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Jo Baker

Jayne’s Best of 2013

Jayne’s Best of 2013

The last few years I’ve done these year end lists, I’ve come up short of 10. I’ve realized either I’m not reading the right books for me, I’m too picky a reader or I’m totally out of touch with what’s popular right now. So when my list kept growing all year long, I began to think – “OMG, I just might make the max this year!”

Well, not only did I make the max, I exceeded it – whoopee! In ecstatic acknowledgement of that I’ve decided to go over the limit of 10. Yes, yes I will. In order by grade and not much else –

Back-Across-the-StyxBack Across the River Styx by Karalynn Lee – This one is so good I read it twice just to be sure that I wasn’t hallucinating about how good it is. When I finished it the second time, I was still as enchanted with it. Since I have more books on hand – print and ebooks – than I will probably ever be able to finish, the fact that I spent time rereading says a lot to me. Greek mythology is perfectly blended with romance. The story arc is complete and satisfactory. The use of historical fact is imaginative and ingenious. I’m running out of adjectives for how good this novella is.

story-guyThe Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers – This one came in for its fair share of criticism but it drew me in from the start and didn’t let go. It’s beautifully written, emotionally engaging and about people who seemed real to me rather than hangers on which to drape an improbable plot. It made me smile as well as cry. It’s also made 2 other DA reviewers’ end of the year lists. ‘Nuff said.

Starting-From-ScratchStarting from Scratch by Stacy Gail – I usually hate amnesia plots, am tired of small town stories and kitsch so for this one to be one of my favorites for 2013 amazed me. Yes, it’s a little heavy on explanations of military life but these go to show what came between the hero and heroine and how much they have to overcome for their HEA. This also backs up the angst, giving it depth instead of leaving it to feel like a shallow check off list of faux emotions to me. I also enjoyed the relationship between the heroine and her best friend from childhood. I’ll be looking for his story.

geek-with-cat-tattooGeek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir – A cat as a narrator? Absolutely and it’s not a shifter story either. The second in this series of three cat siblings finding their forever owner or helping their forever owner find a HEA I loved this one even more than the first from last year. The hero’s shyness and the heroine’s self doubts are perfectly captured. Sam the cat is a wonderful matchmaker and if this one doesn’t make you want to donate to an animal shelter, you have a heart of stone.

Love IrresistiblyLove Irresistibly by Julie James – This is a wonderful relationship story between two well drawn, believable characters who have full lives, friends, believable backstories and can speak lawyer to each other. The conflicts are centered on them rather than an external villain and I felt that I got a multilayered view of them as people and why I should care about them and about them falling in love.

bridgeThe Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher – I think this is probably the most unusual blurb for a book to be offered to Dear Author this year. Two people determined to end it all who try and give the other a reason to live is not a storyline I come across every day. Could this possibly be anything other than a downer to read? Indeed yes, it could be. It’s also an illuminating trip through what two people think makes the best of New York City. The story doesn’t pull punches and never sinks to “feel good” attempts to diminish the real pain the characters have endured and still feel. The ending is hopeful and HFN but I appreciate the fact that it’s real and honest.

sweet-and-sourSweet and Sour by Astrid Amara – I read a lot of holiday themed novellas this year as well as more lgbt stories and this one is good enough to make the “best of” cut. It’s as much the ending of an old relationship as the beginning of a new one which takes a bit of finesse, IMO. It’s also a Hanukkah story and while I can understand that this isn’t considered a major Jewish holiday, it’s still nice to get a holiday story other than one about Christmas.

the-tilted-worldThe Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fenelly – Can an artiste of illegal whiskey and a revenue agent determined to uncover her identity and shut her down find their chance at love in rural Mississippi in 1927? Read this book and you will believe in their slow, gentle romance even as the raging, flooded Mississippi River threatens the town with total destruction. It’s not only a love story but a trip back in time I enjoyed making.

Rhythm-and-BluegrassRhythm and Bluegrass by Molly Harper – This is the second book in the series and I enjoyed it just as much as the first. It’s funny and yet a view of the struggle that many small and not-so-small US towns are faced with in an effort to modernize and survive in today’s global economy. I liked that the conflicts are real, the people are adult about how they deal with them and the hero and heroine have time to let their attraction sizzle a bit before jumping into bed. Nothing felt phony or made up – despite the town name.

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker – What, me read a book set in the world of Jane Austen? At the beginning of the year I would have laughed to think I would but here it is in my top reads of the year. The view of life from below stairs at Longbourn is what drew me in but the descriptions and depictions of the servants as they go about their lives while the major events of “Pride and Prejudice” go on above stairs is what kept me reading. The story, though, isn’t all about how the servants view the Bennett sisters finding love. Instead there is a romance for one of their own that seemed realistic to me. I not only want to believe in their HEA, I do believe it.

Knowing-the-ScoreKnowing the Score by Kat Latham – This one tackled me like a rugby player – in a good way. And by the time I finished it I knew a lot more about the sport than I had. It’s funny, has great dialog and uses UK/US slang brilliantly. The hero should be bottled and sold by the gross. He wins his heroine by being nice to her as well as admiring her work ethic instead of being a prick. The heroine’s virginity might put off readers but it’s made to seem reasonable for her given her past. By the end of the story, I felt that both of them had totally opened themselves to the other and were all set for their HEA.

passion-purple-plumeriaThe Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig – I rejoiced to see this book about an older heroine and older hero finding their HEA. I love that the heroine is shown as competent and intelligent. Also that her hero sees and admires this in her. The modern day parts of the story worked just as well for me which hasn’t always been the case in this series. It’s still going strong and I’m still anticipating the next one, which says volumes.

Carolina-GirlCarolina Girl by Virginia Kantra – Books about small town life often put me off by making the small town into a paean of wonderful. That’s not the case here as both the heroine and hero return to the small Carolina coastal town they couldn’t wait to leave. It’s also has a great family relationship arc that is being carried through the whole series. Though I think readers could start with this one if they wish. Both the hero and heroine mature, make concessions and help each other each with their individual goals as well as their relationship one.

Her-Hesitant-Heart1Her Hesitant Heart by Carla Kelly – I love me a Carla Kelly historical and if it’s a western, that’s the cherry on top. This book might seem like just so much same-old, using standard Kelly tropes, with standard Kelly wry humor to tell the story of two deserving people triumphing over those who want to shame them and/or put them down for acting like honorable adults instead of asshats but, damn it, that’s what I love about her books.

Must Like Kids by Jackie BraunMust Like Kids by Jackie Braun – This isn’t the usual saccharine, baby filled Harlequin offering. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment but overabundance of secret babies and surprise pregnancies of this publisher leaves it wide open for such statements. Given the number of embarrassing tweets, live mic fuckups and other ways public people have dug themselves into holes this year, the set-up is inspired. I enjoyed watching a heroine who is good at her job and a hero willing to gracefully accept her expertise. The children of the story are realistic instead of being plot moppets. The relationship is allowed time to develop and the characterization remains consistent. Too bad about the cover.

REVIEW:  Longbourn by Jo Baker

REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Dear Ms. Baker,

Usually when I see a book that is in some way based on Jane Austen’s novels, I shy away from it. Though I’ve only read a fraction of the multitude ones that have been published, I find myself sick to death of variations on Austenlandia – the sequels, the prequels, the paranormal and, slightly less so, the contemporaries. It takes a lot to even get me past the blurb stage but “Longbourn” did it.

Longbourn by Jo BakerWhat caught my attention and made me pause, then read the book? It’s the downstairs edition for one thing. The other lure was the lone sentence from the book quoted on the back – “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.” That sounded so period but without trying to sound “Regency,” that I said, “Self, let’s give it a whirl.”

This is the Bennet household and daily affairs as seen by their servants and other working class characters. But it’s not just about the Bennets and the events that take place in “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s about the servants’ lives and a servant romance. Older maid Sarah, younger maid Polly, Mr and Mrs. Hill and footman James have their own worries and concerns and only experience the periphery of the lives of their “betters” as I would expect would have actually happened. It’s not that they don’t know most of what’s going on – they do as servants would. They just aren’t “worked into” that story in unrealistic ways.

When the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy appear and interact with the Bennets, it’s the extra workload for the assembly and ball at Netherfield that we see. When the Gardiners arrive to spend time at Longbourn before Jane returns to London with them, it’s the nasty nappies of the youngest child the servants have to deal with that is mentioned. Mr. Collins is someone Mrs. Hill caters to and attempts to prove her housewifely abilities to as he’ll someday be the master of the house and servants can be chucked out of lifetime positions if the new mistress wishes it. When Charlotte Lucas snares a proposal, Mrs. Hill is somewhat relieved because Charlotte has always appreciated the way Mrs. Hill has managed her duties as well as enjoying Mrs. Hill’s lemon tarts. A batch of them sent home with the Lucases after the announcement is the kind of thing she hopes will secure places for all of them in the future.

The hard work done by the household servants isn’t whitewashed. Wash day is a day long chore that begins at 04:30, chamber pots must be carried down and emptied every morning, call bells can interrupt any activity and the trays carried up for meals are heavy. It’s more obvious to me now why servants were given vales by visiting guests as the staggering workload increased exponentially by their presence. None of this is as glamorous as a London ball but the details worked so effortlessly into the narrative show how hard it was for these people and how much the upper classes depended on them.

Still despite all the gory details of life below stairs, I would have been bored if the only reason behind this book was to shine a spotlight on Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from a different angle. Yeah, I wanted a love story for Sarah and James and I got one. Better still, it’s one that makes sense and fits into the possibilities of the day.

Sarah isn’t one who’s dreamed of finding her someone. She has recollections of her parents, carried off by typhus, being in love and the Hills have a workable marriage built on respect but Sarah is practical and watching the Bennets doesn’t incline her to matrimony. She’s a servant with little time to moon over the farmhands, not that they interest her anyway, and a Tchaikovsky “Romeo and Juliet Overture” HEA just isn’t on her “to do” list.

James is a man with a history and secrets that he fears won’t allow him the opportunity to settle down, grow roots and woo anyone. Plus he knows that what he has is as good as he’s likely to get. A bed, regular meals, clothes and a small salary aren’t enough for him to think he’s got the right to propose to anyone. So when he realizes he loves Sarah, little about his plans actually change. A wife and possible family are expensive.

Yet love blooms anyway. The bud is slow to appear and even slower to open but I honestly felt these were two working class people of the day, discovering feelings they never expected, and daring to hope for a future in a world where they had so little but were willing to risk it for love. I enjoyed the way Sarah is initially prickly around James and how he likes her the more for it. The quiet way in which they help each other with onerous daily tasks and the simple happiness they take in doing so shows me more about how their feelings are advancing than any showy display.

Though most of the story revolves around how the servants maneuver their way through the lives of the upper class, there are major liberties taken with two of the original P&P characters. I didn’t have a problem with the story line as it could easily be seen as “period” but I’m not sure how this will go over with Austeninstas. Yet if they’re reading the book, they’re probably open to seeing some changes done.

I know I’m not alone in wanted more stories about the merchants and lower classes of the day. There are only so many Dukes I want to read about. Still the story must make historical sense to me – I just can’t believe in dairy maids marrying Viscounts – and not just rely on the relative novelty of the plot. This book does that yet it’s the execution of the story that lifts it up to recommended status for me. It never “broke character” or felt incorrect. It amused me and made me happy to see two people who truly fell in love get the ending they so richly deserve. B+

~Jayne

 

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