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Jessica Bull – Miss Austen Investigates

Book Cover of Jessica Bull's Miss Austen Investigates

Please note that this review uses ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘Austen’ to refer to the real writer, and ‘Jane’ to refer to Bull’s fictionalisation of the same.

Catherine Morland would be proud.

When Jane comes back to the ball from the glasshouse where she’d been talking to Tom Lefroy, no one is speaking. A woman has been murdered; no one knows who she is or, indeed, who’s done it. The magistrate starts to get on with it but Jane has her misgivings about him and as the days continue and he hasn’t reached a conclusion nor, as far as Jane is concerned, made a proper effort to find out whodunnit, she decides to conduct her own investigation. Her family aren’t keen – it’s a bit of a silly idea, and Jane manages to cause great offence in her efforts to find out the truth, but it becomes all too important to her to solve when her brother is arrested. But there’s also Tom’s likely impending proposal to prepare for and cousin Eliza’s coming to Steventon. Will Jane work it out before it’s too late and will Tom ever get down on one knee?

Jessica Bull’s Miss Austen Investigates (or The Hapless Miliner across the pond), is an utterly delightful fictional take on Jane Austen’s years in Steventon, largely influenced by Northanger Abbey. In essence it is a bit of a parody of an actual parody, one absolutely brimming with excellent research, immersive use of location, careful and comedic and sensitive handling of real families from the past, and interesting fairly evidence-based interpretations. And yes, all those adjectives were necessary to include – this book is one of the most well-produced literary works I’ve read in a long time.

It is obvious very early on that everything Bull does in this book, all the choices she makes, has or have been fully thought out. Let’s start with the general concept – the influence of Northanger Abbey on the text. Bull’s fictionalisation of Jane Austen is partly informed by what we know of Austen herself, and partly informed by Austen’s character, Catherine Morland. (This latter person is most in evidence when our titular character of the book this review is about becomes incredibly illogical and won’t be drawn by reason, much like our dear Catherine.) Bull’s balancing of the different personalities into one character – I say ‘different’ even though I myself believe it’s likely Austen herself was remarkably fun – won’t be for everyone, in fact it’s likely some readers may find her silliness too much, but I’d wager most people will ‘get’ it at the very least.

Of course it’s also in the element of the mystery here that Catherine Morland can be found; Bull’s novel is very much a mystery novel and well set in its time and society – Jane never goes around with the historical equivalent of a policeman and no one is shooting anyone, instead Jane’s investigations largely take the form of musings and a couple of brief questions here and there over a cup of tea and slice of cake at various houses.

(This in itself is something to remark upon – Bull’s setting Jane as the sleuth enables a look at how women were treated more as decorations and possessions rather than people. There’s a particularly sad scene wherein the funeral of the murder victim – a woman – is attended by just a few men and Jane hides herself outside because as a woman she cannot be at the funeral. See also the way Jane is asked to stop investigating – whilst this is in line with Catherine Morland’s experiences it also aligns with the historical treatment of women in her position.)

Looking at location and society – friends and family, mostly – this is arguably where most of the heart in the book can be found. Bull has recreated the village of Steventon and the now-lost Steventon Rectory where Austen grew up (it was torn down within a few years of the Austen family moving away) and looked at Ashe House and Deane House in the nearby villages of the same names (which still exist and are privately owned). The sense of place and time is fantastic and it’s easy to get lost in the world and carry on turning the pages. Bull also shows Jane’s time with her family and there is a lot of fun to be had in the dynamics between members, particularly baby Anna (made younger in this book than she would have been in real life) and Jane’s mother, Mrs Cassandra Austen.

What’s really lovely though, is that Bull has put so much work into the whole family that you’ll feel you know them more than you ever could have before. About half of Austen’s siblings are included in these fictionised forms, with James, Henry, and George paramount. (Sadly Cassandra isn’t here, but that is in keeping with her story and it allows for Bull to add an element of the epistolary novel to the book.)

George Austen is where it’s at. George is largely forgotten in our collective history, almost certainly because of what we would now call epilepsy, and the relative menial role he therefore played in society. (Case in point – there’s a Wikipedia link for every sibling, except him.) He plays a big role in the book, with Jane always thinking about him in context with what’s going on. Another character, Jane’s cousin, Eliza, who’s son has epilepsy also, is there to help her with her investigations and there is a lovely burgeoning romance with Henry Austen that’s based on the real history, too.

The writing is super, with most of the narrative in third person and Jane’s letters to Cassandra giving a first person perspective. Bull has used the format the late Deirdre Le Faye gave Austen’s letters in Jane Austen’s Letters which provides a lovely nod to study and research. Bull has also slipped her letters in the gaps between the letters that were burned by the real life Cassandra, and added her own nod to this unfortunate piece of history in the letters themselves.

I can’t end this review without mentioning Tom Lefroy; Bull has come to an evidence-based conclusion as to the nature of Austen’s relationship with him and explored it in her book. It is very well done and there are further choices made that increase her character’s agency.

There is a lot more that could be said about this book – it’s a treasure trove of parodies and references – but a review can only be so long. Miss Austen Investigates is one you certainly want to read if you are at all a Janeite, or/and if you like mysteries. It may even suit your general historical fiction fan, as well. It is an absolute delight, and joy or joys, book two is already on the horizon.

I received this book from the publisher in order to interview the author, which is something I set in motion.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 435
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-64208-5
First Published: 25th January 2024
Date Reviewed: 30th April 2024

 
2023 Year Of Reading Round Up + Update

For the first time in a long time, there is some stability to my life. It probably goes without saying that my rabbits continued to be ill (this February had 3 emergencies and a complaint raised before we finally got a diagnosis for a second condition). I also unfortunately lost one rabbit at Christmas due to an abscess or tumour (it wasn’t worth the heartache finding out which). It was a very sudden happening and it’s difficult finding time to grieve when you’ve also now suddenly got a single rabbit who needs you a lot more because she’s lost her pal – or brother, in this case. She has, however, found some happiness in the fact that she can now leave food half-finished, knowing she can go back to it later and it’ll still be there (she loved him, but he was a food vacuum) and in the fact that when she asks me for cuddles there’s a high likelihood she’ll get them. He always asked her for cuddles but never gave her cuddles in return and of course, him being another rabbit meant that she asked him more than she asked me. She has become 1) more affectionate, 2) more cheeky than ever. A) I love her to bits, B) her anger when I’m in her way could move mountains.

All this going on as it has with the pandemic and some health-related issues of my own takes its toll on you massively and my life was just a ball of constant stress and I felt the years piling on to me. I can say that rabbits are absolutely incredible in themselves, best pets I’ve ever had. Intelligent, able to learn their names and follow gestures, and just incredibly cute and loving. The species, however, is awful, evolution choosing to make them breed tons rather than fix their health means you’re far too likely to have a sickly rabbit, and that is hell.

Anyway, I knew at the start of it all that something would have to be put aside and at that time it had to be blogging, no matter how much I love it. I *think*, hope, cross my fingers, etcetera, that I might now have more space to start writing again because I really miss it. I love doing the podcast but it’s not the same and I ought to be able to do both!

I’m going to say the same here that I’ve said before – I’m going to go slowly. I’m totally out of the routine that I’d built, and I’m going to prioritise reviews as my ‘bookish discussions’ self is still in start-up mode. And if it ends up being that I only post once a week as opposed to my original three times, that’s far better than not posting at all.

So, that all said, I’ve looked back at my round ups for 2023; somehow the only one missing is December and… well, I think I’ve explained that one. I only finished one book in December anyway so for once I’m not going to do a round up just for completion purposes – which it sometimes felt like I was doing when I posted a December round up and then a year round up, even if I liked the process (you don’t want to see the level of detail I can go to when I track my reading). The book I read and finished in December was Kristy Woodson Harvey’s The Wedding Veil, which I loved.

Onto the year round up then, because I do feel the need to write this to help me get properly back in the zone. Here we go. No ratings, just the books.

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Alex Hay: The Housekeepers – Mrs King, housekeeper of the de Vries mansion, has been fired from her post and is now planning to rob the place of the entirety of its contents along with other disgruntled parties during the time the new mistress of the house will be hosting a ball. Thrilling and hilarious from start to finish, perfectly plotted, perfectly everything.

Amanda Geard: The Moon Gate – In the 2000s, Libby travels from Tasmania to London to find out more about the research her father, Ben, was doing into her mother’s birth family when he was killed in the Moorgate Tube Crash; in the 1970s Ben seeks to find out who has given his wife and himself a house on the Tasmanian coast; in the 1940s Grace is sent to Tasmania along with her hateful companion to see out the war at her uncle’s home and, away from her awful mother, starts to blossom and find her people. A three-timeline historical novel with a strong set of mysteries behind it, this superb book looks at grief, WWII in Tasmania, and Australian poetry, and is worth every word of its almost 500 pages (in hardback).

Amita Parikh: The Circus Train – Following the travels through WWII Europe of an international circus, this book looks closely at the lives of Lena (who has Polio), her illusionist father, and a stowaway Jewish boy, as they try to remain out of the Nazis’ interests, and continue their trade, whilst growing as people. There’s an interesting controversy here where Parikh looks at a Polio-free life for Lena that is in fact supported by mid-1900s medical treatment.

Celina Baljeet Basra: Happy – Happy, of Jalandhar, in a spot that used to be his parents’ land but was sold to a theme park, is looking to move to Europe; he writes his thoughts in various different voices and looks forward to a hopeful film career. But to reader things may seem a bit different. This is an intriguingly told story of migration and poor environments – the narrative takes some getting used to but once you’re there the story opens to you completely, and there is a poignant ending involved.

Eleanor Shearer: River Sing Me Home – When the plantation owner announces that everyone is free but that they must carry on working for no money for several more years, Rachel escapes. She has children to look for, young people who were sold on elsewhere. This book looks at what the concept of freedom means through a number of lens, looks at motherhood, and of course slavery in the Caribbean. It’s done wonderfully.

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Elissa Soave: Ginger And Me – Wendy’s mum has died and she’s struggling to cope; she doesn’t have any friends or people to turn to and no one really seems to like her. But then Ginger steps onto her bus and the two teenagers begin a friendship. However for some reason the reader doesn’t yet know, Wendy is recounting this from prison and Ginger is no longer alive. The writer Wendy was Twitter friends with may not be alive either. A stunning story of how people who don’t fit the proscribed norms fall off the radar, and the catastrophic things that can result from that; there is also a lot about friendship.

Elizabeth Fremantle: Disobedient – Artemisia Gentileschi is growing up under the art tutelage of her father, Orazio; they are loosing money and have to move but Artemisia’s talent is eclipsing her father’s and the family is okay. But in the 1600s women are owned and not at all independent and when her father starts bringing around another painter, trying to ingratiate himself into a bigger project, the man takes a liking to her. A richly detailed historical tale, Fremantle brings her story of survival to life.

Gill Paul: A Beautiful Rival – The (fictionalised) story of cosmetics industry rivals, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, Gill Paul starts her tale as the women are already pretty successful, as Rubinstein expands to the US where Arden is already established. The pair were both self-made women in a time when that was not at all the done thing but always ‘had’ to one up each other, starting with products and going so far as their romantic lives. Paul has kept to the history where she can but makes a few compelling deviations. The book in general is compelling and offers a lot about the women, the period, the amount of anti-Semitism during a time when people were fighting against Hitler, and, of course, advertising and product creation.

Jenni Keer: The Legacy Of Halesham Hall – Phoebe wants revenge; her father’s younger brother took the family estate from him in a wretched game led by her grandfather and with her father now dead, she will have the place herself thank you very much. Deciding to be honest with her effective uncle, Sidney (her father is not her blood relative), about her relation to him, Sidney lets her stay on below stairs, and Phoebe gets to work finding out the very last piece of the puzzle her grandfather set which Sidney never actually discovered. A good historical mystery with a fresh concept of board games and puzzles running through it, boasting a bit of cosy mystery and a very satisfying epilogue.

Jennifer Saint: Atalanta – saved as a baby by a mother bear and later taken in by the goddess Artemis, lives in Artemis’ forest with nymphs. She’s sworn to Artemis a life away from men and is quite happy with this but there will come a day when, as the best archer and runner in the land, Artemis will want her to join the Argonauts, the famed band of heroes sent to gain the Golden Fleece. This is a stunning retelling and detailing of the ancient myth, Saint’s careful choosing of what to take from the various original stories excellent.

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Karen Hamilton: The Contest – Blackmore Vintage Travel take their Very-Very Important Guests on annual contests where they are split into two teams. The employees of both teams vie for winning status – with it comes more money. But these are not the easiest holidays and there have been accidents, in particular the last trip which left one employee in a critical condition. Now, Florence and Jacob are vying for the crown – Jacob wants to impress his father, who owns the company, and Florence wants a bit of retribution. They’re to take their teams up Mt Kilimanjaro, impressing them with VIP flourishes. But there may be a killer among them. This book has a particularly good ending that is not at all obvious for at least a good while.

Kate Thompson: The Little Wartime Library – When Bethnal Green Library was bombed during the Blitz, the remaining stock is moved to the unfinished Bethnal Green Underground Station which is being used to house East Enders safely away from the streets of London; we follow children’s librarian Clara and her friend Ruby as they help keep up the borough’s morale through the wonders of reading. This is a book big on community and looking at the small pockets of goodness that happened during the war, focusing of course on the value of reading, and while the reading may be important, the community is the best bit. Thompson’s use of language is also great – very British, very right for its time and location.

Kristina McMorris: Sold On A Monday – Ellis takes a posed photograph of two children with a sign beside them that states they are for sale; the family is poor but doing okay, however the photograph leads to the sign being taken literally. A book full of the ways 1930s newspapers worked, this is a delight to read (perhaps so long as you go in knowing it’ll focus on things from the angle of the newsroom rather than the children themselves).

Kristy Woodson Harvey: The Wedding Veil – In the present day, Julia is getting married but she’s understandably got cold feet as her fiancé is… not the best, at all. With the help of her grandmother, she becomes a runaway bride and goes off on her honeymoon alone to work out what she wants. We hear from Julia’s grandmother, Babs, as she gets used to the idea of moving to a retirement community and meets an old flame. And, also, in 1914 we meet Edith Vanderbilt on her wedding day and then, later, her daughter Cornelia; we see both womens’ lives and the slow breakdown of the wealthy lifestyle they lived. This is a fantastic book that grabs you from the first page and has a lot of different locations and atmospheres that keep it fresh throughout. I think I loved Julia’s story the most for its sun, sea, and romance, but the other two narratives are right up there.

Kristy Woodson Harvey: The Summer Of Songbirds – June’s owned her girls’ summer camp for decades but the pandemic lockdowns have reduced the income to problematic levels and she may have to sell out to a house building company who’ll turn the camp into homes for the wealthy. When she lets her niece, Daphne, and friends Lainier and Mary Stuart know – they met at camp in their single digit years and have been friends ever since – the four begin a plan to get donations and funding to save the camp. It’ll be another summer they’ll never forget – Lainier is soon to be married but Daphne has good reason to hope it doesn’t happen, and the love of Daphne’s life, Lainier’s brother, is back in town. A fantastic read with a very special narrative voice; more about friendship than the camp but wonderful all the same.

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Lisa See: Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women – A fictionalisation of the life of a woman doctor in 1400s China (fictional because we know so little of her apart from the medicine). Absolutely superb.

Lucy Barker: The Other Side Of Mrs Wood – Victorian medium, Mrs Wood, looks to keep her reputation intact as others fail and looks to stay popular whilst she ages away from being, essentially, new and shiny. When she finds a young woman watching her house, she catches her and the result is that Mrs Wood has a new trainee – great for keeping society’s focus on Mrs Wood herself. But perhaps all is not quite as it seems with Miss Finch – beyond the literal tricks of the trade, of course – and Eliza the maid might have good reason for her distaste. Incredibly witty, well plotted and set, this is a wonderfully immersive and enjoyable book.

Maggie Brookes: Acts Of Love And War – British brothers Tom and Jamie decide to go to Spain during the civil war, each of them supporting a different side; Lucy, loving both of them, finds herself seeking to travel also, to try and get them to come home, but when a fellow teacher introduces her to the work Quaker volunteers are doing in Spain, Lucy adopts a second purpose – she will find the men but in the process help the lives of a great many refugee children. A good look at the Spanish Civil War from a perspective not well known, with a different romantic thread and arguably great ending.

Natasha Solomons: Fair Rosaline – Where was Rosaline in those days when Romeo and Juliet were together? In this tale, Solomons shows us the time of the play through the eyes of the forgotten cousin, matching many of the scenes with her own and creating others that fit until a point where she changes it to suit. This is a wonderful, wonderful book that shows the original story in the light the author feels is Shakespeare’s purpose – and given the new things we’ve learned about Shakespeare it’s very possible. Romeo is not a good guy, Juliet is the young teenager she is, and things are fair from peachy.

Nicolai Houm: The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland – A woman wakes up in a tent in a Norwegian National Park, knowing how she got there; scenes from the past couple of months show how she came to be in such a place. This is a novel about grief rather than a thriller – though it has an element of that – and a very good one at that.

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Orlando Ortega-Medina: The Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants – Marc takes on a couple of cases that are the antithesis of the cases his company usually works on and finds himself with an obsessed client. Meanwhile his partner, Issac, receives letters to attend court for deportation over his earlier arrival in the US as an undocumented asylum seeker. A very satisfying thriller and book in general.

Paula Cocozza: Speak To Me – Our narrator is feeling lonely and neglected in her relationship and life in general, and she very much misses the previous house her family lived in which, they moved away from to please her husband. Her husband, Kurt, is too involved with someone else – his mobile phone. Our narrator tells us all about this, while reminiscing over a past relationship and wishing to find her briefcase which is filled with letters.

Rachel Abbott: Don’t Look Away – The third book in the Stephanie King series, Nancy has moved temporarily to Cornwall after the death of her aunt to look at the cottage she’s been left and sell it. There are no good memories here – when she came her last, her mother had died and then her sister disappeared and her father died in an accident. But her plans to sell up and go back to London are paused when she finds her sister’s filled rucksack in the garden shed where the police didn’t bother to look, and there’s a van that seems to follow her wherever she goes. Meanwhile, a kid has found a skeleton in a cave that matches the year Nancy’s sister ran off but may not be the girl herself. A great thriller that starts off with a simple one-thread story and starts to expand quite a bit.

Radhika Sanghani: I Wish We Weren’t Related – Reeva and her sisters have to go and spend two weeks mourning their father with his relatives… except that their father died many years ago… didn’t he? And it’s not great – Reeva’s sister is engaged to her, Reeva’s, ex, and she doesn’t have a good relationship with her other sister, Sita, either. A well-done comedy that has a lot of heart and reality amongst its bonkers going on.

Ronali Collings: Love & Other Dramas – Tania is newly divorced and looking to find herself, Priya did not receive a much hoped for promotion after giving her all to her long-standing employer, and Helen is discovering herself after years as an unhappy wife (unhappy is an understatement). The book covers their transitions to new milestones. One of the best books I’ve read this year – simple in premise but just so well done.

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Sarah Marsh: A Sign Of Her Own – Ellen is preparing to marry Harman in London, but a letter suddenly changes her world; can she please help Alexander Bell and give evidence towards his getting a patent for the telephone? She was a student under his tutelage – Bell continued the work of his father, Visible Speech, aiming to help deaf children to speak, and Ellen was at the forefront of this. She has to make a choice, and as she does so she takes us back to Boston and her experience as a deaf child in the late 1800s, a woman pushed to be in hearing society rather than deaf society and the effects this had on her. This is a wonderful novel about forgotten history and wonderfully written; Marsh’s prose is so well done and her use of different ways of speaking and different languages is superb.

Stacey Thomas: The Revels – When Nicholas’ brother dies, his father summons him home; he’s to journey with Judge Percival, looking into witch trials. But what no one knows is that Nicholas meets the criteria for being a witch; the dead sing of the manner of their death, and Nicholas hears it. He must work with this knowledge, all the while knowing the many women put to death are innocent. But when he meets Althamia, he starts to wonder about his gift, and when he meets her cousin, this gift starts to become very insistent. A beautifully told tale – good storytelling and incredibly fitting prose, that looks at the witch trials of Britain from both a different point of view, person-wise, and different angles, concept-wise. It’s difficult to explain without giving too much away – read it!

Sylvia Mercedes: Bride Of The Shadow King – The Trolde king, Vor, needs a bride and the humans on the overworld swore their princess to him. That princess should be Ilsevel if the King has anything to do with it, and he sends her off to wed a king she does not particularly like. But when Vor came to meet the family, there was the oldest princess, Faraine, and it was love at first sight for both of them. When Faraine has to take Ilsevel’s place she’s not comfortable with the idea – it involves magic and deception – but she has to go ahead. Hopefully Vor will be happy, albeit that the humans are deceiving him. This book has a great fantasy romance premise and held much promise, until two plot twists that turned it into too much angst. The first was okay if upsetting – the reason Faraine goes instead of Ilsevel (because of course she will) – but the way Vor handles it all is too much.

Sylvia Mercedes: Vow Of The Shadow King – The continuing story of no communication, no reason for there not to be happiness, and a scene that needs a trigger warning. I’d already bought the book. I will look for another series by Mercedes that can rival my favourite (the Venatrix Chronicles – it’s one of my favourite series full stop), but it is definitely not this one.

Tasneem Abdur-Rashid: Finding Mr Perfectly Fine – Zara’s mum has told her to find a husband pronto because if she’s not married in a year, by her 30th birthday, she’s off to Bangladesh. Zara joins a Muslim marriage app, and goes to a meet-up but then there’s also Adam from work. Adam’s only nominally a Muslim so it won’t work, but Zara’s drawn to him. At the same time, Hamza, from the singles event, offers a lot more of the things she’s looking for, she just isn’t particularly attracted to him. She’s got some decisions to make. Absolutely loved this one. Worth the lost sleep.

I’m going to forget that I didn’t read as many books as I might have in another year and be happy that in general I very much enjoyed what I read. I am glad, in this way, that I haven’t done a ‘best of the best’ here because that list would be over-run. What I do hope to do, memory depending, is write more reviews of the year’s books than I have already.

So far this year I’ve been able to read more. If that keeps going, great, if it doesn’t, I’ll work with it. And I’ll leave it there – it’s high time I properly moved on to 2024!

 
Kristy Woodson Harvey – The Wedding Veil

Book Cover of Kristy Woodson Harvey's The Wedding Veil

Kristy Woodson Harvey wanted to write about a wedding veil. Her agent suggested a historical wedding veil, and when Woodson Harvey started thinking about the Vanderbilts (because she loved visiting Biltmore House, the family’s home in Asheville, North Carolina), on a whim she Googled one of the women of the family to see if there might be a veil included somewhere. There was.

In the present day, Julia is about to marry Hayes, her long-term on-again-off-again boyfriend. During her bridemaid’s lunch at Biltmore House the day before, there’s a sudden load of pings; all the women’s phones go off with notifications. Someone has filmed Hayes cheating and sent it to everyone at the lunch. Julia is devastated but she’s been with Hayes so long and they always make up and get back together, so she says she’ll still marry him. The next day she puts on the family wedding veil; it brings good luck. And she will marry Hayes… well, she means to but then to heck with it, she does a runner and by the end of it all she finds herself on her honeymoon by herself thinking about all the things she gave up and being drawn to a man she meets early into the holiday. At the same time, narrative-wise, in the 1800s, Edith Dresser is about to marry into the Vanderbilt family; she wears her family’s wedding veil (yes, there is no sense in hiding it – there is a connection) and finds herself in a happy marriage that later produces Cornelia, the next in line to inherit the family’s wealth.

The Wedding Veil is Woodson Harvey’s wonderful stand-alone novel of the lasting power of female friendship and familial love, romantic love and being who you should be… and the mystery behind where Julia’s family’s wedding veil came from. Told via four narratives (Julia’s grandmother Babs and Cornelia Vanderbilt round us off) the book offers a wholesome, winsome, story that is pretty much guaranteed to delight.

Woodson Harvey is great at character development and her way of writing is absolutely lovely; from the first page you’re very much invited to join the story. The author has a particular talent for writing characters which means that even if there’s one you don’t like (you’re not going to like Hayes, for example, and for a few pages you may not even like Julia) you’re totally invested in the tale. And in the case of Woodson Harvey, writing definitely needs to be placed in the same paragraph in a review as her character development because they are part and parcel of each other; in the author’s Southern States setting and general ambiance, you get a complete sense of calm, of escape, of knowing you’re about to be whisked away into a well-told story.

That is, I think, the exact defining element of this author’s work – her ability to give you that promise, through her writing, of having chosen the right book and take you on a great journey; maybe you know where it’ll end up, maybe you won’t (Woodson Harvey definitely knows how to get the balance right between mystery and predictability), but you are guaranteed a satisfying story no matter what.

So you’ve got four fab narratives here – 1800s’ Edith Vanderbilt, whose husband George built the Biltmore House in Asheville, Cornelia (their daughter) born in 1900, and then Julia and Babs from the present day. Edith’s narrative allows you to see the Vanderbilt family in their prime, and then Cornelia’s shows the slow decline, her narrative straddling the fence of before the Great Depression and the aftermath. There is also, of course, the look at both women in their own rights as well as their relationship with each other and the way they both ‘deal’ with romance. Julia’s narrative offers a sad but busy beginning and a happier forward journey, showing how one can get swamped and lose themselves in a bad relationship and the change that can come from a better one, whereas Babs shows two good relationships – one in absentia, so to speak (Reid is dead) – and, perhaps most importantly, that love can happen at any age. Writing older women, giving them a voice and putting them front and centre of the narrative is another thing that Woodson Harvey does well.

Of the Vanderbilts’ lives, then, you see the opulence and the glamour but also – perhaps in part due to Woodson Harvey’s knowledge of Biltmore – the real life, down-to-earth stuff, too. You get the Gilded Age and the way the family looked after all the employees and tenants of the estate, and the perspective, narration-wise, that Woodson Harvey uses, allows for a particular readerly intimacy with it all.

But Julia and Babs would say they are just as important. They might not have the same glamour but they do have their modern day relatability and two lovely romances. Both also have their character progression and their relationship with each other which, I think this can be said without spoiling the book, is what we end the story on.

There’s a lot to love about this book – Julia spends a while (page-wise) in the Virgin Islands, sun, sea, sand, Babs’ retirement village is very well described and fun, and the Vanderbilts bring some fascinating history into the mix. The romantic leads are winsome, whilst being very much secondary characters and rightly so.

In short, if you haven’t already figured it out by what I assume is my very obvious attempt and failure to explain exactly what I like about this book, it’s the atmosphere and the sum of the writing and the specific vibes that make this book what it is – things that are difficult to describe.

The Wedding Veil just… rocks. It’s poignant, it will occasionally make you want to tell a character to stop thinking what they’re thinking (okay, not ‘a’ character, mostly Julia when she’s thinking that maybe her cheating fiancé isn’t so bad), and it simply provides a glorious reading experience. The ambiance ensures that while, over time, you might forget the little things, you certainly won’t forget the feeling of reading this book and you will certainly miss it once it’s over.

Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 395
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-18071-3
First Published: 29th March 2022
Date Reviewed: 4th December 2023

 
November 2023 Reading Round Up

Very happy with my reading this month. Those finished were frankly riveting.

All fiction books.

Book cover of Jennifer Saint's Atalanta Book cover of Lucy Barker's The Other Side Of Mrs Wood Book cover of Sarah Marsh's A Sign Of Her Own

Jennifer Saint: Atalanta – Saved as a baby by a mother bear and later taken in by the goddess Artemis, lives in Artemis’ forest with nymphs. She’s sworn to Artemis a life away from men and is quite happy with this but there will come a day when, as the best archer and runner in the land, Artemis will want her to join the Argonauts, the famed band of heroes sent to gain the Golden Fleece. This is a stunning retelling and detailing of the ancient myth, Saint’s careful choosing of what to take from the various original stories excellent.

Lucy Barker: The Other Side Of Mrs Wood – Victorian medium, Mrs Wood, looks to keep her reputation intact as others fail and looks to stay popular whilst she ages away from being, essentially, new and shiny. When she finds a young woman watching her house, she catches her and the result is that Mrs Wood has a new trainee – great for keeping society’s focus on Mrs Wood herself. But perhaps all is not quite as it seems with Miss Finch – beyond the literal tricks of the trade, of course – and Eliza the maid might have good reason for her distaste. Incredibly witty, well plotted and set, this is a wonderfully immersive and enjoyable book.

Sarah Marsh: A Sign Of Her Own – Ellen’s wanted to help her old teacher, Alexander Bell, as he looks to publicise his telephone, but her childhood of learning to lip-read and speak (the way hearing people wanted deaf children to communicate) was at odds with the deaf community who signed and she was caught between two worlds. Now she starts learning information she never knew and it will impact her choice as to whether to support Bell or not. A very good tale of finding oneself and growing in confidence that gives a lot of information about deaf and Deaf history.

I can’t choose a favourite, each were great in their own way. Saint brought me into an epic story which was incredibly comforting and wonderful despite me having read up on the myth prior; Barker made me grin many times and had me immersed in Victorian London completely; Marsh taught me history I did not know and did a good job of mixing social issues with an interesting story.

Going into December I’m picking up The Wedding Veil again as I’m loving it. I’m also going to make an effort to finish These Violent Delights, and I’ll hopefully be adding a completely new book to the mix, I just have to choose which!

What did you read this month?

 
Elizabeth Fremantle – Disobedient

Book Cover of Elizabeth Fremantle's Disobedient

Elizabeth Fremantle had wanted to write about Artemisia Gentileschi for a while but had kept the idea on her back burner – she was a writer of historical fiction set in Britain. But Gentileschi’s work is starting to have a renaissance of interest and so it was time for Fremantle to put pen to paper in the artist’s favour.

Artemisia is growing up to be quite the talent. Working on sections of her father’s work, she has honed her craft and is starting to excel past his own skill. It’s not gone unnoticed; though Orazio tries to hide the images she creates based on Biblical scenes from which she’s focused on the perspective of women, Artemisia is starting to wow art aficionados. But the family is poor; they have to move to a cheaper home and Orazio really needs a good commission. Unmarried, Artemisia must stay at home and do as her father says, and some male artists are not as nice as they seem. But Artemisia is a survivor.

Disobedient is Fremantle’s latest well-told story, this one about a formative year in Artemisia Gentileschi’s life. Writing again under her full name, as opposed to E C Fremantle, the author has returned to her more ‘straight forward’ historical fiction after a couple of historical thrillers, but the progress in writing skill carries over.

I’m starting a new paragraph here because this skill – essentially what sets Fremantle apart from other writers, her unique selling point, if you will – is the way she hones in on a, or some, specific element(s) to the successful eradication of all else. But what makes this so successful is that nothing is lost in this process – whilst the content hones in on one element, in this case a particular part of this one year of Artemisia’s life, the world building is not forgotten, the development of other characters is not forgotten, and so on. It’s really quite something. The world building, for example, could be said to exist between the lines and in particular words and phrases – it’s just there, in the atmosphere, providing a backdrop without any real focus on description.

In terms of Fremantle’s work in general, suffice to say I think this is the biggest takeaway, what makes the author special, and in terms of Disobedient it’s one of the defining aspects that informs everything else.

To Artemisia then, our main character, from whom we hear via Fremantle’s close-by third person perspective. The artist is brought fully to life, the moments that are factual honoured with a lot of love and care, the fiction created with an eye to relative accuracy and further understanding. There are parallels to be found in the Biblical tale of Judith, a figure Artemisia paints early on in the novel; she painted Judith a couple of times over all.

In Judith, and also, later, Susanna, as well as other women from the Bible, Fremantle has highlighted stories of sexual assault in a way that both includes them in the narrative and isolates them as tales in their own right. Involving her own fictional writings about these women, the author creates extra information from an effective other source before or whilst she weaves them into Artemisia’s story. And on this note, we see how Artemisia was regarded as an artist at that time – with respect; she travelled, her paintings more famous, perhaps then, than they currently are (as said, that is changing).

Disobedient is a stunning story of one woman’s fight to be known in her own right and the way she worked to be a survivor. The story ends before she is an adult but Fremantle shows us the way the story would continue – you’ll want to read more about Artemisia once you’ve finished the book if you didn’t know about her life previously. And her paintings are as wonderful as Fremantle describes.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 349
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-58304-3
First Published: 6th July 2023
Date Reviewed: 27th November 2023

 

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