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.

Book Trailer


Print                                                     Print

Kindle                                                  Kindle

Audio                                                   Audio


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. 


Related Posts with Thumbnails