Thursday 28 August 2014

Blog Tour - Review - Longbourn to London by Linda Beutler

I'm so pleased to be part of the Longbourn to London blog tour celebrating Linda Beutler's latest book release. Today I am sharing with you my review of the book. At the bottom of the post you can find links to other stops on the tour where you can read more about the book and the author, and even win yourself a copy. There are both ebook and paperback versions up for grabs. 

Book cover - Longbourn to London by Linda Beutler
Longbourn to London isn’t a variation or a sequel per se, but instead looks at a part of the story that Austen skims over pretty quickly, the betrothal period of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. This book picks up a week into the betrothal of our beloved couple and follows them through to the first week or so of their marriage, so it spans around 6 weeks:
“...which to some might appear uneventful. These weeks were, in fact, full of countless small adjustments to their understanding of each other.”
I’d read a book by this author before, The Red Chrysanthemum (you can see my review of that here), which is an Austenesque variation where we see a different type of courtship between the couple, followed by their married life with a particular focus on Elizabeth’s sexual awakening, so I was expecting a sexual element to the book, but it’s actually the key theme of this book. Here Elizabeth grapples with the feelings that Darcy incites within her, and frets about her ignorance of marital relations, a fear which is fuelled by vulgar Aunt Phillips:
“I do feel especially sorry for you Lizzy, as I think Mr. Bingley can be managed, but how you are to control a man who looks at you as Mr. Darcy does, well I am sure I do not know.”
There are a number of additional social engagements due to the betrothals and Elizabeth and Jane find themselves beset by local matrons trying to frighten them with stories of how the marital bed will be for them. After one of these events, where Mrs Bennet does nothing to protect them, Lizzy is unable to sleep. Realising the source of her distress was a lack of knowledge, Lizzy wonders how she can learn of the facts rather than continue to worry in her ignorance and remembers some books she found, years ago in a drawer in her father’s study that she was forbidden to look into. Creeping down to study the books in the middle of the night she is found, but luckily only by Jane, who decides that she is going to try not to worry about things and trust that Mr Bingley will be kind to her. Unfortunately that passive course of action doesn’t recommend itself to Elizabeth, and she decides that she will make a study of the books. She even frankly informs Mr Darcy of her fears, and the books’ existence the next day. Unable to dissuade her, Mr Darcy instead informs Mr Bennet of the issue and Mrs Gardiner finds herself in receipt of several letters all asking for help with Lizzy.

Due to an argument with her husband, Mrs Bennet practically washes her hands of Elizabeth and is pretty unkind to her at every opportunity. This is a fairly harsh portrayal of her, which I always think is a shame, as in Pride and Prejudice I always got the impression that although Lizzy challenged her mother and was her least favourite child I never doubted Mrs Bennet’s love for all her children. I also think that since Lizzy had made a stellar match that Mrs Bennet would be anxious to stay in her good books, as Lizzy would be in a better position than Jane to save Mrs Bennet and any unmarried daughters should Mr Collins turn them out into the hedgerows! I enjoyed the portrayal of Mr Bennet in this story as a loving father to his Lizzy, telling Darcy tales of her childhood, and watching them together to reassure himself of their compatibility.

Although the change from maiden to wife is a big jump Elizabeth is not only going to be doing different things physically, but will be expected to take on the role of being mistress to Darcy’s country estate and town house, both of which would be much larger than what she was used to. In addition to this, she would be changing her social circle not only because she is going to live in a different area, but also in a different social sphere, knowing that some people will be less than welcoming to her. Although I don’t see Lizzy as a character particularly prone to worrying I think it’s likely that if she were to worry about the unknown she would have worried about or at least considered all of this, but in this book her focus is solely on the upcoming changes to their physical relationship, it seemed a little imbalanced to me.

Lizzy and Darcy’s relationship grew really nicely in this book, it was lovely to see how close they were. From the beginning Lizzy was confiding in him, and he was open with her as well. This is just how I see them as a couple, they had already had experience of sharing their secrets regarding Wickham so they had already shown a high level of trust in one another and I think that they would have been very close. The author makes the argument in her foreword that Mr Darcy is just as much of a tease as Lizzy, as evidenced by their repartee when Elizabeth was staying at Netherfield, amongst other times. It also seems likely that he had a good sense of humour, as a humourless man wouldn’t have been attracted to Elizabeth unless he was entirely oblivious to her character, like Collins! I really liked Darcy’s humour in this book, as we got to know him better:
“It makes proposing much easier, I find, if one’s aunt has revealed that one will be accepted in advance of taking the risk.”
If you prefer your Austenesque reading without sex scenes I think you may struggle with this one. The sex scenes are not that graphic, but there are quite a few of them, and there is a level of sensuality though the book, even the parts with no sex scenes. I would say the main theme of the book is the transformation of maiden to bride in an emotional but also in a physical sense which is the type of thing that some readers prefer to avoid. However, if you don’t mind sex scenes and the heavy emphasis on the sensual side of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship then perhaps you should give this one a go. I find this author’s style is very readable, and I enjoyed the book, although I would have preferred it to focus on a wider range of the changes to Elizabeth’s life rather than just in the bedroom (or in several of the bedrooms as it turns out!).

3.5 star read

I received a copy of this book (which by the way is a gorgeous slinky matte version) from Meryton Press via Leatherbound Reviews for my honest review as part of the Longbourn to London blog tour. Thank you so much for letting me take part!

Longbourn to London Blog Tour Banner
Would you like to win a copy of Longbourn to London or read an excerpt or guest post more from the author, Linda Beutler? Of course you would! So make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour.

Past Stops:

Would you like more info on this author? You can connect with Linda Beutler here:

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Austenesque Reviews Austenesque Admirer Series Giveaway Ends Tomorrow!

If you haven't already seen it, the lovely Meredith over at Austenesque Reviews has been running an ardent admirer series, with a focus on meeting the people who read the genre. I've really enjoyed getting to know better the other people who comment on posts on my favourite blogs.

Last week, I was the one answering some questions, so if you haven't gone over to check out the post about me then please do! If you leave a comment you can enter for a giveaway for a £10 Austenesque book from The Book Depository, but you'll have to hurry, the closing date is tomorrow, Wednesday 27 August. The Book Depository ships to loads of countries throughout the world so hopefully pretty much everybody can enter.

Sunday 24 August 2014

One Night with Her Boss by Noelle Adams

Book Cover - One Night with her Boss by Noelle Adams
This is steamy novella in the ‘One Night’ series of novellas by Noelle Adams, which explores how everything can change in just one night. Here, Anne has been working for ex-professional surfer Jake as his personal assistant for the last seven years. For the last two of those years she has been madly in love with him, but sees no reciprocation on his part. Whether he isn’t interested because they work together or he just isn’t interested full stop she doesn’t know.
“She’d worked for him for years, and he’d never showed her the slightest sign of real interest. An intense look now and then didn’t mean anything. Besides, he was her boss, and he would never make a move on her – simply because of that.”
However, today things have changed; Marketing graduate Anne wasn’t able to get a job in Marketing when she graduated because of the downturn in the economy which is how she ended up working for Jake, but now she’s just been offered just the type of job she wants. The only downside for her is not being able to see Jake any more, but she can’t hold back on her career just for that:
“Anne nodded, feeling better and determined now to give notice this afternoon, to make it real, to get it over with. “It’s about me. And a great job. And finding a guy who actually wants me.”
When Anne tells Jake that she’s resigning he seems desperate to keep her as his assistant, which doesn’t bode well for Anne’s feelings towards him. She knows that Jake prioritises his business over everything else and this just underlines her determination to leave. Jake and Anne have to go out of town on business that evening, and she finds that her roommates were correct, Jake does see her as more than just part of the office fixtures and fittings...

I’ve enjoyed all of this series and this one was no exception. Anne was a loveable lead and Jake quite the emotionally repressed alpha male until he realised what he was about to allow to slip through his fingers. This is a quick read, but if you wanted a quick, steamy read then I’d recommend it, and in fact any of the others in the series.

4 star read

Book cover - One Hot Night by Noelle AdamsThe rest of the One Night novellas can be bought separately or in a combined volume, ‘One Hot Night’:

One Night with her Bodyguard is about Claire's night with her bodyguard. Claire has extreme social problems; she describes herself as shy but I would say it’s more than that. The bodyguard has been part of her life for six years and knows her well, but she barely knows him at all...

One Night in the Ice Storm introduces us to Rachel, who was heartbroken by being dumped with no explanation by David 8 years previously. She's visiting her family and he is still friends with her brother and has dropped by to pick something up. The storm closes in quickly, leaving them trapped overnight, and giving Rachel a dilemma. She is still very attracted to David, despite how he let her down. Can she resist him? Only minor thing re. this one is that I felt that something would have been said between them sooner, although to be fair reasons are given as to why nothing was said by either of them. Of the three stories in the collection this story stayed with me the longest afterwards.

One Night with her Best Friend - This story sees Kate and her best friend Aaron. Kate's early life was chaotic; she hates change and tries to control all aspects her life. Can she come to see that not everything needs to fit into her life plan and try and take a chance on something unexpected?  I really enjoyed this story, both Kate and Aaron are likeable protagonists, although she has been missing what's been right under her nose for years! This is a novella I’ve read quite a few times, I can’t give much higher praise than that.

These three stories are all enjoyable, only thing I would say is that if you read them in one sitting there are some similarities but they are all about the same theme so that makes sense.

4 star read

Book covers - One Night novellas by Noelle Adams

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Matters at Mansfield: Or, The Crawford Affair by Carrie Bebris

Please note, that while the following review doesn't contain spoilers for The Matters at Mansfield there are slight spoilers for Mansfield Park. Read on at your peril!

Book cover: The Matters at Mansfield by Carrie Bebris
Carrie Bebris has written a number of these mysteries, each with a link to one of Jane Austen’s novels and featuring Mr and Mrs Darcy as the investigators. I believe this is the fourth book in the Mr & Mrs Darcy Mysteries series, but it read fine as a stand alone. I was immediately drawn into the story by my affinity with a scene of exhaustion that most parents would be familiar with – dealing with a child going through a spell of teething.
“It is a truth less frequently acknowledged, that a good mother in possession of a single child, must be in want of sleep.”
Mr and Mrs Darcy are staying at a friend's country house, in company with their infant daughter, Lily-Anne (query – does anybody know when hyphenating names became usual? It seems too modern to me, but I could well be wrong) and her nursemaid. Also at the party are Lady Catherine and her daughter Miss Anne de Bourgh, and Colonel Fitzwilliam.  After spending interminable time settling her daughter Elizabeth goes back to her bedroom, still in the early hours of the morning. She bumps into Anne de Bourgh, fully dressed, who proffers some hasty excuses for her presence out of her bed in the middle of the night, though she needn’t have bothered, due to poor Elizabeth’s sleep deprived state!
“The thought had not so much as entered Elizabeth’s mind, which was primarily occupied with calculating how many hours; sleep she might yet manage to capture if she nodded off immediately upon reaching her pillow.”
However, the next day Elizabeth thinks things over, and comes to the conclusion that Anne needs help to break away from Lady Catherine’s control. She raises this with Mr Darcy, who here is shown to have a view of his cousin that I always suspected when reading Pride and Prejudice:
“To Darcy, his cousin was merely a vassal in Lady Catherine’s tightly controlled court. In all the years of their growing up, he had never thought of her as an independent being, and seldom thought of her at all.”
Lady Catherine has plans for Anne, however. Now the upstart Mrs Darcy has blighted Lady Catherine’s matrimonial ambitions Lady Catherine must make other plans for her daughter, and this time she is holding out for a titled gentleman, doing her best to manipulate the doddering Lord Sennex into agreeing a match between his son and Anne. However, Anne has been considering whether to break out from her mother’s control, and Elizabeth inadvertently encourages Anne to embark on a very rash course of action involving a gentlemen who can be met in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the charming Mr Henry Crawford.

Through a series of events including an accidental injury to Anne, many of the party end up stuck in an inn until Anne is enough recovered to be moved. Unfortunately for Mr Crawford, it’s in an area of the country where he is about as popular as smallpox – the inn is close to the environs of Mansfield Park!  In relation to the events of Mansfield Park we are just about at the end, although for me the timeline didn’t quite work, as I think Fanny’s marriage wouldn’t have taken place until things were more settled with Maria – here Maria is staying with her Aunt Norris, who is trying to effect a reconciliation with Mr Rushworth.

It was refreshing to see Mr Crawford finally be held to account for some of his wrongdoing, he’s always got away with things in the past. He is fairly unapologetic for his behaviour, which I thought was exactly in accordance with his character, since he’s never tried to behave as he should in preference to behaving as he wants:
“I realize I have acted badly, but if my attempt to explain is going to elicit naught but hostility I must beg leave to postpone further discussion of the matter.”
It turns out that Mr Crawford has behaved much worse than at first was thought, and his sins are beginning to catch up with him. Soon there is a dead body to account for, which is followed by other deaths... but who is responsible?

I quite enjoy cosy mysteries, and I enjoyed this one, although since I am no Miss Marple I only worked out part of the plot in advance, and the rest of it I realised not long before all was revealed! I am not sure it is true to say in this case that Mr and Mrs Darcy investigated, instead Mrs Darcy was first exhausted with the demands of her child, and then by the demands of her tiresome aunt by marriage! However, the time that Mr and Mrs Darcy spent together was really delightful, I liked to see their close relationship and to see that Mrs Darcy had lost none of her teasing, saucy speeches! There were some lovely humorous parts, mostly in the dialogue between the Darcys or in their private thoughts, e.g.:
“Darcy shifted in his chair and stole what he hoped was a discreet glimpse at his pocketwatch. Midnight – a mere six minutes since his last covert glance. His suspicions were confirmed.
He would die at this card table.”
I am so glad I picked this book up, I really enjoyed it, and I’d like to read other books in the series. There are quite a few of them. In order, they are: Pride and Prescience, Suspense and Sensibility, North by Northanger, The Matters at Mansfield, The Intrigue at Highbury and The Deception at Lyme. According to Carrie Bebris’ website she is currently writing one related to Sanditon, which is planned for completion in 2014.

4 star read

Book Covers: Mr & Mrs Darcy Mysteries by Carrie Bebris

Sunday 17 August 2014

The Watsons by Jane Austen

Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen
Although I have been an ardent admirer of Jane Austen’s works for a long time I’ve only ever read her main 6 books and some of her juvenilia. In addition to these, she also wrote a work called ‘Lady Susan’ and had two unfinished works, ‘Sanditon’, which Austen was working on when she died, and ‘The Watsons’, a work that was abandoned around the time that Austen’s father died. It is generally believed that she abandoned the work because it felt too close to her own circumstances. Recently I was lucky enough to win a book that is based on The Watsons, so I thought I’d better read the unfinished part before I started reading this.

The Watsons are a family headed by an invalid father, who has six children, 4 daughters and 2 sons. All of the daughters are unmarried. Elizabeth is the oldest Watson daughter. She is in her late twenties and a kindhearted lady, though she is somewhat lacking in tact:
“I should not be surprised if you were to be thought one of the prettiest girls in the room; there is a great deal in novelty.”
The two middle sisters, Penelope (Pen) and Margaret are absent for the first few chapters, but what we see and hear of them isn’t promising. Elizabeth states that one of her sisters frightened off a potential suitor for her for fairly spiteful reasons, and when we meet Margaret she is an obviously false, conniving person. Of the two brothers, Robert is married to a rather snobbish lady, and Sam is training to be a surgeon, and is in love with the daughter of the Watsons’ closest neighbour, the Edwards family.

The youngest daughter of the Watsons, Emma, has been living with their aunt, due to Mrs Watson’s death. Emma lived away from her siblings for the past 14 years, since she was 5 years old. The aunt was widowed and remarried somebody who wasn’t willing to give Emma a home (booo). Emma has therefore had a different upbringing to her brothers and sisters. She has been moving in a more refined society, and been living in a richer home. She is more genteel and refined than her sisters and feels the distinction between what she has been used to and how she is now living.

The Watsons manuscript - Jane Austen
Manuscript of 'The Watsons' which sold in 2011 for £850k
Emma goes to an Assembly, escorted by the Edwards family. Elizabeth doesn’t accompany her because somebody has to stay home with Mr Watson. At the Assembly Emma meets, and is noticed by, Lord Osbourne, who is from the local family of importance. She also meets a man who she is not inclined to think well of, the social climber Tom Musgrave, who her sister Margaret hopes to marry. A man that Emma finds more acceptable is Lord Osbourne’s former tutor, Mr Howard, who invites her to dance.

Although this piece is only a few chapters, it’s a very promising beginning, and I wished there was more of it!  It seems as though marriage was to be a key theme of the novel. Emma and Elizabeth had already discussed their views on marriage, with the younger Emma saying that she’d rather be a teacher than marry a man she didn’t like, and her older sister replying that
“I should not like marrying a disagreeable man any more than yourself; but I do not think there are many very disagreeable men; I think I could like any good-humoured man with a comfortable income.”
Elizabeth’s view is certainly the more practical, especially considering how many unmarried sisters there were. Emma had received the best education and may have expected to be able to get a job as a teacher, which she mentions, but her sisters probably couldn’t. As Emma says, “the luck of one member of a family is luck to all” – on a practical level the Watson ladies needed to marry, if they could.

There are a number of works based on The Watsons. I found a list here. After reading the beginning of The Watsons, my appetite is whetted, and I’m looking forward to reading ‘Emma & Elizabeth’by Ann Mychal, hopefully next month.

4 star read

Saturday 16 August 2014

Love Bites by Ophelia London

Book Cover - Love Bites by Ophelia London
Sharona Blaire is an auditor who is travelling from Miami to Sydney on business. Wandering into first class by mistake, Sharona compounds her errors by accidentally tipping a whole Bloody Mary over one of the first class passengers as she escorted back to economy class.  Later that evening Sharona goes to the hotel bar to relax. Deciding that the night is a bust she turns around to walk away, and manages to spill her drink over a gorgeous stranger – the same gorgeous stranger – for the second time that day. This breaks the ice and they start to talk, finding they have a real connection.

Although Sharona has never been a one night stand kind of girl she feels she could do with a confidence boost. She broke off her relationship with her fiancé (also her boss) about 6 months ago. He didn’t respect her then, and he doesn’t respect her now, meaning her work life is under pressure too. She isn’t looking forward to the next day’s work either, and she’s longing for a chance to escape reality, just for a little while, but will she go through with it?
"Something about being halfway around the world made her feel... unencumbered. Or maybe it was the effects of her Long Island iced tea combined with his dreamy, ocean-blue eyes."
Although Jeff is not somebody who makes a habit of having no strings attached nights of passion the American hottie he has just met who is insisting on no names or personal details being exchanged is hard to resist as the attraction between them is pretty intense. Conservation scientist Jeff is also fairly new on the singles scene – his marriage broke down a while ago after his wife betrayed his trust to sell some of his intellectual property and he hasn’t been interested in putting himself out there until the temptation of tonight. Although Jeff loves his job, he’s dreading tomorrow, as he’ll have the distraction of having to deal with an auditor...

This was a very interesting setting for a romance – a research boat looking at the travel and mating habits of the great white shark. There is a level of resentment and distrust between the main characters due to how the previous night ended and the baggage from their respective exes.

Sharona seemed very nice, although why she continued to work with her foul ex was a mystery, an auditing job isn’t that hard to come by! So often in romances the protagonists have really glamorous jobs and I thought it made a nice change to have a more prosaic profession. Jeff was a super hot, intelligent conservationist with a good sense of humour, described as having a grin that was 'an interesting cross between Han Solo and Thor'. What’s not to like?!

Since this is a novella there wasn’t much time for the story to build and their relationship developed between them very quickly, but given the nature of the setting, a one day boat trip with some time at the hotel before and after things would have to develop quickly to have any kind of story. There was a grand gesture which I felt was unnecessary and also a little unbelievable, but I thought this was an enjoyable story, and just the ticket if you wanted a quick escape with a short, untaxing read. I'd rate this as 3½ stars.

3.5 stars

*Many thanks to the publishers, Entangled Publishing, and Netgalley for providing me with an e-arc of this book for my honest review.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Passion and Propriety by Elise de Callister

Book cover: Passion & Propriety by Elise de SallierWilliam, Viscount Blackthorn has lived a horribly unhappy life. He was born to a cursed family, meaning that his mother died giving birth to him, like the previous 5 or so generations. His father was a lecherous alcoholic and had nothing but hatred and venom for his son.  The neighbourhood despised and feared the family and he met with kindness only from the servants in his house and his only childhood playmate. As soon as possible, William was sent off to boarding school. There, he was ostracised by his peers for the curse.  Not wanting to pass on the curse to future generations William determined never to marry, and therefore was able to make a career choice generally not available to firstborn sons – he joined the army rather than come home and tend to his estate after his father’s death. The Blackthorn curse is thought by many to have cursed the district too. Many families have moved away, both to avoid this, and to try and find a better landlord, because William’s steward has kept the harsh rules that the previous Lord Blackthorn imposed and William has never intervened. William is battleworn and battle scarred and in fact is gravely injured. Refusing to let his injured arm be amputated William has instead come home to die.
“His death would put an end to the curse that had plagued his family for generations, and it seemed fitting for that to occur at the place where it all began.”
Passing the local church on the way William is attracted by the music being played and he goes in to listen. He recognises the woman playing the music as his former childhood playmate, the vicar’s eldest daughter Hannah, the sole bright spot of his youth.

Hannah is having a very bad day. It is her twenty seventh birthday, which means she is now officially an old maid. She has had a busy and useful life for the past few years, helping her father tend his flock and raise her sisters after the death of her mother, but she would like a family of her own. She is trying to accept that her dreams of marriage and motherhood are going to remain just that – dreams. Later that day she goes to visit her mother’s grave and finds William has collapsed in the graveyard. She immediately goes to help him, but finds herself in a dilemma. The steward of the estate has dismissed nearly all the staff and is currently away on a ‘business trip’ so there is nobody to pay for medical care for William and nobody will go there from kindness due to the curse. Hannah decides to go and care for him herself with the naive hope that her status as an old maid will protect her reputation, and the reputation of her sisters by association. It probably would have made more sense for her to have nursed him in the vicarage, but she doesn’t realise how little assistance she will have at Blackthorn Manor.

William has been sorely lacking in tender care in his life, and becomes very fond of Hannah’s company. This is in addition to finding her extremely attractive, a feeling that is mutual. In these times unmarried men and women couldn’t really be friends and William can’t offer anything more, though he finds himself wishing that he could. When circumstances intervene William and Hannah find themselves thrown together once more, but will he be able to continue to resist her?

I thought this was a very entertaining read although there were a few times I had to suspend my disbelief a bit, I really don’t think he could have returned home from war abroad with his arm as it was and I also believed that if people were as happy and relieved to get servant work as they appeared to be they would have been more discreet – if they’d been my servants I’d have got rid of them all and rehired! Nothing is kept secret, and even allowing for servants gossiping things which they were never told somehow get to be common knowledge.

I really liked both the hero and the heroine. I deeply pitied William for how sad and unloved his life had been. Only in the army had he found acceptance, when he could leave his horrible family and the memory of the curse behind.

The thoughts of both William and Hannah are often really amusing, and I enjoyed their dry humour. Here is William with a hangover:
“He was clearly suffering some terrible, life-threatening malady.....There was no point to Hannah catching whatever dreaded disease had claimed him.” 
Their attitudes in some respects seemed to be a little too modern in my eyes, particularly their attitudes to sex. Although some reasoning is given for this, considering both of them are virgins they seem to know an awful lot about sex and are happy to openly discuss it with just about anybody! There were a few words and phrases which jumped out as being too modern, or American, e.g. ‘darned’ and things such as William making a reference to his disabled left hand only noticing when he has to cut his food but it would notice anytime he eats because the custom in Britain is to have the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right at all times, not just when cutting food. I also am not sure whether a ‘sulky’ is a carriage that would have generally been found in England at the time, I would have thought a gig or phaeton would be more likely, depending on what class of person was driving, but these are small quibbles in the scheme of things.

There are some interesting secondary characters introduced in this novel, too. Hannah’s friend, Grace Daniels is the illegitimate daughter of a lord, who was cast out by her stepmother after her father’s death. She now provides apothecary care and herbal tinctures to the community and she was instrumental in saving William’s life by her work on his arm. She gets off to a very poor start with William’s new steward, and it’s a real mystery as to why, but Grace’s story seems set to be told in the second book in the series, Duty and Desire, due out in early 2015, which I'd certainly like to read. I thought Passion and Propriety was a very entertaining book and it was a lovely way to while away a rainy Sunday! This is better than a 3 star read but not quite a 4 for me.  Please note, for those of you who prefer to avoid them, that this novel contains sex scenes.

3.5 star read

*Many thanks to the publisher of this book, The Writer's Coffee Shop, for allowing me to have an e-ARC copy via Netgalley for my honest review. 

Sunday 10 August 2014

Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle by Paula Byrne

Portrait of Dido Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray
A while ago I saw the film ‘Belle’ which tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle. The inspiration for this film was a portrait, showing Lady Elizabeth Murray and what was originally thought to be a black servant girl. However, in the 1980s it was realised that the black girl in the picture had much higher status than that. In fact, she was Lady Elizabeth’s cousin, daughter of Captain John Lindsay. Dido’s mother was a slave. Dido was brought to live with her childless uncle and aunt at the age of around five.  The family she lived with were a noble family, which gave Dido a unique status in society.

While officially there wasn’t slavery in Britain, many high up families made money supported by either the slave trade itself, or the labour of slaves in far away plantations. Most black or mixed race people living in Britain in the 1700s would be ex-slaves or servants. However, Dido had a status high above that, yet not as high as her cousin, firstly due to the fact that she was illegitimate, and secondly due to her race. The uncle who took Dido in wasn’t just any gentleman – he was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, the highest judge in England, and one who happened to specialise in maritime insurance law and hence would deal with cases involving slaves. Lord Mansfield made decisions that paved the way for the abolition of slavery, and there were some that said this was due to the influence of one of his much-loved adoptive daughters, Dido Belle.

There is very little known about Dido, aside from the date of her christening, other church records and a number of bequests that were made to her by her family, so I knew the filmmakers took artistic licence with her story. Some of it was fascinating, the look at how she was in such a unique place in society, above the servants, yet below her class of society as a whole, and there was an exploration of how different people may have reacted to her, and how it might have made her feel that was really touching. Some of the things that are portrayed in the film went beyond the bounds of believability for me, due to the restricted place in society of women in general, and Dido in particular. It wasn't clear to me which bits were true and which weren’t, so I was pleased to see this book by Paula Byrne, which ties in with the film.

Book cover Portrait of Dido Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray
This is a factual book, and although not much is known about Dido’s life, Byrne sets what is known in context with events and societal views at the time and infers what she can from it - the result is a book that I found extremely interesting, although some parts I found hard to read, due to the subject matter. The concept of slavery is one which I find morally abhorrent. The idea that people could be owned, could be objectified, that people with feelings could be treated so disgracefully by other human beings is an extremely disturbing part of history. I found the parts that detailed slave treatment on ships, particularly the sexual treatment of women and children as young as 8 quite hard to read because I found it just so upsetting.

Portrait of Granville Sharp
Granville Sharp
One of the most dedicated fighters against slavery was a man called Granville Sharp. He worked tirelessly for the cause, taking up a number of cases and arguing that under English law there were no slaves, no property in persons and that all persons were subject to the protection of England’s laws, including the Habeas Corpus Act, relating to unlawful detention of a person, which is still in force today. A pivotal case, not shown in the film, was the Somerset case, in 1772. Here, a slave called James Somerset was brought to England by his master, Charles Stewart. Somerset escaped, but was recaptured and sold to a slave ship bound for the West Indies. The case was brought by people trying to resolve the status of slaves in England once and for all. Did slavery exist in Great Britain, or didn’t it?

The question of slavery must have been an extremely thorny issue for Mansfield. On the one hand, a large section of the country’s economy relied on the profits of slavery. There were not only slave owners, many of whom were extremely influential, but also an industry reliant on the profits of trading and shipping slaves, and people who traded in the commodities that slaves helped to produce. There were insurance policies bought and sold to insure the slaves while they were being transported. On the other hand, there was obviously a moral view too – is it right that people should be treated as less than human due to the hue of their skin? Do the ancient laws of England such as habeas corpus, not apply to black people? If a person is no longer a slave the second they set foot on British soil was there a danger that all escaped slaves would flee to Britain for sanctuary and the country be overrun with immigrants? For Mansfield there may have been the additional aspect of Dido to consider – if he ruled that black people were property and that it was lawful to recapture a slave to resell, could she have been in danger of kidnap? She had been born to a slave, and hence was technically a slave herself.

Portrait of William Murray, Lord Mansfield
William Murray, Lord Mansfield
It is not known exactly what was said by Mansfield while he delivered the verdict, but several accounts state that he used the word ‘odious’ to describe the state of slavery, and stated that the law of England didn’t allow or approve the treatment Somerset had received, and therefore Somerset was discharged from the court.  Later, Mansfield clarified that what this meant was that it was not legal to forcibly take the slave and carry him abroad in England, and that nothing had been ruled relating to the concept of slavery, however:
“The tide of public opinion had changed. A great moral question had been resolved. On English soil, no man was a slave. Mansfield, whether he liked it or not, was perceived as the man who had made slavery illegal in England.”
This case was more important than the one featured in the film, where Mansfield had to decide on an insurance case relating to the slave ship, the Zong. Here, a slave trader had claimed for the loss of some slaves in transit. The slaves had been killed by their captors. However, this horrible massacre in itself wasn’t illegal, if it was done to save the entire ship, which is what was claimed, as they had run out of drinking water.  If the slaves had died of natural causes such as sickness, the insurance company wouldn’t pay out, but if the crew had been forced to kill them to save the whole craft then the insurance cover should be valid. The film doesn’t represent this case entirely accurately, the pivotal deciding legal issue wasn’t quite the same as in the film, and in fact a judgement wasn’t made as it was moved to a retrial which never took place as the plaintiff dropped his claim. I found the clarification of the true facts very interesting and helpful. I knew that the filmmakers would have taken artistic licence with Dido’s life, but I wouldn’t have expected them to have done it in relation to the court cases, so I was glad to have this clarified.

Wedgewood Anti-Slavery Pendant
Am I not a man and a brother?
Following these sorts of cases public opinion grew and grew for the abolition of slavery. Ordinary people began to boycott sugar usage, as many slaves were working on sugar plantations, and there were high-profile supporters of the cause, such as Josiah Wedgewood, who made this anti-slavery plaque. William Cowper, the poet, wrote this in 1788:

“I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? Give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea! 

There are a number of examples in the book of things which created a snowball effect leading to the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave trade. In the meantime, we know that both Lord and Lady Mansfield died, and Dido married, in 1793. Her husband had the same name as in the film, but was of an entirely different profession. How happy they were and whether it was a love match or an arranged marriage is entirely unknown. However, the girl who had been brought up in the absence of her parents was able to become a mother herself, to three sons, of which two survived.

There is a section at the end of the book relating just to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which I found extremely interesting. Austen was actually acquainted with Dido’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, by then Lady Finch, and it seems more than coincidental that the novel of Austen that actually references the slave trade is called Mansfield Park. There are a number of other references that may point to a link, such as the name of one of the characters in the book. Austen would probably have been aware of a slave captain, by the name of Robert Norris, who was a supporter of the trade. This is also the surname of Fanny Price’s oppressor, a woman who holds far too much power at Mansfield Park, the horrible Mrs Norris. Some would argue that there are more references than that, such as Fanny's lifestyle, etc.

Byrne points out an idea that had never occurred to me before – on plantations where the owners were absent the treatment of slaves was generally far worse. Sir Thomas Bertram is an absentee planter, who is obliged to travel to Antigua to sort problems on that estate, but his absentee parenting style has also caused problems within his family in England, and his physical absence at this time allows the moral vacuum in his home to cause longlasting damage to his children.

Book cover - Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice
Since so little is known about Dido Elizabeth Belle this isn’t really her history, so it's a little misleading to say this is the true story of her life, but her legacy is not so much what she did as what she possibly inspired by being a much loved member of Lord Mansfield’s family. This book is more a book on the abolition of the slave trade with particular focus on Lord Mansfield and his family. It’s a book I very much enjoyed, once I’d got past the parts which I found a little upsetting. If you’ve watched the film I would definitely recommend reading this, just so you’re clear on what is fact and what is fiction, but I think it would be well worth reading even if you have no interest in the film.  I read this on kindle, and just to warn you, the book finishes around 70% due to all the annotations and references.

4 star read

Thursday 7 August 2014

Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James

Book Cover - Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James
I had never read anything by this author before, though I know she has written stories focusing on the lives of authors such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, rather than their works. In the latest book by Syrie James the focus is on Jane Austen, aged fifteen.

One of Jane Austen’s brothers caught the eye of a rich relative and his wife, the Knights. As the Knights didn’t have any children, they took on Edward Austen as if he was their son and he became heir to their estate. This sounds odd to us, but in those days this wasn’t that unusual an occurrence. It would have been a wonderful opportunity for Edward to move in a higher level of society, and would have helped assure the safety of his siblings, as Jane’s father was a clergyman, and so when he died, his income would largely die too. In this story, told from Jane’s point of view, we travel to the summer that Jane was fifteen. Her brother Edward becomes engaged and the whole Austen family is invited to Kent to meet Edward’s prospective in-laws, the family of Sir Brook Bridges, which sounds like a made up name, but he really was called that!

Jane, her older sister Cassandra, twelve year old brother Charles and their mother set off to journey first to the Knights, where Mrs Austen is so affected by the travelling, that she stays there while the younger Austens go ahead to the Bridges’ house. Unfortunately, the carriage has a mishap and topples over into deep mud. Fortunately, there are some rescuers on hand – Mr Edward Taylor, seventeen year old heir to the nearby Bifrons estate and cousin to the Bridges. Jane immediately feels very attracted to the exciting and reckless Mr Taylor, and she looks forward to getting to know him better. There will be good opportunity to do this, as he, and his cousins the Paylers are invited to the Bridges’ home for all their events. One of the Payler brothers seems to be interested in Cassandra, but his sister, Charlotte, only has eyes for Edward Taylor, so Jane has a rival for his affections.

Edward Austen’s betrothed, Miss Elizabeth Bridges is one of a large family. Jane and her family also get to know Elizabeth’s siblings, including the sisters closest in age to her.  Fanny, the eldest sister, got engaged hot on the heels of her sister and is upfront about her practical, bordering on mercenary, reasons for marriage. Sophia, the sister next in age to Elizabeth has similar interests to Mr Cage, Fanny’s betrothed, which leads Jane to wonder whether he has chosen the wrong sister to marry...

This was an interesting glimpse at the type of events and entertainment that took place at house parties in the late 1700s. There are a number of nods to Austen’s works, which of course were nearly all still unwritten at this point in her life, both in the events occurring and the verbiage used – there is even a ‘fine eyes’ reference, plus things like this wonderful quote from Northanger Abbey:
“It seems that a young lady, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything should conceal it as well as she can.”
Due to the bad weather the young people decide to put on a play, which is one of the things that happen in Mansfield Park, although thankfully the play chosen is less scandalous than ‘Lover’s Vows’. One character’s comments on his role this really reminded me of the blockish Mr Rushworth. Also, Jane’s pride in her matchmaking skills also reminded me of another matchmaker – a Miss Woodhouse who had more confidence in her abilities than was deserved!

As we all know, Cassandra burnt a lot of Jane’s letters after Jane’s death, and the Austen family were careful how they presented Jane’s image, but if you’ve ever read any of the letters that remain you can see (although you’d assume it from her novels anyway) that Jane Austen was an avid watcher of people and their relationships, delighting in the absurd and quick to judge – Elizabeth Bennet didn’t get those qualities from nowhere! There were a number of comments and thoughts made by Jane in this that I thought seemed to be in her voice or reflect views that, to my understanding, she held, such as her view that one shouldn’t marry without affection:
“To conceive of living forever with a person one could neither respect nor admire! It seemed to me a crime against morality and humanity.”
However, at other times the voice didn’t ring true for me – it was little things, such as when Edward Taylor was introduced his appearance was described in some detail, which is not something I'd usually associate with Austen's usual way of writing, as she usually describes people quite sparingly, although I accept that she may have used a different style writing for herself than she would have done in a novel. Some of the word usage seemed a bit too modern as well, such as the repeated use of the words fiancé and fiancée, which date from after Austen’s lifetime.

One thing I wasn’t sure about was the depiction of Jane’s character. She’s only fifteen in this story but sometimes she really is quite foolhardy and lacking in propriety which doesn’t really tie in with my view of her. Some of her behaviour had a shade of the ‘Lydia Bennet’ to it, and from how she judges Lydia in Pride & Prejudice I don’t see her as being that type of person at that age. I also felt a little melancholy reading this story. It isn’t a melancholy story, any more than any other story which looks back at a person’s youth, but knowing things that happened later in Austen’s life meant that you had some idea of how the story would end. Actually, the end was more uplifting than I was expecting, bearing this in mind. I liked what Jane learned about herself during her stay, and the encouragement she took from the stay towards pursuing her writing goals.
“For the first time, I felt that I had a direction: a path or plan which might lead to me improving my skills as a writer. I determined from that moment forth to follow it.”
A touch I enjoyed was that during Jane’s stay she even writes a story that you can read in her juvenilia. I don’t know whether this story was really inspired by her stay in Kent or whether it’s part of the fiction of this book. The blurb says that this book is inspired by real events and there is a section right at the end which helpfully makes clear which parts are known and which parts imagined. Overall, I would say that this is something unusual in the world of Austen-inspired fiction, and it's worth a read. I certainly enjoyed it!

4 star read

*My thanks to the publishers, Penguin Group for allowing me to have an e-arc copy of this book from the publishers, via Netgalley, for my honest review.

Friday 1 August 2014

Falling for her Soldier by Ophelia London

Book Cover - Falling for her Soldier by Ophelia LondonEllie Bell used to be a professional ballet dancer until an injury led to her retirement. Now she teaches ballet to young children. Ellie has spent the last 11 months focussing on her work as she's been on a self-imposed man-free year to try and break herself of her bad habits of dating sexy bad boys who will just break her heart. Ellie's parents are both dead and the only real family she has is her brother Sam.

Sam is a soldier, and he's currently home, sporting a large scar as a reminder of his last tour. He was very badly injured while on a mission, and, knowing that news might be slow to filter through, his fellow soldier and good friend, Charlie emails Ellie to let her know what has happened. Ellie replies, and she and Charlie strike up an email correspondence. They feel very comfortable with each other, and get quite close over email and share some quite personal things. But Charlie hasn't emailed her since the unit returned home.

Ellie goes to visit Sam at the Warrior Centre, a centre for service men where Sam receives counselling and generally hangs out with friends. There, Sam, who is unaware that the two have emailed, introduces Ellie to Charlie, but he introduces her by his nickname, Hunter. Ellie has heard all about this guy 'Big Game Hunter', the man who goes through women at a rate of knots, and she doesn't have a high opinion of him. The fact that she finds Hunter charming and attractive is all the more reason to keep her distance from him, given the fact that he's just the type of man she's decided to avoid.

Charlie has come home hoping to turn over a new leaf as regards his womanising and he's disappointed that his reputation has soured Ellie's view of him. Rather than ruin her memories of Charlie he decides to try and improve her view of Hunter before he tells her the truth. He decides to volunteer at the centre, as Ellie does, and in addition, they work together on a fundraiser. But will it be enough?

This was a fairly enjoyable romance and very easy reading, but I found it a little frustrating that the characters would say they weren't going to do x and then go straight off and do it! There was also the issue of secret keeping. In real life, are you going to be able to keep your identity a secret in this way? Considering Charlie's family and friends live in the area, I can't believe he would have thought it was possible for more than a day or two.

On the plus side, I liked the healing side of this story. Charlie thought he was OK with what he'd been through on his last tour, but he had just been suppressing it. Similarly, Ellie still had lingering elements of resentment at the injury that ended her career.

There are no sex scenes in this book, but they are thinking about it :)

I had a suspicion while reading that this was part of a series, and it is, but it reads fine as stand-alone, I don't think reading this out of order is likely to spoil the others for you unless it's a surprise who ends up together. Book 1 in the series is called Playing at Love and features Charlie's sister, Tess. Book 2 is Speaking of Love which has friends of his, Mackenzie and Rick. I will certainly add those to my wishlist.

3 star read

Planned Reading for August 2014

I have more time off work than usual this month, as it's school holiday time. This could mean more reading time, or maybe my lovely children will run me ragged and I'll be too tired to read, we will see! These are my planned reads for August:

Northanger Abbey and Sense & Sensibility Book Covers
I plan to read some Austen, hurrah! Over the years I've read three of her books a lot (Pride & Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma) and the others just once, years ago and then not since. Last year I reread Mansfield Park and I felt very differently about it to my initial read so it's definitely worth revisiting them all. I'm planning on reading both Northanger Abbey and Sense & Sensibility this year. Misty over at The Bookrat is hosting her annual Austen in August event later this month, and a group read is usually part of that. If it works out that the book for the group read is one of the ones I plan to read this year then I'll read along, if not, I'll probably read Northanger Abbey all on my lonesome!

Book cover Longbourn to London by Linda Beutler
I am taking part in the Longbourn to London blog tour, organised by Leatherbound Reviews. This book is an exploration of Elizabeth and Darcy's betrothal and early marriage, as the country girl from Longbourn prepares for a lifetime with a man from a higher level of society. I've read a book by the author, Linda Beutler, before, The Red Chrysanthemum, and I enjoyed that, so hopefully I'll enjoy this one too. I'll be reading Longbourn to London and sharing my thoughts with you on this towards the end of the month. 

Book cover The Matters at Mansfield: Or, The Crawford Affair by Carrie Bebris
For my Mansfield Park inspired read I hope to read The Matters at Mansfield: Or, The Crawford Affair by Carrie Bebris. I don't know much about this book. I understand that it's part of a series of mysteries, which will be a change for me, as although I quite like mysteries, I usually read romance. Mr and Mrs Darcy are the investigators.

I've had the whole series on my wishlist for ages, and then last month this one was discounted. It was fate!

You may be wondering how I'm getting on with my Austenesque Reviews Top 10 Summer Reads challenge that I mentioned last month... well I will tell you; very badly! I haven't read a single one! I have a choice of 5 still unread:
All Roads Lead to Austen – Amy Elizabeth Smith
At the Edge of the Sea – Karen M Cox
Austenland – Shannon Hale
Austentatious – Alyssa Goodnight
Echoes of Pemberley – Cynthia Ingram Hensley

So hopefully I'll read at least one of these. What do you plan to read this month?