Saturday, January 30, 2016

Longbourn Does Not Disappoint

Bibliophiles, I just saw the trailer for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and it got me thinking about Jane Austen's work and the cottage industry that has erupted around it.

In that spirit, here is one of my favorite Austen offshoots, Longbourn by Jo Baker.

By Jo Baker
Vintage Books, 2013
332 pages

Jane Austen’s world is filled with carriages, ball gowns, manor homes, and elaborate dinner parties. Part of the fun for me has been dreaming of these glorious occasions, of someone lacing me into my gown or cooking every meal.

But who cleaned Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy dress after she trudged to Netherfield Park?

Jo Baker provides a possible answer in her excellent novel, Longbourn. Although described as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, it really is so much more.

For all my years of reading Austen, I never once thought about the Herculean task of laundry day at the Bennet home, where the book opens, or the monumental effort it took cooks of the period to serve three meals a day plus tea from scratch.

This is not a piece of Jane Austen fan fiction. Yes, the Bennet family, plus Darcy, Bingley, and the lot appear, but it is through the servants’ eyes that we see them. Baker researched the duties and lives of Regency workers and describes in detail how they kept the households running.

Sarah, the protagonist, is compelling and her perspectives and ruminations enlightening. We also see Mrs. Hill and her staff, comprised of her husband, James, the footman, and Polly, the youngest maid. The novel does a solid job of illustrating class differences. The Bennet girls and their mother diddle around with needlework, music, and flower arranging, while Sarah and Polly boil petticoats and polish boots, empty chamber pots and feed the pigs.

The characters come alive through a strong narrative. It’s not necessary to have read Pride and Prejudice to enjoy Longbourn; it stands on its own quite well. If you fancy yourself a Janeite, however, I think you’d truly enjoy this piece for a fresh perspective on a most beloved literary world.

Friday, October 30, 2015

All Hallow's Eve with the Bibliophiles

In my second book, Until My Soul Gets It Right, members of the bibliophiles book club take a field trip to All Hallow's Eve at Naper Settlement, an outdoor living history museum. I thought it might be fun to share their experience here. Happy Halloween!

Excerpt from Until My Soul Gets It Right 

Copyright © 2012 by Karen Wojcik Berner

Maple trees blazed brilliant reds and oranges, while elms burst golden yellows. Leaves of all sizes rode through the sky on gentle breezes, while the sun presided over this glorious sixty-three-degree day. Pumpkins rested on doorsteps and house stairs, waiting to be carved. Ghouls hung from trees. Graveyards sprouted up on front lawns. Catherine had forgotten how much she enjoyed Halloween in the Midwest. The purples, rusts, and golds of the mums. The front bushes covered in fake spider webs. There was mischief in the air. “Sure you don’t want to come?” she asked Will while fluffing her hair.
“No, you go ahead. I’m exhausted.” Golfing eighteen holes, plus cutting and edging the lawn was plenty for one Saturday. “Besides, Michigan is playing Nebraska tonight.”
Never a big football fan, Catherine was grateful to be spared. “Dave and John from As You Like It are going to be doing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Should be great.”
Edwina Hipplewhite had decided on another bibliophile field trip. This time, it was All Hallow’s Eve at Naper Settlement, a nineteenth-century scare fest the highlight of which would be the Headless Horseman’s ride through the grounds.
Catherine bent over and kissed a spent, lounging-on-the-sofa Will.
“Have a great time, honey.” Will waved her off, grateful for some time alone. Work had been crazy lately. Not wanting to be accused of giving his son any special privileges, Benjamin was pushing Will twice as hard as any other employee.
He turned on the television and took a sip of his beer.


Usually, Naper Settlement was a tranquil place, an outdoor living history museum, featuring some thirty buildings, each with costumed villagers telling nineteenth-century tales of how the area had grown from a frontier outpost to a bustling, turn-of-the century community. But tonight, all was different.
The settlement was cloaked in the darkness of night, lit only by kerosene lamps and the orange glow of campfires. They were to meet at the firehouse entrance at seven o’clock. Miss Hipplewhite flounced in, encircled by a large red cape. “Glad to see you, my darlings. Is everyone dressed warmly enough? There is a bit of chill in the air tonight.” Looking directly at Spring, she continued, “especially you, my sweet little waif of a thing. Would you like to borrow my gloves?”
“Got ’em.” Spring tapped her right side. “In my pocket.” She made sure to wear her thickest jeans and winter coat this evening, knowing the temperatures would dip into the forties by the end of the night. Although born in the Chicago area, Spring still was not accustomed to the coolness of fall nor winter’s vile clutches. Come to think of it, she was cold during every season.
“All right then, let us commence with a quick tour of the torture dungeon in the Blacksmith’s Shop, then it is off to Dracula’s Lair.”
The bibliophiles walked past the ghost pirate ship. “Look! There is a séance in the chapel,” said Sarah.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Larry worked his way in between Sarah and Annie.
“Anyone want to get their fortune told?” Rosemary pointed to three white tents.
“What a pile of crap! They’ll always say something like ‘You are in love with someone, but she doesn’t know it.’ What bullshit!”
“Scared, Larry?” Rosemary chided.
“Hello no.”
“Then, let’s do it.”
Edwina clapped her hands. “What fun this will be! Maybe she will predict what next month’s book will be. Come on, there is no line.”
Rosemary, Larry, and Edwina all entered the tents.
“Are you going to do this?” Annie asked Sarah.
“Why bother? I already know my future. Laundry, car pools, and nagging about homework.”
Larry emerged from the tent. “See, I told you. I’m in love with someone, and she doesn’t know it. I should be a fortune teller.”
“Is it true?” asked Thaddeus.
“Please,” Larry grumbled. “I’ll go get in line for the Dracula thing while the rest of you suckers finish up here.”
“Go ahead, Spring. You’re next.”
“No, thank you, Thaddeus. This stuff messes with my aura and personal vibe. I don’t want to know my future.”
“I’ll go,” Annie Jacobs piped up. “I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“I’ll wait for you out here,” Sarah called after her.
Rosemary came out of her tent, a small smirk decorating her mouth.
“What did she say?”
“Nothing I don’t already know, Sarah. Where are the rest?”
“Off to join Larry in line for Dracula’s Lair.”
Edwina Hipplewhite had not come out yet. Sarah wondered what that meant.
Inside one of the tents, Annie sat across from a woman dressed like the stereotypical gypsy everyone has seen in movies, complete with scarves and gold bangles. The woman moved the crystal ball aside. “Give me your hand. You have a powerful aura.” The pretend-gypsy studied Annie’s hand for several minutes.
“Okay, really, I need to get back to my friends. Can you speed this up a bit?”
“I see you with a little girl. A little girl with Winnie-the-Pooh sneakers and pigtails.”
“You can’t possibly,” she said, trying to free her hand.
The woman held Annie’s hand tightly. “No wait. This is very strong. You are playing at the park. Pushing her on a swing.”
“Okay, I’m done!” Annie pulled her hand away and ran out of the tent, trying to compose herself before Sarah walked over.
“Are you okay? You look a bit…”
“I’m fine. Same old crap about love and prosperous future. What a crock!”
Sarah and Annie walked to join the others, reaching them right before it was their time to enter the Lair. Edwina was right behind them.
How could some fake fortune teller have known about that dream? Annie had not had it for a while, probably since that time she had fallen asleep on the train last year. It was too weird. She shivered and pulled her coat up around her.


In line awaiting “Edgar Allan Poe,” Spring felt heavy breathing on her neck. She turned around right into the face of a demon in a black shroud, torrents of blood oozing from his mouth. She let out a high-pitched, eardrum-splitting scream. The demon went away satisfied, as the crowd around her laughed.
Thaddeus put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, Spring. He was quite hideous.”
Spring was not the only one. Throughout the night, screams broke out all around the settlement as a werewolf roamed the park, a ghostly bride wandered aimlessly in search of a husband, and zombies meandered through the lines, searching for brains.
The bibliophiles were shepherded into the dark schoolhouse. A man entered, agitated. “Silence! True!—Nervous—Very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed them—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?”
Edwina smiled, whispering “‘The Tell Tale Heart,’ right, darlings?”
After the gentleman’s wonderful performance, she gathered the book club members near the Civil War surgeon’s area within the log walls of Fort Payne. “Okay, my dears, may I just say how much I love this? The best part is they are staying true to the nineteenth-century feel and the real stories these books told.”
All of a sudden, horse hooves clapped over the loudspeakers, first mildly, then becoming more deafening with each clomp.
“Move away! Move away! The horseman comes!” Dutch settlers yelled, clearing a path. The black horse grunted, blowing smoke from its nostrils. It reared up on its hind legs, then shot through the settlement. The horseman threw a lit jack o’lantern across the grassy knoll, then sped off to the cheers of the crowd.
“Oh, my soul, that was frightening.” Edwina fanned herself with her scarf. “Wonderful, really.”
“That was frickin’ awesome!”
“Language, Larry dear. This is the nineteenth century, and one does not speak that way around ladies.”
“Yes, ma’am. My apologies.”
By now, the bibliophiles were used to Edwina admonishing them like children and accepted it as part of her charm. “Let us head over to the Naper-Haight House. I think you will find what lies inside quite interesting.”
A man dressed in black with a white wig stuck his head out the side door. “Come, come now. We have much business which to attend.”
Three Puritan teenaged girls sat, wringing their hands, moaning. “It hurts. It hurts. They did this to us!” Their fingers pointed in the direction of a housewife and her slave. This was their trial.
“Innocent or guilty? You be the judge, but let me remind you, your very soul depends upon the answer.” The reverend paced before the audience.
Sarah, Annie, and Rosemary yelled “Innocent!” when asked whether the women should be burned at the stake. But many shouts of “Guilty!” were heard from the other side of the room, and that was all the reverend needed for his verdict.
One of the hysterical teenagers confronted Rosemary. “You are marked with the sign of the devil. I can see it on you. Burn her! Burn her!”
The housewife screamed “Save yourself! Get out now before it is too late!”
The audience was herded out before the reverend could take action on Rosemary.
“My God, Larry. I have never seen you laugh so hard in…well, ever,” said Sarah.
Larry wiped away the tears streaming down his face. “Oh, that was rich.” He turned to Rosemary. “A witch? Ha! That does not surprise me at all.”
“Very funny. You’d better watch it, or I’ll cast a spell on you. Oh wait, you already look like a toad.”
“Darlings, over here.” Edwina gathered the group next to a building where it was more quiet. “That, my dears, was the most frightening of all this evening because it really happened. Which puts me in the mood for next month’s selection, The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Won’t that be fun? Well, it might put a bit of a damper on your Thanksgivings, come to think of it, once you read about those awful Puritans, but, oh well, you shall rise above it, I am sure. Besides, I guess it will give you something to be grateful for, that you are not Puritans and that alone will allow for a happy Thanksgiving, won’t it? Well, okay then. I will see you on the first Tuesday in December, after you have read The Crucible. Ta-ta, dear ones.”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Off to a Great Start

It's October! Time for what I call "The Trifecta of Fun," which includes my birthday, our anniversary, and, of course, Halloween. Is there any doubt October is my favorite month?

As I flipped my calendar to the month of awesomeness, I was greeted by a notice of a new Amazon review for A Groovy Kind of Love.

4.0 out of 5 stars   Thaddeus Mumblegarden!

Rich character development and a great story that I thoroughly enjoyed. The name Thaddeus Mumblegarden sticks in my head! Great laugh out loud moments as well as sweet romance. A Lifetime movie for sure!

Thanks, Denise.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Happy Autumnal Equinox

To celebrate my favorite season, A Groovy Kind of Love e-books are on sale for 99¢ today, 9/23.

Click on the links below to grab your copy.

Remember, if you don't have a Kindle or Nook, you can read Groovy on your phone, iPad, or computer.

Each of the Bibliophile books are stand-alone novels, so feel free to jump right in with A Groovy Kind of Love.

"A Groovy Kind of Love was JUST what I needed…hippies, unrequited love, crazy/high families,  mysterious exes from the past, foreign travel, tragedy. Really, what more could a reader ask for? This book is The Odd Couple meets Beauty and the Beast with a touch of Nicholas Sparks tragedy thrown in for good measure."                  
                                                                       — The Republican Herald book blog 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Catnip for Classic Lit Lovers

Mrs. Poe
By Lynn Cullen
Gallery Books, 2014
314 pages
Five stars

The triumphant success of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” compels fledgling poet Frances Osgood to meet her literary idol, a mysterious, complicated man who soon has her under his seductive spell in an all-consuming affair. And when Edgar’s frail young wife breaks into their idyll to befriend her rival, Frances fears that deceiving Mrs. Poe may be as impossible as cheating death itself. . . .

In her novel, Mrs. Poe, author Lynn Cullen describes Edgar Allan Poe as “catnip” to female members of the New York literati circa 1845. I’m happy to say her historical fiction novel had the same effect on me.

Long have I been a fan of Poe and his macabre tales and reading Cullen’s book sent me straight to my copy of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, not to revisit “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but instead in search of his love poems to Frances Sargent Osgood. Their flirtations on paper and in public caused quite a scandal back in the day. And they intrigued Cullen enough to write Mrs. Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe’s writing career was very up and down, a sad fact that unfortunately can be said about his life as well. Tragedy seemed to haunt Poe at every stage. Born to actor parents in Boston, MA, he was abandoned by his father and orphaned at age two when his mother died. John and Frances Allan took him in as a foster child but never formally adopted him. Poe stayed with the Allans until attending the University of Virginia. A notoriously cheap man, John Allan sent Poe to university with only enough money to pay for tuition, nothing for living expenses. Poe gambled what meager pittance he could scrape up in hopes of doubling his money, but instead lost it all and eventually dropped out of college.

Poe and John Allan had a difficult relationship, but they reconciled briefly when Allan purchased him a commission at West Point, which was, of course, a terrible fit for young Edgar, who had been writing since his pre-teen years.

Lost and destitute, Poe got himself court martialed so he could leave West Point and went back to Richmond, Virginia, to live with his mother’s relatives, where he was robbed by one cousin before being taken in by his mother’s sister, Mary Clemm, who had a daughter, Virginia. Finally with comfortable shelter, Poe began writing and sold various pieces here and there. He married his cousin Virginia when she was 13. He was 26. Maybe it was a marriage borne out of loneliness? Or perhaps Poe wanted to provide for his aunt and cousin? Many Poe scholars believe he very much cared for his young wife, but it has been speculated the marriage was never consummated.

Professionally, Poe made a name for himself as a literary critic, and a harsh one at that. Known as “The Tomahawk Man,” his words and struck down many of his contemporaries, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was only Frances Sargent Osgood whom he praised.

Frances Osgood
Edgar Allan Poe

And that’s where Cullen’s story begins.

Frances’ husband, the painter Samuel Stillman Osgood, had abandoned his wife and two girls in pursuit of a wealthy socialite who had once sat for a portrait, very typical behavior for Samuel, so it seemed. Frances and her daughters were taken in by the publisher John Russell Bartlett and his wife, Eliza, after being kicked out of the luxurious Astor House hotel unable to pay the large bill Samuel ran up before he left. Already a fairly established writer, Frances sets out to further build her career at a time when no woman but Margaret Fuller had yet to support herself with her writing, save perhaps, Louisa May Alcott who shows up later in the book.

At the same time, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has just been published, and he is the literary toast of the town. Everyone is clamoring to meet the original mind behind the stories, particularly Frances who has been told by her editor to write something more like Poe, something to scare women readers.

They meet at one of the many “conversaziones” held at the home of Anne Lynch, monthly literary salons whose attendees included many of the New York literary circle, including Margaret Fuller and Poe nemesis Rufus Griswold.

I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling the book for you. Suffice to say, it is a tale worthy of Poe himself. Cullen recreated New York in the mid-1800s with great attention to detail. I looked forward to every one of Lynch’s conversaziones, eager to see who would show up next. Herman Melville? Samuel Morse? Walt Whitman? James Audubon? Matthew Brady? This was a well-written, thoroughly researched piece, my friends. And the love triangle was thrilling!

Fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, Mrs. Poe was definitely a bibliophile’s delight.

Next Up:

Reading Mrs. Poe sent me in search of the real events in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood. I’ll discuss the formidable Mr. Poe.

Monday, September 14, 2015

From 'Meh' to Wonderful

One unfortunate side of writing for me is not being able to read a lot. I can’t be completely involved in someone else’s story while creating my own. However, since I wasn’t writing this summer, I had the chance to read some great books and one okay one. I’m still slogging through that damned nonfiction piece about Louisa May Alcott and her mother, but I have a hard time reading some nonfiction for fun. Of course I want to learn things, but they can be such a drudgery sometimes. Maybe that’s why I prefer historical fiction.

I’ll start with the “meh” and work up to the wonderful.

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett had everything I thought I would love — old tomes, a sweet love story, and intrigue — yet somehow I found myself skipping sections wanting to just get on with it already. A portrait that eerily resembles antique bookseller Peter Byerly’s recently deceased wife sends him on a quest in which he stumbles upon quite possibly the Holy Grail of books, unequivocal evidence that William Shakespeare did indeed write all of his plays. Unfortunately, even for a bibliophile such as myself, this novel contained too much drawn-out description of book repair and jumped from present to past so much it disturbed the narrative flow. The story itself seemed to fit too easily, to come out too tidy for my tastes.

Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle transported me back to 1930s England courtesy of its charming seventeen-year-old narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, to watch her family deal with genteel poverty in an old castle where she and her sister live in the shadow of their once-famous author father and his second wife, the free-spirited Topaz. When two brothers inherit the estate next door, the story starts resembling a Jane Austen novel (in a good way). Truly a delight, this coming-of-age story was the perfect vacation read.

Then there was The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, a tale of two sisters coming to terms with their mother’s apparent suicide. If the author’s name seems familiar to my writer friends, Therese is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed. Beautiful writing and expert character development drove The Moon Sisters, elevating it from a good novel to a great one. This is magical realism at its finest as the sisters embark on a journey to lay their mother’s spirit to rest.

Next week:
A full review of my favorite book I read this summer. Hint: It involves Edgar Allan Poe, but he didn’t write it.

How about you? What books have you read lately and what did you think of them?