entertained!

For my conservative readership, I would say that in general the content here is appropriate for most audiences. Mary does have a closeted gay friend who knows her secret, and I picked up on some possible same-sex attraction between two female characters as well. These aspects are not thoroughly explored, however. Also, while some characters do use colorful language, Duke has chosen the literary device of printing merely the first letter of certain words, plus an em-dash. I haven’t seen this writing choice in a while, and I appreciated its usage.

My two sharpest criticisms are minor. Without giving away special details about the bonnet, I will say that there were times when I briefly became confused about the identity of speakers in a dialogue, and/or their current location. This probably will not make sense to those who have not read the book, but I would just suggest that as you are reading, take careful note of who is speaking and from where. My second critique comes in some decisions that Mary feels she has to make near the end of the story. Although I understood her reasoning for doing what she did, I found her actions to be wholly inconsistent with her character in general. However, in the spirit of just “going with” the story, I chose to accept those decisions as well. We have a time-traveling bonnet, for goodness sake!

Again, fans of lighthearted time traveling tales will find much to enjoy in Back to the Bonnet. Jennifer Duke has taken her readers on a fun dive into the world of Pride and Prejudice, showing us not only what “could have been” but also behind the scenes secrets never before revealed. I will certainly never look at embroidered bonnets in the same way again. They will bring a smile to my face and a fanciful wish for the power to travel as Miss Mary Bennet did in Jennifer Duke’s Regency England. 

About the Author

Jennifer Duke grew up in Basingstoke – a town in Hampshire, England, which Jane Austen visited for shopping and balls when her family lived in the nearby village of Steventon. Loving stories from a very early age and being the second of four sisters, Jennifer delighted in reading stories to her younger siblings.

She went to Bath Spa University to study English Literature with Creative Writing and gained a 2:1, later going on to achieve a distinction for her MA in English Literature at Oxford Brookes University.

She has had many jobs – including coffee barista, trainee English teacher, nursery nurse, nanny, housekeeper and dog walker – but kept returning to writing fiction.

A longstanding love of Jane Austen’s novels led to her first published novel Back to the Bonnet.

As well as writing, she is interested in mindfulness, environmental issues and painting. She loves animals, history, art, travel and being out in nature. Currently she is working on a fantasy novel inspired by ancient art at Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in the south of France, a story set 35,000 years ago – a slight change from Regency England! She also has plans to write a post World War II romance inspired by Jane Eyre.

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