REVIEW: Bellfield Hall by Anna Dean

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Bellfield Hall by Anna Dean

Miss Dido Kent hesitated, her pen suspended over the page. All her education and almost thirty years’ experience of writing letters had not quite prepared her for this situation. As well as she could recall, the rules of etiquette said nothing about the correct way in which to convey the news that she now had to impart. However, her governess had once told her that the very best style of writing was that which gave information simply and clearly without any excess of sensibility.

She dipped her pen into the ink and continued.

There has been a woman found dead here – in the shrubbery – this evening.

She read what she had written, thought for a little while, then added:

It was the under-gardener who found her.

Her sister would wish to be reassured that it was not a member of the family, or one of their guests, who had made the horrible discovery.

Attention Janeites and fans of cozy mysteries: This is going to be good. Continue reading

REVIEW: Nachtsturm Castle by Emily C.A. Snyder

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Nachtsturm Castle by Emily C.A. SnyderNachstürm Castle by Emily C.A. Snyder is a fun romp through Gothic literature as seen through the eyes of a hero who is fond of teasing and gets teased back for once. Henry Tilney, the hero who “indulged himself a little too much with the foibles of others” arranges a Gothic getaway for his new bride, complete with a gipsy, crumbling castle, and dread secrets. But the joke is on him when the scenario becomes real.

Catherine Tilney had settled in for a quiet, respectable, distinctly non-Gothic English life in the countryside with her husband, the Reverend Henry Tilney. Unfortunately, a quiet, respectable, distinctly non-Gothic life had not settled itself for her. An original sequel to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Nachtstürm Castle whisks the reader and its heroine away to the border countries in the Austrian Alps, where adventure, mistaken identities, lost heirs, and terrifying butlers lurk.

Will Catherine find her way out of the castle’s dark, hidden passages? Is the beautiful lady in the graveyard a ghost? Can the evil-looking old housekeeper be trusted? Just how good is Henry’s Indiana Jones imitation? (And is it an imitation if Henry’s heroic acrobatics take place over 100 years before Professor Jones?)

Fans of Ann Radcliffe, Eliza Parsons, and the Northanger Canon will recognize the rambling rustics who know all the answers our heroes seek (if only they would ask!), the lengthy discourses on the picturesque, the overwrought action scenes, mistaken identities, and all other elements that make Gothic novels fun (or exasperating). Our able narrator leads the merry chase through all the secret passageways and dark encounters with mysterious strangers, with occasional nudges and winks of sympathy at the lengthy bits to encourage the reader to soldier on to the next plot point. But in a Gothic novel, the journey is most of the fun, and this Gothic tale has the added pleasure of being seen through not a black but sparkling veil of Tilney wit.

But neither could compare with the gargantuan natural edifice that was the mountain upon which Nachtstürm Castle rose. It was a mountain made of the darkness between two lightning bolts. It was made less of earth than Stygian frost. Whole towns fell away as they ascended, as though the ranks of black and frowning conifers waged war against the humans below. Even the path – rather narrow and rarely straight – seemed less made by centuries of pilgrim feet and more by the trace of some careless demon’s claw.

It was, in fact, perfect.

Nachstürm Castle is available for download as an e-book from Girlebooks.

December wallpaper: gems from the mountain, and pearls from the ocean

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December, the final wallpaper in the series, is now available for download from Solitary Elegance. We conclude our tour through 1809 with the Tyrolese walking dress (on the right). Her companion, an evening dress from 1812, is seated on the left. The background is designed from pieces of an elaborate 1811 set of pearl jewelry for full dress. An 1816 embroidery pattern decorates the holiday message from Pride and Prejudice.

The wallpapers aren’t specifically dated to 2009, so I hope you will continue to use and enjoy them.  Many thanks for all the kind comments and support throughout the year!

Bonus points if anybody recognizes the Christmas carol in the post title.

November wallpaper: Baby got back(ground)

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The November wallpaper is available from Solitary Elegance! Taking advantage of the few fine autumn days left to us in the Northern Hemisphere, this month’s ladies have donned walking dresses (from 1814 and 1809) and are enjoying the outdoors, courtesy of an 1816 Ackermann’s Repository architecture print. This month the Arbiter Elegantarium encourages ladies “to call forth and improve these latent graces” which make all figures and sizes uniquely lovely, a sentiment which would be heartily endorsed nearly two hundred years later by the urban bard Sir Mix-A-Lot.

REVIEW: Emma at Book-It Repertory Theatre, Seattle

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FCC Disclaimer: Your AustenBlog Reviewer bought her own tickets, but there was a premiere party after the show with a buffet, so she must confess to eating one of their brownies.

Book-It Repertory Theatre has hit another one out of the ballpark with this season’s adaptation of Emma.  Lovely costumes, period-appropriate dancing and music, creative use of the theater-in-the-round space, and an energetic pace with plenty of humor make Emma a worthy follow-up to last season’s equally excellent Persuasion.

As with Persuasion, Emma‘s script is a blend of narration (the characters sometimes speak of themselves in the third person) and dialogue, which allows nearly all of Jane Austen’s clever, sparkling gems to be on display.  Your favorite passages from Emma will most likely make an appearance; listen for them and enjoy.

The cast is a delight.  Emma, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill all have lovely singing voices, so their duets are a special treat.  (If you’ve ever wanted to hear “Robin Adair”, this is your chance.)  Ample comic relief is provided by Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. and Miss Bates, and the Eltons, but Harriet Smith is the standout in this category.  Fans of the over-the-top Harriet as seen in the 1996 Miramax film will especially get a kick out of this boisterous take on Emma’s protegee. (My husband’s ears are still ringing from the entrance she made from behind our seats, but even so, she was one of his favorite characters.)  My favorite comic scene was Mr. Elton’s proposal:  a dance in the close quarters of an imagined carriage as Mr. Elton ardently pursues the shocked and appalled Emma.  All the couples did a fine job of developing their own chemistry, showing the variety of relationships Jane Austen portrayed in the novel.

Both the leads were spot-on:  Emma was the perfect blend of adorable and annoying, and Mr. Knightley was an equally pleasing mix of snarky, stern, and swoon-worthy.  (Hopefully Team Tilney can forgive us for a brief visit to the camp of Team Knightley.)

Jane Austen introduced Emma Woodhouse as “handsome, clever, and rich” and this adaptation fits the same description.  While we wait for the BBC miniseries to be shown across the pond, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Highbury right now underneath the Space Needle.

Emma can be seen at the Book-It Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington through November 22.

October wallpaper: Emma, Emma, Emma! edition

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The October wallpaper is available for download from Solitary Elegance, and just in time for the new BBC miniseries, this month it’s all about Emma.  Alert Janeites will notice in the background a piece of music published in one of Ackermann’s sister fashion journals, La Belle Assemblée.  Miss Woodhouse (standing to the left, in a ball dress from 1809) may approve of the title and tune, but Miss Fairfax (elegantly seated on the right in an 1813 evening dress) will probably prefer “Robin Adair” for reasons best known to herself.  Whether you’re one of the lucky ones who will be watching Emma this weekend, or waiting to read all about it, October’s wallpaper will set the mood.  Enjoy!

Taking a break

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Heather L. here:  Mags has had an unexpected family situation come up which is going to take most of her time and energy for a while.  We’ll do our best to continue posting news and reviews in a timely way, but please be patient if there are delays.  Meanwhile, Mags could use your understanding and kind thoughts right now.

REVIEW: Murder at Longbourn by Tracy Kiely

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Murder at Longbourn by Tracy KielyFall is coming, and with it crackling fireplaces, hot mugs steaming with comfort, a favorite chair and good books for long reads through dark and stormy nights.  Murder at Longbourn by Tracy Kiely is the perfect companion to this scene:  a mystery that cleverly combines the best of Jane Austen and the English cozy.

Murder at Longbourn is a well-crafted murder mystery at a Cape Cod inn, where a theatrical murder mystery weekend becomes the real thing:

Planning New Year’s resolutions to rid her life of all things unhealthy, Elizabeth Parker has dumped fatty foods, processed sugar, and her two-timing boyfriend.  The invitation to join her Aunt Winnie for a “How to Host a Murder Party” on New Year’s Eve at Winnie’s new Cape Cod B&B comes just in time.  But when the local wealthy miser ends up the unscripted victim, Elizabeth must unearth old secrets and new motives in order to clear her beloved Aunt Winnie of suspicion.  And if that isn’t bad enough, she must also contend with her childhood nemesis, Peter McGowan, and her suspicions about his family’s interest in Winnie’s inn.  Given the circumstances, is it any wonder her resolution to achieve inner poise is in tatters?

The pacing is excellent, there’s a nice mix of easy and difficult clues, and the main characters are very likeable. I couldn’t put it down and look forward to more of Elizabeth’s adventures in the next book in the series, Murder on the Bride’s Side.

As a tribute to Jane Austen, there are many references and characters to discover and savor.  Fans of Pug will either be amused or shocked by his cameo.  (I laughed.)   The less familiar one is with Agatha Christie novels, the more surprising the plot twists will be but even if the twists are familiar to the seasoned Christie fan, they are deftly handled and enjoyable.

Murder at Longbourn is the perfect first course in your fall reading banquet.  This light murder mystery will stimulate your appetite for reading with the perfect blend of action, suspense, a little well-placed romance for spice, and seasoned throughout with humor.  Bon Appetit!

September wallpaper is here

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Webhost problems can’t keep us completely down:  the September wallpaper is ready for download from Solitary Elegance.

This month we’ll examine fashions for special occasions:  a mourning dress from September 1809 on the left, and the Glengarry riding habit from September 1817 on the right.  The background is derived from an Ackermann’s Repository embroidery pattern from 1816, and the quotation from Persuasion sets the autumn mood.

August wallpaper: Don't make me pull this barouche over

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The August wallpaper is available for download from Solitary Elegance. We continue to stroll through summer with two walking dresses from 1809 (on the right) and 1811 (on the left). This month we’ve brought the children out of the nursery for a look at the fashions well-to-do boys and girls may have worn in Jane Austen’s day.

The little rascal from 1811 has made off with mamma’s parasol. As this month’s tableau is rather crowded, one hopes he doesn’t wave that thing around too much, or he’s likely to poke one of the other models with it. (And as we just returned from a nearly three-week road trip through the Southwest, we have little patience with kids poking each other.) Enjoy!