Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: “Agnes Grey” by Anne Bronte

A serendipitous confluence of two events led me to read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey this January, one of two novels penned by the youngest of the Bronte siblings. First, my daughter brought a bunch of books home recently that she was finished with and she’d thought I’d enjoy. This novel was among them. Second, I have resolved to read more in this new year. Because I’m a freelance editor, working on between 40 and 50 novels a year, my recreation in off hours is more likely to be doing crossword puzzles or watching television. Anything but reading more novels! I’ve missed losing myself in a good book for pure pleasure, though, so I swiped Agnes Grey off the to-be-read pile and gave it a whirl.

517w-whu7olAt first, I thought this slim book was going to be a Jane Eyre without the romance, without a single moment to relieve the drudgery and bad fortune of its protagonist, a daughter of a clergyman, whose mother was disinherited by her upper class father when she married beneath her station, and whose sister helps the family’s income by drawing. Agnes proposes to provide financial aid by becoming a governess. The book proved to be more than that grim story.

Agnes’s first job is with a family of psychopaths. They’re not described in those terms, but the children seem to take pleasure in tormenting and killing animals, and the parents tolerate the behavior with more satisfaction than rationalization. Good news for Agnes — she doesn’t work out well there, and the family lets her go but promises not to damage her with bad recommendations.

On to the next household, the Murrays, where she spends her days trying to teach the vain and flirty Rosalie and the boyish and bad-talking Matilda. In the course of her stay, she meets Rev. Weston, a new curate at the village church, and, you guessed it, falls for him in the way Victorian governesses do. That is to say, she meets him on walks sometimes or talks to him after church in some complex coded language about the weather, religion, villagers, anything but how they seem to like each other.

Eventually, Rosalie marries a rich aristocrat, as she and her mother wished, Agnes goes back to her home to help her now-widowed mother set up a school, and Rev. Weston reenters the pages near the end of the story. For a spoiler on how things work out, look no further than the opening line of Chapter 38 of Anne’s sister Charlotte’s most famous novel.

As I desired, this book swept me away, and I enjoyed many hours lost in its tale. Here’s the rub, though: through my modern eyes, I viewed some of the characters a little differently than I suspect Anne Bronte wanted me to see them. I suspect she wanted us to identify and sympathize with poor Agnes as she tried to instill lofty and pious thoughts in her charges, as she tried to move Rosalie beyond vanity to an appreciation of the interior world. While I certainly cheered on her efforts, I have to admit that sometimes I wondered if Rosalie wasn’t so obstinate because Agnes did seem at times to demonstrate a “holier than thou” attitude. Rosalie could be thoughtless, selfish, and sometimes even cruel, but she knew what she wanted and she went after it. Unfortunately, what she really wanted was something no woman of her age was allowed to contemplate:

“I shouldn’t greatly object to being Lady Ashby of Ashby Park, if I must marry; if I could be always young, I would be always single. I should like to enjoy myself thoroughly, and coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have.”

In other words, she wanted to live as independently as a man. These are sentiments, by the way, expressed in a different way in Jane Eyre, Anne’s sister’s great novel, when Jane declares her independence, not wanting to be the mistress of Rochester, even though no one was around to scold her for such an act:

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”

Jane wants to be independent, too. Both she and Rosalie of Agnes Grey yearn for the same thing: to lead their own lives, independent of a man, only enriched by one should they so choose him.

In Agnes Grey, Rosalie’s sister, Matilda, too seems to prefer the activities of men of the era, everything from riding to hunting to cursing a blue streak just as the stable hands did. These are aspirations good Agnes Grey (or Anne Bronte?) doesn’t seem to understand or approve of.

To add to the picture of an over-scrupulous Ms. Grey, there’s her refusal to congratulate a buoyant Rosalie on her wedding day to the above-mentioned Sir Ashby. “I cannot congratulate you,” says stuffy Agnes, “till I know if this change is really for the better.”

Keep in mind that Agnes is supposed to be the good one here.

As it turns out, Rosalie does change, asking Agnes to visit her at Ashby Park, confessing to being lonely since her husband has contrived to keep her in the country rather than in London where she seems to have outshone him. She suggests in a letter to Agnes that her former governess could fill the same position for her own newly born daughter and raise her in a manner that will, essentially, correct the flaws of her frivolous parents. Self-awareness has dawned, and in a far more cheerful manner than Agnes herself is prone to exhibit. So, again, who’s the better woman?

I loved that ambiguity about Agnes Grey, even if Anne Bronte didn’t intend it. It’s fascinating to read the thoughts of a spiritual woman trying to be a good Christian (there’s a moving passage where a villager Agnes visits asks her to read the Bible passage about God being love), surrounded by girls just a few years younger than she is whose contemplations run to material things, yet who are not without redeeming qualities, as Rosalie exhibits.

In fact, one of the more fascinating passages to me in the tale relates how Rosalie conspires to flirt with Rev. Weston to a degree that she seeks him to fall in love with her. She keeps Agnes from any encounters with the clergyman during this little game, and it would seem cruel except for one question: Was Rosalie trying to force Agnes to stop being such a prissy sort and go after the man she wants…just as Rosalie does with the aristocrat she eventually snares?

I’ve written this little review before reading a single syllable of analysis of this novel by literature experts, but I heartily recommend it to fans of Jane Eyre and Victorian literature in general.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She has written a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre called Sloane Hall. It was one of only 14 books featured on a Simon & Schuster blog on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

 

 

 

 

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Christian fiction should not contain…

Excuse me while I lick my wounds. My new novel Fall from Grace just received a one-star review (on Amazon and Goodreads) from someone who was offended by its language and the two scenes in it that are sexual in nature (but not overly explicit; I draw the curtain). This reviewer remarked that “there is so much in this book that should not be in a Christian book.”

I suspect the reviewer picked up the book thinking that if it’s marketed as a Christian book, it will fall into what  publishing calls the “inspirational fiction” category. This subgenre in fiction has very, very precise guidelines for what can not be contained in the book. I know the restrictions because my day job is copy editor for a major publisher.

I’ve edited inspirational fiction, and I’ve had to refer to the guidelines to double-check if, say, it’s okay for the hero to say “for Pete’s sake” (nope) or “jeez” (nope) or can he play cards (nope) or drink (of course not). He can’t kiss the heroine below the neck, and there can be no suggestion of the heroine reacting to physical affection except, well, chastely. There can also be no use of words like “heavenly” or “angelic” except in the literal sense. Oh, and no reference to Halloween, either. I could go on. Suffice it to say it’s a very restrictive genre.

Fall_From_Grace_COVERI’m not criticizing inspirational fiction’s restrictions, though. I like the idea that one can pick up these books knowing what’s (not) in them. I’ve written two myself (Kit Austen’s Journey and Mending Ruth’s Heart).

But Fall from Grace, while a Christian-themed book, is not an inspirational. You won’t find it on the shelves of a Lifeway store, for example, which stocks inspirational fiction exclusively.

The reviewer’s claim that there is so much in the book that shouldn’t be in a Christian book got me thinking, though. I would love to see the genre of Christian fiction expand beyond the restrictions of inspirationals. I’d love to see Christian and/or spiritual themes, in fact, woven through more mainstream fiction. While most fictional characters in novels are usually highly secularized individuals, most real people do pray (at least occasionally) and wonder about God. Many even go to church.

Fall from Grace covers sin–adultery. I chose to show one of the main characters in that sin (again, closing the curtain at a certain point) to convey the depth of his fall…from grace. I wanted to show his impulses, what leads him to this act of betrayal, to, yes, have the reader cringe at his sin, to be repelled by it.

The rest of the book, of course, is about whether he can overcome that sin, whether he can climb out of the pit into which he’s fallen. To convey that struggle, I did include bad language (some even spoken by “pure” characters), moral dilemmas, kissing that isn’t sweet (although it isn’t below the neck!) and the very human challenges he and his wife face as they try to figure out: What does Christ require of us?

If that kind of story is for you, then pick up a copy of Fall from Grace. But if you’re looking for inspirational fiction, don’t. Buy my other books in that category instead! (See covers below.) 🙂

To reassure readers who might consider looking at Fall from Grace, it did receive a wonderful review from another source:

“Truly a novel for our times by an author with a genuine flair for deftly created characters and engaging storytelling from beginning to end, Fall From Grace is one of those novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf.” Midwest Book Review

Inspirationals: Where faith isn't preachy; it's just not hidden     Mending Ruth's Heart_250x400

 

 

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No April Fool’s Joke: FREE “After the War” and Extra Chapter!

It’s free, it’s free — again! I’m offering a two-day giveaway at Amazon Kindle of my 1955 family saga After the War. Mark your calendar and download it, Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1. 

And, if you’ve already downloaded and read this book, here’s an extra: I’ve penned an extra chapter for it that tells you what happens to some of the characters in the book more than ten years later! If you’d like a copy of this chapter, just email me at Libby488 (at) yahoo (dot) com, and put “extra chapter ATW” in the subject. I’ll send as a PDF!

After_the_War_Cover_for_KindleHere’s what’s new with this book: I redid the cover, and I tweaked the prose a bit, getting rid of a few phrases here and there that were either repetitious or clunky. Let me tell you, it’s a humbling experience to reread one’s work after it’s been published. Ask any author. We cringe when we crack open the spine of an ARC (advance reader copy) to proofread one last time before printing.

I’m excited to offer this book for free again because it has something in common with my new release coming out this fall, Fall from Grace (Bancroft Press, September 2017). While After the War is a historical and Fall from Grace a contemporary, they both share faith elements, where religious faith plays an integral part of the story, motivating characters to do both good and…not so good things.

So, get crackin’! Head on over to Amazon on the free dates (March 31 and April 1) and get your free Kindle editions of After the War. When you’re finished, email me for the extra chapter!

 

 

 

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Favorite novels with faith elements

The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday book review section (which is excellent, by the way) runs a regular feature called “Five Best,” five one-paragraph reviews of books that aren’t new releases, all on one theme, chosen by a writer who might have a book coming out (or just released) that touches on the theme. For example, today, February 18th’s theme is “novels of political protest.”

I always enjoy that column and have ripped it out more than once to save for later book purchases.

Because I have a novel coming out this fall that deals with religious faith (Fall from Grace, Bancroft Press — you can read more about it here), I’ve been thinking of what I’d include in a list of favorite novels with faith elements. Here are three, for a start:

The first, and most recent, one that comes to mind is Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (2004). Like all the novels on my list, I’ve read this more than once, and it never fails to move me. Set in 1956 at the end of Rev. John Ames’s life, it consists of a letter he writes to his young son to explain his family, his history, his relationship with God. The climactic moment of this novel is a quiet scene that creeps up on you as you realize that you, too, might have had moments of singular grace such as this, but hectic schedules and the duties of daily living could keep you from recognizing them. One of the most profound scenes in the book, though, occurs fairly early in the story when John relates a tale of his abolitionist preacher grandfather being confronted by his son (the narrator’s father) about his activities. “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt,” the father says, “And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing…” Keep in mind that the grandfather was on the right side of the Civil War battle, yet his son justifiably chastises him for using his pulpit to push for war.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1944) has been a go-to for john_15_12_love_one_another_poster-rac0d4c53566348458f59796e03c63b1a_au58_8byvr_512me over the years for quiet, even nostalgic introspection. You don’t have to be British to feel the bright sunny pre-war mood of the upper-class characters in this tale of an aristocratic Catholic family in Anglican England. Although I’ve reread the story many times, I still have trouble remembering plot points as the various Flyte family members marry, separate, marry again, and reconcile over the years. The climax is, as in Gilead, quiet, yet breathtaking in its impact as the estranged husband of Lady Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die and be reconciled with his faith.

J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961) immediately appealed to me on the first reading, even though its characters were as removed from my own experience of life as the author’s most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield never grabbed my attention or sympathy, though, because he, with his upper-class New York wealth and advantages, seemed like, well, a spoiled ungrateful brat. But while both Franny and Zooey come from that same kind of background, they always appeared to me to be more humble about their place in life, more thankful. And Franny’s inner torment is universal. This book, originally two short stories printed in the New Yorker, is odd in that it consists mostly of long conversations between Franny and her brother Zooey, as he tries to coax her back to living when she suffers a breakdown of sorts as she confronts how empty her life is. While faith discussions are sprinkled throughout the novel, it is Zooey’s patient explanation of who an unattractive “Fat Lady” really was in their now-deceased brother Seymour’s life that lights up the tale: “And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

Let me know your favorite novels with faith elements — I’d love to add to my list!

___

Fall from Grace by Libby Sternberg (Bancroft Press, Sept. 2017; ISBN: 9787-1-61088-205-7): When Eli Baine, son of celebrity evangelicals, is caught using a prostitution ring, he has to relearn early faith lessons to find his way back to family and true Christ-like love.

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Review: MR TIMOTHY by Louis Bayard

Over the holiday, I reread a book I’d loved the first time I encountered it: Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard. Originally published in 2003, the book is a literary thriller. If you enjoy a good mystery wrapped in history, poignance, and a great tip of the hat to a well-known piece of literature, Mr. Timothy won’t disappoint.

Bayard breaks your heart with his portrayal of Timothy Cratchit — yes, that Cratchit, Tiny Tim from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Now a young man, Timothy is adrift in life, supported by monthly payments from his “Uncle N,” Ebenezer Scrooge, whose home is now perpetually decorated for Christmas and whose generosity is so well-known that a queue of donation-seeking do-gooders fills his parlor waiting for audiences.

But Scrooge’s munificence colors Timothy’s life in a softly malignant way. Instead of finding his way to great things or even a modest occupation, Timothy suffers from the ennui of the existentially disappointed.

About a third of the way into the novel, Bayard sums up Timothy’s problem with a poignant “letter” from the protagonist to his now-dead father, Bob Cratchit. Timothy writes:

Are you ready for a story, Father?

A young boy — roses blooming in the hollows of his cheeks — is deprived by cruel Fate of the use of one limb. He is clasped in the bosom of a warm, distracted family, who dote upon him but fail to understand his intrinsic worth. For this boy, the reader soon learns, is nothing less than a changeling, a prince of nature, whose birthright was stolen from him in infancy (even as his leg was robbed of its motive force). The infamy might have stood uncorrected were it not for the intervention of a kindly family friend who detects something unusual in the boy, something no one else can see, the boy least of all…And so this kindly old gentleman resolves to restore the changeling to his proper place in the cosmic hierarchy — to raise him up, as it were, to the life for which he was originally destined…

…he sits, still dreaming, still waiting for The Event, which is his private term for the public realization of his destiny. He envisions it as a carriage, a grey brougham pausing at the curb in front of his house, openings its door.

The carriage never comes.

How can you read that and not throb with the heartache of Timothy as a boy, to whom “much was given” and thus “much expected.” He ends up disappointing himself, though, as he waits for that “carriage,” never settling on anything of value to do other than tutoring the madam of a whorehouse, teaching her to read.

164792500But it is near this den of prostitution that he encounters a mystery–the corpse of a young girl whose body has been branded with a stylized “G.” Soon after, he encounters another young girl, aged ten, on the run. And the mystery truly begins — who is she running from, what does the “G” signify, and who in the halls of Scotland Yard and the peerage is involved in a dark and ugly crime?

Timothy solves the puzzle, eventually, but not before experiencing thrilling adventures which involve good policemen and bad, London carriage drivers, a likable (and ill-fated) river dredger, prostitutes, other members of the Cratchit family, a young man on the con, “Uncle N,” and the strong, resolute little girl, Philomela, who started his detective journey. The story winds through life in Victorian London like the snow swirling on Christmas Day, a fitting ending point for this complicated tale that combines pathos with page-turning mystery.

The pathos comes mostly in the form of Timothy’s reflections on his late father. He sees him everywhere, and if you have lost a family member, you will know precisely what he is going through as he sees the body shape, the face, the physical attitude of his father in men he chances upon. But it is in his “letters” to his dad that his grief pours out, his grief at having discovered, too late, just how much he loved the tender man who’d carried him on his shoulders everywhere to spare him walking with a crutch.

I reread Mr. Timothy on my Kindle. I’ll now look for a print copy. This is a book to own as an object as well as a story.

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When friends and family read your books

After I finish writing a novel, I’m excited and eager to share it with the world. I have to tamp down this excitement, though, as I go back and revise, edit, polish. Then, once again, as I’m ready to push the “publish” button or, if I’m fortunate enough to land a contract with a traditional publisher, as the release date nears, a strange shyness overcomes me.

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A book I’m proud of.

I become reticent to have friends and family members read the book. I might be all hip-hip-hooray, buy-my-book on social media, wanting the world to read my story. But if I see a friend or family member weigh in with a chipper “I just bought a copy!” I’m clutched with nervousness. I have to stop myself from saying, oh, you don’t need to buy it and read it. Really, you don’t. 

That’s crazy! I know it. And part of me argues with that other Negative Naomi, saying, of course you want them to read it, silly! You’re proud of it!

As I analyze this sentiment, I think there are several reasons for it. First, sometimes I will know, because of how well I know the reader involved, that this particular story is not their cuppa. So while I’m grateful — very, very grateful — for their support, I don’t want them disappointed when they discover that my book isn’t their kind of read.

Second, though, even if my book is to their taste in storytelling, I cringe at the thought of them not liking my particular brand of that storytelling. Unlike with a stranger who buys and reads my book, these relatives or friends are people I will most likely interact with regularly. Will they feel compelled to offer faint praise? (“I enjoyed your book. It was…different.”) Will they say nothing, leading me to absolutely, positively know they hated it? Will they think less of me if they dislike it, think I’m a…fake?

Reading tastes are subjective, I know. Who hasn’t excitedly urged a friend to read a favorite book, only to be crushed with disappointment when said friend gives that book a “meh” rating? Imagine that disappointment if you’re the author of the meh.

The third reason I am nervous when friends and family buy and read my books–What if they find…mistakes in it? Not just editing mistakes  (after all; a copy editor can’t catch everything. I know — I am a copy editor.) But historical mistakes in the case of a historical novel. Or mistakes in logic in the case of a mystery.

Yes, other readers can find those things and point them out to me via email. But again, having someone in your intimate circle point them out makes you feel like a sham. (Ha! So you thought you were a novelist, did you, the inner Negative Naomi cries.)

smartcookie2

Another book I’m proud of.

So, to all my friends and family who support me by buying and reading my books, I say, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m really happy you support me in this way, and I hope my stories are enjoyable. And I’m grateful if you keep it to yourself if they’re not!

To my fellow authors, I ask: Do you suffer from these same feelings when friends and family say they’re buying and reading your books?

UPDATE: My daughter, Hannah Sternberg, also a novelist, noted that she feels “naked” when friends and family read her books, knowing they might learn very personal things about her through her writing. I completely agree with this observation, and I’m glad she pointed it out.

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LIBBY’S BOOK CLUB: Queen Victoria

Welcome to the first in a series I’ll call “Libby’s Book Club.” (Hence the title of this post.) It will be just like a regular book club except for these things: We won’t get together except online; I will probably do most of the talking; I will occasionally (or even regularly) promote my own books.

But other than those things, it will be precisely like any other book club. 🙂

First up, a question: Is anyone here as excited as I am to see the PBS British import Victoria series? Here’s a trailer and clip:

Doesn’t that look yummy? Costumes! History! More costumes! I can hardly wait. Here in the US of A, the series starts in January.

Anticipating this series sent me scurrying to my bookshelf where I pulled out and started rereading this well-worn tome: Queen Victoria by Cecil Woodham-Smith. It’s an oldie — published in the 1970s — but it’s jammed with historical goodies and covers the queen’s life from birth to the death of Prince Albert.

I’m sure there are other more recent books on Queen Victoria, but I enjoyed the slow, detailed pace of this one, which reports not only on Victoria’s history but on how that history was reported by others–what was false and what was true.

Not being a student of British history, I found the entire tale enlightening. One of the things about this story that surprised and  interested me was how she actually came to the throne–the various family intrigues that led to the daughter of the Duke of Kent becoming the monarch. Spoiler alert: the rest of the family wasn’t producing heirs or the right kind of heirs.

The Duke of Kent, her father, was an odd duck in that he was very kind to some people (his wife and his mistress of 27 years, whom he was forced to abandon in order to marry and produce an heir) and cruel to others (the many military under his command, so many of whom disliked him that he moved around to various posts, avoiding mutinies in some cases). Poor fellow died miserably, at the hands of doctors trying to treat what sounded like a bad cold, pneumonia or bronchitis. So he never saw his daughter rise to the throne, even though he was absolutely sure she would be queen.

I’m fond of this book for reasons unrelated to its content. For several years in the not-too-distant past, I would travel from Vermont (where I used to live) to Maryland to help my sister take care of our father by accompanying him to various doctor visits and the like. My sister had a copy of this book on her shelf, and I’d always pick it up and resume reading it when there, finishing it after many, many such visits. So I associate it with her warm hospitality. Years after I read it, I found a used copy in a little bookshop in Connecticut associated with a local library. I snatched it up.

So, do you have a Victoria biography you’ve enjoyed? If so, leave a comment! I’d like to hear about it!

And, while marveling at what a smart cookie Victoria was, consider trying my new book, Smart Cookie (by Libby Malin), a contemporary sweet romance with laughs as well as love. You can sample it at THIS LINK. (There — that’s the book promotion!)

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