Two novels being published this month feature Jane Austen as a fictional character. Jane Austen and the Twelve Days of Christmas, by Stephanie Barron, is the twelfth book in a mystery series, but this book can be enjoyed without reading the other titles. Jane, her sister Cassandra, and other relatives are guests at a house party at The Vyne over the Christmas holidays in 1814. When Jane isn’t socializing, being a dutiful daughter, or penning her novels, she is a witty and observant amateur sleuth. Spirits are high because Napoleon is in exile and the War of 1812 seems to be over. But when a military courier falls from his horse and dies after visiting The Vyne, Jane suspects murder. Fans of Jane Austen novels or historical mysteries will find this book a real treat, and it’s been selected as a Library Reads pick for November.
First Impressions: a Novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett is the author’s second book, following The Bookman’s Tale.
Upset by her uncle’s death and the loss of his personal library, recent Oxford graduate Sophie Collingwood takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller who knew her uncle. Within a week two customers ask for the second edition of an obscure book by Richard Mansfield. One threatens her, the other man, Winston, takes her to dinner. In the past, Jane Austen has made a new friend, the elderly cleric Richard Mansfield, who admires her writing. Jane has not yet published anything, and struggles to find time to write. Sophie’s quest for the book turns into a mystery that questions Jane Austen’s authorship of Pride and Prejudice, in a romantic and suspenseful book. I would have liked more scenes with Jane and less of Sophie trying to decide whom to trust, publisher Winston or book-loving American Eric. Both Sophie and Jane rely on their sisters for advice and friendship, which is a nice touch. I enjoyed this book, but it’s not as absorbing and memorable as Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Since You’ve Been Gone by Anouska Knight
Holly Jefferson’s life basically consists of working at her bakery with her assistant Jesse, walking the dog, sleeping, and visiting her sister’s family once a week. That’s all she can manage since the death of her husband Charlie almost two years ago. Their partly renovated cottage is unchanged, and Holly is completely uninterested in a social life. A series of unusual cake commissions and deliveries lead to memorable encounters with handsome Ciaran Argyll and his hilariously rude father, wealthy developer Fergal, completely shaking up Holly’s boring routine. I quite enjoyed this charming British romantic comedy.
The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh
Lord Peter Wimsey, his wife Harriet, and the faithful Bunter return to Oxford in 1952. This is the fourth mystery featuring the trio that Jill Paton Walsh has written or finished writing, continuing the books written by Dorothy L. Sayers. Peter has unfortunately inherited the title of Duke of Denver, and discovers that it includes the office of Visitor of St. Severin’s, a fictional college in Oxford, and is called upon to referee a dispute. St. Severin’s is far from peaceful; the head of the college is missing, and there have been recent deaths (presumably accidental) and other incidents. Oddly the deaths and two accidents echo Peter’s detective cases and Harriet’s mystery novels. The college’s finances are shaky, and there is an ongoing debate about selling a rare manuscript with connections to King Alfred in order to buy land near Oxford that could be developed.
Oxford itself is a character in the book, full of memories for Peter and Harriet, and instantly recognizable to 21st century visitors. While the atmosphere at St. Severin’s is increasingly unpleasant, reading this mystery was a real pleasure.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Romance, mystery, history, Victorian art, and rare books combine to make for an engaging read. The setting moves from the 1980s and 1990s in North Carolina and England to the Victorian era and Elizabethan England. In 1995, rare book dealer Peter Byerly has retreated from North Carolina to an English cottage after the death of his wife Amanda. Finally visiting a bookstore, he is stunned to find a Victorian watercolor portrait tucked into a book about Shakespearean forgeries. The portrait looks just like his wife, who studied Victorian art. When Amanda’s books don’t identify the artist, he is referred to an art society meeting in London, where he meets book editor Liz Sutcliffe. The mystery of the portrait and its artist are somehow connected to an Elizabethan novel Pandosto by Robert Greene, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. A copy of Pandosto with margin notes by Shakespeare and a list of people who owned the book could be proof that Shakespeare really wrote his plays; or it could be a forgery. The search puts Peter and Liz in jeopardy, while alternating chapters describe Peter and Amanda’s college years and the people who owned the copy of Pandosto. Peter’s joy in learning about rare books and his love for Amanda add depth to the story.
The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay
During World War II in England, every citizen was expected to do their part in the war effort. Imagine that your job was so secret that you couldn’t tell your family or friends anything about it, or why you weren’t in the armed forces. Then imagine keeping that secret for 30 years. That’s exactly what the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, 50 miles northwest of London, did. Mathematicians, linguists, historians, young aristocrats, engineers, and Wrens were all summoned to Bletchley Park, asked to sign the Official Secrets Act, and worked to break the enigma code the Nazis used in the war for their communications. It was extremely difficult to break one code, and it kept changing. Electronic machines, the Bombe and the Colossus, were developed to help with this work. Assigned rooms in private homes, working different shifts in cold huts in spartan conditions on the grounds of a stately home, eating food that was less than wonderful, several thousand workers, including some Americans, did amazing work. They probably shortened the war by two years, and kept supply convoys from being attacked at sea. The workers, mostly young, also used their creativity and energy to start a number of clubs, from sports to drama, and a number of romances led to marriage. Now a museum, visit Bletchley Park’s website for more information. For a similar book set in Tennessee, read Girls of Atomic City.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker ably retells Jane Austen’s story from the point of view of the servants. Sarah, the housemaid, is the main narrator. She was orphaned as a young girl, and has worked at Longbourn for years, along with Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the butler and cook/housekeeper. Sarah is fond of Mrs. Hill, even though she often scolds Sarah and Polly, the younger maid. When Mr. Bennett hires a footman/groom, James Smith, Sarah is at first suspicious of James, but later falls in love with him. Elizabeth, Jane and the younger Bennett girls come to life, but again from the servants’ points of view. Five young ladies in the house certainly make for a lot of laundry, sewing, and cleaning. Sarah wonders what they can possibly have to complain about, and doesn’t think much of their suitors, especially Wickham, who flirts with young Polly. When Mr. Bingley moves to the area, his handsome footman, Ptolemy Bingley, has Sarah dreaming of life in London. When James Smith suddenly leaves Longbourn, he describes his childhood and experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, while Mrs. Bennett and Sarah try to find him. This was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I recommend it to Anglophiles, historical fiction and Regency romance readers.
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Recuperating from an injury, University of Illinois college student David Graham enjoys reading the poetry of Elspeth Dunn, and writes her a fan letter. This begins a correspondence of several years before and during World War I. Elspeth is married to sullen Iain, her brother Finlay’s best friend, and lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Afraid to leave the island, Elspeth leads a somewhat narrow life. She writes poetry, roams around the island, and worries about her husband and brother in World War I, and then about David when he volunteers as an ambulance driver in France. A parallel story is set in Edinburgh and London in 1940, where Elspeth’s daughter Margaret tries to learn about her past after her mother disappears after an air raid, and also worries about her boyfriend Paul, in the war. Told through letters, this double love story reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows, although it’s not quite as memorable. A quick read, with humor, romance, and drama, recommended for fans of historical fiction or family sagas.