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.
The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Is the universe out to get Alex Woods? Read this book and you could see why Alex wonders about it. At 11, he is struck in the head by a meteorite falling through the roof of his house. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that the blow has led to epileptic seizures, and he stays home for months recovering. He studies on his own, but mainly about the brain and astronomy. When he goes to a new school, there is no hope of fitting in. Of course, his hair won’t grow over the scar. And then there’s the issue of his mother being a witch, running a small occult gift shop, and reading Tarot cards.
So, Alex is bullied. When he runs away from bullies, he gets in trouble and has to make reparations for what they did. This results in spending Saturday mornings with Mr. Peterson, who writes letters for Amnesty International and introduces Alex to the books of Kurt Vonnegut. Later Alex confronts the same bullies and gets in even bigger trouble. He attracts unusual friends, mostly adults. He starts a book club to read Vonnegut. And then, he has to make a choice whether to help Mr. Peterson even though his mother would never allow it. This results in Alex getting stopped at 17 trying to re-enter England with lots of money, a significant amount of marijuana, and while having a partial seizure. It doesn’t look good for Alex. But ultimately, he finds that he has free will, and finds his own path in life. Here’s more about Alex and the author.
Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
After the volcano on Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, the ash spread around the globe, blocking sunlight. England really didn’t have a summer in 1816, although the reason for the cold weather wasn’t widely known. During our pleasantly warm (and occasionally really hot) summer, I enjoy books set in cooler times and places. This is a fantasy novel, but may appeal to readers who are Anglophiles or enjoy witty Regency romances. Jane and her husband, Sir David Vincent, receive a commission to work their magic as glamourists in London, and create a glamural scene in Stratton House. They work with light and color, creating wondrous illusions that are all the rage in London. Jane’s younger sister, Melody, has also come to London, where Jane hopes she will find a suitable husband. There is considerable unrest in London; the prospect of crop failure due to the cold temperatures have caused increased unemployment and persecution of coldmongers, who magically help with refrigeration, but could not be responsible for the weather. The Vincents are surprised to encounter David’s estranged noble family, especially his powerful father. This is the third book about the Vincents, following the award-winning Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass. The Chicago author also narrates audiobooks and is a professional puppeteer.
I look forward to her next book with keen interest. More about the volcanic explosion and its effect on the weather can be found in William Klingaman’s new book, The Year Without Summer : 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History.
The Great Pearl Heist by Molly Caldwell Crosby
A pleasing blend of history and true crime without violence, set in 1913 London. An amazing necklace of matched natural pearls is acquired by jeweler Max Mayer. More valuable than the Hope Diamond, and insured by Lloyds of London, the necklace is closely guarded. Word of the necklace reaches Joseph Grizzard, head of a gang of jewel thieves from London’s East End. With a network of jewelers, jewelry buyers, and informants, Grizzard discovers that the necklace might be shipped by mail from Paris for viewing by prospective buyers. When the necklace is stolen, possibly in France, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alfred Ward has one main suspect: Joseph Grizzard. No one besides Grizzard could have planned the successful heist. But how could he catch the “uncatchable” Grizzard? And how could Grizzard fence the pearls, as they couldn’t be recut like diamonds? Meanwhile, an agent of Lloyds of London is trying to recover the pearls, and his informants are nervous and undependable. I won’t say more except that a reader might end up rooting for the very civilized and clever Grizzard gang. I would have preferred less background on the characters and more about pearl diving and the necklace itself, but overall this was a fascinating read.
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
Lou Clark lives at home in a small English town with her parents, grandfather, sister, and young nephew. She likes her job at a local café, but drifts aimlessly when it closes. Her steady boyfriend Patrick spends his free time training for triathlons. When she is offered a job as companion to Will Traynor, confined to a wheelchair since a recent accident, she reluctantly accepts. Will is unhappy and bitter, but no-nonsense Lou refuses to pity him and plans adventures that might give him a reason to enjoy life again. Will, meanwhile, tries to get Lou to be more adventurous, and plan for her future. A bit of a tearjerker, this bittersweet novel is memorable, unpredictable, controversial, and occasionally funny.
A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress
I really enjoyed reading this collection of stories inspired by the work of Jane Austen. There is a wide variety of settings, characters, and styles. A story by mystery author Stephanie Barron led me to the collection, and I was pleased to see stories by bestselling authors Adriana Trigiani, Lauren Willig, and Jo Beverley. In a few, Jane is a character, in others the main (or minor) characters from her books are featured. There are historical and contemporary settings, mystery, ghost stories, romance, and even adventure at sea, featuring Jane Austen’s brother as a character. In one story, Jane is haunted by her characters. If you like Regency romance, witty dialogue, or Jane Austen’s books, movies, or mini-series, you might enjoy this collection.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall won a major literary award and is a memorable, rewarding book to read. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, might be even better. Shorter by 120 pages, it’s certainly a faster read. Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and both won the Man Booker Prize for best novel in English by a writer from Great Britain or the Commonwealth. Even though it’s shorter, Bring Up the Bodies has more about Cromwell’s earlier life and family, including his father the blacksmith. The storytelling is magnificent and the book is quite readable, something I don’t expect in a literary award-winning novel. I don’t know how it would be to read it without having read Wolf Hall first, but if your time is limited, jump in. When the book opens in 1535, Thomas Cromwell is secretary to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn is queen, and her daughter Elizabeth is a toddler. Anne becomes pregnant, and hopes for an heir for Henry VIII. Anne’s predecessor Katherine is in failing health. The reader knows that Elizabeth will later become queen, and that Anne Boleyn’s life will be cut short, but Mantel still makes the story absorbing, poignant, and occasionally suspenseful. Thomas Cromwell is still good company, looking to the future of his son Gregory, nephew Richard, and protégé Rafe, while doing his best for king and country. It becomes clear that Henry is also looking ahead, and hoping that quiet Jane Seymour is part of his future. A third book, The Mirror and the Light, is planned.
Foundation: The History of England from its earliest beginnings to the Tudors. By Peter Ackroyd
Life in medieval England was nasty, brutish and short. Mr. Ackroyd does not spare on the horrid details of daily life in very old England. In the beginning, people, mostly Celts lived in mud huts with their livestock. If you got sick, there were the leaches and the bloodletting followed by a poultice of cattle dung applied to the affected area. There were constant wars between competing factions and soldiers were easily expendable. And this was before the “100 years war”, which actually lasted 114 years. If you got into trouble, really bad trouble, like William Wallace who dared to defy Edward Longshanks (see the movie Braveheart) you could be hanged, then dis-emboweled while you were still alive, then drawn and quartered which meant that your head and limbs were severed and put on display. If you were a heretic, which there were not many, you would be burned at the stake. If you were a King and were deposed by an opposing faction you could die by having a red hot poker shoved up your backside.
Here is Richard the Lionheart, who was not so noble, but was really good with a sword. King John was so bad that the barons teamed up and presented him with the Magna Carta, the basis of all western law.
Here too is the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which some people still regard as the end of true English civilization, with England being overrun by Normans. The Author shows through archaeological data that long before the “Norman Conquest”, the Celts were being infiltrated by a constant stream of Danes and Vikings, who intermingled with the population.”
The Black Death shows up in the 1300’s and a third of the population dies. The author postulates that it was not Bubonic Plague but instead was Anthrax, Influenza, or a form of Haemorrhagic Fever.
Regarding the Jews “The history of the Jews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one. Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created. The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure.”
The last part of the book is devoted to the Wars of the roses; the house of Lancaster vs. the house of York, the white rose vs. the red rose.
In conclusion Ackroyd says : “when we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. There is in fact a case for saying that human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequence.” I guess some things never change. There is a volume 2 to this history, “Tudors the history of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, which will be published in October of 2013.