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review 2018-09-29 09:19
. It was hard to be a woman in the Regency period and Austen knew it all too well! A must read for Austen lovers.
Rational Creatures - Christina Boyd

I thank Christina Boyd for sending me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review and for offering me to the opportunity to join the blog tour for its launch.

I have read and reviewed one of the Austen based collections Christina Boyd has edited in the past (Dangerous to Know: Jane Austen’s Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues, check that review here), and when she told me what she was working on, I did not hesitate. I have met many talented writers through her collection and the books she has edited and have to warn any readers that you are likely to end up with a long list of authors added to your favourites if you keep on reading.

I am sure no Austen reader would think that, but some people not so well versed in her work sometimes think that her novels are only about silly girls of the Regency period, normally of good families, flirting and forever plotting to marry a rich and attractive man, with nothing of interest in their heads other than attending parties and fashionable balls, and not a hint of independent thought or opinion. Nothing further from the truth. The title of the collection highlights the status of Jane Austen’s female characters. There are nice women, some cruel ones, vain, prejudiced, stubborn, naïve, impulsive, but they are not the playthings of men. They work hard to prove they are “rational creatures” and they try, within the options open to them at the time, to take charge of their lives and their own destinies.

In the foreword, Devoney Looser writes:

In its pages, the best of today’s Austen-inspired authors use their significant creative powers to explore new angles of love and loss, captivity and emancipation. These stories reimagine both, beloved female characters, like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, and loathed ones, such as Persuasion’s Penelope Clay. The results are comical, disturbing, and moving.

I could not have said it better. While when I reviewed Dangerous to Know I said anybody could enjoy the stories but connoisseurs of Austen would likely delight in them, in this case, I think this is a book for Austen fans, and those particularly interested in feminism and in the early supporters of the education of women. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is mentioned in the foreword and also makes its appearance in some of the stories, and it clearly informs the readings the authors make of the characters and the novels they pay homage to. In a matter of fact, the book could also have been called A Vindication of Austen’s Women.

While some of the contributions are short stories in their own right, although centred on one of Austen’s female characters, some are vignettes closely linked to one of her novels, showing the background to some events in the story, or exploring the reasons for the decisions taken by some of the female characters that might have surprised us when we have read the novels, particularly so, perhaps, due to our modern sensibilities. Each story is introduced by a quotation from the novel in question that helps us get into the right frame of mind.

The catalogue of stories and characters is long and inclusive. We have: “Self-Composed” (by Christina Morland) about Elinor Dashwood, “Every Past Affliction” (by Nicole Clarkston) about Marianne Dashwood, “Happiness in Marriage” (by Amy D’Orazio) about Elizabeth Bennet (one of the most famous and well-known heroines in the Austen canon and I think most readers will easily identify with the character and her plight), “Charlotte’s Comfort” (by Joana Starnes) about Charlotte Lucas (I will confess I’d always wondered about Charlotte’s decision to marry the horrendous Mr. Collins. I enjoyed this version of events and it makes perfect sense), “Knightley Discourses” (by Anngela Schroeder) about Emma Woodhouse (it was a pleasure to catch up with Emma again, a happily married Emma, here), “The Simple Things” (by J. Marie Croft) about Hetty Bates (perhaps because I’ve never been married, I am always drawn towards characters who remain single, and I found this episode particularly touching), “In Good Hands” (by Caitlin Williams) about Harriet Smith (it was good to see Harriet get her own voice and not only be Emma’s plaything), “The Meaning of Wife” (by Brooke West) about Fanny Price (I liked this rendering of Fanny Price as she gets enlightened thanks to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication), “What Strange Creatures” (by Jenetta James) about Mary Crawford (which introduces a touch of mystery), “An Unnatural Beginning” (by Elizabeth Adams) about Anne Elliot (another one I found particularly touching), “Where the Sky Touches the Sea” (by Karalynne Mackrory) about Sophia Croft (this is not a character I was very familiar with but I loved her relationship with her husband, her self-sufficiency, and the realistic depiction of grief), “The Art of Pleasing” (by Lona Manning) about Penelope Clay (as a lover of books about cons and conmen, I could not help but enjoy this fun story full of twists and fantastically deceitful characters), “Louisa by the Sea” (by Beau North) about Louisa Musgrove, “The Strength of Their Attachment” (by Sophia Rose) about Catherine Morland, “A Nominal Mistress” (by Karen M. Cox) about Eleanor Tilney (a fun story with its sad moments, and a good example of the type of situations women could find themselves in at the time), and “The Edification of Lady Susan” (by Jessie Lewis) about Lady Susan Vernon (an epistolary story that I thoroughly enjoyed, and another one recommended to people who love deceit and con games).

The writing styles vary between the stories, but there are no actualisations or reinventions. The stories are all set within the Regency period, and the authors observe the mores and customs of the period, seamlessly weaving their vignettes and stories that would be perfectly at eas within the pages of the Austen novels they are inspired by. The characters might push the boundaries of gender and social classes but never by behaving in anachronistic ways, and if anything, reading this book will make us more aware of what life was like for women of different ages and different social situations in that historical period. What we get are close insights into the thoughts and feelings of these women, many of whom were only talked about but never given their own voices in the original novels. It is amazing how well the selection works, as sometimes we can read about the same characters from different perspectives (the protagonist in one of the stories might be a secondary character in another one, and the heroine in one of the stories might be a villain in the next), but they all fit together and help create a multifaceted portrait of these women and of what it meant to be a woman of a certain class in the Regency period.

I have said before that I feel this collection will suit better readers who are familiar with Austen’s universe, but, to be fair, I have enjoyed both, the stories centred on novels I knew quite well, and those based on characters I was not very familiar with, so I would not discourage people who enjoy Regency period novels and have read some Austen, but are not experts, from reading this book. By the time I finished the book, I admired, even more, the genius of Austen and had decided to become better acquainted with all of her novels. Oh, and of course, determined also to keep sharing the collections and books by this talented group of writers.

In summary, I recommend this book to anybody who loves Austen and has always felt curious about her female characters, protagonists and supporting players alike, and wished to have a private conversation with them, or at least be privy to the thoughts they kept under wraps. If you want to know who these women are and to see what it must have been like to try to be a woman and a rational creature with your own ideas in such historical era, I recommend this collection. As a bonus, you’ll discover a selection of great authors, and you’ll feel compelled to go back and read all of Austen’s novels. You’ve got nothing to lose other than a bit (or a lot) of sleep!

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review 2018-02-23 14:57
A joy of a novel recommended to fans of Pride and Prejudice. Excellent for book clubs.
The Elizabeth Papers - Jenetta James,Christina Boyd,Zorylee Diaz-Lupitou

I was introduced to the work of this author via a collection of stories called Dangerous to Know: Janes Austen’s Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues Ed. by Christina Boyd, which I loved, and had also read a number of reviews of this novel, as it had won the Rosie’s Book Team Review award for historical fiction 2016, and I am a member of the group but hadn’t read it at the time. When the editor of the collection offered to put me in touch with some of the authors featured, I jumped at the opportunity and was lucky enough that Ms. James offered me an ARC copy of her book.

I’ve seen this book defined as a ‘sequel’ of Pride and Prejudice, and I guess in some way it is, as it follows on from the events on that novel, and we get to revisit quite a few of the characters in the previous one (especially Elizabeth Darcy, née Bennett, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and their family, although also Elizabeth’s sisters, mother, and Darcy’s sister Georgiana, and his friends and relatives). The story goes beyond that, moving across several generations, and the storyline is divided into two timelines, one in the Regency period (in the 1820s) and one much more recent, 2014. In the present time, we meet Evie, a young painter preparing her first exhibition and coping as best she can with a tragic family situation, and Charlie, a private detective, handsome, charming (yes, he would have fitted into the role of a rogue if he was a character in the other timeframe), and unencumbered by concerns about morality, who is asked to dig into a possible irregularity in the terms of a trust fund set up a couple of centuries ago. The case sounds like a wild-goose chase, but Charlie is intrigued, at first by the case, and later by Evie.

The author alternates chapters that share Elizabeth’s diary, written in the first person (and some of Darcy’s ‘official’ letters), with chapters set up in the present, from Evie’s and Charlie’s points of view, but written in the third person (there are some later chapters from other minor character’s point of view, that help round the story up and give us a larger perspective). This works well because readers of Pride and Prejudice (and, in my case, it’s my favourite Jane Austen’s novel) will already be familiar with the characters and will jump right into the thoughts and feelings of Elizabeth. I felt as if I had stepped back into the story, and although the events are new (as they happen after the couple has been married for a few years); I felt they fitted in perfectly with the rest of the narrative, and the characters were consistent and totally believable. Yes, they love each other. Yes, Darcy is still proud and headstrong at times. Elizabeth is aware of her family’s shortcomings and wonders at times why her husband puts up with her relations. She also doubts herself and can be annoyed at what she perceives as Darcy’s lack of communication. With all their humanity and their imperfections, they feel so true to the characters Austen created that they could have come out of her pen.

The modern part of the story provides a good reflection on how things have changed for the family, the house, and society in general. It also allows us to think about family, legacy, and heritage. How many family secrets have been buried over the years! While the characters have only a few traces and clues to follow, the readers have the advantage of accessing Elizabeth’s diary, but the truth is not revealed until very late in the novel (although I suspect most of us would have guessed, at least the nature of the truth, if not the details), and however convinced we might be that we are right, can one ever be sure about the past?

The writing is perfectly adapted to the style of the era, not jarring at all, and the historical detail of the period is well observed and seamlessly incorporated into the story (rather than shoehorned in to show the extent of the author’s research). The author’s observational skills are also put to great use in the modern story, and create a vivid and vibrant cast and background for the events. The pace and rhythm of the novel alternate between the contemplative moments of the characters, in the past and the present (emotions run high and characters question their behaviour and feelings), and the excitement of the search for clues and the discovery of new documents and evidence. The settings are brought to life by the author, and I particularly enjoyed visiting London with the modern day characters. Although there are love and romance, there are no explicit sex scenes, and, in my opinion, the book is all the better for it.

A couple of lines I highlighted:

To know him so well and still to be touched by him in darkness and light is surely the greatest fortune of all.

While fans of Austen will, no doubt, enjoy the parts set in the XIX century, the modern section of the novel is an attractive mystery/romance in its own right. I am not a big fan of love-at-first-sight stories, and I must warn you that there is some of that here, at least for Charlie, who is mesmerised by Edie from the very first time he meets her, but he does not have the same effect on her. In fact, he has information about her already (it is not a situation of love is blind), and he is taken by surprise as she is not what he expected. As we learn more about both of their stories, it is easy to see why he would feel attracted to her and her circumstances, as they are quite similar to his own. He was pushed into a business of dubious morality to help his family, and she has also had to cope with family tragedy, but in her case, she had the advantage of the Darcy Trust Fund. They are not copycats of Darcy and Elizabeth, but they complement each other well and bring out the best in each other. The rest of the characters in the modern era don’t play big roles but they are endowed with individual touches that make them relatable and distinctive.

The ending is left to the observation of one of the minor characters, allowing for readers to use their imagination rather than elaborate the point.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel that is beautifully written, with compelling characters (I fell in love with Elizabeth and Darcy once again) and a joy for any of Austen’s fans. I don’t think it is necessary to be a connoisseur of Pride and Prejudice to enjoy this novel (as most people are bound to have seen, at least, an adaptation of the story, and there are references to the main plot points scattered throughout the book) but my guess is that many people who read it will go back and read Austen again. And will look forward to more of James’s books. I surely will.

(Ah, the book has a series of questions and answers at the end that makes it an eminently suitable read for book clubs).

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review 2018-01-05 12:56
A great reimagining of Emma, in a wonderful setting, and with some very heart-warming touches.
I Could Write a Book: A Modern Variation of Jane Austen's

I recently reviewed a book called Dangerous to Know: Janes Austen’s Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues Ed. by Christina Boyd (you can check my review here), a collection of stories about some of the male characters (the rakes and rogues of the title) in Jane Austen’s novels and loved it. The editor of the book kindly got me in touch with some of the authors featured in the book, and now I have some of their books waiting in my e-reader. And this is the first book I’ve read, partly because of the cover, partly because of the title (well, I’m a writer after all), and partly because I had read great reviews of the book, that has received the prestigious RBRT (Rosie’s Book Review Team) Award for historical novel. Although I’m a member of this fabulous group of reviewers, I can’t catch up with all the great books that come up, but if you have not checked the list of awards yet, I leave you the link here (and if you’re an author or a reviewer, don’t miss the chance to explore Rosie’s great blog and her team).

I thank the author for providing me a copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

This book is a reimagining of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. I’m not an Austen scholar (I wouldn’t even call myself a devoted fan) but I enjoy her novels, some more than others, and I have always been intrigued by new versions, adaptations, and sequels of well-known books (not only other books but also movies, plays, ballets, TV programmes…). What gives a novel, or a film, its meaning? What makes it recognisable? Can we change the setting, the historical period, the medium used, and make it maintain its identity somehow? Can we improve on the classics, or can we create a completely new work that retains some of the charms of the original, but is different enough to gain new readers and make it accessible to a new generation? I Could Write a Book manages to do many things at the same time. The action is moved from Regency England to 1970s Kentucky. The setting is a rather gentle and charming small town, where everybody knows everybody, and where although modern ideas are making inroads, there is still an underlying culture of Southern tradition, hospitality, class, and good manners. Appearances are important, and although some of the old families have lost their properties, or at least no longer manage them in the manner they were used to, names and reputations still count for a lot. The Woodhouse and the Knightley families have known each other forever, the men of both families created a joint law firm, and the children grew up together (and now two of their children are married). Emma, by her own confession a modern young woman, although annoying due to her meddling in the lives of others and her self-assurance, is more likeable than Austen’s eponymous heroine. She has a big heart, and she truly loves her family and puts their needs before her own. She suffers several tragedies at a young age. Her mother ends up in hospital severely disabled when she is very young and she keeps looking after her when others find her condition difficult to cope with. And when her father suffers a stroke, she decides to give up her dreams of a college education away from home and transfers back to the local college. Although financially she has no problems, and she can (and does) access help, her way of looking after the father is heart-warming, and that gives her a depth of feeling that is not always evident when we observe her behaviour in the social sphere.

Emma lives vicariously through the love lives of others, and in that, Emma Woodhouse is no different to the original. Although some of her match-making works well (it is difficult to know if it is because of or in spite of her), she can be remarkably clueless at times and thinks that she knows what others think much better than she does (notwithstanding her degree in Psychology). I won’t rehash the plot, as you are probably familiar with it, be it through the novel or through one of the many versions available. Let’s just say that there is much plotting, interfering, match-making, misunderstandings, blunders, embarrassing moments, and yes, plenty of romance. And in this version, much Southern charm and tradition.

The story is told by two of the characters, by Emma, in the first person (and that allows us to understand her motivations, and see that although misguided at times, there is no true malice in her, and she doubts herself more than she lets on), and by George, in the third person (until the last chapter, when we finally hear from George in his own words). George is a true gentleman and a worthy hero of one of Austen’s novels, although he is not perfect. He has a long list of short-term girlfriends and can be, at times, as lacking in insight as Emma. But he is tall, handsome, and he always behaves impeccably (something we cannot say of all the male characters). The two points of view help us get a wider perspective and we get to see Emma from the point of view of somebody who knows her well and still loves her, with all her faults and quirks. We also get a good insight into the different roles played by men and women in the society of the time and get a good understanding of what being a member of such society is like, from an insider’s perspective.

The setting works well, as although it is a more modern period, is not the present, and the location and the type of society reflected in the novel translates well the characteristics of the small, tradition-laden era of Austen’s novel. Emma’s naïveté is justified in part by the insular society she lives in, and by her self-appointed role of her father’s carer, that keeps her somewhat isolated and less likely to mix with others outside of her social circle. Although she is not the easiest of characters to identify with (her lifestyle is very different from what most of us have experienced and many of her difficulties are of her own doing, rather than due to any hardship or real-life problems), she does love her family, and although we might not like to be reminded of it, we have all been, young, naïve, and believed we knew everything.

There are misguided characters, some not-so-nice characters (some can be mean but I would hardly call any of them truly bad, although Tim is very self-involved, although he is a politician, so it fits) and some lovely characters as well. (I was particularly fond of Nina and Helen and found John, Emma’s father, endearing and sympathetically portrayed). The locations and the social setting is brought to life beautifully by the author, who shows an in-depth knowledge of the subject, and I wished I could have been there with them at many of the events (although I’m afraid I’d stick out like a sore thumb). There is even some sex, although not very descriptive (and as you know I’m not a lover of erotica or sex in novels), and the final chapter brings us up to date with the fates of the characters, with some lovely and funny surprises.

The novel has some touching moments, plenty of romance, some moments when we feel embarrassed on behalf of the central character (and many when we want to strangle her), and some funny ones. It is a light read although it will make us think about family and remind us of our youth. There are also some great questions for book clubs at the back, which I think would engender much discussion for readers.

In sum, an amusing and light read, a great reimagining of Emma, in a fabulous setting, with a heroine we’ll love and hate at times, a gorgeous love interest, and a great period piece for those who love the genteel South.  

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